Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 10/16/2016

In Bible studies this fall we’ve started to read Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian. It’s one of his better known writings and as we begin to observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation it seems to make sense that as Lutherans, we actually read some of what Luther had to say because apart from Luther’s Small Catechism most people haven’t done that. Even at seminary, we learned a lot about Luther and we studied the Confessions which include his thought, but we really didn’t read much of what he himself wrote and he wrote a lot.

I did read The Freedom of a Christian when I was at the seminary, but like you do at school, I read it because I had to. For me though, it is interesting to go back and revisit it and one of the first things I noticed is how Luther begins. Writing about faith he says, “A person who has not tasted its spirit in the midst of trials and misfortune cannot possibly write well about faith or understand what has been written about it.”

In the midst of trials and misfortunes; I was surprised by Luther making that the formation and testing ground for faith although I guess I shouldn’t have been because you don’t have to know much about Luther to know that despite how cocky and confident he can sound in later writings, early on his faith journey was a struggle, a struggle with what he perceived as a wrathful, out to get you God, a God that you couldn’t possibly satisfy no matter how good you thought you were.

My surprise though is because as concerned as he was with the kind of doctrine that appears in the Lutheran Confessions I could see him coming down more on the side of faith as accepting that doctrine and thus believing the right things; but here he seems to lean more in the faith as a journey direction, a journey that includes trials and misfortunes. In reality of course, faith is something of a combination of the journey and the doctrine and the pendulum kind of swings back and forth between them or at least that’s my experience.

Today’s first lesson and today’s gospel are both reflective of the faith as a journey or faith as a struggle side of the pendulum. The story of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious night visitor is one of my favorite Bible stories. Jacob was on the way to meet his brother Esau. You might remember that years before, Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright, a birthright which would grant the holder head of household status thus making him the inheritor of the father’s estate. Later Jacob tricked father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing as well, further confirmation of the birthright, all of which makes Esau want to kill Jacob causing Jacob to run away to live with his mother Rachel’s brother in a foreign land.

Eventually though, Jacob decided it was time to go home and face the music and to ask brother Esau for forgiveness. On the way though, he has the encounter with the stranger in the night, a stranger almost always identified as the Lord, YHWH. What makes this such a great story is this is a God with whom one has to wrestle. This is not the promise filled, gracious God of the daytime, this is a rather terrifying and elusive God of the night, hidden in sovereignty. This is not a God to be taken lightly or trifled with.

And yet, Jacob wrestles and not only does he wrestle, he holds his own. He asks for a blessing and with persistence, he gets it. He also gets a new name, Israel. On the other hand, he asks for the name of God but it isn’t given and as a result of his encounter, he walks with a limp. Then, as the sun rises, the stranger is gone. The wrestling match winds up being more or less a draw, a result that leaves you with way more questions than answers but you know how I like questions. If the stranger is God, what does it mean that Jacob is able to wrestle him to a draw? What does it mean that the stranger has the power to injure Jacob but can’t ultimately defeat him? What kind of God is this? What kind of man is Jacob?

What this story does is to challenge any easy answers we might think we have about God and with those answers challenged we are compelled to wrestle with our faith and especially with our image of God. In the Old Testament God is most frequently described as gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That’s not what you get with Jacob’s night visitor. Today’s Psalm several times repeats the phrase, “The Lord will watch over you;” that’s not exactly what you get here either. This is also not the God of the creed; this is not God the Father almighty maker of heaven and earth. That God would not be held to a draw. That God could reduce Jacob to dust with a glance.

In the New Testament of course, Jesus becomes our image of God and we get Jesus as teacher and healer and miracle worker, we get kind and compassionate Jesus, we get Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the Bread of Life and the Light of the World. Nowhere do we get Jesus as a wrestler in the dark, or do we?

In his divine nature we don’t, in how we imagine God through Jesus, we don’t; but in his human nature he does wrestle. Think about him in the garden, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” Think about the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The human Jesus did wrestle with God in the darkness, kind of like Jacob.

Both of them wrestle in faith; the struggle is part of their relationship with God and it does evidence the fact that faith is more than affirming the truth of accepted doctrine. Real faith comes out of the relationship, a relationship that includes the kinds of trials and misfortunes that Luther referenced.

The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge, today’s gospel lesson, gives us another angle on faith. The widow repeatedly comes to the judge seeking justice but is turned away each time until finally the judge relents because he’s tired of her nagging. This is a parable one has to be careful with because it would be easy to identify the unjust judge with God and from that conclude that if we just pray long enough and hard enough we can wear God down and God will give us what we want.

The general consensus though is the key to this parable is the last few verses which make it a “how much more” parable. What the parable is saying is that if even an unjust judge who doesn’t fear God or respect anyone is finally capable of giving good gifts, how much more will God provide for his creatures. “Will he delay long in helping them?” Jesus asks and then he provides the answer, “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

The widow though is another example of faith sometimes being a struggle. Despite repeated rejection though, it’s a struggle that she refuses to give up on because she refuses to give up on hope. Her nagging appeals to the judge are evidence of her faith, her belief that things could be different, that things should be different. She will not give in to despair but instead will continue to have hope as she appeals to the judge and as such, she is a model of faith.

“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That’s the question Jesus ends the parable with. Jesus liked questions too. Based on the parable it would seem that the kind of faith he’s looking for is faith like that of the widow, faith that refuses to give in to despair, faith that continues to hope. It’s faith like the faith of Jacob, faith that isn’t afraid to wrestle with God and to wrestle with the sometimes difficult questions that are part of a journey of faith. The struggles and questions don’t represent a lack of faith, they are part of it.

More and more though, what I find is that wrestling leads back to the answers and wisdom of those who have struggled before us, especially the answers and wisdom provided by the creeds of the church. Luther did struggle, he wrestled with God, but he affirmed those statements of faith; that’s what he went back to. They aren’t necessarily absolute answers, but they are faith statements that have sustained believers for 2000 years, so we too go back to them. It doesn’t mean the questions and the struggles end, but those old familiar words provide a foundation on which the faith Jesus is looking for can evolve; they allow the journey to continue.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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