Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Tenacity of Trust: Wrestling with God in the Hard Times


"Wrestling Jacob" 
Excerpts from the poem by Charles Wesley

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

...In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

...My strength is gone, my nature dies,
I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise;
I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let Thee go
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

My prayer hath power with God; the grace
Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face,
I see Thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.


Scripture Passages: 
Genesis 45:1-15; Matthew 15:21-28

It had been twenty years since his first prophetic dream. Twenty years since his father had given him that coat. Twenty years since his brothers had thrown him down a well. Twenty years since they had sold him into slavery. Twenty years.

He had travelled the wide desert in the bonds of captivity. He had been sold to a powerful man and framed for a crime by that powerful man’s wife. He had been thrown in jail. He had rotted there in the cold darkness for years. He could still remember the stench of mildew and the mind-numbing sameness of the walls.

And now? Now his gift to interpret dreams had saved him from a life behind bars. Who knew that Pharoahs dreamt the future? The Pharoah had been impressed by his interpretation of the dream. Seven years of plenty. Seven years of famine. The Pharoah had put him in charge of the entire kingdom, put the world at his feet. But he still wept every day, because every day the memories of his father grew dimmer and dimmer. He even named his first son "Manasseh" - forgetfulness. So many memories, lost.

Imagine his surprise when his brothers, who had hated him, who had sold him into slavery, his brothers walked into the throne room, to plead for food in this time of famine. They didn't recognize him. It had been twenty years, after all. He toyed with them. He tried to distract them for a few days, stalling because he wasn’t sure what to do. He prayed - "God. How can I forgive them after all they did to me?"

When he couldn't take it any longer, he sent his servants from the room, fell down on his knees on the hard stone floor and wept before his brothers. "I am Joseph.” He said. “Is my father still alive?"

And with those words, he knew the answer to his prayers. He could forgive them, because, through all the hardship, through twenty long years, he had come to this place. He had come to save his family from famine.

He had died to the life and the family he had known. Died to all of his fading memories. Died to comfort and security and safety. He had been dead inside for twenty years because, though God had not caused his pain, God had used his painful experiences to preserve life for others.

Out of death, through prayer, and long years of wrestling, God had brought life.

***

The woman was exhausted. She could not count the nights she had spent taking care of her daughter. Her beautiful daughter. Her only child. Every night, her daughter would shake for hours, would scream until she was hoarse, would scratch at her own mother's arms. “God, how could this happen?” Every night, she prayed. “God, bring healing.”

She heard stories about a miracle worker. He was travelling nearby. He was a Jew, an enemy of her people. The Jews had come into her land a thousand years ago, had killed her ancestors and enslaved her people. Now the Jews themselves were enslaved, of course, taxpayers under the whip of the might of Rome. But her people and the Jews were not friends.

But, she had heard that this man worked wonders. She had heard that this man was close to God. She had heard that this miracle worker was the promised Son of David, the Anointed One who would make all things new. Deep in her heart, she knew that this man was her last hope.

So when she saw the crowds pass by, she stumbled into the street. She could see the center of excitement. She shoved her way through the crowd. She began shouting: "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon! Have mercy. Have mercy. My Lord. Have mercy!"

The man didn't even turn around. Others did. The twelve men closest to this miracle worker glared at her, annoyed. She was so close now she could hear them say to him: "Send her away." No, she thought. NO! I will not be sent away.

The man said to his followers, almost as if he was asking them a question: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Her heart sank. He would not heal her daughter.

No. She thought, NO! I have not come here, here before my enemy only to be shoved aside. She pushed through the last layer of crowd and knelt before him, her head bowed. "Lord, help me." She said. And once again he dashed her hopes. "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

She couldn't look him in the eye. Dogs. Her people. The lowliest of the low. What had God ever given them? They had been conquered, enslaved, pushed to the very bottom of society. But she knew that this man could heal her daughter. Certainly, with all of his power, this man could spare to heal one little girl.

She spat her words at him: "Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." And with the last word, she raised her head and stared him straight in the eye.

And there. There she saw compassion. There she saw a man who knew her pain. She saw the burdens he carried, the bags under his eyes, the tears that had dried themselves on his cheeks night after night after night. She knew that he had prayed to God, every night, to lift this burden off of his shoulders.

For a brief second, she saw this man kneeling in a garden, sweat running like thick blood down his brow, his voice hoarse with crying out: "Take this cup from me! Take it from me!" She saw this man being stretched out on a cross, his hands and feet nailed to the rugged wood. She heard him scream again: "My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?!" Then she saw this man standing before her, tears in his eyes, but a smile on his face.

He reached down, grabbed her by the hand, and gently lifted her to her feet. "Woman," he said, "great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish."

In that instant she knew two things. One: her daughter had been healed. Finally, healed. Two: This man had crossed a boundary that should not have been crossed. How many people would hate him for healing one of their enemies? How many people would abandon him for showing compassion to their foes? How many people would want to silence him, to stop his miracles, to ignore the changes that he was making? This man had taken a great risk. For her sake, because of her faith, he had taken one more step down the road to that garden and that cross.

***

Friends, what do we do in the hard times? How do we pray when the answers to our prayers feel like slaps in the face? How do we pray when we are hit by sorrow after sorrow, year after year?

We pray with the tenacity of trust.

Our Bibles are full of men and women who wrestled with God, who held on with the tenacity of trust.
Joseph held on for twenty years to the memory of a father he thought he’d never see again. This Canaanite woman would not take no for an answer.

Jacob wrestled all night with God, just to learn God’s name. Instead, God gave Jacob a new name: ISRAEL – The one who struggles with God.

Job lost everything: his children, his wealth, his friends, his health. But he did not stop praying. He shouted at God. He argued with God. He wrestled with God. But he did not turn his back on God. So, when God came to him in all God’s glory and humbled him with the knowledge of all of God’s creation, God still said of Job: “He spoke to me rightly.”

Jesus. Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Jesus lamented over the city of Jerusalem, knowing that many there would not accept him. Jesus prayed in the garden: Take this cup from me. Jesus prayed so hard that his sweat dripped like blood. Jesus went back three times to check on his disciples, who couldn’t stay up to comfort him. So he went back and prayed three times.

Friends, we have a savior who knows our pain. We have a savior who weeps, who worries, who grieves with us.

How do we pray in the hard times? How do we pray when friends we thought had defeated their illness are suddenly defeated themselves? How do we pray when our job security becomes nothing more than empty promises? How do we pray when our souls are so weary that we cannot lift our heads?

We pray with the tenacity of trust. We trust that God loves us. We know that God can heal us. We know that God is holding those we love in the palm of his hand. We know that God has not abandoned us, though all seems to the contrary. We know that Christ did not just die. He was also raised from death. We know that though death still shocks us, its true sting has been lost.

So we hold on. We wrestle with God. And along with that great cloud of witnesses, all those who have gone before us in faith, who have suffered and wandered and cried out in pain, with them we continue to wrestle with God. We may cry: “Why have you forsaken me?!” Or we may whisper: “How long, O Lord, have you forgotten me forever?” We might sob through tears: “take this cup from me.”

But we do not give up. Because we know, we trust, that out of pain, out of death, God can bring abundant life. Amen.


*This post was adapted from a message given at The Presbyterian Church at Dayton on August 14, 2011. The first image is from http://israelseen.com/2009/12/04/va-yishlach-jacob-wrestles-with-the-angel/ (c) Phillip Ratner. The second image is from http://pjsomi.ca/WordPress/?p=2542. No copyright information given.

2 comments:

Marjan said...

Thanks Macco - May God use these words, spoken through you, to bring hope and peace to the defeated.

Margaret Mitsuyasu said...

Hey Marc! Thanks for some great words of encouragement.
Also, I really like the way you brought those characters alive by telling their stories, and how you wove them all together. Great sermon. Much needed. Thank you!