Blessed That We Might Bless the World

Oct 20, 2019 by

Sermon by Paula Papky

Genesis 32:22-31           Psalm 121          2 Timothy 3:14-4:5               Luke 18:1-8


Making a study of prayer this last week, I found prayer in the most surprising places.  Take that famous Christian rock band, The Holy Rolling Stones.  Surely that song by Brother Mick is about persistence in prayer:  “You can’t always get what you want, you can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometimes, you just might get what you need.”

Isn’t that just like that widow in Luke 18?  Jesus holds the widow up as an example of persistence, going again and again to the judge until he finally grants her the justice she needs.  Jesus says, “And will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night?”  Pray always, he told his disciples.  “Don’t ever lose heart.”  I’m not absolutely sure that’s what the Rolling Stones were on about but it’s what Jesus was on about.  Pray always.

As you re-familiarize yourself with the Jacob saga from Genesis, you may not at first notice that it, too, has something to say about prayer.  But then you see the word “blessing” popping up over and over again.  It’s  a story of struggle – Jacob’s whole life is full of struggle!  But over and around the struggles is the blessing of God, culminating in that wrestling match with a man the narrator doesn’t name.  Jacob comes away limping but with a blessing.  It’s as if the scene of the wrestling match is a prayer in action, a fight for blessing, an exhausting life and death encounter with the Holy One.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The blessing theme begins much earlier in the Jacob story.

Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, had received from God a great blessing:  that the descendents of Abraham and Sarah would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  And Abraham wanted to trust that promise even though he and Sarah were childless.  It’s kind of a comical theme running through the saga and other Bible stories as well, that old, old women and men would be blessed by the birth of a son.  Sarah falls on her face laughing when God tells her to get the nursery ready, but Isaac was born to her when she was ninety-one and Abraham was one hundred.  Of course, Abraham had an earlier son with the servant girl, Hagar, but they would receive their own blessing from God.  But for Isaac they waited a long time.  Blessings from God can take a long time to make themselves known – a whole lifetime, really, is what the story says.  You pray and you pray and know only disappointment and then one day you look back and say, Okay, God, I get it.  You were with me all along, getting me ready for a blessing of your choosing.

We can’t forget the way the Abraham and Sarah story repeats itself in the life of son Isaac and his wife, Rebecca.  Isaac prays and prays that his beloved Rebecca might conceive but it’s a long time until, as the story says, God answers Isaac’s prayer and opens Rebecca’s womb.  And God blesses them with not one, but two sons.

Now, we know life in the Ancient Middle East was always a struggle just to survive, much less thrive.  One of those twins struggled right from birth:  Jacob was the second born but he came out of the womb clutching the heel of his twin, Esau.  He could never have the honour of being that blessed first born son, but you could say he takes matters into his own hands.  He’s at his brother’s heels right from the moment of his birth.  He’s going to win at any cost.  He’d have made a good candidate for President of the USA, don’t you think?

Jacob isn’t a very likeable fellow.  You might even say he’s a deeply flawed individual.  His very name – Jacob – means fraud.  Deceiver.  If you don’t remember the way he goes about stealing his brother’s birthright and how he tricks his old, blind dad, Isaac, into a prayer of blessing over him, you could read the story at the end of Genesis 25 and then more of it in Genesis 27.  It’s hard to forget the way Jacob, with his mother’s conniving, treats his frail, old father.

When Esau learns of the trick he is outraged.  He plans to kill his brother.  And so Jacob’s mother helps spirit Jacob away to her people.  And there, over the years away, the tables are turned.  Jacob is first deceived into marrying the wrong sister (she was veiled and Jacob thought he was marrying his true love, Rachael.)  He does succeed in having lots of children with the first wife, Leah – 5 sons.  Then both Leah and Rachael force their handmaids to lie with Jacob and produce more sons for him – shades of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  But for a long, long time, Rachael, the one he loves, does not conceive.

Can you see how they all struggle to find ways to make God’s promise of children, as many as there are grains of sand, a reality?  They bargain.  They plead.  They quarrel.  But the Holy One does not budge.  It is in God’s own time that Rachael and Jacob are finally blessed with a son, and then also a daughter.  Check out her story, too.  There’s a rape, and mass circumcision, and slaughter.

Over the years, Jacob must have forgotten that dream he’d had the night he ran away from Esau’s rage:  the dream of a ladder going up to heaven, and on the ladder, angels ascending and descending.  The dream was the Divine sign that ultimately Jacob was under God’s protection all through the struggle of his life.  But he forgets.  Does any of us remember in the storms of life that we are under the care of the Watchful One?  Or are those very times when we cry out, God, why is this happening to me, this cancer, this divorce, this job loss, this shame?  You pray and pray and nothing seems to happen.  You may say, God hates me.  Or, there is no God.  Or, there is a God but she can’t change anything.  And no blessing comes.

It is when Jacob is on his way home to face up to his own guilt and his brother’s hatred that he is at his most desperate.  He may be rich but he is guilty of doing his brother a great wrong.  It is night.  Jacob is alone in a dangerous place, utterly defenseless, utterly dependent on the grace of God.  And I want to say to him, Jacob, forget about yourself for a minute.  Fall on your knees and pray.

But I’ve been there a few times, at rock bottom, and it was hard to find the words.  The next time I’m there, I’m going to use that one word prayer that writer Anne Lamott gives us in her small book on prayer:  Help.  Just that word is the first prayer, she says.  Help.  She also says you really only need three prayers:  Help, Thanks, Wow – that’s the title of her book:  Help, Thanks, Wow.  It’s in the library if you want to know about Thanks and Wow.  For today I’m only dealing with Help.

Lamott says (p. 5) that the practice of prayer “begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall…or when we are just so sick and tired of being sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something.  Or maybe, miraculously, we just release our grip slightly.  We stop trying to take things into our own hands and reach out to the Eternal.  She says, (p. 6)  “My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God.  If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,’ that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said.”  She goes on to say (p. 7), “So prayer is our sometimes our real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light.”  And HELP is the first prayer.

Lamott has this to say about actually practicing the presence of God:  “it would help to begin the practice of prayer by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence:  that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.”  Repeat.

That was certainly true of Jacob’s existence:  so ruined, so loved, and in charge of so little.  And then the Presence steps in and begins wrestling with him.  The narrator simply calls that Presence, a man.  “A man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak.”  The man actually has to wound Jacob in the hip to make him stop.  It’s an ironic injury for Jacob, a man used to running away.  He will limp away from this struggle.  But even injured, Jacob won’t give in:  “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  He persists in his plea.  He’s reaching out to this Presence, praying, “Help!  Let me know I am loved.  Bless me.”  And then he becomes what he could never have become on his own.  The man says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob – the deceiver, the fraud, – but you shall be called Israel, which means the one who strives with God.  For you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”  And Jacob himself identifies the presence as Divine, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

It seems to me most of us, like Jacob, do a lot of striving:  to save a friend who’s hit rock bottom; to care for an aging parent or a child with special needs; to get out of debt; to get a good job; to help fight poverty; to take a stand on climate change; or just to make our lives come out right, somehow, to feel we’ve been a good person.  It would be so easy to lose heart.

Jesus knew that about his disciples.  He knew that the events that lay ahead in Jerusalem would be terrifying.  They’d want to run and hide and lie and deny.  His blessing on them was to teach them and show them the practice of prayer; of seeking God’s help; of persistence that would strengthen their connection with the Divine every day.  Then, in times of struggle they would more readily sense the presence of God running ahead of them, joining them on the road, encouraging them, and telling them that love, deep and abiding love, was the nature, the very face of God.  That’s the blessing, the one given to Jacob and to us:  knowing that the love of God would always be there.  And that’s the blessing we, as Christ’s followers, turn and offer to the world.  Amen.

Quotations from:

Lamott, Anne:  Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers.  Riverhead Books:  New York, 1012.


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