Keep on Keeping On (Genesis 32:22-31; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8)
Today’s scripture texts are about perseverance. Perseverance for us may not seem a very exciting idea, nor very cheerful. There’s an old song that’s entitled “Keep on Keepin’ On,” and, in one sense, that’s perseverance. It can be just trudging along, putting one foot in front of another, day after day. And isn’t that the way our lives sometimes are? Our biblical texts add one further point: they encourage us, in one way or another, to put that one foot in front of another, and sometimes, painfully, slowly, “trudgingly” keep on keeping on in what we think is a right, or helpful, or constructive, direction.
Let’s start long ago. I love the Old Testament story of Jacob – whose name means a number of things in Hebrew. It has a physical meaning of “heel,” and moves on to “one who grasps another by the heel,” that is one who trips another up – a “heel” in another sense, a trickster. The other meanings all derive from that one of trickster. It can mean one who goes too far, who “over-reaches him or herself,” or who takes more than his/her share, who “substitutes” his/her own interests for the interests of others. Jacob was all of these things. Before we came into Genesis this morning, there have been stories of Jacob and Esau. We have been told how he was able to wrap his parents around his little finger and trick his father into thinking he was the first-born and give him the inheritance rights that should have belonged to his brother. And that didn’t work out well.
In our story this morning, Jacob is coming back home to face Esau his tough-guy brother, from whom he had stolen that family inheritance as first-born. Jacob had gone away from home “for his health” for a decade and a half, but, like so many people I know, had felt the tug of home while living in a far country where he’d done well. We used to see that in Maritime Canada all the time. People who had gone off to other parts of the country or even the wider world, came home later in life. I must say, both Maxine and I have felt that tug of home, even after 21 years as ex-pats, and so we came home.
In our text, Jacob’s almost there. He only has to cross the River Jabbok to meet Esau, for good or ill. The River Jabbok or, as it’s called now the Zerqa (Blue) River, runs east and west for about 65 miles through some beautiful deep ravines, until it meets the Jordan River. On one side of the Jordan were the kingdoms of Bashan and Ammon, on the other was Israel. For some reason, Jacob decided to spend his last night alone, outside the homeland. He sent his family group across the Jabbok, and awaited the night. And, in that night he met and wrestled with a mysterious stranger. Most of us know about long nights before difficult days. Was Jacob wrestling with himself and what he had done years before, and what he had yet to do to make it right (or just survive)? Possibly. But our story portrays it all as a night-long wrestling match with an unknown “man.” Tradition has it that he was an angel, but a reasonable reading of the text is that, in some way, Jacob wrestled with the Almighty.
At one point during the night the powerful stranger struck Jacob on the hip or thigh, but Jacob held on with tenacity and perseverance and resolve. Towards dawn, the stranger wanted to leave. Was this because it was all a dream that would vanish with the light? Or was it to keep the stranger’s identity, literally and figuratively “in the dark?” The story doesn’t say, what do you think? Before it ends, Jacob and the stranger have an interesting exchange. The mysterious stranger said to Jacob, “Let me go,” and Jacob, always one to maximize his opportunities, said, “Not unless you bless me.” The stranger changed the subject by asking for Jacob’s name. “I’m Jacob,” comes the semi-confident reply. Now, in the ancient Near East, a name was a reflection of personality. So Jacob was the heel, the trickster, the supplanter, the over-reacher. The stranger changed his name (his character) to Israel. The meaning of Israel is debated (it probably means something like “God rules”), but here in this story it is interpreted to mean something like “God-wrestler.” Jacob has wrestled with God and also with people the text says (v. 28). Have you had that experience?
Jacob, then said, “And what’s your name?” The stranger did not bestow the blessing of knowing his name, his person, on Jacob. That will come, but that will only happen in a future chapter of the story to Moses in Exodus 3. The stranger simply blessed Jacob with a new name and left, hiddenness intact. Jacob also left, but not exactly intact. Ever after that day, he limped because of the encounter. Jacob came away from an encounter with God with a new name and a new limp. In the imagery of this story we find one example of perseverance in Jacob, the all too imperfect bearer of God’s promise, who persevered all night long with one unknown, who turned out to be the source of both blessing and limping. In this wonderful little piece of writing, do we not see ourselves a little? Are our on-going struggles often not with our own dread of unknown things that might be? And, do we not, at least sometimes, discover that in hanging on, in perseverance, in just keeping on, that in the stranger with whom we’ve been wrestling, whether that “stranger” be a person or a problem, or an issue, we find, at least a trace of our God. And, do we not find that the wrestling has transformed us and marked us with new identity and a reminder of the encounter? How can we expect to encounter the living God without coming away with, at least, a limp. What a story! Jacob kept on keeping on.
The New Testament Lessons this morning give us two practical ways to undergird our perseverance, our wrestling, with life and with God, and to keep on keeping on. These two are the Bible and prayer. Second Timothy is one of the most personal writings of the New Testament. The section in which our passage is found (2:14-4:5) is really about how to be “a minister.” It is unfortunate that we have, many times, left the people of God out of it completely, and abandoned this text to the clergy. That was surely not the intent! Our passage clearly encourages young Timothy to persevere: “Continue in what you have learned and…believed…proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage with great patience in teaching…endure suffering…carry out your ministry fully.” Don’t give up! Persevere! Keep on keeping on!
The text goes on to say that the Bible can be of great help to such steadfastness in life because its “giver” is God. I wish I had a dollar for every word written about 2 Timothy 3:16-17. In actual fact the inspiration of the Bible isn’t the point of the passage at all, although, from what’s been written you’d have thought so. The verse isn’t a slogan, but tells us that, since, in some way, God is the giver of the Bible, the scriptures are useful for teaching and learning; for checking up on what’s going on with our own lives, not primarily with our neighbour’s; for enhancing what’s good and fixing what’s wrong. And these things help us to persevere with God and with others. You must know by now, however, that I am profoundly convinced, that the scriptures do this as we make good and thoughtful use of them.
We need to become adults in our view of the Bible. As a boy I was taught that the Bible was simply a collection of verses – some good, some not so good, strung together. These individual verses really had no context. Second, I grew up thinking that all these verses were promises or commands that could apply to anything I wanted. They were, kind of like Christian fortune cookies, except you couldn’t eat them. I found out, however, that my child’s view ran out of gas when, later, my life didn’t come out as I thought it ought.
Individual pieces of the Bible should always be read within their context, because if the whole context will not support an interpretation, either will a single verse ripped from context. Not all Bible passages are promises or commands, but an incredibly rich storehouse of different kinds of literature, all of which must be read in certain ways, not others, and all of them are intended to be applied to some things not others. Much silly fighting about the Bible has happened because we won’t read it or study it carefully enough, as adults.
But, thought about intelligently and in proper context, the Bible can, indeed, help us to persevere when our lives are disrupted by the thousand struggles that happen in this world, and when we, like Jacob of old, have to struggle through the night with those mysterious “others.” If we persevere, we may begin to see these struggles as the venue in which the Holy One appears, offering a us new names, and a way to remember the encounter – even if that means limping through life from then on.
The Gospel of Luke tells us to think about Jesus’ parable of the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow in terms of disciples’ need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Lk. 18:1). That’s perseverance. In Jesus’ day, the peasants who heard him gladly, would have had much to lose heart about – not the least, judges like the one in the story. The point of the story, however, is not that there are unjust judges, or that things go wrong sometimes, but that it’s important to be, like the widow, persistent in prayer – but understood as what it is.
Even the unjust judge gave the widow justice at last because he was afraid, by a literal translation of the Greek verb, that she would give him a black eye – ruin his reputation. God is not the Unjust Judge. God answers prayer out of love and concern and not because we keep up the pressure. So why “pray always and not lose heart”? For one thing, because God’s time frame is not ours. In Mark’s Gospel (the earliest) it looked as if Jesus would come back soon. Twenty or more years later, when Luke wrote, the days had stretched on and “no coming of Jesus.” Don’t lose heart. Second, because, prayer is primarily about relationship rather than about requests. Although God answers our prayers for things (and you heard me say it), the basic purpose of prayer is not to present our laundry list of stuff to God, but so that we can learn to know God. Perhaps our misunderstanding of prayer as being about requests rather than relationship explains why we sometimes find the presence of God elusive. God’s will is that, in community, we share the divine life, not that we dash into the God’s presence with a series of requests, and then dash out again. Was it any wonder that Jesus said he doubted whether such a view of prayer could possibly persevere until the end. “When the Son of man comes,” he wondered, “Will he find the kind of faith that leads to persistent prayer on the earth?” To know God we must be prepared to keep coming, like the widow in Jesus’ story, passionately persevering in prayer, not so much for what we want, as for what we need. And all the time we need to listen for what God is giving us an opportunity to be and to do and to learn. May our community be a place where we may keep on keeping on, faithfully, patiently persevering in the practice of God’s presence, and may our Bible study and our lives of prayer keep us seeking, asking, and knocking until we hear, “Well done, good and faithful (and persistent) servant, enter into the joys of your Lord.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.