Text: Luke 18:1-8 & Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30
Proper 24, Year C
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jacob had every reason in the world to be encouraged. Twenty years earlier, Jacob had deceived his father, Isaac, so he could get the special blessing reserved for the firstborn. When Esau, Jacob’s older brother, heard what happened, he angrily began plotting his revenge. So, Jacob fled for his life to his mother’s family and her brother Laban’s house. During those turbulent twenty years, the Lord blessed Jacob. The kid who ran away with nothing but the skin on his back, was now returning to Canaan a rich man with a huge family. Not only this, but before he left, and now upon his return, he was met by the angels of God. Those are pretty good reasons to feel encouraged! He’s got wealth, two wives, eleven sons, meetings with God’s holy angels, what’s not to be happy about? But Jacob isn’t happy! In fact, fear and discouragement are gnawing at him, and threaten to consume him!
Disheartened at our helplessness
What was the source of this fear? It was Esau. Last time Jacob saw him, Esau was bent on murder. Now, there’s the ominous news that Esau was coming to meet Jacob at the head of four hundred men. So, Jacob wanted to increase the odds that at least half of his family would live. He splits his family and people into two camps. His mind was on survival. There are no lore thoughts of angels. Hoping to appease him, to buy him off, Jacob sends wave after wave of gifts to the approaching Esau. But Jacob knows that against the small army coming his way, there was nothing he could do. He was completely helpless, and it had him completely disheartened.
It is with Jacob’s sense of self-sufficiency crumbling that God himself comes to find him. Jacob can no longer guarantee the safety of his family. Jacob had always been the kind of guy who took matters into his own hands to get what he wanted. His ingenuity and quick-thinking saw him through conflicts with Esau, Laban, and his two wives. But now it wasn’t just his skin on the line. Now he’s got a family to think about, and he suddenly sees that he doesn’t have ability to keep them safe. That is when God comes to him, to pick a fight.
There were hours of desperate, agonised conflict. Jacob had a grapple hold on God. He wanted a blessing. He wanted assurance, a promise of God’s favour and protection as he faced Esau. But he didn’t get it. Instead, he begins to see his own utter helplessness and hopelessness without God. There was nothing else he could do except cling tenaciously onto God. As God weakens him, he’s helping him to see the insufficiency of his own self-reliance. In his tired and crippled condition, how could he run or fight against his brother, Esau? He was totally helpless. All he could do was hold onto the Lord and his promises.
Like Jacob, our sinful flesh is prone to self-reliance. There is a proud and conniving Jacob in each of us. We live in a do-it-yourself society which places high value on independence. To have to rely upon others is seen as a weakness. When that attitude works its way into our hearts, it can have a devastating effect upon our spiritual lives. When we are taught to and inclined towards relying upon our selves, and then we come up with our own insufficiency, discouragement can set in. When you see that no matter what you do, your best will not be good enough, it can take the wind right out of your sails.
Since this is so, there may be times when the Lord wrestles with us by allowing some difficulty to enter our lives to teach us to rely solely on him and his gracious promises to us. But when we face difficulty it can also dishearten us. In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow. She had two potential sources of discouragement: she had an adversary with whom she was fighting and an apathetic judge. We can experience opposition from a world which hates Jesus and his Gospel, and like the case of Jacob, sometimes that opposition can be physical. Sometimes the opposition we face is not physical, but the indifference and apathy of our culture. Our adversaries are the world, our flesh, and the Devil. As it is, life in this world can break us. Add on top of that, the additional hardship of being a confessing Christian, and we can quickly lose heart.
Encouraged by our God
So, we can be discouraged and lose heart when we face our own helplessness and when we face opposition which we lack the resources to overcome. This is why Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow, so that at every turn we may not lose heart. The encouragement which Jesus offers by this parable is not really about prayer. The encouragement comes when we see the contrast between the unjust judge and our God.
The judge was unloving, evil, ungracious, merciless, and unjust. The lesson of the parable is that God is not like the judge. God is loving, good, gracious, merciful, and just. The point of the parable is to say: if even a rotten judge like that can be persuaded to do the right thing by someone who pesters him day and night until it happens, then of course God, who is Justice in person, and who cares passionately about people, will see that justice is done. Justice, or righteousness, has to do with meeting the obligations others have placed upon us. It has to do with keeping one’s promises. The judge is unjust because he has failed in his obligation to see that justice is done for all. When we say that God is just, God is righteous, we mean that God will do the right and faithful thing by the people with him he is in a committed relationship. We’re saying that God keeps his promises to his covenant people. This means that because God faithfully keeps his promises, like Jacob we can cling to them, do not need to be discouraged.
This is the source of your encouragement when you feel the weight of discouragement press upon you. The fundamental characteristic of God is his compassions and mercy for sinners. Although God has every right to punish us for our sins, he instead shows mercy. Although we may be helpless, God is not helpless. God is the helper of the helpless, and the refuge of the weary. He is the defender of the widow and the fatherless. This is the God of the lowly and oppressed, the upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, and saviour of those without hope. This is the God who redeemed us. He listens to your cries for justice because He did not listen to his Son’s cries upon the Cross. He defends you from all danger and guards and protects you from all evil because he did not defend his Son from the evil of the cross. Jesus wrestled satan, sin, and death on the cross and by his death and resurrection, he defeated them. He has forgiven you. He has given you new life through Holy Baptism. He feeds you today with the medicine of immortality. Since we are his people, and he is our God, he will not let us down.
That is what faith does: faith clings to the promises of God for dear life. Through his Word, God gives us many and precious promises. God’s Word is able to make us wise for salvation, because in it, we hear of him who died and rose again on our behalf. Despite what it may look like to us, God will always keep his promises. Since your sins have been dealt with through the Cross of Christ, God has promised that he has forgiven you. Since your God is merciful and compassionate, he promises that he will raise you to life on the Last Day. This means that when you cry out to God in prayer because the opposition you face from the World, your flesh, and the Devil is just too much, God will answer your cry. He promises you that your adversaries will be dealt with. God keeps his Word. So, at every turn, in every situation, no matter what happens, cling to Christ. God has, through Christ, dealt with your sin, and through faith, declared you just and righteous in his sight. Come what may, God’s promises to you remain firm and steadfast. Do not rely on yourself, but rely on him who conquered satan, sin, and death, and who now lives and reigns forever. Rely on Jesus Christ, your Lord and Saviour and he will never let you down.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.