Let us pray.
Our heavenly Father, grant us grace that we might see your attitude toward us rightly. We often look to you without the trust you say we should have in you. We wonder where your justice is. Let us see clearly what you have told us in Your Word, that we may rejoice in the confidence you place within us, believing that you are the great judge of all creation. Amen.
Our passages today all have to do with clinging to our faith, wrestling with God. Did you observe that? In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with God. In 2 Timothy we are told to stand firm no matter what. In Luke 18 we are told that we wrestle with God as a woman wrestles with an unjust judge. Right? Or do our Scriptures tell us something else? Let's get a quick summary of what we've read today.
Jacob was wrestling with God. He would not let go until God relented and gave him a blessing. He wrestled all night. Man against God. Who would win? Jacob overcame. He wrestled with God and won by sheer persistence. We are often told that we need to cling to our faith, wrestle with God, and prove ourselves holy, people who will prevail with God.
Timothy is to master his use of God's Word so he is able to work with it and accomplish great things. Despite the opposition he finds, he is to wield God's Word powerfully, praying constantly. If he does this he will be a great success. We've been told that too.
The widow in the parable contends with the unjust judge until he fears her even though he doesn't fear God. Maybe we can be such witnesses for Christ in our society that even though people don't fear God they will fear us and avoid doing things that upset or disappoint us. We can leverage our society by standing rock-solid for Jesus.
There's something wrong with all these views. Sadly, I wasn't making them up. I have heard each and every one of them presented to genuine, faithful Christians. In every instance, in those bodies, I have seen people hurting, people who become confused about the nature of God, who become convinced that they need to work harder at their salvation, sometimes even people who have decided that they are not saved by grace because they didn't repent, pray, or believe well enough. There's something wrong. Dreadfully wrong. Specifically, in the parable of the persistent widow, we could come away with the idea that God is unjust, deep down, and that he needs to be persuaded by us, through our persistent clinging to what is right, before he will do what is right. We could draw a picture of a god who is not willing to do what is right and good and who will only do it because he is afraid of us. This view says that we are ultimately more powerful than God, that we are more righteous than God. It says we are the people who should be on the throne, not the triune God, expressed in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is no way to read a parable. I guess we'd better go back and start over again. Whenever you read a parable, look at it for a "No way" statement. For instance, there's the parable of the poor lady who lost a coin. She searched all over for it and found it because she couldn't afford to be without it. Then she spent a whole bundle of money on a celebration with her friends. See the "No way" moment there? The parable points out how different God is than our human models.
In this parable of the persistent widow, the widow is confronted with an unjust judge. We are instantly left wondering who, if anyone, represents God in this parable. Normally we'd think the judge would be God, right? But he's unjust. He doesn't want to do what is right. So is God the widow? That doesn't work either. God is never oppressed. So we have a big "No way" moment right away. Where does God come into this parable? Maybe this is a parable without God? But all of Jesus' parables seem to have a God figure in them. So where is God in this parable? He seems to arrive right at the end. He shows up when he points out that the unjust judge is the anti-God. Jesus says that God is exactly the opposite of that judge.
Look again with me at verse 7. "Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?" The answer we are supposed to give automatically is, "Yes, of course He will!" "Will he delay long over them?" The answer we are supposed to give automatically is, "No, God will not delay but will run to rescue his people from their trials."
Rather than an interpretation of this parable that leaves us as the righteous ones who have to wear God down so that he will eventually do what we say is right, we are now left with an understanding that God is the one who is entirely different from our oppressors. He is the one who lovingly created everything. He is the one who has always sustained all of creation. He is the one who truly cares about all that we see around us. He is the one who does what is right and good for his people, even when they don't realize what is right or good.
So now we have an interpretive framework for our parable. We are able to look at it rightly. What we read in verse one, "that they ought always to pray and not lose heart" makes sense. It didn't before, since we were wondering if we were just left out in the cold to deal with our oppressors ourselves. Let's run today's Scriptures through that framework and see what happens.
First off, we have the woman who contends with her enemies and does everything in her power to see that they do what is right. She is ultimately successful, but only after a very long and hard struggle. She overcomes because she is more persistent than they are. Jesus tells us that God is nothing at all like those enemies. He sees our trouble brewing before we even have a hint that we are in trouble. While we were yet sinners, unborn sinners, all of us, Jesus died for us. Before we were ever dreamt of by our parents, Jesus had taken our sin, done what was necessary to redeem us, and had appointed us for everlasting life. Do you believe that? Then I can tell you confidently that Jesus' words on the cross, "It is finished" are for you. I can tell you without a doubt that Jesus' body was broken for you and his blood was shed for you. He did it before you knew you were in trouble. He died for your sin before you knew you were a sinner. And he appointed means of grace to draw you to him in faith. That's the kind of God we have. We should never give up in prayer, because we know God is the kind of God who has already taken care of our greatest need and who will continue caring for us in every circumstance here on earth. He is nothing like the unjust judge. He rushes to care for us.
Now what about those other Bible passages that I mangled for us a few minutes ago? Jacob, wrestling with the angel of the Lord. Is Jacob prevailing against God? No. He does not prevail against God. He tries all night to wrestle and win. When God is finished with him, God touches his hip, throws it out of joint, makes Jacob fall to the ground writhing in pain, while God stands up and says, "All right, you won. You have a new name, Israel. You won so you get to do what I tell you now." Quite a victory, right? If Jacob had been able to have any effect whatsoever on the Angel of the Lord he would have something to boast about. But he does not. God simply says, "There you go. You don't seem finished, but I am finished with your striving. I'll put an end to it and remind you how I can use you productively rather than leaving you to waste your time rolling around on the ground getting hurt." Jacob prevailed with God because God said he did, and for no other reason. We are saved by grace through faith because God says so, and for no other reason. The Word and Sacraments are effectual because God has promised so, and for no other reason.
How about Timothy? Is he to do great things because he knows how to use God's Word? Is he to succeed because he can pray so very well? No, he does great things because God has given him the Word, which is powerful and always accomplishes God's purpose. Timothy does great things because God works in and through him.
At the beginning of this sermon I said that our passages all had to do with clinging to our faith, wrestling with God. But that was not right, was it? These Bible passages don't have anything to do with that at all. They all have to do with God clinging to us, implanting our faith, nurturing our faith, gently but firmly and repeatedly reminding us that he is the author and finisher of our faith. Our life and work begins with Christ crucified for sinners. It continues with Jesus given for us. It will end with Jesus raised for us as the firstfruits of the resurrection, the firstborn among many brethren. Yes, it is truly all about Jesus for you, for me, and for the world. It is not about us. It is about Jesus for us.
Our Lord, we thank you that you have given yourself for us. We confess that we often look at those people who oppose us and we think that you might be like they are. Give us eyes to see by faith how you are the one who runs to meet us, to gather us up when we have fallen, who sustains us in every circumstance. Let us trust in you and your provision of Word and Sacraments. Feed our faith until you bring us home to be with you in eternity, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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