Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:
We are nearing the end of the high school football season here in Missouri. District competitions conclude this weekend. Sectional and State games will quickly be here and gone. The timing created a bit of nostalgia in me this past weekend and I remembered when my sons finished their high school careers. They were both fortunate enough to have received honors for performances as defensive players. Memories, for me, usually include the more amusing moments rather than some outstanding accomplishment or another. I like to laugh and smile, so my memories may be dominated by those opportunities.
Early in their football training, I taught both sons that the most important thing you can do as a defensive player is fairly simple. Once you get your hands on the ball carrier, don’t let go until the whistle blows. Even if you can’t bring him down yourself, you can hang on until help arrives from the rest of your team.
When they were younger, this practice made for some amusing moments. I recall several incidents when big, heavy running backs dragged the boys’ lighter frames along until another tackler arrived to finish what they had begun. Occasionally it was funny. It wasn’t pretty or impressive defensive play, but it got the job done and it made a “Pop” proud. Later, their size, weight and strength increased to the point that additional help was seldom needed. Once they got hold of a runner, the play was over. They seldom let go.
One time, however, when Joel was a senior, one of the biggest running backs in the area plowed across the center of the line and Joel was caught in a huge pile of helmets, pads and bodies. The runner had somehow gotten over, through or around the pile, but not without Joel’s hands still clinging persistently to his jersey. He was thrashing and twisting every which way but loose. The crowd burst into laughter at the comic sight. Suddenly, a whistle began to blow furiously and repeatedly. One official decided that forward progress had been stopped.
The ball carrier was upset about the decision. He thought the whistle was premature and that he could have gotten away. But it was a good decision. Three or four of Joel’s bone-crushing friends, big linemen and fierce linebackers, were running top-speed at that fellow and were about to arrive simultaneously. The player was concerned with the game and with getting away. The referee was concerned about his life and limbs.
This Sunday’s Old Testament lesson tells a story about a different sport with a similar situation. It is a wrestling match between Jacob and a “man.” He was actually wrestling with God in human form or an angel who was clearly God’s representative. The similarity comes in verse 26: “Then the man said, ‘Let me go for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let You go until You bless me.'” I never participated in wrestling or coached it, but it seems that not letting go is a good move in that sport as well.
There is a wordplay on wrestling with God throughout the early life-story of Jacob. He wrestles with his brother Esau. He wrestles with Laban and he wrestles a birthright blessing away from his father’s wishes. Before he re-enters Canaan, it becomes clear that his real wrestling match was with God all along–his destiny was in God’s hands, not his own. In football and in wrestling, there is a legal use of the hands in gripping the opponent tightly and not letting go. In life, there is a similar use of the hands–gripping them together in prayer–and not letting go of God until His blessing comes.
This last part is the theme of Sunday’s Gospel lesson. It is one of several parables that Jesus told about being persistent in prayer. Luke made the point of the story clear before it was even told: “Jesus told His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” The story has only two characters–a widow and a judge.
The woman had a case. We don’t know what it was, but she apparently knew which judge to see about it. We are told twice, perhaps for emphasis, that the judge neither feared God nor cared about people. It is Jesus’ initial description of him and the judge’s own statement about himself later in the story. The woman kept coming to the judge until she wore him down. He granted her judgment before she wore him completely out.
Some people mistakenly think that Jesus was suggesting we should nag God and wear Him down in order to get a good answer to our prayers. Actually, it is clear from the story that He was setting up a stark contrast between the judge and God. God does care about people! That is why we should keep praying to Him and not give up. He wants to help us. Our persistence in prayer comes from believing that. The answers to our prayers often come through that faith.
The Old Testament lesson tells of Jacob holding on to God until He got a blessing. The Gospel lesson tells of holding on in prayer until we get a blessing. We expect to find something similar in the Epistle lesson. The most thorough examination you make of that lesson, however, will not reveal the word “prayer” or any synonym. You will find that Paul urged a similar persistence in faithful living. Perhaps the people who chose the lessons were suggesting a connection between faithful praying and faithful living. There is no “perhaps” about it. Jesus concludes the parable with these words: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?”
There is a kind of “keep your hands on” persistence in the lesson from Second Timothy, but it has to do with the Scriptures. Paul urged Timothy to hold on to and continue in what he had learned and believed from the Scriptures. Our English word “tenacious” comes from the Latin noun and verb that mean “hold or hold on.”
It is a sad state of affairs, and I thoroughly dislike talking about negative things, but I have found that most of the really tenacious people in the world are holding on to the wrong things. I have probably stated that incorrectly. At times we are all at our most tenacious when we are holding on to the wrong things–things like gripes and grudges, hurts and wrongs, mistakes and misunderstandings, weaknesses and failings, angers and resentments, disagreements and disputes, omissions and everyday sinfulness.
When we are caught up in such things, there are two pieces of advice, or simple questions, that we usually choose to avoid–they happen to coincide with this Sunday’s lessons. The first is: “Have you prayed about that situation, for the other person, etc.?” The second is: “Have you searched the Scriptures to see what you should do?”
On a purely “rational” day, I can’t imagine anyone blaming his or her own failure to do something good on someone else’s bad behavior, but then, rational days are more rare than mud-free political campaigns. Jesus and Paul are of the opinion that the children of God should have “spiritual” days. If you are upset, disappointed or angry over persons or situations, you cannot pray for them without coming to grips with the fact that God wants the best for them and from them. That belief couples immediately and firmly with the fact that He also wants the best for you and from you.
Stated simply, Christian people, like any people, can get so angry at others that they blurt out: “I wish they’d drop dead.” Christian people cannot, however, pray to God, “Make them drop dead.” We know better than the first, but say it anyway. We also know better than the second, but wouldn’t pray it for anything.
Searching the Scriptures to find what God wants you to do creates a similar problem. We find immediately that there are no Scriptural mandates for the person we believe has wronged us and situations cannot be mandated. The Scriptures will tell us that, when we feel someone has wronged us, we should pray for and go to that person. Paul’s words to Timothy are just one example of the Scriptures telling us to persevere, hold on and persist at doing God’s will, no matter what the situation.
We usually don’t want to pray for our enemies–they might change and become our friends. Then we will have to treat them well. We don’t want to confront them with our complaints–we might be wrong or, worse yet, they might repent and we will have to forgive them! If we are going to persist at the wrong things, maybe we had better pray that Jesus not return soon. If the Son of Man did return right now, we would have to explain our lack of faithfulness and it is not likely He would buy our excuses.
We don’t have to search the Scriptures to remember that Jesus did love His enemies and pray for them. We can’t forget that we are among them and that we desperately need the forgiveness He bought for us with His lifeblood. We can’t dismiss His tenacious grip on the cross for us or His holding on to His Father’s will even when He prayed that He would not have to do it. “Lord, decrease our rationalizations and excuses. Increase our faith and faithfulness. Help us not to let go until You bless us in eternity. Amen.”