I think its popularity has diminished somewhat in recent years, but once upon a time, professional wrestling was as big as the National Football League. At least, for the ten-year-old boys that I was hanging out with.
My friends and I loved to watch professional wrestling together on television and we got tosee all the greats:
Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Jake “the Snake” Roberts – who would put a live python on you after he had knocked you out, Brutus “the Barber” Beefcake – who would cut his opponents hair after he defeated them, and more. And they all had these great nicknames. We had the action figures of all these wrestlers and wore the paint off all their faces with a thousand matches on the living room floor that included a million jumps off the top rope.
When we would watch on TV we would debate about whether wrestling was “real” or just entertainment and one of the features of the TV program that was as entertaining as any actual wrestling was the storylines about which wrestler was mad at which other wrestler and what they were going to do to them. They would tell you all about it during the pre-match and post-match interviews and we never forgot, how during one of these interviews, Andre “the Giant” had crossed the line by taking “Hulk” Hogan’s gold necklace and ripping it off his neck.
There are no jumps from the top rope or chairs being pulled out of the stands, but in our reading from Genesis today we have a real “smackdown” by the banks of the Jabbok. The match lasts all through the night and is fierce. It includes a debilitating injury, but like professional wrestling on tv, more interesting than the action itself is the larger story of these two opponents.
Jacob “The Trickster” has alienated his brother by stealing his birthright and angered and saddened his father by stealing his blessing so that by this point in the story, in a sense, Jacob has wrestled with his family all his life, and now he is on the cusp of meeting his brother again and facing up to the chaos he has created.
On the other side of this river, Esau is waiting, and when the day breaks, he will meet him and all the problems he has created, and he may well be wondering if his brother will wrestle him into submission or kill him, and what will become of his family.
So, here by the Jabbok River, Jacob has come to the crossroads of his life. It is an occasion so large that he perceives that he is face to face with God himself. Whether he can go on at all is at stake.
He wrestles with what his life has become, what it all means; he wrestles with God. And what we hear about God is that God is willing to get in the ring with him! God could destroy Jacob! God Almighty in all his power could pulverize Jacob! But God wrestles with him and lets him go on with just a limp. God even blesses him.
This story in Genesis is our opening match, but there is another wrestling match in our texts today.
In the main event, in one corner of the ring we have the “Unjust Judge.” Now that’s a great wrestling nick-name. Its almost better than “Nature Boy”! He doesn’t fear God and doesn’t have respect for the people, but he is huge and powerful.
My guess is he wears a mask to hide his identity, he has music that plays loudly over the speakers as he and his entourage make their way to the ring. He is not to be messed with. He answers to no one.
And in the other corner we have just an ordinary old woman. She is a widow. She is weak. In a society where only men worked, only men spoke, and only men were counted, she would have been completely powerless.
If she was a character in professional wrestling, she would be one of the people with no nickname, no entrance music, no cool costume. One of the nobodies whose sole purpose is to come out early on in the night to do nothing more than get beat up just to warm up the crowd. The audience knows her storyline before the opening bell. She’s just here for someone else to throw around.
In front of the crowd, the widow comes out and makes her way to meet the Unjust Judge in the ring. She puts herself on the line, but he slams her request for help, piledrivers her hopes, and he sends her away in shame to learn to live with defeat.
Astonishingly, though, the woman dares to come back; to make her way through the crowd and come back and lock up with the Unjust Judge again. And she keeps being defeated and she keeps coming back and no matter how many times the judge sends her away, the woman dares to come back and try again.
And she keeps coming back and the “Unjust Judge” keeps sending her away in defeat, until he thinks to himself, This is embarrassing! If I don’t give this woman what she wants, she will keep coming back and she will keep browbeating me – literally in the original language “giving me a black eye” — and wearing me out with her request, but if I just give her what she wants she will go away and I will never have to see her again!
And so finally, just to get rid of her, he gives her what she wants.
Jesus tells this story to illustrate our need to pray always and not to lose heart. It is a story about persistence in prayer.
We are people who pray frequently. We all pray together in worship. We pray when we’re in small group gatherings and at ministry team meetings, and we pray with our family or our friends in our homes.
We have prayed for an end to sickness, for a diagnosis we wish we wouldn’t have received to be reversed, for help in the face of the loss of a job. We have prayed for the state of the world, for loved ones and the obstacles they face, for forgiveness.
But even most people who are persistent in prayer have at one time or another wondered how effective they can expect prayer to actually be.
Even people who are pros at prayer have wondered if they’re praying for the right thing.
Most of us, at one time or another, have felt like this widow wrestling for a hoped-for outcome.
And some of us may even feel like Jacob, wrestling with God himself.
There is young man in our congregation who is a wrestler. I should say he is a real wrestler, for his high school team. He is really good and he wins a lot of matches and he has a particularly risky style of wrestling that ends in a lot of pins – mostly for him, but sometimes he does get pinned, but he likes to go for it. I was asking him, months ago now, about his wrestling and somehow it came up that one controversial aspect to wrestling these days is that men wrestle women. There isn’t a division that separates the men and women. They’re all on one team.
This young man shared that some guys won’t wrestle a girl and will just take a loss when they come up against a girl in a match. He said these young men say they don’t want to hurt a girl, don’t want to touch a girl or be perceived to touch a girl in a way that is disrespectful. I asked this young man what he chooses to do and he said without reservation he wrestles girls. When I asked why that was, he said, “I make sure I don’t hurt anyone I wrestle. I respect everyone I face. I only want the best for everyone I meet on the mat.”
God is willing to wrestle us only wanting the best for us. He is not out to hurt us. He is all-powerful and yet he is willing to take our frustration and disappointment, our doubt or anger. He meets us and takes our grief or whatever we need to give him. He can take it. And he returns to us blessing and mercy and kindness. God embraces us, hold us, lets us struggle, and always returns love.
On the cross, Jesus has been fully defeated. Like the widow in his own story, he was wrestled to the ground and pinned by death. And like the widow he persists because of his love for us.
Jesus was laid in the grave and three days later he emerged, victorious, hand held high in the air, never to die again and sending to us and to the whole world God’s power of love and forgiveness.
When we receive that power and respond to God’s grace by reaching out to God in prayer, we’re reaching out not to someone who gives to us grudgingly, like the “UnJust Judge,” as Jesus points out, but to a God who loves us and delights to hear our prayers.
In the last few years of her life, my Grandmother had gotten feeble. She was in her 90s and she didn’t see all that well, or hear that well, and she couldn’t get around all that well but she fiercely wanted to live at home and so we had gotten her a life alert, which was a little bracelet that she wore on her wrist and she could use to alert the life alert company should she get in a bad situation.
Well, she fell in the kitchen. But she didn’t push her life alert. Instead she lay in the floor for two days. For years, she and my Dad talked every day on the phone so that when he didn’t hear from her, he thought something might be was wrong. He called Grandmother’s house but she didn’t answer because she couldn’t reach the phone. So, Dad drove to her house and that’s when he found her lying on the floor.
He got her up off the floor and took care of her, and then he asked her why she hadn’t pushed the life alert button. And she said she didn’t want to bother anyone.
God wants to hear our prayers. God wants us to reach out to him. God wants us to cry out so that he can come to help us.
God delights to have his children call on him. God delights to come quickly to the help of his beloved and to answer our cries.
Prayer is the way God makes room in us for his guidance as we wrestle with the challenges and decisions and details of our lives.
So like the poor widow in the ring against the Unjust Judge, or Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka being pounded on the mat by Andre the Giant with the referee about to slap the mat for the third time, when we are in trouble or in need, we have been given the gift of prayer so that we can reach out to God – our faithful tag-team partner – he is on our side and God is always coming to help.