Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Big Daddy of Them All

Genesis 32.22-31, Luke 18.1-8, 2 Timothy 3.14 - 4.5
This has been a red letter year for wrestling. After first being dropped, wrestling was then quickly reinstated as an Olympic Sport this year and wrestlers will after all take part in the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games. However, wrestling remains on probation after wrestling bouts were accused of being boring and hard to understand.
My memories of wrestling go back to the days when there were only three television channels and Saturday afternoons meant watching horse racing and Rugby League on the BBC or wrestling on ITV. On wet and windy Saturdays in winter my brother and I would watch the wrestlers for a while until my father intervened and turned the television off, admonishing us to find something more constructive to do.
There was always a strong whiff of pantomime about those wrestling bouts. One of the competitors was always the goody. He would enter the ring to cheers and applause. The other was usually the baddy. He would enter to boos. Often he wore a hood or a mask and the goody invariably seemed to prevail over him despite a few nasty setbacks. We know now, of course, that sometimes the goodies simply donned masks and hoods themselves to assume a bad persona for the next week’s competition.
Years later on Look North an intrepid reporter went to interview one of the stars of ITV wrestling, the Yorkshire born wrestler Big Daddy, because he was retiring, or had completed 25 years in the ring, or something like that. The reporter happened to mention that some people considered wrestling to be more about play-acting than real sport. Next minute the reporter found himself in a headlock, having his windpipe ever so slightly crushed. ‘Would you mind just relaxing your grip a little bit?’ he gasped. ‘Does this feel like play-acting?’ Big Daddy enquired.
A different kind of wrestling features in the film The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. It’s a sort of thriller in which Matt Damon’s character tries to resist the plan that the all-seeing governor, who seems to be God, has got for his life. A chance meeting with Emily Blunt’s character is not part of the plan, and the Adjustment Bureau, a team of sinister angelic figures, is sent to get things back on track. But Matt Damon puts up a fight, and right until the end we don’t know who is going to win.
It’s not as silly as it sounds. The story reflects the questions which many people have to ask at key points in their adult life, about the balance they want to achieve between fulfilling their own personal ambitions and finding happiness in and through their relationships with other people. Sometimes you can’t have both.
We might want to save up for a house and then turn the whole of the upper floor into a model railway layout weaving through the doors and along the passages between rooms. But will this ambition be compatible with marital bliss and a happy family life? Or, in order to find the partner of our dreams, will we have to give up the grandiose dreams of an expansive model railway? And what if God has a totally different vision for our life in which, instead of obsessing about model trains or devoting ourselves single-mindedly to our family, we are expected to go out and change the world for the better?
Sometimes we have to wrestle with God, and with ourselves, as we try to work out what we must do. We only get one shot at life so there can be agonising choices to be made, and the Bible insists that they can have eternal consequences.
Israel wrestled with a stranger, just as - on ITV - Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks wrestled with hooded and masked opponents. So, like the figure Matt Damon contests, it’s not entirely clear who Jacob is dealing with. Like a vampire, the stranger also seems to need to get away before daybreak but whereas a vampire will lose his or her strength when daylight comes, the stranger is probably afraid that Jacob will recognise him.
The stranger is asked to give his blessing in exchange for Jacob releasing his hold, so the stranger invites Jacob to tell him his name, but the stranger won’t reveal his own identity in return. ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ he asks. Much later, when Moses asks God what he is called, God says that he doesn’t have a name, anyway. ‘I am who I am,’ he says mysteriously.
Perhaps the act of blessing itself reveals the stranger’s identity, but although blessing Jacob may seem like a God-like act, actually people go around blessing one another all of the time in the Old Testament. Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of their father’s blessing and at the end of his own life he blesses his favourite son Joseph.
However, the new name which the stranger gives to Jacob is a powerful clue to who he really is. Israel means, or at least sounds a bit like, ‘The one who strives with God.’ Does that mean Jacob has striven with God on this occasion? Or does it mean that the wrestler recognises he can be no match for someone who is used to striving with God?
There was once a circus strongman who always ended his act by squeezing an orange until it was dry. He would then challenge the biggest men in the audience to come and see if they could wring a few more drops from the orange. One night no one accepted the challenge. Even the biggest men in the audience seemed to know that it was impossible. But then a small wiry man came down out of the audience and offered to squeeze the orange. The strongman laughed at him but the little man insisted. He took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and squeezed the orange until he went red in the face. Eventually he managed to squeeze just a couple of extra drops from it.
‘How did you do that?’ the strongman asked in disbelief. ‘Oh it wasn’t so difficult,’ the little man said. ‘I’m the treasurer of my local Methodist Church so I can squeeze that little bit extra out of any situation.’
Is Jacob the same kind of person - someone who takes on impossible challenges; someone who, like Matt Damon resisting all the stratagems of the Adjustment Bureau, refuses to lie down and accept the plan mapped out for his life? I rather think he is! My boss described me as a ferret. Asked to explain, because it didn’t sound entirely complimentary, she said, ‘Once you’ve started on something you never let it go.’ Perhaps Jacob had a similar personality.
Nonetheless, Jacob certainly thinks he has been wrestling with God. ‘I have seen God face to face,’ he says and so he names the place where the bout took place, Peniel, which means ‘The face of God.’
In the Adjustment Bureau one of the angels tells Matt Damon and Emily Blunt that we all come face to face with God at least once in our lives, even if we don’t always recognise him. Do we all have to wrestle with God, or at least do we all not have to wrestle with our faith, with doubts and fears, with tragedies and disappointments? Sometimes life is such a struggle that we wonder whether we shall survive and whether our faith will stay the course? Like Jacob, some of us are severely wounded by life’s ups and downs. We bear the scars. Some people do not overcome. They wrestle in the darkness and lose their faith. Can we be like Jacob? Like Israel? Do we have what it takes to be survivors? Can God’s Spirit help us to persevere?
The widow is another person who struggles. She refuses to accept that the scales of justice are weighted against her. And Jesus reminds us that she is battling against a corrupt and immoral judge whereas God is eager to help us if we don’t lose heart.
I have been trying to raise some money to protect a team of people working in the community. The search for funding has gone right to the wire and I needed them to persevere, to hang on in there, to go on struggling alongside me, and not to lose heart. Sadly it’s not so easy in practice, is it?
LIkewise, Timothy is urged by Paul to ‘be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable… convincing, rebuking and encouraging with the utmost patience’ those whom he is trying to teach, and he is told to ‘endure suffering’.
One of my jobs is to try to teach people how to open an email account, create a CV on a computer, save it to the Internet and then email it to employers. That may all sound like meaningless words to you. Often it sounds meaningless to them. A surprising number have never used a computer before, much less tried to use the Internet to find a job.
Before they have finished the five week course they have to endure quite a bit of suffering, and so do I. I have to convince them, rebuke them and encourage them with the utmost patience. It’s yet another form of wrestling - with one another and with the boundaries of new technolgy, because almost every week the way to edit, store and send CVs on-line seems to change as Microsoft and Google battle - or wrestle if you like - to keep ahead of one another in the struggle to control what people can do using the Internet.
So life is a wrestling match, and that shouldn’t come as an unexpected revelation because it was revealed as long ago as the time of Jacob. Ever since then people have struggled to overcome doubt, fear, trouble  and darkness. Jacob didn’t know the name of the stranger who wrestled with him. He could only guess that in the darkness he had been wrestling with God. But Jesus assures us in his story that God is not against, even when it seems as though he is. Instead, he longs to come quickly to help us instead of leaving us to struggle until we get disheartened.
The Passion of Jesus, his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, his cry of despair from the Cross, his death - they all demonstrate that he too knew what it means to suffer and struggle. Because he has wrestled with doubt and fear, and only because of that, we know now that God is on our side when we are wrestling, for Jesus is the face of God that Jacob didn’t see.

Great Speeches

Jeremiah 2.9-13, Hebrews 13.7-8 &; 15-16
This reading from Hebrews says, ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you.’ How appropriate then, that last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most famous speeches of modern times, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Alongside Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address it is one of the speeches which shaped modern America, just as Twentieth Century British consciousness was shaped by the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill.
But of course there were striking differences between the ‘I have a dream’ speech and the speeches of Churchill and Lincoln. Their speeches were borne out of conflict, Luther King’s speech was borne out of a vision for peace. Lincoln and Churchill were urging people to violent resistance, whereas Luther King was an advocate of non-violence.
Churchill’s most famous speech, ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, was a stirring call to arms, but it was a backs to the wall call to defend the status quo against unimaginable horror. ‘Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule,’ Churchill told Parliament, ‘We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’
An American journalist said at the time that everyone should learn the speech by heart, but it’s not a Christian speech.
Similarly, the Gettysburg address contains stirring words about the necessity of making sacrifices to preserve democracy. It is just ten sentences long, so it is worth quoting in full:
‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
‘Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
‘But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’
In a masterpiece of understatement Lincoln described his speech as ‘a few appropriate remarks’. It’s actually a great speech but it’s not a Christian speech. It owes its inspiration more to classical rhetoric. And we can argue whether the civil war really did establish democracy. It was to be another hundred years before the votes of all Americans were considered equal.
By contrast, the most memorable sections of Martin Luther King’s speech are shot through with Christian symbolism. It’s by far the longest speech of the three, and for many years the full text was hard to obtain. Churchill and Lincolcn gave their speeches away to encourage people with their words, but King copyrighted his speech so that he could sell it to raise funds for the Civil Rights Movement.
‘We have... come to this hallowed spot,’ King told the crowd, ‘To remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
‘There are those,’ he went on, ‘Who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied... and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
‘I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. ‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
‘I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
‘I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
‘I have a dream today!
‘...I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
‘...And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Over the anniversary period the BBC not only broadcast King’s speech, it also broadcast the speech that Tony Blair gave to the House of Commons before the Iraq War. It was yet another brilliant speech, a speech that - like Churchill - urged us to think what the future would be like if we gave in to dictators. It was another speech about war, and it was a speech that was founded on a falsehood, that the Iraqis still had weapons of mass destruction.
The Syrian crisis has also inspired several new speeches about the need to put up a fight.In calling for a period of further consultation and relection before attacking Syria, President Obama quoted the Gettysburg address. But perhaps It’s a good time to remember King’s vision of peaceful change, in which he spoke of the need to believe in ‘creative suffering’ and ‘to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.’
Jeremiah used many stirring words in his prophecies, and none more so than today’s lectionary reading: Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.’
The people are here accused of something utterly wrongheaded. They are like wanderers in the wilderness who have abandoned a gushing spring or fountain of beautiful fresh water, bubbling out of the mountainside, in order to rey instead on a cistern designed to collect rainwater in a dusty and parched desert. The contents will never be as pure, cool and good to drink. But worse still, the cistern built to collect the water is cracked, so even this precious rainwater is seeping away. The people of Israel have exchanged a rich spiritual inheritance for an empty creed, the true God for false ones.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith,’ says the writer to the Hebrews. The outcome of Luther King’s life was, ultimately, a Black president, but it was also a share in the creative and redemptive suffering which he had encouraged the Civil Rights marchers to accept.Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,’ says the writer. ‘Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God...’ Eventually, Martin Luther King was to offer the ultimate sacrifice, like the men who fell at Gettysburg and like Jesus Christ himself who gave himself as a sacrifice to reconcile in himself all people, regardless of creed and colour, to one another and to God.
The writer to the Hebrews ends by reminding his readers that the sort of sacrifice which pleases God is ‘to do good and to share what you have.’ In the end, stirring rhetoric has to be made real. It has to be grounded in action. It has to be lived out in lives of faithful Christian service. Above all it has to be lived out in doing good and sharing what we have. That is the most eloquent testimony of all.