24 October 2007

The Importunate Widow and Striving with God

The Readings this past Sunday included the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord and the Holy Gospel of the importunate widow who persisted in pleading for justice from the Judge who neither feared God nor regarded man. I love these two Readings, and I have often pointed to them as examples of persistence in prayer. Our Lord tells the parable that we should pray at all times and not lose heart. We ought to pray as that widow does; we ought to cry out day and night for the Lord to come and bring about justice. And surely He does come quickly.

But when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith? That question has always troubled me. Such questions are a preaching of the Law, at least to begin with. The answer is finally the Gospel, because God's answer in Christ Jesus is always "Yea and Amen!" But He finds faith only because He has taken His stand with us and established His faithfulness for us. The Lord Jesus Christ is not only the answer to our prayer; He is our prayer, the One who prays for us and the prayer itself; our great High Priest, the One who lives to make intercession for us at the right hand of the Father forever. It is His persistence that prevails for us and our salvation.

The fact of the matter is that I do not pray with the persistence of that widow, not even for the desires of my own heart, far less for the things of God for which I ought to pray without ceasing. The Lord's elect cry out day and night, but only because the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us, and only because the incarnate Son of God, our Savior and Redeemer, has become our Head, and we His body, so that His prayer is on our behalf and has become ours. The Church does pray day and night—but not because there is strength in numbers; rather, it is only because the Lord is the Head of His Bride and the Savior of His Body.

I agree that we ought to pray with persistence like that widow in the parable. But we do not. It is Christ (and His Church, collectively, in Him) who prays without ceasing for us. Such prayer is not necessary because of any hardheartedness on the part of God. The One who comes to be our Judge is the One who has given Himself for us, in order to cleanse us and sanctify us by the washing of water with His Word, and so to present us to Himself as a lovely and glorious Bride. The hardhearted judge of the parable, who neither fears God nor respects man, is far more like us than like the Lord our God. It is not we who must wear God down by prevailing upon Him, but He prevails upon us, and persists in coming to us with His preaching of repentance, until we relent of our reluctance and resistance and are humbled unto faith in His forgiveness of our sins.

It seems to me that this also explains the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. I've always loved that story, but I've always been bemused by the notion that God couldn't get away from him. That is to think of it backwards! It is not so much that Jacob is wrestling with the Lord, as it is the Lord who is wrestling with him. He is catechizing Jacob to live by faith instead of deception. He strives with Jacob, so that Jacob will learn to strive with Him. Thus does He persist in the wrestling match all through the night, neither defeating nor retreating from the man to whom He has bound Himself in love. And when He has not yet prevailed upon him, He goes so far as to put his hip out of joint, so that Jacob cries out for a blessing and finally calls upon the Name of the Lord (which is given to him with the blessing).

Here there is a redoing of the story with which Jacob's exile began. At that time he came to his father, asking for a blessing. "Who are you, my son?" "I am Esau, your firstborn." Not so this time. Here he seeks the blessing from the Lord his God. "What is your name?" "I am Jacob." With this confession of the truth—that he is Jacob, the deceiver—there is repentance and faith, and then the blessing: No longer is he Jacob, but "Israel," the one who strives with God. How so? Because the Lord his God is faithful and persisent and has striven with him in love.

So also with us. The Lord has commanded us to pray and has promised to hear us. Therefore we should pray to Him with all boldness and confidence, crying out to Him day and night, as children to their dear Father in heaven. But He is first of all the Father who persists in seeking us out and coming to us. He afflicts us, in order that we may learn to call upon Him in every trouble. Even in the affliction, He is loving us and caring for us, coming to us and prevailing upon us, that we may be brought back to Him and reconciled to Him in Christ Jesus. He wrestles with us, and even puts us out of joint, that we may call upon His Name in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks. For He is not far away from us, refusing to listen. His heart is not hardened toward us, nor turned away from us. It is not the Lord our God who has shut His ears to our prayer, but we who have shut our mouths, closed our lips and bit our tongues, refusing to pray as we ought. We don't know how. We cannot.

But the Lord has taken His stand with us. He is both the Jacob who wrestles for us, and the Lord who blesses us and all the families of the world, because He is the Seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the Judge who has already redeemed and reconciled us, forgiven us and declared us not guilty. He has pleaded our case with His own body and life, and He has won; and He is yet the One who persists in pleading with us, recalling us daily to repentant faith, to fear, love and trust in God. We are no longer widowed and helpless, but married to Him and rich with His riches in the heavenly places. For He has already come quickly to bring about justice for us, in His own fulfilling of all righteousness on our behalf. He has suffered the accusations and the condemnations, the judgment and the punishments of the Law against us, and has accomplished our salvation for us. Before we have even begun to call upon Him, He has answered. While we are only beginning to speak, He has already acted on our behalf.

When He invites us and teaches us to pray at all times, and not to lose heart, it is not because our persistence will wear Him down and convince Him to help us. We do not have to twist His arm to act against His will; His good and gracious will for us, in Christ, is for every good thing, life and salvation. We do not have to earn or gain His favor; His favor is already ours in Christ. It is not our patience and perseverance that will finally win Him over to us, but in His long-suffering patience with us, He perseveres in striving with us, so that we at last prevail by His grace.

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