First Reading: Genesis 32:22-31
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Gospel Reading: Luke 18:1-8
It’s Fall, and sports in is the very air we breathe. Interestingly its no different in the scripture lessons today as well. As a good coach will always tell their players, one of the keys to victory is to never-ever give up. An athlete must always strive to improve both their conditioning and their skills – certainly in the middle of the game, but also every other day – to practice what they have learned, and to develop the capacity to do even more.
Now football, our current obsession, is a more modern sport, and not one that scripture uses as a metaphor, but several others are – including running a race, boxing and wrestling. They are used to help us understand life as citizens of the Kingdom of God – what God expects of us and what we can expect from God.
The first Sports analogy we are going to talk about in our reading today is not very obvious in most translations. Its buried in the original Greek, and it concerns Jesus’ parable about the widow who was badgering the unjust Judge. Jesus makes sure we understand the situation when he describes the Judge like this: (Luke 18:2,4 NRSV) “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Jesus even has the Judge describe himself similarly “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. Jesus wants to be sure we know, this guy is no good.
But its the woman who Jesus wants us to notice carefully. As one commentator puts it: “Her persistence and call for justice is such that the judge characterizes her actions as those of a boxer. It is difficult to discern this boxing image in the NRSV, which translates the judge’s words as follows: “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (verse 5). In the original Greek, though, the judge says: “because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming” (verse 5). By using the verb hypopiazo, which means “to give a black eye,” Luke situates the judge’s language within the arena of boxing metaphors. However, most English translations do not capture the meaning of this verb, they soften the tenacity of the widow’s actions, as well as her perceived status as a “trouble-maker” to the system.”
I like the boxing metaphor – it well describes Jesus’ intent in this Parable – namely, that we are to never give up and let down our guard. A boxer who does so will regret it quickly. A Christian who does so, will similarly get into a bad situation. Jesus tells us this story, not to imply that we must badger God until we get what we want. Rather, as we have noted in other parables, this is a comparison by contrast. If this widow could get justice from this self confessed unrighteous Judge, then how much more can we expect our loving and gracious God to hear our cries for justice and our essential needs. This is precisely what Jesus says when he sums up the parable saying: (Luke 18:7-8 NRSV) “ … will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
But there is more here. This story is encouragement to persist in the face of difficulties and the seemingly long delay of the promised day when our Creator God will restore all things and the Kingdom of God will be fully realized on this very earth. Jesus, who will shortly face the cross, knows full well that this is a broken, hurting and often unjust world. But Jesus would have us not loose hope, but persist in working for Justice and crying out to God continually – knowing at our core that only God can bring about the Kingdom.
Tenacious faith is needed for Godly living in this sin oppressed world. Faith in these times means remembering what God has done in times past, looking to see where God is moving currently and trusting that God will continue to bring about God’s perfect will – often times using such common tools as a persistent widow and even a few faithful Christians in Newkirk Oklahoma. The critical thing is to understand that we are not alone.
God goes with us – Supporting and defending us as we heard from Ps 121 in our call to worship today: (Psalm 121:5-8 NRSV) “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” In other words, God is with us day and night, yesterday, today and tomorrow – all along the journey of life. The question is, will we acknowledge God and seek to be in continual relationship with God?
That’s where the worrisome last little sentence comes into this story. There at the end, Jesus asks a question we would rather not hear: (Luke 18:8b) “…And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus has just been answering questions from the Pharisees about when the Kingdom of God was going to come. Its an ironic question to ask when the Son of God is standing right there in front of you. But of course, that the point. They did not recognize the presence of God. They were not earnestly seeking or watch for it. And so, when as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you”, they refused to see it.
Which way we are turned determines what we can see. In many sports games, the adage ‘keep your eye on the ball’ is very, very true. Keeping our eyes on Jesus and the things of God is likewise critical for we Christians. Paul writes of our need to be persistent in this orientation towards God in all that we do. (Romans 12:10-12 NRSV) “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” If we understand life to be a journey or a race, then it is surely a Marathon, not a sprint. We, together with our God, are in this for the long haul. As passionate as a boxer and as persistent and enduring as a Marathon runner.
Even when our persistence fails – God is faithful. As Isaiah wrote to the People of Judah who had turned their backs on God time after time – still God was there – reaching out. Listen: (Isaiah 65:1-3 NIV) “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’ All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations—‘. That is the nature of God.
Several times in Jesus’ ministry, people are held up as particularly faith for their determination and persistence. Interestingly, several are women! Women like the one in Luke 8:43 “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her.” Never mind that here condition made her ritually unclean so that she shouldn’t have been there at all, She doggedly pursued Jesus through the dense crowd – determined that if she could only just touch the hem of his robe, she would be cured. And she was!
Or how about the Syro-Phoenician woman who determinedly begged Jesus to cast the demon from here daughter – even though she was a gentile. She answered Jesus’ statement that he had been sent to His own people, the children of Israel first, with the cheeky rejoinder (Mark 7:28 NRSV)… “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Both were willing to wrestle with prejudice and obstacles to seek what they knew only Jesus could give.
Now there is the third sports analogy for the morning – Wrestling. Jacob, whom God was to rename Israel to commemorate his struggles, wrestled with many many things – His past, full of dubious choices and schemes, his present peril was brought to a head by those past actions. He had cheated his brother Esau out of his father’s blessing and inheritance, then his time with his Uncle Laban and his daughters had ended poorly with him having to leave in the middle of the night. He feared to go forward and he couldn’t go back. Here he was, stuck in the middle and he wrestled with God. Jacob was determined to win a blessing and he did. Though he limped the rest of his life.
It seems that the wrestling changed him. His brother Esau receives him as family and they are reconciled. No more does he cheat and scheme, from that time forward, he takes his place as a faithful Patriarch who lives in covenant with his God on the land promised to his Grandfather Abraham, until the appointed time when God would provide respite for them from the famine in Egypt.
So which sport might you use to describe the phase of life you are in? Are you a Marathon runner – disciplined for the long haul as you look to the future? Are you perhaps beset by many present problems and dangers – boxing and ducking to stay in the ring? Perhaps your past has you trapped and so you wrestle in the present moment that threatens to overwhelm you, desperate for a blessing, longing for forgiveness, grace and reconciliation. There are of course as many possibilities as there are souls present. But God goes with each who will but look to the Lord with hope and trust.
Let me close this thought by reminding us of Paul’s words urging his young apprentice Timothy to persist in his faithful ministry. These selections from our lesson point out what Christian persistence looks like in our daily living. They are Paul’s words to us as well: (2 Timothy 3:14-15 NRSV)  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,  and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
(2 Timothy 4:2,5 NRSV)
 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
In other words: Don’t be discouraged – Use what you have been given by God! Be persistent!