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Monday, October 17, 2016

Wrestling with God, Part 3

            Jesus Christ changed Sara's life at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church. Sara was deeply depressed, addicted to heroine, and on the verge of suicide. Jesus welcomed her with open arms through the people of our church and led her down the road to recovery. (Watch a video of Sara's testimony here.)
            I think about Sara’s story and how she wrestled—wrestled with depression, wrestled with addiction. It was a life or death struggle, but Sara did not wrestle alone. There were so many people who helped her wrestle or who wrestled on her behalf.  For the sake of time, I had to cut the footage of her testimony down to just over 4 minutes. There’s no way we could tell all the people who helped Sara—family members who stepped in and took care of Sara, rehab programs that intervened with professional help, people from other churches who were the hands of Christ to Sara, and so many others. All of these wrestled with God on her behalf. Who knows how many prayers were lifted up for Sara?
            Prayer is essential to the Christian life. It is not just part of the Christian life. It is the Christian life. Martin Luther said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” Prayer is powerful. It changes situations. It changes us. Most importantly, it draws us into God’s embrace.
            Today, we will finish our study of the fascinating Bible story of Jacob wrestling with God. We will consider how we wrestle with God in prayer and the effect it has. 
            As a young man, Jacob was incredibly deceitful and cheated his twin brother, Esau, out of his claim to the family blessing and inheritance. Esau was furious with Jacob and vowed to kill him. Jacob fled into exile where he lived for about 20 years. During that time, God blessed Jacob with wives and children and servants and wealth. And as Jacob matured, he realized he must face his brother Esau. He decided to return home—not knowing if Esau would offer mercy or retribution.

Genesis 32:22-32
22 During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two servant wives, and his eleven sons and crossed the Jabbok River with them. 23 After taking them to the other side, he sent over all his possessions.
24 This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. 25 When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 “What is your name?” the man asked.
He replied, “Jacob.”
28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.”
29 “Please tell me your name,” Jacob said.
“Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” 31 The sun was rising as Jacob left Peniel, and he was limping because of the injury to his hip. 32 (Even today the people of Israel don’t eat the tendon near the hip socket because of what happened that night when the man strained the tendon of Jacob’s hip.)

            Jacob wrestled with God all night long. He was battered and bruised; his hip was torn out of socket and yet Jacob managed to hold onto God until God gave Jacob a blessing. The story reminds me of how we wrestle with God in prayer and the way it changes us, our circumstances, and—most importantly—how it draws us into God’s embrace.

Prayer Changes Us.
            Most people think of prayer as a way for us to ask God to change something. We ask Him to heal people who are sick. We ask Him to comfort those who’ve lost loved ones.  We ask Him to help us through difficult circumstance or for wisdom for tough decisions. This is called intercessory prayer and it is an important part of prayer, but it is not the whole of prayer or even the most important part of prayer.
            Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, once said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” 
            If we think of prayer in a spiritual sense as wrestling with God the way Jacob wrestled with God, what do we find? We find we are changed through prayer.  In the Bible story, Jacob was forever changed. His hip was torn out of socket. The Bible tells us he limped away from the scene. The encounter with God changed Jacob’s body.
            We also see that Jacob got a new name. He was no longer the “heel grabber” (which is what the name Jacob means); now he is Israel (the man who fights with God and men and overcomes). The encounter with God changed the core of who Jacob was.
            We also see Jacob received a blessing. We don’t know what the blessing was, but perhaps it was the encounter itself. From this day forward, Jacob need fear no man. He has wrestled with God, face to face, and won. Furthermore, the very holiness of God had rubbed off on Jacob.
            Prayer changes us. It changes our attitudes. It changes our thinking. It changes our spirit. It changes our mind. Sometimes, it even changes us physically. (Your knees might get a lot stronger if you are constantly kneeling in prayer!)
            William Law, a noted Anglican priest, once said, “There is nothing that makes us love a man so much as praying for him.”  You see, when you pray for someone, they may not change at all, but how you see them will definitely change. You will change and sometimes that is all that is needed.
Prayer Changes Our Circumstance
            Prayer definitely can change us, but sometimes God change our situation when we pray.  Sometimes, God heals people who are sick because we pray.  Sometimes, God provides wisdom to make a tough decision because we pray.  Sometimes, God makes a problem go away because we pray.
            Back at the beginning of August, I realized I needed to delegate some important ministry responsibilities at the church to other capable people. I had been doing these tasks out of necessity, but now it was time to give the responsibilities to others.  Two responsibilities in particular were taking up time that I needed to devote in other areas—leading the praise band and coordinating the sack lunch program. I began to pray that God would provide the right people to lead these ministries; and I prayed they would say yes as soon as I asked them. Within two weeks God answered my prayers for both and changed my situation.
            One day, God nudged me and said, “You know, Susan Cooksey would be the perfect person to coordinate that sack lunch program. She loves kids, loves teachers, and has been really committed to packing sack lunches over the last year. And she’s smart! She knows how to do this and could do a much better job than you’ve been able to do.” So I asked Susan and she didn’t even hesitate. She said, “Yes,” and jumped right in. It’s been going so well. She’s even figured out a few ways we can encourage the teachers with special gifts throughout the year.
            The other answered prayer, was that David Crawford agreed to lead the praise band and he’s been doing a great job! You might not realize how much work goes into the praise band. We rehearse about 5 hours for every one-hour service we lead. But David probably puts in several more hours than that picking out music, coordinating rehearsals, and handling technical stuff. He does a fine job and he was an answer to my prayers in August!
            John Wesley said, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” A shocking statistic was shared at the OneCry Revival in September. It was said that the average American Christian spends less than two minutes per day in prayer. Two minutes. Does that sound off?  How much do you pray?
            I do know this: in just about any given church, the prayer meeting is the least attended service. You may find 150 people in worship, but only 4 or 5 will come to prayer meeting.  (By the way, we have a prayer meeting at at Pleasant Grove UMC at 9:00 AM every Sunday. I would like you to join us. And I have a special introductory offer for you. Try it for one month, free!)  I wonder how many blessings we miss out on, how much trouble we have to face, how much more difficult life is simply because we do not pray for God to change our circumstances?  So pray!

Prayer Draws Us Into God’s Embrace
            Wrestling is an intimate sport. It’s very real, very humbling, very personal.  It’s honest. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, what rank you are, what championship titles you’ve won. When you are grappling with another person, all that stuff goes out the window. All that matters is what works, what doesn’t, and who submits their opponent.  And it is very humbling when someone with less experience or who is smaller or weaker beats you—as sometimes will happen.
            Wrestling is very humbling. It’s hard to be dignified when you are straining with all your might to grapple another human being. Your legs and arms are all tangled up; your bodies are pressed together; you sweat all over each other. You know how that person smells, whether they took a bath or washed their clothes—and they know it all about you too.
            And I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Pastors get gas just like everybody else. And sometimes, when your wife cooked tacos for dinner, and then you go to jiu-jitsu and start fighting for your life with another person who is grabbing you and pressing down on top of you with all their weight. And you are straining with all your might not to get choked or arm-barred or crushed to death… Let’s just say, things slip out… And you can’t always control when it happens or the volume at which it happens… So you just have to let go of your dignity.
            Now, when we come to church, we try real hard to maintain our dignity. We dress up nice; we watch what we say, how we act, what kind of “image” we present. Maybe we should be less concerned about all those things. Maybe we should take off our masks and just be who we are.
            In prayer, it’s much like Jacob wrestling with God. It’s not about being dignified. It’s about letting it all hang out in a no holds barred grappling match with God. Pour your heart out to God in prayer. Don’t worry about “keeping up appearances;” God already knows everything about you anyway. Just concentrate on going after God with all you’ve got!
            Do you realize the privilege of prayer? Of wrestling with God in an embrace so intimate you can smell Him, taste Him, feel Him embracing you?  Do you realize how that encounter can change you? To have the sacredness of our Holy God rubbing off on you as your arms and legs and body entangle with the Divine and God struggles to wrestle sinful behaviors, attitudes, and ideas from your soul? When we pray to God, really pray, it draws us into His most intimate embrace.
Prayer is your way to wrestle with God like Jacob wrestled with God.  Through prayer, God changes us, changes our circumstances, and draws closer to Him.  I hope you will make prayer a top priority of your life.  What do you need to pray about?  Who do you need pray for?
I would like to invite you to write a prayer to God now.  Would you share a prayer in the comment section below?  Simply write a prayer about whatever is on your heart.  Pray for your family, your community, your church, your pastor, your children, whatever.  God will hear you and change you, maybe even change your situation, but He will definitely draw you into a closer relationship with Him when you pray.

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