Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God the Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever felt that there must be something wrong with your faith? I mean, if your faith was perfect you’d be living the good life. Things would be, if not easy, then easier. But, you have strife in your life. You have struggles and hardships. So it must be you who are doing something wrong, right? There is a whole theology with this underpinning of belief, the Theology of Glory. And, it creeps into our thinking. A Theology of Glory is most clearly seen in the Book of Job. Job’s friends are saying that if he wasn’t such a sinner then God wouldn’t be punishing him. So, he just needs to own up to whatever he did! Well, what exactly did Job do? Nothing. At least, nothing to deserve what happened to him. The most extreme form of a Theology of Glory is the Prosperity Gospel. God must make my life great now and if it is not then it is because my faith is weak.
We get trapped into that thinking. “Something must be wrong with my faith. It’s just so difficult. If God loves me so much, why is life so hard?” Somewhere along the way we have learned to associate grace with an experience of ease and faith with a life absent of struggle. When struggle does enter our life, when things do not go as planned, when belief in God does not magically produce the American dream, we begin to question whether or not we truly believe.
This struggle is nothing new. Our Lord himself prepared his disciples for a life- time of struggle. You see it in our Gospel reading, as he encourages them to pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1). You hear it in his offer of rest to those who follow him (Mt 11:30). Faith involves living in a paradox. Following Christ means bearing an easy yoke, carrying a light burden, dying to live, and living in a gracious struggle.
This world’s wisdom says, “Everything comes at a price.” Sometimes, we are tempted to believe that our efforts to follow the way of Jesus, our hours in prayer, our dollars in donation, our years of Bible study, and our lifetime of service somehow earn us the gracious favor of God. “I’ve followed God all my life, why did my spouse die?” “I’ve loved God all my life, why is he keeping me alive when life is so miserable?” “I’ve loved God, why doesn’t He love me?”
In our Old Testament reading, we catch a glimpse of this paradox. Here, we meet Jacob, soon to be named “Israel,” because he strove with God.
In our text, Jacob’s struggle with the man does not earn him God’s blessing. In fact, Jacob has lost everything at this moment. He is left alone on this side of the river (And Jacob was left alone. 32:24); God’s angels who there were there at the beginning of Chapter 32 are gone (32:1–2); his possessions are gone some are sent ahead as a way of earning his brother’s forgiveness and the rest are on the other side of the river (and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau v.13); and his family is gone (The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. v.22-23). Ultimately, the deceit with which he gained his father’s blessing and his uncle’s wealth is gone. With everything lost Jacob finally makes a confession. “Don’t leave, bless me!” He is acknowledging that he has lost everything. So Jacob names himself before God and, in that moment of confession, receives God’s blessing and a new name. So, too, our salvation lies not in our works or our efforts but in the will of God and the work of his only Son, Jesus Christ, who died on our behalf (Jn 1:13 [the children of God], who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.).
Being saved by grace alone can sometimes deceive people into believing that the life of faith is easy. To believe is to be delivered from suffering in this life and to have faith is to name and claim your blessing from God. Go into a book store, go to the Religion/Christianity section and what will you see? “Your Best Life Now,” from Joel Osteen. In preparing for this sermon I went to the website of another Prosperity Gospel preacher: Creflo Dollar. The following is from the website of Creflo Dollar (a Prosperity Gospel preacher):
Jesus is the Apostle and High Priest over my profession, and what I profess is the Word of God concerning favor over my life (Hebrews 3:1).
The Lord helps me to guard the door of my mouth and trains me not to speak against His favor at work in my life (Psalm 141:3,AMP).
I will not allow any corrupt communication to proceed out of my mouth. Instead, I will speak only that which is good, full of grace and edifying to others (Ephesians 4:29).
As the righteousness of God, I declare that I am favorable in God's sight (Job 33:26, AMP; Psalm 5:12; Proverbs 14:9).
Like Joseph, I prosper wherever I go and in every situation I am in because the Lord is always with me. I, too, experience preferential treatment (Genesis 39:1-6, 21).
I am blessed and highly favored (Luke 1:28).
I associate with those who are blessed and highly favored so that I may increase in every area of my life (Genesis 30:27).
I operate in integrity; as a result, I obtain favor from God (Proverbs 11:27; 12:2).
I actively seek and live by God's wisdom; therefore, I am highly favored and esteemed in the sight of God and men (Proverbs 3:1-4; 8:33-35).
I declare that God's favor promotes and causes me to increase daily (Esther 2:17; Psalm 75:6-7).
The Lord takes pleasure in my total life prosperity (Psalm 35:27).
Because I am God's "favorite," I prosper in every area of my life-spiritually, physically, financially, socially and mentally (3 John 2).
Because the favor of God shields me, no sickness or disease has a right to live in my body (Deuteronomy 7:15; Psalm 5:12).
Wealth and riches are in my house because I am empowered with His anointing and favor to draw wealth (Deuteronomy 8:18; Psalm 112:3)
Do you see what he did there? Because I did this, God must do that. God must obey me. I have declared it so by taking His word and divorcing it from the context in which it resides and demanding that it benefit me.
Yet, such was not the life our Lord envisioned as he called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Saved by Christ’s death and resurrection, his followers live not in glory now, but in suffering, carrying the cross. This life of gracious struggle is not new to God’s people. In fact, it lies at the heart of our name, Israel. In our text, Jacob experiences God’s blessing, but only in the midst of great struggle. His vision of God comes slowly, painfully, and mysteriously. After a long night’s struggle, the man who assaulted Jacob is slowly revealed to be more than a man. With a dislocated hip, Jacob painfully holds on, crying out for blessing. Even after God’s blessing, Jacob is named “Israel” and continues to live in a gracious struggle with God. Though Jacob has seen God, God still remains a mystery (Jacob’s request to know his name is never answered) and this God becomes known as the God of Israel, as Jacob builds an altar to the God of those who struggle (33:20).
Struggle and hardship are not proof of an absence or wrongness of faith. Rather, it is the manifestation of an active faith, a life of gracious struggle before God. What, do you think that the devil would make it easy on us? Look at the Saints. Lutherans usually don’t like to mention them. But, our own Confessions (the Book of Concord) holds them up. Not as people to pray to, but, examples of the faith. How many of them had an easy life? A life free from struggle? Or look at Paul: beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, jailed all on account of his faith. He even writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. Be he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
May your struggles point you to the Lord. May you be perfected in your weaknesses, letting the Lord’s grace be sufficient for you. Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
God grant it in Jesus name. Amen.