Read on for the sermon and a video of the service.
So today we began our readings from the scriptures with a story about Jacob. Jacob had tricked his poor, stupid first-born brother, Esau, out of his birth-right by getting him to swap Esau’s right as the first-born for a bowl of soup when Esau thought he was really hungry – what use is my birth-right to me if I starve to death was Esau’s thinking.
Then Jacob had tricked his blind dying father, Isaac – who does that! – he tricked dad into giving him the blessing by dressing up and pretending he was Esau…. Dad wanted one last meal made by his favourite son Esau. But mum, Rebekah, whose favourite son was Jacob, she overheard Isaac’s request and went into Esau’s bedroom and picked up Esau’s rugby jersey from when Esau captained that famous team called the Patriarchs and the Patriarchs won against their long-term sporting rivals, the Old Assyrians, in the famous game of 1816 BC.
Rebekah found Esau’s jersey, of course, on the floor. You know that’s where guys keep their clothes, don’t you, it's called a floordrobe. And then she killed a young goat, and put the skin on her favoured son Jacob because, remember Jacob had said to mum: “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a man of smooth skin. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse on myself and not a blessing.’ And Jacob had gone in, dressed up in his sweaty, stinky brother’s rugby jersey, with the stew; and dying, blind Isaac had smelled the rugby jersey and blessed Jacob thinking that he was blessing Esau.
Then Jacob tricked his uncle Laban and ended up with a huge herd. And now in today’s story Jacob is heading back to where Esau is living. And it looks like Esau is out to kill him and all his family. And Jacob is by himself by the river Jabbok. You can imagine his inner dialogue as he looks at his own reflection in the undulating water: I’ve been dishonest with my brother; I’ve been dishonest with my dad; with my uncle; maybe with myself; with my God – and in that wrestling, he encounters God and comes away changed; he comes away limping and with a new name: Israel. Do not be afraid to wrestle with your image of God.
And then we read in our second reading: All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
This is true, but what people too quickly go on to do is turn the Bible into some sort of owner’s manual with complicated, detailed instructions for every possible situation and problem as if each of us is some sort of complex new computer system. And the Bible isn’t a magic cook book as if you don’t follow every detail correctly the pavlova of your life will end up being flat and inedible.
And the Bible isn’t some sort of index for every problem or every moral issue we encounter – you know the sort of people who have a list:
When we open the Bible we are listening in on ancient, timeworn spiritual journeys recorded over a thousand-year period by many different writers, with most of the authors lost in the mists of time – and with many different writing and thinking styles, some of which we will never understand fully.
The Bible is necessary for the life of the church; the Bible is necessary for our Christian life, for you and for me. But, again, people misunderstand and think the Bible is sufficient. The Bible is NOT sufficient for our Christian life. We need a hammer to build a house, but it is a huge mistake when a hammer is the only tool we use. We need other tools to build our house – and those who use the hammer when that’s not what a hammer is for end up in a mess.
We need the Bible to build our Christian life, but it is a huge mistake when the Bible is the only thing we use. We need other things to build our Christian life – and those who use the Bible when that’s not what the Bible is for end up making a mess.
Go back a few verses from what I just quoted about scripture, and Timothy is told: Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering.
Because of the printing press and the internet, we take for granted that you and I read the Bible individually – but that is a very, very new reality. For most of the history of reflecting on these writings, it was done in community – as we do here; now. And it is done in the presence of others: “you have observed their conduct, their aim in life, their faith, their patience, their love”
And as today’s reading begins: continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.
And so we come to Jesus’ parable – of a woman seeking justice from a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. And the woman keeps pleading for justice until the judge gives in.
Most sermons and commentaries instinctively turn the judge into revealing something about God. But the parable couldn’t be clearer the Judge is NOT like God. So preachers say stuff like, if an unjust judge gives in to the unrelenting pleas of the widow, how much more will the God who is just, do so?
But this just highlights our sexist prejudices. Jesus actually has the widow as an image of God. Jesus presents the woman as someone that we need to emulate. We don’t wear God down by nagging – God is SO keen to give good to all, especially the poor and needy.
No. It is the woman who is God-like. It is the woman who doggedly resists injustice, who faces it, who names it, who denounces injustice until what is right is achieved.
The woman may appear weaker than the judge, but remember God is revealed in Jesus helpless before his executioners; God is revealed in Jesus nailed to the wood of the cross, God is revealed in apparent weakness.
You and I who feel weak, you and I who see our own face in the wavy waters of our own Jabbok, you and I who are images of the God that Jesus imaged as a persistent poor widow, can have hope that our constant chipping away at injustice will finally bear fruit.