By this time in the season of Advent we are ready to get on with the celebrations. We’ve heard the Christmas music all around us for weeks, some of us have already exchanged some gifts, and been to some holiday parties, and now the snow is here. It’s been hard enough to slow down in church the first couple of weeks, keep the baby out of the manger and the wise men out of view when they are already all together on the town commons. We’ve been patiently lighting penitential purple candles and last week worship led us to think about obedience of all things. At least this week many churches light the pink candle, a little foretaste of the joy of Christmas morning, remembering Mary’s joy when she found out she was expecting the Savior. Can’t we just move into singing the Christmas carols already?
If this is how we’re feeling the reading from James may seem unwelcome. “Be patient like a farmer.” “Do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” As an example of suffering and patience look to the prophets, have the endurance of Job!” What? Job the longsuffering whiner? Dusty old prophets? Where is the Christmas cheer?
The words of James call us to slow down a little, if not stop in our tracks. They have surely convicted me. I’m guilty of a fair amount of grumbling and impatience these days. And actually the word used here for grumbling is really a sound, an unpleasant whine – the kind that seems to escalate in our children this time of year.
As much as the media presents the whole month of December as a joyous “Festivus,” and we’re supposed to be running around being jolly –fa la la la la, most of us catch ourselves falling into a bad mood; perhaps from lack of sleep; maybe we don’t have enough money to buy the presents we’d like to buy; perhaps because it’s dark when we leave the house for the day, and dark before we get home for supper; perhaps because the expectations of “the holidays” always far exceed what we can really accomplish. The idyllic pictures of holiday time spent with loved ones can easily remind us of broken relationships and loss in our own lives. It is easy to feel sorrowful, irritable, and impatient this time of year; and such feelings lead us to grumble and whine and complain.
What are we to do with these feelings in a season when we are supposed to be moving closer to salvation? The theme of Walking to Bethlehem this season invites “the redeemed of the Lord” to move closer to Zion, to joyfully anticipate the coming of Christ’s full reign that will make the dry land glad and the deserts rejoice. The sorrow and the sighing are supposed to flee away. If we find ourselves still grumbling and impatient we might start to wonder whether we belong in Isaiah’s parade. Can you be counted as one of the redeemed of the Lord? Can I? Or are we sitting on the side of the road watching them go. After all, Isaiah says the unclean shall not travel the Holy Way. If we find ourselves sorrowful, impatient and irritable can we hope to reach salvation?
Today we are invited to stop and wrestle with these feelings for a while. Will you pray with me?
Lord Christ, we come before you today feeling conflicted. We want to celebrate Christmas, we want to join the multitude streaming to your light. We want to be among those whose lives, like Mary’s, magnify your goodness. But we confess we don’t always feel it. We live with pain and loss. We are impatient and grumble and whine. Our hearts, like the Grinch, are often a size or two too small. And underneath it all we wonder if we are even worthy of your love and salvation, whether we might join “that number” of saints marching to Zion to live forever in your heavenly kingdom. So we pause from our walking to wrestle today and in wrestling may we come to a new place inside of ourselves, a place of patience, of renewed hope and trust and expectancy that you will come more fully into our lives this Advent and Christmas. Amen.
James gives us three examples of patience. James tells us to be patient like a farmer waiting for his crops to grow. Some of us find it easier to be patient with plants, animals or children. It can be therapeutic to get down in the dirt and tend to plants, all the while knowing that the miracle of their growth is beyond our control. We can be patient with our pets, because we know they rely on us for their well-being. I am usually much more patient with children than with adults – I give kids a break because they just don’t know better, and some things take a lot of repetition to learn. The trick is to have that same kind of patience with our peers, and perhaps with ourselves. The second example James offers are the prophets. “They put up with anything, went through everything and never once quit, all the time honoring God.” I’m not sure how helpful this example is. When I am inpatient and grumbling the prophets don’t feel like attainable models. James’ third example is the long-suffering Job, who complained loud and long to God. But though he complained, and put God to the test, Job didn’t give up. More importantly Job didn’t just talk about God, Job talked to God, believing that God hears human requests and responds.
Charles Wesley would likely add Jacob as another example of patience. You remember Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, younger twin of Esau. Jacob was not patient in his young life, finagling and conniving to take away his brother’s birthright and blessing. He lied to his father and made Esau so angry he vowed revenge on Jacob. So Jacob fled, hiding out with his uncle in a far away land, unable to benefit from the inheritance of the land that he stole. After more adventures with two wives, two concubines and twelve sons Jacob felt called to return home, not without a little fear. As they got close they came to a brook. Feeling nervous, wondering if Esau was still furious, Jacob sent lots of presents on ahead, then he ordered all his wives and children to cross the river. And then he was alone, reflecting on his past sins and the misery he had caused his family and himself. And then a strange man appears from nowhere and the two begin to wrestle. In the end the opponent gives Jacob a new name, Israel, and he is convinced that the opponent is the “Lord”, saying I have seen God face to face. Jacob is also wounded in the contest and continues the journey with a limp.
Charles Wesley starts his masterful hymn with Jacob alone by the river. It was originally called Wrestling Jacob. Turn to number 387 and you can see all 14 verses. In this hymn Charles Wesley presents to us another example of patience in the image of wrestling.
Wesley puts himself, or anyone singing it, as Jacob. “Come, O thou Traveler unknown whom still I hold, but cannot see! My company before is gone, and I am left alone with the; with thee all night I mean to stay and wrestle till the break of day.” Who is this unknown traveler? The question of identity is the heart of the song, though we get hints right away that it is Jesus. See verse 2 ‘look on thy hands and read it there.” Still Jacob pleads “But who, I ask thee, who art thou? Tell me thy name, and tell me now.”
The full hymn really gives us the full sense of the wrestling. Verses 3, 4 and 5 all declare, “wrestling, I will not let thee go till I thy name, thy nature know.” Even if the Lord struggles to get free, wrestling Jacob will be patient. He will not let go. “In vain thou strugglest to get free, I never will unloose my hold.” “Tell me your new unutterable name, I am resolved to know it.” Then verse 6 What though my shrinking flesh complain and murmur to contend so long? I rise superior to my pain: when I am weak then I am strong, and when my all of strength shall fail I shall with the God-man prevail.”
Finally Jacob begins to guess his opponent’s name. “all helplessness, all weakness I on thee alone for strength depend; nor have I power from thee to move: thy nature, and thy name is Love.”
My strength is gone, my nature dies; I sink beneath they weighty hand,
faint to revive, and fall to rise, I fall and yet by faith I stand: I stand \
and will not let thee go till I thy name, thy nature know.
Yield to me now – for I am weak but confident in self-despair!
Speak to my heart, in blessing speak Be conquered by my instant prayer
Speak or though never hence shalt move And tell me if they name is Love.
And then the climax of the hymn
Tis love! Tis Love! Thou diedst for me I hear thy whisper in my heart
The morning breaks, the shadows flee pure Universal Love thou art
To me, to all thy mercies move – thy nature and thy name is Love
The image of wrestling is so helpful because it not only requires patience to stick it out when wrestling, but the closeness of the two opponents is such that it’s hard to tell them apart. Hands and heads, necks and thighs all jumbled together and contorted. In the Hebrew version of the actual story in Genesis the narrative seems to intentionally blur the two. This is symbolic of wrestling with God to know who God is. When we get close enough to God to wrestle our own identity comes into question as well. And what a joyous revelation! Jacob of Wesley’s hymn discovers that in learning Jesus Christ is Love, he also becomes clear that he, Jacob, is the beloved. Jacob is jubilant. In spite of my sin and misery “Thou diest for me.” At this the morning breaks, the shadows flee and Jacob is ready to keep walking, unafraid.
Like Job, Jacob shows us that we are not meant to just talk about the Lord. The Lord is someone we can talk to, someone who will respond, even if we don’t always understand the response. And Jacob gets even closer to the Lord than Job by wrestling with him. Having the patience and endurance to wrestle with God, in spite of pain, leads Jacob to a full understanding that the Lord’s name and nature are Love, and he is God’s beloved.
Having this experiential faith is the heart of Methodism. The work that John and Charles Wesley started in England, and that spread here to North America was the work of preaching and exhorting in a way that people became awake to the living God who has come to bless and to save. The early Methodist preachers gathered an audience anywhere they could, in the market places, by the frog pond of Boston Common, in Elephalet Smith’s home here in South Walpole and awakened in the people a yearning to be among the redeemed, returning to Zion’s with singing, and everlasting joy upon their heads. The Methodist preaching and exhortations set many thousands to wrestling with God, wondering like the Jacob in Charles Wesley’s hymn who they were in relation to Jesus Christ. That even as they knew themselves as feeble sinners, they could know Jesus as their friend. The Loved and the Beloved held in everlasting embrace.
Having such a powerful personal experience of God’s love didn’t happen privately. Indeed, my dissertation is all about the ways in which the Methodist communities of believers pressed and encouraged each member, and scores of people not yet part of their class meetings or societies forward along the way of salvation. As one scholar of early Methodism wrote, the communal experience of God’s grace led to renewed piety and an increased zeal channeled into ministering to those who had yet to experience grace. You see, once a person really experiences him or herself as God’s beloved, everything changes. We can try to do better, be better all we want on our own. Not much changes. But when you and I experience ourselves as God’s beloved then the fruits of the spirit grow and flourish in each of us and among us. When we truly come to know the patience of God with us, which far exceeds the patience of Job, then we become more patient. When we accept really and truly that the living Lord Jesus Christ loves us, not just because the “bible tells me so” but because we have felt that love, then we will naturally be much better at loving others. Yes, we are walking toward Bethlehem, making an effort to move toward salvation. But the good news of Christmas is that while we are on the road, even while we are getting tired, impatient and starting to grumble, Jesus Christ comes to meet us, to wrestle with us and change us. When we patiently engage in the wrestling and refuse to let go until we are blessed, we will come to know ourselves as God’s beloved.
To truly walk in love this season, we need to know ourselves as beloved And that is the question we are left with. Are we sorrowing? Are we grumbling and impatient? Are we failing in any aspect of our lives to reflect the pure, bright light of Christ? Then we need to stop and do some wrestling. We need to offer ourselves to God in prayer, and hold on tight until we get our blessing.
 The Message
 Lester Ruth A Little Heaven Below p. 165