Faithful Conversations                           Gen. 32:22-30

Proper 24 Pent 19C                             October 16, 2022,                        St. John, New Orleans

The little girl was with her grandmother Christmas shopping when they spotted a nativity scene at the mall. 

Sensing a teachable moment, she said to her granddaughter, 

“you know how we start and end our prayers with the name of Jesus? 

Well, this nativity reminds us to give thanks to God for giving him to us at Christmas.” 

The little girl was quiet for a moment and then her brow furrowed. 

Her grandmother asked her what was the matter? The little girl said, 

“well, we spend all this time praying to Jesus about all sorts of things and wait for something to happen, 

yet I went and talked to Santa just once last year 

and got everything I wanted, and on the day I wanted it. For Christmas! 

Santa must be a better listener I guess.”

We chuckle, but all too often people equate prayer to some sort of spiritual gift-giving service. 

We place our order and expect two-day delivery. 

We know what we want, and we expect it to happen. 

Even if it's not material things we treat God like an ATM with no limit. 

Fill me up Lord. 

Heal my soul, Lord. 

Comfort my sorrow, Lord.

And in the gospel, Jesus certainly does make the point that we should ask him for things. 

Not only does he give permission, but he tells us to be bold about it, and to do it frequently. 

Because if even an unrighteous judge will relent and give in, 

surely God, who is holy, will do what is right for us.

 So, when I criticize us for asking God for favors, 

it's not necessarily the subject matter of the prayers that is bad, 

it is the motivation, approach, or expectation which can be less than gracious on our behalf.

In the Old Testament lesson, Jacob is physically wrestling with God in the form of a man. 

He did not seek out the man. 

Jacob was evidently challenged by him, and Jacob took up the challenge. 

And he continued to wrestle with him till morning. 

But at Daybreak the man sought to end the fight. 

Sensing he was someone important, perhaps even divine, 

Jacob asks for a blessing before the man parts. 

So, the man says, “you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and prevailed.”

It's a curious little sidebar in the book of Genesis. 

Not only does it establish for us how the descendants of Jacob became Israelites, 

but it tells us something about how God forms us through our interactions with him. 

Jacob, who tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance, 

was known for his craftiness and getting what he wanted. 

But, when he had to deal with God directly, he discovered that nothing was automatic. 

The fact that he survived the encounter speaks to God's love for him, 

and the fact that God allowed the wrestling match to last all night displayed his admiration for Jacob’s tenacity. 

And when he touched his hip, 

it gave Jacob a permanent reminder of the event 

so that Jacob would not forget it and take for granted God's love for him. 

While God spent all the time with Jacob he wanted, the end result was always up to God. 

Jacob didn’t change a thing by his wrestling, but he came away changed, with a bum-hip.

Lastly, in the epistle, Paul tells Timothy that we can interact with God through scripture. 

Yes, we can ask for our blessing like Jacob, 

and we can beg God for justice as the old woman in the gospel because God promises to hear and answer prayer. 

But God also relishes the dialogue. 

Not just a one-way order or request, but a give and take. 

And through his word we get to hear him weigh in on our requests. 

And the more we are in the word, our prayer becomes more aligned with his will. 

And when we shy away from his word, we don't hear his will. 

Our conversations become whining rants 

and we continue asking for that which the Lord knows is not good for us. 

That is why Paul tells Timothy, and us, 

to rely upon the teachings of Jesus that we know are from God himself 

and let them speak to us as we prayerfully seek his answers.

There are many sermons that could be given on prayer, but today I would like to do so in terms of stewardship. 

Stewardship is the management of all God's gifts in a way that gives him glory. And prayer is definitely a gift.

The fact that we can speak to the creator, Redeemer, and sanctifier ourselves is an amazing thing. 

And that he speaks to us by his word by the power of his Holy Spirit is amazing as well. 

And it is a tragedy that more Christians do not take advantage of this gift. 

In fact, to avoid prayer is, in a way, refusing to care for part of the gifts God has given to you. 

Along with faith in the forgiveness of Jesus itself, 

and the sacraments which seal and continue that forgiveness, 

prayer is the most intimate and personal thing that a human can experience as they are joined with God himself.

So, what do we pray for, or more accurately, how does God want us to wrestle with him? 

There are some things that require absolutely no wrestling, that we should simply accept with Thanksgiving! 

Namely, the grace extended to us by faith, Forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. 

These are given to all who believe and are never in doubt or need for negotiation. 

But what about the rest of our life? 

You and I are free to choose what we do at any given moment.

 While God knows our every move before we make it, he does not make them for us. 

However, if we enter into purposeful conversation with him, we will make different choices than if we were isolated from his influence. 

Therefore, the person who prays in faithful conversation with the Lord, 

hearing his word and heeding his advice, makes better decisions. 

And as a result of their prayer life, not only do they feel better about their decisions, 

but the results are God pleasing and will be blessed by God as well.

Today and for the next few weeks I would like you to wrestle with God about your gifts to his church. 

Remember, he already knows every possibility based upon which decision you make. 

And no matter what decision you make it won't change his will or his ways. 

If he wants St. John to continue and thrive and grow it will happen with or without your gifts. 

But God longs to have the conversation with you so that you can grow closer to him. 

We don't know a person till we get to talk and spend time with them. 

And we don't know how to interact with them until we know their personality quirks and those endearing little oddities about them. 

And time spent in the Word of God alongside our prayers, allows us to do just that with God. 

But before we can decide what portion of blessing to return to the Lord, we need to take stock in what we've been given. 

Each week we do a pretty good job of recounting the spiritual gifts we receive as we gather here to worship. 

But what about the physical, practical, and emotional ways he blesses you? 

As you leave today you will receive a short Bible study to help you process all of these gifts. 

And you'll do that by seeing what the scriptures and the catechism say about our blessings.

You’ll have a chance to categorize them from Needs to Wants to Demands, or Desires if you prefer, 

and then at the end, decide what changes you will make in your life to be a better steward of those gifts. 

Yes, change. That's what we seek in prayer, right?  We pray in hope that God will change our situation.

You don't pray God to give you something you don't need but to give you what you do need. 

You don't ask God to take away the good things you have in life, but the bad. 

So, as we learn to make prayer a two-way conversation, we will realize the change we desire may have to come from within ourselves. 

I may be the problem, and not my enemy. 

I may be standing in the way of God’s will, rather than him thwarting mine. 

I may be withholding something valuable from the body of Christ and the Kingdom of God by my inward focus. 

I may be resisting a change in my attitude which will become a great blessing to me or others.

And the same openness for change must accompany the prayers of the Church.

As we pray for healing, justice, comfort, and relief for others, 

we have to open our hearts to hear how he will do that. 

And be willing to do those things and go places we never thought we would go 

to affect their lives for good. 

As we pray for pastors and teachers in the church (and the LCMS has severe shortage of both), 

we need to ask how we can support those who have heard the call to study in those areas, 

and how we can make these callings more attractive to young people. 

Did you know in a recent poll that most Lutherans say they would discourage their child from entering the ministry?

When asked why, they said they worried they wouldn't make a living wage and that the stress of church politics was too high a cost to pay. 

Lets pray about how we can change those two perceptions and the realities that drive them.

As we pray for our government and its leaders, 

yes, we pray that they would enact laws which would honor God, 

but we also must be willing to stand up and serve and run for office. 

Especially as our nation is no longer a majority Christian nation, 

we cannot assume that all those who run for office know or fear God and his laws. 

And, lastly, as we pray for our congregation, its leaders, and its pastor, 

we are praying that each of us is influenced by and immersed in God's word. 

So that when problems arise, 

we are all conditioned to listen to God for the changes that need to occur so that the challenge can be met. 

But also, so that God's will is done.

Our Congregation is faced with a lot of challenges today, just as it has been for all of its 170 years. 

It would seem, looking back at council meeting and congregational assembly minutes 

that there is always concern when it comes to the budget. 

Yet here we still are. 

We have an aging property 

that needs to have immediate repairs which add up to more than we can imagine, 

yet they’re still very valuable to our ministry. 

We are in a current culture 

in which our young families mostly want nothing to do with our idea of church, 

yet we know that we are called to come together in some way as the people of God 

to pray, praise, and give thanks receiving his Word and Sacrament. 

If we were to rely upon conventional wisdom, 

if I were to put on my MBA hat, 

we would say, “all is lost! Shut her down before the suffering begins.”

But the Church has never faced challenges from an earthly perspective, so neither do we. 

For starters, the church is eternal because it is the body of Christ. 

We can wait out any foe or principality or power. 

Sure, there may be physical and earthly consequences and damage by doing so. 

But the gates of hell will not prevail against us, and our salvation is secure. 

Secondly, as I look at our ministry, we are seeking God's will. 

Our mission is focused on worshipping Jesus, educating people about Jesus, and serving others in the name of Jesus. 

And I'm sure all of us would agree we could do more and do everything better, 

but we certainly strive to remain centered on Christ. 

And, thirdly, the things we battle against aren't earthly, so the solutions shouldn't be either. 

Sin has corrupted every part of this creation 

and it can only be purified by the fire of judgment or reconciliation in Christ. 

Every answer to every problem has a biblical answer found in that forgiveness of Jesus, 

even if the practical execution to that answer is a common earthly solution. 

But we must seek the answer in scripture first before the solution is revealed.

So, I'm sure I’ve given you much to talk about.  If not among yourselves, then with our Lord. 

but as you have these faith-filled discussions, especially with God, 

I pray that you would also be open to listen, and willing to change. 

And that as we are all changed by these conversations with God and one another, 

we will be encouraged in our prayers and thankful in our responses, 

so that all we do would be a benefit to his body the church. 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.