The film ‘Monty Python Live AT the Hollywood Bowl” starts with a sketch in which one of the python crew send up big time wrestling by getting into the ring and wrestling himself. He circles round the ring looking for a opening to get a good hold on himself. He links hands in one of those tests of strength with himself. He gets himself in a headlock, breaks out of it, and slams his own head against the turnbuckle… Finally he gets himself in a complicated leg lock and is forced to tap out and is declared to be the winner and also losses to himself. (watch it for yourself)
As I watched this sketch I couldn’t help but think of the deeper spiritual and philosophical implications of people wrestling with themselves. Paul in Romans talks about the war that goes on within, when he talks about his new nature and his old nature wrestling with each other. He does things that he doses not want to do because the two natures are at war with each other. You get the feeling as you read through Psalm 22 that in the midst of his troubles that David is also wrestling within himself. Between despondency and despair as he looks at the trouble he is in and hope and faith as he remembers God’s faithfulness in the past and acknowledges God’s ability to save him in the situation he finds himself in. Maybe even beyond that he is wrestling with God as well. We often think of seeking God as the quite pastime, a quite meditation by a beautiful stream or quite lake. Maybe we equate it with people who talk… slowly… and… thoughtfully… and… are… very intense, but in scripture we often see people seeking God in the midst of difficulties and suffering and it has the quality of wrestling of grappling of struggling to come to terms with what they know of God and what they are experiencing in life.
As we lead into Easter we are reflecting on Psalm 22, a poem and prayer that David wrote a thousand years before Christ. A poem that encapsulates the real depth of suffering that we can experience in life and even in the light of that a real gutsy trust in God to be with him and save him. It’s more than just a poem because as with scripture it has the breath print of God’s spirit on it as well and prophetically points to the suffering that the Messiah would go through. David’s son like David was not exempt from pain and sorrow in fact as the book of Isaiah calls the suffering servant he was a man of sorrows. Jesus himself would use his dying breath to gasp out the first line of this prayer on the cross. Again not a cry of despair in his final hour but like this poem an identifying with the suffering of humanity and a trust in a God who at the moment may seem distant but who through his saving acts would see people from all nations and peoples come to know God though Jesus Christ.
At the heart of our faith the thing that makes it unique is that God is a personal God. When we say that we mean God is knowable, we were created for and saved into a relationship with God. A relationship which is robust and like any love relationship is able to withstand the wrestling and struggling of the soul. We have a God who doesn’t want obedient robots who will go “yes God” and do his bidding no matter what but God enjoys a relationship with us in the midst of our ups, when we feel like a teenager in love and all giddy like we are drunk on the Holy Spirit’s presence, and in the midst of the hard times in life when we feel abandoned or our souls fire the real deep questions or real deep hurts at the heavens. When we cry “oh come on God where are you”. I want to look at that from the experience of three biblical characters.
The first is Abraham. Abraham is held up to us in the book of Hebrews as a hero of the faith. By faith he leaves all he knows in his home town and becomes a wanderer, trusting in God that he will have decedents even though he has no children and he’s getting on in life, a promised land, even though he doesn’t end up owning anything except the land where he is buried and that he will be blessed and be a blessing to the nations. He follows God. When God tells him that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham plea-bargains with God for the lives of the people in the city. He wrestles with God and in that wrestling learns more about the goodness and grace of God as the numbers of good people in the cities that would cause God to spear them falls lower and lower.
It is a surprise then that when Abraham faces the greatest challenge in his life that he is silent before God. He hears God ask him if he will take Issac and sacrifice him. This passage is one of the most disturbing parts of scripture. Abraham makes Isaac walk three days to the mountain carrying the wood and after they have built an altar puts Isaac on it and raises his hand to kill him. It is only the intervention of an angel that stops him and God provides a ram to take Isaac’s place.
Jews and Christians have viewed this scripture as the greatest test that Isaac has to face and when it comes to Obedience he does well. However maybe that wasn’t the test that Abraham was being asked to pass. God knew that Abraham had faith, great faith, leave it all behind faith. Rather it was a test of relationship, after all Abraham knew of God and God’s goodness was Abraham going to see God as simply like all the other god’s round about who called for a child sacrifice. Abraham could have wrestled with God like he did at Sodom and Gomorrah, But he didn’t. It says in the Genesis narrative that for three days as he walked to the mountain that he had his head down and he was silent. Maybe the test was not would he do it but did he know God enough to know that God wasn’t like that. That God was different from all those other gods of the people round him.
It’s interesting to note that it was an angel not God himself who intervened with Isaac. That after this part of the story we do not have another instance where God speaks with Abraham. Abraham goes home alone and we don’t have a time when Isaac and Abraham actually talk face to face again. It says that Sarah died after this and you can imagine her heart breaking when Abraham comes home and tells her what he has almost done. He blew the relationship test.
The second person is David himself. David is known as a man after God’s heart. It doesn’t stop him from stuffing up and making errors in his life and he doesn’t seem to be the greatest person when it comes to family relationships either. However as we read Psalm 22 through you get the feeling that he knows God well enough to be prepared to wrestle with him. He expresses both hope in God but also a feeling of overwhelming abandonment in the face of trouble. You get the feeling that he is trying to bargain with God. God come and save me from these bulls that roar like lions these Dogs and wild animals and I will tell of your praises in the gathering of your people. Come on God spare my life and people in many lands and nations will hear and come to praise you. I know you God you are good and righteous and able to help me in this trouble. Don’t be too far off God now would be a good time.
Despite the agony of the situation and the questions and doubts it flicks up there is a hope and an affirmation that God is able to save him: A faith that he will continue to declare God’s goodness. If this is a test of relationship, David does not let go of the God who will not let him go. He has a faith that will not resign itself to disbelieving God’s goodness. God is able to and willing to rescue him. God is for his people. God is still good and great even though it seems like he is going to be torn to bits by these wild animals. In the end we know that God did lead David through many of his troubles. He didn’t lead a charmed or totally sorrow free life but that God was with him.
The third person we want to look at is Jesus. In Luke 22:39-46 Jesus praying wrestling with God in the garden of Gethsemane. The fact that Jesus had the words of Psalm 22 on his lips may have shown that he knew something of the suffering that was before him. We see him in the garden come before God and it tells us that he was distressed that his sweat was like blood on the ground. His prayer is “father if its possible take this cup from me.” Or “If there is any other way we haven’t thought of father.” As a human being Jesus would have wrestled with the suffering and sorrow he was about to endure, Jesus didn’t simply accept it like a masochist, pain was not his thing. He had to wrestle with God to make sure he had heard right. That he was indeed doing the right thing. The relationship he had with God was such that he could still call God that most intimate of names ‘abba’ (father), as he enters into a debate, a wrestling with God. He knew God well enough to know that the questions and the doubts and the dread of suffering were not going to destroy the relationship. But in the end after being strengthened by an angel he was able to say “not my will but yours be done”. He had come to trust God. Maybe the words of Psalm 22 were again part of that strengthening as they were brought to mind. That because of God’s saving action and that people would hear of it in every nation and people that he could trust God for what was to come. AS Hebrews 12 tells us for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.