Home » Sermons » Old Testament » Jeremiah » TO WRESTLE AND TO DANCE




Jeremiah 31:2-3    Exodus 15:13-21     Romans 8:31-39     Luke 15:25-32


1]         “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”, exults the apostle Paul at the climax of his weightiest theological treatise, “nothing.”   The apostle does not say this lightly.  He is painfully aware of what seems to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, what aims at separating us.  Certainly it often leaves us feeling that we have been separated.  “It” can be any one of the deadly things which afflict us, some of which Paul lists: distress, persecution, homelessness, war, hunger, relentless danger. I understand why he says these appear to drive a wedge between us and God’s love. Who among us wouldn’t feel (at least occasionally feel) separated from God’s love if we were homeless, or hungry, or disease-ridden?  Nonetheless, it is the apostle’s conviction that God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord is so relentless, so penetrating, that laser-like it gets through to us and sustains us regardless of what is coming down on top of us. More than sustain us, it can even get us to sing and dance and rejoice.

There is one ground for all of this, and one ground only: Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.  Because he has, his triumph can never be undone.  Death could not crush him ultimately.  The strong love of God which raised him from the dead has made you and me beneficiaries of the same strong love.  This love is strong enough to get past and overturn whatever jars us, creeps up on us, or threatens to crumble us.

For this reason scripture insists that God’s people are always rendered able to dance. God’s people have already tasted a deliverance fashioned through God’s triumph. Then of course we shall dance. The psalmist says of the worshippers in the temple, “Let them praise God’s name with dancing, making melody to him with timbrel and lyre”.         As Miriam and her women-friends looked back on their people’s deliverance through the Red Sea , Miriam led her friends in dancing, exulting, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously”. When the Ark of the Covenant, signifying God’s presence, was wrested out of the hands of the Philistines and returned to Jerusalem , David “danced before the Lord with all his might”.  I often imagine Israel ’s greatest king, outfitted in his regal splendour, cavorting in utter unself-consciousness: he didn’t know how he looked, and he didn’t care. After all, if you are going to dance with all your might, you can’t care how you look.  When God’s people are impelled to dance, self-consciousness gives way to new awareness of God’s triumph and God’s deliverance.


2]         And yet God’s people don’t merely dance.   We also struggle. We have to contend. We even have to fight. In one of his last writings Paul says pithily, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”         It’s plain that we “keep the faith” only as we also “fight the fight”. There is a fight we have to fight if we are genuinely possessed of faith in God.

Why? Because God fights too. God fights in advance of us. God fights for us. The people of Israel are on their way out of slavery in Egypt when they look up and see Pharaoh’s forces close behind.  They begin to panic and shout at Moses, “Have you brought us out to die in the wilderness? We told you back in Egypt that we would rather be slaves to the Egyptians than die in the wilderness.” Moses replies, “Fear not. See the salvation of the Lord. God will fight for us. So hold your peace.”

Most people maintain that they are afraid of fighting, and therefore they avoid fights. I think, however, that people are not afraid of fighting; they are afraid of losing. And not merely afraid of losing; they are afraid of being licked; and having been licked, they are afraid of being humiliated.  What we really fear, at bottom, is devastating defeat which leaves us publicly humiliated. This is what we actually fear when we say we are afraid of fighting. If we knew that ultimately we couldn’t be defeated at all, let alone licked; if we knew that so far from being humiliated we should one day be vindicated, then we would rise to fight as God’s people are called to do.

As a matter of fact God’s people are called to wrestle and to dance at the same time.  We are called to wrestle in a way we shall discuss in a moment; we are called to dance inasmuch as we are the beneficiaries of God’s triumph and have tasted that love from which none of our struggles can separate us. Then dance we shall.

It’s obvious, isn’t it, from what I said a minute ago that we fight properly and fight persistently only as we first dance and continue to dance. We can contend where we should contend only as we are first soaked in God’s strong love and continue to be soaked in it.

If we attempted to wrestle only, we should soon become grim, then exhausted, and finally despairing. But if God’s triumph and God’s love surround us and seep into us, we shall keep on contending without succumbing to futility or frenzy.


3]         As a pastor it is my privilege to be nourished constantly by people who wrestle and dance every day.  At one time I sat on the Board of Directors of the Peel Mental Health Housing Coalition. (The PMHHC seeks to find or construct accommodation for chronically mentally ill adults.) One of our board-members was also a consumer of our services; that is, she was afflicted with schizophrenia herself.  One of her worst episodes overtook her while she was worshipping in church. The police had to be called to remove her from the service.  Her illness follows a pattern: she is fine for several months, and then psychotic, hallucinatory, hospitalized for four or five months, and then better again. Yet she does not hide in false shame, does not give up but rather speaks to community groups when she is well. Recently she was honoured for her community work by means of an award conferred through the Canadian Mental Health Association.  She wrestles without quitting, but also without falling into “poor meism” or “why meism?” or raging resentment at those of us whose good fortune it would be so easy for her to envy and resent.

Several years ago a man fell in love with her.   He knew of her condition. There were no secrets. Yet he loved her, and they decided to marry. A psychiatrist from the local hospital carefully explained to the fellow what schizophrenia is, how bizarrely schizophrenic people think and behave, how frequent the episodes are, the nature of treatment required, and so on. The man took it all in and said he loved this woman and would cherish her, illness and all. They married.

Now what we can understand with our head (understand entirely with our head) we cannot anticipate at all in our heart.  And so when my friend’s illness overtook her again, her husband was aghast. He thought he had come to terms with it; and so he had, at the level of thought.  When it happened, however, it was something else.   Now he had to wrestle — with himself, with her illness, with the commitment he had made to her. The two of them have been married for several years now, and they wrestle conjointly. Courage.  Resilience. Persistence.  But no whining. Their attitude to it all is, “Why should we surrender to this intruder?  Why should we cower before or step around this usurper?”

In their attitude they remind me of young David (he was only a teenager) in his encounter with Goliath.         David comes down from tending sheep in the hills only to find the men of Israel drooping. The so-called men of valour are fearful, dispirited, licked.  What chance would any of them have against the seven-foot Goliath? David looks around him and says, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”         “Who is this self-important bully?   Why do you allow this ungodly ruffian to deflect you from what God has appointed you to do?” We all know the rest of the story.

As a pastor I marvel at the courage and persistence I see in people every day. The person with severe arthritis: getting up a step of eight inches is like climbing Everest. But these people do it, don’t they. My physician in New Brunswick had five children and a wife who was incurably incapacitated through neurological disease. He had a large practice to maintain, five children to sort out, a wife whose condition was heartbreaking. Still he was diligent in his work, patient with people who complained petulantly of minor matters, eager to spend fifteen minutes with me (after he had diagnosed my bladder infection) telling me that there weren’t twenty-five hours in the day and the sooner I grasped this the sooner I’d recover. In it all he remained ardently, gloriously life-affirming. “I will fight for you”, says the Lord God to the people of Israel , “I will fight for you.” That doesn’t mean that we can now do nothing; it means that our doing, our fighting, will never be in vain. And therefore we do not give up.

Never. Even if the struggle is fierce. In his first letter to the congregation in Corinth Paul writes, “I fought with beasts at Ephesus ”. The Greek word he uses for “fight” means to be engaged in gladiatorial combat.  But Paul was a Roman citizen, and no citizen could be forced into gladiatorial combat. Clearly he is using the word metaphorically.         “I fought with beasts at Ephesus .” He means that he wrestled there with opponents who were bent on submerging the gospel.  Plainly the struggle was intense; and initially, at least, he seemed to have no chance of succeeding.         Yet wrestle he had to and so wrestle he did.

Make no mistake. To speak of wrestling with beasts is no exaggeration.  On one occasion a twenty-six year old man came to see me.  He had just been released from an alcohol-treatment centre; was now working part-time (thirty hours per week) for $8 per hour; had been to prison several times for breaking-and-entering and theft.  He hated prison, simply hated it, and had been badly beaten during his last imprisonment. He sat in my office and told me with transparent genuineness how fierce a struggle it is for him to stay on the street.  He told me that when he gets “down” on himself and loses his confidence and resilience and hope; when he gets “down” on himself what bubbles up is what has been ingrained in him for years and is now second nature: theft. Minutes before he dropped in to talk with me he was walking past the church in Mississauga, hungry, when he looked through the glass front doors, saw the baskets of food the congregation had collected for the food bank, and immediately wondered how he was going to steal it. Finally he walked around to the back door of the church (it was open) and sat in the choir room until I returned from lunch.  “You don’t have to steal food here”, I told him; “we will give you food.” I gave him what was in the baskets. You and I have no idea how fierce the struggle is for this young man; how fierce it is, and what will surely befall him if he ever gives up the struggle. “I fought with beasts at Ephesus ”. Some people fight with beasts in Schomberg.

Few people in this service, if any, struggle with criminality.  Our areas of wrestling are different.  In some cases it is an “Achilles Heel” which arose through psychological wounding incurred who knows how and who knows when.         Yet wrestle we must, for not to wrestle would be to spend the rest of our lives looking like David’s countrymen who resembled whipped dogs in allowing an uncircumcised Philistine to defy the armies of the living God. Or we wrestle with a besetting temptation which has harried us for years.  Capitulation would be sin; we know this, and know that our capitulation would be without excuse.  And of course capitulation would mean more sin.

At the end of the day Paul says we wrestle not against flesh and blood; that is, we don’t wrestle against merely human adversaries. All wrestling, finally, is spiritual conflict. And so it is all the more important to know that God will fight for us.


4]         Yet wrestling isn’t the only thing we do.  We dance as well. There is celebration of little victories gained already and greater victories to come; celebration above all of him who fights for us and never forsakes us. I am moved every time I read Jeremiah’s joyful exclamation at God’s faithfulness and God’s never-failing love.  Listen to the prophet:

Thus says the Lord:

“The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued

my faithfulness to you.

Again you shall adorn yourself with timbrels, and shall go forth

in the dance of the merrymakers.”

Listen again to the very first line of Jeremiah’s exclamation: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness”.  To be alive, to be functioning at all, is to have survived the sword in some sense. So you and I have survived the sword. It is certainly better than not having survived it, but it still sounds bleak. Jeremiah tells us, however, there is also grace in whatever wilderness we happen to inhabit. We don’t all inhabit the same wilderness; but we do inhabit a wilderness of some kind, even a wilderness peculiar to us. Yet it is in the wilderness that grace is promised us and grace is found.

Why is there grace in the wilderness?   How does there come to be grace in the wilderness?   The prophet again: “(Says the Lord) “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”           The bottom line is this: “Again you shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.”


There is one thing I want for myself above everything else.  I want my demeanour, my appearance, my body-language; I want my uncontrived face and physique to exude one message: there is always grace in the wilderness, and because there is, anyone at all may join in the dance of the merrymakers.


                                                                            Rev.Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                 

July 2006