Perseverance is a gift from God given at the end, and only at the end, to those who are faithful in Jesus Christ. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with an angel of the Lord at Jabbok, and Jacob persists throughout the fight, even when he is injured, unfairly, it seems, by the angel. But it is only at the end of the match that Jacob receives the gift of perseverance, when the angel of the Lord yields to Jacob and grants him his request. Then, at the end, the angel blesses Jacob with the gift of perseverance.
In the same way, in Jesus’s parable of the unjust judge, a woman persists in her quest for justice. But perseverance comes for her only when the judge grants her request. If she had given up, of course, the woman never would have received the justice she was owed, and so she would not have persevered to the end. And if Jacob had given up, say, when the angel touched his hip, Jacob would not have received his new name, Israel, would not have received the Lord’s blessing, and so he would not have persevered to the end.
Perseverance is not just a gift we receive from God at the end of things; it is the last gift, the final gift we receive, at the end. At the very end. In a sense, then, Jacob at Peniel and the persistent woman in the parable only receive a small taste, an appetizer, of the gift of perseverance, because they continue to live past the point of receiving what each had sought from the angel of the Lord and from the unjust judge. True perseverance, the fullest version of this last gift, is given to us by God at death or, as Jesus says, whenever the Son of Man comes and finds faith on the earth. Either we have been faithful to the very end, and we receive the gift, or somewhere along the way we falter, and the gift passes us by.
As Christians we are baptized into God’s new creation; we are made part of a story in which the main character is the Persevering One himself: Jesus Christ. In Luke 18, our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus is nearing the end of his earthly ministry. Jerusalem, the temple, and the cross beckon from just around the corner, so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it is precisely at this point in his life that Jesus tells a parable about not losing heart, about the “need to pray always” and not give up. This is a hard demand, of course, and few of us have the strength of Jacob or the endurance of the woman in Christ’s parable. In fact, we know that in just a few chapters none of Jesus’s own disciples will demonstrate anything like persistence in the face of the hardship of seeing Jesus arrested in Gethsemane. In Luke’s gospel, only the women from Galilee have the fortitude and stamina to remain with Jesus until his end on the cross. When the Son of Man comes, he finds faithfulness in the women of the earth.
Because we belong to Jesus Christ, who is the One Who Perseveres to the End, when we stumble in our own persistence, when we falter in our faithfulness, we are not just written off and cast aside. Perseverance is God’s final gift to those who are faithful in Jesus Christ, but faithfulness itself is also a gift. We do not depend on our own righteousness, on our own strength, or on our own ability to navigate through the turmoil of difficult circumstances. We rely on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ; we depend on his strength to bear us in times of trial. Indeed, when we start to rely on our own strength, we undermine our very ability to persist. This is grace, and life in Jesus is grace all the way down. There is no firm foundation other than grace; there is no rock to stand upon other than the Rock of Jesus Christ. Trusting in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is the only way to persist in prayer; it is the only way for us to be found faithful when the Son of Man comes.
This is the glory, even the miracle, of grace: grace sets us free from our sin and from ourselves. Grace liberates us from our own weaknesses and frailty, so that we can, by the grace of God, become participants in a different strength, a different power: the power and strength that show themselves in weakness. The weakness of Jacob after being injured by the angel, the disadvantage of the woman before a powerful judge: these are exactly the moments when the power of God shines through most brightly. These are the moments when grace prevails.
Sadly, our tendency in our weakness is to behave like wounded tigers and fight all the harder, relying all the more upon our failing strength. And so right now we see so-called evangelical leaders, wounded by dashed hopes and idolatrous dreams, snarling on behalf of a man with no virtue, no truthfulness, no shame, no regard for God or human beings, because they are afraid of their own weakness and do not have the faith to trust in the strength of Christ. And so in our own lives, when prayers go unanswered and happiness thwarted, we tremble at the exposure of our weaknesses and turn to things that feed the lie we want to believe: you are strong on your own; you need no one but yourself. We turn to our wealth, to our material possessions, to our status as leaders in church or business or society, to substances legal and illegal, even to indifference to ourselves and to the world around us, all to be reassured of a strength that only holds us back from trusting in Christ alone.
True perseverance, however, does not look like a prizefighter standing proud at the end of his championship match. No. It looks like a man limping away from the angel of the Lord. It looks like a woman who wins over a judge, not because the judge has become just but because he thinks the woman is annoying. True perseverance looks like Jesus Christ, nailed to a tree and pierced in his side, a mocking crown of thorns on his head.
Today Christ invites us to share in his faithfulness. “Will anyone be found faithful on earth?” he asks. This is his invitation, to become full participants in the story of the One Who Persevered to the End. Do not give up in the face of mounting hardships. Do not fall back on your strength out of fear for your weakness. Persist in the faithfulness you have received by grace. But learn from your persistence itself that you belong to the story of Jesus Christ, in which divine grace, not human strength, prevails (paraphrasing Augustine, The Gift of Perseverance). As Andrew called us last week, dare to trust, not in your weakness, but through your weakness to the God whose strength is revealed, foolishly to us, in the death of his Son Jesus Christ.
The gift of perseverance is reserved for the end, but along our journey through this life, God, in his grace, grants us gift upon gift to prepare us for that final gift. Receive the gifts of God, given for us, the people of God, and be thankful. Persist in gratitude and faith to the end, and you will persevere.