Monday, October 22, 2007

Persistent Faith

Persistent Faith
Luke 18:1-8
October 21, 2007
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: The number of words we employ in our prayers are not the measure of adequacy of our prayers. On the contrary, Jesus teaches us that it is persistence, patience, and faithfulness in prayer are the essential elements.

Sermon Function: To teach listeners about the faithfulness inherent in prayer, and that persistence, patience, and faithfulness are marks of our faith and hope that all our prayers will ultimately be answered – even if we must wait to the end of all things for the answer.

[Click to Show/Hide Sermon Text]


Sara and I just returned from Mission, Texas, where our presbytery, Mission Presbytery, just completed a two-day regular stated meeting. New candidates for ministry were examined. Presbytery committees made their reports. An overture to the General Assembly was presented. And, most importantly, there was corporate worship and fellowship amongst the Elder and Pastor commissioners and visitors.

Our two-day meeting came on the heels of what has been a very busy week for me. On Tuesday, I spoke at a meeting of the Presbytery Women of First Presbyterian Church, Corpus Christi. The next day, I have a similar take at a “Discipleship U” event at Jackson Woods Presbyterian Church. And this weekend, I’m glad to say the Presbytery meeting was punctuated with a lot of prayer.

It was, then, very serendipitous that this week’s scripture text deals specifically with prayer, and the nature of our prayer. As I read the text, I invite you all to reflect on your own prayer life. What is your preferred means of praying? Is it praying in silence? Or in song? Whatever it is, I invite you to think for just a moment about that before I read the scripture text for today.

Let us now listen to God’s word to us.

[Read Scripture - Luke 18:1-8]

Opening Illustration

In my life, I have frequently struggled with instances where I have perceived that God has not responded to my prayers. Why should this be the case? Many of us take very seriously the notion that God hears our prayers, or we wouldn’t bother praying at all. I also take seriously the invitation to prayer offered to us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as recorded in Luke and Matthew, and alluded to also in John’s Gospel. Luke records Jesus saying the following:
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10 NRSV)
These words have been repeated so often that we take them for granted and put God in a box, the one where God becomes a Santa Claus of sorts. And when we reduce the words of our prayers to a wish list, we have reduced who God is. We do this as sinful people, because we want to worship a God that wants what we want, or who at least wants to give us what we want.

So, what is the deal with prayer? How is it best offered? How does it “work?” Is there some magic to it? Or is there something else about prayer that we should be attending to? Our story helps us greatly to understand the nature and character of our prayers.

The Nature of Prayer

The best way to approach today’s text, I think, is not with an overabundance of illustrations, but head on, verse by verse.

The first verse of our text gives us the explanation for why Jesus told this parable.

First, we have a need to pray. The Greek infinitive verb here could also be translated as necessity, and I think what is actually being said is here is a combination of the two words. We have a compulsion, a need, to pray, borne out of our created existences and sons and daughters of God. I think if you reflect on your prayer lives, you might actually be surprised at how often we to pray. Sometimes the prayer will come to us in what would otherwise be understood as a pretty average moment. “Good Lord, help this line to move faster.” Simple prayers asked for simple things out of the anxiety of the moment. We seem to be pre-programmed for prayer. Prayers bubble up in us in the late hours of the evening as we drift off to bed. And prayer is there in the morning when we starting thinking about all those tasks and chores that must be completed after we get out of bed. We have a compulsive need to pray. And yes, atheist friends, I know you do it do, even if you won’t admit it, because I know that prayer is part of our human programming.

As are also advised by our text “not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). I have a tough time with that one, particularly in the moment when it seems obvious that the prayer “didn’t take.” “O Lord, please help focus my mind on this calculus exam, even though I know I haven’t studied at all, I know that by your grace you will impart the portion of your divine brilliance that will see me through this day. I’m counting on you God. Amen.”

If you’re like me, those prayers to get answered, and the answer usually comes as a sweet whisper from the Holy Spirit, “You are unprepared.”

So, we know we have this built in programming to pray, and that causes us to pray even at times when we don’t even realize it. We are also called to not lose heart, a phrase that obviously refers to those times when the response to our prayer isn’t what we’d hoped for.

The Widow

Not losing heart is really what this parable is about. To illustrate this, Jesus tells the story of a widow who keeps approaching a judge and asking for justice.

The judge, we learn, “neither feared God nor had respect for people” (Luke 18:2). The judge cared for nothing but, perhaps, himself as his position as judge. We unfortunately are familiar with such characters, those who, in the pursuit of power, end up caring about only the perseverance of that power.

Obviously, the judge in our story is being portrayed here as a sinful human, and not like the God we know as the One who delivers just judgment (a topic we discussed several weeks ago when we were studying the prophet Jeremiah).

The widow states her case, “Vindicate me against my adversary.” And he initially refuses.

The widow’s plea is a plea for justice, justice from an adversary who was likely preying on her because she is a widow. Widows had to be protected against exploitation and were particularly venerable to abuse because they had no family to uphold their cause. For us, the widow represents anyone who, by virtue of their social status, is subject to being abused by those who are more powerful.

We live in solidarity with the widow. We, too, suffer injustice. And we see others suffer injustice. We cry out for relief. Anyone who has been sick will tell you of the times that they have prayed for healing. Sometimes the healing comes, sometimes it does not. And when this happens, our faith is directly challenged. Is God really listening to me? Doesn’t he care about what is happening to me? Perhaps, Lord, I’ve brought this evil upon myself. Perhaps in my sin I caused this to happen. We continue to pray for answers, hoping that our faith will ultimately bear fruit, and we will receive our answer.

The Hope of the Text

And that is precisely the hope of this story that Jesus has told.

The widow persists in her prayer to have an injustice alleviated by one who has the power to do so.

The judge responds to the widow’s repeated entreaties for relief:
‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (Luke 18:4-5 NRSV)
This is actually a humorous passage to read in the Greek, because what the judge is really worried about is that “in the end, she might ὑπωπιάζω me with her continual coming.” That Greek word is actually a compound of two other words that allude to getting a black eye. The point is this is one persistent widow! I’m reminded of that old Ruth Buzzi character in the 70s comedy variety show “Laugh In” named Gladys Ormphby, who would use her purse to wallop anyone who might take advantage of her.1

We are to be persistent in our prayers, all the way to the end of things, if necessary.

The Nature of Persistence and Prayerful Waiting

Luke likely may have recounted this particular story to give comfort because of the concerns of early Christians about the perceived delay in Christ’s return. We, too, are concerned about God’s perceived delay in answering the prayers that he promised in other places to answer. Why might that be the case?

About a year and a half ago I read an engaging book by James Emery White called “The Prayer God Longs For.” The book is actually a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, but White touches on a few other things as well. What is interesting about the Lord’s Prayer is that we are persistent in praying the words that Jesus taught us. We pray them every week in worship, and many of us pray them at home and at work. We pray even as we wait for the petitions of the prayer to be realized:

"Thy kingdom come…"

"Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…"

We continue to wait patiently for the Lord to come and bring forth a complete restoration of all creation, and the resurrection of the dead.

White has this to say about persistent prayer:
“The importance of praying in the realization that we pray to the God in heaven is not related to whether or not he responds in the way would most desire; the importance of praying to God in heaven is related to the faith that this is a God who can and does act. And that is the point.”2
We pray to the God who can and does act. And when God does not respond the way we think God should, we need to ask ourselves a few questions.

First, we should ask ourselves if the prayer we hope will be answered was something offered with pure intentions. Sometimes it pays to ask the question: “Is this really what I want and need?” The famous theologian Garth Brooks once said “sometimes God’s greatest gift is unanswered prayer.” But I wonder instead if God actually does answer, but the answer is, in fact, “no” or “not yet.”3

Second, I wonder if we sometimes truly understand what we are praying for. If, for example, we pray for healing, what kind of healing might we mean? And are we open minded enough to believe that the healing God might bring to us may not be the healing we originally thought we needed?

Third, do we listen in our prayers? I know I’m guilty of this. I’m probably able to deliver long prayer soliloquies in par with something William Shakespeare might right, but then I never leave room to listen for God’s response. Do we miss things that God tells us, just because we’re distracted? I think that does happen, and we ought to be on guard to make sure that we listen when we pray.

And finally, our text today makes it clear that we might just have to wait in faith for the answer to our prayers.
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:6-8 NRSV)
If the judge who delays justice to the widow can eventually be persuaded, how much more can we expect our loving, sovereign, and just God to come to our aid when we pray! But if God tarries for our sake, will we remain persistent? Persistent even until Jesus returns? Faith is persistence, and faith, as we have seen, can give us persistence to cry out to God for justice all the way to the end of things, when justice will be just, full, and complete forevermore.

Thank God for the gift of prayer, which gives us the opportunity to speak with God. Thank God for the gift of Jesus Christ, who teaches us how to pray properly and persistently, so that our intentions in prayer might be more refined, and so that we might be able to discern God’s just will for us in our lives. Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who sustains us when God, for our sake, tarries with His response to our prayer, and gives us faith that will sustain our persistence right up to the end, when Christ will come.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1A decent overview of Buzzi’s career can be found at Wikipedia here.

2White, James Emery. The Prayer God Longs For. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005, p. 33.