[This message was shared during both worship services at Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio.]
To begin this morning, I’d like to ask you to pull out one of the pew Bibles and turn to the first two verses of Psalm 13. There, King David writes: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?”
Have you been there?
Do you go through times in your life--maybe you’re going through such a time right now--when it feels like your prayers aren’t being heard, that they climb as high as the ceiling of the room in which you pray, then come crashing down again?
Do you suspect hat God doesn’t hear?
Or maybe even that God doesn’t care?
That prayer isn’t your thing?
That there’s no point in praying again today about the same things you feel prayed for with no result on the day before, or the month before, or the year before that?
Jesus has important words for you (and for me) today. Please go to our Gospel lesson, Luke 18:1-8. You can find it in the bulletin or in the pew Bibles. (Incidentally, if you need a Bible, feel free to take the one you’ve just grabbed home with you to keep.)
Verse 1: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”
That word, then, is important. It alerts us to the fact that what’s about to follow in the text is related to what came just before it.
If you scan the passage just before our Gospel lesson, you’ll see that Jesus was talking about the day of His return, when He will “judge the living and the dead.” It will be a great day for those who have turned from sin and trusted in Him for forgiveness and eternally new lives.
But it's a day that will come without warning. Jesus is saying that we need to be prepared for His return. And we prepare for His return by turning to Him in faith each day, confessing our sins, receiving His forgiveness, and seeking His will.
Jesus says all this for two reasons.
First, to help us to understand the urgency of heeding His call to “repent and believe” that “God so loved the world He gave His only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him may not perish [as all who refuse Jesus’ offer of new life will] but have everlasting life” with God.
And second, to help His Church--you and me--understand how urgent it is for us to be about the great commission He has given to us, to make disciples, to reach into the Church and to reach out to the world to help people know the crucified and risen Jesus!
It’s so easy in this world to lose our urgency about following or sharing Christ.
It isn’t just life’s tragedies that challenge our faith and cause us to give up on prayerful reliance on God.
It’s also the sheer volume of stuff we are called upon to accomplish each week; we get so caught up in minutiae that we give up on praying.
Instead, we take the weight of the world onto our own shoulders.
That, folks, is a prescription for eternal disaster.
We won’t be saved by how much or how often we pray, of course. Salvation from sin and death are gifts from a gracious God to all who believe in Jesus. But if we forget to pray, whether by deliberate decision or by the constant undertow of daily work and daily cares, we will also soon forget Jesus.
We will forget to trust in Him.
We will lose our faith.
That’s why Jesus tells this parable, to encourage us “to always pray and not give up.”
Look at verse 2, please: “[Jesus] said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men.’”
Jesus' fictional judge was living in a way totally opposed to the will of God.
In one of his most important insights, Martin Luther talked about how God’s Ten Commandments are divided into two tables--two sections. The first three commandments--the first table of God’s Law--address our relationship with God. The fourth through tenth commandments--the second table of the Law--address our relationship with other people. Jesus summarized the two tables once. Quoting from two passages of the Old Testament, Jesus said that God’s will for humanity, His great commandment, is that we love God with all of our heart, mind, and strength and that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The judge was living deep in sin, out of fellowship with God and with others.
In verse 3, Jesus continues the parable: “And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'”
Widows were at the bottom of the social ladder in first century Judea where Jesus lived. They had no legal rights at all, not even rights to the properties of their dead husbands.
That’s why the widow of this parable is so remarkable!
It was a bold and audacious thing for her to plead her case before a judge.
Since we know that in this parable, Jesus is talking about prayer, let me ask you a question you might want to think about this coming week: How bold, how audacious are you in your prayer life? Are you willing to be incessant in your prayer life?
The thing that’s important here is that this widow did not give up. She was certain that her cause was right, of course. But she was also sure that only this judge had the power to give her justice.
Listen: We never have prayed until we do so knowing the only One Who can render the help we need is God Himself.
My favorite book on prayer, as many of you will come to know, is called Prayer. It was written by the Norwegian Lutheran pastor and theologian of the last century, Ole Hallesby.
Hallesby said that there are two essential elements to prayer. Without these two elements, the words we may call prayer aren’t prayer at all. Those two elements are faith and helplessness. This widow was helpless. That’s why she kept going to the judge. She also trusted that only the judge, despite, his corruption, could give her justice.
When we believe in God and know that we are helpless without Him, then we will pray and not give up in our praying.
Verses 4 and 5: “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"
The corrupt judge was worn down by this woman’s persistent petitions.
But beware, this is the most dangerous part of the parable. If we ignore what Jesus says next in explanation of the parable, we will miss the whole point.
Verses 6, 7, and the first part of verse 8: “And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”
God will vindicate our trust in Him, by responding to our prayers, sometimes in ways and at times we may not expect.
Now, the takeaway from this parable isn’t that God is just like the unjust judge. You don’t have to keep pounding at the gates of heaven in order to get God’s attention!
He knows the number of hairs on your head. (Or the number of hairs you used to have on your head, anyway.)
He cares about every moment of our lives.
Never doubt that the God Who gave you the gift of life, then took on human flesh so that He could give up His own life on the cross and rise from the tomb to give new and everlasting life to all who believe in Jesus, cares about you.
God does care about you.
God truly is in love with you.
He wants what is best for you.
So, He wants to hear from you.
God will not put you off.
But there will often be times when God will expect us to persist in prayer.
Let me tell you a story from my own experience. Years ago, there was an element in my own life which I was sure was not as it should be. I asked God to change the situation.
I prayed about it, offering the same basic petition night and day, for thirteen years.
Nothing seemed to change.
Still, as I read God’s Word and as I waited for God in silence, I saw no reason to stop praying this same petition.
I had no sense that God was telling me to stop praying about this matter, the way He once told the apostle Paul to stop a particular prayer request he had. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that after he had prayed three times that a “thorn in the flesh”--some painful circumstance in Paul’s life that he never identifies--be removed from his life, he sensed God telling him, “No, Paul. I won’t remove this harsh reality from your life. My grace, the grace that saves sinners from their sin and from its consequence, death, is sufficient. My grace is all you need.”
I was willing to accept that sort of answer from God. It wasn’t the answer I wanted, but I would have accepted it.
But I got no answer. So, I kept praying.
And then, amazingly, after thirteen years, out of the blue, the answer came.
It happened in ways I never could have imagined nor foreseen.
Here’s the lesson I learned from that experience--a lesson I try to remember, but often forget: God delays the answers to many of our prayers so that when the answers come, there will be no doubt about Who answered those prayers.
God wants us to come to the ends of ourselves, the ends of our resourcefulness, of our wills, and realize that, as the New Testament says, “every good and perfect gift” comes from God alone. God calls us to persistence in prayer so that, in the face of life’s challenges, our faith will grow.
Saint Augustine put it this way back in the fourth century: “Faith pours out prayer, and the pouring out of prayer obtains the strengthening of faith...”
I can’t explain why God doesn’t answer some of our prayers--like our prayers for loved ones or friends suffering from some chronic or terminal disease, or our prayers that marriages be saved, or those for a new job or admission to the college of our dreams. I will not be so flippant as to say I understand the mysteries of God. I don’t. (Though I do know that the God Who suffered and died on a cross understands every pain we endure, even the pain of death.)
But I do know this: To live life with any joy or hope or staying power, we need faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. And to have faith in Jesus--the kind of faith that saves us to live with God now and in eternity, we need to practice persistent, dependent prayer.
We lay everything at the feet of Jesus--our sins, our arrogance, our hopes, our past, present, and future, our fears--and through constant prayer, we learn to truly pray and live the hardest petition Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.”
And so, Jesus says at the end of our lesson: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
Wherever Jesus finds people who pray with persistent faith and persistent helplessness--persistent desperation--for Him and His will, He will find faith. It is in people who pray like this even today that He finds faith.
May He find and keep building that kind of faith in you and me. Amen