Sunday, October 16, 2016

The world thinks you're crazy? Christ vindicates the faithful

Luke 18:1-8
Imagine this scenario. A man, insisting on his innocence, is convicted of a terrible crime and put in prison for decades. A group of law students becomes interested in his case and, employing DNA evidence not available at the time of the trial as well as finding other evidence the man’s defense attorney never used, prove that the convicted man is innocent. TV cameras and reporters wait outside the prison walls as the man is set free. “How do you feel?” they ask. “I’m sad that I can never get all those lost years back,” he says, “but I’m thankful to finally be vindicated.”

Vindication. When we know that we’re innocent or that we’ve been violated, but justice finally comes, or when we see the things we believe in are prone true, vindication is sweet.

In the passage in Luke that comes before today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says that those who have trusted in Him, who have followed Him, and allowed His Word to reign with authority over our lives and have endured the rejection or dismissal or even persecution of others for our faith in Him, will be vindicated. We are justified.

Jesus says there that the vindication of our faith in Him, rejected by a cynical and sinful world, will come when He returns to bring judgment on those covered in sin and vindication to those who, by their faith, are covered by His grace.

“I tell you,” Jesus says, “on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” [Luke 17:34-35] Many Christians get this wrong, by the way. The ones taken away are, in fact, the ones facing judgment and hell; it’s the ones “left behind” who will remain with Jesus in His eternal kingdom! They will be vindicated for staying faithful to Him.

Jesus continues the vindication theme in our Gospel lesson for today, Luke 18:1-8. It begins: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”’”

Now, there are several things it’s important to remember as we dig into Jesus’ words.

First, in first century Judea, widows were in a tenuous position. They weren’t supposed to have any property and women generally had no rights. If a woman was wronged, she was completely at the mercy of a society in which a woman’s testimony was inadmissible in court.

Second, Old Testament law made it clear that God expected His people to care for widows, as well as orphans, the poor, and strangers (what we would today call immigrants). [Maybe, a better word would be refugees.] But first century Judea didn’t like talking about God’s Law when it was uncomfortable. (They're not very different from us, are they?)

Third, in the first century world, there was no distinction between civil and criminal law. In our country, we have agencies like police departments to gather evidence and seek indictments against people who have committed crimes. Then we have prosecuting attorneys to prosecute crimes. In first century Judea though, if a member of your family was murdered, the job of finding and seeking a conviction against the murderer was yours. There were no law enforcement officials, no professional prosecutors.

That’s the situation in which the widow in Jesus’ parable, a woman likely penniless and certainly powerless, finds herself as she seeks vindication. We don’t know what the crime was that had been committed against her. (Although the judge seems to acknowledge that she was in the right.) But we do know that the deck is stacked against her because the judge to which she makes her constant petitions didn’t care about God or about the opinions of others. Jesus’ original hearers, knowing how the world usually worked, undoubtedly thought as Jesus began His parable, that the widow and her cause were toast!

Go back to the lesson, please, starting at verse 4: “For some time he [the judge] refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

The word translated here as attack me, in the Greek in which Luke originally wrote the Gospel, is the verb, ὑπωπιάζω. It means, literally, strike under the eye. The judge was worried that the widow would give him a black eye. That phrase could be, just like today, used both literally or figuratively. The judge is worried that this widow who keeps bothering him, seeking vindication day after day after day, will give him the black eye of a bad reputation.

He’d been careful to conceal the fact that he was a cynic and a sinner who loved neither God or people. But this relentless woman could ruin everything for him. Because she was so incessant, her story was bound to come out. The town would know that she had been wronged and that the judge had refused to do anything for her. So, the judge thinks, “Enough, already! I will see that this irksome petitioner gets justice!”

Of course, this is where people most often misunderstand this parable. They think that God is the unjust judge and that, if we want to get Him to do what we want Him to do, we have to wear Him out with our praying. In this interpretation of the parable, God becomes a surly call center operator who gives us blessings because we keep pestering Him. I hope that, from what you know of the God we meet in Jesus Christ, that picture of God doesn’t seem right.

Jesus sets us straight on this. Verse 6: “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.”

Jesus is saying that God is nothing like that unjust judge! The judge finally vindicated the widow against his will. But God, our Father in heaven, wants to vindicate us. He wants to demonstrate to us that we haven’t been crazy to trust in Him, that He is the God Who gives life, forgiveness, purpose, and peace to all who put their trust in His Son, Jesus.

When life seems to have gone dry...when hope seems hard to find...when relationships become challenging...when the world seems to make a mockery of our faith, we can cry out to God and He will fill us with the power of His Holy Spirit, the strength of His love, the assurance of His presence. We will know our faith isn’t for nothing. We will be vindicated!

Through Jesus, the promise given to ancient Israel is also for we who confess that Jesus is our Lord and God: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” [Deuteronomy 31:6]

In Matthew 28:20, Jesus underscores this promise for we disciples: “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”

Some read this passage and think that it means if we pray for a new Lamborghini--I saw one parked by Five Guys a few weeks ago--God will give it to us.

God does provide for our daily bread, of course. Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread to acknowledge Him as the giver of everything we need to live.

And God does entrust some people with greater wealth...along with the high obligations associated with being a wealthy person who has the ability to care for so many of his or her neighbors on this planet.

But remember that in this parable, Jesus is talking about praying for the vindication of our faith in Him.

Today, in the United States, it’s become increasingly fashionable to ignorantly dismiss the existence of God, the deity of Jesus, His resurrection, or the justification of sinners by the grace of God through faith in Jesus. “Where is God in the midst of all of the world’s sufferings and injustices?” they ask.

The answer: He’s where He’s always been, with those who trust in Him. He’s with us when we go through the cross experiences of our lives, having gone through His own cross for us. And He’s with us when our faith sustains and inspires us to lives filled with His love and, powered by His Holy Spirit, we share the Good News of Jesus, making disciples in His name.

As the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “we live by faith, not by sight.” But when Jesus returns, when He calls us out of our graves and says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father…” [Matthew 25:34], we will, like the widow in Jesus’ parable, be fully, eternally, perfectly vindicated in our faith. He will give us the justice not that we deserve, because that would mean death and eternal condemnation. He instead will give us--is giving us even now as we trust in Him--the justice of God’s grace: forgiveness, life, and love we don’t deserve and could never earn, but that God gives freely to all who follow Jesus.

All of which leads to the question Jesus asks at the end of the parable today: “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

We are all, of course, sinners. We fall short of the glory God intended for us to live in as creatures made in His image.

If we were to be tried for sin by God, the righteous Judge, no amount of evidence could disprove our guilt. The conviction rate would be 100% and our lives would bear witness against us.

Only our faith in Jesus, the Son of Man, can vindicate us, can justify us.

So, in response to Jesus' question here, I give you this exhortation, this encouragement: Pray each day that the Holy Spirit, the author of faith in Jesus Christ who plants it in the hearts and the lives of sinners willing to believe, will fill you with faith and with the assurance that, despite your mistakes, sins, and failings, God loves you with an infinite love and declares you free to live in His grace for all eternity.

God wants to vindicate you in this way, quickly, now, always. Amen

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