St Michael & St Barnabas, October 20th 2013
You parents know what it’s like … Mum, can I have … please Mum … Mum, I want it, I need it now! Again and again and again … until you snap, ‘Oh all right! Take it, be off with you and give me a moment’s peace.’ Or perhaps your children are a bit older, even grown up and left home, but over time you realise the same request keeps coming up, over and over again over a period of time … and you know they’re not going to stop until they get what they want.
You love them really … but in the end, self-interest takes over and you’ll do anything to shut them and get some peace. Even sometimes against your better judgement. Children know how to get just what they want, eventually. Luke 18:1,
Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up …
If your first reaction to reading this verse is to feel guilty, you are not alone. There are those Christians to whom prayer comes easily, who pray most or all of the time, about everything. I have a confession to make, I’m not one of them. I have been praying for years for God to teach me to pray … but I have a sneaking suspicion he’s leaving it up to me to work it out. For those of us who find prayer a difficult discipline, there’s no easy way out but hard work.
So when we read this first verse it’s easy to feel guilty … guilty about giving up on prayer. Or hopeless about it making any difference whether we pray or not. And if God answers prayer quickly, why do we have to persist? And doesn’t Jesus say something about not being repetitive in prayer?
We’ll come back to those questions in a moment.
But first, even if you’ve never heard the story before, it’s clear that Jesus is creating a contrast between the judge (whom he describes at one point as ‘unjust’) and God … the judge who doesn’t really care about the truth but will do the right thing just because he’s fed up with the widow’s nagging, and God, who quickly does the right thing because he does care both about justice and for his chosen ones.
So immediately when we read this story, we learn something about God, and about his loving care of those he calls his children. God is not the parent who gives in simply from frustration … so why are we commanded to pray as if we were nagging children?
If you have your bible open at this passage, you may notice the word I missed out from the first verse …Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.It’s easy to do … whether we’ve been reading the bible for years or this is the first time, we leap straight into the heart of the parable or passage. But sometimes it’s the little words that make a difference. So perhaps our second lesson this morning should be to read the bible more carefully, so as not to miss anything … and to check that the preacher has done their homework properly!
The opening word, then, then, tells us that this story has a context, an occasion. Jesus told it for a specific purpose. So if we look back for a moment to the previous passage, starting at Luke 17:20, we realise that Jesus is still on message, still answering this question from the Pharisees as to when the Kingdom of God would come. There was, and still is, within the faithful Jewish community, the expectation that one day God will step into history and make things right once and for all. It will be a day of justice and vindication … and the expectation was, as God’s chosen people, that on that day God would bring to an end all their suffering and insignificance and that they would enter a glorious future in the presence of their God … and that everyone else would suffer as a result.
It’s not so far from the truth. It’s just that the Pharisees may be rather surprised by who will be included in the promised heavenly kingdom, and why … not because they have obeyed God’s law in every detail, or because they’re better than their neighbours or were born into a particular nation or tribe, but because they have trusted in Jesus, knowing that none of these things are sufficient to be right with God, and that only by God’s grace and forgiveness offered through the cross can we be part of God’s future plans. That’s the heart of the gospel … it’s the heart of our teaching here at church Sunday by Sunday.
But in the meanwhile, until that day come, those who belong to God are suffering. Now it may be that in this country, in the west in general, our suffering isn’t too painful. We may face ridicule for our faith from time to time, or perhaps we are forced to take a stand over some issue of honesty or integrity. I have a friend who lost his job in the oil industry because he stood up as a Christian against a moral issue in the office where he worked. More widely, there is legislation in the UK that limits our rights as Christians … for example that elevates the rights of equality for those in same sex relationships over the rights of the freedom of religion to speak out against those who disobey God’s laws. You might remember the case of the Christian couple in Cornwall who refused Bed & Breakfast to a cohabiting gay couple. So opposition is there, but it’s covert, hidden. It’s not like that everywhere.
If you follow the news at all, you will have heard of the bombing and firing of churches in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Kenya and Burma … all in recent weeks. This is only the tip of the iceberg … according to a recent report, between 2006 and 2010, Christians faced some form of discrimination and violence in a staggering total of 139 nations … over two thirds of all the countries on earth.
According to another study, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed for witnessing to their faith each year for the past decade. That works out to 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week, every day of the year, for reasons related to their faith.The numbers of people in prison, or made homeless, or who lose their jobs, or who suffer violence because they are Christians is equally stunning.
If you want to read the report or to know more about where these figures come from … take a look at the church website, where I’ve posted links to the report and to some prayer resources.
To come back to the passage then, Jesus has been talking about the time when the Kingdom of God will come, when he, Jesus, will return to bring history to an end and to fulfill all God’s promises to his faithful people, the promise of an end to pain and suffering, the promise of justice for all and of the heavenly kingdom, full of joy and praise for all time. And then he tells this story … of the woman pleading for justice … which ends with another promise, v7,
… 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.
This parable is not about prayer in general, as though one needs to nag God to do the right thing. Elsewhere Jesus said,
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:11)
No, this parable is about how we should spend the time waiting for Jesus’ return … in faithful prayer for God to act, to come quickly, to step in to bring justice to the world, to bring others to faith, for our brothers and sisters who are suffering for their faith … and for as long as it takes for God to work out his rescue plan for the whole of creation. And in the meanwhile, God listens patiently as his children pray through their distress, as he waits for just the right moment to act. And help is on the way …
But that’s not quite the end of the parable, is it? Jesus finishes by saying, v8,
However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
Now this is not the sermon I thought it was going to be when I began to write … I had all sorts of ideas about how to talk about prayer … and although I’m not much of a practitioner of prayer, I have read and studied many books over the years (if you need some titles, ask me afterwards!) … prayer is an exciting, thrilling topic … it’s such a privilege to have access to God in heaven whenever we want … I wanted to encourage you to pray, to pray big prayers, to think about prayer from God’s perspective, to question whether some of the things we pray about are really in line with God’s values and priorities.
Instead, I’ve ended up here … with a call to persistent prayer for the growth and victory of God’s kingdom. It sometimes feels as if that day will never come, but God’s timing is perfect and the wait will prove shorter that it seems from our perspective, once we’re looking back from the perspective of eternity.
And in the meanwhile, how we pray reveals a lot about our true relationship with God … are our prayers focussed on our own immediate needs, and those of our friends and family? Are our prayers almost entirely about our own comfort and interests? That’s not wrong, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples included the line, ‘Give us today our daily bread’. God is concerned for the small details of our daily lives … however, if that’s all we pray about, it may be that we have simply failed to grasp the true extent of God’s love, purpose and power. Jesus didn’t come and serve and die simply in order to build God’s fan club … no, Jesus came to change, to recreate the world. The faith Jesus is hoping to find when he returns, will be a faith that tests God’s power to the limit …
In Ephesians 3:20 Paul wrote,
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!
It’s as if, while he was praying for the church at Ephesus, he suddenly catches a vision of God’s wider purpose … of the extent of God’s love and power, of just how much prayer can achieve. But James wrote, ‘You do not have, because you do not ask’ (James 4:2) In other words, our prayers are the measure of our faith …
However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?