Well good morning everyone. If you're on our weekly email list you'll have received an email from Ken this week asking you the question – what is it that keeps you from praying? I asked a few folks that question last week and they said: 'Life', 'work stress', 'babies'! I'm sure a few of you can relate to that! Here are some of the other things people said:
- Not feeling close to God
- Thinking I have more important or fun things to be doing
- I'm tired, I can't be bothered
- Forgetting that prayer works and being surprised when prayer is answered
- Unanswered prayers making you think 'what's the point?'
- Tying yourself up in theological knots about God's sovereignty
- Not feeling like it's much of a conversation so not sure how God's answering prayers and feeling like you're just talking one way
- Feeling like we just need to get on and cope rather than taking time to ask God to help
- Having the wrong priorities (very honest)
- Doubts about what God thinks of you
- Exhaustion, being interrupted by small people
- Phones and distractions
- And feeling overwhelmed by what I should be praying for – too many things to pray for
Well I hope today's passage will be helpful for thinking about these things. We're looking at Luke 18.1-8, and it would be great if you could find that in a Bible. And we don't need to guess at what Jesus wants us to take away from this parable today! Take a look at verse 1:
"And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart."
So Jesus tells us this story to encourage us to pray and not lose heart. What's the first thing that tells us? It's that Jesus knows we're going to be tempted to give up and not pray! So let's take a look at what Jesus said. Verse 2:
"He [Jesus] said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, 'Give me justice against my adversary.'"
We don't get a lot of information, but in a short space of time Jesus gives us a memorable picture of two specific characters. Firstly, we have the judge. Back in the Old Testament in 2 Chronicles 19.6, we can find that judges were specifically told "you judge not for man but for the Lord". But not this judge! He doesn't judge by God's standards but by whatever suits him. And he has no need to make just decisions. He doesn't think he'll ever stand before God and have to give an account for what he's done. We also see that he doesn't fear people. He's hard-nosed and strong-willed. He's powerful and strong minded and he doesn't care much what other people think. Not least a defenseless widow… who's our second character.
For the widow, life has been difficult to say the least. If you were here for our sermon series in Ruth it might remind you of Naomi at the start of the book of Ruth. She was also a widow and life had been bitter for her and she says "the Lord has dealt very bitterly with me" (Ruth 1.20). As a widow, not only has the woman lost her husband, but widows were also some of the most defenseless in society at the time. They could easily become victims of injustice. They had no one to stand up for them. And we read later in the book of Luke (Luke 20.47) about men who "devour widow's houses" – they take their property unjustly, but easily. Maybe that's what's happened to this woman; we don't know exactly what it is. But she's been treated badly and she wants justice.
However, with a tough judge like this, it seems unlikely. Her only option is to plead with him. Every day she begs him to help. She confronts him wherever he goes. It's all she can do. But he's not the sort of man who will listen. Every time she comes, he refuses her, and he just doesn't seem to give in or even listen. He's living up to his reputation as not caring for people's needs. And there's no justice. But finally… justice comes. After what seems like an age, the judge finally says to himself, verse 4:
"Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming."
Apparently, the literal translation of 'beat me down' is 'blacken my eye'! She's been punching away at him with her words. And in the end, they get through. The judge knows himself - he knows what he's like - and he says 'even though I don't fear God, she's pestering me so much I'll give her what she wants'. She's worn him down. Maybe he was fed up of hearing it. Maybe it was getting on his nerves. But finally, he brings justice.
So, what's the lesson here? It's a passage that's easy to misunderstand and it's been misunderstood many times. Our initial reaction might be to think that the lesson is this – we as Christians need to constantly be begging God to answer our prayers! But that's to miss the point. And it could lead us down the dangerous road of thinking, wrongly, that the more we pray and the more righteous we are – the more God answers our prayers. But no, you see the point here is the contrast. The huge contrast between both the judge and God, and between us and the widow. Look at how Jesus explains it in verse 6:
"Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?"
Here Jesus compares God to the judge. God is not like this unrighteous judge! God is good and gracious. And we are not like the widow who means nothing to the judge! He probably doesn't even know her name. No, we are God's elect, we've been chosen by him to be called his children. And the point is, if even this unrighteous, stubborn judge will give this nameless widow what she wants, how much more will God look after his children? The Bible tells us that God is good, gracious, merciful, majestic, abounding in love and faithfulness. And his characteristics never change. And that very God chose us before the dawn of time to be part of his family. Not only that, but he loves us so much that he was willing to humble himself, become a man, and die on the cross to save us. And as we look at that picture of who God is, and who we are – do we really need to be banging on God's door, nagging him to respond to us? Should we be like the widow in this parable? No. The right response is to trust him and to have faith – which we express in prayer.
I know I've been going on about it quite a lot of late, but how cute is my little son Ezra! Come on…! I have to admit I'm a totally smitten dad! I love him to bits and I'd do anything for him – in fact, I've already done pretty much anything for him when it comes to his horrendous nappies and vomiting! But imagine Ezra grows up a fair bit, he's a teenager and one day he refuses to eat his dinner unless we let him watch Suits - he's blatantly got a crush on Meghan Markle! But things get worse and he gets more demanding. A few months later, I come in in the evening and find he's taken Maisie our dog hostage. He's holding her in his room until we raise his allowance. He's angry, and his whole attitude just says, 'you don't really love me or care for me. You don't want what's best for me.' And when we refuse to raise his allowance, he just walks out and leaves – says he's going to stay at a friends for a while. What would that say about what he thinks of me as a Dad? It would feel awful that Ezra just sees me as a begrudging father! I'd just wish that he would understand that actually I love him to bits and I'd do anything for him!
What if we treat our heavenly Father like that? Wouldn't that be awful when he's actually good and gracious and is willing to give himself for us? You see, one of the reasons we don't pray is because we can so easily slip into thinking that maybe God is actually a bit like that judge in the parable… He doesn't care about us, he doesn't really listen, and the only way to get through to him is by constantly nagging him. But God is not like that judge. He is the complete contrast of that judge. He loves us and he was willing to go to the cross for us. And so as we pray we can trust his character! We can look at the cross and know that he is for us. He loves us. And he delights to listen to our prayers, like a doting father.
So we're to keep praying, not because we need to get God's attention, or because our prayers will build up and somehow earn us a prize. We keep praying because we know that he cares for us and it's how we express faith in our good God.
The next passage we see in Luke is about genuine faith rather than fake faith. And Jesus teaches that our faith should be like a child - completely trusting in God's character and throwing ourselves on him in everything. And so is that going to be us? Are we going to be people of genuine faith here at St Joseph's? You see, our prayer life is a great barometer of whether we are living by faith isn't it? What's your prayer life like? Are you persisting in prayer? Are we a praying church? Jesus taught we "ought always to pray and not lose heart".
A few quick practical tips to help with that:
- If you're not in the habit of praying – start small, just try and pray for a couple of minutes each morning. Talk to God.
- Make time to pray. Just like anything else, if you don't plan to pray, it won't happen. So block out time in your diary to pray.
- Just pray! Having said that, whenever you remember you should pray, just do it. Maybe it's when you're driving into work and thinking about the day ahead – just pray.
- Don't feel guilty if your prayers aren't good enough. You might be a new Christian and not sure what to pray. You might be struggling to concentrate because there are lots of little kids running around; whatever it is, remember prayer isn't about our performance - it's about us showing that we are trusting our heavenly father for all of life.
- Be thankful. God calls us to be content by remembering the blessings we have as Christians.
- Make a list with different categories. Maybe work outwards from yourself, so family, church, work colleagues, missionaries, world issues, etc. You might want to use a notebook, or some people like to use an app called PrayerMate. I find it helpful to have a list in a note-taking app on my phone like Evernote – but put your phone on flight mode when you're praying so you don't get distracted.
- Pray the word of God. Read the Bible. Think about it. And then pray what God shows you from the word for the people that you are praying for that day.
- Pray with others! I'd encourage you to meet to pray monthly with a couple of good friends. Pray in your midweek groups and pray for your group through the week. Come along to our church family prayer meeting which happens once a month – as Ken said, we have one this Wednesday. Come and join us!
- One to maybe think about if you've got into the swing of praying regularly. Every now and again, just compare your prayers with the prayers of the New Testament – and think, am I missing anything in my prayers?
- Look for answers. Look for answers and take note of them.
Rebecca Manley Pippert, an American Christian author, tells the story of a Christian woman who went to work for a rich American lady, doing cleaning and housework. The lady didn't seem interested in her cleaner's faith at all. But after 10 years, she finally became a Christian through talking to her cleaner. A few years later this rich lady's daughter went off the rails a bit and so she started praying for her… but the daughter didn't seem to change. And so one day she said to her cleaner, 'I've been praying for my daughter and nothing seems to have happened.' And the cleaner replied, how long have you been praying? And the lady said, '3 months'. And the cleaner replied, 'how long do you think I was praying for you to become a Christian? You see, I prayed for you every time I cleaned the house for 10 years.'
Now many of us, probably need to be encouraged to persist in prayer like that lady. Not because we will persuade God, but because we know he cares and he hears us, and we need to learn to trust him and his timing by persisting in prayer. We need to learn to keep praying.
But sometimes we also need to consider whether we're praying for the right things. The widow in the parable earlier was asking for justice - something right and true! And God wants us to be asking for things which are good and godly and true. Sometimes God's silence is a loving no. Or sometimes the request was good but God has a better way – although we might not see it for a long time. And sometimes God's silence is because God knows that we need to learn to depend on him.
But I imagine, there are older Christians here who have been incredibly faithful in persisting in prayer for good things – and let me say well done for persisting. Maybe you've been praying for something for 10 years, and the struggle is that, at times, you haven't seen an answer to your prayers. God seems silent. That takes us back to what Ian said last week, which is very much the context for this passage. Ian told us last week that we are kind of in a limbo land as Christians in 2017. Jesus has come a first time and we're waiting for him to come a second time. And whilst we enjoy some of the blessings of God's kingdom now, we won't enjoy all the blessings until Jesus returns and ushers in God's ultimate kingdom. And so things will be tough at times and not all our prayers will be answered yet. We saw that in last week's passage. Take a look at Luke 17.2. Jesus is talking about his return, and he says to his disciples:
"The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it."
There are going to be days when we just wish Jesus would return and make all things right. Days when we just wish he would stop the suffering or take away death or bring justice. Maybe you've had some of those days recently? Without wanting to be depressing, if you haven't, they will come.
But flick back again to the beginning of chapter 18 and verse 7. You see, God has promised that one day Jesus will return and bring justice and make all things right. Luke 18.7-8:
"…will not God give justice to his elect? ... I tell you he will give justice to them speedily..."
Now that doesn't mean we'll see it straight away. It doesn't mean Jesus is coming back soon – otherwise we wouldn't need to have faith and not lose heart. What it means is that when Jesus does come, it'll happen swiftly and decisively. You won't miss it; it'll be like lightning. When he returns, we'll be vindicated as Christians – people will see the truth about God! Not only that, but there'll be no more pain, no more suffering, no death - none of the things that we so often cry out to God about in our prayers.
And friends, when we at times struggle with unanswered prayer, the delay in Jesus' return is going to seem like a long time. But afterwards, as we look back in the light of eternity, it'll feel very short. We'll be with God forever in his perfect kingdom. And we'll see him face to face. There won't be that distance we feel in our prayers. And so, the big question for us today is the same one it was for the disciples listening to Jesus back then. Look at the end of verse 8, Jesus says:
"…when the Son of Man comes [meaning Jesus], will he find faith on earth?"
The big question is - will we be part of God's kingdom when Jesus returns? Will he find faith at St Joseph's? Will he find genuine faith, expressed through constant prayer, in your heart and in my heart? Trusting God's good character? Trusting him for all of life? Friends, let's keep going and let's learn to pray – so that he does find faith at St Joseph's! Jesus says - always pray and don't lose heart until he comes again.