Faith from unexpected prayers - Luke 18:1-8
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A little boy in Sunday School was once asked to draw the story of the flight into Egypt by Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. The class had been studying the story in Matthew 2 where an angel had told Joseph to take his family from Palestine to Egypt to escape the evil clutches of King Herod. So the little boy got his pen and paper out and very carefully began to draw a picture of a huge aeroplane. Well when the teacher saw this, she asked the boy: "What are you drawing?" Well pointing to the aeroplane and three figures seated in the passenger compartment, he said: "I'm drawing the flight into Egypt." But then noticing a shadowy figure in the cockpit, the teacher again asked the boy: "And who is that in the cockpit?" Getting pretty exasperated by all these annoying questions, he replied somewhat frustratedly: "Well it's obvious isn't it? It's Pontius Pilate!"
Misunderstandings are all too common when it comes to the Christian faith, and perhaps none more so than in the area of prayer. Even for many Christians prayer is something of a mystery, and I would guess that many of us, if not all if we were honest, would say that prayer is a frequent cause of struggle in our Christian lives. Sermons about prayer and books on prayer often leave us feeling guilty and inadequate, partly because often the message we hear is "pray more". So we pray more, but we find it harder than ever. We read another book to help us do it, and that spurs us on for a while, but the same old struggles come back. Prayer is often just hard work for the Christian, however much we might say that knowing God is a joy and privilege. Moreover when we read the stories of Christians of old, they don't really offer up much encouragement. George Whitefield, who went to bed punctually at ten p.m. every night, rose equally promptly at four a.m. in order to pray. And it was Martin Luther who said, 'If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.' Well they may be great men who we have a lot to learn from, yet such examples often leave us feeling woefully inadequate.
But thankfully this evening we are studying a passage in which Jesus has a lot more to teach us than simply pray more. Yes, we will find a serious challenge to pray from Jesus' teaching, but when he gives his challenges he gives very good reasons to follow them up. And actually we will find that Jesus gets right to the heart of why so many of us struggle when it comes to praying. Because Jesus doesn't just beat us with a rod of guilt and say "Pray more", "Do better", "Pull your socks up". Rather Jesus teaches us about the character of God, and he shows us that a proper knowledge of the true and living God will be the best motivation and best reason for us to pray. For when we understand just how good, kind and just our God is, then we will see that prayer becomes, not a doddle, but at the least a joy, a delight and most importantly, as we'll see, a mark of our trust and dependency on him.
But before we turn to see what Jesus has to teach us, we need to make sure we understand the context of where this passage comes, because that will shape our understanding of the passage. Because from 17 v 20 the whole discussion is about the second coming of Jesus. Jesus is being quizzed by some Pharisees about the coming Kingdom of God. They've got their diaries out and they want to know just exactly when this kingdom of God would come, when heaven will come! But Jesus will have none of it. He's not concerned about dates. His concern is to turn the tables and ask them a question. The Pharisees ask: When will the kingdom come? Jesus asks: Are you ready for it when it does come? Because let none of us be in any doubt. Jesus will one day return to rule as God's king, and we need to be ready. On that day, you see, there is going to be complete division in the world. 17 v 34: "I tell you," says Jesus, "On that night two people will be in one bed, one taken, the other left! Two women will be grinding grain together, one taken, the other left." A complete division! Two in the office, two in the classroom, two outside the school gates. One taken, the other left! So the big question, here in this section of Luke is this: Who's in and who's out? Who's going to be taken to heaven with Jesus when He comes, and who's going to be left behind for judgement? It's a vital and urgent question to ask, isn't it? And the whole of Chapter 18 is taken up with Jesus' answer. Jesus is teaching his disciples the marks of being a member of Jesus' kingdom in heaven, the marks of being a Christian. And one answer is in 18 v 1: "Then Jesus told this parable to his disciples, to show them that they should always pray and not give up." That's his point. One of the marks of the Christian waiting for Jesus' return, hoping for heaven, is persistent believing prayer. It's not prayer in itself that makes a Christian distinctive. Everyone prays at some point in their lives, at times of stress and difficulty. It was Norman Schwarzkopf, the General who led Gulf War I, who said: "There are no atheists in a foxhole." Yes, everyone prays. But the mark of the Christian is persistent prayer, someone who prays and does not give up. Because such prayer is a sign of believing faith. So Jesus asks you and me a big question tonight. He asks us: Are we ready for his return? And are we showing it by believing persistent prayer? Because that is the mark of the true disciple. It is the mark someone living in the light of the future return of Jesus. So what does Jesus teach us then? Three things:
1) Understand God's Character
2) Remember Your Status
3) Hear Jesus' Challenge
1) Understand God's Character
So the first lesson is to understand God's character. And Jesus tells a parable to make his point which is that we should always pray and not give up. And this parable is a legal drama. It's the sort of thing the makers of LA Law would love to get their hands on. There are two characters in the story. First there's a judge. Verse 2: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men." This is a judge whose reputation goes before him, because he fails on the two vital ingredients of being a judge. In the OT being a judge meant that you feared God and you loved people. This judge did neither. He neither feared God nor cared about men. In fact even today, behind the bench in a court of law there is a royal crest on the wall with a judicial inscription which reads in French 'Dieu et mon Droit', meaning 'God and my Right'. And it's a very good inscription to have in a court, isn't it? Because justice is all about God's standards and the individual's needs. That's where the judge ought to be focusing. But not this judge. He'd have been in the tabloids all the time for his shockingly harsh judgements, would this Judge Dread! And most of the time his decisions would have been referred to the European Courts of Human Rights. This judge, Mr Dread QC was not a good judge.
But there's another character in the story and that is the plaintiff, the widow in verse 3: "And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'" It was a case that had dragged on for years. This widow, defenceless, without income and hope, had been on at this judge for ages to get justice from her enemy. That's all she wanted. Justice. Not revenge, but justice. But the judge refused. But she kept on at him. She was persistent. You can imagine the scene can't you. The judge comes into the office bright and early, and his secretary says there's a message for him: "A Mrs Miggins, says the secretary. Says she wants justice!" He sits down at his desk and looks at his emails. Immediately he recognises the email address. Widow@jersualem.org Give me justice she says. He heads down to Court No. 1 for his first case of the day. Who should he find waiting at the door, Mrs Miggins. Give me justice, she says. Eventually after a long day, he goes home. His wife greets him and says: "Hello dear, there's a message from a Mrs Miggins. She says can you give her justice!" And finally before going upstairs to bed, as he puts the cat outside with the empty milk bottles, who should be waiting at the door, but Mrs Miggins. "I'll see you in the morning, he says wearily." Well that's fatal. Because at 8am the next day she's there again. And the whole thing starts again. She keeps coming to him, says Jesus. But for some time he refused.
But then in verse 4, events take a sudden turn: "But finally he said to himself: 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, 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!'" At last she gets justice. Why? Not because the judge is nice and just. In fact he admits he neither fears God or cares about people. Rather because he's got so fed up with her that he gives in just to get her off his back. In fact the word translated "wear me out" in verse 5 literally means to give someone a black eye. It's not that she'd been clobbering him with her handbag. But she's certainly been giving him a good metaphorical beating, a real verbal lashing. And at last she gets her justice. He may do it for selfish reasons, but whatever the reason she gets justice.
So what is Jesus teaching us here? Well many people misunderstand this parable and think that Jesus is drawing a straight comparison between the unjust judge and God. And in fact that is precisely what many of us do think about God when it comes to prayer. We think that God is like a grumpy old judge who needs to be badgered into giving us what we want. We often fall into the trap of thinking that God is a bit like an old snack machine that was at my school. If you thumped it hard enough in a certain place you'd get a Mars Bar. Sometimes though the machine would eat your money and give you nothing. But other times you'd get the sweets and the money back. Isn't God like that when it comes to prayer? A bit of a lottery, which if anything needs to be harangued into getting what you want?
Well it's precisely that sort of misunderstanding that leads many of us to struggle so much in our prayer lives. Because we simply fail to understand who we are praying to. Rather Jesus is teaching us that the first step to understanding prayer and of being able to pray is to know the God we are praying to. The whole point of this parable is not to make a comparison between the judge and God but to make a contrast. Jesus' argument runs like this. If this nasty judge can give justice to a widow and moreover for his own gain, then how much more will a loving, gracious God such as our God is give good gifts to his spiritual children. That's the point of the parable. And in the light of that, Jesus says to us, pray and don't give up. Remember who it is you are praying to! So what kind of God are we praying to according to Jesus?
a) A God of Love- Well first we are praying to a God of love. Remember! Judge Dread QC didn't care a jot about God or people. And he only answered out of selfish pride. He was just feed up with this widow hand bagging him all the time. But that's not what God is like at all. See what Jesus says in verse 7: "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?" God is a God who delights to answer the prayers of his people. He's not going to keep putting them off. Jesus tells us in Luke 11 that God is far better than human fathers. Because if human fathers, though evil, know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more God! God delights to give his children good gifts. He's not going to keep putting them off. The apostle Paul tells us that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine." That's the kind of God the God of the Bible is. Not a grumpy old judge who doesn't want to bother. But rather a delightful loving Father who wishes to hear and answer the prayers of his children. But do you believe that? Do you really believe that God is like that? That out of his glorious riches he will answer according to his will? Part of the problem is as James says that we don't have because we don't ask God.
By way of illustration, let me tell you about the court of Alexander the Great. Among those in the court of Alexander was a philosopher of outstanding ability but little money. One day, he asked Alexander for financial help and was told to draw whatever he needed from the imperial treasury. But when the man requested an amount equal to he was refused, the treasurer needing to verify that such a large sum was authorized. When he asked Alexander, the ruler replied, "Pay the money at once. The philosopher has done me a singular honour. By the largeness of his request he shows that he has understood both my wealth and generosity." Do you believe that God is a God of bountiful love, or an grumpy, stingy old judge. The way we pray will reveal what we really think.
b) A God of Justice- A God of love, but also a God of justice, 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?'" You see whereas this judge was totally unjust, the God of the Bible is a God of impeccable justice. He is the one who upholds the cause of the oppressed and will bring about justice for his people. So Jesus says in verse 8: "I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly." But I guess for many of us here, this is where we come up against a problem, because sometimes we find that there is no quick answer. It seems to be taking God an age to answer. It may well be that you are going through a very difficult time in your life and you've been faithful in prayer, you've laid before the Lord all your cares and worries as the Bible tells you, but still there is no answer. It seems as if the heavens are bronze. God seems to be silent, and he feels so distant. What then? Well the answer to that question is actually in the context of the passage. Because Jesus is talking about his second coming. He's pointing us forward and telling us that it is that time which is the final balancing of the books. And when Jesus returns, then his justice will be swift and final. It'll be like the days of Noah when God's judgement was executed swiftly and suddenly. It'll be like the days of Sodom and Gomorrah when God's judgement was swift and sudden. Yes, there will be justice, but the final balancing of the books will not be till Jesus returns. And if you think that God is like the unjust judge then you'll stop praying in the meantime. But Jesus is telling us this parable to teach us to pray and not give up, literally not grow weary of praying. And that's why he teaches us about the character of God. Because although this parable doesn't teach everything there is to know about prayer, and though sometimes we might go through terrible times of difficultly and pain in our lives where there appears to be no answer from heaven, the one thing this parable does teach us is that God is just and loving and will act in judgement swiftly when Jesus returns. But if you or I give up believing in a God who is powerful and good enough to do finally vindicate his people and act in judgement, then we will stop praying in the meantime. But Jesus tells us not to. Why? Because of the character of God. He is not like the unjust judge. No, he's loving and just, and he will answer and will bring justice. So keep trusting and keep praying. Understand God's character.
2) Remember Your Status
But there is another lesson that Jesus has to teach us and that is to remember your status. Because once again there is a contrast, not a comparison, between the widow and us. You see widows in Jesus' days were extremely vulnerable. More often than not they were young widows, since husbands often died fairly young. But when the husband died, the bread winner of the family went too. The widow would thus have no financial income, and in the days before Social Security and benefits, widows were very weak and vulnerable people. They were helpless, hopeless and loveless, especially if they had no family to look after them. In fact, the early Christians went to great lengths to protect the widows in their various church congregations. The church was their social security. So for this poor widow in Jesus' story she would have had no husband to defend her, no money to pay the judge, no-one to lean on the judge or bribe him. All she could do was use pester power to get justice.
Now if this helpless, hopeless and loveless widow eventually got justice, then how much more will we? How can we be sure? What's so different about us? Because of what Jesus calls us as God's people in verse 7. He says that we are the chosen ones. We have been adopted into God's family on his initiative and under his guiding care and hand to be his children. Now if that is the case, then how much more should we approach the throne of grace and keep on praying as Jesus tells us to. If this helpless widow persisted in her requests to the unjust judge, how much more should we persist in prayer to the just and loving judge of all the world. And how much more so when we can call that just judge, Father? How much more does our loving God and Father delight over us, his children whom he has personally adopted and chosen for his family. How much more will he delight to answer us when he sent his own Son into the world to die on that cross so that we could enter the very presence of God and enjoy a personal relationship with the very one who made us. Do you believe that? Do you remember that when you pray, that when we pray we have are enjoying a special privilege reserved only for the precious children of God. How God delights and treasures you so much. And how he longs to hear his children praying to him. For we are his chosen ones, not poor widows, but his precious children saved by His Son's blood.
And when you know the Father, then you can have access to him at any time. The story is told of an American soldier who wanted to get compassionate leave so he could care for his dying mother. He tried to get permission but failed, so he decided he would go straight to the top. It was in the days of Abraham Lincoln's presidency, and so the soldier went boldly up the to White House, but was told that it was impossible to see the President. The soldier went away sad and sat in the park dejected. But a little boy came up to him and asked what was wrong. So the soldier told his story, and at the end of his tale the little boy simply said: "Follow me." So they went back up the White House Drive through the doors, down a corridor and through another door into where President Lincoln himself was sitting. When Lincoln saw his young son, he said: "What is it Todd?" And the little boy replied, "Father, there is a man here who wants to speak to you. Please would you listen to him?"
If you think entry to a human king or president is awesome enough, then how about to the king of kings. And yet so often we ignore and forget just who we are in God's eyes. But if you forget your status before God, a chosen adopted child of God by his grace, then you'll give up praying for sure. So remember your status. You are a precious child of God adopted by grace.
3) Hear Jesus' Challenge
But then finally, we must hear Jesus' challenge. Because Jesus ends with a sting in the tail as so often at the end of his parables. Because so far he has taught us about the character of God, how he is not like the unjust judge, but rather is just and loving. And he's also taught us about our status as his chosen and loved children. So what would you expect Jesus to say at the end of this parable. Probably: "So then keep praying and don't give up!" I think that would be a fair guess. After all he's told us in verse to always pray and not give up! But it's not how Jesus finished. Look at verse 8: "However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
So what does Jesus mean? Well it must be related to all that he has said before. And what he means is that when he returns will he find his people praying persistently, exercising their faith, their trust in their just judge and heavenly father? Or when he returns will he find that actually his people have given up being faithful and stopped trusting God. You see what he is saying is that persistent believing prayer is a mark of true believing faith. Prayer does not get us into heaven, but it shows where we place our confidence. In God and not ourselves. So believing persistent prayer is a mark of the genuine Christian. Oh, it's not going to be easy to remain faithful in these last days before Jesus returns. I assume that because Jesus tell us not to give up then the temptation to give up will be pretty strong. But Jesus does not want quitters- he wants those who will persevere, who will keep praying for justice to be done, for God's kingdom to be finally and fully established, and for God's glory to be seen in the world. He wants people who will keep looking forward to that great day when Jesus returns. He wants people of faith, people who trust the promises of God.
Now of course, we might be tempted to say "well it's not happened for 2000 years! Is it really going to happen?" Well that's exactly what people thought in Noah's day. Just glance back to 17 v 26: "Just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man." No-one believed Noah. A flood where we are? You must be joking Noah! Don't be stupid!" And what happened? Verse 27: "Then the flood came and destroyed them all!" Will Jesus really break his promise? But another temptation is simply to get sucked into living life in this world, working, holidaying, building, buying, eating and drinking. Too busy really to think about the return of Jesus or to live a life dedicated to God's ways? That's what happened in Sodom. And what happened there? 17 v 29: "Fire and sulphur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all." Don't be fooled. Jesus will return. The question is how will he find us?
Each one of us needs to hear Jesus' challenge tonight. If you are not a Christian yet, then God in his mercy has given you another day to turn back to him. You might not get many other opportunities, so why not tonight get right with God and trust in Christ to get you to heaven. For that's the only way to prepare properly for Jesus' return. And Christian. Will Jesus find you persevering in faith? Will he find you keeping on praying for his kingdom priorities in your life, for his glory, for justice to be done? Will you be a man or woman of believing persistent prayer until Jesus returns, or until you die? Or will you give up, preferring to place your confidence in yourself? The question is will he find you a faithful or a faithless servant? That's the challenge.
So what do make of Jesus' school of prayer? He's not going to turn on the guilt trip or batter us for slipping up. Rather he teaches us that the grounds and motivation for prayer is in the character of God and gospel itself. For God is a just and loving Father, and it's he that sets us free by grace to be his children adopted into his family and privileged to call him Father. But he also issues us with a challenge. Will we show our faith in persistent believing prayer? Because if not, then we are not displaying one of the key marks of the Christian. So will Jesus find faith on the earth when he returns?
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