Wednesday, February 22, 2017

February 19, 2017 The Power of Prayer: The Most Difficult Prayer



As we continue our series of message on The Power of Prayer, this week we come to the third in the series – The Most Difficult Prayer.  Next week will be our final message in the series on prayer, but I am attaching a fifth message that speaks to one of the most common prayers we offer, and that is the prayer asking for healing, either for ourselves or on behalf of someone else.  Very early in my tenure here I offered a message titled The Power of Healing, and I will reprise that message two weeks from today.  Though it is not specifically about prayer, it offers what I hope is some helpful information about the way that God works in the process of healing.  As we pray so often for healing, often enlisting many others to join us in prayer, we are often left with questions about the way in which God answers those prayers.  I will add that the message is not at all based on science or medicine, but upon my experiences and observations from three-plus decades of pastoral ministry.

Think for a moment of the most difficult situation you have faced in life.  What are the feelings that come to mind?  Perhaps you experienced a sense of dread so deep that you felt it in the pit of your stomach.  Perhaps you found yourself walking very slowly towards a difficult appointment, your steps slowed the closer you came to your destination, and the weight of the situation was felt on your shoulders and evident in your demeanor. 

We do not have to travel far down the road of life before we come to a point of great distress because of a challenge we face.  Sometimes it’s a challenge that becomes a defining moment in our life.  How we face that challenge will shape and mold the remainder of our life, and we understand the great significance of the moment, a moment that can affect our life direction for many years to come.

Keep that moment in mind as we read our Scripture text for this morning, which is a well-known passage, usually associated with Holy Week, but contains one of the most important prayers ever offered.  It is interesting the way that the ministry of Jesus is bookended by the choice of following God’s will.  In Matthew chapter 4 we read of the temptations of Jesus, when he went into the wilderness after his baptism and faced three temptations, all of which shared the commonality of seeking to draw him away from the will of God.  At the end of his ministry, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again faced the same choice – his will or God’s.

Matthew 26:36-42 –
36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.
38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter.
41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

I have organized this morning’s message under three words – fear, mystery, and assurance.

1.  Fear.
Courage, it has been said, is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it.  I think that is partially true, but I would rephrase it to say that it is the triumph of conviction.  Conviction is a true source of courage, and it was conviction that empowered Jesus through this moment in the Garden and conviction that empowered him to greet head on those who came to arrest him.  It was conviction that empowered Jesus to endure the trials before Herod and Pilate, it was conviction that empowered Jesus to endure the crown of thorns, to endure the scourging, to endure the mocking and humiliation, and to endure the suffering of the cross.  It was a conviction that the will of God was the right way, the just way, the only way, in spite of the difficulty and in spite of the suffering it would bring.

Everyone has their Gethsemane moment – it is a moment of temptation, of trial, of doubt, of challenge, and of the question – whose will to be done?  It is not easy to say not my will, but yours be done.  It is not easy to move beyond what we think best for our lives and to accept what God knows is best for our lives, but it is the best path forward.

I think the reason we don’t always pray the way Jesus prayed is because we pray the kind of prayers that a friend of mine describes as being outcome specific.  When you pray for God’s will, it isn’t outcome specific.  You have to put your faith in God that the outcome God chooses is the best outcome (because it’s God’s outcome) even if it isn’t necessarily what you wanted or envisioned.   Doing that requires giving up control and your will over to God and having faith that God will direct the outcome, whatever that outcome might be (I very much appreciate Jeff Shimizu sharing this with me).  And giving up control is very difficult, isn’t it?

The reason we struggle with control is because of fear.  Control, and all its attendant aspects – such as the desire to control our surroundings or to control others – comes from fear.  To turn our destiny over to God touches on our fear, and then triggers our desire to maintain control, which compels us to offer prayers that are an extension of our desire to control, as we tell God the outcome we would like to have.  But praying for the will of God is not outcome specific beyond the willingness to say to God that we will follow whatever his will happens to be.

2.  Mystery.
After Mother Teresa passed away it was discovered, through her diaries, that she harbored some doubts about faith.  The late Christopher Hitchens – the well-known atheist – attacked her for this.  Hitchens claimed Mother Teresa was a fraud because of her doubts and criticized her in a most unpleasant manner.  Besides asking the question of who in the world could accuse Mother Teresa of being a fraud and who could attack one who gave of herself with such love and selflessness, we would also ask what is wrong with doubt?

There is no shame in doubt.  It is a sign of a healthy faith, not a weak faith.  If you have ever found yourself in a moment of doubt, know this – it is not a reflection of a weak faith but a strong faith, because it is a faith that is not afraid to ask questions.

Doubt comes to us all, at some point or another.  Doubt can become our Garden moment, when we become uncertain about the path forward and if we cannot acknowledge the sometimes titanic battle of wills within our hearts, minds, and souls we are not thinking very deeply about our faith.

Sometimes we wonder if we have the strength to go on, sometimes we question whether or not we can do what God has called us to do, and sometimes we find that we doubt the path that God has placed in front of us.  The answer, we find, is in the actions of Jesus.  He knew the way forward was difficult.  He knew the way forward was painful.  But he also knew the way forward was his path, and he accepted it.

As I have aged, I have arrived at the point where some questions no longer concern me.  Make no mistake, I have a lot of questions, but some of them don’t occupy my mind in the way they did when I was younger.  Like everyone else, I have spent my share of time struggling with the question of why?  I still wonder why some things happen.  Why do good people suffer?  Why does evil persist?  But I don’t dwell on those questions to the extent that I once did, and I don’t expect to have an answer to the why questions in this life.  I trust that one day, in eternity, such answers will be available, but until then I will be patient and learn to live without the answers.  It’s not that I don’t care about those questions – I do, and I care about the struggles that others have with those questions – but I am at a point in life where I am willing, and able, to live with a greater degree of mystery.

3.  Assurance.
It is difficult to read of the agony of Jesus in the Garden.  It is difficult to think of Jesus struggling.  It’s hard to see people in their moments of vulnerability, and Jesus was very vulnerable in this moment.  We prefer to think of Jesus as one who is so focused on his mission that nothing will prevent him from its completion.  But the prayer of Jesus shows a moment of vulnerability, as he asks God to take this cup from me.  If possible, Jesus is asking of God, could there be another way to accomplish his mission?

Jesus knew that crucifixion was awaiting him.  He knew what crucifixion was like.  The Romans used crucifixion freely and brutally.  I will spare the details of that horrendous method of execution, but suffice it to say the idea of crucifixion would be one of the most unsettling destinies one could ever face.  It looms so large before Jesus that Luke says he prayed with a fervency and intensity that his sweat fell to the ground as drops of blood.

That, my friends, is a struggle of intense proportions.

And that is why Jesus took his disciples with him to the Garden, and why he took Peter, James, and John with him as he went further into the Garden.  Jesus wanted the support and encouragement of his friends.  In our time of need, friends are one of the greatest of God’s gifts.  It is hard to see the way in which Jesus was disappointed in Peter, James, and John, as they were unable to stay awake.  Sometimes our friends fail us; sometimes we fail our friends.  We must give grace to one another when we fail.  We do the best we can, and sometimes our best falls short, and that is true of all of us.

And yet, in spite of what was ahead for Jesus, he makes the bold declaration not my will, but yours be done.  It is no small statement, considering what awaited Jesus.  Jesus knew what was coming and never tried to escape it.  He did not flee, but walked to those who came to arrest him.

Not my will, but yours be done, is a phrase that could be said in many different ways.  It could be said in a manner that signified a resigned acceptance of one’s fate; not wanting to accept it, but willing to do so because there is no other choice.  One could also say the phrase in anger, carrying a sense of rebellion for feeling pushed into accepting a difficult fate.  One could also say the phrase in fear, accepting the path as one that might be necessary but also feeling a terror in facing what was ahead.  One could also say the words as a way of accepting the fate of the cross, but not agreeing with such a path – it’s your will, but it’s certainly not mine.  But Jesus did not utter those words in any of those ways.  In spite of the horror of the cross, Jesus fully accepted it as the path that was ahead for him, and he did it willingly.

I find it fascinating to think about how little, in one sense, Jesus had.  If you think, in particular, about the final days of his life, much of what Jesus had was borrowed.  He borrowed a colt on which he rode into Jerusalem; he borrowed the upper room where he shared the Last Supper with his disciples; he borrowed a garden, where he could go and pray; and, after the crucifixion, he was laid in a borrowed tomb.  Jesus had little in the way of tangibles, but he had so much in the intangibles – such conviction, such faith, such grace!  Jesus possessed an incredibly clear and powerful sense of conviction of God’s will, and he maintained a tremendous commitment to that will.  We have so many tangibles.  We have so many things.  We have so much stuff.  We have so much wealth.  We have so many tangibles, but what about the intangibles?  We have so much, while at the same time, so little.

During my sabbatical, as Tanya and I traveled, one of our favorite places to visit was in Paris, where we spent time at Sainte-Chapelle, the chapel of the saints, near Notre Dame Cathedral.  The stained glass windows in the building are about 90% original, dating back to the 13th century.  The most famous of the windows is called the Rose Window.  From the outside, the windows appear drab and dirty, as they are covered in the dirt, the grit, and the grime of the city and of history.  They are so dark and dirty on the outside that they look black and opaque.  From the outside, they are not at all impressive.  Inside, however, is a different story.


From the inside, as you look through the window towards the light, it is a piece of absolute beauty.  The colors from the glass spill onto the walls, the floor, and onto your body as you stand and gaze at its beauty.  Obviously, to see the beauty, depends upon your perspective.  From the outside, it is a reminder of Paul’s words in I Corinthians 13:12, now we see through a glass, darkly.  From one perspective it is a very dark glass, impenetrable in its darkness, but from another perspective, it is a piece of amazing beauty.

In the Garden, as we peer into this most difficult of moments for Jesus, it seemed anything but moment of beauty, and the cross would never look to be anything of beauty, but from a different perspective, that of the empty tomb, we see both the Garden moment and the cross as times of deep beauty, because they demonstrate to us a love of deep and incredible beauty.


We all have our Garden moments, which are difficult to understand, but know that further down life’s road you will be able to find the beauty, and will know that God was with you, and that his will was accomplished.  May your will be done is no easy prayer to offer, but it is not only the most difficult prayer, it is also the most powerful.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

February 12, 2017 The Power of Prayer: How to Pray



This morning we come to the second message in our brief series of messages about prayer.  After today, I will offer two more messages on prayer, but there will be a total of five messages in the series.  The final message is not specifically about prayer, but it does speak to one of the most pressing questions we have about prayer, and that is the question of how God answers prayer, and specifically a prayer for healing.  The title of that message is The Power of Healing, and I presented it early in my time here but decided it was one that I should attach to the end of this series.

Last week we talked about the Parable of the Persistent Widow, and today we turn to a passage from the Sermon On the Mount.  I believe the Gospels are the heart of the Scriptures, and the Sermon On the Mount is the heart of the heart, so to speak.

The text is Matthew 6:5-15, and you can follow along in this morning’s program as I read –

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
This, then, is how you should pray:  “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

It seems to me that this passage tells us there are several underlying questions we must ask ourselves about prayer, and I want to talk about three of those questions this morning.

1.  Who is our audience?
In verse 5 Jesus says, and when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.

There is something that really bothers me in some prayers, and it is generally ministers who do this, I’m sorry to report – it’s a sermon masquerading as a prayer.  It’s not a prayer as much as it is a point being made to a congregation or the leadership of a congregation.  Here is an example, for instance, of what I mean – Lord, we thank you for the gift of discernment you have provided.  We are going to vote today on our church budget, and everyone has used their gift of discernment to understand how important it is that we vote today in the affirmative, except for those two elders who never go along with anything we try to do.  You know who they are Lord, and we do too, and we trust that you will soften their hard hearts – and their hard heads as well.  Help them to see that this budget is exactly what we need to adopt.  So please open their minds, open their hearts, and open their wallets as well.
Obviously, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  I have heard prayers that weren’t far from that fictional example.  When Jesus is speaking about praying without a concern for being seen he is speaking about the audience of our prayers, and God is always the audience of our prayer. 

As in last week’s Scripture text, where Jesus told the parable of the unrighteous judge – and drew a contrast between the judge and God – in this week’s passage Jesus is again making a contrast, but this time the contrast is with some of the religious leaders and the manner in which they practiced prayer, which was to seek a public audience to impress others and to make themselves appear to be super-pious and super-spiritual.

Jesus could be very hard on those who were religious leaders, which, quite honestly, has always made me a little nervous.  Leaders are held to a high standard, and none of us, quite honestly, truly measure up to that standard.  But some, obviously, don’t really try to live up to the standard.  In the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel Jesus expresses very harsh words for the hypocrisy of some of those leaders.  Here is a sample of what he had to say25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
     
Ouch!  Those are tough words, but they were well deserved, as there was so much hypocrisy in the lives of those leaders.  Too much of what they did was motivated by a desire to be seen.  Worship, and personal piety and faith, had become little more than a means of attracting attention, as if to say, look at me!  And look at how spiritual I am!  Imagine if there had been social media in the day of Jesus.  These are individuals who might have tweeted pictures of themselves praying on the street corner, or in the Temple.

According to Jesus, there is nothing about faith that should be done in order to attract the attention of other people.  In his words on prayer, Jesus goes so far as to say that we ought to take measure to guarantee we won’t be seen, as in verse 6, where he says when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
We don’t pray to impress others.  We don’t pray as a way of making a point to anyone.  We don’t pray in an effort to look super-pious or super-spiritual.  We pray in order to bring what is on our hearts and our minds to God.  We pray for others.  We pray for our families.  We pray for our friends.  We pray for our enemies.  We pray for our coworkers.  We pray for people like us.  We pray for people not like us.  We pray for our church.  We pray for other churches.  We pray for our leaders, political, religious, and other.  We pray for our community.  We pray for our nation.  We pray for other nations.  We pray for our world.  We pray for everything we can think of to pray for.

Now, when we read what Jesus has to say about praying in secret, we have to say a word about public prayer.  Obviously there is a place for public prayer, such as worship.  Jesus is not saying there is not a place for public prayer.  It is one thing when an individual seeks to use public prayer as a means to impress others and when a group of people gather together to offer their prayers.  There is a power unleashed when people come together as a group, as a body to pray together, whether it is a handful, such as our Wednesday evening prayer group, or a larger group such as here this morning, or an even larger group that numbers in the many hundreds or thousands.  Prayer in that manner is a powerful statement that we are part of a community of faith – a community that often functions as an alternative community to the world surrounding us. 

I am often asked to pray in public, which can be an interesting experience, depending upon the circumstances.  For several years I was asked to offer a prayer at one of the nights of the horse show here in Shelbyville.  I would make my way to the middle of the arena and when given a cue would pray.  I always wondered why I was there, because no one seemed to listen.  I could hear the noise of the conversations in the grandstands, and every time I prayed there I was tempted to say this – thank you Lord, for this offering we are about to receive for First Christian Church, and may everyone give generously.  Just to see if anyone was really listening.  

When I was younger I struggled for a long time to put together public prayer and the words of Jesus in this morning’s Scripture passage.  When I was in high school, at church camp one summer, we were told that we should go back to school in the fall and pray over our lunch so that everyone would see us praying, and that was a way of witnessing to others.  I think that was a well-intentioned idea, but it seemed to conflict with what Jesus said.  It took my young mind a while to work out what to think about it, but the conclusion to which I came was this, which now seems very simple – I always prayed over my lunch, always, even though it generally wasn’t with my eyes closed and my head bowed.  And the reason why is because that’s just how I happened to pray, and I decided that if I changed the manner in which I prayed only to be seen by others, my motivation was wrong.  If you normally pray with your head bowed and your eyes closed, by all means that is how you should prayer wherever you are because that is simply you being you.  But the point of prayer is not to call attention to yourself or to be seen.

2.  What do we expect from God?
Richard Rohr has this to say about prayer – the word “prayer” has often been trivialized by making it merely into a way of asking for what you want or making announcements to God, as if God did not know (see Matthew 6:7-8)…It is not a technique for getting things
(From the February 7, 2017 email from the Center for Action and Contemplation)

I once heard a prayer that echoed those thoughts in a very interesting way.  It has remained in my mind for many years and is a prayer I heard offered by a young man who was in, I believe, the 4th or 5th grade at the time.  We were closing out an evening of kids worship and asked for a volunteer to pray.  This young man raised his hand and came to the platform to pray.  He was filled with sincerity and wisdom as he prayed.  One of the things he said in his prayer was this – God, help us not to see you as nothing more than a vending machine, putting something in so that we can get what we want in return.  That’s some really great theology from a young man.

What do we expect from God when we pray?  This is a tough question, because if we are honest, we will admit that we expect God to answer our prayers in the way we want him to answer, when we want him to answer.  Obviously, God does not always do that.  In verses 7 and 8 Jesus says, and when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Isn’t that interesting, what Jesus is saying?  Jesus is reminding us, once again, as we saw in the parable we studied last week, that we can expect that God is working on our behalf.  There is nothing wrong with enlisting many, many people to pray for a particular concern, but it is not necessary to do so in order to move God to action.  God does not need to be convinced to work on our behalf.  God does not have a quota of people that need to be engaged in prayer on behalf of a cause or a person before he will act.  He doesn’t say, if Dave had just enlisted one more person; he was so close.  He got 99 other people to pray but I can’t act until there are 100 people.  Jesus says God already knows what we need before asking.  Pray with the faith and the confidence that God not only hears your prayer, but he is aware of your need, your request, your fear, your thanksgiving – whatever it is that is on your heart and mind – and has already acted upon it or begun to act upon it.

But it is good to enlist many people to pray for a person or cause, because it moves us to be involved in the work of God.  We don’t have to convince God to be at work, because he is already at work.  Prayer ought to move us and mobilize us to be a part of the work that God is already doing.

3.  What does God expect from us?
I think prayer is about many things, and one of them is authenticity; authenticity about who we really, truly are.  We talk about how we ought to live authentically, but we are to be authentic to God as well.  C. S. Lewis wrote that we must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us (Prayer:  Does It Make Any Difference, Philip Yancey, p. 42).  How often do we say to others, I’m doing fine.  I’m doing so well that if I were any better I couldn’t stand it.  And yet the reality is sometimes very different from the front that we put out for others to see.  We don’t want people to know we struggle, we don’t want people to know we have problems, we don’t want others to see weakness in us, and we don’t want anyone to know the real person behind our very carefully constructed fa├žade.

Speaking as a minister, one of the real challenges to me is the level of expectation that is sometimes placed upon me.  I find that to be difficult, because I can’t live up to it.  I am a person with a lot of faults and shortcomings, and please don’t ask my family about any of them, because they may affirm that yes, he has a lot of faults and shortcomings; let us tell you about some of them.

At the heart of what Jesus is saying in this passage is that we ought to be authentic in all of our expressions of faith and spirituality.  We live in a world that craves authenticity, because it is so lacking in the world at large.  And we ought to be authentic with God when we pray.  God knows who we are.  God knows our faults and our shortcomings.  God knows our failures.  And yet he holds none of that against us.  That is the great news about God!  We do no favors to anyone when we project an aura of perfection.  Sometimes things go wrong in our worship services.  When they do, we don’t try to hide the fact that sometimes technology doesn’t work, sometimes people forget something, and sometimes we make a mistake or a miscue.  So what?  That is real life, and if we cannot reflect real life in worship then we are missing something very important, and that is being authentic, because that is what God expects of us.

There is so much power in prayer; power because we serve a powerful God!  Thanks goodness we do not have to convince to him do what is good for us, because he is already doing so!  Thank goodness we can be assured he is always working on our behalf!  May we pray not only often, but always!



Tuesday, February 07, 2017

February 5, 2017 The Power of Prayer - Never Give Up



This morning we begin a brief series of messages on prayer.  Prayer is not only one of the most foundational of faith experiences, but one of the foundational experiences of humanity.  I read once that more people pray than believe in God.  Isn’t that a fascinating fact?  Prayer is so important to the human soul that it doesn’t even recognize the limits of belief.

This series will not answer every question you have about prayer or tell you everything you need or want to know about prayer.  We will study passages about prayer and what those passages teach us specifically about prayer.  If you would like more information, late in 2015 I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer, which covers a good deal more about prayer.  If you would like to read through those messages, you can find them on our church’s web site – www.fccshelbyville.org.  Click on the link for the Sermon Archive and you will find a list of topics going down the right side of the page.  Near the bottom is the topic of The Lord’s Prayer (be sure and look under the “Ts” for The Lord’s Prayer).
For our Scripture text this morning, we turn to a story from the Gospel of Luke, often referred to as the Parable of the Persistent Widow.

Luke 18:1-8—

1 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.’
“For some time he 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!’”
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. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

There are three specific lessons from this passage that I will mention this morning –

1.  Don’t give up.  Don’t give up on prayer, don’t give up on hope, and don’t give up on God.  Don’t give up.
This morning’s text begins with this note – Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.  Why would he tell them such a parable?  Why would they need to be encouraged not to lose heart?  Not give up on what?  Evidently, they had some of the same questions we have about prayer.  This is our lesson from the parable – being faithful in prayer, never giving up, even when it seems as though our prayers have little or no effect or receive no answer.

Jesus often taught in analogies, especially in his parables.  It is helpful to use analogies – or parables – to help us to understand complicated topics.  This parable, however, is not an analogy, but one that draws a very strong contrast.  The judge in this parable, in contrast to God, did not listen, and Jesus makes that comparison in an interesting way, because the parable mostly describes what God is not.  Most of the time, when we offer a description, we talk about a person’s attributes – they are really nice, they are funny, they care about people, etc.  Jesus doesn’t offer a list of attributes about God, but instead makes a comparison between God and the unrighteous judge, and it’s a powerful set-up that he uses.  A corrupt judge and a poor widow.  Can there be any greater contrast?  I get the image of Snidely Whiplash in my mind; does anyone remember that cartoon character?  I think he was on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show (how often do you come to church and hear about the Rocky and Bullwinkle show?).  Snidely Whiplash tied Nell Fenwick to the railroad tracks and Dudley Do-Right would come along in time to rescue her.  When I think of this judge, I can’t help but have the image of Snidely Whiplash enter my mind.  In the words of Jesus, this judge was one who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.  Who could not be moved to sympathy for this widow who is ignored by this low-down, corrupt, good-for-nothing, rotten judge?  A judge should be one who will seek justice for the oppressed, a judge should be one who demonstrates compassion for those who struggle, and a judge should not be cold and indifferent to the sufferings of those he is commissioned to serve.  But this judge was not interested in any of those positive attributes. The characteristics demonstrated by the judge are all the things that God is not – the judge is cold, uncaring, indifferent, and lacking in compassion.  God, in comparison, is all of those things that judge was not – caring, compassionate, sympathetic, and an advocate for justice.

We must not, then, think this parable is telling us that if we are persistent enough God will finally be moved to action.  Jesus is very adamant in saying that is not God’s nature.  But it’s interesting that it is prayer that makes God look bad to some people.  It is the perceived inaction on the part of God that causes some people to simply give up on prayer, on faith, and on God.  Jesus answers none of those challenges and one of the questions we have about prayer in this parable; he simply encourages us not to become weary and not to fall prey to the temptation of giving up on prayer or God.

There are those who would mock the very idea of believing in prayer.  There are those who believe prayer is a fool’s errand.  They would have us to believe we are wasting our time and that our prayers fade away into nothingness as quickly as the breath that carries our prayers from our lips.  We must, however, trust that our prayers are an affirmation of the faithfulness of God, and affirmation of our faithfulness to him.  Faithfulness is not contingent upon our getting what we want.  Faithfulness is not dependent upon life being always good.  Faithfulness does not require that every prayer be answered in the way that we desire.

Let’s acknowledge that life is tough, and there are many times we simply want to give up on many things.  We become overwhelmed with the stresses and the pressures of life and we often wonder how we will manage to get through them.  We open the mailbox and discover a stack of bills to add to a big stack of bills on our desk that demands attention, and we wonder how we will ever get ahead.  We have strained relationships, maybe with parents, or children, or a spouse, and we wonder if the relationship will ever be what it once was.  We go to work, where we’ve been a hardworking and faithful employee, and suddenly learn of the possibility of relocating, or worse yet, downsizing, and we worry about how we will take care of our families.

One of the functions of prayer is that we are given an opportunity to pour out everything on our hearts and minds to God.  It’s like a pressure valve where we can pour out all of our worries and concerns, and in that way is a bit like getting on the counselor’s couch.  Most people, when they are going through struggle, want some answers, but what is also needed is the opportunity to talk and to know that someone is listening.  Have you ever had the experience of a friend talking to you about their problems; they talk and talk and you say very little, but at the end of the conversation they remark, you’ve helped me so much!  And you wonder how you helped them when you said almost nothing, but it is the act of listening that is so important.  Pray away, talk away – God is listening. 

If you haven’t received the answers you desire, don’t give up; don’t quit.  If you look and yet fail to find any logic to what God is doing in your life, don’t give up; don’t quit.  If your life is not going the way you had hoped, don’t give up; don’t quit.

2.  God is always working on our behalf, whether or not we see or understand.
I was riding with a friend of mine one time, and I was in a hurry to get to our destination.  A big hurry.  A really, really big hurry.  He told me he knew a way that would save us time and I wouldn’t have to worry about being late.  Now, my friend is one of those who does not tend to get in a hurry, and he is more of a back road kind of person while I’m more of an interstate kind of person.  I was skeptical, to say the least.  He took me down roads I didn’t know existed, and I was certain our journey would take at least twice as long as necessary.  We were so far off the beaten path that I was sure at one point we passed the St. Louis arch, and I took several opportunities to tell him what I thought about his choice of routes.  I would shift my feet and look time and again at my watch as a reminder to him that we were running far behind schedule (by the way, I see when you’re looking at your watch, more as a reminder to me to watch the time.  If you haven’t noticed, there is a big clock on the back wall of the sanctuary so I can keep up with the time!)  But, amazingly, we arrived on time and sooner than we would have it we had taken my preferred route.  I didn’t believe him, but he was right.  I couldn’t see any sense to his route while we traveled, but he was right.  I couldn’t see any of that on the journey, but I eventually did.

What’s interesting about this passage is that it gives us no instruction about the content of our prayers and it doesn’t tell us how to pray.  What we get is Jesus encouraging us to continue to pray even when it seems there are no answers.  What Jesus tells is not so much how to pray, but of the nature and character of God.  This is important because any question of prayer is, in essence, a question about the character of God.  Does God care?  Does God have the power to effect change?  Does he?

You see, when we talk about prayer, when we think about prayer, when we pray, there is an underlying, unspoken question lurking in our minds and it is this – will God be faithful to not only hear my prayers but to act upon them? We believe God hears our prayers, but we can’t help but wonder at times – will God answer my prayer?  That is no small question, especially in light of the fact that some people will walk away from their faith and walk away from God because they believe God did not answer their prayer or did not answer in the way they desired. 

Just because we do not understand how God is working does not mean that he is not working on our behalf.  Just because we cannot see how God is working, does not mean he is not working on our behalf.  We don’t always know the greater purpose of God, but we can know this – God is always, always, forever working on our behalf.  Always.

And so this passage is an interesting twist on the usual question, which is will God be faithful and answer our prayers?  But the question raised by the passage is this – will we remain faithful, regardless of how God answers our prayers?

3.  Prayer seeks to give us God’s perspective.
Philip Yancey has many helpful things to say about prayer, among them this quote –
Prayer has become for me much more than a shopping list of requests to present to God.  It has become a realignment of everything.  I pray to restore the truth of the universe, to gain a glimpse of the world, and of me, through the eyes of God.  In prayer I shift my point of view away from my own natural selfishness.  I climb above the timberline and look down at the speck that is myself.  I gaze at the stars and recall what role I or any of us play in a universe beyond comprehension.  Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view.
      — Philip Yancey, Prayer:  Does It Make Any Difference? p. 29.

One of the reasons why prayer can sometimes be difficult is because it asks us to see things from God’s perspective, and that is no easy task for us.  We see life and the world mostly from our perspective.  If you are a parent, you know how quickly your perspective on life changes the moment your child is born.  It’s not a gradual change in perspective; it’s immediate.  When they wrap that precious little baby in a blanket and place it in your arms it is at that very moment that everything changes, including your perspective on life.  In a single moment, you immediately understand why your parents said and did the things they said and did.  You look at that precious little baby and say to yourself, I will do anything for this child.  I would die for this child.  God is no different.  We are God’s children, and God’s expression is to do anything for us, even to die for us!  As human parents, with all of our love and devotion and faithfulness to our children, it is but a pale reflection of the love and devotion and faithfulness that God has for us and exhibits to us.

C. S. Lewis wrote that when I pray it doesn’t change God; it changes me.  May our prayers change us into the people God desires us to be and the people he created us to be – people who may have questions but remain faithful, people who may struggle but never quit, and people who may lose heart but never, ever give up.

Never give up!  Never give up on prayer, never give up on hope.  Never give up!