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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 16, 2016

 Jesus’ Story on Prayer

Psalm 130;Luke 18:1-8

            The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, and the Cleveland Indians haven’t since 1948, yet both teams seem poised to make it this year to play in the World Series.  So maybe it is the perfect morning for us to turn to Jesus’ parable that Luke told us “to the effect that we ought to pray always, and not lose heart.”  It may be one of the most important parables Jesus ever offered, because it clearly is a parable about prayer.  What makes it even more timely, though, is that all of us know what it is to grow discouraged, to be tempted to give up, or just to settle.

            In Jesus’ parable, like last week’s story of the ten lepers, found only in Luke, a widow pleads before a judge “who neither feared God nor regarded people.”  He is later called by Jesus “the unrighteous” or “the unjust judge.”  The man refused to hear the powerless widow.  (It is a reminder that a lot of cries for justice still go unheard, even in our country.)  But this widow never gives up.  She keeps coming back, never taking “no” for a final answer.  The judge finally yields in Jesus’ parable: “Yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.”  (I think I’ve met such a person, don’t you?!)

            Jesus says first off that this is a parable about prayer.  We “ought always to pray,” Luke tells us.  The Bible tells us this often.  Paul bids us to “pray without ceasing” in one place, to “pray continually” in another.  So on the surface this is a parable about perseverance, or persistence, or endurance and patience in prayer.  There is great power in not giving up, in finding the strength to persevere.  The hottest ticket in America remains Hamilton.  I recall reading Ron Chernow’s epic biography of Hamilton, written in 2004, the inspiration for the hit musical.  I remember Chernow’s observation that in the War for Independence, we won very few battles against the superior forces of the British.  Washington fought for the most part a war of retreat.  Alexander Hamilton was Washington’s aide-de-camp.  As soon as the tide would turn in a battle, Washington would beat a hasty retreat, eventually sending the unmistakable message to Great Britain that he was never going to give up or surrender or stop fighting.  Britain was also engaged in another war with the Spanish on the other side of the ocean.  Washington was like the widow in Jesus’ parable.  He wore out British resolve through persistence!

            Jesus is telling us to do likewise; never to give up in our praying.  I think of my Grandmother Elizabeth Williams Jones on this count.  She sent two of her four sons off to war.  She received word that my father, fighting in North Africa in Operation Torch, had been captured and taken a prisoner of war.  In fact he was held prisoner for twenty-seven months.  First, the Red Cross notified her that he was missing in action.  But about a year later, she was notified that he was presumed dead.  The Scranton Times even carried Benjamin Williams Jones’ obituary.  Yet she never gave up praying for her oldest son.  She never lost heart, even though her heart was broken.

            But such prayers are always risky.  To pray, really to put yourself on the line, not to hedge your bets, is scary.  Because really to pray for something you want with all your heart is to run the risk that you will not get what you long for, what your heart aches to see.

            When we pray, really pray, we put our faith on the line.  Is there a God, or not?  If there is, does this God listen?  Does this God care about me?  I know people like my grandmother who prayed and persisted and finally lived to see their prayers answered.  But I also know people who prayed with all their hearts for something and ended up with nothing, or something very different, at least.  I know folks who prayed for miracles, and never got them.  And I would be lying if I did not admit to you that I know what it is to pray for something with all my heart, and not get it.

            And even with that said, and out in the open between us, I am still drawn to this widow who never stops or gives up praying.  I still want to be a person who “always prays and does not lose heart.”  I say this because I believe in the power of never giving up, of persistence.  Charles Haddon Spurgeon suffered from depression all his life.  But I love what this great preacher said once: “By perseverance the snail reached the ark.”  George Matheson, the blind preacher who wrote this morning’s hymn, said, “We conquer – not in any brilliant fashion – we conquer by continuing.”

            But I do not think this is all this parable is saying.  If it were, Norman Vincent Peale or Joel Osteen could say as much.  It is a good message, but not Jesus’ full message.  This is clearly a parable about praying and not losing heart.  But like all of Jesus’ parables, it is far more a parable about God.  And Jesus is surely not saying God is like the unjust judge!  He is saying just the opposite – He is contrasting the two.  It was one of Jesus’ favorite methods – arguing from the lesser to the greater.  If an unjust judge wearies and grants justice to a persistent widow, how much more will God hear your cries and grant you justice?  If a scoundrel of a judge finally listens to what is on the heart of a widow, how much more will God hear whatever is on your heart?  How much more does God want to hear every last plea that is on your heart?

            I know prayer is risky.  I know God does not answer every prayer in the way we hope, or in ways we will completely understand in this life.  I have sustained some rather large disappointments in prayer.  But I am still drawn to Jesus’ parable about praying and not losing heart, and it makes me want to pray more boldly and passionately than ever for the desires of my heart.

            Remember, Luke tells us Jesus told this parable so that “we ought always to pray and not lose heart.”  Maybe there is a connection between the two: between praying and not losing heart: between praying and keeping your heart alive and responsive.  Our prayers will always be far from perfect, but they are still the best connection we have to God.  Prayer keeps us related to God, especially when our prayers are not answered as we want.  In those moments, I have learned that prayer is even more important!  Corrie ten Boom once said, “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away your ticket and jump off.  You sit still and trust the engineer.”  Maybe that is why Jesus is telling us “always to pray and not lose heart.”  Even when things are dark, Jesus wants you to believe that God can be trusted, that God hears your cries.

            The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is prayer?”  I love the answer, and have committed it to heart.  “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of God’s mercies.”  “Praying is an offering up of our desires unto God….”  Praying is being honest to God, opening up our hearts to God, pouring forth the longings of our lives before God.  Prayer is putting it all on the line with God, or maybe it isn’t really prayer at all.

            Mother Teresa once said, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of Himself.”  God wants us to be large-hearted, open-hearted people, even if it also means sometimes we will be broken-hearted people.

            So what are your deepest, your fiercest, your most passionate prayers?  What are the longings of your heart?  Pray them.  Pray them all, persistently, stubbornly, openly.  And one day, I promise, your heart will be so stretched, so big that God Himself will dwell there in it.

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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