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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

October 20, 2013

When We Pray

Luke 18:1-8; Psalm 13

  Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

 Eugene Peterson once wrote, “Everyone prays – kind of.”  For some of us, prayer is simply “brief and random exclamations scattered haphazardly across a lifetime” (Praying with the Psalms, introd.).  Jesus knew this, no doubt.  He knew that persistent prayer is not common because it is not easy.  I find it encouraging that Jesus bothered to tell a parable that urges us to pray, not kind of, not randomly, not haphazardly, but always.  I find it more encouraging that Jesus bothered to say, “don’t lose heart” when you pray.  Don’t lose heart when you pray.  Answers to prayer can be a long time coming.  But Jesus tells us a parable that will etch on our hearts the promise that God will answer.

Years ago, Jim Carrey starred in that movie, Bruce Almighty, in which his character, named Bruce, gets fed up with God because it seems that everything in his life is going wrong.  Bruce chastises God for God’s failure to live up to his reputation.  Bruce, so exasperated with his trials and disappointments, declares that he could do a better job at being the Almighty.  And, to prove that God has a sense of humor, the Almighty visits Bruce, in the flesh, played by Morgan Freeman.  And God says, “Okay, if you think you can do a better job, be my guest.”  Next thing you know, Bruce has to be God for a day.  And one of the first things he learns is that his email inbox is filled with millions of prayers.  And Bruce does not have the leisure to ignore the prayers, and Bruce is not inclined to consider each prayer and weigh it before answering; Bruce decides to simplify matters: he simply replies “Yes” to every single prayer.  Not too hard, was it?

But, then, things get complicated.  Chief among them is the fact that thousands of people seem to have won the lottery on the preceding day.  I guess they didn’t bother in their prayers to ask God to allow them to win and everyone else to lose.  I guess Bruce didn’t think through the implications of saying “Yes” to every single request.  But that is something that few of us ever need to ponder: what if God did say “Yes” to every prayer, and right away?

In fact, most of us have learned the hard way that God’s answers to our prayers often come very slowly.  We know it so well that when we hear Jesus say, “God will quickly grant justice to [his chosen ones] when they pray,” we realize that the story is complicated.  Prayers rarely are answered quickly.  I remember well when I learned this lesson.

I was twenty-five years old, almost half my life ago.  I was in my first year in seminary, answering God’s call excitedly.  I was plunging into Greek and Hebrew, theology and church history.  I was answering questions from my presbytery about my sense of call.  And somewhere along the line between June and December, I found myself slipping into anxiety, fear, and depression.  I had no clue what was going on.  I had no idea what to do.  This was supposed to be the most joyous time of my life, and it became the absolute darkest.  I remember waking up day after day in my dorm room, early in the morning while it was still dark, and literally crawling off the bed to kneel at a metal dorm chair, begging God to help me make it through the day.

And I vividly remember, after weeks of this, feeling torn between whether I should keep praying or stop bothering God.  There was a song I liked at the time with the line, “I know better than to pray now about what I just have to learn to do.”  I felt this ambivalence, this sense that maybe what God wanted me to do was to get up and do something for myself.

This is when I learned how to pray.  I had prayed my whole life prior to this; my Dad was a minister and my Mom was a Christian educator.  They taught me how to pray.  But it was that year in the darkness when I learned how to pray always, and not to lose heart.  The Psalms taught me that.

            How long, O Lord? Will you hide your face from me forever?

The Psalms taught me honest prayer.  Peterson says that psalms, more than anything else in the church’s life, are God’s provision for people who are learning to pray always.  The Psalms make us fluent in prayer.  They teach us to trust God as God, and to know ourselves as needy children of God.  They teach us to trust that God is good, and is working out very good purposes for us as we wait for answers to prayer.  They teach us that God will answer our prayers.  Jesus did not leave very much to us in the way of specific instructions or techniques for prayer.  His disciples did make one excellent decision: they retained the Old Testament as our Bible, which includes the Psalms.  This is God’s provision for us as we learn to pray always.

God alone is God.  When we pray, we let God be God, and ourselves be needy.  It is not a mistake that when Jesus tells us a parable about our need to pray always and not lose heart, the person we are supposed to imitate is a poor widow.  There are only three characters in this parable: a corrupt judge, an implied enemy of the woman’s, who likely can pay the judge a bribe, and the main character, the poor widow.  Widows in Jesus’ day were as close to helpless as you can imagine.  Throughout the Bible, a widow is a “symbol of the innocent, powerless oppressed” (Ken Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 133).  And the Jewish legal system called for particular concern toward widows and orphans, because they had no persons to defend them.  Because of Isaiah 1:17, suits on behalf of widows took second place in priority only to those of orphans.

Kenneth Bailey says that we can assume three things from this parable: The widow is being denied justice and she is in the right; for some reason, the judge is avoiding her; and the judge prefers to favor her adversary, perhaps because the adversary is powerful or even is paying a bribe.  The woman can do nothing but persistently cry out for vindication.  All she has is persistence, and she is the example Jesus gives to us, when we pray.  We need to pray always, persistently, never giving up.  Even when we start to wonder if God is growing tired of us.  Even when we begin to feel ashamed of ourselves for being so helpless.  Even when we begin to feel too proud to continue this embarrassing spectacle.  Jesus says that we are to keep praying to God, like a persistent widow who finally drives the judge to answer her plea, just so that she will leave him alone!  If a corrupt judge will finally answer a persistent plea, Jesus says, surely your good God will answer your prayers.  When we pray, we let God be God, and ourselves be needy.  Praying the Psalms teaches us this.

They also teach us to trust that God is good, and is working out very good purposes for us as we wait for answers to prayer.  While we pray with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord,” God is busily working out salvation.  Our spoken prayers are the tip of the iceberg of the answer that God is preparing for us.  I had no idea, when I was twenty-five, how much sanctifying work God was doing on me then.  No one could have told me in ways that I would have understood.  That was something that I could learn only through time and prayer and patience.  But patience, as little as you or I want to learn it, is essential.  And when we pray, we remember that God is very patient with us.  How often does the Bible describe the Lord as slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love?  How often in your own life have you discovered the mercy of God toward you in your failings?  Bailey tells of a story among the rabbis of “a king who wondered where to station his troops.  He decided to quarter them at some distance from the capital so that on the occasion of civil disobedience it would take some time to bring them.  In the interim the rebels would have an opportunity to come to their senses…” (Bailey, 138).

 God is patient with us, and when we pray and as we wait for God to answer, we learn patience ourselves.  We learn patience toward our enemies as God shows patience with us.  God is doing something in us, even now, more than we know to pray for.  God is shaping and forming us into the people we can be.  It is abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine.  And it takes time.  It takes time for us to become this; it takes time for our enemies to become this.  And God wants all of us to become this.

That Bruce Almighty movie was so successful that they made a sequel and called it Evan Almighty.  This time, Steve Carell played the main character, but Morgan Freeman was still God.  And in the story, Evan’s wife prays that God will bring their family closer together.  But at a critical point in their life together, when she believes Evan has gone crazy, she leaves him.  And as she flees, she is met in a diner by an old black man in a waiter’s uniform, who kindly listens to her lamentation.  She is genuinely perplexed.  She is at her wit’s end.  She tells the waiter, “My husband believes that God told him to build an ark.  What do you do with that?”

And mysteriously, he says to her, “It sounds like an opportunity.  Let me ask you: if someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience or does he give them the opportunity to be patient?  If they pray for courage, does he give them courage or opportunities to be courageous?  If someone prays for her family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm, fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?  Well, I gotta run; a lotta people to serve.”

When we pray, God is doing abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine; more in us, more in the lives of the people around us.

A third thing that the Psalms teach us is that God promises to answer our prayers, promises to vindicate the faith that keeps us praying, even when we don’t see an answer anywhere in sight.  In the parable, Jesus says that God, who is good, surely will answer our prayers just as the unjust judge grants the request of the widow.  “Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”  When we pray, we are holding onto that promise.  We don’t know when it will happen and we don’t know how, but we know it will happen.  It is one of the perplexing things about Psalm 13, how it turns suddenly from verse four and its fear that the enemy will win, to verse five and its joy in God’s salvation.  The Psalmist doesn’t tell us if God suddenly answered the prayer; or if some word of assurance was spoken in prayer.  We simply don’t know.  The prayer simply jumps from cries for help to shouts of joy.  “I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me.”

Most of us who pray this prayer have to say those last two verses for a long time before they become our own.  We can pray the first four verses easily, because waiting for vindication in the midst of trials is a common experience.  When everything seems to be going against us; when we wonder how we are going to make it through the day; when we wonder if we even want to make it through the day.  But we learn to pray by praying the last two verses even when we are not feeling them.  “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”

That is a prayer of faith.  That is a prayer that trusts the promise of Jesus and refuses to quit.  That is a prayer that trusts God to be God, and that is a believer who is willing to accept the fact of neediness, like a widow who has literally nothing and no one else.  Jesus promises that God will vindicate our faith.  Jesus urges us to pray always, to pray persistently, and not to lose heart.

In the movie, Evan’s obedience to God is vindicated.  As crazy as it seemed to everyone who knew him, even to his wife, the ark that he built was needed.  And his wife’s decision to return to him, to take the opportunity to love him, was vindicated.  And their family was brought closer together.

Some of you may have been present at the Easter Sunrise service in 2006, when I got to preach because I was the rookie on staff.  A funny thing happened that morning.  It was cloudy and threatening to rain for the whole service.  Just near the end of the sermon, the clouds opened up and the drops of rain started to fall.  For some silly reason, I held up my hands to heaven and said, “Lord, if you could hold off a few more minutes, we’re almost done here.”  And … it stopped.  The rain stopped.  And everyone laughed.  And after the service, several people jokingly said that they figure I must have a direct line to God.

Well, let me assure you that I have no more direct line to God than you do.  But I do have a lot of experience in prayer.  I have learned that what Jesus promises, and what the Psalmist practices, is absolutely true.  God will surely vindicate the faith of his people who pray persistently.  God is God, and we need God.  When we pray, we let God be God, and ourselves be needy.  When we pray, we trust that God is good, and is doing far more abundantly in us, and in others, than we could ask or imagine.  And when we pray, we can be certain that our pleas for help will somehow, someway, turn to shouts of joy.  Those sleepless nights and dark mornings, when we pray both hoping and despairing at once, shape and form us into the people God would have us be.

Jesus tells us this parable because we need to pray always and not lose heart.  Trust him, fellow Christians.  Trust him, and keep praying.

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