This was a fun sermon to study for and to preach. Prayer is a topic that always deserves attention and comment, and people really need to hear the true teaching on prayer, with all the nonsense that Christian format radio, generic Protestant bookstores, etc etc etc push.
This sermon also presented a little bit of a dilemma that the average churchgoer wouldn’t normally think about. The lectionary (=the series of readings we follow in church every week) appointed verse 1-8a as the gospel for the day. Notice that they left off the second half of v.8. What’s the difference, you ask? Without the second half of verse 8, the text is clearly presenting the teaching of Jesus on prayer. The focus is on prayer. But if you look at the end of the previous chapter, Jesus was just discussing the end of the world with His disciples. Then He launches into this teaching on prayer. In context, the crying out night and day that Jesus mentions would therefore be the prayers of Christians for the Last Day to come. That emphasis of praying for the Last Day fits in well with the church year, because next week the season of End Times starts. We’ll be talking about and thinking about the Last Judgment, Christ’s return as King over all, and similar things. So to preach this text with that focus would fit well. But the other lessons for today help show that this text was intended to teach about prayer, without the focus on the end of the world. That’s why the second half of verse 8 was left off.
So what’s the pastor to do? In my case, I chose to include the rest of v.8. For one thing, it’s easier for people if they can see the entire verse. They might wonder why the entire verse wasn’t included, and it’s not a big enough point to talk about in the sermon, but they’d still want to know. However, I didn’t emphasize the connection in thought with the Last Day. I thought the teaching on prayer would be more useful and appreciated for our particular congregation. It also had the merit of being somewhat simpler to get across and to listen to. There’s nothing wrong with simple things…in fact, people often appreciate them because they are clear and can be understood. Trying to be fancy and subtle just ties one up in knots and confuses people.
Bet you never thought so much went into the Scripture lessons and sermon you hear every Sunday, huh? Hope you are edified by the sermon!
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5yet 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!’ ”
6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8I 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?” (Luke 18:1-8 niv)
What’s the greatest prayer a Christian can pray? When I ask that question in Bible class, somebody always answers, “The Lord’s Prayer.” I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that. The prayer our Lord has taught us is a shining example of how to pray. It covers everything in just a few words. Many of the Psalms also make good prayers. If you want to know how to pray better, read the Psalms. The Psalms help teach us how to pray. There are lots of other good prayers, too, many of which come from the church’s history. Some of them are in our hymnal. But maybe there’s not one particular set of words to say that is the best prayer. Maybe it’s the way you pray. Jesus said as much: “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, unbelievers, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Sometimes a sob or a sigh are far more eloquent prayers than whole shelves of prayer books could ever hope to be. So what makes a good prayer? Today we’ll find out what The Best Kind of Prayer is. It’s one that’s persistent. It’s one that’s trusting.
When was the last time you prayed? I’m not talking about the prayers you pray at certain points in your day, like meal prayers or prayers before church. Those are right and good, and we should pray them. But those aren’t the kind of prayers I’m talking about. When was the last time you really prayed? When was the last time you prayed like your life, or the life of someone you loved, depended on it? When was the last time you opened your heart up to God and dumped it out on the table like a little child dumping out her mother’s purse? It’s probably been awhile.
I’m sure that if I asked, everybody here would probably admit pretty freely that their prayer life is not what they’d like it to be – not what it could be. Why is that? Why don’t we pray like that every day? For one thing, it’s hard. Really praying, calling on God like you’re about to die if he doesn’t answer you right now, takes a lot of effort. It wears you out. Rare is the person who can sustain that sort of spiritual effort for very long. Maybe we don’t have serious, life-threatening things to pray about every day, or we think we don’t. The days just go by in their usual routine, without anything big enough to ask for God’s help. Sometimes we act like prayer is in a red metal box with a glass front on the wall, labeled “Break Glass in Case of Emergency.” I can get by on my own for now – I can wait to pray until something really big comes along. I’ll pray when I get stuck.
Many times we offer prayers that are cold leftovers of our time and attention. We mumble through a few petitions, asking only for physical things. Sometimes we don’t even finish. We trail off or get distracted. I submit to you that the problem of our paltry and halfhearted prayers is much more serious than it seems at first. A lack of prayer shows a lack of faith. Prayer is faith exercising itself toward God. In asking him for things, we trust that he will help us. If we’re not praying, we’re not exercising our faith. That’s part of why Jesus says what he says in the last verse of our gospel: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” A lot of times we lack the faith to ask as God wants us to. I’m not saying that none of us here have any faith at all. The fact that you’re here at all is evidence that you have faith. The Spirit prompted you to come to God’s house today and hear his Word. That was not your doing alone. But while we have faith, we don’t always have faith that God will answer this prayer this time. It’s almost like we don’t want to get too specific, because then we won’t be disappointed. We don’t want to be let down by God.
It’s to combat exactly that idea and that feeling that Jesus tells us the parable about the widow who won’t give up. This widow had nobody to help her, nobody else to rely on. She kept coming to the judge, and the judge didn’t care. He didn’t give a hoot what anybody thought of him – not God, not man. He only paid attention to himself. Yet this widow was able to get him to crack. She kept coming, and kept coming, and kept coming. She’s so insistent that he’s afraid she’ll give him a black eye if he doesn’t give her the verdict she needs! She wanted a favorable verdict so badly that she was willing to get in the judge’s face, and if need be punch him in the face! The word Jesus uses to describe her urging the judge is one that’s associated with prizefighters and boxing. By showing up and bothering him to help her all the time, the widow beats down the judge figuratively, and she looked ready to beat him down literally too. That’s how badly she wants justice.
Jesus tells us, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” In other words, that’s how you pray! That’s the right way to ask God for help: so insistently that it’s almost violent. Never giving up. Keep coming back until you get what you’re asking for. If you want a way to picture it, grab God by the front of his shirt and shake. Beat on his door until he answers. Call on him with everything you’ve got, because this is prayer that pleases him. This is the best kind of prayer: prayer that hounds God and will leave him no peace until he does what he’s promised for you and answered your cry for help, prayer that throws itself on God’s mercy over and over no matter how many times he hasn’t answered right away in the past. What is the best kind of prayer? It’s persistent.
Why is this kind of prayer so pleasing to God? Because it shows that you trust in him above all else for help and support. Because it shows that you understand that nobody but him will help you, and he is your first and greatest helper. Because you are relying on him – not on yourself, not on your hard work or your reputation or the people you know, but totally, only on God. You’re not trying to fix anything or make anything work on your own. You simply turn to God and cry out to him for help, without a thought of help from anybody but him. That’s faith in action. That is what pleases him best – when you honor him by seeking his help. Praying that way is an act of worship. You’re honoring God by trusting in him and asking for his help, in the same way that parents or grandparents may feel honored or important when their children ask for their opinion or their advice. You’re relying on him and not on yourself.
It would be great if we could pray that way all the time. But we may ask, how can we be sure that God’s going to hold up his end? Sure, he wants me to pray that way, but how can I know that God will answer? In order to make us eager to pray that urgently, Jesus gives us extra incentive, in the form of a promise: “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?” The answer, of course, is no way! God won’t keep putting us off. He’s not like that uncaring judge in the parable. He loves us. He says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” “For he chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which has he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” If he loves you that much, he’s not going to save you and then turn a deaf ear to you when you need help, is he? Of course not! God knows what you need, what you want more than anything else in the world, what makes you afraid or doubtful. He has made you his child through faith in Christ, and Christ the Son of the living God is your guarantee that God will hear and answer your prayers.
Somebody might object that God doesn’t answer all of our prayers. I prayed for a long time for thus and such, and I never got it. God never gave me what I prayed for. What about those instances? How do they fit with what Jesus teaches us here? First of all, many times God does answer our prayers instantly. Keep track some time of how many prayers you pray that God answers. You’ll probably be surprised if you do. I did that for a while, and I was almost amazed at how often God gave me what I prayed for – and how often I forgot how I wanted it so badly when he gave me what I wanted.
But it’s true, God doesn’t answer every prayer we pray exactly as we prayed it. Sometimes he does this out of kindness. There have been many times in my life where God wisely did not answer what I prayed for the way I prayed for it. I’m sure you could think of a few times where that’s been true for you as well. Sometimes God allows us to wait because we’re not ready when we first begin to pray for something. He knows us better than we know ourselves. His time is best. It’s hard to remember that, but that’s why Jesus tells us not to give up when we pray. Just keep sending up your prayers at God – he will answer when the time is right. Sometimes God makes us wait so that we will appreciate his help and value it all the more. If we always get what we ask for instantly, we might develop an uncaring or ungrateful attitude toward God. But if we pray long and hard for something and he finally allows us to enjoy it, then we have another opportunity to pray and thank him – and to tell others what great things God has done for us.
For all the other times, when we keep praying and praying – sometimes for years – and we don’t see any results, Jesus simply replies with the fact that God will hear and he will do what is right. God can accomplish whatever he wishes, and he doesn’t have to wait around like we do. He can flip any situation from sorrow and anxiety into joy and gladness with just a word. We can wait for a long time, maybe for years, but when God does grant our prayer, it will be far better than we could possibly imagine. When he knows the time has come, he can act fast.
A Christian named Monica, who lived in North Africa in the fourth century, found that out for herself. She prayed and prayed for her son. All she wanted was for him to become a Christian. It seemed like he never would. He fathered a child out of wedlock and joined a church that taught false doctrine, but she kept praying for him. When he was twenty-nine, God answered her prayer. Her son became a Christian, and not only that, but he became a Christian pastor, then a bishop in the city of Hippo, and finally he became one of the greatest teachers the Christian church has ever known after the time of the apostles. His name was Augustine. His mother’s years of prayers did not go unanswered – just as yours do not. God can act fast when he knows it’s time.
Don’t forget that God can act fast the next time you face an impossible situation, or when you think about the terrible or the painful situation you’re in right now. Don’t get discouraged or lose heart in your prayers to God for help and deliverance. He does hear; he hears them all, and he will help. Just be persistent and trust that Jesus will give you exactly what is best. That’s the best kind of prayer. May God grant that our prayers find acceptance in his sight, for the sake of his Son. Amen.