ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OCTOBER 16, 2016
Genesis 32: 22 – 31; Luke 18: 1 – 8
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
The Roman poet Ovid once said, “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” Every parent knows the truth of that statement. When my daughter was 6 she decided her life wouldn’t be complete without a dog. We didn’t want a dog. She begged and pleaded. For 3 years. 3 very long years. We got a dog.
Jesus too knew the power of dripping water. To encourage his followers to “pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Jesus told a parable about a widow who went to a judge seeking justice. At that time anyone wanting to be heard in court would line up in the town square to meet the judge and have their case vetted. If the judge saw fit, he’d try the case at a later time. The judge in this town was a hard man. He didn’t care about some lowly widow and her problems. He ignored her plea. But the woman returned every day, unyielding in her quest for justice. Like dripping water, the woman eventually wore him down. The judge decided, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (vs. 4 & 5) Jesus summarizes, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” (vs. 7 & 8)
From Jesus’ summary statement we conclude that if a hard-hearted, miserable judge can be worn down through nagging, how much more readily will our compassionate God hear the pleas and answer the prayers of his covenant people. This seems like a simple story but right up front this text is a bit problematic. The confusion comes from the fact Jesus tells the parable to encourage us to “pray always and not to lose heart”. If God is quick to answer our prayers why do we need the encouragement? What would cause us to lose heart? Clearly God isn’t always as quick to hear our prayers as we’d like, or as we think he should be, or we wouldn’t have to worry about getting discouraged. Jesus knew that sometimes we need to pray like dripping water, “crying to God day and night”, before our prayers are granted. Prayer doesn’t always bring instant results.
In answer to Jesus’ rhetorical question, “Will he delay long in helping them?” I guess that depends on what we consider long. To an infinite God, time passes (or doesn’t pass) in a way that’s different from our finite experience. What is quick to God may seem long to us. George Muller, a Christian who ran an orphanage, began praying for five of his friends to know Christ. After many months, one of them came to the Lord. Ten years later, two others were converted. The fourth man was saved after 25 years. Muller’s persistence paid off, 52 years later, after Muller’s death, the last man was saved. I hope God will answer my prayers in my lifetime, but that’s not as important as answering my prayers in the life of the person for whom I’m praying.
God may desire to answer our prayers quickly but even God faces barriers. People. People have minds of their own. Sometimes they’re hard-hearted and resist God. Sometimes their wills are erratic – open to God one minute and closed the next. When it comes to prayers that involve other people, God may be up against some pretty erratic or callous individuals. Being God he could just crack their hardened shells and plant himself right in their hearts but God honours our will. Unlike the judge in the parable, God respects us. So God doesn’t force himself on us and he doesn’t go where he’s not wanted, but he doesn’t give up either. He is persistent in the process of calling people to faith and bringing wholeness to their lives and we need to be persistent in praying for them.
Persistence is a practice that usually pays off in the end. Thomas Edison performed thousands of experiments before he succeeded in producing a storage battery. Had he given up, we’d still be riding horse drawn buggies and using lanterns instead of flash lights. His persistence eventually bore fruit. We might assume the famous inventor had some serious doubts along the way. But when asked if he ever became discouraged working so long without results, Edison replied, “Results? Why, I discovered thousands of things that didn’t work.” Part of what helps us to persist in prayer is our perspective. Instead of being so eager to get what we want, when God doesn’t respond instantly, it’s important to step back to see what we can discover. By not answering our every prayer immediately, God teaches us reliance on him; we’re reminded that we need God and that the blessings of life aren’t to be taken for granted. Delayed answers teach us patience, we learn to wait on the Lord, to trust, to draw our strength from him. Delayed answers also cause us to get a glimpse of life from God’s perspective and if we do, we might realize that our prayers were not in line with God’s purposes. The next time you get discouraged about the “lack of results” to your prayers, think of Edison – “Results? Why, I discovered God at work in my spirit in ways I’d have missed if he’d answered my prayer immediately.”
Prayer is a process through which God transforms us. The Atlantic Monthly reported a story about the days of the great western cattle ranch: “A little burro sometimes would be harnessed to a wild steed. Bucking and raging, convulsing like drunken sailors, the two would be turned loose like Laurel and Hardy to proceed out onto the desert range. They could be seen disappearing over the horizon, the great steed dragging that little burro along and throwing him about like a bag of cream puffs. They might be gone for days, but eventually they’d come back. The little burro would be seen first, trotting back across the horizon, leading the submissive steed in tow. Somewhere out there on the rim of the world that steed would become exhausted from trying to get rid of the burro, and in that moment, the burro would take mastery and become the leader.” When we first come to God in prayer, we are often like a wild steed wanting to drag God along with us in the hope he will follow us and do our will. God is tenacious. He hangs on for the ride until we are worn down; then he becomes the leader. As we pray and not lose heart we eventually come to a place of surrender where we’re able to say, “not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
It’s interesting that Jesus told the parable so his disciples would “not lose heart”. The Latin word for heart is “cor”. It is the root which gives us the word “courage”. Brené Brown writes, “Courage is a heart word. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as “ordinary courage.” Prayer is a courageous act. In prayer we speak honestly and openly to God from our hearts. Prayer takes courage because prayer is a relationship. Through prayer we come into a more intimate bond with God. Theologian Karl Barth said that “Every prayer is a prayer of supplication because we are always asking for God himself.” God may delay in answering the content of our prayers – our loved one may not be healed of their disease immediately; it may take 52 years for someone to discover God’s grace in Jesus Christ – but he answers the substance of our prayers – he draws close to us in ways we couldn’t imagine. Drawing close to God, making our deepest needs known, telling all, takes courage.
Jesus encourages us to “Pray always and to not lose heart” because sometimes God, in his wisdom and love, delays, not in hearing our constant cries, but in responding to them. When that happens we often question God. We might better question ourselves. When we don’t get instant results from our prayers do we give up on our faith? Do we give up on God? Do we stop praying? Or do we persist like dripping water on stone. That’s Jesus question when he says, “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (vs. 8) The Greeks had a race in their Olympic games that was unique. The winner was not the runner who finished first. It was the runner who finished with his torch still lit. The race may be slow and difficult, it may be filled with grace and blessings and it may consist of tears and prayers and times of waiting. Jesus encourages his followers to continue on, to not give up and to keep the flame of your torch, the light of your faith, the fire of your passion and the hope of God’s mercy burning, so that you will finish the race with your torch still lit for him.