The 24th Sunday after Pentecost November 8, 2015
1 Kings 19:3-8
20, 342, 416, 50
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’”Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”
Imagine dialing 911 and getting a busy signal or being placed on hold. Imagine dialing 911 and hearing a recorded message say, “The number you have reached is no longer in service,” or “Our office is now closed. Normal business hours are Monday through Friday, 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Please call back then.”
Imagine dialing 911 and telling the operator, “My house is on fire! Please help! And hurry!” The operator replies, “Don’t worry, sir. Help is on the way.” Only help never arrives. Or help arrives too late and with too little—a single bucket of water instead of a fully equipped fire-truck.
It is difficult to imagine these scenarios when calling 911. Yet, ironically, haven’t we all imagined them when calling upon Almighty God in prayer? Busy signals: “God, are you too busy to help me?” On hold: “God, why are you making me wait?” Disconnected number: “God, are my prayers even reaching you?” Too little and too late: “God, where were you when I needed you?”
Look closely, and you will find examples of these very complaints in Scripture. The prophet Habakkuk lamented, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2 NIV). To me that sounds like “God, why did you place me on hold?” The psalmist wrote, “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself!” (Psalm 44:23 NIV). To me that sounds like “God, did I call after hours? Is the office closed?”
When Lazarus of Bethany died his sisters, Mary and Martha, spoke identical words to Jesus, at different times: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21,32). To me that sounds like “God, too little, too late.”
Or consider the example of Jacob in Genesis 32. All of us can identify with that sleepless, lonely night Jacob spent praying by the Jabbok River. Years earlier Jacob had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright. Learning that Esau intended to kill him, Jacob had fled to Syria. But he could not outrun his past or his problems. When Jacob discovered that Esau was rapidly approaching with four hundred armed men, he was worried and frightened—not only for himself, but even more so for his family. So he prayed to God.
This was his prayer: “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper.’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted’ ” (Genesis 32:9-12 NIV).
In many ways Jacob’s prayer was a model prayer. He prayed in humility. He confessed his unworthiness and fear. He praised God’s grace and goodness. He claimed God’s promises. In response, God came to Jacob that dark, lonely night in person and wrestled with him. Have you ever wrestled with God in prayer? If so, didn’t you find the experience long, wearying, and even painful? And yet in response, God came to Jacob that dark, lonely night in person and wrestled with him. Have you ever wrestled with God in prayer? If so, didn’t you find the experience long, wearying, and even painful?
Likewise, we can easily identify with the widow in Christ’s parable recorded in today’s text. This widow had been wronged in some way—haven’t we all? With no husband to support her, she repeatedly asked an unjust judge for justice. For the longest while, her petitions went ignored and unanswered.
Haven’t you had a similar experience? Haven’t you gone through troublesome times—health troubles, financial troubles, marital troubles, spiritual troubles—when you repeatedly asked God for help, but for the longest while the desired help didn’t come and your prayers were seemingly unanswered? When it seemed like your prayers were unanswered, were you tempted to think of God as an unjust judge?
Of all our experiences with prayer, perhaps waiting for God to act is the most difficult: Waiting like Jacob did as he wrestled God from darkness till dawn, waiting like the poor widow did as she made numerous trips to the town courthouse. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him,” David wrote in Psalm 37:7 (NIV), and all of us are thinking, “Yeah, right. Easier said than done, David.
Of course, sometimes God does answer prayer quickly. Jesus stated in today’s text: “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.” [vv. 7-8a NIV]
At the same time, all of us have known the difficulty of waiting and waiting and waiting for God to provide an answer prayer that we can see. I graduated from the seminary in May of 1978, and four months later received my first call into the ministry. However, those four months of waiting, praying, and checking the mailbox three times daily, felt more like four years. I prayed for months for my dad to survive pancreatic cancer. I prayed for ten years for God to heal a troubled marriage.
When we face such obstacles to prayer, how can we go on praying? How can we be persistent pray-ers—persistent like Jacob, persistent like that poor widow? Yes, Jacob wrestled with God, but Jacob also won the match. Yes, that widow made repeated demands for justice, but eventually her demands were met.
Endurance and perseverance are both important themes in Scripture. But the difference between them is this: Endurance means to hold on, and perseverance means to press on. God wants you to be a persistent pray-er. He wants you to persist in prayer despite the impossibility of your situation, to persist in prayer despite the passing of time, to persist in prayer despite the obstacles to praying—presumed busy signals, on hold, disconnected numbers, and too little and too late.
I am not the one telling you today to persist in your praying. God is. The very reason Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow was to show His disciples “always ought to pray and not lose heart—not give up.” [v.1] Have you been praying and praying? Have you been wrestling with God in prayer? Do you feel exhausted and ready to give up? If so, let me remind you of seven simple reasons why you should go on praying and never give up.
First, be a persistent pray-er, because God has invited you to pray. That is a simple enough reason to go on praying, but it is nonetheless important. Early in my ministry, when calling people by phone, I developed the habit of asking, “Do you have time to talk now?” I asked this question knowing that some people were too busy to talk and other people had no desire to talk.
However, the very opposite is true of God. There is never a time or situation, no matter how trivial, when you need inquire of God: “Do you have time to talk with me?” God is always ready to listen to you. You can never intrude. You can never bore Him with details. You can never talk too long or ask for too much. God wants you to come to him with every problem and concern. Here are but three of his invitations. “Call upon me in the day of trouble” (Psalm 50:15). “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:16). “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened” (Matthew 11:28 NIV).
Second, be a persistent prayer because God has promised to listen and to act. Each of the prayer invitations I just read also includes the promise of deliverance. Listen carefully. Psalm 50:15: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will glorify Me.” Isaiah 1:16: “’Come now, let is reason together,’ says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’ ” Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (NIV). The promise of Almighty God is this: When you approach God in prayer, you will never walk away empty-handed. “Ask,” said Jesus, “and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
Third, be a persistent pray-er because God will never confuse your temporal wants with your eternal needs. Why is this important? So often we give up on prayer because we don’t get what we want. “I asked to have a windfall of money, but didn’t. I asked to get that new job, but didn’t. I asked to be cured from a particular health problem, but wasn’t. So, what use is there in praying?”
Yet, do we ever stop to consider that God may not be giving us what we want, because what we want is not what we need—or worse, what we want may be harmful to our faith or spiritual well-being? We may blame God for this. We may accuse Him of unfairness and injustice. But God will never give us anything but good gifts. James wrote in his epistle: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).
Not surprisingly, when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He did so in view of this personal relationship. “This, then, is how you should pray,” said Jesus: “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). As Luther rightly explained: “God would by these words tenderly invite us to believe that he is our true Father; that we are his true children; so that we may with all boldness and confidence ask Him as dear children ask their dear Father” (Lord’s Prayer, Small Catechism). Whatever God does in answering your prayers—the length of time He takes, the precise answer He provides—He is doing it out of Fatherly love for you.
Admittedly, we don’t always see the great reality of Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (NIV). At first we don’t always view God’s answer to prayer as the best answer. During the five months my father spent in the hospital following pancreatic surgery, I prayed repeatedly for God to heal him and allow him to go home. That really was all dad wanted to do—to go home.
When Dad died on June 5, 2012, I was upset and angry. “That wasn’t the answer to my prayer,” I informed God. Later on, however, I came to understand that God had answered my prayer, though not as I had expected. I thought I knew what my dad needed, but God knew better. In the end, God had taken my dad home. God had relieved him from all those long months of pain, medications, transfusions, feeding tubes, sterile fluorescent lights, and bed sores; and He had given him the joys of Heaven.
Fourth, be a persistent pray-er because when God answers your prayers, He will do so in a way you could never have imagined or asked. In fact, this is the declaration of Scripture. “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power at work in us” (Ephesians 3:20 NIV). Jacob prayed for protection for his family, and God made his family into a nation. Joseph prayed while in an Egyptian prison, and God made him a ruler in Egypt. Job prayed for an answer to his pain and suffering, and “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first” (John 42:12).
My first funeral as a young pastor was a crib death. I will never forget walking into the home of those young parents and seeing the grief on their faces. In preparing the funeral address, I finally settled on these words of Jesus from John 13:7, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (NIV). I don’t know all the prayers this young couple offered to the Lord, but what I do know is this: A year later, the mother gave birth to twins. It was almost as if God had doubly blessed this family to provide for the child He had called away.
Fifth, be a persistent pray-er because prayer is powerful. If you feeling like giving up on prayer, remember that. For years I told my young sons, “And don’t forget to say your prayers.” Even today, though one son is 25 and the other is 21, I still remind them: “Say your prayers.” I don’t tell them this because prayer is nice, but because prayer is beneficial, and effectual, and powerful.
In the same way, we don’t pray for people in church—for guests, for strengthening through the Scriptures, for healing from illness—because prayer is a ritual, but because prayer is powerful. Elijah prayed during a drought, and God made it rain. Joshua prayed during a battle, and God made the sun stand still. Samson prayed during the final moments of his life, and God gave him the strength to push down a stone temple. And so James wrote: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
Sixth, be a persistent pray-er because God will use each obstacle to prayer to strengthen your faith. Without question, Genesis 32 and Jacob wrestling with God is one of the strangest accounts in Scripture. Only, to say that Jacob wrestled with God is not exactly right. According to Genesis 32:24, “God wrestled with Jacob.” There is a subtle, but important difference. God is the one who initiated the struggle. The question is, “Why?”
The answer to that question is: Sometimes God has to hold us down to teach us to hold on to Him. Sometimes God has to pin us and oppose us and block us to show us our weakness so that we learn to rely utterly on His strength. Do you feel as if you are wrestling with God in prayer? Then hold on. Persist. Cling firmly to his promises. God doesn’t intend to let you lose. God is teaching you how to win, and the way to win over any obstacle in life is by trusting in Him.
If the Gospel reading today from Matthew 15 teaches us anything, it is that God’s “No” is always a prelude to God’s “Yes.” When the Canaanite woman asked Jesus for help, at first He ignored her. Then He said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (Matthew 15:26 NIV). But when the woman refused to give up and persisted in faith, the Savior’s “No” became a resounding “Yes.” He said, “Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted” (Matthew 15:28 NIV).
Seventh, persist in prayer, because God cares so much for you. He cares about you as a person. He cares about your health, family, daily needs, job, and feelings. He cares about your forgiveness, and eternal salvation; your peace of mind and heart. God cares so deeply for you that He sacrificed what was most precious to Him—the life of His only Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem you from your sins. Because God cares, today—this hour and moment—no matter who you are or what you are going through, God invites: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
There are many reasons to go on praying and to not give up—not just the reasons listed in today’s message. Yet, of all the reasons, this last one, God’s deep love, care, and commitment to you in Christ Jesus, is the most important reason of all. If today you feel that God is not listening to your prayers, if you feel that God is remote and disinterested, if you feel as if God is “out of the office” or as if God has “placed you on hold” or as if you’re trying to reach Heaven on a disconnected prayer-line, remember these comforting words of the apostle Paul: “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32).
With a promise like that, why would you ever stop praying?
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.