Persistent Prayer: Praying to Persist (A Sermon)

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8 ESV).

Thinking for a minute about the stated reason that Jesus told this parable, has anyone here ever lost heart in praying? Have you ever gone through a time when your prayers seemed shallow, ineffective, irrelevant? Have you perhaps given up praying with any confidence and faith that your prayers matter to God? If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you’ve probably known this experience. That Jesus taught this parable suggests that ineffectual prayer was a common experience among his followers and in the history of God’s chosen people, Israel. The psalmist David, a man after God’s own heart, begins Psalm 13 this way:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. (Psalm 13:1-4, ESV)

We find an echo of David’s words in the concern of the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable. She harassed this judged who “neither feared God, nor respected people” to give her justice against her adversary. Who, or what, is your adversary? What is it that you long for from God, but have grown weary in praying for? What is it about which you ask, “Why has God not responded and given me the relief or the vindication that I seek? Why is it that, though I have persisted as much as this widow in the parable, God–unlike this ungodly, unjust judge–has not answered my request? If Jesus says that God is going to answer the prayers of his elect speedily, why has it taken so long? Why don’t my prayers seem to matter?

Yet, Jesus gives us this promise that God is not like the unjust judge. He will answer the prayers of his people and do so quickly. How do we reconcile this promise with what is so often our experience of just the opposite? I believe that a closer look at this parable and its context will give us an answer.

Some have interpreted this parable to mean that, if all else is right with us and God, God will always answer our prayers quickly or that we will get what we want simply by our persistence in asking. But this interpretation does not bear up under scrutiny for a few reasons.

First, whose justice does God promise to give us? Will it be our idea of justice, or God’s? We may get our own way by pestering an unrighteous judge, but for God to answer our cries for justice we must be asking for God’s justice, not our own.

Secondly, in whose time will God’s answer come, ours or God’s? Jesus says that God will speedily answer the prayers of those who “cry out to him day and night.” How many days and nights is he talking about? One? Two? A dozen? I get the feeling that he might be talking about many more than that. How then is it that he will answer them quickly? It must be that God has a different view of time than we do. He answers us at the proper time, not necessarily according to our timetable. He will not delay any longer than necessary, but at an acceptable time he will answer quickly. Some commentators think that the word translated “speedily” or “quickly” would be better translated as “suddenly,” meaning that the answer will come without warning or delay once the time is right. The apostle Peter says that, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:8-9 ESV).

Peter’s remarks lead us to my final point that this parable has more to do with prayer for what is ultimately important to God than for what is important to us. Peter goes on to say that, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet. 3:10). The eschatological meaning of Peter’s remarks about God’s timing also apply to Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge. How else can we make sense of Jesus’ concluding statement, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” and the context in which the parable is given. The parable comes after Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God in the last days is directly followed three other discourses of Jesus which have to do with what kind of persons will enter the Kingdom of God. If we read on in Luke 18 after this parable, we may discover some important things to pray for so that when the Son of Man comes, he may find faith on the earth.

Pray to be like the humble tax collector in Jesus’ next parable instead of like the self-righteous Pharisee. Pray to be able to receive the kingdom of God like a child and not to be like his disciples who would have prevented such children from coming to Jesus. Pray not to be like the rich young ruler who let his love for possessions get between him and the Kingdom. Certainly we should make our requests for many other things known to God in prayer but when prayers like these–and their answers–are the foundation, all our other praying is sure to be aligned with the intents and purposes of God’s coming kingdom.

We should be persistent in prayer so that Christ will find faith on the earth when he comes. The most important answer to our prayers is the consummation of God’s Kingdom. We know that God’s Kingdom is already here and now, but that it hasn’t yet come in its fullness. We also know that God answers prayer in the here and now, but those answers are only a foretaste of his ultimate answer to all prayer: God’s Kingdom come … and you along with it. The Kingdom of God should be the context for all our prayers. Jesus taught us to pray to God the Father, “your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Why is it so important that we be persistent in prayers that further God’s Kingdom? Can’t God do that by himself? Yes, he can. But he doesn’t. Instead, he requires our persistence in prayer because, as the great scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal once put it, he has given us the dignity of being causes. The kingdom of God will not come without people who have been made and remade to live in it. This parable is about more than persistent in prayer. It’s also about praying to persist.

Just before this parable, in Luke 17:20, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is not coming with observable signs. It is not a place of which people can say, “Look, here it is!” or “There!” He says, “for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Some translations say, “within you.”) Will Christ find faith on this earth when he comes? If we keep on praying and not lose heart, I’m sure he will. Amen.

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