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Sermons

“Rejoice, Pray, Thank”

October 16, 2022 Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Luke 18: 1-8.

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1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This morning’s gospel reading begins with Jesus telling his disciples a parable about the need to pray always and to not lose heart.  This didn’t arise from thin air, but he sought to encourage the disciples because just before the telling of the parable, Jesus was describing what was to happen when he comes again.  To paraphrase, “there will be much suffering; Jesus will be rejected; the world will again be like the city of Sodom, when fire rained down from heaven; one of every two people will be taken away, with the other left behind”.  So, we can see why Jesus felt it was necessary to reassure the disciples with the command to pray always and to not become discouraged.  In spite of the prophesied troubles to come, God will always hear people’s prayers, and for this reason faith must not waver.  Paul made this point very clear in his letter to the Thessalonians. 

In the NRSV bible translation used by Lutherans, we read; Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  In The Message version, Paul’s Greek is translated as; Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.  Excellent advice, but do we take it?  Do we pray all the time; and if not, why not?  And if we do pray all the time, why do we?  We’ll come back to this in a bit, but first we ought to take a look at Jesus’ parable, the one that has come to be known as “The widow and the Unjust Judge”.

In the ancient world widows and orphans were afforded special protection in society.  When the husband or father passed away, there was little the orphan or widow could do on their own to ensure security for themselves.  In patriarchal societies, women and young children had little to no rights, thus they were often dependent on those in authority for protection.  But the Hebrew people were directed by Jewish Law to treat widows with honor and compassion and to offer protection so that no one might take advantage of them.  Thus, the disciples would have been appalled at the behavior of the unjust judge in Jesus’ parable.  It was his civic and religious responsibility to provide justice to anyone who was wronged by another; and special attention was to be given if the person seeking redress was a woman who had lost her husband.  The widow in this morning’s parable knows that she is entitled to help from the authorities and she is persistent in her pleas to the judge for justice. 

And, as we often discover those who translate our bibles from the Greek have taken some pains to sanitize somewhat the judge’s reason for finally granting the widow the remedy she seeks.  He says that even though he has no fear of God and no respect for anyone, because the widow keeps bothering him he will grant her justice, so she “won’t wear him out by continually coming to him”.  He makes it sound like he has submitted to her pleas just to get her out of his hair.  However, in the original Greek the judge relents for a different reason.  He says, “because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming”.  This may also be translated as “so she won’t slap me in the face”.  Either way, this judge finally acts as he should only because the widow’s persistence shows him in a bad light in the community.

“I’ll do the right thing if only to prevent me from becoming shamed before my neighbors; I still don’t fear God or respect people, but at least I won’t look bad to others”.  Jesus ends the parable by asking the disciples to consider the difference between the way this judge reacted to the widow’s pleas and how God responds when they (and we) pray for deliverance.  That, and the final question; will Jesus find that we have been faithful when he returns?  It’s telling that Jesus poses the questions about God’s response to prayer by asking, “will God not grant justice?” and “will God delay”?  It’s obvious these are rhetorical questions, since Jesus begins this lesson with the admonition to pray constantly and to not lose heart.

Seems pretty simple, right?  We are to do the following. “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens.”  Well, if as Jesus confirms God will grant justice and not delay, why the admonition to pray without ceasing and make sure we don’t give up hope?  My colleague shares the following opinion about God’s response to prayer.  God hears all our prayers and answers every single one of them.  But there are three different potential replies to what we ask for in prayer; “yes”, “no”, and “not yet”.  The need for constant prayer isn’t intended to change God’s mind; unceasing prayer is an act of faith, it is a communing with God, it is us calling out to the God who loves to hear from us.  This is the exact opposite of the judge who doesn’t want to be bothered with the widow’s problem; God desires that we come to him with all that weighs heavy on our hearts.  And since God is keenly aware of what we need before we ask for it, our prayers seek to bring us closer to God; we affirm our faith through our supplications, through our trust in God’s grace and mercy.

Which brings us back to my initial questions; do we pray all the time, and why?  And, if we don’t, why not?  What do we think when God’s answer to our prayer is “no” or “not yet”?  Do we then pray without ceasing in order to try to convince God to change the answer?  Well, no, for our prayers are not intended to change God’s mind; they are meant to change US!  While the answer to a prayer may not change from “no” to “yes”, depending on God’s timing, it might at some point.  Or, it might not.  But it is our faith, our hope, and just as importantly, our persistence that changes us.  Our unceasing prayers to God, the continual coming to our Father with our needs and desires, these are what bring us closer to the mind, closer to the will of God. 

Our relationship with God is strengthened each time we reach out in prayer; God knows our needs and when we share them with God, we are brought nearer to the One who longs to hear from us.  It kind of puts us on the same page with God; simply sharing our prayers with God reminds us of who, and whose we are.  And in our persistence our faith is reinforced; by our constant prayer we open ourselves to receive the guidance and compassion God wants to give us, so we might have abundant life.  It is most certainly true, that prayer changes us.  We realize that we are not alone with our problems. We are reassured that God is there to help us, and strengthen us, and encourage us, and comfort us.  This alone helps us to not lose heart when the answer to our prayers, at least for the moment might not be “yes”. 

When Jesus tells us to pray without ceasing there are three things that we can be assured are true; we can trust that God hears us when we pray; in faith we are assured that God is with us when we are hurting; and we know that God will accompany us wherever we may go.  So, rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks to God in all circumstances.  Be persistent in prayer, remember that God is anxious to hear from you.  Keep your heart open to listen for God’s reply.  In this way Jesus will find that we have been faithful when he returns.   

Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and holy God, make us persistent in our prayers to you.  Assure us that you hear us when we call out to you and that your answers are always for our good.  And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who prayed without ceasing, and who teaches us to do the same.

And when we pray, we acknowledge that; God is good, all the time.  All the time, God is good.

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