Sunday, March 1, 2015

Opening the Door - PERSIST

Last week we started series on prayer where we looked at some prayer habits of Jesus and we learned that we need to consistently and intentionally create times to watch – or to be spiritually awake and alert in prayer.  It is the daily routine of prayer that helps us find strength and power to make it through the difficult times we face in life so developing habits like Jesus when it comes to prayer is important.  Today we are going to turn and consider a teaching of Jesus on prayer that lifts up two important lessons.  The first is to understand the character and nature of God to whom we pray and the second is to understand the importance of persistence when it comes to prayer.  So let’s turn to Luke 18 where Jesus shares story of a persistent widow and an unjust judge.  Luke 18:1-8.

Last year when I was in Israel, one of the most impressive places we visited was a place called the teaching steps.
Teaching Steps outside walls of Jerusalem
It would have been on these steps outside the walls of Jerusalem that religious leaders would gather to teach and tell stories like Jesus did here, but it would also have been here that people would have entered into the city of Jerusalem to go before a judge.  One of the most impressive sights at the teaching steps was the sheer size of the stones that made up the walls of the city.

They were taller than I was and simply massive.

I can only imagine how awesome this place must have been in the days of Jesus when it was complete.  I also imagine it was pretty intimidating.

The Temple and city walls were actually built to be intimidating because they were to reflect the power and holiness of God.  The steps leading up to the city were all different sizes so you had to go slow and watch your step.

You couldn’t enter the city quickly and with your head held high – you had to bow your head to watch the steps.  You had to take your time and this all added to the sense of power and authority of the God who dwelled there.  In many ways we do the same thing today with our own courts and civil authority.

While the steps of our county courthouse aren’t different sizes, they are large and you have to go slow. Once you get into the building you have to climb steps to get to the main courtroom where you find a judge seated high on a platform.
Inside Centre County Courthouse
Many courthouses are built to reflect the power of the courts and judges are set up high to symbolize the moral and legal authority that they have.  It’s impressive and for many people it is intimidating.  Whether you a lawyer, plaintiff, defendant or witness; entering into a courtroom can be intimidating.

I’ll be honest, I have never had to go to court and plead my case before a judge and I pray that I never have to, but I have been to our local courtroom a few times when I was asked to give the invocation at the swearing in ceremonies of our elected officials.  I had to sit in the front and wait for the judges to enter and I don’t mind saying, I was a bit nervous.  The environment is impressive and somewhat intimidating and it is meant to be so that everyone takes the authority of the courts seriously.

While our courts are intimidating, think what it must have been like for this widow going before a judge who is known for being unjust and unkind.  Widows were some of the most vulnerable members of society in Jesus day.  They were completely dependent upon a man in their family to take care of them, it might be a son or a nephew or grandson, but there had to a man somewhere that would take them into their home and provide for them.  That this widow goes to the judge alone tells us that she has no one to care for her, protect her or speak for her.  She is completely vulnerable and at the mercy of her community to care for her and the odds are all against her as she goes to see this judge.

The judge is completely corrupt.  It says that he does not fear God and he does not care about people.  All he cares about is his position and power and money.  Many judges in Jesus day were corrupt and could easily be bribed in order to give a favorable ruling.  This judge might be one of the most powerful men in the community and this widow one of the most powerless.  He was corrupt and she was seeking justice.  He had compassion for no one and she was seeking compassion.  He only wanted to increase his influence; she was looking for someone who would use their influence to help her.
We don’t know what kind of case this widow brought before the judge, but it really doesn’t matter because what she wants is what any of us want when we speak to those in authority.  She wanted justice and compassion.  This widow wanted the judge to do what was right and to do it with mercy and understanding.  In many ways this is what we all want.  If you are a student, you want your teachers to have compassion on you and you want them to judge everyone’s work fairly.  As parents, you want your children to be treated fairly and with compassion or at least with common sense and rules that are applied evenly.  At work we want our employers to do what is right and to understanding our situations and evaluate us with compassion.  From our government what we struggle with today is wanting justice to be fair and our leaders to be compassionate.  That’s all this widow wanted - justice and compassion.  She got neither.

She pled her case and the judge didn’t rule with either justice or mercy.  So the widow went back again, and again, and again, and again, and again… well you get the idea.  She persisted.  She didn’t give up and she didn’t give in, she kept going to the judge until he said – Luke 18:5.  Now here is where some of the humor of Jesus is lost on us, the words “wear me out” might be better interpreted as “she has beaten me up and given me a black eye”.  The picture here is of a persistent widow who has no power, influence or authority who literally has beaten up and beaten down a corrupt judge.

So that’s the story, now what does it teach us about prayer?  Well, the first lesson Jesus offers is a reminder of just who we are praying to.  We are NOT praying to a God who is corrupt or unkind.  We ARE praying to one who is Holy and just but also treats us with compassion.  While this judge finally did the right thing because he was beaten into it, we don’t have to do that with God.  We don’t have to beat God up or beat God down or pester God endlessly for him to do the right thing.  God always does the right thing and works to bring justice into this world.  We might not always see it or understand God’s ways, but Jesus assures us that God is righteous and holy and works to redeem the injustice of our world.  Jesus tells this story to say God is NOT like this judge or really any judge of this world.  He also tells us this story as a way of saying that if even a judge like this who is corrupt and unkind can eventually do the right thing, then our God who is just and compassionate will always do the right thing so we can approach God and pray with confidence and assurance.

God is not only just but God is also compassionate and merciful.  Throughout scriptures God is seen as holy and righteous but also merciful and kind.  It is God’s mercy that allows us to enter into his presence without fear and trembling but with confidence and assurance.  God is always there to help us, defend us and support us when we need it which allows us to be bold in our prayers.  So the first lesson on prayer from this parable is that God is not like this judge, but One who offers us justice and compassion.

The second lesson Jesus teaches us about prayer has to do with our character and behavior.  Luke 18:1 says that Jesus told this parable so that we would always pray and not give up.  So let’s talk about persistence in prayer.  Just this week someone asked me if we should pray for things over and over again.  I laughed and said, come to worship on Sunday and find out.  Actually, I did answer the question and said, I don’t know for sure, but I do.  I pray for people over and over again.  I pray for the same situations with different groups of people and in different settings.  I might lift up someone in prayer when I remember that they are having a test done, coming out of surgery or facing some challenge and I’ll pray for them with a small group or their family or in worship.  I pray for people over and over again and so, yes, I think it’s ok – even good to pray for things often, but I don’t do it because I think God has to be reminded.

God knows everything and God remembers everything so I don’t need to remind God of what needs to be done.  It’s not like my prayers suddenly remind God of something that slipped his mind.  God never says, “wow Andy, thanks for reminding me about that I completely forgot.”  We don’t need to remind God, badger God or nag God about any situation.  We persist because it helps us.  While we pray because we want God to move, God wants us to pray because God wants us to move.  One of the amazing things about prayer is that simply by praying to God we are growing in our faith.  Prayer shapes our hearts and purifies our attitudes and can even help focus our actions on doing God’s will.

For example, right now there has been a lot of focus on our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted and killed for their faith across Africa and the Middle East.  We watch and pray with them because we are told to but as we persist in prayer we start thinking about their situation and maybe that moves us to research it and learn who these people are and what the church is facing in these places.  We then learn of people and organizations that are working in these areas to support Christians and then we find ourselves giving in some way to their work or joining their ministry.

Prayer changes us and it moves us to work for justice and it leads us to reach out to others with compassion.  When we pray for people who are sick it often moves us to send a card or note, or stop in for a visit.  When we pray for those who are experiencing loss we often find ways to help.  When we pray for those who might be lonely it moves us to reach out to them.  When we pray for those in our community with needs it moves us to help meet those needs.

Prayer moves us and it helps get our hearts and minds and lives in line with the will of God but that doesn’t happen in one prayer that only happens when we persist in prayer.  Prayer is the most vital way that we can connect with God and it is that connection and communion with God which in time helps us become like God.  When we pray we understand more of who God is and what God does and how God moves and we hear more of God’s voice and see God’s will for our lives.  Persistence in prayer helps us get in line with God’s will and it is what nourishes our relationship with God and helps us see things God’s way.  God calls us to be persistent not because God needs the reminder but because we need the reordering of our hearts and lives.

So persistence is important because it shapes our hearts and lives.  God doesn’t need us to badger him or remind him or tell him what’s right because God is righteous.  God always does the right thing and God can never forget us or the situations that are important to us or to our world.  Let me leave you with one last image the Bible gives us about the character and nature of God.  Isaiah 49:15-16

Even if a mother was to forget her child, God can never forget us, we are engraved on the palm of his hands and the walls of our lives, all those things that are important to us, are always before him.  God doesn’t need us to remind him of anything, we persist in prayer because it reminds us of the justice and compassion and never ending love of God and it helps us become more just, compassionate and loving.

Next Steps
Opening the Door – PERSIST

1. Jesus parable in Luke 18:1-8 helps us understand the true nature of the God to whom we pray.  God is just and compassionate.  What other characteristics of God give you confidence when it comes to prayer?

2. If you began a prayer time last week of 5 minutes a day, continue to pray and add a few more minutes to your time each day.

3. What personal situation have you been praying about for months or years?  Have your prayers changed your life in any way?  If so, how?  If not, how can they as you keep praying?

4. Identify one injustice in the world that you can pray for each day this week.  As you pray, be open to how God might be shaping your heart and life to be part of His answer.

5. The widow in Jesus’ story had to persist in her pursuit of justice alone, but God gives us others.  Who can you invite to watch and pray with you for the injustice that you named above?

6. In Luke 17:20-37 (right before this parable) Jesus talks about the end of time and the coming of God’s kingdom.  Are there some things that we might need to pray for “until the end of time”?  What might they be?