Monday, October 18, 2010

Here Comes the Judge

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 18:1-8
October 17, 2010
Pentecost 21/Proper 24C

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

The themes for today are faith . . . and the life of persistent prayer that flows from faith. It all comes to us from a simple parable about a pesky widow and a corrupt judge. And just to make sure that we get the main point of the parable, St. Luke spells it out right at the beginning. Unlike some parables that might leave us scratching our heads about the meaning, St. Luke sets up this parable by telling us exactly what it’s about, right up front: “And Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”

Losing heart is what tends to stifle prayer. Losing heart is what sometimes happens when you pray, and pray, and pray some more—sometimes praying about something or someone for months or even years—and nothing changes. Do you know someone who is losing heart—giving up—ceasing to pray instead of praying without ceasing?

It happens to all of us from time to time—we begin to lose heart. It happens even to pastors who ought to know better. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade praying for the recovery of my son who has autism. When he was first diagnosed, there was an intensity to my prayers—an outright expectation—that my prayers would be heard, that there would be a medical breakthrough, and he would be healed. As the years go by, I’m sad to admit that the intensity of those prayers for healing and the level of expectation, and the frequency of those prayers, is not what it used to be. This is, I think, what it means to lose heart. Each one of us has been there, done that. Each one of us, like Jacob, has wrestled with God in prayer, but only to feel like we’ve come out on the losing end.

So it ought to perk up our ears just a bit to hear that Jesus has a parable especially for us—a parable leading us always to pray and not lose heart. The praying protagonist is just an old widow, a nobody, a woman with no standing, no influence, no money. And even the little bit she has has apparently been ripped off. And this unlikely heroine is an icon of faith and prayer. She does not lose heart. She does not give up. She does not despair because faith is alive in her. This pesky widow keeps on showing up in the courtroom of a crooked, corrupt judge who doesn’t fear God or respect his fellow man. This judge is unjust; he could care less about justice—particularly for someone as insignificant as this widow.

And while this judge keeps on delaying and stonewalling, the widow refuses to give up. She continually pounds the judge with her claim. She bothers the judge. She beats the judge by her continual appearances before him. She grinds away at him with her persistent petitions. The corrupt judge eventually gives in and grants her justice, simply to get her off his back. And this, my friends, is the picture of faith expressing itself in persistent, patient prayer.

The corrupt judge in the parable should lead us to think about Jesus, who is indeed our judge. The point of comparison is obviously from lesser to greater. Jesus is not an unrighteous judge, but the Righteous One whose judgments are pure and precise and grounded in mercy. If a corrupt, crooked judge can be persuaded by the persistent petitions of a pesky widow, then how much more will Jesus work for justice and relief for His elect—His chosen—who cry out to Him in prayer day and night? In fact, Jesus says that the justice He gives is always given “speedily.”

Really? Speedily? If I had been one of the disciples listening to this parable, I think I might have raised my hand at that point and asked, “Lord, could you define what you mean by ‘speedily?’” Our definitions of “speedily” are all skewed by the fact that we sinners are inherently impatient. This is often why we lose heart and fail to pray. It’s not so much that God is slow, as that we are terribly impatient. We are driven by impatience. Our Old Adam is unashamedly impatient. It’s now or never. Have it my way in sixty seconds or less. Long lines, slow traffic, a sluggish internet connection, being told to take a number and wait—Don’t you know who I am?! This is an insult. You are wasting my time. I want it now. Instant gratification is what it’s all about for the Old Adam in us.

But prayer prompted by faith is always an exercise in patience. We are praying to the God for whom a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. This could take a while. One of the characteristics of faith is patient endurance, persistence in the face of hardship, long-suffering. The widow in the parable keeps coming back to the crooked judge with her persistent petitions because she has no place else to go. Even though the guy is uncaring, unsympathetic, and waiting for a bribe, yet she keeps coming back, day and night, over and over again, because there is no one else who can grant her justice.

We lack her patience most of the time. When years go by it’s easy to lose heart and just give up. Our prayers become shallow, sporadic, undisciplined and anemic. It’s like someone who goes to the gym a few times, lifts a few weights, and then concludes that exercise doesn’t work because he can’t detect a hint of new muscle. But prayer is to be exercised over the long haul. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I usually exercise at the gym five or six times a week. I started doing that about nine years ago. I’m still waiting on bulging biceps and six-pack abs. But that’s not important. What is important is that prayer, like physical exercise, is good and beneficial, even when we don’t notice all the desired results. The important thing is not to lose heart—to keep at it.

I was reading last week about an amazing woman of prayer. She was a model of patient, persistent prayer. Although she was raised as a Christian, she married an unbeliever with a violent temper who was also an adulterer. Her mother-in-law hated her and made her life miserable. But this amazing woman attended church daily and prayed just like the widow in today’s parable. Eventually, over many years, she won the favor of her mother-in-law and her husband changed his ways and became a Christian.

But then there was her rebellious son. This loser shacked up with his girlfriend, had a child out of wedlock, and got caught up in a new age religion. And so she prayed for her son, year after year for ten years (a decade of tears—a decade of being tempted to lose heart and give up!) That son’s name was Augustine—who we now refer to as St. Augustine—a great theologian and bishop. His mother, who so famously prayed for him, was named Monica—but who we now refer to as St. Monica—a woman you honor every time you say “Santa Monica Blvd” (the street on which our church is located). She could be the patron saint for patient, persistent prayer. (And now you know . . . the rest of the story!)

But if I simply tell you to be more like Saint Monica—if I just tell you to be like the widow in the parable—I haven’t yet given you what you need so that you don’t lose heart. I need to direct you to the Judge. Not the corrupt judge in the parable, but the One who will come again to judge the living and the dead. He is the judge in whose name all our prayers are expressed. He is the judge who will rule in your favor. The unjust judge in the parable refused to be troubled or bothered by the widow. But your judge, Jesus, is so troubled and concerned for you that He went to Calvary for you. He is the judge who stands in your stead and takes your guilt and sin and punishment upon Himself. Your sin, your impatience, your angry demands—they can no longer condemn you. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The One who was crucified for you—the One who shed His blood for you—He alone will be your judge. He is the Son of Man who, when He returns, will find faith in you—faith that He has given, faith that He has nourished, faith that He has sustained and strengthened through decades of prayers and years of tears.

It’s strange the way Jesus ends this parable. It’s unexpected how He concludes with a question that doesn’t seem to fit with the parable He told about prayer. “When the Son of Man comes,” Jesus asks, “will He find faith on earth?” With that question Jesus takes our prayers, takes the deepest desires of our hearts, and He connects them to the day of His return. And it really makes perfectly good sense. For only then, on judgment day, will it be perfectly clear. When we stand before Jesus our Judge we will see things as they truly are. Then it will become clear how tenderly—how generously—Jesus has carried us along through those dark times when everything went wrong, and our prayers went unanswered, and our lives seemed so widowed and worthless. Then it will become clear how God’s delaying—how His slowness and His seeming not to care—is really part of His wanting our good, readying us for larger gifts, building our faith not on short term satisfactions and easy solutions, but teaching us to rely completely on His grace, His mercy, His love.

It’s that love that will keep you and me from losing heart. It’s that love of God that leads us to lives of prayer—patient, persistent prayer. It’s that love that comes to you this morning in the bread that is His body and the wine that is His blood. It’s that love that rings in your ears through the Words of this sermon. His Word and His Spirit Jesus puts into you. In these ways your faith is forged and fed. And where faith is forged and fed, there is always persistent, patient prayer. So do not lose heart. For your judge . . . is Jesus. Amen.

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