"God Has Not Deserted Us"
In the passage of scripture just prior to the one we're considering in this sermon, we get an inside look of the master storyteller doing his thing. He'd been asked by his disciples about the coming of the Kingdom of God - what some call the "second coming" and some the "rapture" in our day. He likened it to what was experienced when the flood came and when Lot left Sodom and fire and sulfur rained down from heaven. Jesus notes that when it happens, it will be without warning. You simply won't have time to look back - that is, to change things about your life. The return of Christ is certain, but the exact time is not. Speculation is useless. We simply must be patient and faithfully, humbly, and watchfully continue living our lives. (Luke 17:20-37)
But, do you know the portion of that passage that really turns me on - lights up my faith - excites me? It's that portion of verses 20 and 21 when the author of Luke has Jesus say: “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst." The Kingdom of God isn't in the future - it's already here - inside us - everyone of us! I've long held this as a tenet of my faith and thus haven't been much interested in talking about - trying to figure out these later descriptions of a specific time when - a second coming or rapture would happen.
One of the ways I've come to understand it is to think of it as there being a time when each of us become aware in a new and personal or corporate way of the grace of God and unconditional love. It is that time when we become aware that the Kingdom of God is already inside us and all around us. It sometimes can be understood as those "aha" moments, or being "born again" moments, or having a spiritual awakening, or God-moment. I suppose it's one of the primary reasons I don't get terribly excited/alarmed/depressed/etc. thinking about dying and going to be with God in heaven. The Kingdom of God is already here - we're already a part of it!
Now, before this turns into a treatise on the coming of the Kingdom of God instead of just a short (albeit I hope interesting) backdrop for the point of the story Jesus then shares, let's turn our attention to the text. In order to be patient and faithful and humble and watchful, Jesus said: "You need to develop a persistent prayer life." He then drove his point home with this marvelous little story about a widow and an unjust judge - a story made even more wonderful once we understand the day in which it was originally told.
Jesus said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men." Now, it's a significant aspect of the story to note that this judge was not a Jewish judge. The bible scholars come to this conclusion based on the fact that in the Jewish culture of that day ordinary Jewish disputes would be taken to the elders of the faith - they wouldn't have taken such matters to the public courts. Also they note, if a matter needed to be taken to arbitration the court would not be made up of just one judge but three. One would be chosen by the plaintiff, one by the defendant, and one appointed independently. They point out that this means that the one judge in the story was one of those paid judge-types - appointed either by Herod or the Romans. Such judges weren't known to have the best reputations - they were notorious for only settling cases in which they could gain something for themselves. So, if a person lacked either the influence or the money to bribe the appointed judge to a favorable verdict, not much was going to happen. The public referred to these notorious judges as "robber judges." (1)
Then Jesus said: "And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him (the unjust judge) pleading, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'" The widow symbolized all who were poor - all who were defenseless - all who were worthless according to the vantage point of these "robber judges." As a widow she was of no value - after all, she was unattached to a man. There was nothing about her that warranted taking a serious look at her plea because to do so would earn for the judge nothing. Still, she pleaded and pleaded and pleaded - apparently without restraint. She persistently made her case despite the hopelessness of her circumstances in the eyes of the corrupt judge. (2)
The corrupt judge was not about to be persuaded by such a tactic. But the widow's harangue finally became too much for even him to bear. Note his reason for acquiescing though: "It's not because of my fear of God. It's not even because I care about men, or, this specific woman - rather, it's because I'm afraid she's going to wear me out with her persistence." The interpretation being that he was afraid she was going to give him a black eye if he allowed her to continue badgering him! (3) It wasn't an attitude adjustment that caused the judge to act but rather his fear of physical harm.
Now, parables are not always mirror images of the point Jesus is trying to make. This is one of those Jesus offers up as a contrast of the point he wants to make. Jesus is not likening God to the unjust judge. Rather, he is saying that God is just the opposite of this judge who doesn't respect God's laws or care about human beings. God deals with us justly and with love. God's primary interest is in our well-being.
While that's a significant element of the parable, there's another point to the parable and that is that while it's important for us to be persistent in our prayer life, it's a persistence of habit - it is so that we develop an intimate relationship with our God that we stay at it. It is so that we might be able to endure the hardships that come our way in life, which they do!, that we stay habitually in touch with the source of strength and comfort and grace and love! Now, this additional point of the parable Jesus told is not suggesting that we should hound God to get this or that from God.
A mother was walking by her son's room when she overheard him saying over and over again, "Tokyo." "Tokyo." "Tokyo." When she glanced into her son's room she noticed that he was on his knees praying. She was concerned that he had perhaps become interested in some eastern religion and was practicing a chant one of his friends had taught him. So she asked him about it later. He rather sheepishly said, "Oh, we had a geography exam today and I was praying that God would make Tokyo the capital of France." (4)
Now, I have to admit that even though I theologically and intellectually don't believe that's the sort of subject matter appropriate for our prayers and consciously attempt to steer clear of such prayer content, I succumb once in awhile and my prayers sound like a bit like the little boy's. You know, things like: "Help me get rid of this cold." "Change the diagnosis from ALS to something else." "Help this sermon be better than the effort I put in on it." "Change those words I sent in that email before he/she reads it." My guess is some of the rest of you entertain such thoughts in your prayers once in awhile also.
I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind when he instructed us to be persistent in our prayer lives. The purpose of our being persistent in our prayer life is not to get God to change the natural order of things - to make special compensations for our mistakes - to make Tokyo the capital of France. A persistent prayer life will not do those things. What a persistent prayer life will enable to happen, however, is a coming forth of those resources - those inner resources, those God-given resources which will allow us to handle our mistakes, to make something out of our errors, to sense God's presence in the midst of the frustrations of life, and yes, resurrect something else out of the bad, the mistakes, even if it's only a resolve on our part to be different because of it. A persistent prayer life enables us to take heart and to be faithful despite what comes our way. If we are persistent in our praying, we will discover that God has not deserted us but is the source of healing, of caring, of love that picks us up and keeps us going.
There's another thing being persistent in our prayer life doesn't mean. It doesn't mean that we have to be repetitious with the content of our prayers - or, that there are certain phrases or language (thees, thous, just, etc.) that are somehow more appropriate in prayers than others. Jesus warned in fact against such vain, repetitious prayers. Being persistent in our prayer life does not mean to just be saying words to be saying words. It means to think about what we are saying and to listen to what God might be saying to us as well.
I think behind the offering of this story was Jesus' concern for our human nature. He knew some days were going to pass between his living physically among them and his return. He was concerned that his followers in his day and in ours could be discouraged with the delay. He knew they and we would have to endure suffering and persecution and that one of the things that would keep us from becoming discouraged - to sense that God has not deserted us - abandoned us - would be the strengthening of our relationship with God which can be developed by a persistent prayer life.
I think that's an important message for us to continue to hear: God has not deserted us even though our circumstances suggest that to be the case. We develop the strength not to quit - not to feel God has abandoned or deserted us - by the persistent, regular visit with God in prayer. While I will confess to you that I've never been as persistent in my prayer life as I think this story implies we should be, I can tell you I'm a lot more persistent than I used to be. But, it has to do with the amount of time I have available and the real life challenges ALS constantly provides me and my growing compassion for what others are going through and fanatic desire for further and successful research, etc.
There's a wonderfully insightful story about a little girl who bumped her head on a low hanging branch of a tree in her yard when she rode her bike under it. She ran into the house hollering, "Mommy, mommy, Joey hurt me!" Her mother looked up from what she was doing and calmly said: "Now, sissy, Joey didn't hurt you. Joey's not even here. He went to the grocery store with your daddy."
The little got this startled look on her face and in a rather bewildered sort of voice said: "You mean stuff like this can happen on its own, at anytime? Whoa, bummer!"
Yea, bummer, right folks! Although there's much that happens to us that we deserve or that we cause or that someone else does to us, there's also much that happens that is no one's fault. And, it's at those times, isn't it, more than at any other when we are tempted to ask: "Where is God?" "Where are you, God?" It's at those times when we are tempted to wonder if God has deserted us or if there's a God at all. It's those situations and the resultant questions that can throw us off balance, aren't they? Being persistent in our prayer life - remaining faithfully in touch with God - I assure you can help us handle the difficulties that are our reality and the reality of every single human being.
Friends, there's no place, no pain, no situation in which God isn't present. God does not - will not - desert us and we can strengthen our acceptance/recognition of this truth by being persistent in our prayer life. Henri Nouwen summarized it all with these words: "We only can be faithful in our affirmation that God has not deserted us but calls us in the middle of all the unexplainable absurdities of life."
Thank goodness! I'm in pain - often discouraged - sometimes angry - sometimes I laugh - sometimes I cry - but always I trust that God shares my feelings/emotions and is with me on this journey. While that's always a truth I've wanted to communicate, I also trust my continuing to develop a persistent continuous praying/conversation with God helps that to be even more true and faith-building.
Peace, friends! God be with you!
1. William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 262-264/355.
4. King Duncan, Collected Sermons, Dynamic Preaching, 2005, 0-000-0000-20 as shared in "Persistence in Prayer" from the esermons.com website. The illustration was supplied him by Rev. Don Emmitte.