Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sermon for October 21st: Luke 17:20 - 18:8

Persistent Faith

I used to think that dogs wag their tails when they’re happy, but recently I’ve begun to revise that view. I’m sure it’s still true for many dogs, but I also observe that dogs wag their tails when they’re hopeful. For instance, when your dog wants to go for a walk, or when he wants something to eat, he comes and sits in front of you and wags his tail. When you finally give in and let him have what he wants, his tail stops wagging!

But of course in some cases the tail wagging also stops when the dog loses heart, gives up hope, and thinks to himself “This is getting me nowhere; I may as well go and lie down again”. And of course there are times for us as people when we experience the same thing. We start out full of hope that things are going to change and we’re going to get what we want, but then we have to wait longer and longer and eventually it’s tempting to think “This is getting me nowhere; I may as well accept that it’s going to be business as usual forever”.

Our Gospel for today is addressed to people who are tempted to give up hope. On the surface, it seems to be all about prayer, about keeping on praying and not losing heart. And this is indeed a vital part of the passage, but it isn’t the only part. The big picture is of a universe in which the promise of God’s kingdom seems to be a cruel joke, and in which the victims of society lose all hope of justice. What is an appropriate Christian response to this? That’s the big picture Jesus is addressing here. Let’s look at the passage under three headings: our apparent situation, our reality, and our responsibility.

First, then, our apparent situation. The big picture in this passage is that one day the followers of Jesus will find themselves in the situation where they will be waiting for some cataclysmic event that will vindicate them and will show that Jesus is in the right. What cataclysmic event does Jesus have in mind? There are two prime candidates for the position. It could be the Fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Rome in 70 A.D., or it could be the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. Equally good and devout New Testament scholars are divided on this issue.

For myself I tend to see the passage as looking forward to the four year siege of Jerusalem from 66-70 A.D., culminating in the fall of the city in 70 A.D. Jesus predicted this event, especially in Luke 21:5-6 where the disciples came to him and pointed out the beautiful stones of the Temple, and he replied “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”. This city, a symbol of the religious establishment in Jesus’ time, had rejected him and crucified him and continued to reject and persecute his followers afterwards. In the face of this ongoing persecution it would be easy for them to give up hope that God will help them. In the days of Noah before the flood, or the days before the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, it seemed as if life would go on as normal forever, and that was how it seemed both to the religious authorities who were persecuting the church, and to the persecuted Christians themselves.

But in fact the time would come when ‘the Son of Man would be revealed’ – that is, would be shown to have been correct in the things he said about Jerusalem and about his own mission. This would not be a mystical, interior event, but a public event as obvious as lightning flashing across the sky from one end to the other – or as obvious as a long siege ending with the fall of a city to a foreign army. When this siege came to its conclusion, some would be taken – that is, to imprisonment or death – and others would be left behind. Then the Roman armies would gather around the city like vultures gathering around a corpse; the word ‘vultures’ could also be translated ‘eagles’, and the Roman armies carried eagles as their banners.

The early Christians certainly read this passage in this way. They remembered Jesus’ instructions: “On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away, and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back” (17:31). History tells us that when the Roman armies approached Jerusalem, the Christians fled the city to the village of Pella, not too far away, and thus the Jerusalem church escaped the ravages of the siege.

Whether or not the interpretation I’ve taken of this passage is the correct one, certainly in the context of today’s Gospel the followers of Jesus are seen as still waiting to be vindicated and delivered by some cataclysmic event. And while they wait, they still live with opposition from the society around them, and with the temptation to live their lives as if ‘business as usual’ is the rule, and God is never going to intervene on their behalf. They are tempted to give up their faith and hope.

This is the situation of the widow in Jesus’ parable. The very fact that she goes to court herself, in the culture of her day, shows that she had no man to help her – court was a man’s world in those days, and a woman would be at a disadvantage there. And in her rotten luck, it turns out that the judge who hears her case has no concern for justice at all!

Jesus is saying to his followers “This is how the world is going to feel to you sometimes. You will see yourselves as victims of injustice, with no one to plead your case for you. God will seem to be distant and uncaring, no matter how often you cry out to him”. Before C.S. Lewis became a Christian he said to one of his friends that prayer often seemed to him like mailing letters to someone you’ve never met in a foreign country – and never getting any answers. ‘After a while’, he said’ ‘you begin to wonder if anyone is getting those letters’. I suspect we all feel like that from time to time.

But do our feelings correspond to reality? What, in fact, is our reality? Is God in fact like the rascally judge in Jesus’ story? No, he is not! This is not a story like the parable of the prodigal son, where the father is an obvious picture of God. Rather, this is a ‘how much more’ parable: ‘If even an unjust judge will answer a woman’s petition just to get rid of her pestering, how much more will your loving heavenly Father hear your prayers?

In fact, God is unlike the unjust judge in almost every way! God respects and cares for every individual. God is committed to justice. God doesn’t need constant reminders of what he should be doing. In fact, the only similarity between God and the unjust judge is in the result of the woman’s petition: God, like the unjust judge, will give justice to his people – but he will do it out of love, not out of desperate frustration.

Our problem, of course, comes in the timing of God’s answers! Why does it seem as if we have to wait so long, when Jesus says here that God ‘will quickly grant justice to them’?

There are various factors in the text that lead us to approach the word ‘quickly’ with caution. In verse 1 we’re told that this story is an exhortation for us ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’. But if God’s answers always came quickly, we wouldn’t be tempted to lose heart, would we? And at the end of the passage Jesus raises the issue of whether the Son of Man will find faith on the earth – which is obviously only an issue for us if we’ve had to wait for God’s answers.

In the psalms the writers often pray phrases such as “How long, O Lord – will you forget me forever?” But it’s always struck me that it’s a bit difficult to ask a Being who lives outside of time to hurry up! God sees the big picture. All of time is present to him – past, present and future. We can only look forward to the day when we will be delivered from trouble, but that day is already present to God in an experiential way – he’s already there! But we, of course, are not, and so we have to learn to trust him and to wait patiently for him to vindicate us. And that leads us to our final point: our responsibility.

Jesus asks in verse 8 “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Our responsibility as Christians is to live our lives in such a way that the answer to that question is “Yes”. How do we do that? We do it by our prayers and by our actions.

First, by our prayers. In verse 1 we read that this story is about our need ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’. We do this, not because God needs reminding of our needs, but because we need reminding of our dependence on him.

I keep prayer lists which I use every day. On them I pray that friends and family members who are not yet followers of Jesus will come to know and love him. I bring these same requests to God day by day, but I do that, not like a child pestering a reluctant parent, or even like a woman hounding an unjust judge. Rather, for me these prayers are simply my way of turning to God each day in faith, reminding myself that the conversion of people is a miracle that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.

I’m reminded of Vijay Menon, a man I met in England when I was a teenager. He told us about how a woman he knew had prayed for ten years that he would become a Christian. After ten years, the woman died – and two years later Vijay put his faith in Christ. It would have been easy for that woman to lose heart, but she did not – and in time, her prayers bore fruit, although she herself did not live to see it.

While we’re thinking about faithfulness in prayer, I think we surely need to learn something from this passage about the scope of our prayers. Jesus talks here about God ‘granting justice’ to his people who cry to him. We Christians must make that cry for justice part of our regular prayer life. We’re to pray, not just for ourselves, but also for all the suffering peoples of the world. In the Bible we Christians are described as being ‘a royal priesthood’. You are a part of that priesthood, and it is the responsibility of a priest to represent people to God, to speak to God on behalf of others.

John Stott once spoke in my hearing about a little church he’d attended somewhere in the American Midwest. When it came to the time in the service for what we Anglicans would call ‘the prayers of the people’, there were lots of prayers for people known to the congregation – for healings, for help for the suffering, for conversions and so on. But there were no prayers for any needs beyond the borders of that little town. I’ve never forgotten John’s comment; he said “These people worship a tribal god”. Let’s not be like them. Let’s by all means pray for our own concerns and our own loved ones, but let’s also go beyond that and pray in such a way that our compassion reaches around the whole world.

The Son of Man will see that there is faith on earth when he sees the evidence of our prayers, but also, secondly, the evidence of our actions. A prayer for justice is a kingdom prayer; it’s another way of saying to God “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. And when I pray that kind of prayer, I must immediately ask myself the question “What demands are my prayers making on me? How can I put legs on my prayer?” In other words, “How can I live in such a way that I am part of the answer to the prayer I just prayed?” And so if I am praying for God’s peace and justice for the suffering peoples of the world, it is then my responsibility to make my small contribution to that peace and justice in my own environment. If I’m praying for people I know to hear the Gospel and turn to Christ, it is then my responsibility to take the opportunities I have to put in a word of witness to them.

So let us not give up hope, even when reality seems bleak and hopeless to us – as it sometimes will. Let’s remember that our loving heavenly Father is not like the unjust judge in this story! And yet, if even an unjust judge will answer prayer, how much more will the Father who loves us! So let us be faithful each day in bringing our requests to him, both for ourselves and for people we know, and also for those all over the world who need his help. And let’s end our prayers each day with this thought: “How can I, in my situation, be a part of the answer to the prayer I’ve just prayed”.

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