Sometimes, you get the point of Jesus' stories straight away. And other times, like today, you're left scratching your head. We're told right at the start that today's story is a story about persistence in prayer. And yet, what we get is a widow who persistently knocks on the door of a grumpy, lazy judge and she keeps knocking until the exasperated judge gets up and answers. What's that about? Why doesn't Jesus make his teaching more obvious? It's almost as though he wants us to think!
Well, let's start with the obvious. Prayer is quite important for Christians. Very important in fact. We are supposed to pray daily to give thanks for our bread, to pray for God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven and to pray to preserve us from falling into temptation. And we are supposed to pray continually in our spirits. It is one of the key promises made by our parents and godparents when we begin our Christian journey: in a few moments' time I will say to Harriet's parents and godparents, "Today we are trusting God for Harriet's growth in faith. Will you pray for her?" And they're going to promise to do so, to be persistent in prayer for her.
And when, as we hope, Harriet does my famous Lord of the Rings Confirmation Course and confirms for herself the baptism we're conducting here this morning, the bishop will ask her: "Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you acknowledge Christ's authority over human society, by prayer for the world and its leaders and by seeking peace and justice?" Words that resonate with the persistent widow from Jesus' story, desperately and continuously seeking justice.
Prayer is the lifeblood of the Christian life and both our Bible stories today are about persisting in prayer - Jacob wrestling with God and Jesus' story about the widow. Yet, prayer is a strange thing for human beings. Rather like Jesus' story, we don't quite get it at first and so, too often, we don't do it very much. Some of us do it so infrequently that it begins to feel like an optional extra (which in our busy lives we opt to leave).
And perhaps part of the problem is the way we approach prayer. One approach, for example, is what I call the 'letter to Santa' approach to prayer. From what I observe, most people pray when they want something. At its most trivial, it's "God, please find me a car parking space". Very popular among Christians that one. I have to say it's a prayer I used to despise - surely the Almighty has bigger things in his plans than finding me a car parking space at the expense of the rest of humanity. How petty and self-indulgent must your prayer life be if you're going around asking God to find you a parking space?
And then one day, as a lowly curate, I was late for a meeting at the Cathedral (doesn't usually happen!) But this time I was supposed to be presiding at communion, so, in desperation, I prayed the prayer "God, I'm really sorry about this but please find me a car parking space!" And before my eyes, a car pulled out of the parking space closest to the Cathedral. I'm pretty certain that I heard God laughing aloud in that moment.
Now, that prayer is not always trivial. Quite often it is really serious and sometimes we don't always get the answer we want. And I find a lot of people have given up prayer because when they asked God for something they didn't get it. And in some cases, maybe they were being a bit petulant, but in many cases, it was actually very serious. But let's remember that, in Jesus's story, the widow's concern was very serious too, serious enough to go to Court, which was certainly not something you would do lightly as a widow in first century Israel. And if there's one thing Jesus' story is definitely saying, it is that we should be persistent, that an answer will come even if we encounter serious setbacks.
God wants us to ask him for things. Scripture is full of it. Over and over, God invites us to tell him what's on our hearts, what our needs are. He wants us to share our burdens with him. But the point is this - prayer is not a letter to Santa. Too often we treat prayer as though we are the master and God is the servant - a kind of genie in the bottle granting us wishes. The first thing to remember about prayer is that God is in charge. In Jesus' story, the Judge, not the widow, is in charge. The very act of praying is an acknowledgement that we have reached the end of our power to influence our lives and we are now dependent on God. And the more you journey into the Christian life, the more you realise that you reach the end of your power very, very quickly. In fact, we learn persistence in prayer partly because we come to recognise that we are always and constantly dependent on God.
And that means that God will not always answer prayer in the way we want. And Jesus himself had that experience of God not answering prayer in the way he expected or wanted. In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed "Father, take this cup of suffering away from me" - he didn't want to die or be tortured - "If there's another way, Father yet not my will but your will be done."
And that gets to the heart of prayer. We should always tell God what's
on our hearts, what our needs are - Jesus did it and he taught us to do
it. But in the end, prayer leads us to say "yet not my will but your
will be done." After all, isn't that what Jesus teaches us to pray:
Second approach to prayer - fingers crossed! A lot of people talk about prayer in the same way they speak about superstitions like crossing your fingers or touching wood. In fact, a lot of people use those phrases interchangeably with prayer. "Let's hope and pray, touch wood, that it's all okay - fingers crossed." Now I suspect that most people don't really believe that touching wood or crossing fingers makes the slightest difference to what happens in the world, so do they also think that about prayer? - just a wish or a dream, makes not the slightest difference.
But surely one of the points about Jesus' story is that prayer is addressing the Judge, the one who will judge the living and the dead, the one who is king and whose kingdom will have no end. Prayer addresses the God who is all powerful; king over all time and space, king over all human history, king of the entire cosmos and the one who ultimately mediates justice in this world.
Prayer is powerful. The writer, Samuel Chadwick said, ""Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray." Prayer cannot remotely be compared to crossing fingers and Christians really should leave behind, once and for all, the crossing of fingers and the touching of wood. Prayer is not an impotent wish. It is an invitation to the King of kings and Lord of Lords to act in power in our lives and in the lives of those we pray for.
Third approach to prayer - bargaining. We kind of feel that we're in a better position to have our prayers answered if God owes us one. So if we know we haven't been in touch for a while and our account is most definitely not in credit, we try and bargain: "Look God, if you just do this, I'll give up swearing and drinking or I'll come to church for the rest of my life." It's like borrowing from God - do me the good turn first and I promise I'll do my one afterwards. And it's a fairly safe bet because if God doesn't answer the prayer, we don't have to do what we've offered. We find we don't owe him one after all. But what can we possibly offer God that will put him in our debt? He's God! What can you give a God who's got everything? He doesn't owe us anything! He made us, he gave us life, he made the whole world, he even gave his own life to save us from death. God doesn't owe us anything - it's quite the other way around, in fact. God doesn't answer our prayer because he owes us one. He answers our prayer because he loves us, because he cares passionately about justice and he longs for good to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
In the story, the judge is lazy and grumpy, yet even he grants justice in the end because the widow is persistent. So why, asks Jesus, do we give up so easily in prayer, when our judge is good and powerful and is desperate to grant justice?
God longs to hear from us in prayer. I don't know whether Harriet has a baby alarm, but when our daughter, Olivia was born, we tried out one of those little plug-in baby alarms that broadcast every sound your sleeping baby makes down into your sitting room. And the idea was to let you get on with life, secure in the knowledge that if anything happened to your baby, you will hear it. But what really happens is that you sit in the sitting room listening intently to every breath and gurgle coming from the baby alarm. And at the slightest call from baby, you bolt out of our chairs to the rescue. Pointless really, but that's what God is like with us. He's constantly listening, desperately waiting for the slightest gurgle from us that might be addressed to him. He's just waiting on tenterhooks, longing for you to speak to him.
You know, one of the saddest things I hear in our churches is prayers that don't address anyone - "let us think of so-and-so, let us remember " And yet God is desperate to hear us speak to him. So speak to him. There's no such thing as good prayer or bad prayer, there is just praying or not praying. However long it's been, he longs to hear from you, so don't worry about whether you're good at prayer or not, just pray.
Be persistent in prayer, pray for Harriet; teach Harriet to pray; pray
for yourselves; pray for justice; pray about everything that's on your
heart; pray for those in need; pray when you're afraid; pray, pray, pray.
Keep on knock, knock, knocking until you see what answer God is giving
you - and then pray again in thanksgiving. Prayer is powerful, prayer
addresses the living God, the judge, the master, the one who he is pure
goodness, and does not delay in granting justice. And when the Son of
Man comes as judge, will he find faith in us?
Preached: Morland, 16 October 2016