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Wearing God Out

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on October 17, 2010.
Luke 18:1-8

Have you ever wondered what prayer is like from God’s point of view?

Actually, that very question is explored in, of all places, a modern movie called Bruce Almighty.  In Bruce Almighty, Jim Carey plays a man named Bruce who is struggling in virtually every area of his life, and is sharply criticizing God for doing such a poor job of helping him out.  Without any warning, Bruce is suddenly confronted by God (played by Morgan Freeman) who offers Bruce his divine powers for a temporary period of time to see if he can do any better running the world.

At first Bruce revels in the superhuman powers that enable him to indulge his every whim.  But then he begins to feel the weight of his divine responsibilities as he hears voices from all over the world expressing prayer requests.  Overwhelmed by the millions of requests, Bruce tries to find a way to sort out and respond to them all.  First, he has all the prayer requests printed and placed in filing cabinets, but that’s still too much to handle.  Then he has each prayer request printed on individual post-it notes and plastered all over his house, but now his house is uninhabitable.   

Finally, he arranges to have all prayers directed to his personal computer by way of a newly constructed “Yahweh” website.  It takes all night to download all the prayer requests.  Then he begins typing his answers to the prayers at warp speed, confident he’s found the most time-efficient way to respond.  But after typing for hours, he checks his in-box, and finds that the number of prayers waiting to be answered has doubled!  By now, Bruce Almighty is worn out with prayer.  And he decides to answer all prayers with one word—“Yes.”  And as you watch the rest of the movie, you see that this response leads to utter disaster  

Does Hollywood have this right?  Is the best way to get a “yes” answer from God simply to wear him out with your asking?

Our parable today might make you think so.  The “Parable of the Persistent Widow” is one of those maddening stories in scripture that can leave you scratching your head and tearing your hair out!  You’d think the first verse of the parable would make everything clear as day—Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 

That sounds simple enough.  But then Jesus tells a story to illustrate his point that muddies the water considerably.  He describes a maverick judge who could care less about what God or anybody else thinks.  This judge did what was right in his own eyes according to what suited his own interests, and didn’t care whose ox he gored.  Somehow he reminds me of Simon Cowell, a former judge on American Idol.  If you or your case didn’t impress this judge, or he didn’t care about your issues, he had no problem telling you to get over it and get lost. 

Along comes a woman who refuses to take no for an answer.  She is a widow who has no friends in high places, no money for  bribes, no clout of any kind.  The only thing she’s got is a gritty determination to make her case day after day with the judge.  At first, the woman is nothing more than a nuisance.  But she is constantly on the judge’s case about her case, and finally he wears out and says yes to her request.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think the callous judge in Jesus’ story represents God, and the persistent widow represents believers who are encouraged to wear God out.   In fact, Jesus reinforces that interpretation when he adds this postscript:   “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God bring about justice to his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?  Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

Sounds to me like what Jesus is saying is that the way to get God to do what you want is to cry out to him day and night and bother him to death.  Finally, like Bruce Almighty he’ll simply wear out and give you what you want.  

But wait a minute.  Maybe the parable isn’t that simple.  For one thing, the parable says in no uncertain terms that God’s agenda is to attain justice for his chosen ones.  That’s interesting!  Many Christian churches don’t talk about justice that much.  Is God really that interested in justice?  And by the way, exactly who are “the chosen ones?”

And why does the parable end with this question:  “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” 

But we haven’t even gotten to the most puzzling part.  The parable seems to promise that when we pray fervently to God he will respond and respond quickly.  But that promise not only doesn’t seem to match up with the earlier part of the parable that calls for persistence in prayer over time.  It honestly doesn’t match up with some of our experience either. 

Fred Craddock tells of a young pastor just out of seminary who was teaching a bible study about prayer.  Very confidently, the young pastor reads Matthew 7:7 that quotes Jesus as saying, “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and it shall be opened to you.” 

At that point an elderly African-American gentleman stood up and said, “Until you have stood for 70 years in front of a locked door with bloody knuckles, you don’t know the kind of prayer Jesus is talking about!”    And every one of us who has prayed for days and weeks and years for something and not seen that door to heaven budge might privately say, “Amen!”

Now, here is the traditional interpretation of this confusing parable.  Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples who are about to undergo a severe test.  Soon, Jesus will be crucified, resurrected, and then will ascend into heaven.  Jesus has promised to return, and bring God’s kingdom with him.  But it will look for all the world like Jesus and his kingdom are not coming and it will be easy for Jesus’ followers (my definition of “the chosen”) to give up on him. 

So Jesus is saying, “Whatever you do, don’t give up.  Keep praying.  Keep believing.  If an unscrupulous, callous judge finally gives a persistent widow her due, how much more will your Heavenly Father give you what you pray for?  When the time is right, I will come back.  And when I do, I only hope I find some people who still believe in me and my promises.” 

This interpretation is okay as far as it goes.  But it leaves out God’s pursuit of justice, and sadly I don’t have time today to develop that theme either.   Because there are deeper themes related to prayer that need attention.  For example, this parable reminds us that prayer is far too mysterious to ever completely understand.

The fact is, sometimes we pray and get what we hope for.  And sometimes we pray—day and night—and don’t hear a peep from God.  Some people experience miracles of healing and some receive miraculous provisions while others die or go bankrupt.  How do we make sense of God’s response to our prayers?  Some times we don’t.

If you grew up in Kentucky like I did, you learned a lot about Daniel Boone in school because he carved the famous Wilderness Road into the heart of the Kentucky.  Once a settler asked this great wilderness man, “Were you ever lost in the woods?”  Boone thought a minute and then answered, “No, not exactly lost.  But I have been bewildered for days on end, once for more than a week, but I kept on going.”

The truth is, when it comes to prayer, many of us feel bewildered for days on end.  But Jesus says, don’t worry about being bewildered about prayer.  Just keep on praying, even when you don’t know where you are going.”

In fact, I would say the main point of this story is—you don’t have to understand prayer.  Just do it, and do it boldly and persistently, even when it seems nothing is happening.

Why should we pray in this way? 

Because God commands us to.  And because Jesus prayed this way.  And if we want to become like Jesus, we will pray like Jesus. 

Along the way, here’s what we learn.  We learn as we pray that as important as results are, our relationship with God is even more important. 

I’m convinced the primary reason God wants us to persevere in prayer is not to wow us with the results we want, although that happens some time.  The primary purpose of prayer is to reinforce a relationship of love, and deepen the intimacy we have with God.  The very fact that we will ask God again and again for something tells God we love him, and trust him, like a child loves a parent.  And the very act of asking can deepen the relationship we have with God.  And underneath all our requests, that’s what we really want most anyway. 

In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner puts it this way:  The God you pray to will finally respond, “and even if he does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself.  And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is really what we are praying for.” 

If you’ve been a part of FBC four or more years, you will likely remember little Lillie Boyte, the daughter of Michelle and Corey who was diagnosed almost exactly four years ago with Stage 4 neuroblastoma.  After battling this deadly cancer so bravely for ten months, Lillie died in late August of 2007. 

Of course, this tragedy devastated the Boyte family.  But it also impacted our entire congregation like few things I have ever seen.  As this drama unfolded, hundreds if not thousands of people inside and outside our church prayed for Lillie. We cried out day and night for her recovery.  And it did not come, at least in the way we had hoped. 

As I wrestled with this parable re: persistent prayer this week, I couldn’t help but think about Corey and Michelle’s experience with prayer.  So I called and  asked them three questions about prayer:  During Lillie’s illness –

Why did you pray like you did?

Why did you continue to pray when you didn’t get the answers you wanted?

What do think about this experience of prayer now as you look back on it?

Corey and Michelle graciously agreed to respond to these questions in writing. Listen to their answers.  I think you’ll agree that they get to the heart of what Jesus is telling us through the Parable of the Persistent Widow.

Why did you pray like you did?

Prayer has always been a part of our daily lives but quite frankly, when Lillie was diagnosed, we were desperate and devastated.  Options were few.  Given the statistics that Lillie had a 30% chance to be cured and that there wasn’t a clear roadmap of treatment, we needed to fully feel the presence of God in our lives.  The best way for us to feel that richness was to spend time with Him… to pray, to listen and to discern.  To know that God was with us each step of the way when we were on the edge of hopelessness brought us a very tangible sense of light, peace, courage and energy we needed to carry on.

We were fortunate to have a foundation of prayer before this painful journey began.  And we were blessed that God had already assembled prayerful people in our lives who surrounded us and stormed heaven on our behalf when we were literally too exhausted.

Why did you continue to pray when you didn’t get the answers you wanted?

So, the alternative to praying is to not pray.  This alternative is scary, dangerous and quite frankly, never an option for us.  Had we not continued to pray and seek God through prayer, the isolation we felt from our “normal” would have been overwhelming.  The darkness would have surely overcome us.  The pit of despair would have been too deep to ever climb out of.

Over the months of Lillie’s illness, our prayers changed from the pleading for earthly healing to praying for peace with God’s will.  “We don’t like it but we will trust you Lord.” Submitting to God’s will or His plan when you seen your child and family suffering is extremely difficult and a prime environment for Satan to take over.  There were days that we were angry at God and on a few occasions we would refuse to “talk” to God at all.  But like children that stomp off when they didn’t get their way or when we thought something was unfair, we always came back knowing in our hearts that our God was still with us and loved us.

What do think about this experience of prayer now as you look back on it?

Prayer saved us then and continues to save us today.  Being close to God delivered us from the “crisis of belief” our family experienced beginning on Oct 12, 2006 (the day of Lillie’s diagnosis).  “Talking” to God and seeking answers to our questions such as: What is happening? Why is this happening? Are you here God? Are you listening? Are we yours?  have strengthened our faith.  Some of our questions have been answered, some have not.  But we keep praying, we keep talking and we keep listening. The bottom line is that prayer keeps us close to God and that’s where we want to be.

Friends, what we’ve just heard is the word of the Lord for us today.  Thanks be to God!