Keep right on till the end....
18th Sunday after Trinity Genesis 32: 22-31 Luke 18 1-8
I am sure if I asked each one of you here this morning you would all be able to name at least one thing that you have bought or started with every good intention of finishing, but haven’t. An exercise bike, a paint box, knitting wool, learning the piano, tins of paint - I am sure we could compile quite a list. There is a danger of doing the same thing with daily prayers. The eminent sailor Sir Francis Drake once said. There must be a beginning of any great thing, but the continuing to the end until it is finished yields true glory. Jesus was well aware that it is very easy to give up in our prayer life and it is too easy to lose heart, when things don’t go to plan. One of the great weaknesses of the Church is that many of its people are not really praying people, which says a lot about where God is in our list of priorities. Yet there may be times when we do pray with persistence—in the face of danger, illness, war, violence, and concern for our children, parents and friends and I am sure that people prayed fervently in the World Wars, as we all do when lives are endangered.
It is that sort of dire situation that we find in the Gospel reading. Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart. It is parable about a judge who “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” We do not know if he is corrupt or not. What we do know is that the judge was not a believer in anything beyond himself—this judge did not believe that he would ever be judged. And we can assume that this judge, who respected no person, cared little about widows and orphans and the poor of the land - the very people the law commanded him to protect. In ancient Palestinian society the widow was helpless and could exert no influence on those in power, having lost the support of her husband, she would almost certainly have been destitute. Jesus uses her as an example of all those who are poor, powerless and without human resources, who rely upon faith in God and not themselves.
I am sure we all know about “squeaky wheels” and how their persistence pays off. You only have to be in a Supermarket and hear children wearing down their Mother’s resolve with persistent cries for toys or sweets. This widow was certainly persistent. She keeps bothering the judge until he finally gives in to her demands. He says “Though I have no fear or God and no respect for anyone, yet because the widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The Greek is stronger than our translation. It really says, “She will give me a black eye if I don’t give in.” She may not intend to punch the judge but she was certainly wearing him down. She is a good example of a “squeaky wheel” which gets the oil it wants.
In biblical times people prayed to their pagan gods repetitiously, heaping words upon words. They performed rituals to get the god’s attention, even slashing themselves so their blood would cry out. Jesus says that God is not like that, He knows our needs even before we ask for his help. We do not need to get God’s attention, for we have a loving heavenly Father who will outdo any earthly parent in taking care of us and meeting our needs. God wants us to pray with persistence and intensity. We do not need to use fancy phrases and convoluted prayer language. We don’t talk to our husbands, wives or close friends like that; we should come honestly to God to pray and not lose heart.
Our Old Testament reading is also about persistence, we heard about Jacob’s strange encounter with a man at night. Jacob, if you remember had been a con man, a cheat, he had deceived and manipulated virtually every member of his family and then ran away when the tension was about to explode into full conflict. Up to this incident Jacob seems to get away with this bad behaviour, making it hard for us to find much that is enlightening in this story of Jacob wrestling with God. To make sense of this story of undeserved blessings, we should set it in context.
Jacob is homeward bound after 20 years away, with his past threatening to catch up with him. Now he is faced with the prospect of meeting up with his brother Esau, who may want revenge for being cheated out of his inheritance. Jacob finds himself at a turning point: he can face up to what waits for him or he can do what he has done in the past - turn tail and run.
When we experience trauma or go through periods of suffering, we are often confronted by emotional enemies we can’t see, emotions we can’t name and fears for the future that we can’t describe. Very often, we feel completely and utterly in the dark. Then the questions come - “Why do I feel like this? Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to the person I love?” This story of Jacob wrestling tells us that even in the darkness of suffering, even in the shadowy nature of emotional pain, God is still there with us. The next important thing is to note that there is a conversation going on between Jacob and the man with whom he wrestles. (God)
And this is important for us because it reminds us that in the midst of our sufferings and trauma, we are able to talk with God and he listens to us. Now for the difficult bit. Jacob never gave up, he wrestled all night, even when he had pain in his hip – he was determined to get a blessing. The sun came up and Jacob had been hurt by the struggle and he would carry a limp with him for the rest of his life and trauma for can affect many of us as well. Jacob is given a new name Israel because he had wrestled with God and prevailed, now walks with a limp almost as a sign of victory, not defeat: He has wrestled with God and he has received a blessing and his limp is a permanent reminder to him and to others of the battle he has been through. In the same way our traumas become an integral part of who we are and we can minister to others out of our brokenness and life experiences.
Our traumas, or limps shouldn’t define us - what should define us is our relationship with the God who has transformed us and given us a new name and under whose protection we live. Wherever you may be in the struggle - whether you are still fighting in the darkness, whether you are currently asking the questions of God, or whether you are seeking a blessing - the promise that comes to us from this story and the gospel story are the same.
Jesus tells us to “seek, ask, knock” and those verbs in Greek are present continuous, and have the sense of ‘keep on with it’ - keep on seeking what you need, keep on asking, keep on knocking at the door and you will be given what you need. And this is the confidence that we have in God, that if we pray according to the will of God, he hears us, and if God hear us, he will answer us.
This kind of prayer will change us. As we pray and keep on praying we come closer to God and we will realise that we are not alone with our problems, but God is with us to strengthen, encourage and console us.
We can’t leave this parable without addressing the issue of unjust judges. “Who are the unjust judges?” Well - sometimes we can be unjust judges. When we are prejudiced, intolerant, and judgemental and when we fail to see other people as children of God. When we fail to show them the love our heavenly Father has for them, then we are just like the judge in the parable.
Jesus closes his parable with a strange question. ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Any prayer for a changing world must begin with the prayer that God will change us – “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” We don’t pray in order to change God but for God to change us, so that when the Son of Man comes he will find faith on earth. Whatever you are praying for – when the going gets tough, keep on keeping on.
I was tempted to give you a rendition of the famous Harry Lauder song -
Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end,
Tho' the way be long, let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend.
Tho' you're tired and weary still journey on,
Till you come to your happy abode,
Where all the love you've been dreaming of
Will be there at the end of the road.
. . . . .but common sense prevailed!