How many of you have seen this picture? It’s been around for a while now. Kinda cute. Ever felt that way? Like you are just barely hanging on. Waiting for things to work out. Maybe waiting for someone to figure out what to do. Hang in there.
Several years ago on a smaller, commuter flight from Portland, Maine to Boston, pilot Henry Dempsey heard a weird noise near the rear of the small plane. He turned the cockpit over to his copilot and went back to figure out what it was. As he reached the tail section, the plane his an air pocket, and Henry was tossed against the rear door of the plane, right under the tail. He quickly discovered the source of the noise. The rear door hadn’t been properly latched prior to takeoff, and it flew open. He was instantly sucked out of the small jet. The copilot, seeing the red warning light indicating an open door, radioed the nearest airport, requesting permission to make an emergency landing. He reported that the pilot had fallen out of the plane, and he requested a helicopter search of that area of the ocean.
After the plane landed, they found Henry – holding onto the outdoor ladder of the aircraft. Somehow he had caught the ladder, held on for ten minutes as the plane flew 200 mph at an altitude of 4,000 feet, and then, at landing, kept his head from hitting the runway. It took airport personnel several minutes to pry his fingers from the ladder. Sometimes life feels turbulent. Sometimes we don’t feel like holding on anymore. It’s easy to question God. To wonder why things are going the way they’re going. To wonder why there is so much wrong in the world. Maybe so much wrong in your life. That’s why Jesus tells this weird little story about a really persistent widow. Turn to Luke 18:1-8.
The Pharisees had asked Jesus a question. Back in Luke 17:20-21, Luke tells us, “Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Jesus had been doing all of this teaching, telling stories about the kingdom of God, and they wanted to know when it would come. “Alright, Jesus. We hear you. This new kingdom you’re talking about sounds like a wonderful place. The unquestioned, unparalleled rule of God. And we’ve seen the miracles you’ve performed. We want the world you’ve been talking about. So when is it coming? When is God going to make things right?” The same question has been asked in every generation since the time of Jesus. “When is the kingdom of God coming? It all sounds great Jesus. So what’s up? Why the wait? When are you setting this thing up?” Jesus’ answer must have shocked them. “The kingdom of God is among you. It’s here. Present with you. Now. It is now in me in you. But it is still coming in a way that everyone will be able to see. Don’t worry about the timing of that, though. Because the Kingdom of God is here now. And as my spirit fills you, you become a part of it.”
And then he tells this story about a persistent widow. In this story, he paints a beautiful picture of a tenacious, hope-filled faith in the midst of the trying times of life. You know, it isn’t in the good times that we wonder and question God. It’s in those trying times. It’s in times of fear and uncertainty, pain and sadness. Those are the times we want to let go of our faith, maybe even let go of life. And Jesus knew that we would be tempted to give up. That life would beat us down sometimes. That quitting, walking away, would enter our minds more than once. From the crucifixions, beheadings, the beatings and burnings endured by those persecuted for their faith in Christ to the losses and tragedies of war after war after war, to natural disasters that kill thousands, to violence in cities and towns that has slopped over into our schools and universities, to terror attacks around the globe, from hunger and homelessness to serious illness and death, things happen that make us wonder, “When will the kingdom come, Jesus?” “We’ve had enough. Stop the world, I want to get off this ride.” And into that sense of hopelessness and darkness and despair Jesus says “the Kingdom is among you.” It has already begun, already been established, in you. And it will move into the future with certainty, fully established when Christ returns. And Luke wants to make absolutely sure that we get the point of this parable. That’s why in V. 1 he wrote “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” He explains the meaning of the parable before he tells the story. He wants to make sure we get it.
So let’s look at this parable. The judge isn’t a godly person. He isn’t even a good person. He’s in his position, uses his position, for his benefit alone. Taking bribes to dispense a twisted justice to the highest bidder. The judge’s own thoughts betray him. “I neither fear God nor respect man.” He was in it for himself. He was a far cry from the template God had laid out for judges. “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment. Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes” (2 Chronicles 19:6-7). This man knew nothing but injustice, and partiality, and bribes. And the widow was completely powerless. It’s likely that the example Jesus had in mind was the common practice of making up fake accounts against defenseless widows and taking away from them whatever they had left. In Jesus’ day, court was a man’s realm, and the fact that she represented herself means that she had no male relative to take her case to the court on her behalf. If she had any money at all, she could have bribed the judge herself to get a swift settlement in her favor. But she didn’t. All she had was herself. She was poor. She had no family. In both the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition, the widow was the symbol of the ultimate state of vulnerability, helplessness, and need. Much the same role that the homeless play in our own culture. In this male dominated culture, a poor widow with no resources and no one to care for her was a beggar.
And yet she keeps coming before the judge. And the image is of more than just showing up before the judge every day. The image is of pestering the judge all over town. In the market. On his street. Outside his home. And in court. Every time he looked up, she was there. Everywhere he went, she was there. And so finally he decides to act on her behalf. Not because he cares about her. He comes right out and says that he cares nothing for any person. But because he needs to save face. She’s everywhere and people have noticed. The word translated as “bothering” literally means “to give a black eye to.” It means to browbeat. To pester incessantly. And so he acts.
Now, here’s the thing we have to understand. Jesus is NOT comparing God to the wicked judge, and the people of God to the pestering widow. He’s actually drawing a contrast. His point is, if this wicked judge can manage to dispense justice to a pestering widow, how much more will God, whose love knows no bounds and whose power knows no limits, act on your behalf? So hang in there. Persist. Jesus said exactly the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount, when he asks the crowd, how many of you, if your child asks for a fish (that’s a snack or a meal), will instead give him a snake? Or if he asks for an egg (again, out of hunger), will give him a scorpion? The answer is obvious. No sane human being would do that. Then he says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give good things, to those who ask him!” He isn’t comparing. He’s contrasting. And unlike the judge, God is faithful and good.
And that means that unlike the pestering widow, we don’t need to do the same thing with God. It was the pagans who attempted to bend the will of their false gods to get them to do what they wanted, through bribes, and begging, and justifying themselves. In the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal. He stands before the people of Israel and draws a line in the sand, saying, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Ki. 18:21). And then he had Israel’s 450 prophets of Baal set up an altar and sacrifice a bull, and he by himself did the same thing. And then he challenged them. “You call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire (consuming the sacrifice), he is God.” And they agreed. So they prepared their sacrifice, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, about 6 hours. They limped around the altar, crying louder and louder, cutting themselves until “blood gushed out.” They raved on like that all day, but there was no answer. Elijah even made fun of them. “Maybe Baal is thinking about something and can’t be bothered. Or maybe he’s asleep. Cry louder, see if you can wake him. Maybe he’s asleep. And get this one. And I quote, “Maybe he is relieving himself.” Maybe Baal is in the bathroom. But nothing happened. Finally, they gave up. Then Elijah called the people in close. And he made the pile of wood and sacrificed the bull. And then he had them pour four jars of water on the sacrifice, three times. Twelve jars of water. And then he offered this simple prayer: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Ki. 18:36-37). That’s it. They prayed and wailed and carried on all day. Elijah offered this simple prayer. And fire fell from heaven and consumed the soaking wet sacrifice.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray using the Lord’s Prayer as an example, he told them “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:7-8). The point isn’t to prattle on endlessly. It is to come boldly before God as one of his children and present your need. Now, I’m not saying we don’t need to spend time in prayer. Jesus spent hours and hours and hours in prayer. But he didn’t do it to twist God’s arm, as if he had to force God to act. God is sovereign. He cannot be manipulated and he does not need to be informed. He will not abandon his agenda. But God is relational. He wants relationship with us. He wants us to talk with him. To talk to him. To pour our hearts out to him. And he wants to speak to us. To share his heart with us. Jesus prayed because he loved his Father.
How many of you have ever had a friend, or a spouse, or a child, and you knew something was wrong, but they wouldn’t talk about it? Doesn’t that just drive you crazy? As a human friend or parent, there may or may not be anything you can do about it, but you want them to trust you enough to share their hurts and frustrations, don’t you? Or if something really good happens, you want them to tell you, don’t you? You want them to trust you enough to share their joys with you. How much more does God, who CAN do something about the things you are facing, who loves you more perfectly than any human parent can love. So why don’t we pray? “We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations to advance the church and secure enlargement and efficiency for the gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man or sink the man in the plan or organization. God’s plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than of anything else. Men are God’s method. The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men … What the church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Spirit can use—men of prayer, mighty in prayer. The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but man—men of prayer”[i] said E.M. Bounds. We don’t pray, because we don’t understand the nature of prayer, and we don’t understand the nature of God and his love. “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance … it is laying hold of his highest willingness.”[ii]
So why does it seem like God doesn’t answer when we pray? Why does it seem that so often heaven is silent? Why does God delay in allowing Jesus to return and set up his kingdom in its fullness? I think there are three reasons. The first is his patience with those who don’t know him. They may be the very ones causing us, or lots of other people problems. And yet God waits. He waits because, like the shepherd of the lost sheep, he is searching for them, and because, like the lost son, he is waiting for them to realize they are lost and come home. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Second, he wants to develop our faith and dependence on him. He is bringing out the fruit of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, in our lives. As followers of Christ, we are ones in whom Christ dwells. And God is at work through the Holy Spirit bringing that reality to fruition in us. And third, and this is related to the first one, God wants to show the world the power of his grace to sustain us, no matter what we face. And so sometimes we face adversity. And frustration. And difficulty. And the challenge of Jesus in the midst of it all is to hang in there. To keep calling out to God, not to twist God’s arm, but to share your heart with him. This kind of prayer isn’t passive. It’s active. This woman was all over the town seeking justice from the judge. And so should we be. Refusing to become disenchanted. Refusing to give up. Keep seeking justice. Keep standing against injustice. Persevering in the face of all that is wrong and unjust. And keep praying, “Thy kingdom come!” The word “always” here doesn’t mean “every minute.” It means “in every circumstance. In every situation.” Hang tough. Keep trusting God. Keep hanging on. Because when God acts, and ultimately when Jesus does return, it will be quickly. God will dispense justice quickly.
So hang in there. When you feel like giving up, hang in there. When you feel like turning your back on God, hang in there. When you feel like giving up on you, hang in there, because God hasn’t. And we have this promise from Jesus, that even though we wish he would fix things now, even though we wish God would hurry up and take care of things, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).” I will never leave you. I will never quit on you. So hang in there.
[i] E. M. Bounds, Power through Prayer
[ii] Archbishop Richard Trench