Short Stories: The Persistent Widow

Good morning and welcome to Journey Church.  Today we are in a series we are calling Short Stories – and it’s a series based on the Parables of Jesus.  And today we are going to read a parable Jesus tells to teach us about the importance of prayer.

And to introduce the topic I want to talk about a man named John Searing, who was a really big fan of Johnny Carson.  Many in this room might have grown up watching Johnny Carson – a Nebraska Native who really pioneered late night television – before there was Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel and whoever is on television, there was Johnny.  And if you are familiar at all with it – you know how they started each show – his sidekick Ed McMahon would announce the guest list for the night and then would introduce Johnny by saying – what became his trademark really -he’d say – “And now…  Here’s Johnny!”

Well, back in the 80’s – there lived this guy named John Searing.  A New Jersey native – John had a bucket list of things he wanted to do in his life – and the list was pretty small.  He wanted to be able to do Ed McMahon’s job for one night and be able to say…  Here’s Johnny.  I don’t for the life of me, understand how that made it to his bucket list – but there it was.

So he wrote a letter to Johnny Carson and said – Johnny – I have one thing that I want to accomplish – I want to be the announcer for the Tonight Show – just once.  And Johnny read the letter and thought it was fun and sent him a letter back with an autographed picture and politely declined his offer.

But that didn’t deter John Searing.  He sent letter after letter – small – short – hey Johnny – it’s John.  Will you please let me do Ed’s announcing job one time?  Please?

He sent more than 800 letters.  And finally, Carson says – enough – if I let you do it, will you leave me alone?  And so they fly him out – but when the show starts Ed Does the announcing and John discovers that Johnny wants to interview him instead.  And basically it’s “Why do you keep bothering me?”

Anyway – it turns out that John was a really nice guy – he wasn’t a stalker or anything – he was just persistent.  And well – here’s the tape of him getting his big chance.

Today we are reading Jesus take on prayer – from Luke 18

One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up.

Now before we jump into the story – let’s start with a definition of prayer.  What is prayer?

A good description of prayer is, “Talking to God about matters of mutual concern.”

Prayer pre-supposes that we have already established a relationship with God through faith in Jesus.  And as a friend of God we are talking about matters of mutual concern.

Now, when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray – he likens the relationship as that of a child and a loving father.  And he tells us that God expects us to talk with him and ask him for what we need.

Sometimes people have a difficult time praying because they feel like it’s one sided.  Well, God speaks to us primarily through his bible.  We speak to God primarily through prayer.

So prayer is talking to our heavenly father about matters of mutual concern.  And prayer is at it’s basic level – a request.  We are asking God our father for something.

From time to time Jesus gives us a glimpse into what prayer is like from his side of the story.  What does he expect from us?  And this is one of the stories he tells about prayer – and I don’t know – it might make you feel uncomfortable after listening to it – but let’s read it and talk about it.

 “There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who neither feared God nor cared about people. A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, saying, ‘Give me justice in this dispute with my enemy.’ The judge ignored her for a while, but finally he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’”

Then the Lord said, “Learn a lesson from this unjust judge. Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly!

Don’t you love the way Jesus throws these stories out there and really makes you think.  He’s like “Let me tell you about prayer – there’s this unjust judge who doesn’t care about people at all.  Faithless, helpless, could care less.  And at first aren’t you like, wait. are you saying that God is like this?

And the answer is of course not!  He’s the opposite of this!  And that’s the point.  He cares so much for you that he sent Jesus to take our place.  We are loved beyond measure!

But the judge in the story?  Doesn’t care at all about people – and yet – the unjust judge runs into an unstoppable force.  A woman who is going to patiently and persistently bring her case before the judge – she’s waiting for him in the morning – Morning judge – when will you deliver justice to me – I’ve been wronged and you have the power to change this – and…  Bah!

On the way home though – there she is is – me again judge.  Wanted to remind you that I need you to act…  Bah! Finally he says – I’ll give her the justice she wants just to get her off my back!  Notice –  he doesn’t give her what she wants – he simply rules justly.

How do you feel after reading this parable?  Encouraged?  or discouraged.  Doesn’t this parable bring up more questions than it answers?

Let’s run at some questions this parable brings up.

First question.  Does prayer really matter? Does it do anything? I mean, doesn’t God already know the beginning from the end.  Isn’t he the one in control of all things?  And so why does he invite us to prayer?  Is it a charade?

Many a good person has been derailed by thoughts that prayer is futile and a waste of time because God is going to do what he wants to do, regardless of our opinion.

Does God allow us to influence his decisions?

And the bible gives us a clear answer- yes He can.  We see in the Bible God allows himself to be prevailed upon by those who faithfully stand before him.  Two examples – Moses in Exodus 32 – there’s an episode where the people if Israel – after Moses comes down from the top of the mountain he’s coming down with the ten commandments and the people of Israel fashioned a golden calf and began to worship it – and God says to Moses – I will wipe these people out and let’s start over Moses – I’ll make a great nation out of you.  Moses intercedes on behalf of the people and it says God changed his mind.

Jonah was sent to Ninevah to inform the Assyrians that judgment was coming their way- the people of Assyria repent – and God relents – and Jonah pitches a fit I knew you’d change your mind.

Listen – God’s character remains unchangeable.  He doesn’t change like shifting sand – he is completely good and that doesn’t change.  But incredibly, God treats humanity with enough respect and dignity that he sincerely allows us to have input into how things go.

Prayer influences God’s decisions.  God is great enough that he can accomplish his purposes and change his intentions when he think it is appropriate.  It is not inherently ‘greater’ to be inflexible.

Amazingly, God welcomes our input and allows us to influence his decisions when it comes to the running of the universe.

That said – second question.  Why should we have to keep asking God for what He knows we need? Does God need to be nagged? 

If Jesus says in Matthew 6:8 that our father in heave knows what we need before we ask it, then why does he wait for us to ask, and why do we need to ask at all?

Is Jesus teaching us that God knows what we need but he will not give it to us until we badger him for it?

And the answer is – of course he’s not like this.  Therefore – if an unjust judge will act because of the persistence of the woman – how much more will God act – who loves us so deeply.

Never the less – the question is valid.  Because Jesus is clearly teaching the importance of persistence.  So what role does persistence play in prayer?

The answer is… Persistence is for Our Sake, not God’s.

Persistence makes us ask – do I really want this?

Any of you have a practice that when it comes to big purchases – anything over $500 you will wait one week before you make it?  No impulsive buying?  Persistence in prayer makes us ask – is it important enough that we are still thinking about it a week later?

If so – then persistence has heightened our desire – it has sharpened exactly what it is we are asking for… It guards against thoughtless, impulsive prayers.

Persistence gives us time to examine our motives.

One of my all time favorite moments between Jesus and his disciples occurs one day in Luke 9 when they are all walking through a town in Samaria and they are treated rudely by the towns people – who don’t really care for them.  And James and John suggest to Jesus – Shall we call down fire from heaven and burn them all to death?

Jesus is like – why don’t we come back to that request in a week or two and see if you still feel like that’s a good thing to ask for…

Persistence makes sure that we aren’t treating God like a Genie instead of like our heavenly father.  Persistence gives our soul a chance to hear itself.  Are you hearing what you are asking for right now?  Is this prayer really “Thy Kingdom Come or is it My Kingdom come.”  Whose kingdom am I seeking to benefit?

Persistence allows time for us to change our prayers into greater prayers.

In 2 Corinthians 11 we read about this issue that the Apostle Paul was having – he described it as the thorn in the flesh.  He never tells us what it is, simply that it is painful, a source of torment, “a messenger of Satan.”

Paul says that he prayed three times for God to remove it.  When God didn’t answer his prayer, Paul changed how he was praying.  He prayed that God would help him to rely on God’s grace, God’s strength, God’s power, which was made perfect in Paul’s weakness.

It might feel like God is waiting an uncomfortably long time to answer your prayers.  But he is using that time to mold you and change you.

Now that said – we have to admit that plenty of times we feel we are praying for the right thing – healing – that someone would discover the real Jesus and place their faith in Him…  these are good prayers and we have to admit the frustration of knowing these are right prayers to pray and  yet…

My feeling is that most frustration with prayer isn’t that God says no.  Adults understand that – even if you don’t have kids – you understand that parents say no to their kids because they love their kids.  And sometimes the most loving answer is no.   Most of us can handle a no.  Although – when it’s matters that are closest to our heart, nobody wants to hear a no.

There are times when prayer is difficult because we seem to be praying things that should be slam dunk “yes” from God.  And ultimately, prayer requires a lot of humility.  We must humble ourselves and leave the governance of the universe in the hands of the one most qualified.  And so ultimately, we pray and we leave the answers up to the one who really does know best.

Do you have a prayer request that God seems to be dragging his heals to answer?  Luke includes this parable – and he tells us why.  We didn’t read it – but we will now – it’s the prelude to this parable.  It’s why Luke included it.

One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up.

Take heart. Don’t give up.  God is not slow in responding.  He is up to something good.  You might not get what you want.  He might say no.  He might say not now.  But don’t give up.  God is doing something in you through it.

Now let’s talk practically about how we can improve our prayer life.

Don’t let your dissatisfaction with your prayer life keep you rom praying, or trying out new ways to pray.

I know you are not satisfied with your prayer life.  I know because I ran into a study once that said only 3 in a hundred Christians said they are satisfied with their prayer life.

Okay- so I’m a 97 percenter too – and let’s just agree that we will not allow that to keep us from learning new things to help our prayer life.

For the new comer to prayer – here’s a couple of things.

  1. Keep it simple. Jesus wants us o just talk normal to him.  He wants that.  Now some of you grew up in a home where you learned how to pray with words like thee and thou and thine and even a YE thrown in for good measure every once in a while.  But it might surprise you to know that Jesus didn’t speak King James English.  He spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek – but not English.  So he’s okay with us just talking to him regular like.

Some of you have this terror of being asked to pray out loud.  No need.  Here’s how you start.  Our father…  and at any point you can say – amen.  That’s like the send button on your prayer.  You’re good to go.

  1. Keep it short. Again – these tips are found in Matthew 6 – Jesus says – there isn’t anything extra special about long prayers. In fact – it feels like Jesus is saying – do me a favor – don’t babble on and on.  Theirs isn’t anything special about saying the Lord’s prayer ten times in a row.

I remember the first time I learned how to pray I had a terrible habit – at the end of the prayer I would say the word “and”.  Be with the missionaries and… DoH!  I did it again!  Finally I learned to say, and… amen.

So Keep it simple.  Keep it succinct, and keep it up!

Last month we talked about the idea of slowing down and creating some margin in your life.  And one of the things that we mentioned was leaving ten minutes earlier than you think you need to for appointments.  And afterward one of my friends, Mike Shae, was helping us tear this stuff on the stage down and he said that he has learned to create margin, and he said, “I want to give God the margin.”

In other words if he arrives en minutes early, he will spend that time in prayer.  Or reciting a bible verse or reading a little scripture.  And he says that throughout the course of the day, it give him touch points with God.  Brief times.

It is Jesus’ instruction to us that we ought to be the kind of people who regularly bring up important matters of mutual concern as we talk with God through the course of our day.

Close with two examples.

Daniel Thera in Mali – prayed for 40 years that there would be a hospital and health clinics filled with Christians who will also start churches in these remote areas.  40 years of prayer.  Answered one day when Journey Church said, we’re in.

Example 2.  Jim who prayed for that many years for a church in this town to reach people ready to start or restart their spiritual journey.  One day he is running and he hears God say – now’s the time.  And ten years later – here we are.  And we are getting ready to launch a campaign in March to ask you to prayerfully and  financially and generously support a building project that will ensure that kind of church is in this kind of community for generations to come.

God is always working behind the scenes in the hearts and lives of everyone you see.  So keep praying and don’t give up.