Whats the deal with Prayer?

Whats the deal with Prayer?

Preached Sunday 20 October, 2019 at Turramurra Uniting Church

Series:Real People, Real Questions
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Bible Reading: Luke 18:1-8


We live in an age of google when you think that people should not have any questions anymore (just google it) but people do.  Actually, I think that people have more questions than ever.  What I want to explore today is what we do with those questions…

When I was at theological college, we had small groups of students and faculty that met weekly to talk about things and support each other.  I remember this one week, one of the first year students shared that she had been doing a lot of thinking and was struggling with the concept of Hell and whether Hell as a place of eternal suffering actually existed at all.  Looking around the circle you could see all these other theological students getting ready to respond – mentally coming up with our answer to her question when our faculty member spoke.  He said, “Why are you struggling?  What has happened that has made you think about this now?”

The first year student started to share how one of her friends had just died.  This friend had had a very tough life with some terrible experiences.  In her pain and anger she had rejected faith and now had died.  The first year student explained “I am struggling to see how God, after all the pain my friend had been through, would condemn her to a place of eternal suffering.   I just struggling with that”. 

I learnt something that day.  My lecturer or any of us around the circle could have given our answer to the question raised – but that probably would have shut down the discussion.  Instead my lecturer just lingered with the question and allowed us as a group to wrestle with the issue, to listen to what was behind the question and to enter into the discussion.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think that answers are important and clearly Jesus and the bible give us many answers in life … but I do wonder whether the church over the years have focused too much on the answers or rushed too quickly to the answer and not lingered enough in the question.

Eugène Ionesco, a French-Romanian playwright, once said that it is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.  The business textbooks used to tells us that traditionally if you had a problem you found an expert to give you the answer but now they are saying that what is more important is asking the right questions – questions that will lead to a collaboration of thinking and ideas – that those types of questions are more important and more helpful than the expert answer.

In my own faith journey, I would have to say that I have grown more and have discovered more about God when I have been wrestling with a question than I have when someone quickly has given me an answer.

I have a church in the states where I am a virtual member, I listen to a lot of there sermon and grow from their teaching.  I am not going to tell you the churches name because I sometimes “borrow” their best teaching and reuse it here.  One of their key focus as a church is to create a space where people can ask questions.  They say that faith is not a mindless, check-your-brain-at the door experience but rather is one where you should ask tough questions and in a safe community have a place to share, to ponder, to listen, to explore scripture and to discuss … and in the midst of this the truth of God is revealed in that process.

I hope that people can see this church, this space like that too.

So, in this sermon series we are going to explore some real questions asked by real people – and we are not necessarily going to rush to the answers but rather sit within the questions, to allow people to wrestle, to listen to different ideas, to explore scripture and in the midst of the question – God will be revealed.

And this is much bigger than my 15 minute sermon – we want to create a culture that this happens right across all that we do – to create a space community where any question can be asked and valued and explored.

Sound good?  Then lets jump into the topic of today… prayer.

In Luke 11:1-3, the disciples had been noticing that Jesus often took time out to go and pray.  And so, they asked the question, “What’s the deal with prayer?” 

When you start to stretch the surface we find that many people have many questions when it comes to prayer.  Today today I want to explore one of those questions which was hinted at in our bible reading for today.

Of which I am going to invite Judith to come up and share it with out now…

Bible Reading  Luke 18:1-8

Can you relate to this cartoon, “Dear God, Uncle Jim still doesn’t have a job; Sis still doesn’t have a date for the social; Grandma is still feeling sick – and I’m tired of praying for this family and not getting results.” Probably all of us have felt this way, at one time or another, in regard to our prayers. It is not that we don’t believe in prayer or doubt that God is hearing our prayers … it just seems like God is a little thin on the results … and it makes us tempted to stop praying.  If is not making any difference …

I am sure that people during the time of Jesus also felt this way and so Jesus tells this parable.  To put this passage in cultural perspective, we need to understand how the courts worked back then.  The courts weren’t a nice big building where there was an organised system of taking a number and waiting in line. 

Here is how one commentary described it…

“The courtroom was not a fine building but a tent or a room in a town as the judge moved from place to place covering his circuit. The judge, not the law, set the agenda; and he sat regally, surrounded by his assistants. Anybody could watch the proceeding from outside, but only those who were approved and accepted could have their cases tried. This usually meant bribing one of the assistants so that he could call the judges attention to the case. This is still true in some countries today.”

On top of this, the bible reading tells us that this particular judge in Jesus parable, neither feared God nor cared what people thought.  This implies that he was probably a Gentile judge designated by the Roman authorities. (A Jewish Judge would have feared God). 

On the other side of the story is our widow – who culturally did not have any influence or power or probably money.  We are not told the details of what her issue was but this widow had an adversary who was trying to take advantage of her. It’s likely someone was trying to cheat her out of money or land her husband left her.  Unfortunately this was quite common in Bible times, because women had few legal rights.  (Actually this was the exact thing that happened to Ruth and Naomi in the Old Testament story).  So maybe her husband had died and this adversary was scamming her out of her rightful inheritance.

This would have been a simple case for the judge to hear … especially if it about family inheritance.  It would be very quick to work out the rightful owner of the property or possessions and justice would be served.  The case is not the problem … getting it before the judge is the problem.  As we said earlier, a widow would have no power, no influence and no money no money to bribe this wicked judge so her only recourse was to come before him repeatedly crying, “Grant me justice against my adversary! Grant me justice against my adversary!”

She didn’t just ask once and say, “Let me know what you decide.” She peppered his ears with persistent petitions.   The language of verse three indicated that every day she begged him for help. As one commentator put it, “The language leaves open the possibility of confrontation everywhere, not just in the court. She pleaded with him in front of his friends and his colleagues, she confronted him in the street, she pestered him in the market, and she called out to him at his home.” But that was the point … you see her only option was to keep asking the judge to help her; she had no other alternative.”

He dismissed her claim, but she kept coming back, constantly begging him for justice. He must have thought, “Oh, no, not HER again!” In verse 5, he admits she bothered him. He was upset because she was constantly in his face. This constant begging and nagging finally paid off–he heard her case and ultimately ruled in her favour.   I do find it interesting that the judge is finally moved to help her not out of sense of justice or compassion but one of self-preservation.  She was wearing him out so it was easier just to hear the case.

Now … it is a good story, but how is it a good parable teaching us about the importance of persistence in prayer? 

Who where is uncomfortable with the idea that God is being compared to an unjust judge – someone whom we either have to be rich or powerful to talk to … or we need to just keep nagging God until we wear him down and he finally listens to our prayer!

I think we need to understand that Jesus is not comparing God to an unjust judge. Rather he is making a point by contrast.  If a poor widow can get an uncaring judge to hear her case by perseverance, then how much more should we expect that God the Righteous judge will throw open the doors of his throne room and invite us in to present our requests?

But if God is always ready to hear our requests … then why do we need to be persistent with them… wouldn’t God hear them the first time?  Yes, I believe God does, but I also think that there is something in the practice of continual persistent prayer that it good for us.  I believe it is a biblical principle that we are encouraged to do.

In Psalm 55:16-17, David wrote: “I call to God, and the Lord saves me. Evening, morning, and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice.” David gives us the example of an all-day prayer.

In the Old Testament, Hannah desperately wanted a child.  She didn’t after one prayer decide “Well, it must not be God’s will for me to have a child.” The bible tells us that she kept on praying for years, and eventually God gave her a son–Samuel, the mighty prophet.

Even Jesus prayed persistently. On the night before the crucifixion, He was in the Garden of Gethsemane pouring out His heart to His Father. “Father, take this cup from me–but not my will but yours be done!” If you read the actually story it tells us that he didn’t just pray this once, but three times we prayed this prayer. 

Paul had some kind of painful affliction he called a thorn in the flesh. He begged the Lord to remove the pain. He asked not once, not twice, but three times before the Lord answered. And when God answered, it wasn’t the answer Paul was wanting. God didn’t take away the thorn; instead He gave him the grace to cope with the pain.

We have our own examples of persistent prayer.  Who here has prayed for someone or something for more than a month, more than a year?  In my last church we had a weekly prayer list … and we had someone on that list for about 4 years.  Every week for 4 years we prayed.  But why… Why does Jesus want us to be persistent in prayer?  What is the advantage of persistent prayer over a one off prayer that God will hear?

I  want us to just sit with this question … but I do have two thoughts … not answers, just thoughts…

One comes from a writer called Francis McNutt.  He uses the phrase “soaking prayer”.  He says that after a drought if you have a burst of rain it doesn’t actually make any difference.  It just runs off the hard ground and makes no difference.  But if you have constant or regular light rain, it will soak in and the drought will break.  McNutt suggests that there is something powerful in this “soaking prayer” approach … that regular prayer does make a difference.

The other comes from a picture or vision I had a while ago but reinforced through my experience with when I was praying for a very dear friend to recover and he died.   During that time I began to see that prayer is not just a ritual that we perform and then stand back and wonder “Did it work?”  Prayer is supposed to be a time of us drawing near to God and talking. 

I had this picture of God and me sitting on a ledge, feet dangling, looking at a problem before us that I was praying about … and in my picture it was like God saying, “Let’s work out a way forward together.” 

If that is a picture of what prayer is supposed to be like, then of course it would be better to pray regularly and persistently … not so that we can wear God down and persuade him to do what we want … but rather so that we can have time to work out a way forward together.  It is good for us to draw near to God regularly and meet with God in prayer.  I think this is why Jesus makes the connection between being persistent in prayer and faith. 

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this question…

Going back to our cartoon at the beginning … I know it is hard to keep being passionate about prayers when our prayers are seemingly not being heard or answered.  In know it is even harder to keep being enthusiastic about prayers – especially when it seems are prayers are not making a difference … but we need to remember what the heart of what prayer is about … it is not about visible results … it is actually about drawing close to God, being with him and talking to him. 

In this sense Jesus’ parable is spot on … we should always pray and never give up.  Even when it is hard … we should always pray and never give up.