Pray Always, and . . .

1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and . . . Luke 18:1

We might get thus far into this parable of Jesus and already be off to a false start. We could read “their need to pray always” and jump to the conclusion that this parable is about being persistent in prayer. We might then find ourselves persistent in what I call prayers. What are those? Well with Amazon, you pay for something and it shows up. We may expect something similar with God. We pray for something and it shows up. Therefore we may think from this parable that if it does not arrive, be persistent and keep praying and it will eventually show up. However, there is something far deeper going on here. Let us turn to the parable, and as you read, watch for a certain theme that shows up a lot. I have used bold-type to help you spot it:

1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:1-8

Spotting the word “justice” is crucial in understanding this parable. Knowing that Jesus has promised opposition for his followers also helps. This is not, “Why hasn’t God given me what I want yet,” but “Why are God’s loved ones, if God loves them, facing opposition and injustice?” Christians have faced opposition and injustice from the get-go. We still do, in fact we are said to be the most oppressed people group around the world today. This sounds hard to believe in the West where we are conditioned to believe that Christians are the worst oppressors ever known. This conditioning is also part of the opposition that we face. We sometimes face opposition in the form of ridicule and contempt which is far milder, of course, than the threats and death faced elsewhere. This opposition is why Jesus calls us to “pray always and not to lose heart.”

When I tell my boys about all the hard work and homework that is required to be successful at school, they may be tempted to drop out. A temptation to drop out in the face of opposition is reflected by Jesus when he asks at the end of the parable if “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  So why not drop out? With school, my boys ought not drop out because all that hard work and homework turns out to be worth it in the end. Here is another key to understanding this parable of Jesus. Look to the end. Jesus gives us a better option to dropping out, namely keep praying and do not lose heart! We will find justice in the end.

The gist of the parable is this: if at the end of the day an unjust judge will grant justice for someone he does not care about, then how much more can we expect to see God deliver justice for people he loves deeply?! So keep praying and do not lose heart, hang on and look forward to the day God brings justice.

We find these same themes reflected throughout scripture. Consider, for example, this example from 2nd Thessalonians:

Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. 6 For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 2 Thessalonians 1:4-10

The Christians at Thessalonica were facing persecution. Facing injustice as they were, they might begin to question if they should drop out. But the Lord will put things right and the persecutors, if they do not repent, will be facing separation from God. Justice is coming, so keep praying and do not lose heart!

Likewise consider this from the book of Revelation, a book written originally for people facing persecution for their faith in, and loyalty to, Jesus:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” 11 They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed. Revelation 6:9-11

Later on in Revelation we learn about the Millenium:

Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. Revelation 20:4

There is great discussion as to whether these particular scenes should be taken literally or symbolically. Either way, this scene points to a great reversal. Justice will come to the oppressor and for the the oppressed. So keep praying and do not lose heart.

Another thought; we may assume this parable is thinking of prayer as a shopping list of wants. However, it is perhaps better to see prayer here as a means of remaining solid in our relationship with Christ in the face of troubles. Prayer is part of what we do to “abide” in Christ which we are instructed by Jesus to do in John 15. It is interesting to note that immediately following the instruction to abide, or “remain” in Him, Jesus goes on to talk about the world hating His disciples. Prayer is an important part of a relationship with Christ and a relationship with Christ is an important part of facing opposition.

This parable of Jesus is not for those who may be tempted to quit praying when their ‘letters to Santa Claus’ are not answered by God. Rather this parable is for God’s children who may be tempted to drop out or sell out under opposition. Hang on, keep praying and do not lose heart. How will your life be an answer to Jesus’ question?

And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Luke 18:8

(All scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

Psalm 100. A Call to All to Give Thanks

Around the table at Thanksgiving many people have a tradition of saying what they are thankful for. I am always thankful that my son, who arrived on a Thanksgiving weekend twelve years ago, arrived safely. Especially so since he arrived at the hospital before the doctor who was on call and methinks sitting down to a Turkey dinner at the time. But while it may be easy coming up with things to be thankful for, how many have really thought about whom they are giving thanks to? The what of Thanksgiving happens naturally. The to whom and why gets a bit muddy for some. It is not muddy for the Psalmist in Psalm 100 who has a clear sense of gratitude; what for, to whom, and why. This will become clear to us as we take a look:

1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
2 Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100)

Some things to note about the Psalmist’s call to Thanksgiving:

The call to thanksgiving is a call to know the LORD. 

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. (Psalm 100:1 emphasis mine)

The Psalm begins with a call to make a joyful noise, not to just any lord, but the LORD. Many of our translations use LORD all in capitals in place of the actual name of God. There is a long story about this but suffice it to say here that we have a call to give thanks to The One Creator God Who has revealed Himself as recorded in the Bible. Here we have not some nebulous concept of a god that can never be known, but a very specific and personal God who can be known and has made Himself known. The Psalmist is very clear on to whom thanksgiving is due, the One God Who has made Himself known.

Further, the Psalmist is clear on some specifics that we can know about the LORD:

Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Psalms 100:3)

For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalms 100:5)

The call to thanksgiving is a call to experience joy in the LORD.

1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
2 Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing. (Psalms 100:1-2 emphasis mine)

These should not be taken as commands so much as an affirmation of what comes naturally. People naturally respond to really good news with joy, noise, and singing. Even those who cannot carry a tune cannot contain their enthusiasm. When we know the LORD properly, we will understand that the opportunity of being in relationship with Him is a fantastic opportunity. We will understand how amazing a thing it is to enjoy God’s presence. A church I once pastored could joyfully claim that a former Prime Minister of our nation was once a regular attender. Yet that fact pales in comparison to having the King of Glory in attendance. If there is joy lacking in the church services across our nation, perhaps it has less to do with getting a handle on worship style and more to do with getting a handle on how utterly fantastic a thing it is to be in the presence of the LORD.

Since I brought up worship style let us recognize too, that the call to thanksgiving is a call to experience joy in the Lord rather than a call to enjoy ourselves. When we put the emphasis of church worship on making sure people enjoy themselves, we begin to emphasize perfection in performance. If the church I pastor suddenly put an emphasis on excellence in performance I would soon find myself out of work. When worship is more about joy in the Lord than enjoyment of oneself, our experience of worship will be decided long before the church service begins.

The call to thanksgiving is a call to praise the LORD.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name. (Psalms 100:4 emphasis mine)

Sometimes a sceptic will ask if the Lord is so insecure that he needs our praise. This is to completely misunderstand praise. Praise is not something God needs, nor is it something that must be commanded, but is something we do quite naturally. Does the mother or father of a child need to be instructed to praise him or her when they take their first steps? Momentous occasions call for momentous praise. To give thanks to the Lord for all His goodness is a momentous occasion.

The call to thanksgiving is a call that goes out to everyone, everywhere.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. (Psalms 100:1 emphasis mine)

We don’t normally think of God’s people in the Old Testament as being a missionary people. But the Psalmist is, calling everyone, everywhere to give thanks to the LORD. People sometimes mistakingly think that God changes direction between the Old and New Testaments. He does not change directions, but goes further along the same direction, revealing Himself and His goodness more fully and driving the point home that He is love. We know from the Old Testament that all people, everywhere owe a debt of thanks to the LORD for life itself. We know from the New Testament that all people, everywhere have the opportunity to experience eternal life in Christ.

Do we have the confidence as Christians to know that calling everyone, everywhere  to thanksgiving is the right thing to do? Or do we hide behind a philosophy of faith as a private and personal thing? God did not keep the fact that He is Creator private. He has not hidden His goodness. He did not hide behind a tree, but bore the cross publicly. He did not roll the stone back across the tomb to hide the fact of a missing body. Either God is to be thanked or not. Either by everyone, if it is true, or by no one, if it is not. The Psalmist knew what was what and was not shy about issuing a call to thanksgiving. Are we?

(All scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

A Great Book For When Life Is Anything But.

Have you ever felt like God just doesn’t care? Or perhaps He cares, but is terribly unfair? The husband of my cousin passed away recently and the funeral service confirmed what I already knew. He was a great man who honoured the Lord with his life. He made the lives of everyone around him better. Lord, why not take those who make the lives of everyone around them bitter instead? There are plenty of candidates judging by the evening news. Why this good man and why now as he was still quite young?

Such questioning is common enough. Another cousin of mine sent me a link to a video interview of Stephen Fry who, though not believing in God, responded to the question “what would you like to say to God?” with something like “how dare you create a world with such suffering!” While many of us would not be so bold, we cannot help but question, based on life experience, if God sometimes does not care, or is unfair. Sometimes we just do not feel like clapping along to “If You Are Happy and You Know It . . .”

If you have ever had such negative spiritual thoughts, you are not the first. In fact we are given in the Bible quite a number of Psalms coming from Psalmists writing from dark places. We are also given an entire book written from a dark place, Lamentations. Five chapters mainly of misery. Possibly written by the prophet Jeremiah, but definitely written following the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, along with the destruction of the Temple and the exile of God’s people. It is a poem written during dark times. It is a great book for when life is anything but. Here is but a small sample:

[God] has filled me with bitterness,
he has sated me with wormwood.
16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
18 so I say, “Gone is my glory,
and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”
19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me. Lamentations 3:15-20 (NRSV)

Let us consider what we can learn from Lamentations:

A man or woman of God need not hold back on lament and honest prayer. Listening to my Dad pray in public makes me not want to pray in public. There is an eloquence to his speech in prayer that few of us possess. Do the eloquent prayers of the saints keep sinners from praying? Don’t wait until your prayers sound eloquent, polite, and polished  before praying. Pray from experience. Pray honestly. The author of Lamentations did.

A man or woman of God can spend some time reflecting on suffering. We ought not to get the picture of the author reacting in the moment, getting the laments off his chest and then moving on and clapping along to “If You Are Happy and You Know It” the next day. The poetry may feel like it is from the gut, but in fact it is well thought out, for this is quite polished poetry. It is hard to see in the English, but each of the chapters are structured around the Hebrew alphabet. Yes, you can sit with your questions. The author of Lamentations did.

A man or woman of God knows that all suffering is ultimately deserved. All but the central third chapter focus in on the suffering of the nation. Even where the poet uses the first person, he is speaking on behalf of all God’s people. While exclaiming that the suffering is great, he also knows that it is just:

 The Lord is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word. Lamentations 1:18 (NRSV)

This can help us understand where suffering comes from. We are no longer in the Garden of Eden. If there were no sin in humanity, there would be no suffering. Expect a just God to allow suffering. The author of Lamentations did.

A man or woman of God may still feel that suffering is out of proportion, or is unfair. Where chapters one and two, four and five are about the suffering of the nation, chapter three is about the suffering of the writer personally. We know that Jeremiah, the probable writer, suffered terribly as a prophet. Indeed many of those who were the most faithful to God suffered. While the suffering of the nation could be understood, for the leaders and people did not repent in accordance to the call of God through the prophets, why must the prophets themselves suffer also, sometimes even moreso? In our day while we can know that suffering is a result of sin generally, why does the suffering of the relatively innocent seem out of proportion to the suffering of the truly evil?

A man or woman of God can still have hope in the face of suffering. There is a turning point in chapter three, one that has found its way into the wonderful hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” The funeral of my cousin’s husband began with this hymn. How many people know these words were lifted from a Biblical poet in a dark time and place?

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:21-23 (NRSV)

His mercies are new every morning, because we in our sin do not deserve any more mornings. Yet they come, full of opportunity, full of the possibility of walking with God in Christ. And if we do not deserve one more morning, we certainly do not deserve the new reality we will awaken to on the resurrection morning. One more day of life is a sign of God’s grace. Eternal life is evidence of God’s amazing grace all the more. Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, is evidence of greatness of God’s faithfulness.

There is more that the poet calls to mind:

  • The Lord is our portion  – verse 24
  • The Lord is good to those who wait on him – verse 25
  • The Lord does not reject forever – verse 31
  • The Lord sees injustice – verse 36
  • The Lord is completely just 39
  • There is opportunity to repent -verse 40
  • The Lord keeps covenant promises – verses 40-48
  • The Lord takes notice – verses 49-63
  • The Lord will execute justice and put things right – verses 64-66

To be able to call to mind these truths about God, the man or woman of God will need to know them in the first place. Sometimes people rail against God without the foggiest notion as to Who it is they are railing against. The better we know the Lord, the greater our opportunity to find hope in the midst of suffering. The author of Lamentations was going through a lot but he knew there was a lot more of the story yet to be told. For this is not just his story to tell, this is God’s story to write. Whatever your circumstance, there is a lot more yet to be told in the story of your life. You may not know all the details of how life will unfold, but you can know that great is His faithfulness.

The man or woman of God may not have all the answers to every question. By the end of Lamentations Jeremiah still had questions:

Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days? Lamentations 5:20 (NRSV)

I have often likened faith to a jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces come together nicely and a picture begins to emerge. Other pieces are tricky to place, indeed there are some which you don’t find where they go until you are nearly finished. With faith, some people begin with the really difficult questions and never think of anything else. The puzzle is thrown out as a waste of time and faith never develops. I have found that though there are questions I cannot answer, though there are certain pieces that I cannot place, they do not distract from the amazing picture that has emerged. It is a picture of the faithfulness of God, the grace of God, the love of God, the mercy of God, the justice of God, the holiness of God, the power of God, the plan of God, and so much more. It is a picture of Jesus. The puzzling bits remain puzzling, but the picture of God that emerges keeps me puzzling on. Knowing Jesus has not answered every question for me, but it has enabled me to live with the questions.

The writer of Lamentations knew the Lord well enough that he was able to have hope in the midst of a rotten day. Do you? When it seems like God does not care, or is unfair, call to mind His faithfulness. Call to mind all that we know about God through Jesus Christ. That God does care has been proven in the past, at the cross. That God is fair will be proven when Christ returns.