Monday, October 18, 2010

not losing heart

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

Faith can be hard. Believing the Gospel can be hard. Living in the world with hope can be hard. This world – it’s a tough place. Bad things happen, and from time to time we just feel bad. We get depressed. Lonely. Scared. Frustrated. Overwhelmed. Discouraged. Hopeless. Words like confidence, security and joy – these are the things we want to feel, but let’s be honest, they elude us. Yes, there are good moments. But the anxious moments – they just seem more frequent and because of that faith is hard. It is so easy to lose heart.

In tonight’s Gospel Luke does us a huge favor. He tells us the point of Jesus’ parable before he even tells us what the parable is. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and to not lose heart.” Jesus knows that faith is hard. In fact, a few verses before telling this parable this is what Jesus says: “The days are coming when you will long to see the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” You know that confidence, security and joy that eludes us? They’ll overflow in “the days of the Son of Man” – which is a reference to Jesus’ return when He’ll fully establish the Kingdom of God. God knows we long to see those days! But let’s be honest, right now we don’t see it and because of that faith is hard. According to Luke that’s exactly why Jesus tells tonight’s parable. He wants us to keep praying and to not lose heart.

And so if someone asks you the point of tonight’s sermon you now know what to say; the point is to pray always and to not lose heart. Great, you may wonder, but how do we do that? Well, I’d like to give us three images – not three steps; that’s not how faith words – but three images. I’d like to give us three images that speak to (1) who we are, (2) to who God is, and finally, (3) to what God’s done.

First, we have to know who we are; you and I are widows. Second, we have to know what God’s like; that is, the character of the world’s true judge. Third – and to me this is crucial – we have to know the verdict. To keep praying and not lose heart, we need to see ourselves, we need to see God, and we need to see the verdict.

First, we have to see ourselves as widows. There’s a reason this parable is about a widow and not someone else. In Jesus’ day widows were the weakest and most dependent members of society. You see, in Jesus’ world women that weren’t married had no protection. They were dependent on others to provide for their needs. In other words, widows are the perfect symbol of all that is weak, dependent, and powerless – that is unless someone intervenes and shows them mercy.

Now, you and I – I’m not sure we like this idea that we’re weak, dependent and powerless. Our culture would have us believe it’s better to die than to beg. The moment we begin to sense we’re not in control, we panic. But God – God invites us to love the fact that we’re not in control, to love the fact that we’re beggars. In fact, Paul wrote II Corinthians to respond to charges that he was a powerless and dependent wimp. Apparently, the Corinthians were watching other preachers – preachers that were strong and eloquent and who boasted about how great they were. But Paul – well, he was awkward, and apparently not the best preacher, and so listen to how Paul responds to the criticism. “I too will boast.” In other words, if other preachers are boasting then I’ll boast too. “I will boast … of my weaknesses” he says, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. I’m content with weakness, hardship, calamities and persecutions for the sake of Christ. For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Why do confidence, security and joy always seem to elude us? I’ll tell you why. These are gifts God gives to beggars. To pray always and not lose heart we have to see ourselves as widows.

But knowing we’re weak isn’t enough; we have to see the character of our judge. The judge in Jesus’ parable – he’s a horrible person. He’s selfish, corrupt, and doesn’t care at all for the widow. He doesn’t go to church or give money to Salvation Army. He’s a complete caricature of man worthy of the title “your honor.” Jesus’ point? God. Is. Not. Like. That.

A lot of us lose heart because we forget who God is. Now, we’d never say this, but deep down we’re all a little scared that God’s like that judge – removed, distant, and annoyed by widows like us who need God’s justice, and for Jesus justice is about restoration. Justice happens when the needy are clothed and the empty are filled and when sad people are given a reason to smile. The good news of the Christian Gospel is that this is exactly what Jesus came to do – establish justice on this earth. But, it’s a justice we’re still waiting for. We long to see the days of the Son of Man but we don’t yet see it.

There’s this great scene in the Lord of the Rings where Sam discovers that Gandalf is still alive. “I thought you were dead!” He screams. And listen to what Sam asks next. “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” Is everything sad going to come untrue? Jesus has a clear answer to Sam’s question. Yes. God is not like that judge. He cares. He sees. He knows. God is not like that judge. He’s not going to delay a second longer than He has to before He comes to bring justice to this world. The true judge of this world is so kind and so compassionate and so good. We have to see the character of the world’s true judge.

Now, there’s one more piece. To pray always and not lose heart we have to know the verdict. I said earlier there’s a reason this parable is about a widow. There’s also a reason it’s about a judge and just happens to take place in a courtroom. You see in the Bible the courtroom is a metaphor for Judgment Day, and in the Old Testament it’s not really an uplifting metaphor. I mean, just think about tonight’s reading from Jeremiah. “It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors,” he says, “when I took them by the hand to … the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke.” In other words, God takes our hand. Saves us. God makes a covenant with us. But we – we broke it. In the Old Testament – or the old covenant – God’s people are on trial and the verdict is guilty. Judgment – that’s what the courtroom symbolizes in the Old Testament. Now, what’s significant is that Jesus tells this parable the week before he dies, and when he does so, he’s well aware of the trial that awaits him. And so we have to ask, why would Jesus allow himself to be tried if he knew that he would be found guilty?

The answer is that Jesus believed that his death would establish the new covenant that Jeremiah was talking about. There can be no doubt about it, Jesus had Jeremiah’s vision memorized. On the cross that vision became a reality. To quote Jeremiah again, he would “forgive our iniquity and remember our sin no more.” Jesus’ death would establish a new covenant, and it would not be like the old one. The verdict of guilty – it wouldn’t be taken away. But it would be transferred. It would not be heard by the people of God. No, the gavel would come down on the Son of God. Yes, there’d still be a trial. But Jesus himself would stand in as the defendant. He would be questioned. He’d be found guilty. He would be punished. And we – the widow – would get justice. What was lost in Eden would finally be restored.

We have to know the verdict. At the most basic level this parable is about a judge that finds in someone’s favor, which is the very definition of the word justification. Justification happens when a judge finds in someone’s favor at the end of the case. Now, I know we all make mistakes. Day after day we heap up plenty of evidence to suggest that we’re guilty. It is so easy to lose heart and to think that God’s gavel will eventually come down on us. But according to the Gospel, guilty is not our verdict. You see when we come to Jesus the first thing he tells us is that our case was closed at Calvary. Jesus stood in our place. And so if there is a file in heaven labeled “Newton” that has a list of all my sins, it’s covered with dust and has a label that reads case closed. That is the verdict. The new covenant. The reason that everything sad will come untrue. God intervened to show us mercy. And so have faith. Believe the Gospel. Live in this world with hope.

Do you long to see the days of the Son of Man? You will. And so pray always and don’t lose heart.

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