Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (October 17, 2010)

Wordle: Untitled

"Don't Lose Heart" (Luke 18:1-8)

In northern Chile in early August, a mine shaft collapses and leaves thirty-three miners trapped 2,300 feet underground. A rescue effort is implemented, but emergency officials cannot make contact with the men. No one knows whether they are dead or alive. Seventeen days go by. You can imagine how it would be possible for people to lose heart in a predicament like that. The miners could have given up hope of being rescued. Without any message from the depths of the earth, their families and countrymen above ground could have given up hope that their husbands, fathers, brothers were still alive. But then, a note attached to a probe comes out of the earth. “Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33” … “We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us.” Hearts are filled with jubilation, and the rescue effort continues. More probes are sent so the men can communicate with the people above ground. Food and water are sent down. Finally, 69 days later, the 33 men ascend one at a time in a narrow capsule while the whole world watches.

That was and still is an amazingly heart-warming story. But consider other stories of people who go missing … an elderly parent with dementia who wanders away from home, a child who doesn’t get off the bus after school, a hiker whose car is left for days at the trailhead long after they were expected back. These stories don’t always end so happily. Days, weeks, months go by without any word, and people begin to lose heart that their loved ones are still alive.

What are some of the times when we lose heart? When the medical treatments you are receiving don’t seem to be doing the trick. When your marriage is on the rocks, and your spouse time after time refuses to go to marriage counseling. When you study harder than you ever have, and yet you still get an “F” on that test. When you feel like no one cares and no one understands you, and you begin to entertain thoughts of ending it all.  You add to the list.

At the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, St. Luke writes that Jesus wanted to teach the disciples to pray always and not lose heart. This follows right after our Lord’s words about the coming of the Kingdom of God. We pray that God’s Kingdom would come to our friends and family as they come to faith in Jesus as their Savior. We also pray that the Holy Spirit would keep us faithful to be ready for the Second Coming of Jesus and his visible return on the Last Day. But it is so easy for us to lose heart. We pray, and yet our friends and family continue to harden their hearts against God’s Word. We pray, and yet we find it so easy sometimes to give in to evil living in this fallen world. We fear that we will be one of the ones of whom Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” We hear the scoffers’ voices echoing in our ears, “Where is the promise of his coming?...all things are continuing as they were since the beginning of creation.” (2 Pet. 3:4)

Jesus has a funny way of teaching us to pray and not lose heart. He tells the story of an unrighteous judge who could care less about God or people. Evidently, it was all about him and his position of authority. Moreover, he was probably a pagan. Otherwise, he would have know better about the teaching of the Law which stressed the importance of taking care of widows, those who are helpless and powerless: “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Deut. 27:19) The judge gives in not because he suddenly remembered what Scripture had to say on this issue. He gives in only so the widow will not pester him any longer.

And then let’s consider that helpless woman. Uncharacteristically of a poor, helpless widow, she persistently and shamelessly gets the judge's attention. How? It seems as though she must have made a scene. Was she yelling, screaming, pleading publicly? The judge says, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” (Luke 18:5) The word there for “beat me down” can literally mean “to punch in the eye.” Did the judge mean by this that his reputation was going to be besmirched, or did he actually think that this feisty little woman was going to get physical? I get the picture of that character Ruth Buzzi used to play on the TV show Laugh-In back in the early 70’s…that little dowdy old woman wearing a hairnet who was quick to use her purse as a weapon and pummel the dirty old man who would proposition her on the park bench.

Jesus says, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.” Listen to what he says and does. Does this mean that God will finally answer our prayers if we pester him enough? No, rather, it means we are to realize how much greater a Judge we have in God. If the unrighteous judge will “give in” and finally give the widow what she wants, surely our Righteous Judge who is loving and merciful will hear our pleas and answer our prayers.

Although at times it seems as if God is silent and not listening, he does indeed hear our prayers. “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.” (Isa 65:24) He delays for purposes beyond our understanding. In so doing, he teaches us trust and patience.

Recall how St. Paul prayed to the Lord about his “thorn in the flesh,” whatever that was. In 2 Corinthians 12, he writes, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2Cor. 12:8-9)

Our Righteous Judge can handle our persistent prayers. He will not be worn down by our constant coming to him with our requests. The prophet Isaiah said, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.” (Isa. 40:28)

Our Righteous Judge can handle it when we wrestle with him like Jacob or beat on heaven’s doors. In fact, he invites us to do so. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8)

Jesus says, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” When Jesus spoke those words, his journey to Calvary was just around the corner. There on a cross lifted up on that hill, Christ Jesus “who is to judge the living and the dead” (2 Tim. 4:1) received the justice that we deserved because of our sin.

At his trial, Christ’s reputation was besmirched. The innocent Son of God was declared to be a blasphemous criminal. He was beaten and bruised for us…and by us. Although we weren’t there, every slap of the soldiers’ hands, every lash of the whip, every blow of the hammer that fell, driving those spikes into his hands and feet, was due to our sin.

Yet Jesus never lost heart in his Father’s goodness. He knew where his path would take him. He prayed day and night. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He pleaded earnestly with his Father to take the cup of suffering from him, in such agony that drops of blood came from his pores. And in his moment of greatest agony, with the weight of the world’s sin placed upon him, feeling the pains of hell at the cross, feeling as if his Father had completely abandoned him, he still could pray, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You and I would have given up on God long before that. We would have cursed him. But not Jesus. He continued to trust in his Father to the bitter end. In so doing, he earned for us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life … and received the ultimate vindication when he rose again on Easter morning. Now, you - the baptized and believing - are also vindicated … absolved … justified … forgiven through Christ's death and resurrection.

The author of Hebrews writes, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Heb. 12:3) When we recall how our Lord Jesus suffered for us and for our salvation, that Good News empowers us to not lose heart when we suffer in any way. St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2Cor. 4:16-18) Those words were spoken to those oppressed for their confession of faith. The sufferings of the Church are also in view in Jesus’ parable. The Church is like that widow who cries out for justice. But we are not a widow. Our Bridegroom is alive and well ... risen from the dead, seated at the right hand of the Father, caring for his Bride, the Church.  Justice will be given one day to those who have unrepentantly oppressed Christ’s holy, spotless, unblemished Bride. We can trust that God will work this out in eternity. In the meantime, it’s not our job to pray for vengeance. It’s our job to pray for our enemies and for those who persecute us, that God would turn their hearts toward him … that they would come to know the Savior who suffered the justice of the cross for each and every one of us.

So hear what the Righteous Judge says. Pray always. Don't lose heart.


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