Feast Day: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Help us, O God, to hear your word with attention and understanding; and so write its message on our hearts that its power may be shown in our lives, for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
All of our readings this morning speak to the importance of a resolute faithfulness in the face of difficulty and danger. Jesus wants his followers to know that in this life they will face difficulty from both within and without. And so this section of Luke’s gospel has to do with the question of, OK, how do we remain faithful in the face of opposition? And Jesus’ word to us this morning is, pray always and don’t give up. If you’re looking for a ministry this is it. Pray always and don’t give up.
The presumption here, lying just under the surface, is that you will be tempted to give up. You’ll be tempted to lose heart. You’ll be tempted to become discouraged. You’ll be tempted to let your love grow cold. You’ll be tempted to turn back. And if you’re going to follow Jesus you need to be aware of that up front.
If you’re looking for a nice, scenic, pleasant, serene tour through the countryside this is not it. If you’re looking for a genteel spirituality that will add meaning to your life and not ask much in return well then there’s no shame in turning back now. Because the reason Jesus speaks so bluntly about the need to persist in prayer and not give up is that he knows the difficulty, the challenge, the opposition, the danger that lies ahead.
I’ve started reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit with Charlotte and Grace. It’s a wonderful book. If your children can read well enough by themselves they should read it and if not then you should read it to them. The story begins with a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins who, we might say, is a homebody. Fast-forward a bit and he’s setting off on an unexpected adventure with a group of thirteen dwarfs and Gandalf the wizard to outsmart and defeat a powerful and fearsome dragon named Smaug. Quite a quest for a hobbit.
Early in their journey Gandalf disappears and Bilbo and the dwarfs get captured by three trolls who plan to eat them. But, sure enough, Gandalf returns in the nick of time. As they rode on from there one of the dwarfs inquires of Gandalf: “Where did you go to, if I may ask?” “I went on to spy out our road. It will soon become dangerous and difficult,” said Gandalf.
Jesus Christ our Lord has gone on ahead, as it were. He knows the suffering that he himself must endure and the rejection that he will face at the hands of those he has come to save (Luke 17:25). He knows that for his followers there will come a day when they too will suffer and be rejected on account of him (Luke 17:26-37). He also knows that once he ascends into heaven they will have to wait for him to come again and they could grow discouraged or disillusioned in their waiting. And so knowing the danger and difficulty that lies ahead he wants them, he wants us, to be prepared for the journey. A journey that, to be sure, he will accompany us on even it at times it seems he has wandered off. But nevertheless a journey that will require genuine courage and persistence from us.
What are some of these difficulties we might face? Let me give you two examples. The first that comes from outside of the church is religious persecution. This is any sort of ill-treatment or hostility that you might face because you are a Christian. Whether in the third century Roman Empire at the hands of Emperor Decius or in twenty-first century North Korea or Pakistan Christians have a long history of facing hostility because of the uncompromising nature of their faith in Christ. Indeed, the second reading we heard this morning from 2 Timothy was taken from a letter that Paul very likely wrote from prison.
The second example is of a difficulty that we face from within the church and it’s one that Paul addressed in the reading we heard. False teaching: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”
These are two legitimate difficulties that the church faces in every generation. A third more subtle difficulty is simply the passage of time. It’s been so long now since Jesus said he would come again, maybe he isn’t coming? We pray so often for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” but look around, maybe he isn’t listening? And we can become lackadaisical in our practice of the faith and lose heart.
It’s in the face of very real difficulties like this that Jesus exhorts us to be persistent in prayer. “This is absolutely necessary if you’re going to follow me,” says Jesus. And so he tells a parable about a widow who kept pestering a wicked judge until he granted her justice. Anyone who has had small children knows this feeling: “Alright, fine. I’m going to give you that cheese string just so you stop harassing me.”
Then, moving from the lesser to the greater Jesus says, if even a wicked judge rewards persistence how much more your heavenly Father who delights in helping you! One commentator put it this way, “God wants you to ask him, even to pester him.” God wants you to know that whenever you pray he listens without exception. God wants you to know that he will not delay but will quickly give you everything you need for life with him. Knowing the certainty of God’s faithfulness in this way is what enables us to be resolute in our faithfulness.
So, if you want to grow in wisdom and love into a persistent faithfulness then you have to pray and not give up. One theologian has said that the first good work Christians are called to is prayer. The English priest and poet John Donne went further saying that “Prayer is our whole service to God.”
Here’s a question for us—and I ask this first of myself! What if prayer was my first priority? What if I took Jesus’ invitation to pray always and not give up seriously? There will be one hundred and one reasons not to persist. Some of those will even be good reasons. I feel this pull personally every single day. I know prayer is the most important work but then I start thinking about everything that needs to get done and it’s funny how prayer is often the first thing to be cut. But let me tell you, prayer is your greatest act of faithfulness to God. It is the very lifeblood of your faith. Everything that God wants to do in you and in this parish and in this community begins and ends in prayer.
Do you want to get “more involved” in the life of the church? Pray. Every day. And don’t give up. That’s your ministry. Pray by name for people in these pews. Pick a neighbour or friend who does not know the Lord and pray. Pray for your local school and the teachers there. Pray for your municipal leaders. Pray for families and for single people. Pray for the young and for the elderly.
Pray. Pray always and don’t give up. Because this is how Christ grows his kingdom in us and in the world (cf. Lk 17:20). The goal is not perfection or length but earnestness and constancy. Take responsibility for your faith. Nurture it and see to its growth and vigour. Seek the Lord in prayer, always. This is the greatest gift you have to offer to the world.
Then, no matter what difficulty or danger may come you will remain faithful. You can’t not because the Lord will have you. And just as it was with Bilbo—because you know I had to come back to Bilbo at some point—all of the difficulties and dangers that come along the way will develop a godly wisdom, character, and maturity in you. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? He will if we pray and don’t give up.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the Word, 356
 ibid 358