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Trilogy of Prayer: God, Are You Listening?

Dr. Bruce Lancaster

May 29, 2016
Luke 18:1-8

A reading from the Gospel of Luke

Then Jesus told them 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?’

LANCASTER, BRUCE; (Staff)49Today we begin a brief series of sermons on prayer.  Today and the next two Sundays, we will look at what is an essential, life-giving part of who we are as Christians – prayer.

Often we jump into this story and we lose sight of the beginning – Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to the disciples to illustrate their need to “pray always and not lose heart.”

I really believe that Luke must have told this story to Paul as they traveled together: is this not the seed of what Paul wrote in one of his earliest letters, our verse that describes our new weekly booklet: “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…”

In this story we see that sense of perseverance, endurance, willpower, determination – always, without ceasing, in all circumstances. And what Jesus told his disciples had its roots in Jesus’ own understanding of his own songbook, the Psalms, like Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?” Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!”

This was the question the disciples were dealing with and the motivation for Jesus’ story – his disciples were giving up in prayer, surrendering to the silence, maybe – that’s why, at the end, Jesus ties it all together with faith – “will the Son of Man find faith on earth?” They had asked and had not received, had sought and not found, had knocked and nothing had opened to them.

It makes me really understand how much the disciples are like me, maybe that’s true for all of us.  “How long, O Lord,” we have cried with the psalmist, ready to give up on prayer.

While on vacation a few years ago, I was with some friends in South Louisiana and we were waiting for somebody and they called to say they were on the way. One of my friends asked the question with a Cajun phrase, and I won’t use the accent because you wouldn’t understand me…he asked, “How far away are you close to being here?”

Faith knows that God is close, but so often ‘how far away, how long, O Lord?” we pray.

We pray and we wait and we pray and we wonder – “God, are you listening?” – As one poet wrote of her mother’s Alzheimer’s: Hear my voice, God, when I groan because I feel so helpless.  Why should one you created suffer so deeply the disorientation and lostness of a mind confused?  How long, O Lord, consider and answer me.

John Calvin called prayer, “the chief exercise of our faith.”

But if our exercise of faith isn’t getting us anywhere, or so it seems, then just like any exercise regimen that doesn’t show results, why keep at it? For the disciples and you and the psalmist, faithful as we all are – How long?  There comes a time when we’re ready to pack it in and go home, when we’re about to lose heart. That’s why Jesus told the story the first time and it is why we need to hear it again for the first time.

Let’s look at our story again: It is obvious in our story that the widow was not sure that the judge was getting her message. It would have been understandable for her to give up. After all, the judge is described in no uncertain terms as a godless man who has no respect for anybody. In fact, we’re told that he deliberately ignored her, but eventually, she got on his nerves, maybe his very last nerve, and he responded just to get rid of her.

Now we know, don’t we, that God is not like this arrogant, rude, heartless judge.  God is neither petty nor arbitrary – Jesus says, “Listen to what the judge says” – if this kind of judge listens and answers, then HOW MUCH MORE God listens and answers. We know that, don’t we?  Don’t we?

Remember that old song from the Police: “…every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”

That’s why Jesus frames this story about prayer in terms of faith: that you know and pray because God is always present for you, watching, listening. To take that song into our story – every prayer you make, God is listening to Paul, to the disciples, to the psalmist, to you and me.

Prayer is the chief exercise of our faith, of keeping the faith, regardless of the silence we might think we’re getting.

In Psalm 13 the psalmist cries, “How long?  Consider and answer me…” And that is the substance of verses 1-4. Yet there is no indication of an answer…just the anguish of the psalmist ready to pack it in and go home; then in verse 5 – “But I trusted in your steadfast love…”

Jesus’ story in Luke’s Gospel is a sermon for where we live between verse 4 and 5 – between the ‘how long, O Lord’ and the ‘trust of God’s steadfast love…’ And in that space, regardless of the silence we get, regardless of the waiting we endure – Pray without ceasing – do not lose heart – faith is found.

What these scriptures reveal for our faith is that prayer is not about the answers, but about the God to whom we pray and our faith in that God.

I’m not saying that prayers are not answered. But to think about prayer, first and foremost, in terms of answers can be dangerous. It can be tragic. If we think that prayer is about getting the answers that we want, we may become so bitter about what God has not done for us that we will not let ourselves see what God is doing for us.

The common sense truth that prayer isn’t about answers perhaps is readily seen if we look at the innocent, if somewhat disarming, prayers from the book, Children’s Letters to God:

Little Joyce’s prayer –
“Dear God,
Thank you for the baby brother
but what I prayed for was a puppy.”
Or, Debbie’s prayer –
“Dear God,
Please send a new baby for Mommy.
The new baby you sent last week cries too much.”

If prayer is all about answers, the results would be absurd – puppies instead of brothers, the arbitrary return of crying siblings. And, when we get into the adult realm, the results for a world run by answers to prayers could be even more absurd.

Remember the movie Bruce Almighty? Jim Carrey’s character was given the powers of God and he was overwhelmed by all the prayer requests; so he simply said “yes” to all of them, and the world was turned back to chaos.

I hear you, though: if prayer isn’t about answers, at least not in the sense of granting or not granting our varied and specific requests, what are we to make of the psalmist’s plea for an answer from God? If prayer isn’t about answers, then why do we have prayer chains, or Sunday morning concerns?  Why do we fall to our knees and raise up our deepest desires and most fervent pleas? If prayer isn’t about answers, why is there so much power in knowing that someone or a whole congregation of “someones” is praying for us? Why is it so comforting for many of us to hear the words, “You are in my prayers?”

Why?  Because, first and foremost, in its most fundamental sense, prayer is about developing a relationship with God – a conversation of faith spoken with words of trust in the language of love.

We keep praying even while we’re asking: God, are you listening? Because prayer is about the answer of all answers – the answer of an abiding, life-giving, sustaining relationship with a God who loves us, knows us – and the answer to us in Jesus Christ is a resounding ‘yes!’

How much more than any love you know will God give to you.

So I come to the end of this sermon with certain firm biblical convictions in my life about prayer, and I hope you would find a place for them in your life.

  • When I pray, when you pray: God is listening, I promise you.
  • Second, when we pray, listening is as important an aspect of prayer as is talking, maybe even more so.
  • Finally, when we pray, it is not with a perfect knowledge of God, but it is with a firm trust and faith to seek God’s will and have the strength to walk in it.

Because God is listening – every prayer you make.