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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

God Is Better Than That

Luke 18:1-8 “God is Better Than That”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Prayer. What would you expect the preacher to say to you about prayer? That it’s good, right? That you should do it, right? That even if your prayers aren’t answered, you should keep praying, and keep praying, and keep praying. Right? Those are the kind of things you’d expect to hear in church, the things you’d expect a preacher to say. So when you hear a passage of scripture where Jesus tells his disciples about the importance of prayer, the predictable response is that we’ll all just switch our brains into autopilot, and nod and smile at the appropriate time. Nod and smile, nod and smile, and he’ll let us out of here early. Why is that so predictable? Because we know the destination before we ever set out on the journey. There might be some suspense in some sermons (like, where in the world is he with this?), but when the scripture’s about the importance of prayer, we know how it’s going to end. Prayer’s important, and you should never give up – The End. Let’s go to lunch.

And I would guess the same is true, if not even moreso, for the disciples who heard Jesus give this short sermon about prayer. (You know, one thing you can always say about Jesus’s sermons – they’re almost always really short. OK, so he had one fault. Nobody’s perfect.) If we kind of glaze over when we hear about prayer in church, imagine how the disciples felt. They were always seeing Jesus wander off to some deserted place to pray. Of course he thought it was important, and that they should keep on doing it. Of course Jesus was going to say that.

So if Jesus, the preacher, had been paying attention, he’d have known he really didn’t need to say what he said that day. Because the disciples knew the answer before he ever asked the question. So why did he lecture these good, church-going disciples about the importance of prayer? Is it because he knew something they didn’t? Maybe. But it could also have been precisely because they knew so much about prayer already, that they knew so much about what Jesus was going to say, and what the Bible had already said about prayer – maybe it was because they knew the answers so well that Jesus wanted them to hear not the answer, but the questions, one more time.

What good is prayer? How much do you pray? Why should you keep praying when you keep praying and nothing ever changes?


Jesus tells a story.

In a town there was once a judge who didn't fear God or care about people. (The guy’s a classic grumpy old man.) In that same town there was a widow who kept going to the judge and saying, "Make sure that I get fair treatment in court." (In other words, the woman was trying to make the judge do what scripture says he should do. It’s not just for herself that she’s haranguing the judge, although that may be her motivation, we don’t know. Whether the widow knows it or not, she’s trying to get Grumpy to obey God’s law that says to be fair to widows and orphans, essentially, defend the rights of the people who have no rights.) For a while the judge refused to do anything. Finally, he said to himself, "Even though I don't fear God or care about people, I will help this widow because she keeps on bothering me. If I don't help her, she will wear me out."

Now, bear in mind that this grumpy old judge isn’t helping this woman out of the goodness of his heart. As far as we know, he has no goodness. He’s a caricature. He’s a caricature of the stereotypical City Hall councilman who pays attention to the big campaign contributors, but ignores the people in the projects. He’s a caricature of the parent who yells at the kids, “Can’t you see I’m busy right now? Get the lady across the street to help you with your homework.” Or, “If you’re really hurt, call Rural/Metro. I don’t have time to take you to the emergency room again. C’mon, I’m reading the Bible right now. This is my quiet time. If you’re still bleeding in half an hour, come back.” Who of us hasn’t been there, right? Sooner or later you realize, this kid, this spouse, this parent, this employee, this constituent – this lady who wants equal rights – isn’t going to give up. It’s easier to just give in and give them what they want than to keep putting them off.

Now, you have felt that way, haven’t you? “Oh, all right.” It’s a feeling of, what? Ultimately, it’s a feeling of surrender. But you’ve probably been on the other side of one of these negotiations, too, haven’t you? Maybe it’s your parents, maybe it’s the insurance company, maybe it’s the government. You keep at them and keep at them and – finally – they get so tired of you calling every day and dogging them that they give in, and give you what you want. How do you feel then? “Yessss! I won!” It’s a serious feeling of victory. You are triumphant because you stood up for yourself and would not take no for an answer. Yeah! You go!

Here’s the point of comparison where it’s really easy to make a mistake interpreting this scripture. A lot of times, I think, people read this passage and they come away comparing God to the grumpy judge. A lot of times, I think people come away thinking Jesus is telling us we should persist in prayer the same way the lady persisted in bugging the heck out of the grumpy old judge. As if God’s policy is to grant the prayers of the most annoying people. As if we’re somehow able to wear God out by calling during supper enough times that God says, “Oh, all right.” That’s not where Jesus is going with his sermon. He’s not trying to make a positive association between God and the grumpy judge. I think what Jesus is saying is, “You know how the judge feels. You know how the widow feels. You know how it feels to win a battle. You know how it feels when you lose one. You know how the surrender/victory stuff feels, you’ve got that concept? OK, now. Set all that aside, because God’s better than that.”

You think your eyes glaze over when scripture says you should pray more and pray harder? Imagine what God’s eyes do when we say, “Uh, excuse me, God? But I’ve asked you seventeen times today to fix this situation and I’m still waiting for your service call. You said you’d be here between 12 and 4, and it’s 3:45, and I just want to make sure you haven’t forgotten me.” Don’t you think God knows? Don’t you think the creator of the universe who formed you in your mother’s womb knows something about your situation? I think Jesus is going for a negative comparison, here. God is better than a grumpy judge. And God’s better than your impatience.

The Lord said: Think about what that crooked judge said. Won't God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won't he be concerned for them? He will surely hurry and help them. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find on this earth anyone with faith?

Prayer is not about prevailing. Prayer isn’t about winning and losing in the same way we win or lose when we’re trying to get our way. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want. If that’s your idea of prayer, and that works for you, OK. But I think Jesus is suggesting that we take our understanding of prayer one step further. I think Jesus is asking us to try praying not because of our wants for what we don’t have, but praying because of our faith that we do have. I think what Jesus’ sermon comes down to is this: Prayer isn’t about getting what you want; prayer is about surrendering your wants. Prayer is about surrendering your wants. If there is surrender in prayer, it’s not in God surrendering to your annoyance. If there’s surrender in prayer, it’s about us surrendering – us surrendering those things we want so badly – it’s about us surrendering those things we want so badly before our God who already knows us inside and out.

In this kind of prayer, there’s no winning or losing, because God’s already on your side. Now, be careful with that. God’s not on your side because your side is always the right side. What you’re asking God for may be totally detrimental to yourself, your friends and the environment. God’s not on your side because you’re so darn smart. God’s on your side, because God’s inside. God made you, God knows you, God knows what’s in your heart and on your mind way before you send God the memo.

No, what I think Jesus is saying about prayer is that it should be an act of our surrender. Prayer should be an act of our surrender to the knowledge that God already knows. God already knows, God already cares. That’s what I think Jesus means when he asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find on this earth anyone with faith?” Faith isn’t convincing a grumpy God to give you what you want. Faith is giving in to the feeling that even before a thought is on your mind or a word is on your lips, God understands, God cares, God loves. And so you can take that prayer to God, having faith – faith – that God cares about the burdens that weigh you down, as well as the joys that make you say, “Halleluia.” You can take that prayer to God having faith – that God will supply the “Amen.”

If someone already knows what you’re going to say, and if that someone wants the very best for you, what, then, is the purpose of the words you speak? If someone who loves you wants to tell you they love you, you don’t say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You told me that yesterday.” You want to hear those words because you love back. I would guess it’s pretty much the same for God, wanting to hear our prayers, even though God already knows what we’re going to say. When we give in to that feeling, we start to understand that we’re not alone. Life is not us against City Hall or us against the world, or even us against God. We’re not alone. God is with us. God listens. God cares.

If God is with us, God listens, and God cares, then prayer opens up one final door. Prayers of faith in the one we’re praying to, aren’t just us talking and talking and talking. Prayers of faith in the one we’re praying to open the door for us to listen. If God’s so close that God can hear our thoughts, then maybe, just maybe, if we listen really, really close, we can hear God responding to those prayers. If faith is surrendering to the idea that we’re not alone with our wants and needs, then it’s also listening – for the reply – of the one who’s there beside us. If the first door of prayer is surrender, then the second door of prayer is listening.

When was the last time you really, really just listened – for God? Didn’t cajole God, didn’t bug God, didn’t tap your foot for God – when was the last time you really, really just listened? You may not be able to hear, and even if you hear, you might not be able to understand, and even if you understand, you may not be able to accept God’s answer to your prayers. That doesn’t mean God isn’t answering. Faith isn’t the magical power to get what you want. Faith is the trust that there is an answer from God, whether we get it or not. Think about it: does it take more faith to pray when you’re getting what you want, or does it take more faith to keep praying, even when you don’t? The final step of faithful prayer is being able to listen, even if don’t like the answer.

So, back to the original questions. What good is prayer? How much do you pray? Why should you keep praying when you keep praying and nothing ever changes? You already know, or you can guess the churchy answers to those questions. What you don’t know – and what you won’t know – until you pray about them – is how you and God are going to answer those questions… together.