Don’t Lose Heart—Pray!

Psalm 1:21, 2nd Timothy 3:10-17, Luke 18:1-8

The texts this morning are from the Lectionary  However, in the bulletin, I have altered the epistle lesson, adding verses to the beginning, and taking verses from the end.  The verses I added at the beginning of the epistle lesson, bring out the apostle’s persecutions and sufferings. The text I deleted from the end of the epistle lesson, remove the apostle’s charge to his young friend Timothy to “preach the word.”

Ironically, the part of the text I deleted is very important to me. On July 21, 1973, my 24th birthday, Elayne and I were sitting at breakfast in our townhouse at Azalea Gardens in Jacksonville, N.C.  I had recently recommitted my life to Christ, and I was seeking God’s will.  As we ate breakfast, I opened the Daily Text, and read the New Testament text. It was 2nd Timothy 4:2:

Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.

I put down the text book, looked at Elayne and said, “Elayne, I am going into the ministry.” 

Elayne looked at me and said, “Well, okay, just remember that I did not marry a preacher.”

That was okay with me. I did not want to marry any woman who wanted to marry a preacher. Anyway, despite her protestations, I am quite sure that Elayne is a better preacher’s wife, than I am a preacher.

Now let’s turn to the text as printed. Psalm 121 is a Song of Ascents. It was sung as a processional of worshipers ascended the hill upon which Solomon had built his temple.  The Psalmist speaks first of his experience of God. He proclaims:

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

In the stanzas that follow, the Psalmist promises those who read and hear the psalm that God will help and keep them, too. The Psalmist promises that the God who does not sleep will not let our foot be moved. In other words, when we find ourselves in a difficult spot, God will give us sure footing, i.e. confidence. The Psalmist promises that the Lord who is our keeper and shade will not let the sun strike us by day nor the moon by night. In other words,God won’t allow us to get sunstroke and die, nor will God allow us to be moonstruck–turn crazy, and wish we were dead. Finally, the Psalmist says that the Lord will keep us from all evil.  He says that, “the Lord will keep our going out and their coming in from this time on and forever more.”  In other words, God is going to keep us in every situation of life, beginning right now, and lasting until “forever more.”

Anyway you dish it up, the Psalmist says that the life of a believer is a bowl of cherries.

The Epistle lesson from 2nd Timothy seems to spill a few of the cherries, and offers a correction to the finely tuned optimism of the 121st Psalm. In verse 11 the apostle speaks of his persecution and suffering, and he mentions three cities where things were particularly bad. He reassures us that God rescued him from them all.  However, in verse 12 he warns his readers that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Anyway you dish it up, the Apostle says that the life of a believer is not all peaches and cream, as there are some pits in the peaches.

Now, mark this contrast: The Psalmist looks back at a blessed life, and promises all who read and hear his Psalm that they can enjoy an equally blessed life.  The Apostles looks back at a life of persecution and suffering, and promises all who read and hear his epistle that they, too, will surely know persecution and suffering.

If I had to guess, I would guess that the Psalmist was still a very young man when he wrote this Psalm. It is right that young people, especially children, know life in all its fullness, without complications. Nothing is more painful that watching children deal with the loss of a beloved parent, or, still worse, with a life threatening disease.

If I had to guess, I would guess that the apostle was an older man when he wrote his young friend Timothy. If we live long enough, we will eventually know at least a measure of pain, suffering, disappointment, and, perhaps, even persecution. Even if we somehow escape the difficulties of life, we will still see them in the lives of people that you love.

Of course, it may be that the Psalmist and the Apostle were about the same age, but the Psalmist was an optimist, and the apostle was a realists. To tell you the truth, to live a happy and successful life, we need to be a bit of both.

We need  the optimism of greeting each new day as a day that God has given us. “This is the day that the LORD hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Optimism is based on hope, and nothing is more important than hope to a happy and successful life. Fyodor Dostoevsky famously said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.” Likewise, in an article for “Psychology Today,”  Dr. Karin Hall said, “When you have no hope, you see any efforts to change your life as futile.” In Ephesians 2:12 we read that apart from faith, we are without God and without hope in the world. By contrast, in 1st Peter 1:3 we read that we who follow Jesus Christ have been “born anew to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Our living hope can never be taken away; it is valid on the last day of our lives!

To live a happy and successful life, we need optimism based on hope. Of course, we also need the realism of seeing life as it is. Life is like a game of chess; we cannot plan our next move until we know the arrangement of all the pieces on the board. This means we must take a realistic look at our liabilities as well as our assets. Looking closely at our liabilities takes mental toughness.

In his book, “The Road Less Traveled,” the psychiatrist, Scott Peck points the way to mental toughness when he says, “‘Life is hard!’; but the moment we know that, ‘Life is hard,’ life ceases to be as hard, because we know that ‘Life is hard.’” Peck is right: Life is hard!  But the God who watches over our going out and our coming in, will sustain us in the hard times, and use them to prepare us for bigger challenges and opportunities.This is what the Apostle Paul was getting at in Romans 5, wherein he writes:

We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than this, we rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

That brings us to the gospel lesson. According to the Evangelists, Jesus told his disciples a parable to the effect that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Most of the time, we read one of the parables of Jesus, and then read-on in the text to look for his commentary on the parable, often given in private to his disciples. In this case, the evangelist gives us a commentary on the parable, even before Jesus tells the parable. The commentary declares, “We ought always to pray and not to hope.”  The parable tells us why this is so.

Jesus said:

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary.’ For a while the Judge refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily.”

Now this parable seems to fly in the face of Jesus other teachings about prayer. In Matthew 6:7 Jesus warns his disciples that when they pray they ought not “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.” Then he teaches his disciples an all-purpose prayer, one that we call, “The Lord’s Prayer.” In the King James Version, this prayer is only 66 words long. Yet is covers our needs, not our wants; but at least our needs, like a blanket. Likewise, this parable seems to fly in the face of Jesus teaching in Matthew 6:32 that points out in so many words that our heavenly father knows what we need before we ask him.

There is no contradiction.  In the texts from Matthew Jesus is preeminently concerned with God’s character and action.  In this text from Luke, Jesus is preeminently concerned with the character and action of his disciples.

Jesus wants his disciples to pray and not to lose heart for at least two reasons.

First, Jesus wants us to pray and not to lose heart because in prayer we align ourselves with the will of God. The late Dr. J.C. McPheters, a former president of Asbury Seminary, used to say, “Prayer changes things! Above all, prayer changes the one who prays!” In prayer we center our thoughts on God, and search out our lives before God. It is often in the give and take of prayer that we discover the next step that we need to take in order to overcome the difficulties in which we find ourselves. 

Second, Jesus want us to keep praying so and not lose heart so that we will be ready to receive what God has for us when God is ready to give it. God wants to give us all things; but God can give us only what we are ready to receive. Therefore, when we reach the end of our rope, we must tie a knot and hang on, because Jesus says that God is coming!

The late Randal Manning was a member of New Philadelphia Moravian Church. He had the distinction of having given the late Zig Ziglar, the world renown motivational speaker his first job, selling pots and pans door to door. When I first went to New Philadelphia, Randal gave me one of Zig’s books, entitled, “See You at the Top.”  In the book Zig tells the story of two salesmen traveling through a remote section of south Alabama. It is hot, and they need water. They finally spy an old fashioned hand-pump sitting atop an abandoned well. So they stop their car, and use water from the radiator of their car to prime the pump. One man pumps, and pumps, and pumps, until his arm is about to give out, then he slings the handle up and lets it go. The second man grabs the handle and says, “We can’t stop now; the water will run back down the pipe. We must keep pumping. The wells around here are deep—-but the water is clear and cold, if we keep pumping we will be rewarded by a drink.” They do keep pumping, and they are eventually rewarded for their efforts. Zig tells this story considerably better than I have, but you get my drift. Sometimes we are just a pump-stroke, or two, or three, or maybe a dozen, away from reaching the relief and resolution we seek. We never know how close we are, so we dare not stop pumping. Or, to return to the words of Jesus,“We ought always to pray and not to faint,” because we never know what God will do in the next moment, or in the moment after that. We can only be sure that he loves us, and he will vindicate his elect.

Of course, Jesus closes this parable with the words, “When the son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” If it is up to me, he will.  What about you?

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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