Sermon - 23rd October 2016
Scripture - Luke 18:1-18
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The parable of the unjust judge in today’s gospel reading is one of those stories which doesn’t sit very comfortably on the ear at first hearing. It is one of a whole group of quick-fire parables which Luke clusters tightly together in the middle of his gospel, and many of them, including this one, are unique to his recollection of Jesus’s teaching.
It describes how a person with power makes a grudging response to the needs of someone without power, simply to give himself an easier life without being pestered. And then it invites us to contrast that kind of response with how God deals with people who bring their prayers and petitions to God.
Luke says the parable was intended to show the need to pray continually and never lose heart: but does it really grab the imagination and drive that point home when we hear it from cold?
Perhaps the ideas - or even the characters - in the story were immediately recognisable at the time. Perhaps Jesus’s listeners could all instantly recognise the judge, or a stereotype of a judge, who had respect neither for God nor for people - someone who was not delivering justice but was simply administering the law in ways which took the line of least resistance.
Probably, the need of a widow to fight for her rights and do all she could to resist exploitation just to survive in poverty, was a very vivid picture for a community at the time of Jesus. One of the great scandals of the social order of Jesus’s time was the way in which the poor and the destitute were left unsupported - even though Jewish religious law declared that proper provision should be made for them.
So, perhaps in its day, this story was an effective way to say to people: “God’s love and support of you never weakens; it doesn’t depend on mood or motivation; it is of a completely different order to the fickle and self-seeking love which human beings often show to each other; but things will come about in God’s time and at God’s will, not always at ours.”
And here is the challenge to us, in our relationship with God: the challenge to persevere in the journey of faith, through the barren times as well as the blessed times, open to the will of God and aware of God’s spirit working within us. And isn’t that a way of saying we need to pray continually and never lose heart - especially if we recognise that prayer is part of our relationship with God, and to relate to God is to pray, even though we may not always use that label?
Do we, sometimes, treat God like the unjust judge - as someone who needs prodding into action, who can be called upon during business hours (in this case Sundays) and safely ignored for the rest of the time?
Do we open up our relationship with God for a purpose which is significant to us, and then close it down again, and usually complain that prayers aren’t answered?
Do we get hung up about particular issues and confuse stubbornness with perseverance, failing to grasp that stubbornness around our own needs only ever leaves us standing still, and is a world away from persevering on the journey towards God’s ultimate place for us.
Many of us here today can point to occasions when we have been aware of being blessed by God: it may be a deep sense of joy at a particular event such as a baptism, or the blessing of a relationship; or a powerful sense of the spirit during worship; or an inner reassurance that a decision was right; or an answer to prayer which speaks unmistakably of God’s love and justice.
Equally, many of us will have gone through periods when God seemed far from us - if there at all; we feel, or we are told by others, that we have been rejected; we perceive that everything we do is pointless; we feel trapped in the ordinary, the routine, unable to break free from endless monotony.
There are so many opportunities in our difficult times to turn away from our journey of faith and stay in our private misery; opportunities to be angry and aggressive with God to the point where prayer ceases to be a relationship but becomes a battering ram filled with what I want, and what I need, and how I hurt; opportunities to write off all the blessings of the past and build defensive barriers to prevent further hurt. And, like the judge in the parable, we go for the self-centred, easy options, with grudging acknowledgement of the needs of others.
And yet God’s grace is waiting for us when we get over our selfish tantrum, and take down some of our barriers, and set off again on the journey through life, and ultimately through death to eternal life.
The purpose of the church - this community of folk who are trying to respond to the call to enter into relationship with God through Jesus - the purpose of the church is to support each of us on that journey. It has its failings; it sometimes makes things more difficult than they need be; it is flawed with human weakness; it hurts people by exhibiting stubbornness on certain issues; but its purpose remains to support each of us in our journey towards the mystery of God, to sustain us in continual prayer, and to encourage us never to lose heart.
Almost exactly twelve months ago, we launched another chapter in the life of this congregation. We took the decision to become part of the United Reformed Church as we discerned a pathway in our journey which expressed our hopes and plans for the future. That decision became a series of stepping stones for the continuing journey of this congregation.
We know from past blessings - from lives which have been changed, and lives which have been saved - that we go forward in the name of Jesus. And if ever we complain that God is distant from us and is not supporting us on the journey, experience suggests that we should look hard at the obstacles that we ourselves have probably put in the way.
Continual prayer is not about spending every waking hour on our knees with candles, incense and prayer books - although for some people those can be valuable factors in their prayer life. Continual prayer is about sustaining our relationship with God, nurturing our love for our neighbour, and showing our respect for ourselves.
We can see it in every message which tells another person that we are thinking about them; every time we quietly walk alongside someone who is facing difficulties, even when there is little practical help we can give; every time we become spiritually aware that we have been called and led by Jesus onto the right pathway for this part of our journey of faith.
In all those things, God blesses us; God responds with the love which guides everything we do; and God leads us forward on the journey towards the Kingdom, which Jesus continually challenges us to define, and re-define, as the deepest purpose for our lives.