As many of you know, it is our custom to have a “state of the church” message around the beginning of each new year, and that message will be coming next week. But, if you like, you may consider this message to a preamble to that state of the church sermon. How so?
The year behind us, 2020, has been quite the year, and it may have occurred to some of you that when 20 turns 21, it might take to drinking, and then what shall we do? Of course, we shall pray about it, but there is a particular kind of prayer that we need to understand in times like these.
“And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1–8)
Summary of the Text
This parable goes by various names. For some, it is the parable of the unjust judge. For others, it is called the parable of the importunate widow, or perhaps the persistent widow. With this parable, Jesus gives us the meaning of it right at the front end. He told the parable to a particular purpose, which is that men ought to pray constantly and not to get discouraged when their prayers are not immediately answered (v. 1). In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God, and he did not have any regard for man (v. 2). We should start paying attention at this point because we still have those kinds of judges in our time, believe it or not. Now there was a widow in that same city who wanted to have her case heard against her adversary (v. 3). She wanted to have the judge grant the justice of her case. For a time, this godless judge just put her off, but after a bit he changed his mind. He acknowledged to himself that even though he did not fear God or regard man (v. 4), he was still able to determine that this widow was going to be a royal pain in the neck (v. 5). The only way he was going to be able to get rid of her was through doing some justice, however little it suited him. And so Jesus says that we should pay attention to the lesson of this unjust judge (v. 6). How is it possible that God will not grant justice to His own elect, those who cry to Him day and night, even though He puts them off for a time (v. 7)? This is a “how much more” argument. God will vindicate them later, and when it happens it will happen suddenly (v. 8). Not soon, but suddenly. This is God’s way. God loves the eucatastrophe. But at the same time, why might the Son of man not find faith on the earth when He comes? It would be because the lesson of this parable had not been learned, and people, in the position of that widow, quit crying out for justice.
The Nature of Persistence
Now one of the things we need to do is look straight at this parable, contemplating what Jesus is actually calling us to do. He is actually calling us to be wrong in our prayers, and to be mistaken most of the time.
Suppose you have a trouble, and coming out of this last year, who doesn’t? And suppose this trouble weighs on you heavily, and it has come to the point where you are bringing it before the Lord daily in prayer. It could be a health problem, or a financial challenge, or a wayward child, or the caliber of the people attempting to run our civilization. It weighs on you, and so as required, you bring it to God. To illustrate, suppose you are praying for a significant amount of money, and it is not so that you might spend it on various fripperies. It is a real need. Let us say you bring it before the Lord daily, as this parable requires, and you do so for years.
This means that every day, you believe that today would be a wonderful time for this needed deliverance to appear. You wouldn’t be praying about it if you didn’t feel that way. But every new day that you pray about it, the repetition carries with it a recognition that your assessment of the situation yesterday was wrong. As in, mistaken. Erroneous. That wasn’t the best day for the deliverance. Not only were you wrong, but it was an error that the Lord Jesus—by requiring your persistence in this kind of prayer—required you to make. So Jesus wants us to be obediently and faithfully mistaken.
Embodied Life in Time
Perhaps some of you women who are mothers know what this is like. Those who just identify as women have no idea, whatever the unjust judges say about it. But perhaps you faithful mothers have had this experience. You are six months along, and some well-meaning stranger asks you what it feels like to be past due. You feel like you are past due, and it is also apparently the case that you look like you are. In this scenario, you know that it is not time yet. Three months to go. But now suppose that you were the first woman ever to give birth, and so nobody knew how long a pregnancy was supposed to go. Now pray about it. That is what delayed answer to prayer is like. Promises are pregnancies, and yet the gestation times for answered prayer vary considerably.
But when the answer comes, it comes suddenly. It comes in a rush. Is this not what the Lord explicitly says? He will “avenge them speedily” (v. 8).
“For the vision is yet for an appointed time, But at the end it shall speak, and not lie: Though it tarry, wait for it; Because it will surely come, it will not tarry.”
Habakkuk 2:3 (KJV)
On the Mount of the Lord
God wants us to walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). We are to live our lives walking in the will of God, but this is not the same thing as living off a pre-printed agenda. Once in a blue moon God directs His servants explicitly and in unmistakable ways. But most of the time, we are to simply trust Him. Our lives are a mist (Jas. 4:14). We are a wispy bit of fog off the river, two feet long, that you sometimes drive by, and in a moment it is gone.
We should have the humility befitting small wisps of fog, and so we should pray in the way we are instructed to pray. Not only will God answer us suddenly when He answers, but He loves to do it at the moment when we believe that all is lost. He waits until Abraham has the knife upraised over his son. On the mount of the Lord it will be provided (Gen. 22:14). God waited until the Israelites were close enough to the Red Sea to get their sandals wet in it before He told Moses to extend his rod. They could see the water, and they could see the dust from Pharaoh’s chariots, and they had no notion that those chariots were soon to be under that water. Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord (Ex. 14:13). And God waited until David was running hard on one side of the mountain, with Saul hot after him on the other side of that same mountain (1 Sam. 23:26). Then the Philistines invaded, just as the Lord directed. Jehoshaphat was told the same thing that was said in the time of Moses. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord (2 Chron. 20:17). Stand still, and see. But while you are standing there, still, pray about it again. Talk to the judge again.
So on account of all this, we can be confident that there is one thing that the misbegotten year 2020 did not do, and that was to shorten the arm of Jehovah (Num. 11:23).