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Pray, Pray, and Pray Some More October 16, 2016

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Luke 18:1-8

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

October 16, 2016

 

Focus:  God answers our cries for justice by the sacrifice of His Son.

Function:  That the hearers pray for justice in the cross of Christ.

Structure:  Here is a prevailing view…but here is the proclamation of the gospel.

 

Pray, Pray, and Pray Some More

 

Had Jesus preached this parable today, it would have sounded a little more like this:

“In a certain store, there was a woman who neither feared God nor men.  And there was a child in that store, her child, who kept crying and screaming, ‘Mommy, I want it and I want it now!’  For a while, she refused, but afterward she thought to herself, ‘Though I don’t fear God and I certainly don’t need a man, yet because this child keeps bothering me, I will give him what he wants, so that my stress level doesn’t cause me to go nuclear.’  Hear what the unrighteous woman says.”

Whether you want to call it the Parable of the Persistent Widow, or the Parable of the Unjust Judge, that opening illustration is the common interpretation of the parable.  Jesus’ instructions to His disciples then, and to us now, is as simple as this: pray, pray, and pray some more.  Ask God for whatever you want, and if at first you don’t receive it, just keep asking.

But this runs into so many problems.  Just think about it, if this is how prayer works, right away, what’s the first thing you’re going to ask God for?  Almost without a doubt, our first prayers will be selfish.  They’ll be about us.  More specifically, they’ll be about stuff.  “God, I’d really love a bigger house, can you handle that?”  “Where’s that Ferrari you promised me?”  “Can I have a good looking spouse?”  “God, can you get my children to behave better?”  “I’d really like that new job”  “Can I have that promotion now?” And you haven’t gotten it yet, just keep praying, and eventually you will.

And some of these things can actually be worthwhile things to want, like the couple who prays for years for a child, the husband and wife praying for a better marriage, or prayer for a better relationship with your boss.  So, I hate to make to make it sound so trivial and childish, but I have to, because it causes a bigger problem.

The biggest issue with this interpretation of the parable is what happens when you don’t get your way.  When all that praying for more wealth doesn’t happen, first for a few days, then days become weeks, and weeks become months.  How long can you hold on to this promise of Jesus?  Maybe if you’re faith is strong enough, you can even last for years.  But how long does it take before you eventually lose hope?  Over time, your faith widdles away until it dies.

When we misunderstand the promises of Jesus, when we think He promised us something He never did, the death of our faith is a great concern.  Faith is trust in God and His promises.  If we can’t trust them anymore, we literally don’t have faith in Him anymore.

And had the parable ended at the end of verse six, with Jesus saying, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says,” had it ended there, we could easily, understandably get the wrong promise from it.

But the truth is, thankfully, Jesus never would have preached the whiny, selfish child illustration.  It doesn’t fit with what He was actually teaching His disciples.  Because He didn’t stop at verse 6.

The very key to this parable actually comes before Jesus even starts talking.  In verse 1, Luke tells us that the effect Jesus desires from this parable is that His disciples “ought always to pray and not lose heart.”  Pray continuously, never give up hope.  That’s the key.  Without it, we just think about the covetousness of our own broken hearts.

But instead, this never giving up hope shows up in the widow’s asking.  Despite the faithlessness of this judge, despite his unwillingness to even really give her a fair hearing, she keeps going to him.  She knows he has the power to give her justice, to save her from her adversary.  And that becomes the point.  Her prayer isn’t for stuff, it’s for justice, it’s for salvation.

And, as the parable concludes, ultimately, she gets it.  The judge concedes, finally listens, and gives her justice against her adversary.  We do want to be careful examining who’s who in this parable.  God is the judge, so we don’t want to read too much into the unfaithful label of the parable, because we know better.  Even though sometimes it may seem like God doesn’t care, like He’s being unfaithful to us, He is always faithful, He always loves us.

That makes us the widow.  The one crying out.  And as we’ve established, it’s not for stuff, or relationships, or whatever might be on our hearts, as faithful and good as many of those things may be.  Instead, we cry out for justice.  We pray to God to grant us justice against our adversaries.  We ask God to judge between us and sin, death, and the devil.

And as we keep reading the text, we see that’s exactly what God does.  God gives justice to His elect, to those who call out to Him for salvation.  This is the power of the cross.  That Christ’s death on the cross grants justice, peace, deliverance for all of God’s people from our enemies.  And this doesn’t mean earthly peace, earthly justice, or earthly deliverance.  There are any number of wrongdoings in this nation, right here at home.  But those people committing those wrongdoings are no different than us.  Broken sinners, in need of crying out for justice.

God didn’t delay.  Christ shares this parable of justice with His disciples as He’s on His journey to Jerusalem and to the cross.  It’s just a matter of soon.  And that’s the same today.  The last part of the text used to be left off.  We didn’t read the last sentence: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I don’t know if they thought it was too depressing or negative or what they were doing leaving it out.  But in the 2006 revision of the lectionary when our Synod moved to its new hymnal, we added that sentence to this reading.  It was already there in Scripture, we just used to skip it, and now we don’t.

And I’m glad.  This is another key element of this parable.  Jesus just finished telling the disciples in chapter seventeen that He would return, He would come soon, and here we see it again in our text, “I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily.”  Justice in response to our prayer is coming soon!

But verse eight poses a challenge to the disciples, and a challenge to us.  When Christ returns, will He find faith on earth?  It’s not a trick question.  It’s one of the strangest things about the teaching of evolution, that our lives and our world just keep getting better.  A simple look at history, a simple look around us tells us exactly the opposite.  Everything is in a constant state of decay.  You and I are moving constantly toward our death.  Only a return of Christ can prevent that.

 

Will you persist in your faith?  Will you not be discouraged by the decay of the world?  It’s not just the challenge of the text, it’s also the whole reason for the parable.  This is the response, this is how we persist in faith.  We pray.  God calls us His own children in baptism, forgiving our sins there and in the Lord’s Supper.  The faithful response is one of prayer.  That we cry out to God for justice against our adversary, and trust in Him that He will answer speedily.

So everything around the disciples was coming unhinged.  Within a few decades, the Roman emperor Nero would have nearly perfected persecuting the church.  The disciples were murdered on account of their faith, and the temple in Jerusalem was ripped apart brick by brick.

But the disciples did it.  To the point of death.  They certainly were both saint and sinner, but they persisted, they trusted in the Lord alone for their salvation.  And we are called upon by this final question to do the same.  To press on despite the pressures of our government, to persist despite what our nation calls the decline of the church, to not lose heart even when our culture seems without hope, and to not give up even if it means our death.

This is what the parable of the persistent widow or the unfaithful judge is all about.  Her prayers had nothing to do with the things of this world.  Rather, she called out for justice against her adversary, and she received salvation.  And so we too ought to pray to the Lord for justice in the face of our enemies, trusting in Him alone for our salvation in the face of sin, death, and the devil himself, that when the Lord returns, He will find faith on the earth.

Discombobulating the Gift with the Giver October 9, 2016

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Luke 17:11-19

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

October 9th, 2016

 

Focus:  God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.

Function:  That the hearers proclaim Christ as their Savior.

Structure:  Connecting the dots from the Old Testament to the New.

 

Discombobulating the Gift with the Giver

 

Today we want to take a look at our reading from the gospel according to Luke.  On its surface, it looks like any other healing miracle Jesus performed.  Here’s ten men, each of whom is sick, and Christ shows mercy upon them, and heals them.  But there’s a lot more to it, and it has great significance for us in our daily lives.

But first, we have to dig into the context.  Verse eleven says, “On the way to Jerusalem He was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” This doesn’t give us His exact position on a map, but it is helpful.  He’s traveling south, He’s moving from the region of Galilee into the region of Samaria as He makes His way toward Jerusalem.  We’ll get to that.

But on the way, He’s stopped at one of the local villages by a group shouting at Him from a distance.  Ten men, each of them lepers.  And to truly understand their plight, as they cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” to truly understand their pain, we open our Old Testaments, specifically, we look to the book of Leviticus, which laid out all of their cultural laws and regulations about how to govern themselves, how to deal with various things like worship, conflict, and disease.

The entirety of chapters thirteen and fourteen cover the skin disease we call leprosy.  There are numerous rules, and you’re welcome to read them, and they get a little gross.  But for a better understanding of our reading at hand, there’s a few verses we want to look at in particular.

Leviticus 13:45-46 – 45 “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Leviticus 14:1-3, 8 – The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look. Then, if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, […] And he who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes and shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean. And after that he may come into the camp, but live outside his tent seven days.

 

This is what befell these ten men.  Leprousy, a skin disease which was contagious and potentially deadly.  But it’s more than that.  It’s like being quarantined.  If you’re a leper, you’re removed from society.  You’re declared unclean, and you’re forced to live outside of the camp.  There might even be a small group of lepers living together, waiting to be healed.  But in the meantime, you can’t see your family or friends.  You can’t go to work, can’t care for your relatives.  It’s a tough condition to have.

And so these ten men cry out to the Christ, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  Lord, help us.  And Jesus does, He hears their cry for mercy and He provides mercy.  He looks at the ten men and rather than simply healing them, He skips ahead.  He tells them to go and see the priests.  You were only supposed to do this if you were clean again, if you were already healed.

But nevertheless, they trusted Him, they turned away and started the trip to see the priests.  We don’t know how long it took, we’re not even told how long into the journey it was before it happened.  But somewhere along the way, between Jesus and their priests, Luke records this: “And as they went they were cleansed.”

Do you realize the repercussions?  These men have not just had their sickness removed, they’re clean again.  They get to return to their families, their friends, their communities, their jobs.  Everything they know about life gets to go back to normal.  This is wonderful!  And so they keep going, heading for the priests who will declare them clean and let them go home.

Except one.  One man stops.  And he turns around.  We don’t know much about him, other than that he was a Samaritan, not a Jew, so not necessarily part of the kingdom of God, and yet, he stopped.  Instead of going with the other nine to see the local priests, this man returned to Jesus.

The other nine go back home.  They see the priests, the priests mark them as clean, and they return to the life they had left, to everything they had known before.

This text is often misapplied as saying we don’t give thanks enough.  But that’s not the issue here.  The issue is confusing the gift with the giver of the gift.  The issue is to whom we give thanks, not how often we do it.  God in the flesh came into the lives of these nine men, delivered them, redeemed them, cleansed them, and nothing.  Life was no different now than it had been in the past.

That’s what this text ends up being about.  We confuse the giver of the gifts with the gifts themselves. And it’s not just the unbelieving who sometimes rejoice in the gift of life, the gift of food, the gift of second and third and billionth chances.  The gift of families and jobs.

It’s about us, too, confusing gift and giver.  Sometimes we make the gift itself god.  We give thanks to our earthly things, be they jobs, homes, transportation, family, even stuff.  We look to these things to save us.  Just look at this election.  How many, even Christians, are convinced that the government will save them?  Even in the church, that either Hillary or Donald is somehow capable of preserving the life we love, of saving of world?

We enjoy liberty in this nation, and then begin to think that liberty is the goal of life.  We enjoy our rights and our freedoms and think that these must be preserved, even expanded, at all costs.  We get so caught up in being comfortable and happy and liked that we won’t tell someone else of who God is for fear that we might lose everything.

But we compare this to the one man, to this Samaritan, who rather than going to the priests has a profound insight.  You see, we learn in Scripture that Jesus is our Prophet, Priest, and King.  This man sees it.  He returns to show his Priest, that is Christ, that he is healed.  And he rejoices, he worships at the feet of his Redeemer, of his Savior.  And Jesus says something to him that is extraordinary. “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”  Or in some translations, “Your faith has saved you.”

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says this a few other times.  But it’s a mark of contrast.  The woman who anointed Christ’s feet in the midst of the Pharisees in chapter 7.  The blind beggar who also cried out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” in the midst of a rebuking crowd in Luke chapter 18.  These few have faith.  They have seen the Christ and acknowledge Him for who He is: their Lord and Savior.

And for all of them this connection is even deeper.  Because as we remember from the beginning of our text, Jesus is headed where? Jerusalem.  And what’s He going there to do?  To die on the cross.  Why is He going to do that? For the forgiveness of our sins.  Who’s sins are forgiven on that cross? Everyone.

Christ died on the cross, shedding His blood as a one-time sacrifice, good once and for all.  Every sinner everywhere of all time.  Every sin ever committed, every sin yet to be committed.  Covered, by the blood of the Lamb.  You see those other nine lepers were still healed.  But they rejected the giver of that gift.  We are all forgiven, but many reject the giver of the gift.

And we’re not immune to this, even as Christ’s people.  This is why the cry of the lepers, the cry of the blind beggar, sounds out from our lips, “Lord, have mercy on us.”  Whether that’s in the Kyrie or the Agnus Dei, we join these men crying out for the mercy of God.  And more specifically, we join the few men and women declaring that Christ is our Lord and Savior.  He is the giver of all good gifts.  And it is in Him alone that we look for our life and salvation.