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I texted Derek this afternoon and told him what a fine job he did this morning in the sermon and how perfect it was, I felt, to follow up tonight with what I have the privilege to preach on, the persistent widow, found in Luke chapter 18. So I’d ask you to turn there in your copy of God’s Word.
On January 7 of 1947, one of the great Christmas movies of all time was released, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I think everyone here would, I hope, say that’s a good movie. I really like it. There’s a particular part in that movie where George Bailey, who’s played by Jimmy Stewart, obviously, comes home from a hard day at the office. Mr. Potter has been bearing down on him and the old Building & Loan has taken its toll on poor George. He looks down, he looks depressed, and he’s unshaven, and he walks into this loving home with his sweet wife Mary decorating the tree, Janie’s playing the piano, and one of the kids, and I didn’t watch the movie at this part, but I can’t remember either Pete or Tommy, somebody can correct me at the end, the youngest is tugging on his coattail, persistently asking him a question. Do you remember the question? How do you spell Frankenstein.
After a brief time, the kids, as he’s sitting there lamenting this whole scene and Mary’s over there decorating the tree and everybody seems to be having fun but George, the kids begin to place tinsel on his face and you can tell something’s about to happen. He begins to rehearse the day and then more broadly his life and it quickly goes downhill. Finally, George just cracks. After tearing up the house, knocking over what looked like architectural drawings of the house, he charges outside and he finds himself at Mr. Potter’s mercy, only to be further discouraged and eventually contemplating ending it all. It is there that he meets Clarence, his guardian angel, and the rest you know of the famous movie.
There is a lesson, though, here, a couple places, and I want to draw your attention to it as an introduction to this, and the lesson is the young son’s example to introduce our parable tonight because of his persistent tugging at the coattails of his dad. A lesson in persistence. We can say thankfully that God is not like George Bailey who spontaneously blows up, blows his cool, storms out of the room. God is not a capricious tyrant, unwilling to respond, and if you remember in the movie, who finally tells him how to spell Frankenstein, it’s Mary.
Now I realize tonight that I’m speaking to a majority of Christians. Yet, I want us to ponder something. Are we like George’s little son, pulling on the proverbial coattails of God, pleading with him to do a might work of grace, particularly in a situation that we care so deeply about? Or have we stopped praying? Have we lost heart, have we lost faith? Perhaps because we think God is just not interested in my little existence, in my little tiny prayer. Even worse, that God is not only uncaring but that He may explode with impatience with me, and maybe even become angry at me. Or have we given in to self-sufficiency, an unnecessary distraction that leads us to sporadic, inconsistent praying, or even long seasons of prayerlessness?
So tonight we’re continuing our study in the parables of Luke, and tonight we come upon what’s the fifteenth parable in the center section of the Gospel, the parable of the persistent widow. This short little parable Jesus tells His disciples will prompt us to ask this simple question of ourselves – Do I persist in prayer to my heavenly Father? Do I persevere in prayer to my Lord?
Answering that puts its finger on the heart of the question – Am I trusting God? Is faith evident by my persistence in prayer?
It further asks a deeper question – Do I know this God correctly, who is just and caring, a just and caring Father, desiring to hear my constant prayers? Do I trust that kind of God?
So let’s read together this little parable, beginning in verse 1 of chapter 18.
“And He told them a parable,” the disciples, “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?””
So Jesus speaks this parable generally to teach us one main point, and Luke tells us plainly the lesson in the first two verses and the last verse, the bookends of this parable.
Verse 1 – And He told them this parable to the effect they ought always to pray and not lose heart. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?
Here is a soul-probing question that Jesus asks – When He returns, will He find faith on earth?
He’s essentially saying when the Christian perseveres in prayer, when he or she persists in prayer, it is one of many things that demonstrate a growing trust, a growing faith, in our heavenly Father. We might say the contrary – losing heart, losing trust, losing faith, is demonstrated in what is essentially the opposite of persistent prayer, prayerlessness.
Such a descriptive term that Jesus uses, “losing heart,” losing faith, losing our trust, is shown in prayerlessness. It is when we are silent heavenward.
Jesus’ very clear desire is when He returns He will indeed find us persistent in prayer, for again it is one of the many ways we demonstrate our faith, in the Father we pray to.
I want you to listen to a bit of a lengthy quote from pastor and hymn writer John Newton. Derek quoted from John Newton today, so this must be John Newton’s day. Wonderful pastor. He’s commenting on Romans 7:18 – For I know that in me, that is in my flesh, nothing good dwells.
Listen to what he writes – “The depravity of our fallen nature is and will be universally and always felt during our present earthly state and mixes with all of our thoughts and all our actions. It is inseparable from us as the shadow from our bodies when the sun shines upon us. The holiness of a Christian does not consist in a deliverance from depravity, but in being sensible of it, striving against it, and being humbled under it and taking occasion from thence to admire our Savior and rejoice in Him as our complete righteousness and sanctification. The grace of God puts a great deal into the heart but it takes nothing out. Nature and grace, flesh and spirit, will antagonize each other until the end of life. Therefore, the life of the believer while in the body is in a continual state of warfare. The apostle felt a law his members warring against the law of his mind. He would do good but evil was present with him. He groaned being burdened. When we first set out we hoped to be spiritually rich, but the Lord’s purpose,” listen to this, “is to make us sensible of our extreme poverty. We wish to be something, but He is teaching us that we are in essence nothing. When indeed we are willing to be nothing that He may be all in all, in us and for us, then I think we reach the very acme of holiness. Then while we feel that we have no sufficiency of ourselves, we shall be enabled to do all things that occur in the line of duty through Him strengthening us.”
Now there’s a number of things there that are good, but I want to focus your attention on his phrase “the Lord’s purpose is to make us sensible of our extreme poverty.” Isn’t that where prayer connects? Prayer is faith exercised. It says we don’t know what to do because we’re finite. God, help us. Help me. We don’t have because we’re limited in our resources. God, would You provide? Desperate, persistent, persevering prayer happens when we realize our extreme poverty, when we realize we have nothing we will turn and pray in childlike faith and we will keep on praying.
We go into a new week tomorrow, facing challenges of our workplace. Pleading with God that we are nothing but He can redeem the workplace and allow me to be a blessing to others, to serve others, to be salt and light in a hard place. When a mom, as a mom, the daily grind of washing clothes, preparing meals, nursing sick children, or waiting and hoping for the child yet to be. It’s here the hard places of home life that remembering we are nothing apart from Christ that we barrage heaven’s gates with our prayers. When as a student trying to life a faithful Christian life on a dorm floor and you seem to be the only one, it’s here that you persist in prayer. When your ordinary life seems ordinary, it is here you persevere in prayer.
These are not just hypothetical examples. God has put you there for His purpose, not haphazardly, not cruelly, not randomly. It’s in that place when we embrace our extreme poverty that our prayer lives deepen and grow because we come to realize that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
So if you and I were asked tonight to evaluate our prayer lives and I asked you to give me some words to describe it, how would it look? What would those words be? Consistent/inconsistent, ordered/haphazard, disciplined, joyful, serious… Depends on the day, it ebbs and flows with my circumstances.
What about the closest people in our lives? Our spouses, our children, parents, friends, coworkers. Would they characterize us as praying people? Or that our prayer lives are persistent? Persevering?
John Stott writes a helpful thought on the challenges of being a persistent praying Christian. He says we need to win the battle of the prayer threshold, he calls it. To help me persevere in prayer, I sometimes imagine a very high stone wall with a living God on the other side of it. In this walled garden, He is waiting for me to come to Him. There is only one way into the garden, a tiny door. Outside the door stands the devil with a drawn sword, ready to stop me. It is at this point that we need to defeat the devil in the name of Christ. That is the battle of the threshold. I think there are many of us who give up praying before we’ve even tried to fight this battle. He says the best way to win in my experience is to claim the promises of Scripture, which the devil cannot undo.
Stott reminds us that it is a battle to persist in prayer. All kinds of things push against it. The devil himself, my lethargy, my unbelief, my laziness, my busy-ness, perhaps my self-sufficiency, and a myriad of other things.
I wonder sometimes if in our approach to God we think that God’s a bit like George Bailey, frazzled, worn, tired, unwilling, impatient, and really quick to explode in anger. So may pressures, so many requests from My children, I can’t handle it anymore. So why should I bother Him?
You say, no, Mike, I never think that way about God. But do you ever think, does God get tired of hearing my prayers? Especially the same ones over and over and over, year after year?
Well, in this short little parable, we have the answer. Jesus speaks about this persistent widow to teach us a lesson in faith, and God’s character, and practically speaking in persevering prayer.
This little parable comes on the heel of chapter 17 where Jesus addresses genuine faith throughout that chapter and in verse 22 of chapter 17, He says this to the disciples: “Days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man and you will not see it.” Jesus is preparing His disciples, and by inference the Church down through the ages, that there will be this lengthy and increasingly difficult period of time before His return that His followers throughout the ages should persevere in prayer rather than losing heart.
The parable vividly portrays this worldly, unjust judge, by all accounts an unfair, wicked man, finally giving in to the persistent widow. Implied question – So how much more will a loving, just, and powerful Father answer His children who continue to cry to Him day and night?
So much more. So much more.
I want to look at the parable very briefly, because it’s short, then three points and then some application.
There’s a backstory to understand here concerning the widow. Widows in Palestine during Jesus’ day were certainly not cared for by society. There’s no system in place to make their needs were met. Fairness, compassion, were not handed out to them on any regular basis. What good was a widow to society? The reader would understand that she was likely bringing some kind of financial case, so most commentaries think, to the judge. We don’t know the nature of the case, but we know she’s unjustly treated. If there was anyone in that society who should fairly represent her and have the authority to protect her, it would be the judge, yet the judge is shown to refuse and he had no love for justice and certainly no sympathy for the oppressed such as this widow.
The text says he simply refused to listen. Possibly because, as some commentators write, he’s waiting for a bribe, as would often have been the case, and being too poor to pay, her only weapon was persistence. She longed for justice. She wanted someone with enough power and compassion to defend her cause, and intentionally in Jesus’ parable the contrast builds for us between this unjust judge and a good God. God is not like the unjust judge. Rather, He’s a heavenly Father who cares for the needy, who protects, who listens and answers. He doesn’t turn a deaf ear.
Verse 7 and 8, and will not God give justice to His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily.
The widow wanted an answer. The judge summarily refused. But after her persistent appeals, time and time again, he finally succumbs to her wishes else, as he says, she will wear me out, like a boxer would wear out an opponent relentlessly punching and punching and punching until the opponent gives in.
So a few principles from this lesson of this little parable about persistent prayer.
First is this. Faith-filled prayer is always desperate praying. Faith-filled prayer is always desperate praying.
Think of her situation. I explained it. A widow who contributes nothing to society, who has no power, no advocate to turn to, no money to even bribe a judge and yet day by day is still at it, asking, pleading, requesting justice with a kind of faith that actually believes if I ask enough, the judge will relent. We see that he finally does.
I want to ask you to consider your prayer life. How desperate are your prayers? Do we have the faith of a widow to barrage the gates of heaven over and over and over again? Once again, in my own life, I’m reminded of the tendency to self-sufficiency. Little pleading but working harder. Rather than praying and pleading that the door would be open, I often find myself trying to open it by other means.
Faith-filled prayer is always desperate praying. It’s patiently waiting in anticipation that God hears and responds to my constant prayer. It’s coming to realize that God doesn’t get tired of hearing my ongoing tiny little prayer. He never gets tired.
Number two. Faith-filled praying is always looking at the greatness and goodness of God.
I brought attention to this earlier. There is in this parable an intentional drawing of a contrast between the unjust judge, uncaring, cold, and even aloof, and a good, powerful, and loving God who delights to hear and answer the prayer of His people.
When we pray, how do we see God? Are we aware and growing in His majesty? Are we mindful of His greatness? That He is the true God? Where are we deficient in our knowledge of God’s character? Are we looking at His greatness and goodness as we pray?
Donald Whitney writes, “When our awareness of the greatness of God in the Gospel is dim, our prayer lives will be small. The less we think of the nature and character of God, and the less we are reminded of what Jesus did for us on the cross, the less we will want to pray. There is a direct correlation between our view of the majesty and the grandeur of God in our faith, our trust expressed in persistent prayer. This is where the correlation between faith-filled, constant praying and meditating on the grandeur of God comes to mark, comes to bear.”
This is why I think the English Puritan Thomas Manton wrote this: “Meditation is the middle sort of duty between the Word and prayer and has respect to both. The Word feeds meditation and meditation feeds prayer. These duties must always go hand in hand. Meditation must follow hearing and precede prayer. To hear and not to meditate is unfruitful. We may hear and hear but it is like putting a think into a bag with holes. It is rashness to pray and not to meditate. What we take in by the Word we digest by meditation and let out by prayer. These three duties must be ordered that one not jostle out the other.” He says, “men and women are barren, dry, and sapless in their prayers for wont of exercising themselves in holy thoughts.”
Meditation on the beauty, the greatness and goodness of God in His Word makes for a rich and fruitful and persistent prayer life.
So perhaps this is a good place to insert a question you may be asking, because I’ve asked this question. It’d be easy for us to ask this question. We’re told here that the widow persists and it leads for the judge to respond. Jesus even says the Father will not delay long over the elect, He will act speedily.
Why are our prayers not always answered after a certain length of time? Now you can frame that question in a lot of different ways. Right? There are things you have and I have asked for in prayer for many years, perhaps decades. There is a particular prayer I have asked God almost for 35 years to answer and I find myself still waiting. Why is that?
Well, two ministers helped shed some light on that, Thomas Watson and Jonathan Edwards. Listen to what they say.
Watson many years ago was asked by a church attender, “Why does God delay in answering prayer? I keep praying. This says persistent prayer, persistent prayer. The widow got her answer. Why the delay?”
Here’s what he said, “At least four reasons possibly. Number one, God loves to hear the voice of His children. Number two, so that He may humble us. Number three, because we are not quite ready to receive it. And number four, so that we may find the answer more sweeter when it does come.”
Jonathan Edwards says, “It is very apparent from the Word of God that He has want often to try the faith and patience of His people when crying to Him for some great and important mercy by withholding the mercy sought for a season and not only so but at first to cause an increase of dark appearances, and yet He without fail at last succeeds those who continue constant in prayer with all perseverance and will not let him or her go except He blesses.”
Certainly that helps with our sense of delayed prayer, answered prayer.
Yet the really vital question for us in the parable is not whether God will respond to the prayer, or even how quickly, but rather whether He will find faithful people who have persisted in prayer and not lost hope when the Son of Man comes. Faith-filled praying always sees the greatness and goodness of God.
Number three. Faith-filled praying exercises an unshakeable trust in a sovereign and loving God who tells us to pray. Unshakeable trust.
Jesus says that even if the judge who does not honor the laws of God and man can be induced to act by the incessant appeals of a widow, how much more will God kindly act to uphold His people when they cry to Him? God is not like the judge who didn’t care, or the frazzled George Bailey who went out in anger. Rather, He’s like the song we sang, He’s a good, good father, ready and willing and wanting to hear the cries of His children and able to respond for our good and for His glory.
This little parable is essentially an encouragement then for us to continue in prayer, to persevere in prayer without losing heart, right through the difficult times, waiting before the sure return of the Son of Man, Jesus Himself.
Here’s the main question that the parable presents us – Will God find us exercising faith by our praying? Desperate, God-focused, and trusting in the goodness and sovereignty of God as we attempt something way beyond our abilities and power.
So how we might do differently? How might we be differently, think differently, in light of this?
Number one. We should be reminded that God is not like the unjust, capricious human judge, but rather He listens intently to every prayer with the utmost concern, always ready to do what is best for His children. Your heavenly Father, my heavenly Father, is always willing, patient, and listening to the feeble prayers of our souls, even if those prayers are three times a day for years and years and years and years. Do we believe that?
Secondly. We should ask God to grow our faith so that we’ll continue to practice persistent prayer. Faith and trust drive prayer. It is our faith, if our faith is lacking or our view of God is deficient, we will not practice persistent prayer. Have you asked God to increase your faith?
We should remember in the middle of a long season of praying for the same thing over and over again and still waiting for the answer, often the outcome is that we are changed rather than the situation. We’re changed.
I mentioned 35 years of praying for the very same thing. I’ve covered all kinds of ways and angles to pray that request to God. I know He hears. He’s changed me for that, from that. We will find that God wants to change us more and more into the image of His Son and therefore uses long, persistent prayer to transform us. In other words, what we are becoming in character is more important than what we are desiring God to answer.
And number four. If you’re not a Christian and you’re here tonight, we’re glad you’re here. The first prayer of faith for you is to admit you’re a sinner and place your complete trust in a good Savior, Jesus Christ, who stands ready to forgive your sin and make you a new creation. He died in your stead to pay for your sins before a holy God who demands sin to be punished. In love, He took your place and punishment. He is willing to receive you as a son or a daughter, even tonight if you will trust Him.
John says, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”
Come to Christ, that’s the first prayer of faith.
The English pastor, C.H. Spurgeon, on prevailing, persistent prayer, writes this, in conclusion: “If you had reached to something higher than the ordinary groveling experience, look to the rock that is higher than you and gaze with the eye of faith through the window of consistent prayer. When you open the window on your side, it will not be bolted on the other.”
Or as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Let’s pray together. I’m going to pray something that ended William Jay, a pastor’s sermon on this text, many years ago. Let’s pray. Who is like unto You, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? May we approach You with humility which is due your greatness and the hope that becomes Your goodness, for though You are high, yet You have respect for the lowly, and though continually adored by thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, yet You despise not the prayer of the destitute, but will hear their prayer. Our fathers cried to You and were delivered, they trusted in You and were not confounded, and You never said to the seed of Jacob, seek Me in vain. Father, may we be persistent in prayer to the end of our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.