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Investigating Prayer

Threaded between all the Brexit news of the last week has been the case of Harry Dunn. He was a young lad who was knocked off his motor bike by a motorist in a country lane near a US airbase. The driver of the car was the wife of an American diplomat who initially agreed to co-operate with British police in their investigations but then fled to America and claimed immunity from prosecution. His parents, understandably distraught, have tried to fight for justice for their dead son taking their case to the White House and an audience with President Trump. Bizarrely, he claimed the woman in question was in the next room and he was happy to bring her in if they wanted to make up. It was an offer Harry’s parents rejected as they wanted the accused to face justice in the UK. The case continues.
Such cases of the underdog facing up to powerful forces, trying to get justice for their cause are common. It is just such a scenario which Jesus sets up in the parable he tells which Luke records in chapter 18 of his gospel. The judge says Jesus ‘neither feared God nor cared about people.’ (verse 2) A widow kept on coming to him with her plea for justice against her adversary. The judge refuses but eventually gives in because she won’t let the case rest: ‘so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming.’ (verse 5)
It is tempting on first hearing this story to think that God is like the unjust judge, a Trump like figure who does not really give a damn but who might change his mind out of expediency if enough pressure is exerted over a length of time. But Jesus tells the story not because the judge is like God but because God is the opposite. It is the contrast between the nature of the judge and the nature of God that we are meant to understand. ‘Will God not bring justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Jesus asks rhetorically. ‘Will he keep putting them off? (verse 7) ‘I tell you’, Jesus goes on, ‘he will see that they get justice, and quickly’. (verse 8)
So, what is the point of the story? Just to compare the goodness of God with the often heartless attitudes of those in power? The clues are at the beginning and end. The parable is told so that the disciples ‘should always pray and not give up.’ (verse 1) It also illustrates that prayer requires faith. Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth when he comes? (verse 8)
If you are wanting to be disciples, learners in the school of Jesus, seeking to live his way, can I ask two questions for your reflection today? How often do you pray? What do you pray for?
In telling this parable, I believe that Jesus is wanting us to consider the nature of the relationship we have with God. Are we tempted to think of him as a somewhat irascible old man in the sky who might just help us out if we’re in a tight spot? Is he just a concept, an idea, a mind behind the universe who pushed the button that made the big bang happen? Or is he a person like you …because you are made in his image? Does he relate, have friends, feelings and emotions? This is more like the God we encounter in the bible.
Our old testament reading today from Genesis, seeks to describe the earliest encounters of human beings with this living God who is neither a statue or a part of the natural world. Jacob wrestles with a man by the Jabbok stream. The man turns out to be an incarnation of God. Jacob is given a new name: Israel, a name which still has potency now ‘because you have struggled with God and with humanity and have overcome.’ (Genesis 32.28) There is much mystery in this text but the compelling truth shining from it is the truth behind both old and new testaments; God is known in relationship with his people, the tribes of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ. Sometimes that relationship is strained, there is struggle, there is dispute and argument. At other times it is a relationship of warm embrace encouragement and hope. Always underpinning that relationship is love, ‘not that we loved God, but that he first loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ (1 John 4.10) God is love, he is relationship; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He reaches out to everyone of us in that relationship of love every day.
If we seek to be his disciples, followers, apprentices, then in repentance and faith, we enter and share that relationship with the eternal triune God. We join ‘The Divine Dance’ as one contemporary theologian has put it. (Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell 2016) …And it is out of that relationship must come our prayer. Our prayer is not the ever more desperate pleas of the disaffected and disenfranchised, the underdog just hoping they might get a hearing. Rather it is the voice a child who trusts her parents to do the right thing by her. It is the voice of wife or husband, the friend or confident who knows the other intimately and will have their best interests at heart. It is the voice of one who is a trusted servant, one who is loved to all eternity in the blood and nails of the cross.
This is the background to your prayer and mine. It could not be more different from the relationship of the widow and the unjust judge. But there is also a lesson to learn from the story too. The widow did not give up until she had what she wanted. Luke introduces the story for us saying that the disciple should always pray and never give up. Good deep relationships only work and thrive on communication. ITV currently have a campaign to improve people’s mental health. It simply implores us to talk to one another. Prayer is heavenly social media. Long before face book, we have been able to poor out our deepest feelings; hopes, and fears and dreams to God our loving heavenly father with posts and get others to like them by saying ‘Amen’. Prayer is talking to God. It enriches and deepens our relationship with him and he with us. Even though God is almighty, exists outside of space and time and does not need human beings to accomplish anything, he choses to work through our prayers. Always pray, never give up.
The other thing that we soon realise as we grow our relationship with the living God in prayer, is that the better we know him, the better we know his mind and therefore the things we should be praying for. We may well pray for friends or family members who are sick or having a hard time of it. We might pray for ourselves if we are facing a particular challenge. We might pray for things going on in the world, for our grandchildren’s futures. All of that is good. There is nothing that God does not want to hear in our prayers…even practical daily bread stuff like fixing the washing machine or finding a parking space at the hospital. But he is concerned for his kingdom. Pray for people you know to enter his kingdom every day. Don’t just pray for your family’s health, pray that they will know and love Jesus. Pray for those on the list you made after Captain Chris’ talk. ‘Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done.’
I asked: How often do you pray and what do you pray for? I hope you have been challenged to pray more to always pray and not give up. There is a virtuous circle here. The more you pray, the better your relationship with God, the more he works through your prayers and the more you pray. From all this comes a better understanding of what we should pray for according to his mind and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Will the Son of Man find faith in you when he comes?
Trinity 18 20.10.2019

Rev Jonathan Smith

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