(Most of this comes from Is God Listening? by Andrew E. Steinmann. The Judgment Day image is based on the Luke 18 meditation in Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel. For many and various reasons, this is the sermon I needed to preach (and hear) today as these texts describe the location of my life pretty precisely. And I give thanks to God for those congregation members and blog readers who pray for me and do not lose heart. It is only by God's mercy that I am still going. To Him be all glory.)
The Lord tells the parable of the persistent widow for the same reason that He inspired David to write down Psalm 13 – “to the effect that [we] ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Daily frustrations make it so easy to lose heart, to give up on the struggle. Your disappointment over things going wrong spills over into angry words and actions towards innocent bystanders – like the guy who kicks the dog when he gets home from work because he can’t kick the boss who wronged him.
Naturally we think the best thing to do is to swallow our pride and our anger, pretend it’s not there – better than dumping on God. Yet it might surprise you that in fact God invites you to dump your frustrations and anxieties on Him – to admit to them and pray for Him to save you from the wrong done to you. That is the way of faith, to stop lying about how you are doing and instead be open and honest with God. So you try to pray, but the evil problems remain. Worse yet, we see the Lord answering other people’s prayers speedily. Those ten lepers last week cried out to Jesus for mercy and got to go back healed to their families that very day! When you do not see any change for the better, it can feel like prayer has become useless. As if God is deaf, or at least refusing to hear you. Prayer exercises our patience. You are talking to the Lord for whom a day is like 1000 years, and 1000 years like a day. This might take a while [HT: William Cwirla].
The Lord knows that impatience tempts us to respond horribly with “false belief, despair and other great shame.” Concerned about this danger, Jesus wonders out loud if He will find faith on earth when He will come to be our judge. To make sure there is faith on that Day, Christ teaches us not to lose heart when dumping our complaints on God – using the parable of the persistent widow crying out for justice and using Psalm 13 – and at least 40 other psalms and parables like these. Take a look at prayers in the Bible and you will find you are not alone in feeling like God is not paying attention.
That is exactly were David is at. You know David, the man after God’s own heart and the King of great faith. In Psalm 13 his faith does not sound so strong as he confronts the God who seems to be ignoring David’s troubles, like an unrighteous judge who does not respect the innocent. “How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). This is a prayer of never-ending hopelessness and eternal hope at the same time. That may seem strange to have both of those going on in the same Psalm, but that is the way it is with us. Each Christian has sinfulness and holiness going on inside of us side by side. Our thoughts are always going to be strange mixes of pure and impure motives until that Day our Lord purifies and perfects us in Paradise.
Overwhelmed by earthly troubles, David feels abandoned, with no Divine direction. “How long must I take counsel in my soul?” (13:2). Hopelessness turns to desperation as he demands God’s attention. “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!” (13:3). David feels like he is on the brink of death. And that tragedy would make his enemies happy, as if they were right to make David miserable.
Psalm 13 could be prayed by anyone who has suffered loss – and you all have, some losses more serious than others. Lost health, lost income, possessions and reputation, lost family members and friends. The thought of never being able to get back what was lost can devastate even the strongest people. The pain leads to asking David’s question. How long? Will God make me suffer the rest of my life? Will I ever get life back to normal? We get caught in a tug of war between our hearts and minds - our hearts wanting to go back to the way life used to be, our brains knowing that will never happen again.
But remember that Psalm 13 is a prayer of hopelessness AND hope. Hope that comes from faith. The faith that always receives the strength and mercy that Christ gives. In faith, we trust that everything that happens is under the Lord’s control – that God works all things together for the good of His people, as Romans 8:28 teaches. All things – even the losses and frustrations we suffer, God will turn around to be a blessing in His time. For as much as Psalm 13 demands that God quit hiding and start listening, this prayer still trusts that there is love in God’s heart – a steadfast love, a mercy that endures forever. It can be nothing but mercy, as you consider the Ten Commandments and all the things in your life that tell God you really do not love Him as much as you should, all the sins that anger Him, all your evil that according to strict justice would land you and me in Hell.
Yet God’s love for you is steadfast – it does not run hot and cold depending on how we deal with Him. His love does not treat us as our sins deserve, but has made “you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15) as you have listened to the sacred Scriptures. The judge in the parable did not want to be bothered by the widow. But the One who is your eternal and almighty Judge – He is so bothered that He goes to the Cross for you. God’s anger against our sin was done there. It is finished, so that eternal judgment can no more bring us to condemnation. The Son of Man who was on the cross to save us from our impatience, our anger and frustrations, our false belief and despair, the Son of Man who prayed for your faith on earth and now makes your prayers to be heard in Heaven, this same Son of Man will be our judge at the end of time. When we stand before the Lord, then it will be clear how tenderly and generously He has brought you through all these dark times when it all goes wrong. We will then see God’s delays, when it looked at the time like He did not care, are really part of His wanting your good – or working for the good of others around you, giving you stronger faith in preparation for larger salvation gifts.
When David first wrote Psalm 13, he knew his opponents were happy to see David hurt. But, at some unknown day in the future, David’s “heart shall rejoice in [God’s] salvation” (13:5). Even though the vindication might not be the way he imagined God would save him, David trusts God’s plan for rescue from his despair is the best. This turns the Psalm from desperate, hopeless cries to grateful praise. Before he says his “Amen,” God has changed David as he knows the answer is in God’s steadfast love and goodness.
That is where all our prayers find their strength – trusting in God’s promises that He is good and merciful. Prayers are not strong because we get them prayed tons of times, pestering God until He listens. Jesus in today’s Gospel does teach us to pray often – but not because that will make God pay more attention. Prayer is not the same as calling God on the phone and letting it ring and ring and ring until He gets annoyed and answers. Instead, continuing in prayer is an expression of our continuing trust in God. Despite any and all appearances of God being deaf to us and caring little for us, continuing prayer shows we know the Lord’s mercy – that He will do good for us though we do not deserve it.
The same faith David had in God’s gracious promises is the same faith that God gives to each of us in our Baptism. That’s why we rejoice like David did in God’s salvation. Because “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32), the Lord has come into this world as the Son of David. Jesus Christ never once lost heart, but perfectly feared God and respected man all the way to the Cross. Before His death, He prayed that God would forgive sinners and remove the cup of suffering from Christ. And it turned out that it was God’s will to remove that cup and give His innocent Son justice – though the answer to Christ’s prayer came after a delay of three days done for your good. But then suddenly, in a twinkling of an eye things changed as the darkness of Christ’s tomb was scattered by the light of Easter Day. Justice was done as the Christ who was murdered is alive again. All the sorrows, losses, angers and frustrations this world threw at Jesus – God the Father saved His Son from them all. And, in the end you will sing to the LORD, for He will do the same for you. Amen.