…”In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ ”
Those who have visited Israel (and probably most of those who haven’t) will have heard of the “Wailing Wall”, which is part of the ancient city of Old Jerusalem, and located at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount. This section of wall is the only surviving remnant of the ancient Temple – not the original Temple of Solomon (destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.) but of the second temple, and more specifically a part of the extensions made to that temple by Herod the Great in 19 B.C., which makes the wall still thousands of years old.
And Jews by their thousands come and pray at this wall each day, and as they pray they shokel, which is the technical term for the way they sway as they pray (some suggest in accordance with the words of Jeremiah whose bones shook under the influence of the word of the Lord [23:9]).
And curious western journalists often interview those who pray by the wall, and according the account of one journalist, he found a man who had been coming to the Wailing Wall to pray for thirty-three years, every day without fail!
And the journalist was amazed. Could it be true that this man had come to the wall to pray every single day for thirty-three years? “Yes”, the man assured him, “every day for thirty-three years”
“What do you pray for?” the journalist asked. “Oh, I pray for lots of things”. he said. “I pray for my people. I pray for my family. I pray for my daughter – that she won’t marry that rotten tailor. I pray for the Palestinians. I pray for lots of things.”
“And have you seen many of those prayers answered?”, the journalist asked.”No”, the man said (after some hesitation).”No. In fact, I don’t think a single one of my prayers has been answered! Thirty-three years and not a single prayer answered. I tell you, sometimes you feel like you’re praying to a brick wall!”
Let me tell you another story: “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 wear me down by her continual coming.'” (Luke 18:2-5)
The second story doesn’t get as many laughs, does it? Maybe that because we know that it was Jesus who first told it, and we’re not used to laughing at things that Jesus says. It’s sort of like when the Headmaster walks into the room – laughter is not the immediate, knee-jerk response. And yet both stories could be classified as jokes. The real question is, “which joke rings more true to our experience?”
I don’t know how many great pray-ers there are amongst us. My guess is that for most of us, as with most people on the planet, the amount of prayer we put out tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of happiness we are experiencing. We pray best when things are at their worst, and indeed, many of us prefer to leave off praying until we have reached a state of genuine emergency!
I heard of a ship captain once, praying as his vessel was going down, “God, I know we haven’t spoken in fifteen years, and I promise that if you’ll help me out of this fix I won’t bother you for another fifteen!”
Of course, a part of the problem with praying only when things have reached crisis point is that we do need to have our prayers answered now, and yet our experience in this situation so often is that our prayers do seem to hit a wall!
Yet this is where the story of the man at the wailing wall and the story of the tenacious widow are at one in reflecting our experience. For Indeed, so often nothing seems to happen immediately!
Perhaps this is a large part of our problem, for we live in an age of instant gratification. We live in the era of slot-machines, where you put your coin in one end, push a button or turn a handle, and whatever-it-is-you-wanted pops out the other end! I think we come to expect that all of life should be like that – put in your coin, turn the handle, and out pop the goods. And so we expect prayer to work like that too – you send up your prayer, turn the handle, and… “where is my pack of crisps?”
And we know what to do when you’ve been waiting for more than ten seconds and nothing has appeared in the out-going bin of the vending-machine. We start swearing at the machine and kicking it!
Perhaps we could construct a third story – a modern-day parable of prayer – around this image of the vending machine. There was a certain man who put his coin in the slot, turned the handle and waited for something to come out. And he waited, and waited, and then he started cursing and kicking the machine, but he still didn’t give up. He just kept on cursing and kicking until eventually something came out (and then he got arrested).
That doesn’t sound like a particularly pious parable, does it, but in truth it isn’t that far from the story Jesus told, where the judge who is supposed to listen to the pleas of the poor widow is a completely godless character who is brazen enough to be entirely frank about what he is doing when he eventually delivers justice, saying “Even Though I fear neither God nor men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I’ll give her justice because I’m sick of her, lest she wear me out!”
It’s a rather unnerving depiction of God, isn’t it, just as the tenacious widow is a rather odd depiction of a person at prayer. Even so, my guess is that the cutting edge of this parable is not to be found so much in either of the characters, but more so in the nature of the relationship that exists between them, which is one that is developed over time.
Let me say it again. We live in a slot-machine age – an age of instant gratification – and yet we know full well that meaningful relationships do not work like that!
We know we can’t build a real friendship like that. Building a genuine friendship with someone takes time. We need to put in the hours of sharing and communicating and so slowly building up trust.
We know we can’t make a marriage work that way – putting two amorously-inclined persons in one end, turn the matrimonial handle, and out pops a happy family! No! Building relationships of trust takes time.
Maybe it’s part of the problem of being Protestant (for those of us who consider themselves Protestant) – that we place great emphasis on what has been done for us by Christ, such that all is completed. It is finished, there is nothing more to be done, we are saved, sanctified, have passed from death to life, etc., and so there is no need now to do anything. We can move on!
It’s as if, having gone through the wedding and enjoyed the honeymoon, we can now take off for a while, come back after a few years, knock on the door, and expect to resume married life where we left off. It doesn’t work that way!
Significant relationships take time, and a genuine relationship with God grows out of a lifetime of prayer.
I know some people don’t like Anglican worship because they find the prayer book too repetitive. “Didn’t we say that same prayer last week?” they ask, and the answer is, “Yep, and the week before that. Did you have your prayer answered last week? Well, let’s try again this week, and if that doesn’t work, believe it or not our plan is to say the same prayer next week!”
And I know that there is validity in the criticism that it can all just become a meaningless routine, built on mindless repetition, and yet the truth is that all our most significant long-term relationships are built on routine and repetition!
Year after year, long after I had left home and started a family of my own, I would have dinner with my dad and my brothers once every week on the same day every week. And I would sit in the same chair at the same table, and we would share roughly the same meal, week after week, and over time we would find ourselves re-telling the same stories, and laughing at the same old jokes! And, yes, it was routine and repetitious and even ritualistic, but this did not make it mindless or boring at any point! On the contrary, this was the fabric from which our family identity was woven, and this is the reason why those relationships are so indestructible!
And each of us here, I suspect, has their own similar stories that we could share. We might change the characters and we can change the content – even substitute in a tenacious old woman and a corrupt judge – and yet the truth will remain the same – that real relationships take time, and are built on repetition, disciplined routine, ritual, and continuous, ongoing communication.
Yes, it has all been done for us! Yes, there is nothing we need to do to bring about our own salvation. Yes indeed – all that is required is that we relax back in faith and gratitude for all that has been accomplished. Even so, developing a relationship with God takes time. It means continually re-focusing, listening, and persistently placing ourselves in a position where God is able to communicate with us. It means giving God time, and praying without ceasing!
And when we do that, can we expect to see our prayers answered? My personal answer to that question is ‘absolutely’!
I don’t like to talk about myself too much in my own sermons but I can tell you with absolute honesty that, over the years, I have seen almost every one of my long-term prayers answered!
I’ve prayed for little things and I’ve prayed for impossible things. I’ve prayed for things in my personal life – for family and friends. And I’ve prayed for this church – that we might survive and grow and become a true force for healing in this community – and over the years I’ve seen almost every significant prayer I can think of answered!
Of course I’ve still got plenty of prayers that haven’t been answered yet. I’ve been praying for twenty years now that all the young people we work with during the week will turn up one day and join us for Sunday worship, and I still expect that prayer to be answered at some point in some form or another.
I spend a lot of time nowadays praying too for peace in the Middle East – most especially for the freedom and the welfare of the Palestinian people. Those prayers don’t appear to be even remotely close to being answered at this point in time, but I’m not going to stop praying!
The old-time preacher Spurgeon believed that praying was like pulling on a rope that attached to some distant bell in a tower so high that it was right alongside God’s ear. Well, if that’s the case then we don’t want to just give the occasional tug on the rope but rather hang off the thing so that the bell rings continuously!
Bishop Barclay said that “when we pray coincidences happen, and when we stop praying they stop happening”. That’s certainly been my experience, and I suspect that it is the experience of most of us here. Does that mean we have nothing to say to the disillusioned cynic who feels abandoned by God, and who feels that they’ve spent all their life praying to a brick wall? Have we got anything to say to such persons? Absolutely! We say, “Don’t give up! Hang in there and keep praying for just a little bit longer”
“For 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” (Luke 18:7-8) – not quite as speedily as we might like perhaps, but in the wisdom of God, speedily enough!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 2010.