Big Idea: The key to surviving our current mess is to pray to God, who is eager to hear from us and to set things right.
In one of my workouts this week, I did an exercise called the Dumbbell Flye EQI. You lie down on a bench, hold a pair of barbells, and then lower them to your side and then hold it for a minute. I set the timer on my phone, and started the exercise. It was fine for a while, and then my arms began to shake, and it seemed like the minute was lasting forever. I eventually gave up and looked at my watch, only to discover that the alarm had already gone off, but the phone was on silent. No wonder it felt like more than a minute. It was. This happened for all four sets, which makes you think that maybe my brain needs even more of a workout than my body.
Sometimes it feels like life is like that. Take a difficult situation — an illness, a crisis, a grief, a trauma. And then hold that position indefinitely. Every time that you think that relief is in sight, it’s not. It goes on, and on, and on. The pain is unbearable, and relief is nowhere in sight. And you thought you were done? Repeat another set. We’re just getting started.
Does that feel a little like your life? I see all kinds of problems around me — family, job, money, mental health, grief. Some of the problems seem like they would be too much even for an moment. And yet these problems seem to go on for years. How can we survive the pain when there seems to be no relief in sight?
That’s exactly the issue that Jesus confronts in the story that we’ve just been reading, and the video that we just watched. The question is: How can we survive the difficulties of life with our faith intact? Like the widow, how can we keep going when things get really hard? This story gives us three insights that help us answer this question.
First, it helps you understand where you are.
When we went on vacation with family, my brother-in-law programmed this GPS with the wrong address. At the end of his trip, the GPS took him down a small, paved road. Then the road turned into an unpaved road. Finally, the road became an even smaller, rougher road, and the GPS said, “You’ve arrived at your destination.” We had picked a gorgeous vacation rental home. My brother-in-law looked around and saw fields. It was far less than he had hoped for. He sat there trying to figure things out, until he realized that he’d entered the wrong address, and they were over two hours away.
During the two hour drive to where they were supposed to be, I can imagine the kids in the car saying, “You said there’d be a pool!” “Where’s the nice house you promised?” “This vacation sucks!” My brother-in-law could have replied, “We’re not there yet! Of course it’s not fun yet. Wait until we arrive.”
In a way, that’s what Jesus is doing in this story. To understand this, we need to see what he was talking about right before he hold the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. In Luke 17, the religious leaders were asking him when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom is what we experience when God is in charge. It’s what it’s like when God runs the show. When Jesus asks when this kingdom would start, Jesus replies, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). Jesus is saying that when he came to this world, God’s kingdom came to the world too. In Jesus, God has already begun to set things right again. It’s why Jesus went around healing people and forgiving sins. Jesus has already begun to set things right, and it’s amazing.
But have you taken a look around lately? It’s not so amazing. People are still getting sick. Relationships are still breaking part. Crime is still taking place. Injustice still seems to get the upper hand. God still seems distant much of the time. Our prayers still seem to go unanswered, and faith still sometimes seems more like a fairy tale than reality.
Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, isn’t it true that you have questions of God? Isn’t it true that you sometimes struggle with doubts, and that you even have big questions about why God is allowing some things to happen? Why is that? If Jesus said that the kingdom of God is among us, why does it seem like things are such a mess?
That’s the question Jesus is answering with this story. He’s dealing with the seeming contradiction between the fact that the kingdom of God is already a reality, and that things are still such a mess. At the end of Luke 17, he compares our time to the time of Noah. I don’t know if you remember the story of Noah building the ark in the Hebrew Scriptures or not. God told Noah to build an ark, saying that he was going to set things right in the world again. Noah did, but he had to wait a long time for God to set things right. When I say a long time, I’m talking about decades going by. Decades, and then more decades. I have a hard time lining up at Metro sometimes; I’m really not used to waiting for decades. In the meantime, life went on as it always did. People woke up and went to work. They cooked meals and they cleaned up. People were born, and people died. I’m sure that Noah was sometimes confused and impatient during this waiting period — and so are we.
That’s why we can relate to this widow so well. This widow is in a tough spot. She’s a victim of injustice, and there’s no relief in sight. In the video we just watched, the widow says, “I’m tired. I am so tired. It’s hard work. I don’t know if I can do it. I just don’t know.” Can you relate? It’s why Luke introduces the parable by telling us the problem that the parable is meant to address: that we will be tempted to lose heart, to get discouraged. I used to think that Luke was speaking about the discouragement that we experience in our prayer lives, but not anymore. I think Luke — and Jesus — are talking about the discouragement that we face in everyday life, when things get hard, and when there’s no relief in sight. The danger is so real that Jesus finishes this parable wondering if he will find faith on the earth when he comes back. Life is so tough that it can it can knock it right out of you.
Before we look at how the parable addresses this problem, I want to make sure that in giving us this story, Jesus is helping us understand where we are. He’s helping us understand why we feel so frustrated with life sometimes, and why we’re sometimes tempted to give up. Some of you are in the middle of this right now. Life is a mess, and you may feel like you’re barely hanging on.
If that’s you, you need to understand that Jesus anticipated this. Jesus knew it would be hard in this in-between period. He knew we’d be tempted to give up, and that we’d feel like the widow in this story. It’s because the kingdom of God is here, but it’s not completely here yet, and we’re stuck waiting in this mess.
How do we keep going when it’s so hard, and when we’re tempted to give up? The first insight from this story is that it’s supposed to be hard right now. Don’t be surprised. It’s supposed to be feel like this.
But there’s more. There’s another insight that Jesus gives us that will help us.
Second, it helps you understand what God is like.
What did you think of the judge in the video? You probably had a hard time liking him. Right from the start, he’s yelling out the window at the widow. Then you see him ignoring her for days, yelling at his staff, and generally acting like an idiot. There’s even a hint in the movie that a “donation” to the court house will move things a lot faster. He’s shady, to say the least.
The judge in the video, of course, is based on the judge in Jesus’ story. Jesus describes him as being a judge who doesn’t fear God, or respect man. He doesn’t care about God’s laws, and he has absolutely no compassion for people. The guy is a corrupt jerk. He’s unloving, evil, ungracious, merciless, and unjust. The widow has no chance of getting justice from him. She’s in trouble, and she knows it.
In the end, though, the widow wears him down. He decides to give her justice after all, not because he cares about justice, but because he wants her off his back.
At the end of the video, you’re left wondering if the point of the parable is that God is like this judge, and that we have to wear him down. It doesn’t help that we have a built-in tendency to doubt God’s goodness. The heart of our rebellion against God is that we aren’t really sure he’s good, and we’re not really sure we can trust him. Paul Tripp says:
In moments of suffering, it’s tempting to allow yourself to doubt the goodness of God. You'll reason with yourself that somehow, someway, this moment of suffering is evidence that God is less than who He has depicted Himself to be.
Suffering will tempt you to doubt God's goodness and kindness. Suffering will tempt you to doubt His faithfulness and love. Even though you may never speak this aloud, your theology will bring God into the court of your judgment and accuse Him of being unloving and unfaithful to His promises.
Here's why doubt is such a deadly trap: as soon as you begin to question the character of God, you'll quit running to Him for help because you don’t go for help to someone whom you no longer trust.
The point of Jesus’ parable is not that we should think of God like this judge. That’s actually the very opposite of the point of this story. The point of this story is that we should understand that God is nothing like the unjust judge. In verse 7, Jesus says, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” (Luke 18:7)
Jesus is saying that when you become God’s child:
- You don’t ever have to wonder whether God cares about you and your predicament. He knows, and he cares.
- You don’t have to wonder about whether God hears you or not. God does hear you. He’s eager to hear from you. He loves to hear from you.
- You don’t ever have to wonder what God thinks of you. “You are the center of your heavenly Father’s affection” (Paul Miller). He cares for you. He is for you.
- You don’t ever have to wonder if God will give you justice and do right. You may need to be patient, but you can be confident that God hears you, and that God cares for you.
I want you to hear this today: God is for you. God isn’t like the unjust judge at all. It’s true that sometimes you can get justice even from an unjust judge. How much more will a loving, gracious God hear us and answer us with lovingkindness? Take heart. God is for you. His judgments towards you are based on his goodness and his love for you. So come to him, believing that he’s for you, and believing that he cares.
This is why Luke says the point of the parable is that we should pray. If we really believe that God cares about our struggles and our mess, and that he’s good and eager to hear from us, then we’ll come to him messy, honest, and struggling. He loves it when we come to him like this. One of my favorite books on prayer, A Praying Life, says this:
The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.
What does it feel like to be weary? You have trouble concentrating. The problems of the day are like claws in your brain. You feel pummeled by life.
What does heavy-laden feel like? Same thing. You have so many problems you don’t even know where to start. You can’t do life on your own anymore. Jesus wants you to come to him that way! Your weariness drives you to him.
Don’t try to get the prayer right; just tell God where you are and what’s on your mind. That’s what little children do. They come as they are, runny noses and all. Like the disciples, they just say what is on their minds.
…In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the nonpersonal, nonreal praying that you’ve been taught.
When you get honest about how messy life is, and clear about how much God cares, it will revolutionize your prayer life. It may be the only thing that keeps you going when things get really tough.
So far we’ve seen that this story gives us insight into our times, and into God’s character. There’s one more insight that will help us.
Finally, it reminds you of who you are.
Jesus told this story in the context of an ancient, patriarchal society. Back then, women needed to be joined to a man in order to be protected. Widows were one of the most overlooked and potentially oppressed groups around. There was no easy way for them to provide for themselves. The widow in this story is very vulnerable.
We sometimes feel like the widow. It sometimes feels like the whole world is against us, and we’re barely hanging on. But through this parable, Jesus reminds us that we are nothing like the widow.
- The widow was helpless, with no one to defend her. Those in the kingdom of God have a helper. God himself has promised to defend us.
- The widow has no husband. She is alone. Those in the kingdom of God are married to God himself. He loves us. His heart is for us. We will never be alone.
- The widow faces insurmountable odds. She isn’t sure that the judge will give her justice. Those of us in the kingdom of God never have to wonder if God will give us justice. We know that God will do right in the end.
We tend to forget who we are. We are not helpless. God knows us, and we are his.
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?” (Luke 18:7-8)
I began this sermon talking about the stupid Dumbbell Flye EQI exercise. Eventually I did give up and look at my phone to see how much time had gone by.
The problem with our lives is that they’re hard, and we’ll be tempted to give up, but we can’t check the timing. We don’t know how long. We’re stuck in the in-between, and Jesus tells us it will be hard.
But then he reminds us: God cares. God is deeply invested in us. He wants us to pray and let him know what we’re going through. Even though it seems that he’s distant or absent, he isn’t. He’s good, he’s gracious, he’s loving, and he cares. The key to surviving our current mess is to pray to God, who is eager to hear from us and to set things right.
I don’t know where you are in your relationship with God. I do want to assure you tonight that he cares. He cares so much that he gave his Son to bring us back into relationship with him so that we could be his children, and so that we could have access to him. Come to him tonight. Enter into that relationship, and come to the one who cares so much about you.