Sermon: "Don't Quit"
|Sermon Text: Luke 18:1-8|
The Scripture today is taken from Luke Chapter 18:1-8 and it can be found on page 742 of the pew bible if you would like to follow along. I am reading from the New International Version. Listen to the gospel of our Lord:
"Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: 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!' And the Lord said, 'Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice to his chosen ones, who cry out day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?'"
Let us pray. Dear Lord, we ask that your word would come to do what it is told it would do like rain accomplishing the purpose for which it is sent. We pray Lord that you would open our hearts and minds to understand and that you would help each of us to hear your word to us through Christ's word. We ask it in his name. Amen.
I had some misgivings about the title of this sermon, especially because it appears on the sign board out front. I imagine a fellow or woman driving to work, and this morning as they got up they were saying, 'I am not going to smoke anymore.' And they keep going for the cigarette pack and all of a sudden they see this sign that says ,"Don't quit" and it would be my fault if that were to happen! What I mean to say is "don't quit trying." Don't quit believing. Don't quit hoping. Don't quit praying because God IS. Because sooner or later life gets you down. Sooner or later if you think of it one way, life is like a boxing match. It's gonna knock you down. Life can also be an endless treadmill. It can be a grind and it can seem very hard to get off of that treadmill. Sometimes we can't get off and sometimes we won't get off. We are afraid to change. We have gotten into a rut. We have gotten into a routine. When somewhere out of left field some hay maker comes and knocks us flat on our back. I remember when Mike Tyson first got out of prison, his first opponent was Peter McNeeley. Peter McNeeley was an also-ran kind of boxer. In the beginning of these boxing matches and all of the promotion up to it, the boxers stare each other in the face. They are looking at each other and they are eyeballing each other and McNeeley thinks, "I am going to show this guy what for and I am going to take care of him." Well, at 1:44 in the first round Peter McNeeley was picking himself up off the canvas and the fight was over. That's the way life is sometimes. It might not be like Mike Tyson's left, but it has a lot of similarities. You don't know what hit you. You can't believe how much it hurts. And you don't know if you are ever going to be able to get up again.
That's why Jesus tells a story to all who might be rubbing their jaw today, to all who might be finding it very difficult to figure out whether they want to keep going. The woman in today's gospel in Jesus' parable apparently had taken one on the chin. We don't know what her problem was. We are not given the details. But that's because it is unimportant what her exact problem was. What is important is to answer this question: When we run into this kind of a situation, when we run into a hay maker as it were, what will we then do. This parable teaches us the answer, through the example of a person that could have stayed down, could have thrown in the towel, could have given up, but chose not to. Here is the answer according to this text: That "persistent prayer knocks out despair." Persistent prayer knocks out despair. Persistent prayer may not solve the particular problem that you have, but it will knock out the despair surrounding it and many times it will solve the particular problem that you have. Do you believe this? I mean really, it starts out and it says, "Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up." Do you believe that first verse? "Should always pray." Do you believe prayer works or do you believe pray is some sort of psychological thing that God tells us to do to make us feel better?
In one small town, a tavern opened up right next to the church. And the folks said, "Let's have an all night-prayer meeting." And they prayed. And they prayed, "Lord, burn down the tavern." Well, that night lightning came and struck the roof of the tavern and it burned down. The tavern owner sued the church. And the church denied responsibility! They came before the judge. And the judge said, "Well, regardless of what the facts are here, one thing is patently clear, the tavern owner believes in prayer and the church doesn't." And so I ask you, do you believe in what Jesus is saying about the simple thing of prayer? Paul said to the Corinthians, "We may be afflicted in every way, but not crushed. We may be perplexed, but not driven to despair. We may be persecuted, but we are not forsaken. We may be struck down, but we are not destroyed." You see, Jesus knew that life can knock us down. You know, I think that's why in some ways this odd verse at the end of this text appears: "However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" The reason I think that verse is in there at the end of this parable is because in chapter 17 in verse 20, the Bible says this, "Once having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, 'The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation like here it is, there it is, the kingdom of God is among you.' And he went on to talk about the coming of the kingdom of God. And so this parable has got to be fit in that context and at the end of this parable he says, "When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" I wonder if in the humanity of Jesus, he wondered, "Is what I am doing really going to pay off?" I mean perhaps even Jesus had to tell himself what he was preaching, to keep praying, because life is hard. And there are some things that look like they will never get solved. Jesus knew life would knock us down and so he teaches the parable of persistent prayer versus not losing heart. The word to not lose heart in the New International says "not give up". It means to grow weary, to become despairing, to grow fearful. It is used in other New Testament literature to describe childbirth. Now I can't relate to that personally, but I can tell you I have seen it and I have been really tired after 6-12 hours of labor. Ellen is not here. I said that and she is going to be at the 11:00 service, but don't tell her I said that okay. But that is what this text is saying about not growing weary. It is almost like that same dismal sense -- is this ever going to end? Jesus said, "pray; don't give up."
And he selected a woman who powerfully illustrates that if anyone would have had the right to give up, it would have been her. Consider three potential knockout punches that might have caused her to quit but didn't. First, she was a widow. It says that there was a widow in that town. Now, the hearers might have been confused when they heard Jesus talk about this because a widow by Jewish law had unbelievable rights. In fact, the Scripture teaches in 2nd Chronicles that if a person is going to be a judge in Israel, they had better fear God before everything else and look to the needs of the weakest members of society. That's what widows were. She was one of the weakest, most vulnerable members of society. There was no social security. There was no welfare. She was alone. She was a widow. She had no means of financial support. But Jesus doesn't start the parable with the widow. He starts it by saying, "In a certain city, there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about people." Then he says there was a widow who came to the judge. And the people who hear this verse say, "Oh boy, she does have a problem. Not only is she one of the most vulnerable members of society, not only does she have an adversary (we don't know what that was about), but she has now come to a legitimate means of help, yet to a person who is not willing to help her." She could have quit, but she didn't. She kept coming, Jesus says. And she said, "See to it that I get justice from my legal opponent." She refused to be victimized by her status or by her problem. What's your problem this morning? An oppressing, unrelenting boss or job? A relationship that is stuck? A physical problem that just will not go away? Whatever it is, please note that the widow did not say, "Why?". She just kept coming at it. She was not controlled by her problem.
One of my favorite all-time Guidepost stories (perhaps you have heard it), which first appeared in 1978, tells about a plain old shoemaker's awl. This awl is on display in the French Academy of Science, and the reason it is on display in the French Academy of Science is because it was that awl that once fell off a shoemaker's table into the eye of his 9-year-old son and put out the sight in that eye. Soon thereafter, the son lost sight in the second eye and he was sent to a school for the blind, and at the school for the blind, he learned to read by handling large carved wooden blocks. When the shoemaker's son grew up, he thought there has got to be a better way, and so Louis Braille created a way of helping those who could not see to read by creating the Braille system. The fascinating part of the story is that he used the same awl that put out his eye to punch the dots.
There will be in each of our lives a problem that knocks us down. The choices are when it strikes, some will say, "Why did God do this?" and others will say, "How will God use this?" The woman in the parable said how will God use this? I don't know, but I am going to keep going. I am going to keep trying. I don't care how many odds are stacked against me, I am going to persist in my quest.
The second potential knockout punch was already mentioned. She had a helper who wouldn't help. Her source of help was a scoundrel, a renegade judge. You know the basis of justice for Israel? Judges were constantly told, "Remember that you are a nation that was forged out of injustice." You were a what? You were a slave. Now, judges, when an oppressed person comes before you, you remember that. That is the whole basis of our existence. But this judge cared little about what God said and cared little about what people thought. Ever had to deal with this kind of help before? You ever call up and they say, "I am sorry, the warranty expired."? Or you call on a Friday and they say, "I am sorry, you will have to call again Monday," and you have a can't-wait-till-Monday problem? How about people in our own homes? We expect certain basic aid and we don't get it. One mother with several children had put up with their dog Danny for 2 years. (I know something about this. Our little Yorkie terrier is about 6 months old. She is doing better, but I can relate to this woman.) She had reached the end of her rope. She announced to the children that she was going to get rid of Danny. They looked at her and they said "okay". She was really surprised because she thought she was going to have a fight on her hands. The next day she grabbed Danny and she put him under her arm and she starts to take him to the pound and the kids look at her and they say, "Mom, what are you doing?" She said, "I told you yesterday, I am going to take Danny to the pound. I am fed up." They said, "What? I can't believe it," and they started screaming. She said, "Why didn't you say something yesterday?" And they said, "We thought you said 'Daddy'." Some family members don't help. Not the Dads here of course. Not your family or my family. But we expect help from certain quarters and we don't get it. And that's enough to give up. I recently read, too, about a new product on the market. It's called the "Boss Tear Apart Stress Doll". Only $19.95. The ad for the doll reads like this, "Because its appendages are attached by Velcro, you can rip the head, arms and legs right off this beady-eyed captain of industry." This widow would not have bought one of those dolls. She kept coming to the judge so much that he described her actions as bothersome, as wearing him out. Literally, the Scripture means "blackening the eye." I kind of get the image that this Hebrew woman is coming to the judge and waving her arms and saying, "Help me" and waving her arms so much that maybe she was going to slap him. And the irony of the story is this man does not fear God. This man does not fear people. But he fears the weakest member of the culture because she kept coming -- persistent, persevering, coming.
The third thing that could have kept her from fulfilling her goal or could have caused her to quit was time. Look in verse 4. It says for some time, he refused. I like the NIV because it is different from some translations that just say for a while. Actually what it means is for a long time he refused. And there is nothing that will make us quit quicker than thinking about the fact that the thing that we have to deal with is going to take a long time to work itself out. But this woman believed that time was on her side. And in the Scriptures, listen how it emphasizes this three times: 1) "There was a widow in that town who kept coming; she refused to stop over the long period of time, 2) even though it was a long time, 3) the judge said, this woman bothers me (indicates that she kept at it) and I will vindicate her because of her continual coming."
This woman was a lot like our children when they want something. You know the routine. "Mommy, Daddy, please. Can't you? My friends. If I don't, what will it make me look like? I won't be cool. What will my friends think. Aahhhhhh!" And they keep at it and at it. It's like a balloon when you take the little end of the balloon and it makes that piercing sound. They know every weak moment. They know when to get what they want. When you pick up the phone, they are there. It is futile to resist. That's the intensity that Jesus was talking about. Because when he talked about prayer in this text, he wasn't just talking about throwing up a prayer. It was an imploring crying out, almost shouting. And he says this kind of persistent prayer will knock out despair because you never know, even though it takes a long period of time, what God is doing in the hearts of those who you never imagined he could work in. This unrighteous judge did not give her what she wanted. Her persistent appeal over time, her status, his refusal, the length of time, could have been a three-strikes-and-you-are-out, but it was not. But Jesus taught this all to drive home a point. If this judge will give what is necessary to this woman, how much more will a righteous God who cares so deeply about his special chosen ones answer quickly. Will not keep putting off his children who cry to him day and night. I tell you the truth. They will get justice quickly. Don't give up. Because there is One who is on our side who is so persistent, so persistent in overcoming our main problem, our struggle with ourselves.
You know, Jesus experienced temptation to despair, but he didn't give up. You know, all along here maybe you can identify with the woman as I have been preaching. I wonder, is anybody identifying with the judge? Is anybody identifying at least in part with that part of us that has stopped fearing God and has stopped caring about people? Jesus came persistently in the face of adversity and even to the point of saying, "Boy, I wonder when I come back to earth will I find if it really worked?" He knelt in a garden, he wept, he cried, he died with a prayer on his lips. Even death could not knock him out. And on the count of three days, he arose and sent his Spirit into the hearts of anyone who would just let themselves be loved. Maybe that's the word of the Lord Jesus. Your fear of God has grown cold. Your care for others, it needs warmth.
One day a woman came to see a plastic surgeon. She told the doctor that her husband had been injured while attempting to save his parents from their home. He was not successful and he was seriously burned all over his face. He had given up on life. He had gone into hiding. He would not even let his wife see him. The woman came to the plastic surgeon and she told the story. And she told the surgeon that he believed that God had punished him because he was not successful in saving his parents. And she made a shocking request. She said, "I want you to disfigure my face so that I can be like him. If I can share his pain, then maybe he will let me back into his life because I love him so much. I want him to hear me and if that's what it takes, then that's what I will do." The plastic surgeon couldn't believe it and, of course, didn't comply with her request but did get permission to go and talk to the husband. And on the other side of a door, he said to the husband, "I am a plastic surgeon and I want you to know that I can restore your face." There was no response. Again, he shouted louder and he said, "Please come out, I can restore your face." No answer. Still speaking through the door, the doctor then told the husband what the wife had told him: "She wants me to disfigure her face so that you will talk to her." There was a brief moment of silence. The door knob turned and the husband came out and began a new life. That is an illustration that speaks about the fact that Jesus was disfigured to tell us that we are loved and that he cares and that he wants us to come and meet him, even at this table today. He says to us pray always, trust God. Don't give up.
Let us pray. "Lord, we ask that you would help us to see again your greatness and your mercy. The extent to which you suffered. The extent to which you were victorious so that we might have life. So that we might know your great love. So that we might start a new life. Help us Lord not to quit. I pray for each person in this room who wants to throw in the towel. I ask that you would come to them now. Even as we commune, revive their souls and help them to know that you are greater than any struggle. For we pray it in the matchless name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
© 2000, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145