Praying in God's Faithfulness (Luke 18:1-8)

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost + October 16, 2016
Text: Luke 18:1-8
There’s a lot of material out there about prayer.  And most of it is misguided.   In much of what we hear about prayer, we’re led to believe that if we get down on our knees enough, or with just the right heart, or we catch God on a good day, we can change the world.  But instead of getting lost in the woods when it comes to prayer, let’s hear what our Lord Himself has to teach us.
He tells us this parable today because it is necessary[1] for us “always to pray and not lose heart.”  Right off the bat, it’s important to realize what Jesus is saying about prayer: It is not something you can take or leave.  It is an integral part of being a disciple, and if you willfully choose not to pray, you’ll have to answer to God why you despised His command.
Yet unlike other things God commands, like not stealing or committing adultery, prayer is not an action that can be forced out of us.  Prayer can only come from faith.  And faith is what this parable is about, or rather how to not lose faith when our eyes are met with many evil things (see what immediately precedes this parable in Luke 17:22-37).
So what is it that makes prayer falter for us?  Why do we lose heart?  There are a couple reasons for that.  First is our weak faith.  We might have too human an idea of prayer, that like country songs, prayer is nothing more than “talkin’ to the man upstairs.”  While that’s a simple picture to understand, we’re liable to think God is like a man[2] and subject to the shortcomings of men.  If that’s true, there might be times God simply isn’t listening, or that He’s too busy to be bothered with our lowly problems.
The second thing that discourages us in prayer is what we expect God to do in answer.  The widow in the parable was seeking justice against her adversary.  She had a specific request and it was answered in kind.  Jesus says, 8 I tell you, he will give justice to [His elect] speedily.”  Often we expect an exact answer for what we pray for—for this disease to be healed, this trouble to end, or this injustice or immoral course to change about the world.  Then, when we don’t get the way we think is best, God has somehow failed us.[3]
So, we shuffle prayer down to the bottom of our list of things to be done each day.  I can get by without it, or I’ll just pray while I’m doing other stuff.  It’s not that important, since God will do whatever He wants anyways.  But the only thing that gets hurt is our faith in God.  By having the wrong expectations of prayer, our view of God and His power and willingness to help is diminished.
Because our God is neither cryptic, nor corrupt, He gently rebukes us as His children and teaches us what prayer really is.  Listen to how Jesus begins to teach us how to pray: “Our Father…”  With those words, He throws out any notion of God being like the unrighteous judge, or a powerful-but-fallible man in charge of the world.   He is our Father in heaven, and we are His children on earth.  Though we are apart for the time being, nothing in all creation shall separate us from His fatherly love.[4]  As a good Father, He wants nothing but the wellbeing of His children.
But what about those unanswered prayers we’ve raised to Him?  Why haven’t we seen results?   The problem isn’t that He’s ignoring His children.  It’s that we need to learn what He actually promises and have eyes to look for that.  In the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we learn what to pray for and what we can rest assured God will do.

  • We pray that His Name be kept holy—the Name we were baptized into—and that we lead holy lives before Him. God will help Christians to be Christ-like in their Baptism—dying with Christ to sin and rising to walk in newness of life with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • We pray that Kingdom will come among us and to those who don’t yet know Him. This happens when His Word goes out and His Holy Spirit creates and strengthens faith in the ears of those who ear. When it comes to those outside the Church, there’s no need for us to bend over backwards to engineer church growth; our part is to pray to the Lord of the Harvest and trust that His Word will cause the growth.[5]
  • We pray that His Will is done over against the will of man or of the devil. That means it’s quite fitting to pray against the apostasy we witness in the church and world, and ask that God exert His authority for our common welfare.  It doesn’t mean the apostasy will go away completely, but that God will defend His elect who cry to Him.
  • We pray for daily bread, but this is often confused by what our selfish appetites desire. Here, God promises that He will support our life in this body as long as He grants it.  This also means that no matter what trials we endure, “He knows our frame and remembers that we are dust.”[6] He will uphold us no matter how severe things are or long it lasts.  God doesn’t promise perfect health, flawless finances, or that things will be easy.  Yet until we are brought to our heavenly home, God will certainly support us.
  • When we pray for forgiveness it’s especially important to be sure that we truly are forgiven by God. That’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection was all about.  Yet God didn’t just give Him for our sins, but the sins of the whole world.[7]  Because that’s true, we can follow our Savior’s example (“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”[8]) and pray for and trust in God’s forgiveness for our enemies.
  • When we pray not to be led into temptation, we ask for two things. One is that God would keep us from becoming indifferent toward sin and its seriousness, even if something is now socially acceptable.  The other is that we pray for victory over the devil who deceives us.  “With might of ours naught can be done,” but our Savior will fight against the Evil Foe for us,[9] because He has already won the final victory.
  • The final petition, “Deliver us from evil,” reminds us that everything we’ve so far seen is but a passing shadow. Our faith is founded on the blessed assurance of immortality.  If God were not able to give full justice to His elect, He would be an impotent Savior.  But the Day of the Lord is coming when His children will see their victory over every adversary—sin, devil, and even death itself.  So we pray for an end to life as it is today and for God to usher in eternity, which He surely will do.

The Lord commands us always to pray and not to lose heart, and the question He asks is crucial: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  God gives His children the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that is how the Lord will find faith.  Our life as God’s children is no human undertaking.  God the Holy Spirit gave us faith in our Savior and new birth in Baptism, and He also preserves us in this faith despite those things which war against us.
When it comes to prayer, it is truly God’s work.  We approach Him not as strangers barging in, but as beloved children.  We ask Him not for outrageous signs to prove to us He exists, but for what He has promised to give.  Then, resting upon His Word, we wait on Him to answer us in the wisdom of His timing.  Amen.
[1] The Greek word dei marks divine necessity, along the lines of “it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things” (Lk. 9:22).  That is to say, prayer is not a matter of indifference to God.
[2] Numbers 23:19
[3] See James 4:1-3
[4] Romans 8:39
[5] Matthew 9:37-38, Isaiah 55:10-11
[6] Psalm 103:14
[7] 1 John 2:2
[8] Luke 23:34
[9] “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (LSB 657)