Jesus told them a parable to this effect. They ought always to pray and not lose heart. Persist don’t give up. Continue to wrestle with the situation and with God. That is the message of both scriptural passages today.
It’s unusual for the gospel writer to give the meaning of the parable at the outset but perhaps he felt that his readers needed a little help in coming to an understanding of Jesus’ message. Perhaps in our irreligious age we ought to step back and ask a more fundamental question> namely what is prayer. How should we understand it?
In the end prayer is about waiting on God-giving him our full attention. The orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God-that is prayer. God we believe is infinitely loving and cares for each one of us so we need to pay attention to him and put ourselves in his way.
The French philosopher and writer Simone Weil who was also a High School teacher believed that the study of mathematics or difficult foreign languages like Greek developed the power of attention in students. Consequently such studies were not only helpful to students in their academic and intellectual development but also in their prayer life. This seems odd at first but I’m sure she was on to something. These days’ people find it hard to pay attention to anything for any length of time and they crave instant amusement and complain constantly that they are bored. Perhaps you are bored with me now.
If prayer is to be understood as giving our attention to God we might also consider what prayer is not.
Prayer is not magic or the casting of spells. It’s not about uttering words or phrases to ensure particular outcomes at critical moments. Of course familiar words or phrases uttered at critical moments of crisis can be a comfort to us and have their value but at best they are only a key or a pin number to open up the heart so that it gives its full attention to God.
A famous story told by a French religious figure-obviously it’s their day today-concerns the famous priest known to history as the Cure d’Ars. Walking through his church one day he saw a man kneeling in silence before figure of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Time passed and he became used to seeing the man kneeling day after day before the cross. So he asked him about how he was and what he was doing. He replied; I looks at him and he looks at me and we are happy together. That’s as good an account of prayer as you will find.
Prayer then is giving attention to God. Getting in God’s way and letting God get in our way.
That’s my first point perhaps the key point. The second thing to say is that prayer has a number of aspects:-
Praise: We need always to be praising God for who he is and what he is doing.
Confession: Giving attention to God also means attending to our sins and shortcomings which prevent us from making a full engagement with him.
Thanksgiving-we should always be giving thanks to God for his love and care and his ongoing engagement with us.
Intercession-in which we ask for things. But what things?
You will note, I hope, that when I come here I try and make space in the order of worship for each of these elements. The choice of hymns should also follow this pattern.
All these elements of prayer are needed if we are to have a serious engagement with God who loves us. If some elements are missing we are just left wish wishing and hoping which leaves us feeling disappointed when our wishes don’t come to pass. Always we need to get real-real about ourselves and real about God.
Coming to Church Sunday by Sunday we follow this pattern and this provides us with a template for our own private devotions.
What then thirdly is the use of praying?-to quote the title of a famous book by a Methodist author.
Prayer is good for us because it is the gateway to a holier life and a holy life is a happy life. Holiness and happiness are linked. Prayer is a means to happiness. That’s useful!
Prayer changes things. Not that prayer changes God rather it changes us. Because it changes us it opens up new spaces for God to act in the world – a world so often gripped in a kind of unholy necessity. Prayer changes the world because it changes what is possible for God and for God’s people who act in his name.
When people say, especially in committees: oh but we must be realistic I feel as perhaps you do too the grip of a kind of iron law of necessity. Realistic – well yes- but whose realism are we talking about-our reality or God’s reality. God leads us in prayer to enlarge our ideas about what is realistic in his name.
That’s very useful.
Faced with injustice in the world and with suffering and anguish close to home we must not give up. The cynicism that disguises itself as realism is too easy. Today my diary tells me that it is Freedom Sunday and next week is One World Week. It would be easy to feel cynical and detached in the face of increasing discrimination violence and oppression among the peoples of the world. What can we do? We can call upon God and place ourselves at his disposal. Above all we must persist in prayer as the gospel tells us to do. Be assured says Jesus God will vindicate us speedily.
The key theme in both our Bible readings this morning is struggle. Persistence in prayer as Jesus commends it in his parable and Jacob wrestling with the mysterious “man”. Who is this man? Could it be God? Charles Wesley seemed to think so.
Art thou the man who died for me
The secret of they love unfold
Wrestling I will not let thee go
Till I thy name and nature know.
The struggle you see. To know God and to know his purpose for us through prayer.
But in this struggle we have two great allies:
The Bible in which we learn who God is and how he acts and the Church Christ’s body here on earth present with us in his people and in the signs he gives us most notably the Holy Communion which we are about to celebrate with him, for him and for the world.
You know we did a good thing coming here today. Congratulations to us all for coming together to know God, to seek his will and to enjoy him forever.
Be assured he will vindicate us speedily.
Thank you so much for this. I, too, led worship on the 16th and used both the struggle in Genesis and the Gospel but referred, in passing, to Israel’s persistence in Psalm 121 and Paul encouraging Timothy to persist but your sermon has added for me particularly, ‘I look at Him and He looks at me”. Reminds me of the description of prayer as sunbathing—–we have to do nothing but to be in the love and warmth of God’s presence whether he seems to answer our deepest longings or not. He is there, listening and carrying us.