The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 18th chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.” (ELW 614, verse 1)
That’s the first verse of the hymn, “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Jesus tells his disciples the parable of the unrighteous judge so that they will not lose heart or become discouraged. We can all understand how easy it is to get discouraged.
Luke is writing perhaps 10-20 years after the first Jewish revolt against Rome has failed and both Jerusalem and the Temple have been destroyed. His first readers would have had lots of reasons to be discouraged. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple were the primary symbols of their religion and of their country and now they were both gone. Things looked pretty hopeless.
For Jesus and the disciples, the Roman Empire was always lurking in the background. The authorities in the Temple and the people were divided about how to deal with living in an occupied country. Some thought that God would send a messiah who would over throw their occupiers.
Others thought the best course of action was to stay in the background, keep quiet, and not cause any trouble. They were trying to keep their religion and politics separate, but unfortunately, that meant cooperating with the Romans. And their cooperation is what eventually got Jesus killed.
We can definitely understand the discouragement that Luke’s readers must have felt. We have plenty of things to be discouraged about, too.
Our country is arguably more divided than at any time since the civil war. Some of you are concerned that I will say too much about that. Others of you are concerned that I won’t say enough. You know which side you are on. All of you hope that these divisions will stay far away from church.
You want this to be a safe space, a place of refuge, a place where you can get away from the turmoil that blasts through your television and radio, and shows up on your Facebook feed.
You aren’t just feeling discouraged about this country. You can get discouraged about this congregation. Things just aren’t the way you want to remember them. You long for the days when there were 2 services and the Sunday school classes were full. You long for the days when no one was concerned about the budget.
It seems like only yesterday, but it wasn’t. Things have been happening gradually over the last 20-30 years while we were all busy with our lives. The kids grew up and moved away. Sometimes the grandchildren prioritize sports over their acolyte duties.
It isn’t just us Lutherans. Church attendance has been declining all over the country and all over the world. It didn’t used to be socially acceptable to say you had no religious affiliation. Now, it’s the norm. Now, people consider themselves active in church if they are here once a month. Then you don’t see your friends because they are here a different Sunday this month and you worry they have quit the church.
Members of every denomination are wringing their hands over the situation. Research is being done and books are being written. When the decline first started 30 or 40 years ago, people thought the answer was praise bands and big screens in worship. Some churches grew for a while, but those mega churches are now closing all over the place.
Or, you remember something that was happening that you liked 40 years ago and decide that something, whatever it was, it needs to come back and everything will be all right. It’s easy to be discouraged and easy to forget that the true reason we come to worship is to encounter God in word and song, in bread and wine.
“Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.”
Just like us, the readers of Luke’s gospel had plenty of reasons to be discouraged. Yet, the gospel of Luke is a very hopeful book. What’s going on here? What is Jesus trying to tell us in this story about an unjust judge who didn’t fear God or respect people?
It’s easy to see the analogies with the lack of justice in our time. You can just close your eyes and point to anything on the page in the newspaper to see examples of injustice. It’s easy to find examples of people in authority who don’t fear God or respect people.
But Jesus says, “pray always and don’t lose heart.” Don’t be discouraged. Jesus tells you that the opposite of discouragement is persistence in prayer and courage. Jesus is encouraging the disciples to be like that widow.
Widows were particularly vulnerable in the ancient near east. They didn’t have a husband to provide for them financially and they didn’t have the opportunity to get a job and earn their own living.
Jesus tells the disciples that God is the opposite of the unjust judge. That’s good news for us today. You might think that what God wants is for us to just pray harder and work harder and be more courageous so that we can persuade God to do what we need. But that’s not the point at all.
God is the opposite of the unjust judge. That judge only gives the widow what she wants to make her go away. Jesus isn’t saying go away, he’s telling us that we can always be connected to God. Jesus says that God is always open to listening to us. Even when we don’t have the words, the Holy Spirit prays for us. Prayer itself is a gift, not a job we have to do to connect with God. Prayer is a gift.
The opposite of losing heart is prayer and courage. Courage is doing what you know is right even when you are afraid. Courage is a gift from God, too. We can have courage because Jesus goes with us wherever we go. We can take heart.
We cannot go anywhere that Jesus has not gone. You may feel like you are going through hell, but Jesus has already been there ahead of you and he emptied the place. You may feel like the country is going the wrong direction. You may worry that the church is shrinking. Jesus knows your concerns and he will never leave you.
We can go to those places where we see injustice in the world and be persistent in our pleas for justice. Jesus goes with us. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us. We can pray for our country and our world. We can pray for our church and thank Jesus for meeting us here in Word and Sacrament.
Jesus tells you to take heart. Jesus says, I am with you whenever two or more of you are in prayer. Jesus says, I will take you by the hand and I will lead you through all the places you need to go in this life. When you need courage, I will give you mine.
“Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.” Amen.