18th Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Genesis 32. 22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3.14 – 4.5; Luke 18. 1-8 (view all)
At six years old, our daughter Evie has incredibly advanced negotiation skills. Including that most frustrating, but often effective skill — the ability to nag.
When she wants something, she will quite happily nag away. Sometimes she will just repeat the same request over and over. Sometimes she will let you think that you’re off the hook and then, when you least expect it, bring the subject right back round to her original request. She will quite happily keep going for what seems like hours until, more often than not, I give in, or, unfortunately, lose my rag entirely with her.
No parent enjoys being nagged, and yet this is precisely what Jesus seems to tell us to do with our Heavenly Father in today’s gospel parable. And no child enjoys being patient, and yet patience in prayer is another key theme of today’s readings.
So what does it mean to be persistent in prayer? Does God even answer our prayers? And, when we are in desperate straits, facing impossible circumstances, how can we draw on our faith to sustain us?
In some ways, this morning’s gospel makes things seem very simple. If you want something, then pray until you get it. And if, like the widow, you aren’t getting a response, then just keep nagging until you get what you want.
In many ways, this reflects the mindset of our world today. Our brains have been formed by our ‘Amazon Prime’ culture to expect instant gratification, so we end up treating God in the same way. Often people I speak to have left their faith because it doesn’t provide them with the instant gratification that receive from other, more worldly, pursuits. Or more justifiably, because they have suffered incredibly difficult circumstances, and feel God has failed to protect them or their loved ones.
And yet real life just isn’t like our parable. Jesus makes clear that God is not the unjust judge. Instead, the true life of faith, is much more nuanced. We can relate much more instead to the experience of Jacob.
Jacob, at wit’s end, wrestles with God all night. ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me’, he says. This is the kind of gritty spiritual struggle which feels much more true to the struggles we face in our lives.
We wrestle with questions and doubts, struggling to discern the right path forward when one simply doesn’t seem visible. Just like Jacob, we walk away wounded, hurting, in need of healing. But in our wrestling, in our brokenness, God is present with us.
Ultimately Jacob’s story is one of redemption. In fact it is a microcosm of the much larger story of Israel’s redemption, and of the world’s redemption through Christ. God could have abandoned Jacob. He’d made his fair share of mistakes and probably deserved whatever he was going to get.
Yet instead, God remains with him, wrestles with him, blesses him with a new name, Israel, to replace his previous tainted one. And in the morning, the two brothers are reconciled and make peace.
This is the God who, in the words of the Psalm, watches over us without sleeping. The God who is not always able to give us what we want, but will ultimately give us all we need, and more than we could ever deserve. The one who is the ‘keeper of our souls’.
So how can we find the resources we need to keep us going when we, and those dear to us, are stuck like Jacob in seemingly impossible circumstances? Perhaps the most practical advice lies in the mentor Paul’s words to his young protege Timothy.
We can draw on the tradition of our faith, the great story of redemption, to take heart, to aid our discernment and to challenge our mistaken assumptions. When we immerse ourselves in God’s story, and truly inhabit his words of salvation, then we can stand firm in our identity as God’s children, even when all around us is shaken. And, trusting that our God is good, unlike the judge in our parable, we can persevere in prayer for ourselves, for the Church and for those we love.
In this time of growing anxiety around declining numbers, there could not be a more apt bible verse for the Church in Wales than this from Paul to Timothy: ‘Be persistent […] whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.’
In many ways, I have enjoyed an incredibly fortunate life so far, with so much support from family and friends, and very little to complain about. In fact, in my role as a Priest, I often feel a sense of guilt as I listen to the stories of others, who are often facing incredible difficulty and suffering incredible hurt.
There is one area of personal struggle Amy and myself have faced, though, which I will share, but with some trepidation, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
As we approach the imminent birth of our second child, I’m sure some of you will have noticed the gap between Evie’s birth and now, which is six years. Part of the reason for that gap is that in the intervening years, it simply wasn’t happening. Because of this, we had reached the point of giving up on a second child altogether. So it was a huge surprise to us when we found out the Amy was pregnant, and one of the reasons why, all being well, this new child feels like such an incredible gift to us.
But while the world is full of plenty of nice stories about unlikely ‘miracles’ like this, I’m very aware that the story for many doesn’t couples doesn’t have a happy ending. And that isn’t through a lack of trying, or of praying.
However, we do believe in a God who longs to provide for his children. A God who gives old tricksters like Jacob a new name, and a second chance. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who teaches his disciples to pray always and to never lose heart.
So, as we come to the Lord’s table — the table of redemption — this morning, may we receive wholeness and healing for past hurts and old scars, and receive the strengthening power of the Holy Spirit to keep us going through all that life throws at us. Amen.