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A Pep Talk for the Kingdom / Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:1-8

7And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? 8I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily.

Legendary football coach Knute Rockne was a master motivator. At halftime of one game, the Fighting Irish were playing poorly. The team walked miserably into the locker room where they braced themselves for the inevitable. They knew Rockne would tear into them. They sat and sat, but Rockne never showed. Finally, as the team began to head toward the door for the beginning of the second half, Rockne came walking in. He looked around and started to walk back out again. Then with a look of disgust on his face, he said simply, Oh, sorry, I was looking for the Notre Dame football team. That was all he said. That’s all he needed to say. Notre Dame won the game.

Can you remember the last time you needed a pep talk? Maybe it was right before a big exam, or a competition, or a job interview. Or maybe it was simply a Wednesday morning, and you needed Herculean strength just to get out of bed. We all need the occasional pep talk to re-focus our lives.

Jesus often had to give pep talks or motivational speeches to His disciples. And it became especially important as He got closer to the time of His death. Jesus knew that His disciples didn’t understand His mission, not yet anyway. They didn’t understand that He wasn’t building an army to overthrow the oppressive Roman government and set Himself up as Israel’s king. Instead, He was willingly heading towards a humiliating and agonizing death to save all humanity from their sins and reconcile us to God. And He needed to know that His disciples were ready to face the challenges ahead.

So, our scripture lesson begins with Jesus telling His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. The point of this parable is to remind the disciples, and us, that we should always pray and not give up.

But pray about what? I think that’s the real point of today’s lesson. This is one of those stories that doesn’t make any sense if you don’t understand what came before it. In fact, it’s easy to take this story out of context.

It reminds me of a story I read about a father who took his young son, Will, to see a re-enactment of a Civil War battle. He didn’t realize that Will was sensitive to loud noises, and the booming cannons and rifles terrified him. During a break in the action, Will’s dad calmed him down and assured him that the weapons were all fake. And it looked like everything would be okay. Until one of the generals raised his sword and shouted, Fire at will! At that point, Will was ready to go home.

Lots of things sound scary when they’re taken out of context. And if we don’t understand the context of a story from the Bible then we might misunderstand what Christ is telling us to do. So, I want us to look at the passage that came just before this story in Luke 17: 20-37. In these verses, the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming. The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, was Jesus’ favorite topic. He talked about this concept more than any other concept in the Gospels.

The kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the kings and emperors of this world weren’t. It’s a world where there’s justice and peace.

Jesus lived and died to transform this world, to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. Thy kingdom come, He prayed, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. If we’re followers of Jesus, then the establishment of God’s kingdom should be at the center of our life.

So, Jesus told a somewhat amusing parable about a strong-minded widow who approached a judge with a request that he help her with a complaint against an antagonist of hers. Jesus described the judge like this: he “neither feared God nor cared what people thought.” The judge was evidently strong-minded, too.

I think that the judge in this story represents a world that doesn’t fear God or care about humans. And the widow represents all those who are victims of injustice, poverty, inequality and violence.

Widows in Jesus’ day were practically powerless. If they had no male relatives to look after them and defend them in the courts, they’d be in trouble. Without male relatives on their side, they could easily fall into poverty and desperation. The fact that this widow stood before the judge all alone to make her case tells you that she was determined in her pursuit of justice. She believed that God was on the side of justice, and she had faith in her cause. The message we get from this parable: it takes courage to advance God’s kingdom. Or in other words, it takes courage not to be discouraged.

This is Jesus’ challenge to His disciples. Have the courage not to be discouraged. But there’s a second thing He wanted us to see: persistent prayer is a powerful instrument for advancing the kingdom. Jesus continues the parable: For some time (the judge) refused. But finally, he said to himself, even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me! I told you this woman was strong-minded. And I said this parable was a little amusing. Think of this judge who by his own admission neither fears God nor cares what people think, but says, because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me.

And the Lord said, Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you; He will see that they get justice, and quickly. Sooner or later justice is coming to those who trust in God.

Praying and trusting in God’s promises is a tremendous act of faith. It can seem sometimes as if we’re praying into a void. That’s why Jesus knew how tempted we would be to just give up. As God’s co-laborers in the healing of our broken world, we need to trust that God is always faithful to God’s promises. Always. Faith isn’t proven true by answered prayer but by unanswered prayer that doesn’t make us waver or give up on God.

Never give up praying for God’s will to be done. And never underestimate the power of persistent prayer. If our courage is fueled by God’s promises and our prayer is filled with God’s purposes, then our actions will reflect God’s mission and mercy in the world. We’ll become active participants in the restoration of God’s kingdom on this earth.

The conflict in the Ukraine this past year might remind some of us of an event that occurred in 1945. In that year Communists took over the government of Romania and began isolating Romania from the Western world and democratic ideas. They severely limited the activities of churches and instituted an economic system that eventually led to shortages of food, fuel . . . medicines, and other basic necessities.”

By the 1980s, Romania was ruled by a ruthless dictator, and the citizens’ standard of living had decreased dramatically. It was into this environment that a pastor began his ministry to a small Hungarian congregation in Romania. At great personal risk, he preached against the injustices of the Communist government and its oppression of its citizens. In spite of threats of violence and intimidation by the police, he prayed and preached for peace and justice.

One day, the local police came to evict the pastor from his home. A crowd of his supporters surrounded the house to protect him and his family. The crowd soon grew from hundreds to thousands of people, then tens of thousands. They prayed and sang hymns and stood in solidarity against the Romanian police and army forces who were called in to disperse them.

Eventually, the crowd grew to 200,000 resolute citizens who marched to the town square in protest of the Communist government. The army troops began firing on the crowds, killing hundreds, but it didn’t stop their protests. Then, another pastor in the crowd called out, “Let us pray!” and as his words were passed through the crowd, those hundreds of thousands of marchers knelt in the town square and prayed together The Lord’s Prayer.

Their faith and courage that day inspired more Romanian citizens to join the protests against the government, and within days the protest marches reached Romania’s capital city, Bucharest. Not long after the protest reached Bucharest, the Romanian army joined the protesters and drove the dictator out of the capital city. This moment, which was inspired in part by the preaching and prayers of one courageous pastor, was the first step towards the fall of Communism in Romania.

Prayer is powerful. We’re not praying into a void, no matter how unjust and corrupt this world may seem at times. We’re called to be co-laborers with God in establishing the kingdom of God on earth. It’ll require the courage to never give up, the commitment to pray for God’s purposes, and the calling to act as Jesus would to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. May God find us faithful in the work of the kingdom until the day Jesus returns to fulfill the promise.