Today’s scripture, the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8, is about more than the need to be persistent in prayer. It’s also about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ—and how we can be ready for it.
Sermon Text: Luke 18:1-8
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In our Wesleyan tradition, on New Year’s Eve in fact, is something called a “Watch Night” service. Methodist churches rarely have them anymore, but the idea is that, instead of ringing in the new year, you spend the night in prayer—literally “keeping watch.” And what are you watching for? The Second Coming of Jesus Christ. As Jesus says in many places, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour”—of his return.
God’s Word tells us repeatedly—through Jesus in the gospels and in Revelation, through Paul in 1 Thessalonians, and through Peter in 2 Peter—that the Second Coming will occur like a “thief in the night.” This image implies two important truths—and I confess that, for most of my life, when I contemplated the image of a “thief in the night,” I only considered one aspect of the image: that Jesus’ return will be unexpected. Jesus said, “But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”
The Second Coming will be unexpected—at least for the vast majority of people living in the world. Many of us have security systems in our homes, not for the sake of people breaking in during broad daylight but in the middle of the night, when we’re asleep. So the alarms can go off and we can be alerted to the danger. So, when I’ve considered the “thief in the night” image in the past, I’ve always considered the “in the night” part more than the “thief” part. But… let’s turn our attention to the “thief” part: How will Jesus, in his Second Coming, be like a thief. Have you ever thought about that? I mean, that’s kind of a negative image for Jesus, isn’t it? How will Jesus be like a thief?
He’ll be like a thief for those people who find their treasure in anything other than God and his kingdom and his glory; for anyone who treasures earthly things above heavenly things; or temporal things above eternal things. Why? Because everything that isn’t of God, everything that isn’t of his kingdom, everything that isn’t for his glory in the end will be “destroyed by fire,” Peter says. It is passing away. It is being consumed by moths and rust, Jesus says.
Who are those people, then, for whom Jesus’ Second Coming won’t be like a thief? Those people Jesus describes in two short parables in Matthew 13:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
If we are like those two people—whose ultimate treasure is found in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ—nothing else in the world can touch us. What can anyone in the world or anything in the world do to us if our treasure is in Christ?
Last week, it came out that many actresses who will attend the Golden Globes are going to be wearing black dresses in protest of gender inequality in Hollywood—which has allowed Hollywood producers like Harvey Weinstein and actors like Dustin Hoffman to get away with sexual assault or harassment against women for decades. One of these victims of sexual assault is actress Rose McGowan. She called out one prominent Academy Award-winning actress who is promoting the protest campaign for her hypocrisy. She tweeted:
“Actresses [like this one] who happily worked for The Pig Monster [meaning Weinstein], are wearing black @GoldenGlobes in a silent protest. YOUR SILENCE is THE problem. You’ll accept a fake award breathlessly & affect no real change. I despise your hypocrisy.
That’s harsh. I’m not arguing that McGowan is being completely fair, I am sympathetic with her point: She is pointing out that plenty of powerful people in Hollywood—men and women—knew what was going on, with Weinstein and many others. And they remained silent. It’s not like we just discovered last week that Hollywood producers were using their power to take advantage of young actresses who want to be movie stars! No one was protesting back then!
And why were so many otherwise good and decent people remaining silent? Because their careers were benefitting from this unjust and evil system. They were winning Oscars and Golden Globes. They were making lots of money. They were enjoying unprecedented fame. What would I do? What would you do? Would we rock the boat? Would we go along to get along? Would we bite the hand that feeds us?
Our Lord, by contrast, is calling on us to find our food, to find our sustenance, to find everything that we need to survive in him and him alone. And if we do, we will not find our treasure in money, success, career, popularity, relationships, possessions, or anything else. In which case, Christ’s return will not be like a thief to us; we will welcome him as our greatest treasure—the One for whom we’ve been living our lives and to whom we’ve devoted our lives.
And maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all well and good, Brent, but it sounds like today’s parable is about prayer, and you haven’t gotten around to that yet. What does this discussion have to do with today’s scripture?” And my answer is, everything!
It has everything to do with today’s scripture. Why do I say that? Because after Jesus tells a parable, as verse 1 says, “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart,” Jesus concludes with his strange words in verse 8: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Huh? Why is he talking, all of a sudden, about the Second Coming? Because this is the context in which he tells his disciples today’s parable about the persistent widow! This parable has something to do with the Second Coming. We know this for sure because we look back at what Jesus has just been talking about at the end of Luke chapter 17. Notice verse 1 of chapter 18 begins with the word “and.” That means, what follows is directly connected to what precedes it.
And in chapter 17, Jesus warns his disciples about the Second Coming and describes what it will be like. And he uses two Old Testament stories to make his point. Jesus said,
Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.
Now, do I need to point out that the sins that led God to send the flood and the sins that led God to destroy Sodom were truly awful? Before the flood, we’re told, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” And you can read about the sins of Sodom in Genesis 19. I’m not minimizing the sinfulness that brought God’s judgment. But Jesus says that the challenge we face as followers of Christ is far more subtle than abject sinfulness. Notice here in Luke 17 that Jesus doesn’t refer to the people’s sinful activities. Instead he refers to eating and drinking, buying and selling, marrying and being given in marriage, planting, building… All of these activities, in and of themselves are good and God-ordained! Marriage is good, working hard to earn a living is good, planting and harvesting is good, building is good.
Yet Jesus is warning us that there’s a danger with these otherwise normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill, good things. And the danger is that they can distract us from the very reason we exist. 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Do it all for God’s glory.
Are we doing everything for God’s glory? Is God at the center of our lives? Are we seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness? Is our life’s ambition to please God, to love him, to serve him? Or are we like that seed in the Parable of the Sower that falls among the thorns: “the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.” And Jesus interprets the parable by saying that the seed sown among the thorns describes people “who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
Have we let the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things distract us from God? As one pastor put it, the biggest danger facing us Christians is not sin per se; the biggest danger is to be desensitized to the eternal by the ever-present temporal.
Have we become “desensitized to the eternal by the ever-present temporal”?
If so, this is the kind attitude, Jesus says, that will destroy us… eternally—either when Jesus returns, or when we die, whichever comes first. Either way, it’s game over. Because when we die, guess what? That is the end of the world for us—if we’re not ready to face the Lord! Will we be ready?
Do you hear the warning? Do you feel uncomfortable?
The disciples to whom Jesus is speaking in today’s scripture did hear the warning, and they did feel uncomfortable, and they wanted to know, “How can we be ready, Lord, for your Second Coming?” Which, again, is the same as asking, “How can we be ready to die and face God in final judgment?”
And so Jesus told them this parable to answer the question, “How can we be ready?”
Widows in the first century were often in very vulnerable positions. After their husbands died, they were often completely at the mercy of their husbands’ family. If their in-laws didn’t take them in, if they didn’t take care of them financially, these widows were in trouble. So it’s possible that the widow in the parable is in a dispute with her in-laws. Regardless, she’s being mistreated by somebody and she demands that justice be done. And this judge has the power to make that happen. The only problem is, he couldn’t care less about justice; he couldn’t care less about this woman; and he couldn’t care less about God. He has no fear of God, Jesus says. He’s not worried about what happens when he dies and faces God in final judgment.
But… this woman is persistent. Finally, in verses 4 and 5, the judge says, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” And the punchline of the parable is in verse 6: “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?”
This is a tricky parable because if we’re not careful, we’ll think that Jesus is saying that God is like the unjust judge; in fact, he’s saying the opposite. God is most assuredly not like the unjust judge—he’s the opposite of the unjust judge. He loves us perfectly and completely; he cares about our welfare infinitely more than anyone else; he absolutely wants to help us. After all, we are not some stranger knocking at his door—bothering him with our prayers; interrupting him with our prayers. We are his “elect,” as Jesus says in verse 7. That means we are chosen by God before the foundation of the world. Chosen to be adopted as his sons and daughters. So of course he wants to help us when we pray!
Elsewhere Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
The point is, if even the unjust judge gives this widow what she needs, how much more will our perfectly loving and gracious heavenly Father, who knows us better than we know ourselves, give us what we need when we pray!
But God is like the judge in the parable in one sense: He does have the power to give us what we’re asking for! Do we believe that he has that power? Here’s the truth: This widow would not have received anything from the judge if she hadn’t asked. In the same way, there are things, the Bible says, that God will not do for us, that God will not give us, if we don’t ask. What does James say? “You do not have, because you do not ask.” That’s true for our church, too, by the way. What blessings might God be waiting to pour out on this church if only God’s people at Hampton United Methodist would get on their knees and ask for them! Maybe one thing that holds us back from praying like we should is this belief that God isn’t really going to do anything in response to our prayers. The example of the persistent widow tells us otherwise!
But it begins with the belief that praying really makes a difference in our lives and in the world! If we don’t believe that, then no wonder prayer gets pushed to the back burner; no wonder prayer can’t compete with the demands of work and family and entertainment and sports—we make time for things if they’re important enough to us. [Gary’s answered prayer… Is it possible that if he hadn’t prayed, or if I hadn’t prayed, or if others hadn’t prayed, Gary would be stuck driving back to Nebraska tomorrow? The answer is “yes.”]
This is one of those few parables in which we’re given the interpretation up front, in verse 1: “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” So if we want to be ready for the Second Coming, what do we need to do? We need to “pray always and not lose heart.”
Now fast forward to verse 8: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth.”
Will he find faith on earth? But notice he’s just been talking about prayer. He may as well ask, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find his people praying. Because from Jesus’ perspective saving faith and a life that’s characterized by constant prayer—prayer that “cries to God day and night,” as verse 6 says—go hand in hand. Jesus is warning us that we may not have saving faith if we don’t also pray like this—if our life isn’t committed to prayer, if our life isn’t characterized by this kind of prayer, if prayer isn’t at the very center of our lives. It’s not that praying like this, or doing anything else, saves us—we’re saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone. But this kind of prayer is a sign that we are saved—that we are among God elect. Without this kind of prayer, it’s a sign that we’re in grave spiritual danger!
And how could it not be in danger? God’s Word tells us in verse 1 to pray always and not lose heart. Elsewhere we’re told to “pray without ceasing,” to “continue steadfastly in prayer,” “to be constant in prayer,” “to pray at all times in the Spirit.” If we are unwilling to pray like this, we are doing nothing less than disobeying our Lord! Because he tells us in his Word repeatedly that this is what we should do. This is a command from God!
How can we persist in a state of rebellion against Christ and yet continue to be Christian? Do you see how serious this is? “I love you, Jesus, I trust you, Jesus, I believe you, Jesus, I follow you, Jesus… except I’m unwilling to pray the way you tell me I need to pray.” That’s incompatible with being a Christian.
In this season of New Year’s resolutions, in which many of us resolve to get in shape physically, will we be at least as concerned about getting in shape spiritually?
Brothers and sisters, it begins with prayer!
1. Matthew 25:13 NIV
2. Matthew 24:43; Revelation 3:3
3. 1 Thessalonians 5:2
4. 2 Peter 3:10
6. Daniel Kreps, “Meryl Streep Responds to Rose McGowan’s Golden Globes ‘Hypocrisy’ Tweet,” 18 December 2017, rollingstone.com. Accessed 30 December 2017.
7. Genesis 6:5 ESV
8. Mark 4:7
9. Mark 4:18-19 ESV
10. John Piper said this in a sermon.
11. Luke 12:32
12. 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Colossians 4:2; Romans 12:12; Ephesians 6:18