Do Not Lose Heart

Sermon on the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18)

When Luke begins to recount how Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow, he explicitly says why Jesus told it: “that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

People of Jesus’ day were so longing for God to manifest his power and overcome the corrupt political and societal systems of that day. They wanted God to bring about the fulfillment of all his promises, and for him to somehow intervene in people’s hearts to cause them to want to do good and live righteously. They longed for the day when God would wipe away sin.

In our day, sometimes we get so used to the way things are, so disillusioned with the way things are, that we just accept things too casually. We see so much injustice and perversion and corruption that we become desensitized to it. We lose our deep longing for God’s righteousness and to see authenticity in God’s people. We come to a place where we start to just expect people to be dishonest, to be corrupt. Cynically, we stop expecting anyone to do the right thing. Our hearts get hard, and we stop feeling. Or our hearts despair, and we stop hoping. In either case, we lose heart and stop believing anything can ever change.

Jesus tells this parable in order to counteract the tendency to lose heart. He set up a situation with an unjust judge – he clearly tells us that the judge “neither feared God nor respected man” (18:2). And then he tells us about a widow, who had to be her own advocate – she had no one else to stand up on her behalf. The only One she had on her side was God, and the text explicitly tell us that the judge didn’t care about God. Seems like a hopeless situation.

And yet with her persistence, she finally wears him down. The judge eventually decides to give her justice simply because he was tired of hearing from her. “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming” (18:5). The original Greek that is translated “beat me down” in this sentence literally means “give me a black eye.” The picture of this is great – the judge feels like he is being beat up by this little widow simply because of her tenacious persistence!

So then Jesus tells us to now think about God the Father, the perfectly righteous Judge that we have. Our Judge cares about the widow, cares about the poor, cares about justice. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, he records when Jesus says how tenderly and with such detail God cares for his people:

“Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!… Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Luke 12:22-24, 27-31

Yet how often do we give up asking, give up seeking? Do not be someone “of little faith” who gives up believing that God will work. Just keep praying, just keep seeking, just keep asking!

Often one problem in our challenges is that we put way too much faith in the things of this world. Money will let us down. Other people will disappoint us. Our circumstances may not ever change the way we want them to. The Apostle Paul explicitly states what we should be fixing our eyes on in order to not get discouraged:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Stop putting your hope in other people! Stop putting your hope in your circumstances! Put your hope ONLY in Jesus Christ, and continue to pray.

Is there something in your life that you’re discouraged about right now? Finances? Health? Relationships? The kind of faith the Lord is looking for is the kind of faith that says, “I’m going to take all of these problems to only one place – the throne of heaven. I’m going to knock. I’m going to seek. I’m going to ask. And I’m not going to give up. Because I know my good, good God will never stop loving me.”

The Man at the Gate

Sermon from Luke 16:14-31

At first glance, one’s interpretation of this Gospel passage might be to say that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. That’s not what this is saying! Instead, it is a direct follow-up to last week’s Gospel message, which ended with, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). It’s upside-down when you take the possessions that were meant to serve you and you serve them instead.

Then the following Gospel passage says that the money-loving Pharisees ridiculed Jesus for this stance, so he doubled down with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus to reaffirm his position.

Jesus presents the circumstance of a wealthy man, clothed in fine clothing and eating fine food. Sitting outside this man’s gate is a poor man called Lazarus, who is starving and covered in sores. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus tells us the name of the poor man, but the rich man goes unnamed?

This is not the only time that Jesus teaches that at the end there will be a great reversal – those who are last shall be first, and the first shall be last (Matthew 20:16). This parable is another example of that principle.

So Lazarus dies and is carried to the heavenly realms by angels, and the rich man dies and goes down to torment. Notice it’s the poor man who God helped, not because he was poor but because he was humble. The rich man wasn’t condemned because he was rich, but because he was selfish.

Notice that the rich man gives himself away when he is in torment. First, he decides to try to boss around Father Abraham, proving that a person’s selfishness doesn’t go away once they see the torment they will receive in the afterlife. But secondly, he calls Lazarus by name, asking for his help, proving that in life, he KNEW who Lazarus was, the beggar who had been sitting outside his gate for years, and he had declined to help him then.

But Abraham, having none of it, declared what is true. The rich man had received his good things in life, and now Lazarus, who had received bad things in life, was receiving his reward thereafter. Also, just like the rich man had put a gate up outside his house to keep out the dirty beggar Lazarus, now there is a fixed chasm between Lazarus and the rich man, so that even if Lazarus had wanted to help him, he wouldn’t be able to.

The rich man tries a different tack, asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers who are still living about the torment that would come. But once again, Abraham states the plain truth, saying that even Lazarus rising from the dead wouldn’t convince the man’s brothers if they are unwilling to believe based on the truth of the Law and Prophets, which they already know.

Through this parable, Jesus is challenging his listeners to be intentional about our material blessings. Our world is upside-down, and the natural inclination is to worship our possessions. Jesus says that path will only end in destruction. If you have been given earthly material blessings by God, do not settle into the false thinking that you deserve those things, and they are meant to serve YOU. They are meant for you to use to serve GOD. He is the one worthy of worship, not us, and not our possessions.

Look around and see who God has placed around you, maybe someone in need right outside your gate. Can you use your own earthly possessions to make an eternal difference in their life? Don’t let your heart get greedy, conceited, or wrapped up in using money as your identity.

I cannot say it any better than the Apostle Paul did in his letter to Timothy:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs… As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19 (ESVUK)

Kingdom Shrewdness

You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Album: Slow Train Coming, 1979

Bob Dylan got it right in this case. We are made to serve, made to worship, made to be possessed. The problem comes when we take our possessions, the things made to serve us, and we worship them instead. That’s backwards. We are the Lord’s possession, and the things we own are made to help us serve him. We must intentionally make an effort to serve only the Lord, and not give ourselves to other things.

The parable Jesus teaches in Luke 16 about how we use our possessions is one of the most complex and difficult ones to interpret. It sounds at first like he is commending dishonesty and corruption, but actually he’s doing something more clever than that.

In this parable, there is a dishonest manager who knows he is about to get fired, and so he does some underhanded deals with his employer’s business partners in order to ingratiate himself with them and ensure that he will be able to do business with them again in the future. Verse 8 says that the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.

If we try to interpret this parable according to other parables about stewardship, where God is the master and we are the stewards, we’re going to be running down the wrong track. That is not the case here. In this case, the master is just as corrupt as the steward. They are both delighting to earn unjust wealth for personal gain. The master doesn’t commend his steward for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness.

What is shrewdness? It’s a practical wisdom, that can judge a circumstance wisely and turn it to your own advantage.

The key to understanding what Jesus meant by this parable is found in verse 8-9:

For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

Luke 16:8-9

He wants us to take a look about how the corrupt people of this world can use relationships in the world to secure their own futures. Worldly people are really good at this, but often God’s people are not shrewd enough in their dealings in this world. We need to be shrewd about using relationships and resources in this world, not for personal gain, but to bring about an eternal future and the success of the Kingdom of God in this world.

Jesus is not telling us to be dishonest, but he does want us to be wise. Wealth, politics, and business are in many ways corrupt, unrighteous, and tainted by sin, yet we all have to use it in this world. We have no choice. So be shrewd about using it in an intentional way for the sake of eternity.

Use your possessions, your wealth, your relationships, your talents to build up the Kingdom of God. Don’t keep the rest of your life separate from your faith life. How can you shrewdly use ALL that God has entrusted to you to put it in the service of God and his Kingdom?

Understanding Grace

If you think about it, you would expect that Jesus would be intimidating to be around – I mean, he was perfect! But we see the opposite in Scripture. Sinners found themselves drawn to him, wanting to be around him, even if his message made them uncomfortable. This quality about Jesus baffled the Pharisees and Scribes… They just didn’t get why people loved him, and why he would welcome those undesirable people into his company.

I would like to suggest that this desirable quality about Jesus, that drew people to him, was grace. I think he lived grace, he breathed grace, he spoke grace, he manifested grace tangibly to those around him.

So since Jesus was the living embodiment of grace, if we want to be like him, we need to work to understand grace more.

1. Jesus manifested a desire for the lost.

Unlike the religious leaders of his day, Jesus sought out the least desirable people in his culture. Tax collectors were considered to be the scum of society — those who stole, manipulated, and took advantage of even their own relatives. But Jesus loved them, sought them out, and won them over with his grace. Jesus never wrote anyone off as a lost cause – he desires ALL to come to grace.

2. Jesus was diligent in his focus on seeking the lost.

This week, I lost my keys, and they weren’t just misplaced – they were LOST. That could have been a major inconvenience for a lot of people, and so I got diligent about really searching for them. I tore my house and office apart, and eventually found them inside the couch cushions. But it was an intensive search to FIND what I had lost. And this same intensity is how Jesus wants us to seek out the lost people around us. We don’t just hope they show up sometime. We go to great lengths to find them and bring them to his grace.

3. Jesus felt great delight in seeing the lost found.

When the lost are found, there is great rejoicing in the heavens, much more than how I felt when I found my keys! God loves seeing sinners turn over their lives to him — from tax collectors to clergy!

Let us make an effort to share in Jesus’ expressions of grace: to desire the lost, to be diligent in our efforts to seek the lost, and to take great delight in seeing them found.

The Humility Banquet

Sermon on Luke 14:7-14

Picture the scene: In a religious leader’s home, many people are watching Jesus, but Jesus is also watching them. He sees how they position themselves and posture each other in their personal interactions with each other. All of the social dynamics that we’re familiar with even today – the discomfort of going to a party where we might not know anybody, the desire to make a good impression on others, the fear of being rejected – were present in this scene, and Jesus saw how it dictated their behavior.

There are two kinds of humility: a false humility where we pretend to be lower in order to get more recognition, and a true humility that the Lord is advocating in this Scripture passage.

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Luke 14:8-11, NRSV

I have a good example of this from my own life when I was a young seminarian. I was raised to believe there was a hierarchy in grocery stores – some grocery stores were high class, and others were low class. It wasn’t explicitly stated, but it was implied that high class people shopped at high class stores, and if you shopped at a low class store, you were a low class person. When we lived in Florida, I needed to run to a store just for a carton of eggs, and the nearest store to where we lived was a Winn Dixie – the lowest in the hierarchy of grocery stores. I ran in quickly, and immediately found myself uncomfortable, feeling like I was outside of my element. I was the only white person in the store, and I was shaken to find myself a minority. I found myself frightened and judgmental of the other people in the store, and it was disturbing to me all the prejudice and judgment that was revealed in my heart just by walking into an unfamiliar store and being surrounded by unfamiliar people. As I was waiting in the long line to buy my eggs, all of this was still brewing in my heart, when the man behind me asked if I would watch his cart while he stepped out of the line. I begrudgingly agreed, but I was shocked and humbled when rather than disappearing into the store, that man walked up to the end of the checkout counter and offered to bag the groceries of all the people in front of us to help the line move faster. I had been standing there exalting myself in my heart, but I was humbled. That kind man humbled himself by serving all the rest of the people in line, and he was exalted by the gratitude of all the other people in that store.

I encourage you to ask yourself: Is there any grocery store that is beneath you? Is there any seat you wouldn’t sit in? Is there any job that you wouldn’t do? Is there any person you think you are better than?

Jesus says that everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, and everyone who humbles themselves will be exalted. The Scripture does not give any exception to that statement. One of these WILL happen to you.

Jesus then extends the lesson to those who were hosting the banquet as well, pointing out that we tend to only invite our friends or people who we think can give us something in return. A well-known phrase in our culture is quid pro quo, which means “this for that.” You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Many of our human relationships are based on quid pro quo – we enter into social situations while keeping in mind what we can get from the people around us. We subconsciously gravitate toward people who can give us something in return.

One of the greatest tools we have for the Gospel in our communities is the homes God has blessed us with. But who do we usually invite over to our homes? Our friends, people we already know and are comfortable with. What if we opened up our homes to those in our community who we wouldn’t normally come in contact with? It may be outside our comfort zone, but they need Jesus just as much as anyone else, and their lack of resources may be keeping them from being able to seek Him on their own.

Humble we must be if to heaven we go. High is the roof there, but the gate is low.

George Herbert