Sermon: “Will Faith Be Found on Earth?”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 31.27-34; Palm 119.97-104; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8
For the past several weeks, we have been accompanying Jesus and the apostles on their journey up to Jerusalem. As they have traveled, Jesus has continued to teach the apostles. I encourage you to, at some time, sit down with the gospel of Luke and read from this point on to the crucifixion while studying Jesus’ interaction with the apostles. In chapter 11, they asked Jesus to teach them to pray; in chapter 17 Jesus told them “occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!” Jesus then told them they must be prepared to forgive the offender seven times a day if necessary. After healing the Samaritan leper and teaching them about the nature of gratitude, Jesus told them the days are coming when they will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, to be in his presence another day. Difficult days are coming; they need to be ready. And then, in today’s lesson, Jesus told “them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18.1; NRSV).
The parable features an unjust “judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people” and a poor widow who persisted in coming to the judge as she was seeking justice against her opponent. To fully understand this parable, one must know something of the status of widows in Jesus’ time and culture. Widows and orphans had virtually no social status or standing. Married women perceived young widows as a threat -- what if she were to make a play for one of their husbands? Hence, widows were often ostracized. A widow was fortunate if she had a son who could watch over her and care for her, who could manage and pursue her interests.
Apparently, the widow in this parable had no such son – the only recourse she had was to make a real pest of herself such that the judge might grant justice. After repeated attempts, the judge ultimately said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18.4-5; NRSV). “Wear me out” is probably not the best translation. The original account conveys more the sense of damaging the judge’s reputation, of giving him a “black eye”.
Jesus then asked the apostles if God would not “grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night . . . will God delay long in helping them?” He assured them God “will quickly grant justice to them” but then pondered, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18.6-8; NRSV). You might find the question “will he find faith on earth?” to be a bit puzzling. How are we to understand this? John Wesley’s commentary is helpful: “Yet notwithstanding all the instances both of God’s long suffering and of God’s justice, whenever he shall remarkably appear, against their enemies in this age or in after ages, how few true believers will be found upon earth!” (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.iv.xix.html)
It is easy to become discouraged when waiting upon the Lord. We may petition God for release from illness, the healing of a friend or loved one, for safety and security, yet receive no answer. Some say, “No answer is an answer.”, but if so, that only serves to make God’s love seem more impersonal and distant. That is not very encouraging. To quote Job on this, “Miserable comforters are you all.”
Our reading from Jeremiah, which speaks of the restoration of Israel and Judah and foretells a new covenant, addresses the seeming absence of God’s love and response to the captive’s petitions:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord (Jeremiah 31.27-28; NRSV).
These verses may cause us to recall Jeremiah’s commission, “See today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1.10; NRSV). The seventy (70) years in captivity surely tried the captives’ patience – where is God in all of this? Might God’s seeming absence reflect what is involved in plucking up, breaking down, overthrowing and destroying, and ultimately building and planting? Might God be building and planting while we are storming heaven’s gates, yet hearing no answer, experiencing no relief. God may be at work in ways we do not or cannot recognize. When Jesus returns, will he find faith on earth? Will we continue to keep faith?
In the reading from 2 Timothy, Paul encourages Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3.14-15; NRSV). Paul further stresses, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3.16-17; NRSV). If we do not spend time studying God’s word, how are we to be taught, reproved, corrected, and trained in righteousness (in right relationships grounded in God’s love for us)? If we do not spend time with God’s word, how shall we become proficient and equipped for every good work? Spending time with scripture enhances, or strengthens, our faith. When Jesus returns, will he find faith on earth?
Then note how Paul continues: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you:
Proclaim the message;
Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable;
Convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (4.1-2; NRSV).
Why does Paul so urge Timothy? Because the time is coming when people will not tolerate or listen to sound doctrine; they will seek those who preach what they desire to hear; and they will turn away from the truth.
I suspect we could say people turn away from the truth in most any age, but, I ask, is it not particularly true of the present age? All too frequently, the Church has emasculated the Gospel by substituting the dollar sign for the cross; it all too often preaches the idea that God would have us prosper and be rich. That message appeals to those with itching ears – they flock to hear it by the thousands; they pay those who preach it millions while appreciating the fact their preachers live in mansions. Now there is an example they will gladly follow! But Jesus, as Jesus would have us know him, as the suffering servant, is missing. Jesus is still to be found living with the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the lowly. Jesus prefers to eat with sinners, with those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake.
In closing this passage, Paul exhorts Timothy, “Always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (2 Timothy 4.5; NRSV). In other words, follow Jesus; act as Jesus acted. How did Jesus manage to stay the course, to go up to Jerusalem to face the cross? Jesus did it by drawing apart and spending time in prayer. Jesus also knew the scriptures.
Yes, it is tempting, and all too easy, to lose faith when our circumstances do not change as we desire after having poured out our heart to God in prayer. Would we be found with faith when Jesus comes? If so, let us pray always and not lose heart; let us proclaim the message, let us be persistent, and let us convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. Let us study God’s word, let us draw apart in prayer, and let us learn to pray with Jesus, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22.42; NRSV).