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Tales With a Twist: The Great Two-Handed Engine

Luke 18:1-8

I’ve got a question for you…

Many years ago, John Milton, the poet, described prayer as “the great two-handed engine”. He said that when you put your two hands together, bow your head and engage the Almighty in conversation, you begin to generate the greatest power the world has ever known.

Just a few weeks ago, Newsweek magazine carried a cover story on the subject of prayer. It was entitled, “Is God Listening?” The article began with these words: “Most Americans say prayers every day, even though no one knows why only some are answered.” According to Newsweek, millions of prayers are offered each day, but the vast majority of them don’t work. So why waste the time spent in prayer? Besides, as the article suggests, maybe God isn’t even listening in the first place.

So who’s right, John Milton or Newsweek? Does prayer generate the greatest power the world knows, or is it nothing more than a meaningless, fruitless exercise? Now, with all of that spinning around in your mind, I would like for us to deal with one of the most unusual parables Jesus ever told. It is called the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge—and it deals with the subject of prayer. We know that, because it says in Luke 18: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

The story Jesus told is about a widow, which is Bible talk for one who is poor, defenseless, and without resources. This widow had a case pending before a judge who was known to have few moral standards and little or no concern for those who appeared before him. So the odds were stacked against this widow. The only thing she had going for her was her persistence. She kept badgering the judge until finally, in exasperation, he gave in to her ceaseless clamorings and ruled in her favor. Now remember that the parables always present some unusual contrast, a twist in the story, and that is especially true in this parable. For you see, the lesson in the story is not that God needs to be coaxed and exasperated by our prayers, but rather that if an unjust judge can be wearied into giving a persistent widow woman her justice, then how much more will our consistent, persistent prayers influence the God who made us and loves us as His very own? So Jesus, in this parable, is reminding us that we are to prove how seriously we take the power of prayer by disciplining ourselves to pray always, to pray without ceasing, to pray with persistence.

Here then is a life-principle for you to build into your daily living and your daily praying: Persistence enables us to prevail, perseverance produces power, tenacity of spirit leads to triumph in life. We see it in history. I think of the persistence and perseverance of the Wright Brothers, which enabled them to prevail over the air when they flew a nameless plane at Kitty Hawk in December of 1903. I think of the persistence of Francis Chichester, who prevailed over the sea when he sailed little sailboat “Gypsy Moth” around the world single-handedly. I think of the persistence of Admiral Richard Byrd, who prevailed over frozen nature when he spent a long, lonely winter in Antarctica. I think of the persistence of Sir Edmond Hillary, who prevailed over the highest point on the earth when he climbed Mt. Everest. The list goes on and on. Time and time again we see it. Persistence and perseverance produce the capacity to prevail. That’s the point of Jesus’ parable; persistence in your praying will produce the power to prevail in your life.

Now to help us grasp that message, I want to share with you how an old, self-educated, country preacher once defined persistence. He said: “It means first to take hold, second, to hold on, and third, to never let go.” That may not be the most scholarly definition of persistence and perseverance, but I judge it to be the most workable. Here’s what I mean…

Like the old preacher said, it means first, to take hold.

That’s precisely what the woman in Jesus’ story was willing to do. She would not be put off. An injustice had been done to her, and she was determined to see it put right. She took hold of the problem. She disciplined herself to pursue it, even when the odds were so heavily stacked against her.

Of course, Jesus Himself was in all things superbly disciplined. We’ve forgotten, I fear, how important it is to have a disciplined life. In fact, discipline has become a kind of dirty word, hasn’t it? I mean, we think of a disciplined life as a life that is so dull and dreary and filled with drudgery that we can’t even bear to think of it. To us, it seems, a life with no joy at all. But that certainly wasn’t true with Jesus. Jesus was the most superbly disciplined person who ever walked the face of the earth, and Jesus was the brightest, sunniest, happiest, most radiant soul who ever lived. On the basis of what I see in Jesus, I submit to you that it is discipline which gives us our most profound joy in life.

Someone has said that the word “discipline” and the word “disciple” come from the same root, and you cannot be the latter until you have undergone the former. So true. We need discipline if we are going to be faithful and effective disciples of Jesus Christ. And that means that we need especially the discipline of prayer, because prayer is not like some magical pill we pop in at a time of need or a moment of crisis. No, if prayer is like a pill at all, it is like a vitamin pill, one we take regularly, consistently, persistently, every single day to build within us the strength and the resources we need for the facing of life as it really is.

Someday when the history of this twentieth century is written, listed on the honor roll of names of those who have made a difference in the world during these 100 years, will be the name: Paul Carlson. He was a medical missionary and he was murdered by rebels some years ago in what we now know as the Congo. Paul Carlson was the only doctor serving 100,000 people. He saw hundreds of patients every day and he performed at least one major operation every day—some days more. He lived on just three or four hours of sleep, never taking a day off, never taking a vacation. Friends wondered how he could stand up under such strain and stress. His wife said: “It was because he stayed close to God through regular prayer and the study of the Scriptures.” One night before Paul Carlson died—he knew that the next day he would be executed as a martyr for his faith in Jesus Christ—on that night, he took the little pocket New Testament he always carried with him and he opened it up to the first page and wrote there a single word: “Peace”. Because he was at peace with God, he could take hold of all the pressures and the stresses of his life. More than that, because he stayed close to God through prayer every day, he could stare death in the face and know he would win over it. That’s persistence. It means first to take hold.

And then, like the old preacher said, it means second, to hold on.

The widow in Jesus’ story not only took hold but she held on. Repeated rejection would not stop her. Continual frustration would not deter her. She would not give up.

There is always the temptation to give up too soon. I remember once hearing Scott Peck, author of the best-seller The Road Less Traveled, telling how difficult it was for that book to be published. After receiving a whole file full of rejection notices, he finally succeeded in finding someone to publish it. However, his book came out at a time when both the New York Times and the Washington Post were on strike, therefore his book did not get reviewed. With no review, the book did not sell well. When the few books the publisher produced had sold, Dr. Peck asked them to print more. The publisher refused to do so saying they were lucky to get rid of the books they had. Frustrated, Peck then purchased back the rights to his own book and went in search of another publisher. After a dozen more rejections, he found someone willing to take the risk—and you know the rest of the story. That book has spent the last 20 years on the bestseller list, the longest run of any book other than the Bible!

I tell that story to encourage someone listening to me now to hold on just a little longer. It may pay off. Someone may be anxious to leave a job in hopes of finding something better. Well, there’s nothing wrong with looking for another job, but maybe, just maybe, there might be some value in holding on just a little longer. Or maybe there’s someone whose marriage has become difficult and it seems that the only option is to dissolve the relationship. Most marriages face difficult times but instead of rushing to break up, maybe the best thing to do is to hold on a little longer and try to resolve the conflicts. Or maybe there is someone who feels that they just cannot endure another day of life and wonder if it wouldn’t be better if they just removed themselves from the scene so that they would not have to deal with the pressures. I say to you, by the power of Jesus Christ, hold on a little longer. Remember what Jesus said, “Pray always and do not lose heart.”

The widow in the story wouldn’t give up. She wouldn’t quit. She held on and it paid off. That’s persistence. Never give up on Jesus Christ because Jesus Christ will never give up on you.

Then the old preacher said that persistence means third, to never let go.

If the woman in the parable can teach us anything at all, it is the true meaning of persistence in our prayer life. To pray always, to pray without ceasing, as the Bible puts it, is to never let go of God because we know that God continually strengthens and sustains us and gives us what we most need in life. In other words, God answers our prayers.

I know that the Newsweek article suggested that most prayers aren’t answered. Not true. God answers all prayers—the problem is that we don’t always recognize the answers when they come. Let me share with you a little formula which has been so helpful to me in my own prayer life. I hope it will help you as well. It goes like this: “If what you pray for is not right and the time is not right and you are not right, then God answers your prayer by saying NO. If what you pray for is right and the time is right but you are not right, then God answers your prayer by saying GROW. If what you pray for is right and you are right, but the time is not right, then God answers your prayer by saying SLOW. And if what you pray for is right and the time is right and you are right, then and only then does God answer your prayer by saying GO!” But God does always answer. So when Jesus says that we are to pray always and not lose heart, it is because Jesus knew that God always answers our prayers.

So who is right? John Milton or Newsweek? Is prayer, as John Milton says, a great two-handed engine which generates the world’s greatest power? Or is prayer, as Newsweek says, a wasted exercise because God may not even be listening? The answer, strangely enough is found embedded right in the middle of that Newsweek article. It’s an incredible example of the power of prayer. Listen:

“It was almost 20 years ago, but the woman who is now a Los Angeles journalist, still trembles when she describes the scene. Late on a black and noiseless night in upstate New York, she decided to take the shortcut home up a steep and unlit path. Then she heard steps behind her, faster than her own. And an instant later a man was upon her, tightening her new striped scarf around her neck, then ripping at her pants.

At home, her mother woke from a deep sleep, seized with fear that something terrible was about to happen to her eldest daughter. The mother immediately knelt down beside her bed and prayed. For 15 minutes she begged God to protect her daughter from the nameless but real threat she felt her daughter faced. Convinced that she had won God’s attention—and protection—the mother returned to bed and to a sound sleep.” And then listen to this—”Back on the stony path, the would-be rapist suddenly ceased his assault. He cocked his head, almost beast-like the woman recalls, and fled down the hill.”

That’s the power of prayer. Sometimes God answers our prayers dramatically and almost unbelievably. Sometimes God answers our prayers quietly and even subtly. But however God chooses to answer our prayers, He always has our best interest at heart, and He always has something in mind which He alone can see. That’s why Jesus said: “Pray always and do not lose heart.”

My beloved in Christ, if you can learn to pray like that in your life, then my prayers for you will have been answered…

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