February is Martha Stearns Marshall month. It’s the month that the Baptist Women in Ministry organization especially encourages congregations to invite women to preach at a Sunday worship service. Not only does it give an opportunity for many women to preach, but it also gives the congregation a chance to raise their awareness and appreciation of the Spirit’s gifts in women.
I asked my former pastor if I could come back and preach during the month of February so we could participate in the Martha Stearns Marshall Month. He was happy to welcome me. I had served as youth pastor there for two years, and it had been seven months since I’d been back. After considering what God might want me to preach to the congregation, I decided that I should preach the message I myself needed to hear. Perhaps you could benefit from the reminder as well.
P.S. Thank you to Dr. Joe Bailey who, as my pastor and boss, mentored me, cared for me, and allowed me wonderful opportunities to serve and grow while at Speegleville Baptist Church. You made it possible for the Spirit to work through me there, and you have a beautiful congregation.
Sermon for Speegleville Baptist Church on February 8, 2014
Text: Luke 1:38 and Luke 18:1-8
Luke 1:38 – Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel deaprted from her.
Luke 18:1-8 – Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he 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.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” That American idiom conveys the thought that the loudest problems are the ones most likely to get attention. It’s a lesson many of us learn at a young age. It’s why kids ask moms over and over again for candy at the grocery store. It’s why I called the auto shop every day for a week to inquire about the progress on my car. People don’t want to be bothered, so they often take care of the most bothersome people.
Do you think it works with God? When I want something, I ask. And because God’s timing is usually slower than my timing, I often ask for something repeatedly for a long time. Until I get his answer, I’m going to keep asking! Squeak, squeak, squeak, do you hear my squeaky wheel yet, God?
Sometimes I wonder if we would be better off being quiet. James 4:7 says submit yourselves to the Lord. And Jesus himself said to God, right before his death – “yet not what I will but what you will.” Last summer I went to this monastery and observed all these monks who clearly have surrendered everything to God – and while there I learned a new word: Equanimity. It means ‘the stability of mind that allows us to be present with an open heart no matter how wonderful or difficult the conditions are.’ (Macrina) … stability of mind … open heart … Equanimity. It’s my new favorite word. I am convicted that we must be surrendered to God and live with equanimity – Christians are to be people who go about our days with an open heart, no matter the circumstances.
Can we have desires and ask God for those desires – but still be open to what God desires? Is it possible to be fully surrendered to God … and also to be persistent in prayer?
Psalm 40:1 says ‘Wait patiently on the Lord.’ Be open. Surrender. But … Hebrews 4:16 says ‘We can boldly approach the throne of grace so we may receive mercy and find help.’ Persistence. Boldness.
The truth for us today and always – is that God wants us to be fully surrendered AND God wants us to be persistent in prayer.
A balanced life…?
Have you ever noticed that so much of life is about not going too far?
Don’t eat too much food or you will be unhealthy and fat. Don’t eat too little food or you will be unhealthy and anorexic.
Don’t spend too much time at work or your family will think you don’t care about them. Don’t spend too little time at work or you will lose your job and your family will think you don’t care about them.
Don’t promote yourself too much or coworkers will say you are egotistical and never give you a raise. Don’t promote yourself too little or people won’t notice you and will never give you a raise.
I could go on. It feels like there is this threshold of “going too far” all around us and we have to work to stay within the safe boundaries of healthiness and peace. Sin messes everything up. We have a tendency to take things to an unhealthy, unholy place. We get stuck in our routines, we become absorbed with lesser things, we flirt with that edge, we misunderstand, and sometimes we accidentally go too far.
Being surrendered can be pushed too far. Being persistent can be pushed too far, too. God doesn’t want us to be balanced, tame, simply nice, boring people. His calling on our lives is radical. But there are nuances in the surrendered/petitioning discussion that I hope we grasp today. We will talk about someone who was good at surrendering. Then we will look at someone who was good at persistence. We will finish by seeing what it looks looks like to embody both. God wants us open… Noah
So someone who was surrendered: Noah. He was amazing. I mean, what kind of man would not get swept up in the wickedness of his neighbors but instead listen to God … a God who told him to build the biggest boat imaginable? Think about all the work he had to invest in building that ark… and that was in a time before rain. He had never seen rain, but he was told the earth would flood. He was operating on blind faith. Genesis 6:22 says ‘Noah did all that God commanded him.’ Noah was open to God.
To be a Christian means to have surrendered everything to Jesus. Scripture says, ‘Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.’ Instead of building our own crumbling castles of self glory, we join hands with other Christians, sacrificing our wills to build the kingdom of God.
Our lives are not in our hands. We cannot control all that happens around us and to us. So we submit. We say, ‘Okay, God, I will accept and follow.’
But it’s possible to take it to an unhealthy place. Surrender is bad when it becomes laissez faire. When the result is that we fail to take responsibility for our actions and cease to care or think what we do matters. Back when slavery was legal in America there were lots of Christians who owned slaves, and there were lots of Christians who opposed slavery. But there were also tons of Christians who were quiet about it. Maybe they didn’t want to rock the boat, or maybe they figured it was in God’s hands. They were surrendered to God’s will … and since slavery was legal and practiced, then it must be God’s will. Right? No. Being open to God does not mean accepting every injustice in our society. It’s easier for us to see now than it was for them then, but today we can say that a truly surrendered person would have done the hard thing in that day and would have fought against slavery. Those who fail to use the skills and energy God has given to go and work and make good happen in the world may call themselves surrendered, but that is not what God is calling us to.
Surrender – when done rightly – is a beautiful thing. We listened earlier in the service to the verse about Mary who heard from the angel some unbelievable news about bearing the Messiah. She responded by saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary did not fully comprehend, but she believed. She was willing to accept God’s will for her because she trusted that God would do whatever was best.
There’s this line from a poem that I repeat to myself when faced with things in my life that are hard or uncertain or unpleasant. The poem says: “I stand before what is with an open heart.” That line reminds me to be open. To trust God. Especially when anxiety or anger rise. ‘I stand before what is with an open heart.’
God wants us to care… the widow
Noah and Mary show is what it means to be surrendered. Now let’s consider someone who was persistent in prayer: the widow from Luke 18. Jesus tells a parable. There was a vulnerable woman who had been taken advantage of. It wasn’t right, she knew it, and she was not going to let it go. She went to the city’s corrupt judge and she bothered him day after day to grant her justice. He was a man incapable of shame. But still, she made the request repeatedly. She couldn’t bribe him. She had no influence in their town. What she did have was persistence. Her badgering wore him out. He finally toppled.
The unjust judge is not equal to God. The point of the story is that if a cruel judge will give way to the unrelenting pressure of a widow, how much more will God listen to the prayers of those he loves? So much more!
People who have faith pray. Prayer is faith in action. It’s not an optional activity that is done to demonstrate we have a relationship with God. It IS that relationship with God. After telling the story, Jesus asks if – in the last days – the Son of Man will find faith on earth. Will we persevere in our prayers? Jesus asks the question – not because he wonders if there will be believers when he returns – but for the purpose of self-examination. We each answer for ourselves.
Ann Lamott, in her book called Grace (Eventually) says, “I know that help is always on the way. I know that when I call out – God will be near and hear and help … eventually. Of course it is the eventually that throws one into despair.”
Yes, ‘The life of prayer is asking, seeking, knocking, and waiting, sometimes fainting, sometimes growing angry.’ (William Hendriksen) From the story of the widow we learn that prayer can – and should be – continual and persistent. In this life sometimes when we pray it will be like hurling petitions against long periods of silence. That’s the human experience. Delayed gratification. We acknowledge that God’s ways are mysterious, and sometimes frustrating – but they are always motivated by love.
We all have a tendency. Some surrender to the point of indifference. Mine is the opposite. If anything, I am tempted to ask and ask God for something and not be okay with God doing something other than what I’ve asked. Or – I think I need to take matters into my own hands and I rely upon my own sufficiency. You know that saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves?’ Well, I know that is not in the Bible. But sometimes I go to the unhealthy edge of almost believing it.
What having both looks like…
So what does it look like to have a healthy dose of both – surrender and persistence? Openness and asking?
There’s a true story about a minister from England back in 1735 who got on a boat to come to the new Americas. It was to be a four month long trip. The journey, as you may know, was a treacherous one for people at that time.
Several months in, a storm came in suddenly – waves crashed, sea water broke over the side of the ship, and the main-sail split, shattering into pieces, covering the deck. Water was everywhere and it felt as if the great deep was swallowing them up.
The minister grew so afraid and his fellow Englishmen were screaming and crying, believing they would die. But while this was going on, the minister observed a group of Moravian Christians who calmly sang hymns and prayed throughout the ordeal.
In a journal the minister recounted this experience. They all survived the storm and later he asked one of the Moravians, ‘ Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, ‘No, our women and children are not afraid to die.’
That minister – so impressed by their faith – not only in the face of a life-threatening storm but also in their constant humility and service to one another – became convinced of his inner weakness while the Moravians possessed a strength and faith that he did not. The minister later described this encounter as his conversion. And that minister was John Wesley, the influential founder of Methodism and the Methodist Church.
Those Moravians were a surrendered people. They did not become hysterical when the storm hit. They knew some things were out of their control. But that did not keep them from praying. They prayed and sang throughout. I do not know what they prayed about, but I’d guess they were praying that the ship and everyone in it would survive the storm. They probably prayed more calmly than I ever would. I think of them in that moment as the epitome example of surrendered petitioning.
I’ve got another story of something that hits closer to home… A couple weeks ago a woman from my friend’s church in San Antonio went missing. She’s about my age. She was living with her husband and her husband’s family. On a Friday morning she went out for a walk around the neighborhood. When she hadn’t returned by the evening, her family started getting worried. She is gone.
The police have been notified. A search has been conducted. Neighbors’ doors have been knocked. And a lot of people have been praying. The church has been praying. So far, nothing has turned up. They don’t know where she is.
Wouldn’t it be messed up if her family just stopped praying for her? If they decided that to be surrendered to God would mean saying, ‘I guess it’s God’s will. Oh well. He’ll bring her back if he wants to.’ That is not the right response. I would be praying every day. I would be that annoying widow – please God! Grant us justice! Intervene!
But it would also be messed up to allow the stress and anxiety to mount to the point that you think it’s all in your hands – that you can take care of this situation yourself – or you blame yourself for not having enough faith to have overcome the problem. That kind of person has no peace and is alienated from God.
If we are supposed to be fully surrendered to God but also persistent in prayer, then that means we will work and lobby and strive for the good, just things in life, but we will also trust and loosen our grip and know it is God’s to handle in the end. It means that we believe God cares even more than we do about justice and love and beauty – even when our petitions only result in silence for the time being.
We can live a surrendered petitioning life in the hard times – like them – but also in the daily… A parent who embodies surrendered petitioning will teach her children to look both ways before crossing the street. She will require them to do their homework, try their best, and always wear a seatbelt. She will pray for their safety. But she will also allow the children some room to breathe, some freedom to try, and some freedom to fail, knowing that we cannot control the outcome of our children’s lives. We will do our best but will let go of the anxiety and allow God to be the protector.
A surrendered petitioning friend will give a listening ear and provide encouragement. When his friend faces trouble, he will put his arm around him and help him take the first steps in righting the issue. He will pray for his friend. But he will not enforce his own will upon the friend. He will not give advice when advice is not welcomed. He will not do the work for the friend but will let go of the anxiety and allow God to see to the friend’s salvation.
A surrendered petitioning employee will work hard and excellently and will ask God to help her see how her work is meaningful and good for the world. She will be disturbed by meddling coworkers and (ridiculous) bosses, and she will pray for those relationships to be righted. But she will not speak ill of them or complain constantly so that negativity rules her life. Knowing that she can’t control their behavior, she will pray for the Spirit to change their hearts or – if it truly is unbearable – for another job opportunity to come her way. Grace and goodness come from God. We are not the sole authors of our own story. But we do make decisions in the face of the graces we receive. We can respond, we can pray, and we can become all that we were created to be.
I hope that today we are surrendered petitioning people. I hope you continue to dwell on whatever it is that you need … Whether you need to be reminded that petitioning prayer matters – that God does respond to our cries … eventually – or you need to be reminded that being a follower of Jesus means surrendering all to Him and to live with equanimity. Equanimity – ‘the stability of mind that allows us to be present with an open heart no matter how wonderful or difficult the conditions are.’ Let’s go be surrendered petitioning people today. Amen.