SERMON: The importance of persistence

SERMON: The importance of persistence

A sermon preached by Graham Low on 16th October 2022

Every now and then we encounter people who will not take no for an answer: I remember once over-hearing a conversation in which one person said to the other “what don’t’ you understand, the N or the O?” We can well imagine the judge in the parable we have just heard saying this to the woman.

Unlike some of the parables, this parable is explained to a degree beforehand. In the previous chapter Luke tells us that Jesus tells the disciples not to be distracted by false signs of the coming of the Son of Man. Here he encourages them to pray and not to lose heart. How we live while we wait for God to act is its central point. We know that Christians in the early church needed to be reminded to keep going in spite of the many difficulties of ordinary life while they were waiting for God to act.

Jesus emphasises this point today by making the main protagonist a widow. Widows were the most obvious examples of vulnerability in new Testament times, and sadly can still be today. This widow is being harassed by a difficult opponent. Women did not go to court in those days: that was the job for their husbands. But this widow is determined to make her point and goes not only before a judge, but before an unjust judge. He says that he has no fear of God, and cares for nobody. He seems answerable to nobody. So this woman is utterly alone. Even though everything is against her, she is driven on by sheer desperation. She has many parallels in today’s world from girls and women demanding a degree of freedom in Iran, to poor and indigenous people in Brazil demanding that multinationals stop deforesting the Amazon basin.

This woman has persistence, a topic which Jesus mentions in relation to a man pestering his neighbour (Luke 11.5-13). Here persistence is given great prominence. The judge does not listen. Jesus’ words build up the tension: pray always…do not lose heart…kept coming to him…keeps bothering me…wear me out by continually coming…cry to God day and night…delay long in helping…quickly grant justice. In the climax we hear that God will grant justice quickly to those who persist, crying to God day and night and not giving up. Finally, Jesus asks the leading question: when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Hearing this parable alongside the passage from Genesis about Jacob and the mystery man wrestling underlines the kind of persistence Jesus has in mind. I am reminded of a large sculpture in alabaster by Jacob Epstein in the Tate Gallery. After an enormous amount of physical work by Epstein two figures in a wrestling embrace emerged: Jacob and the Angel. Epstein was a Jew who had studied the Book of Genesis in detail and was moved by the story we have just heard. In the sculpture Jacob rests, apparently defeated, in the bulging biceps of the arms of an angel (this is what Epstein called the man). Will Jacobs’ weight bring the angel down to earth, or will the power of the angel raise Jacob to heaven? Will the forces of gravity or grace win? We cannot tell from the immense tension of the sculpture. This sculpture is partly about the immense effort and persistence that Epstein had in sculpting from such a large and resistant piece of stone. The sculpture is thus partly autobiographical. But it is also partly spiritual: with discipline, effort, attention and persistence, great beauty and meaning can come from a seemingly almost impossible starting point.

The story about Jacob in our first reading is also a story about names, and the power that a name can give. Jacob asks the angel for a blessing. But first the angel asks him for his name. He replies “Jacob” which means supplanter. The angel says he must change his name to Israel, which means one who strives with God. Jacob has indeed strived with God, and with people, and he has prevailed. Jacob asks the angel for his name, but instead he blesses him, and retains his mastery over Jacob by not naming himself. Jacob then understands that he has encountered God and lived. He continued his life with a limp, which was  a permanent reminder of this encounter with God.

Persistence is also a theme in today’s epistle; “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; have utmost patience in teaching”. Timothy endured suffering, and his persistence in his vocation was not immediately rewarded with joy.

All the readings and our collect today include an underlying theme of persistence in doing what we believe to be right. Here we are challenged to be faithful and to persist when things are against us, even if our prayers appear not to be answered. If even an unjust judge eventually yields to persistence, how much more so will God, who yearns to grant justice? God’s response may not be of the kind we desire, or at a time we hope for. But we see time and again, and often among people we know, that persistence and willingness to follow God’s way brings about healing and blessing. That is God’s nature. Amen.