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"Birthday Candles"

Luke looks out at his congregation and fears that they are asking the same question themselves. Why keep at it after all these years? Why keep gathering on the first day of the week? Why keep singing?

black and white graffiti painting of a little girl grasping after a red heart balloon as it flies away with the wind; text saying "There is always hope!".
1. “Girl with Red Balloon There is Always Hope” by Banksy

Psalm 119:97-104 and Luke 18:1-10

October 16, 2022

Dr. Todd R. Wright Do you believe there is always hope, like the picture says? Sometimes it’s hard to believe. Picture a birthday cake with pink roses and lettering. Count the candles. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Seven candles. The little girl’s name is Madeline. She watches them burn down while her mother and grandparents sing her the birthday song. When she finally blows them out, her mother asks, “Did you make a wish?” “You have to make a wish,” chimes in her grandfather. “I don’t know why I keep doing this,” Madeline says to no one in particular. “Doing what?” asks her grandmother. “This whole wishing thing,” she replies, looking at the empty chair at the table. “Last year I wished my best friend wouldn’t move away, but she did. This year I want to wish that my mommy and daddy would get back together … but I know it’s not going to happen, so why do I keep doing this?”[2] That’s a heartbreaking question for a seven-year-old to be asking, whether she talking about wishing, or praying, or some combination of the two. Why keep on when you receive no response? Luke looks out at his congregation and fears that they are asking the same question themselves. Why keep at it after all these years? Why keep gathering on the first day of the week? Why keep singing? Why keep filling out pledge cards? Why keep praying? Jesus had said he would be right back, but he wasn’t back and Rome was making it hard to keep the faith. People were losing heart. So, Luke repeated a story Jesus told about a widow who refused to stop pleading her case. Luke does not say what her complaint was about, but we can make some educated guesses. Since she is a widow, her case probably concerns her dead husband’s estate. Under Jewish law she cannot inherit it – it goes straight to her sons or brothers-in-law – but she is allowed to live off of it. Maybe someone is trying to cheat her out of it. The fact that she is standing there alone is a pretty good indication that none of the men in her family is on her side. Neither is the judge. And he is supposed to be. Deuteronomy and Isaiah both say that anyone who violated the rights of a widow was subject to a curse.[3] She should’ve been able to count on him. A famous comedian once said that when children come before their parents demanding that they settle their dispute – Johnny took my doll. Tell him to give it back! – they assume that their parents are interested in justice. They’re not. Parents don’t care about justice – all they want is peace and quiet![4] The judge in the parable is the same. He does not care about justice; he just wants peace and quiet. Luke says he is worn down by the widow’s persistence. The term used in Greek is taken from the boxing world and it means to give a black eye. It’s used figuratively here, but it makes us smile all the same. The picture is of a heavy-weight judge who becomes so weary of blows to the head and the tiring tactics of a flyweight widow that he concedes the match.


But how does this story help Madeline … or the folks in Luke’s church? How does it help us when we lose heart? Is it saying that even though we live in a world that seems broken, corrupt, and designed to break our hearts, things will work out if we just keep wishing, or praying, or hoping? No. That’s not true to our experience, not even the experience of a seven year old girl. Is it saying that prayer works … if we are willing to harass God into giving us what we want? No. Jesus is clear: God doesn’t need to be badgered into listening or acting. Is it saying that God answers our prayers and satisfies our wishes just to silence us, to get rid of us, to get some peace and quiet? No. God is nothing like the unjust judge and prayer is not a transaction or a boxing match. So, what is there in this story that will bring comfort to a little girl ready to stop wishing as she blows out her birthday candles? Well, you could tell her that, like the widow, it is important that she not lose hope. The widow knew what she wanted and didn’t waste time with clerks or secretaries. Whether the judge did what was right was beyond her control, but that didn’t stop her from saying what she wanted – loud and clear, day and night – because saying it would help her remember who she was. It would help shape her heart, put steel in her spine, a turn her voice into the roar of a lion. You could tell her that praying is different from wishing. Some people might use the words interchangeably, but the church doesn’t. We believe that our prayers are not pestering God or bending God’s will to match ours. Instead, we are making a statement about God’s character. By praying we are saying, “God, I believe you are wise and wonderful; I believe your will is to bless all your children; I believe you are powerful and loving; I believe you keep your promises. And like the psalmist, I believe that you begin answering prayers while the words are still on my tongue.”[5] Or you could tell her that the most important time to pray is when your prayers seem meaningless, when the temptation is to give up, or at least to scale back your prayers to something more likely. But the reasonable doesn’t inspire faith and it often doesn’t feed the hunger that drove us to pray in the first place. Praying when it seems like you are speaking into the silence keeps us chasing after God’s heart. So, pray with Madeline, “God, give us the patience to wait, even when the waiting is long; give us the eyes to see the goodness of your answer, even when, at first glance it is hard to tell that it really is good; and give us persistence, because it is difficult to keep at anything forever, including hoping.” In short, tell her what the widow learned and the church has discovered: prayer molds the one praying “into a vessel that will be able to hold the answer when it comes.”[6] So, place your hope in God and do not give up. Amen.

[1] “Girl with Red Balloon There is Always Hope” by Banksy [2] This story is an adaptation of one told by Barbara Brown Taylor in Home By Another Way, pages 198-199 [3] See Deuteronomy 27:19 and Isaiah 10:2 [4] Bill Cosby, see [5] See Psalm 139:4 [6] This is a quote from Fred Craddock in Luke, in the Interpretation commentary series, pages 209-10
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