It is troubling to me how much by rote I read the Bible sometimes. The lectionary for today contained Malachi 3:1, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.”
In the course of the past thirty years I have produced G.F. Handel’s Messiah twenty different times, not to mention having sung in productions of it at least another ten times. Something happened when I read the words. I heard the tune of the wonderful baritone recitative and was wholly unconscious of any meaning in the text.
Fortunately, the lectionary followed Malachi 3 with Luke 18:1-8:
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
When I think of Jesus’ teaching about prayer, my mind immediately goes to The Lord’s Prayer, another rote item we could spend a month talking to death. I go from there to what I’ve learned about prayer in my life, starting with bedtime prayers as a child (“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep”) and continuing to 20th century evangelical prayers I learned in college. (“O Lord, I just really want to thank you, Father, for just really being my God. Please, praise and thank you Father, give me a better grade on that exam, O Lord Jesus, than I actually deserve, Father.”)
When Jesus tells us here that we ought always to pray and not lose heart, what is he really saying? The widow is praying to for justice for herself against her adversary, not for some lame exam she didn’t study for.
While it is true that Jesus tells us the Father is concerned about every last hair on our head (or lack thereof), it would seem from this parable that the summary verses on prayer in the Scriptures must be Revelation 21:17 and 20: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
There are three “persons” praying in the text from Revelation. The Spirit is doing what he always does, exalting the Son. The Bride – the church – is crying out in passionate longing for her Groom. And the individual believer is crying out for justice.
We can pray, and every Christian should work actively for justice on the earth, but the truth is that, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The one great adversary against justice is Satan, for he is a usurper who has stolen everything that he has. Only when he has been ultimately defeated will there ever be justice in the Universe. That defeat became an accomplished fact when Jesus breathed his last (“it is finished”), because the perfect sacrificial lamb had become our substitute and now death, as C.S. Lewis put it so well, would begin to work backward. Only, from where we stand it is an accomplished future fact. Justice does not now reign on the Earth as it does in Heaven. The reign of Christ is the true “already and not yet.”
Without allowing your prayers to become in any way rote in themselves, the challenge is to be like the widow and daily annoy the Judge, “Come, Lord Jesus!” This is where some repeated exercises of daily life can be your advantage. As you walk to the mailbox, as you make dinner, as you make the bed in the morning, as you shower, let these be the times that you bother the Judge. At other times you will ask specifically for yourself and those you care for. But these times of crying that Christ should come again, and swiftly, ought to be our number one priority in prayer, that justice, true justice and peace may reign.