Hosea 1:2-10 Psalm 85:1-13 Colossians 2:6-15 Luke 11:1-13
Our Gospel Lesson today was recently the topic of debate in our Wednesday night book study, as it was featured in the book, Preaching The Hard Sayings Of Jesus by Dr. John T. and the Rev. James R. Carroll. The Carrolls – a father and son team – suggest an underlying current of tenacity in prayer as the essential teaching of this lesson. As I considered this passage and the related threads in the tapestry of God’s word for us today, I remembered the work of another theologian – the late, great Charles Schultz. Consider his perspective on the topic.
“Stubbornness is a fault. Tenacity is a virtue.” But how do we know? How do we know when we are being “merely tenacious” or just being stubborn? I think there is a fine line and a slippery slope at the edge of tenacity and stubbornness. Hosea – who is just a bucket of sunshine, by the way – spoke in a time when things were going great for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He also read the writing on the wall for a people whose stubborn claim of righteousness had become disconnected from their actions.
They knew they were God’s people, but they were also hedging their bets with sacrifices to local deities. And, as we heard from Amos last week, those in power were taking advantage of those without power – sort of like the way out-sourcing is supporting modern practices of slavery around the world and decreasing our own ability to create manufacturing opportunities here at home. All of this added up to one thing – a terribly stubborn position of self righteousness.
Hosea speaks of Jezreel, where Jehu put to death the line of the unfaithful King Ahab. Wait a minute. Why would God curse the line of the king who purified the line of kings? Because the House of Jehu did the same as Ahab. This is “second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.” By Hosea’s proclamation – Israel is done for, and Judah is saved to show that God is the tenacious one. God is the one seeking something worth redeeming. And even in that terrible, terrible phrase, “You are not my people, and I am not your God” there is still the hope that “the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' it shall be said to them, 'Children of the living God.’”
Just as the prophet speaks of the writing on the wall, God offers the natural consequences. Some things in this mortal plane of existence can be so broken that they cannot be fixed, but God – who is beyond all things and yet as close as your breath – is always moving us toward redemption. If we are open to the tenacity of God’s active presence, then we may see what God is doing. We can get a glimpse of the hope that lies beyond brokenness – a hope that is not dependent on things getting fixed and working the way we expect them to.
That’s a very hard concept for most of us to understand. Most of us see life as a series of opportunities, problems, and needs that have to be assessed, accounted for, and resolved. And sometimes we are right. The problem is that 1)sometimes there are more variables than we can plan for or understand, 2)rarely will everyone in every situation agree on the need, and 3)that way of living leaves hardly any room at all for the Holy Spirit – victory or defeat is all on our heads, and there is no room for grace and mercy in our relationships.
That, of course, is why we need Jesus. I find it interesting that Paul’s words to the church in Colosae do not talk about having God in us, but rather that we are rooted in Christ. We are a part of what God is doing, but only when we hold fast to what is good. Our behavior is not a way to earn God’s love; it is the consequence of God’s love. God’s love is so severe, so tenacious, so transforming that those self-gratifying things that once seemed fun simply do not hold our interest any more.
And so we come to God, asking what now? How do I order my life? I think these are questions that we do not ask once. I think these are questions that we ask again, and again, and again. On one of these rounds a man asked Jesus to teach him how to pray. Jesus set the model – presumably saying, “This is what I pray about.” In the prayer of Jesus, God is honored as source and sovereign, repentance is made, and a desire to follow God is expressed.
But then Jesus offers a story about a man who begrudgingly helps his neighbor because he did not want to be known as the one member of the community you can count on to refuse to help someone in need. And if that guy is going to do the right thing just to save face, how much more likely is God to help you when you call out?
Nice. Neat. Incomplete. I can ask for a pony until I am blue in the face and it won’t happen. How many of us have lifted untold prayers into the ether with only silence in return? The simple answer is that sometimes the answer is “No.” The more difficult answer is that sometimes our prayers have slipped from tenacious faith into muleheaded stubbornness. On the fine line at the edge of that slope there is a rope that is braided with the ability to ask ourselves if we are being stubborn or tenacious.
The answer is found in the Psalms today. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”
When our concerns reflect the transforming love of God, they will be centered in the union of righteousness (the correcting of broken connections to God) and peace (the ability to rest in the presence of God). All the other stuff that gets in the way – selfishness, power, powerlessness – disappears, and the God who was remote and distant becomes understood as the God who is present and active in all things.
That does not mean that our opportunities, problems, and needs get resolved. In fact it means that sometimes our search for resolution can get in the way of experiencing God’s presence and participating in God’s activity.
The best way I can think to describe what I am saying is to talk about the Grand Canyon. An old Native American proverb says, “Strong rivers need firm boundaries.” I can find no stronger boundaries than the Grand Canyon. Yet, if you follow the course of the river you will see that it has changed over time. I see those several thousand feet tall walls as the hands of God, and the river as the life we dare to pour out (or perhaps the life God dares pour into us). In our stubbornness we might claim to be the ones who direct the flow or maintain the boundaries, yet if we hold fast to our faith we will find that it is God who is ever faithful, and we who have the joyful opportunity to be a part of what God is doing.
We should still pray tenaciously for God to help us however I think that we will find that the difference between stubbornness and tenacity is found in how deeply we are concerned with ourselves and those that are like us or how deeply we are concerned with that which glorifies God. We may all hold fast to the hope of living in the place where “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, and righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Amen.