A Handful of Humility and a Pound of Persistence

One of my favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  This story holds a wealth of lessons and illustrations and anecdotes about life, relationships, hardship, injustice, doubt, grace, and community.  In the text Scout Finch is raised by many people:  her father Atticus, their maid Calpurnia, their neighbor Miss Maudie, and Atticus’ brother Jack.  It’s this relationship between Scout and her uncle that I want to highlight for a moment.  Scout’s father has taken a case in his law practice that has the whole town on edge.  It’s a scandal, actually.  Young Scout is six and has many questions about what is going on in the town and why people are changing as a result of this case.  There is much she doesn’t understand, but she has developed a bond with her Uncle Jack —  their bold and blunt personalities feed one another — and so she goes to him with her questions.  Additionally, she goes to him because she is certain she will receive answers.  His patience with her seemingly endless questions and his respect for her desire to understand continually draw her to him, and their bond grows stronger as the challenges of life push Scout to adapt and mature.

I think of this relationship between Uncle Jack and Scout as I reflect on our readings for this morning.  If there is a theme moving through the readings from today it would be the ideas of humility:  inadequacy, inability, meekness, less than, and the idea of persistence: steadfast, effort, relentlessness, or in our Southern way:  grit. 

The communication between Abraham and God in the passage from Genesis attests to both humility and persistence.  God hears the cries against the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah and desires to verify the truth of what He hears.  He speaks to Abraham of His frustration and decides to wipe them out.  In return, Abraham begins what appears to be negotiation with God for those few righteous men within the walls of these two cities.  Abraham entered into a conversation with God for the salvation of those righteous ones.  And it is within this rather long negotiation that we notice a pattern.  Look at what our text states towards the beginning of the negotiation:  “Then Abraham came near and said…”  Abraham came near what?  He came near to God.  He entered into His presence.  Abraham took a step forward and approached the living God.  Yahweh.  The I Am.  Abraham came near the Almighty God who would strike down the Levite priests who entered the Holiest of Holies with unclean hearts, with unclean intentions.   

And how did he approach God?  With full knowledge and awareness of who he was and what he was doing.  Again, let’s look at our text.  Abraham knew his worth, his value, his relevance.  He comments regarding himself, “I who am but dust and ashes.”  He knew he could bring nothing to God.  He knew he was nothing before the Almighty God.  He could bring no good thing outside of God.  And yet, he acknowledged this insignificance and came near anyway.  Abraham, fully aware of himself, stated, “Oh, do not let the Lord be angry if I speak.”  And he uses this same phrase later in his communication — his prayer — by saying, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more.”  Abraham understood himself as he entered into this prayer.  However, with full understanding of who he was, he continued to engage.  He knew he could be pushing the limits, testing the patience of God the Father.  But, he kept going.  Just like Scout asking and asking and asking her Uncle Jack, Abraham persisted in his questions to God.   

Now, using this concept of humility and persistence of Abraham, let us now look at our Gospel passage from this morning.  The disciples, who have been with Jesus watching Him preach and lead and heal and engage, now come near Him, come into His presence, asking how to do what He does with the Father.  They ask Him if He would teach them how to communicate — how to pray.  What Jesus does — preach, lead, heal, engage — are all external actions or activities.  What the disciples are actually asking Jesus how to do is enter into relationship with God through prayer.  Essentially, they are saying, “How do we have a relationship with God like you do?  How can we have an internal relationship with God like our father Abraham had with the Almighty?”  

And Jesus answers them with a specific response.  His answer is what we know as The Lord’s Prayer.  The disciples ask for help.  They ask for instruction.  And, the instruction Jesus offers echoes the communication — the prayer — that Abraham had with God.  

Abraham understood who and what he was before the great I Am.  Abraham said, “I who am but dust and ashes.”  Abraham acknowledged his inability, his incapacity to come before God on his own.  He, with humility, entered into the presence of God.  He needed the mercy of God in order to approach God’s presence.  So, as Jesus speaks with His disciples, He instructs them to accept their inability to approach God without mercy.   He tells them to call upon God’s power as they enter by saying “hallowed be your name.”  He then tells them to ask God for what they need and to forgive them for when they fall.  And, in the method of training that Jesus used, He offered an analogy, a parable, so that they could engage with the instructions.  

This analogy of the man who comes to his friend is a common story to the disciples.  One that applies to their own set of customs.  A man is caught without provisions by his last minute guests.  He goes to his friend in the middle of the night seeking assistance and will not go away until he is given what he needs.  We find a similar analogy in Luke 18 with the persistent widow and the judge.  The judge finally relents because the widow simply won’t let go.  In using this parable, Jesus is continuing to teach His disciples what to do as well as how to do it, that not only do they need to pray with sincere humility, they must also pray with tenacity, with grit.

Hebrews 4:16 states “Let us approach the throne of grace with courage — with boldness — so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”  We are to come to the throne room of God, the Holiest of Holies, with the self awareness to acknowledge we are dust and ashes, and we are to enter into the relationship with the Almighty with confidence asking for what we need.  We are to be humble.  We are to be persistent.  And ask.  And ask again.  And ask again. 

Did we see any frustration of God with Abraham’s persistence?  No.  Does Jesus instruct His disciples with the analogy of the insistent friend?  Yes.

Scout asked questions of her Uncle Jack knowing she needed help.  Knowing she was inadequate without him.  And she asked and asked and asked again.  Similarly, Abraham recognized his insignificance in the presence of God Almighty.  And he asked and asked and asked again.  Jesus, instructing his disciples, told them to acknowledge God’s holiness and their weakness.  To be humble.  And ask and ask and ask again.  So, too, may we be humble.  May we remember, like Abraham, that we are but dust and ashes.  And may we ask and ask and ask again. 

Let us pray:  Lord God, you are gracious and merciful.  You have sent your Son to teach us and to offer salvation to us.  May we come before You with all the humility that we deserve and may we also be persistent using the guidance that You teach.  We pray these things through Your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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