July 28, 2019, The Impudent Art of Prayer (Luke 11:1-13) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000146
Our kids all learned at an early age that if they wanted something, their chance of getting it was much greater if they asked me, rather than their Papa. They knew that if they asked Carroll for something, his first response was generally “no” – even though he might be persuaded, with a little persistence, to say yes in the end. And they also knew that my first inclination was generally to say “yes”. So in our household the kids tended to bring their requests to me to save themselves the effort and heartache of having to be persistent and persuasive in making their petitions.
Jesus’ disciples were watching him pray one day, and when he had finished they came to him and asked if he would teach them how to pray. I think it should be a little surprising to us that these Jewish men, who had been raised in all the traditions of their faith, would ask such a question. From the time they were little boys they would have been steeped in prayer: prayers at mealtimes, prayers for Shabbat and all the holy festivals of the year, prayers for births and deaths and funerals. Prayer would have been an integral part of their family and community life, not something that only happens at synagogue, like people today often view prayer as something people only do in church.
But the disciples saw something different, something special, when they watched Jesus pray – something that made them think maybe they were missing something. For one thing, it seems that Jesus tended to pray with directness and simplicity. Nowhere in all four of the gospels do we see Jesus praying a long, formal, flowery prayer. When Jesus prayed, it was very much like we read about Moses in the book of the Exodus, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses, face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” The disciples saw that kind of intimacy between Jesus and the Father when he prayed, and they wanted to know how they could draw close to God in prayer like he did.
The other thing about Jesus and prayer is that when Jesus prayed, things happened. Those disciples had seen Jesus calm the waves in the middle of a storm at sea. They had watched him heal the sick and cast out demons and raise a dead child back to life. They had seen him pray a blessing over a few loaves of bread and then feed an immense crowd with food to spare. Who wouldn’t want to learn to pray with that kind of power, if you had the Master right there to teach you?
And so, Jesus taught his disciples the prayer that every Christian knows by heart, the prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer” Many people have pointed out that that prayer really says everything that needs to be said. It calls on God as our own Father, it puts his honor and purpose above all things, it asks for our most basic necessities, it asks for forgiveness and a forgiving heart, and it asks the Father to shelter us from harm and rescue us from danger.
And that might have been enough for Jesus to teach his disciples on that day, but he didn’t stop there. He gave them a perfect prayer, one that has been at the heart of the prayer life of his people for two thousand years and counting, but he didn’t stop there because they needed – we all need – to know that prayer isn’t just about saying the right words. So Jesus went on to tell a story about a man who comes to his friend with an urgent request. It’s the middle of the night, and out-of-town guests have dropped in on our hero, unannounced and hungry, and to make it worse, his cupboard is bare. It’s pretty much a nightmare scenario, especially in first-century Palestine, where hospitality is a moral imperative, and there aren’t grocery stores on every corner. So, our hero runs to the home of a good friend to beg for help. He pounds on the door, apologetically, and explains his terrible predicament through the open window. And his good friend answers him, “Are you kidding me right now? It’s the middle of the night, for goodness’ sake! My kids are all in bed with me. I just got the baby to sleep. Go away!”
And then Jesus said, “I’m telling you, that man won’t do a blessed thing to help his friend for the sake of friendship. But if our hero makes enough of a nuisance of himself, if he just keeps knocking on the door and disturbing the neighbors, then just to get him to shut up and go away, that friend will surely get out of bed and give him the three loaves of bread he asked for.”
If the disciples really wanted to learn how to pray they needed to understand that prayer isn’t just a matter of bowing our heads and saying the magic words, and waiting for the desired results. Prayer is sometimes very hard work. It calls for persistence. Sometimes it calls for the boldness, even the impudence, of the hero in the story, who refused to go home until his friend granted him what he asked. Prayer sometimes takes a lot of courage.
We saw that in the reading from Genesis today. God himself visits Abraham in the company of two angelic beings, more unannounced guests, and some pretty intimidating guests at that. God has decided to tell Abraham what he has planned for the nearby cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities are kind of like Mos Eisley in Star Wars, “wretched hives of scum and villainy”, and God has decided to wipe them off the face of the map. People often think God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because they were full of sexual perversion – and they were – but Ezekiel tells us there was something God hated more than that. “This was the guilt of Sodom and her daughters,” Ezekiel writes, “they had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” It was greed and indifference that made God decide to put an end to these cities.
Sodom also happened to be where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was living, so Abraham had a personal stake in this decision of God’s to wipe out the city. He takes his courage in both hands and begins to pester God. “Surely, if you find 50 righteous people in the city, you’d spare it for their sake,” Abraham asked. And God answered, “Fair enough. If there are 50 righteous people I’ll spare the whole city.” But Abraham doesn’t stop there – he persists, with quite a bit of fear and trepidation. “What if there are 45? How about 40? or 30? or 20? or 10?” And God answers him, each time, “Fair enough. If that many righteous people are found in the city, I will not destroy it.”
I always wonder, when I read this story, what would have happened if Abraham had had the nerve to persist just a little more. Did he give up too soon? He knew his nephew lived in that city; what if he had dared to ask God, “What if one righteous man is found in the city? What then?” I wonder if Abraham’s persistence could have saved the people of that city? We can’t know, of course, we only know that God, of his own gracious will, did rescue Abraham’s nephew before fire and brimstone rained down on the city. But I wonder what would have happened if Abraham’s courage had held out just a bit longer?
Jesus wanted to teach his disciples – and that’s us as well – that boldness and persistence are essential elements of prayer. Remember that the name God chose for his nation was the name he gave Jacob, who wrestled with God all night long and wouldn’t let go until he gave Jacob his blessing. So God re-named Jacob “Israel”, which means “he wrestles with God”, and that came to be the name of his chosen people. God didn’t create mankind to serve him in blind, passive, wimpy obedience. He created us with wills of our own, with minds that crave understanding, with hearts that love fiercely. God means for prayer to be a powerful interaction of minds and wills and hearts, not a formal request carefully submitted to a divine bureaucracy.
But the lesson wasn’t over yet. Be persistent, Jesus taught, but you can be sure of this: when you pray things will happen. Everyone who asks and keeps on asking (because that’s the really accurate translation of the Greek verb there) will get an answer. Everyone who seeks and keeps on seeking will find what he truly seeks. To everyone who knocks, and keeps on knocking, the door will absolutely be opened. And how can we be sure of this? The answer is in the first two words of that perfect prayer – “Our Father”. We aren’t praying to some indifferent, faceless being, seated in a remote seat of power somewhere. We pray to the one who has adopted us as his sons and daughters. And fathers want nothing more than to give good things to their children.
Even you know that, Jesus said, flawed and self-centered as you are, even you human fathers give good things to their children who ask them. If a child asks for bread, what kind of father would hand his son a rock instead? If she asks for fish, what father would hand his daughter a snake? If your child asks for an egg, isn’t it inconceivable that you would hand over a scorpion instead? How infinitely much more can we trust our Heavenly Father to pour out only his very best on us, his own beloved children?
This is the promise of faithful love that God made through Isaiah, when he said, “Could a woman ever forget the child nursing at her breast, that she should have no compassion on the son of her own womb? Even these may forget,” God said, “yet I will never forget you.”
When our kids came to ask us for something, whether they succeeded in getting what they were asking for or not, they never had to doubt that we would answer them to the best of our ability, and give them the very best we were able to give them. They knew we loved them and wanted the best for them. But if I am honest, I know that our wisdom often fell short of what it should have been. I know that our patience often ran short, that our strength and our resources and our capabilities were often sadly lacking. Sometimes even our love fell short of what it should have been.
When we pray to God, though, we are praying to the One who is so much better than even the very best of human fathers. Our Father wants only the best for us, and what is more, he is able to do whatever it takes to answer our prayers. He will always listen to us. He is all wise, all powerful, all loving, all good. Our God is not a divine vending machine into which we deposit our requests. He’s not a cosmic Grandpa who gives us everything we ask for even if it isn’t good for us. He is a loving Father who is willing to wrestle with us, who is pleased to give us what is worth asking for, who delights in helping us find what is worth seeking, who is ready to open the right door for us at the right time. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he taught them the perfect prayer, and hundreds of sermons could be preached, and have been preached, on the depth and power of those simple, direct words. But more important than any words, Jesus wanted to teach us who it is that hears us when we pray.