Pr. Joseph G. Crippen;, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 17, year C; text: Luke 11:1-13
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Why do we have so much trouble with prayer? Given the number of books written about it, the countless conferences offered concerning it, the thousands of sermons preached encouraging it, and the millions of hands wrung trying to understand what to do, you’d think that we’d be pretty good at prayer by now.
But in some ways we’ve become bound by centuries of instruction and advice and well-meaning lectures about prayer to the point where we sometimes have no idea what we’re supposed to do, let alone think. When do we pray? About what should we pray? How do we know if we’re “doing it right” and how do we know if God’s really there, really answering?
Our Prayer of the Day this morning said that God is always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and gladly gives more than we either desire or deserve. I believe that is true, and that the Scriptures we’ve been given say the same thing. And if it is true, then two things seem to be suggested. First, maybe prayer’s not as hard and complicated as we’ve made it out to be. And second, maybe the problem isn’t on God’s side, it’s on ours.
Given these two points, maybe we should throw out everything we think we know about prayer, everything we’ve been told, and take this moment with Jesus Luke records as our starting and our ending. Maybe we can simply stand with the disciples and say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And then listen.
There are three things we hear.
When we listen to Jesus today, the first thing we hear is a prayer wherein we’re invited to know our need and bring it to God.
If we look at the prayer Jesus teaches, without anything we previously thought about it, we notice something striking: it’s pretty human-centered. So yes, we begin, Jesus says, by honoring God’s name and calling for God’s kingdom to be a reality.
But this opening places our prayer firmly into a remarkable claim: God, the Creator of all, is related to us, is our Father. So even as we begin by honoring God and God’s rule, we are told that we have a relationship with God. This is not a prayer speaking to a distant, cold divinity. Jesus says we start prayer by realizing this relationship.
Then the rest of the prayer, oddly, is demands, with no polishing or buttering up, no pleading or begging. Give us. Forgive us. Do not try us. And if we add Jesus’ words from Matthew: Lead us. Deliver us. We’re not told to say please, or offer any bargains or deals. It’s a prayer where human beings are told to speak their needs to a God to whom they are related as a child to a father. It’s that simple.
What this means is that it’s going to be pretty important that we know what we need. What prayer as Jesus taught us requires of us is that we are aware of what we are lacking, what we need from God.
How can we ask for anything from God if we don’t even know what we need? How often have we struggled with God’s answer to our prayer simply because we asked for something we wanted, rather than for something we needed? The classic example is a child asking God for a specific gift, a toy. As adults we do the same, though we’re sophisticated enough to sugarcoat the same kind of request with a shiny veneer of respectability.
But at its core, this prayer Jesus taught us says be as honest as you can be with God. If you have sinned, ask forgiveness. If you are facing trials, ask for help. If you are hungry, ask for bread. If evil threatens, ask for God. With this prayer Jesus teaches, we need to know ourselves well enough to know what we need, and we need to be willing to be vulnerable enough to ask God for help.
When we listen to Jesus today, the second thing we hear is a parable which says trust that God is hearing us and will respond.
This parable Jesus tells helps us understand his prayer. Because the questions that arise after the Lord’s Prayer are obvious, and common: how do we know that God will hear us and answer us? Sure, ask for what you need, we say. But God too often seems silent.
So Jesus tells this parable. What’s interesting about the Greek here is that this is one of those cases where there’s an implication that we don’t hear in translation. Essentially, Jesus asks a question which in its grammar implies a negative answer when he says verses 5 through 7. What he says is this: “None of you can imagine having a friend who, when you came to her at midnight and asked for food to feed unexpected guests, would refuse you that request, can you?”
He’s saying that no good friend would act that way. And so, he says, why on earth would you expect God to act this way? This is the second human connection to God related to prayer, the second relationship image we are given. God is our Father, from whom we can ask for what we need. And God is like our closest friend, who would never ignore us if we were asking for help.
This is a tremendous promise for us, if only we believe it. Our problem is that we often experience God as silent, as the person staying in bed ignoring our knock. We aren’t sure we can trust Jesus here because our experience tells us otherwise.
But remember this: we never would have come up with the idea that God cares for us and hears our prayer in love from our experience. Only because Jesus told us this did we even consider it possible. So maybe we can also trust Jesus to know what he’s talking about, even apart from our experience.
He is, after all, the Son of God.
When we listen to Jesus today, the third thing we hear is a promise: God’s answer to us is not only certain, it is for our good.
The transition between the first two things Jesus teaches us about prayer (that is, how to pray, and that we can trust God will respond) is what leads us to the third, most important thing. The transition is: Ask, Jesus says, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.
Following on the heels of the parable, these are powerful promises, covering the entire landscape of prayer. Ask, and you will receive. If you know your need, and ask God for it, you will receive what you need. Search, and you will find. If you are looking for direction, seeking God’s guidance, wanting God’s help to show you the way, then good news, Jesus says. You will find what you seek.
And knock, and the door will be opened to you. Perhaps the most important of all three, and picking up on the image of the parable, Jesus says this: no matter when you knock, God will always open the door. We can trust this as the best of news. We will find God at home to us. Always.
But then, to answer the other lingering questions: will God’s answer be good for us? To that Jesus once more offers a human comparison to God, back to parenting. All of you parents, he says, aren’t perfect. He even uses the word “evil.” Yet, he says, you know enough to give your children good things when they ask, not hurtful things.
Well, then, he says, if God is your Father, as I told you to pray, how much more will a good God give you what you need? He actually says, how much more will God give you the Holy Spirit when you ask. This, then, is our great promise: God’s answer to our prayer is to come to be with us, to fill us, to make us children of God.
The relationship we have with God as Father, taught us by God the Son, is now embedded into our very hearts and lives by God the Spirit who lives in us. How, then, Jesus might say, can we ever doubt that God hears us in prayer, when God’s very Spirit is within us always?
God is always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and gladly gives more than we either desire or deserve.
That’s what we learn from Jesus today.
We can pray to God, knowing we are loved, and heard, and answered, knowing that God is with us always. God wills all good for us and for the world, and because of our relationship with God given by Christ Jesus, we can speak freely, honestly, openly in prayer. And when we don’t know what or how to pray, the Spirit will even help us with that.
God is ready to hear; now let us pray.
In the name of Jesus. Amen