Thursday, August 01, 2013

Everyone Who Asks

Everyone Who Asks
Lk. 11:1-13[1]
  Prayer is a puzzle to most of us, I think.  I’m not sure most of us even know why it is that we pray.[2]  In this self-oriented culture of ours, many people pray as a form of sanctified wish-fulfillment.  They think they can put a prayer coin in the slot machine and have all their dreams come true--if they pray the right way.  Then there are others who reject prayer altogether as a remnant from the days when people thought God was directly responsible for things like the weather.  They tend to think it’s just a mind game we’re playing with ourselves.  I think the solution to the problem of prayer lies somewhere in the middle between self-interest and cynicism.
  Our Gospel lesson for today contains three teachings about prayer.  I think the one we hear is “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Lk. 11:9-10).  We hear it, and yet I’m not sure we know quite what to make of it.  Those who pray only for their own self-interest find in this statement a promise that their wishes will be granted.  Those who object to that kind of thinking may simply reject it.  It’s problematic at best.  After all, who of us hasn’t had the experience of praying for something that seemed right and good, only to ask and not receive?[3]  So what do we make of this?
  I think the Gospel lesson gives us some clues.  For example, I think that it’s important to note that this passage on prayer that ends with “everyone who asks receives” begins with Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer.  In comparision with the version in Matthew’s Gospel, this one is much shorter.  And it seems to me that makes it even more clear that in this model prayer Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray for God’s Kingdom to come.   So I think the first clue to understanding “everyone who asks receives” is that all of our praying must be an expression of seeking first God’s Kingdom.[4]
  The second clue comes in the story of the friend who asks to borrow bread at midnight.  He has received unexpected guests, and not to offer them food would be a serious embarrassment.  So he asks his neighbor to borrow bread.  Of course, the neighbor objects, but Jesus said, “because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs” (Lk. 11:8).  There are a couple of things we have to understand about this.  For one thing, Luke tends to emphasize the importance of persisting in prayer and not giving up in his version of Jesus’ teachings.[5]  That is a good thing.  But the other point here is that Jesus is not saying that God gives begrudgingly when we make a nuisance of ourselves in prayer.  Sometimes, Jesus’ sayings are intended to illustrate the opposite of what is true about God.  This is certainly an example of that. The truth is that Jesus assured us we can pray knowing that God knows our needs (Matt. 6:7-8) and is already working in each of our lives for our best interest.
  I think we see this confirmed in the third clue found  when Jesus compares prayer to a child asking for something from a parent.  Jesus acknowledged that, for the most part, we human parents want what is best for our children.  So he says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” (Lk 11:11-12).  Of course, the answer is emphatically “No.”  Even we who are flawed and fallible parents “know how to give good gifts to [our] children” (Lk. 11:13).  How much more can we trust that God who loves us unconditionally is constantly working in our lives with grace before we even know we have a need.  And so when we pray, we do so with assurance, not out of the fear that we somehow have to get God’s attention or twist God’s arm.[6] 
  In all of this, you may be thinking that the lesson is that we shouldn’t pray for our own desires.  I don’t think that’s the point.  What is more natural than to turn to our creator and redeemer to express the deepest desires of our hearts.  But Jesus’ approach to prayer suggests that the desires of our hearts ought to be shaped not by the values of our culture, or our own selfish interests, but by the principles of the kingdom--compassion, peace, justice, freedom, and new life.[7]  As we pray in that way, I think we can pray with the confidence that “everyone who asks receives.”[8]  And this doesn’t just relate to our spirituality--part of the “Lord’s Prayer” involves meeting our daily needs and protecting us from trials that may overwhelm us.  Jesus assured us that we can pray for all these concerns, knowing that God knows our needs and is already working in each life to bring grace and peace, and mercy and love, and new life.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/28/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Barth seems overly confident when he says, “True prayer is prayer which is sure of a hearing. By 'hearing' is to be understood the reception and adoption of the human request into God’s plan and will, and therefore the divine speech and action which correspond to the human request.” cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.4, 106
[3] Cf. Stephanie Frey, “On God’s Case,” The Christian Century (July 13, 2004):17.
[4] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.4.76, where he says “the whole of the Christian life is a form of this petition.”  See also N. T. Wright, “Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord’s Prayer,” in The Christian Century (March 12,1997) 269: “We are praying, as Jesus was praying and acting, for the redemption of the world; for the radical defeat and uprooting of evil; and for heaven and earth to be married at last, for God to be all in all. And if we pray this way, we must of course be prepared to live this way.” Contrast John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 620, where he insists that the prayer is “unambiguously for the future coming of the kingdom of God.”
[5] Cf. E. Glenn Hinson, “Persistence and Prayer in Luke-Acts,” Review & Expositor 104 (Fall 2007): 721-736.
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 118, where he says, “The prayer offered in the assurance that prayer will be heard therefore becomes the expression of life lived in friendship with God. God can be talked to. He listens to his friend.”
[7] It might be easy to miss, but there’s another clue here that our praying is to be informed by the principles of the Lord’s prayer, and above all is to be an expression of seeking first the Kingdom.  Matthew’s version of this saying says, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).  But Luke’s version says, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13).  Luke presupposes that Jesus’ disciples are praying for Kingdom matters--like peace, and justice, and compassion, and new life.  And Jesus promises that God will freely give us the Spirit so that we can not only pray for the Kingdom but also work for its realization in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 154.
[8] Cf. Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 632: “this extravagant sense of the accessibility of God and of his ability and willingness to respond to us as we come to him fit well with the radical simplicity of the faith of Jesus, and Luke would have us encounter this in all its starkness.”

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