Sermon: Praying To A Good God

So here it is, my very last sermon in Chelmsford. The next sermon will appear on this blog in early September, when I begin my new appointment. In the meantime, I hope to post other items here.

Luke 11:1-13

Our children, like so many, are always sustaining bruises on their legs from accidents. They tend to have a colourful collection at most times. Right now it’s Mark who is particularly prone, and when I wash him in the bath at night he tells me to be careful around his right knee. If I’m not watchful, he will flinch with pain.

Preachers know there are certain subjects for sermons where, if we’re not careful, we will cause congregations to wince as we touch their spiritual bruises. Talk about evangelism, and people will become defensive about whether and how they share their faith with others. Preach on giving, and it’s easy to induce guilt.

Another is prayer – the subject of today’s reading. It wouldn’t take too much effort to take the theme of prayer and load heavy weights of condemnation on a congregation: “Do you pray enough?” (Well, who can reply ‘Yes’ to that question?) “Are your prayers always answered?” (You can wriggle out of that one by saying, ‘Sometimes God says ‘no’,’ but you’re left feeling it’s a cop-out.) And so on.

Yet Jesus doesn’t use guilt trips here when he teaches about prayer. Our reading collects – in my opinion – three different episodes about Jesus and prayer and edits them together. In each of them, what we have is not condemnation but encouragement in prayer. As a way of identifying each section, I am going to label each of them by a person who features in them.

The first character is the teacher. And I mean Jesus himself. ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples,’ says one of his own disciples (verse 1).

Now in some sense, Jesus is the teacher of prayer right throughout this passage, but in the first four verses this is especially in focus. This unnamed disciple asks him to teach the group how to pray – and after all, that’s what a rabbi did with his disciples: he taught them. Hence the fact that John had taught his disciples how to pray.

Furthermore, the request comes after Jesus ‘was praying in a certain place’ (verse 1). In other words, he had been praying and his disciples had been observing his practice. This was common practice for a rabbi with his disciples: the rabbi lived his life openly before his disciples, and they began to learn by watching and copying his example.

Jesus teaches prayer by example. It’s ‘Do as I do, as well as do as I say’ with him. We don’t have the privilege of observing him praying ‘in the flesh’, but we do have the testimony of four Gospels to his life, including his prayer life. He has left an example for us to follow, in both carving our special time for prayer and also spontaneously praying when the need arises. We see both the joy of his intimacy with the Father and the agony of responding to the Father’s will in Gethsemane. We see the prayer life of Jesus as one where he does not merely present a shopping list to God, but seeks to tune himself into the will of the Father and then live accordingly. In doing so, he teaches us how to pray.

Perhaps this also means it’s worth looking out for people who will teach us to pray. Jesus may be the supreme example of prayer, but throughout the centuries, the Church has known that certain people have had specific gifts both in prayer and in teaching prayer by example. It’s why one of the great gifts from the Catholic tradition to the rest of Christianity is the idea of the ‘spiritual director’ – one who can teach the spiritual life, including prayer, by example. There is much more to the work of the spiritual director than that, but it certainly includes this. Friends of mine who have spiritual directors and who meet with them every few months testify to the benefit that has on their growth in prayer.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t only teach by example, he also teaches by pattern. He gives a specific pattern here, which we have come to call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (verses 2-4). Some Christians call it ‘the pattern prayer’, and I think that isn’t a bad name for it. Given that we have two different forms of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospels – a concise version here in Luke and a longer one in Matthew 6 – it would be hard to argue that the apostolic Church thought Jesus simply wanted us to repeat these words by rote, as if they were a magic incantation. And then, of course, you find that when I lead worship, I don’t use what many call the ‘traditional’ words of the Lord’s Prayer, but a modern translation!

Without going into the details of the Lord’s Prayer this morning – I don’t have time and when I have done, it has been a series of sermons – the simple point I want to make is that Jesus gives us this pattern so that we can pray in a fashion that reflects God’s priorities. How many of us have become bored with prayer when we have reduced it to a shopping list? So the name, honour and purposes of God come before we get to pray for ourselves in the second half, although God is deeply concerned for our spiritual and material needs. The pattern reminds us that prayer is not limited to a set of requests.

And that leads into the second section of teaching on prayer here. In the Parable of the Friend at Midnight, Jesus introduces us to the second key character here in understanding prayer, the neighbour.

Now here is where I want to take our conventional understanding of this parable and turn it on its head. Most preachers will tell you this parable is told to encourage persistence in prayer. They will point to typical translations of verse 8 at the end of the story as evidence of this:

I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

Furthermore, they will link with the teaching that follows where disciples are exhorted to ask, search and knock and point out that the Greek literally means, ‘Go on asking’, ‘Go on searching’ and ‘Go on knocking’.

However, this explanation does not fit the cultural background of ancient and modern Israel-Palestine. Without boring you with all the technical details, there is a very good argument[1] to translate verse 8’s punchline differently. Rather than referring to the persistence of the man who knocks, it refers to the neighbour who is woken up. And it is the neighbour’s desire to avoid shame that Jesus highlights.

Why? Leaving aside complicated questions of translation and which Aramaic or Hebrew words might be behind the Greek of Luke’s Gospel, it would have been a scandal in the hospitable culture of the Middle East for a neighbour not to help the person who had had a friend turn up on his doorstep out of the blue. Were he to fail to help, he would bring shame on himself and heap shame on the village.

Therefore what Jesus teaches us through the neighbour is that God will respond to our needs in prayer because if he did not, it would bring shame and dishonour on his holy name. While it is good not to give up in prayer (as Jesus teaches elsewhere in Luke 18 in the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge), God is not someone who has to be harangued and cajoled into answering prayer. Just as we call God ‘Father’ in the Lord’s Prayer, so he listens to his children. Just as we pray that his name will be hallowed, so he will ensure that his name is not besmirched by failing to care for his children.

So we should not see the Parable of the Friend at Midnight as reason for badgering God. Rather, God is the true neighbour in prayer who will give what we need, even at great personal cost and inconvenience to himself. Even, I would suggest, the cost and ‘inconvenience’ of the Cross. Be encouraged: this is the caring, loving God in whom we put our trust. He is better than we often think he is.

And that neatly leads us to the third character here that teaches us about prayer, the Father. Isn’t it good news that God is kinder than we often portray him to be?

It is good news – for some. But others find it scandalous. As Jesus goes on to commend the idea of asking, seeking and knocking, and as he envisages human parents who will not substitute a snake for a fish or a scorpion for an egg, there is something withering here that our English partly disguises. Did you notice that reference to ‘you, then, who are evil’ (verse 13)? Put that together with the fact that Jesus introduces these words with the formula, ‘So I say to you’ (verse 9) which he sometimes uses when addressing enemies, and I think you can see that Jesus has turned from addressing disciples to confronting critics.

Let me suggest to you that here Jesus is emphasising the scandal of God’s love. He says that everyone who asks will receive, everyone who searches will find and everyone who knocks will have the door opened for them (verse 10). Jesus’ enemies didn’t like the way he threw open the kingdom of God to the disreputable, the unclean and the marginalised. So Jesus offends those critics here by telling them that God the Father’s love is so scandalously good that he doesn’t just answer the righteous, the respectable, the elite, the in-crowd: he answers the prayers of sinners! No: even his ‘evil’ critics can give good things to their children: how much more will God give what is good and even the best to ‘everyone’! Terrible! Disgusting!

Worse than that, though: the scandalous God and Father of Jesus will give of himself to wretched sinners: he will give the Holy Spirit to them if they ask (verse 13)! He does not limit the spiritual action to the priestly classes, the theologically educated and the financially privileged. He opens ‘wide the gate of glory’ to all and sundry!

So let no-one here think they are not good enough for God to listen to them. The God of grace invites prayer from anyone.

And let no-one here think that anybody we know – however outrageous their lifestyles – is beyond the potential embrace of God’s love. I have encouraged you before to offer prayer for friends outside the faith who have needs, and to let them know you are praying for them. But I would also say on the basis of this text that we can encourage those same people themselves to pray. Who knows how they might be surprised by the way God responds to the cries of their hearts?

Various friends of mine have at times gone out onto the streets and offered prayer for anyone who would like it. One of them, a vicar called Simon, once found himself and a friend surrounded by some sceptical teenagers. Rather than debate with them, they offered to pray for them. In the middle of praying, the lads started to feel what they described as some strange but wonderful sensations.

“What was that?” they asked.

“The Holy Spirit,” said Simon.

“Would you pray for us again?”

Simon did. They experienced God again.

I’m not saying it will always be that sensational – any more than it always is for us. But I am saying that Jesus here presents the daring God of outrageous grace who is not constrained by the restrictive rules of decent people. So full of fatherly love is he that his heart bursts with compassion for all of creation. Let us dare to believe in such a God, the God of Jesus. Let us dare others to believe in him, too.

Truly, God is better than we think he is.

[1] Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant, pp 119-141.

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