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Sermon: Two Encouragements To Pray

English: Roman Centurion

English: Roman Centurion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luke 7:1-10

I wonder what your personal prayers for other people’s needs are like. Perhaps part of your regular prayers are like a shopping list – you have a collection of people you regularly pray for, and you methodically go through the list, ticking them off as you’ve mentioned them.

But what are your prayers like when an urgent need comes up? When you are only praying for one person, do you find yourself starting to rehearse before God all the reasons why he should answer your request – perhaps to heal this person? Maybe sometimes we are so daunted by the seriousness of the appeal we are making to the Lord that we are trying to buttress our own faith by deploying reason after reason why we think God should say ‘yes’ to us.

In those situations, a common component of our prayers is to say, “Lord, the person I am praying for is a good person. Here is a list of all the worthy things she has done. Here, too, is a list of reasons why it would be important to heal her.” We hope that – like some barrister pleading for a client before a jury – we can persuade God to find in favour of the friend we are representing in prayer.

And you know what? It’s wasted breath. Our story tells us that.

The Jewish elders come to Jesus about their surprising friend, the Roman centurion, whose slave is ill. Luke tells us that the slave was ‘valued highly’ (verse 2), which may indicate one of these types of prayer – ‘Lord, look what dire straits this centurion will be in if his slave dies.’ More specifically, they tell Jesus how worthy the man is:

He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us. (Verses 4b-5)

Now while Jesus doesn’t castigate them for this – indeed, the next thing we read is that he ‘went with them’ (verse 6) – it is apparent from the story that this is not why Jesus healed the gravely ill slave.

Remember – it is the centurion’s faith that Jesus commends. And what we hear from him is the very opposite account of himself. He does not have the temerity to approach Jesus and appeal to him on the grounds that he deserves a divine favour. Rather, we get the complete opposite. The whole tenor the centurion’s approach is not how worthy he is but how unworthy he is:

Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. (Verses 6b-7a)

This, I believe, is the first of two elements in the centurion’s faith that Jesus praises so highly. We would say it is about grace. The centurion does not appeal to Jesus on the basis of being ‘good enough’. He knows that any divine response is never going to come on that basis. It will only come because God is gracious and merciful.

And that indeed is what happens. Jesus does not announce the healing on the basis of the man having funded a synagogue. In fact, Jesus even seems to honour the centurion’s request not to come under his roof, because he simply says that the healing has happened. The healing is discovered when the friends whom the man has sent (verse 6) return to the house (verse 10).

I want to say that there is both good news and bad news in this approach. The bad news is for those who want to earn their own favour with God. That is, the sort of people who want to put out a record of good works and claim they are worthy of the Almighty’s company and favour. This will not do. Not one of us. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the stark message that ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). All. No exceptions. We need to put aside any religion that is based on thinking we can make ourselves good enough for God, or that we can put ourselves within his boundary markers. It isn’t possible. We delude ourselves dangerously when we do that. But we still have people in church congregations who believe this lie.

Answered prayer is not simply a reward for the good people. Do not mistake me: I still believe it is important to live a good life, and to make it a top priority to ‘find out what pleases the Lord’ as Paul said, and then do it. But that lifestyle is not a passport to heaven, it is the sign of our gratitude to God that in Christ he has been full of grace and mercy to us. A good lifestyle is the response of love to God. Having received his grace, we respond to Jesus’ call, when he says, ‘Follow me.’

So what is the good news here? Jesus invites those of us who know we are not good enough or worthy of his love still to approach him in prayer. What is it about yourself that makes you feel unworthy before Jesus? Is it all those times you have let him down? He still invites you to pray. Is it that recently you have done something you are particularly ashamed of? He still invites you to pray. Is it that you don’t feel like you fit in socially – either in society, or even, perhaps in the church? Guess what – in his grace he still invites you to pray. Perhaps you have a stigma – maybe it is the stinging words of someone who has always put you down and made you feel like dirt over the years. Jesus doesn’t speak to you like that. In fact – he invites you to pray. He says, ‘Speak to me. I am listening. I am full of grace and mercy. My Father wants you to approach him as his beloved child.’ Believe the good news.

The second of the two elements in the centurion’s faith is his understanding of authority. It’s about the delegated authority to speak an authoritative word of command. Listen to his words that his friends relay to Jesus:

But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it. (Verses 7b-8)

It’s not just, ‘Jesus, I know what it’s like to give orders in the army; you can give orders in the kingdom of God.’ It is that, but it’s more. It’s more like this: ‘I can give my orders, because I am under authority. My authority comes from my superiors and ultimately from the Emperor. That is why my orders must be carried through. You, Jesus, are in a similar situation. Your orders have to be carried out, because you have placed yourself under the Father’s authority. Your orders have the backing of heaven. You can speak an authoritative word to heal my slave, because the Father has delegated his power to you.’

Now I know that putting it like that is rather to expand things beyond what the centurion probably understood at the time, but I think in the bigger New Testament picture of things, it’s justified. Jesus, the Word who was and is the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and submitted himself as a servant, even to death. On earth, Jesus – despite being fully divine – acted as ‘a man in the power of the Spirit’ (Jack Deere). Under the Father’s authority, he could command healing, he could command the wind and the waves, he could turn water into wine and make five loaves and two fish feed a multitude.

Maybe it is something like this. When I worked in Social Security, I would issue several letters a day to benefit claimants or to self-employed people about their National Insurance. I signed every single one ‘pp’ the manager. My signing authority was that of my manager. That gave me the right to say what I said in those letters. The centurion had the ‘signing authority’ of the Emperor. Jesus had – and has – the signing authority of the Father.

What difference does this make to our praying? While I don’t want to minimise the difficulties we face when our prayers are not answered in the way we hope – whether we get a ‘no’, a different answer, or even the silence of heaven – what I want to encourage us to remember is this: it’s about the rank of the Person to whom we are coming. The risen and ascended Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. He is even praying for us, and the Holy Spirit prays through us. The Father is not being badgered: Jesus and the Spirit share his authority.

So I want us to be encouraged in prayer. The court of heaven is an environment in which we are welcomed and heard. We have been encouraged into the Father’s presence by his grace and mercy in Christ. Now that we are there, we can humbly revel in the authority he desires to exercise for the sake of his kingdom, so that things conform on earth to the way they are done in heaven. If you are considering bringing a request in prayer to God and wondering whether it is worthy being brought, simply ask yourself this: if this were answered, would it be a good fit with God’s reign coming more fully on earth as it is in heaven? That doesn’t always have to mean it’s super-spiritual. It  doesn’t always have to mean that it’s an earth-shattering request. But it does mean this: would it reflect God’s love for people? Would it demonstrate God’s love in Christ for the last and the least? Would it be a sign of mercy, or healing, or peace, or justice? It may still benefit us, by the way, as the healing of the slave did the centurion.

As I prepared this sermon, a couplet from an old hymn came to mind:

Large petitions with thee bring
Thou art coming to a king.

The hymn starts with these words:

Come, my soul, thy suit prepare,
Jesus loves to answer prayer.

English: John Newton (1725-1807)

English: John Newton (1725-1807) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Does anyone know who wrote it? John Newton, author of ‘Amazing Grace.’ You don’t need me to remind you that Newton was a former slave trader who was converted to Christ, became an Anglican clergyman and supported William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade from which he had previously profited. Newton epitomises both of the strands of prayer that the centurion understood. He certainly knew that he was most unworthy to grace God’s presence in any way at all, least of all to ask for things in prayer. But he understood and experienced grace. He knew that in Christ and his cross God had forgiven him for some of the very worst things one human being could do to another. He would not have earned an audience with heaven on the grounds of his goodness.

But then, in backing the young Wilberforce and his parliamentary campaign of abolition, he understood something of Jesus’ delegated authority from the Father. To pray and work for abolition was huge. It took decades (and even Wilberforce’s victory did not result in the complete destruction of the slave trade). However, the elderly Newton knew that it was worth bringing ‘large petitions’ as he said in his hymn, because in prayer you are ‘coming to a king.’

Friends, this is what we do. Even if our lives are not as scandalous and colourful as John Newton’s – and unless anyone is hiding some remarkable details from us, I think I can safely say that’s the case here – we know we can and we may come to God’s presence because of his grace. Our humility does not exclude us, but leads us to the reason why we may come: God in Christ is gracious and merciful.

Then, when we come, we come to Christ who has authority from the Father. And therefore we can come with big requests. Big kingdom prayers.

Let us now allow anything to stop us. No lies of the enemy, no self-doubt, no voices of scorn or disbelief from people we know. Jesus calls us to the Father’s presence. And he tells us to ‘pray big.’

So let us pray. Not just now, in this service. But always.

Week Of Accompanied Prayer #1

English: Isaiah; illustration from a Bible car...

English: Isaiah; illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my last appointment, an ecumenical church I served ran a ‘Week of Accompanied Prayer‘. I missed out somehow, and was jealous of the members who clearly had a wonderful spiritual experience. So when our Catholic friends here in Knaphill offered to put one on in the village, I was an enthusiastic supporter. It started today. It’s like a mini-retreat without going away, where you have the benefit of low-key spiritual direction in your prayer life from a ‘prayer guide’ each day.

We began with a simple service and got to meet our prayer guides this afternoon. I was invited to choose a Bible passage to pray on this evening before I meet my prayer guide for the first formal session tomorrow morning. I chose Isaiah 43:1-5 from the selection offered. It made me think of an old song by Andy Piercy and Dave Clifton, from the same CD as contained their more famous ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow’. I can’t find a video online of them singing this, so here is someone’s cover version of ‘Precious In Your Eyes’:

As for other reflections on the passage itself, I had thought I would just read it pietistically, but I can’t deny the ‘theological’ side of me. So I brought into my reflections the fact that this comes from the section of Isaiah that is directed to them in exile in Babylon, when the prophet tells them that God will bring them home. They are precious in God’s eyes despite their sin. God does not give up on his people. That is something for all God’s people – me included – to cherish.

I’ll see how tomorrow goes. One thing I’m looking forward to is this: I mentioned to my prayer guide today that I find it hard to enter for myself into the kinds of prayer where I am expected to imagine what my five senses tell me. I can lead those sessions for others, but they don’t work for me, and I think it’s because in Myers Briggs terms I’m an ‘N’ – an Intuitive. I am a ‘sixth sense’ person who sees the big picture, not an ‘S’ – a Sensory person who uses the ‘five senses’ and concentrates on fine detail. Yet I enjoy photography, which as Jerry Gilpin pointed out to me on my last sabbatical, is definitely an ‘S’ practice. On quiet days in the past I have been known to take my camera gear out and about, and use it to meditate on creation. My prayer guide mentioned something about knowing a retired Anglican priest who may have some material on using photography this way, so we’ll see.

Do We Value Prayer?

“Of course we do!” someone may protest at that headline.

But … after one of those manic days yesterday, I just wonder. I was picking music and readings for two services, I had two funerals, Debbie and I visited a mother and her new baby, a hoped-for peaceful lunch time turned into a frantic time of arranging emergency help for someone in dire need, we had to get the children to their annual eye tests, and the sugar fondant coating was Circuit Meeting in the evening. It made me remember those people who value ministers according to their busyness.

How different that is from the concept of being paid a stipend, not a salary, because a stipend is a living allowance that is to free us from want so we can pray. Yes, pray about how we should follow our calling as ministers, but pray.

Oh, we are asked to pray in public worship and include certain individuals in our private prayers, but even that is prayer as achievement, not prayer as waiting or contemplation. The busyness bug even infects what prayer we do practise, or which is approved. Are we really Pelagians at heart, or might we still just about believe in grace?

We Don’t Do God … In Church

This topic keeps coming up lately among friends and colleagues. Why are we unable and unwilling to talk about God and talk to God, even among Christians? What stops us? What disempowers us? What could be stranger than Christians who don’t want to talk about God or with God?

Prayer meetings are dying, but on the other hand in my experience they’ve never been popular and it’s also true that Sunday evening church services are dying. A prayer meeting on a Sunday evening maybe a fatal combination. A crisis will galvanise us together, but regular bread-and-butter corporate prayer isn’t attractive.

Conversations after church – we default to the weather and our aches and pains. We might just talk about whether we liked the hymns. Maybe there will be the odd comment about the sermon, but it won’t dominate the caffeinated discussions.

Small groups tend to be just that – small. Some of that is about personality – some people are comfortable in discussion groups, and some indeed get too comfortable, putting others off with their belligerent expositions. Others feel exposed.

The one person who must talk about God and who must talk to God is, of course, the minister. She is our representative. He can do this for us.

And all of this before we even get to the question of talking about God outside the boundaries of the fellowship.

Some years ago, the Methodist Church recognised this problem. A national survey of church life identified that in our tradition we were strong on social issues but weak on talking about our faith. So it produced some material to help: Time To Talk of God. There was a lesser-known follow-up course on evangelism, Talking of God. But how much has changed?

If I am right that little has changed, why might this be? There could be all sorts of reasons:

* Our fear of others is stronger than our sense of God’s love

* We like to have just enough religion to feel we’re ‘in’, but not so much that we’re regarded as fanatical

* Churches (including leaders) are not offering the best education and training in the faith that we could

* Church leaders actually like hogging the power and influence, and don’t introduce more than they have to that would empower others. It’s nice to be the ‘expert’

These are all just some initial random thoughts about the issue. If I sat down longer, I might put together some eloquent piece about our lack of eloquence. But I’d rather just bash the keyboard and get this out quickly to ask – what do you think?

Coffee With Jesus

This video has been around quite a while now. Does it get too close to the truth about the practice of prayer as a shallow monologue?

You can buy and download it here, BTW.

Leading Intercessions

I’m thinking of writing some guidelines for those who lead prayers of intercession in church. I have a few ideas of my own – range of themes to cover, overall length, how to signpost the prayers since most people will have their eyes closed, seeing them as representative of the congregation’s prayer life rather than exhaustive, etc. But before I get to this task I thought I would ask you, O noble blog reader, what you would include in any such document.

Suggestions are welcome below.

Depending on the appropriateness of the final content,  I may post the document here on the blog.

Sacred Rhythms

We’ve just started a new course at Knaphill: Sacred Rhythms is a DVD course that abbreviates the book of the same name by Ruth Haley Barton, an American retreat leader and spiritual director. I’ve been reading her regular emails from The Transforming Center for some while. I’m about half way through the original book.

Why are we doing it? Because people asked at our annual meeting in the Spring for teaching on prayer. Barton says something striking about that: it is young Christians who typically do not ask how to pray, because they get on with it. As we become more mature, we hit  more obstacles in prayer and realise we don’t know what we thought we knew. Ironically, it is the more experienced Christians who may have to come to the point of honesty, asking, “Teach us to pray.”

We had an excellent first meeting this week. The opening chapter or session locates ‘desire’ as a way into discovering why we need to develop the habits of spiritual disciplines that form a rule of life, in which we focus on Christ.

That sounds strange, even wrong, at first. However, Barton begins from the times in the Gospels when Jesus asks needy people like Bartimaeus questions such as, “What do you want me to do for you?” We could come up with selfish answers to that, or the question could expose honourable desires. Yet even if we come up with answers from sinful motives, these are exposed in the light of Christ and that is a first step to coming into a better place. Like Bartimaeus, we may need to ‘throw off our cloak’ to press towards what God has for us – we may need to let go of certain things that are not always sins in order to walk in the way of Christ.

At this early stage, I recommend the course to you.  As a taster, here are the opening three minutes of it.

Permission To Struggle With God In Prayer

Today, I attended for the first time a Leaders’ Forum at Waverley Abbey House, home of CWR. These days (free, gratis and otherwise at no cost) had been recommended by a new ministerial friend here. The theme was The Leader’s Vital Breath – Prayer. I thought I would share one insight that came in this afternoon’s session led by Philip Greenslade.

Giving us an extended treatment of Psalm 73, he contrasted Islamic treatment of the Abraham story with the Jewish and Christian approaches. Referring to the incident where Abraham bargains with God for the salvation of the righteous in Sodom, he noted that the Qu’ran deletes the bargaining and Abraham is basically told to shut up. In other words, it’s pure Islam: ‘submission’ (which is what the word ‘Islam’ means). On the contrary, both the Jewish and Christian approaches allow for honest struggle with God in prayer (hence Psalm 73). Quoting Abraham Heschel, who said that for the Jewish prophets, ‘Thy will be done’ involved effectively praying ‘Thy will be changed’, he said that any proper understanding of ‘Thy will be done’ has to include Gethsemane.

Does not all true prayer involve struggle, he asked? If prayer is only submission (and some Christian traditions are guilty of this, too), then is it true prayer? Good question.

I think we are learning this lesson of being able to be honest with God in prayer more and more in today’s church, but it was good to have such a thought-provoking underlining of it.

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.

Public Intercession

There’s a useful post called Leading a Church in Prayer at Leadership Journal, by Kevin DeYoung. Any Worship leader, preacher of minister would benefit from reading it. What do you think of DeYoung’s advice? What would you add?