The God who hears - prayer - Luke 11:1-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Over the last few weeks we have been hearing some pretty amazing things about God. That he is the eternal God who exists within his own being as a Trinitarian family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That he is a relating God who stoops down to make himself known by speaking to us in our own language so we can understand all that we need to understand in order to trust him. That he has a name which speaks volumes- the great ‘I AM’ or ‘I will be whatever I need to be’- Yahweh, who is from all eternity to all eternity, and yet who at the same time is a personal God who hears the cries of his people and acts on their behalf. And all of these magnificent revelations are compressed together in human form in the person of Jesus Christ- the humble God, who made himself as nothing, taking on the form of a slave and going to a cross to rescue the likes of you and me. And when you begin to contemplate these things not only do they blow your mind they stir your heart- or at least the should, and you just want to fall down and worship, you so want to find words and tunes which will enable you to express, however falteringly and inadequately your adoration of such a glorious, joyful and majestic being.
And of course as you mine more and more the riches of Scripture and God speaks to you more and more about his being, his plans and his relationship with you, then you begin to think more and more. And one of the questions which will sooner or later pop into your mind will be related to one of the most important activities we are called to engage in with our Maker, and that’s prayer. And the question goes something like this: ‘If God really is sovereign, if God is really the ruler over every twist and turn of our existence, does that mean he is going to do whatever he wants to any way? If so what is the point of praying? Can prayer really make a difference?’
The root of this problem is in trying to see how prayer can ‘work’ because we view God in relation to his creatures wrongly. So like in the film ‘Bruce Almighty’ we picture God sitting in a celestial office feverishly dealing with all the prayer requests as they come in, ‘one at a time.’ Mrs Green prays that her husband’s cancer be cured. Mr Yellow prays his wife might conquer alcoholism. These and millions more are worthy requests are being made. In principle they are in line with what God wills for his creation, that Mr Green be healthy and Mrs Yellow be sober. But what if both get worse? Does that mean that God doesn’t answer the prayers?
You see, the tangled web of human affairs living in a fallen and so broken world like ours makes things a little more complex. Remember a few weeks ago we also looked at what it meant for human beings to be sinful by nature? The fact is, sometimes the goods God desires come out of certain evils. So at one level cancer is an evil, as is all sickness which is part of the curse upon the rebellious world in which we live. God does sometimes answer those prayers for healing. But on the other hand we do have to recognise that we all have to die sometime from something. Also, other prayers may be offered and answered which can only be answered if there is not healing –like gaining patience through suffering and an increased focus on the world to come. Maybe Mr Green’s son has turned his back on God, and that it will be through his father’s illness that he will come to his senses and return. Well, God knows this and so in order to ‘answer’ one prayer- the return of the son, he doesn’t ‘answer’ the other prayer- complete healing. God alone knows what is best.
Maybe we can think of it like this: God stands outside time, and so he, as it were, can hear all the prayers ever made, and ever will be made, in an eternal moment and use each one of them outside time to bring about his good purposes inside time. He is able to view the whole course of human history; past-present and future together in an eternal present and weave all our decisions freely made into a pattern which is his. That is why we are called to pray. And as a result of those prayers some things will happen which if we had not prayed would not have happened- and we are responsible for whether we pray or don’t pray. Because God is a personal God he invites us to share in his work by praying. Because he is transcendent and infinite- he has the power and the wisdom to use those prayers as he sees fit to do things which we could never imagine. If he were not all powerful, then there would be little point in praying. If he were not all wise it would be dangerous to pray, who wants to ask of an all powerful but stupid Being to do things? That could be like letting a child play with a hand grenade-it would be disastrous. But the wonderful truth is that God is both perfectly wise and perfectly powerful.
And so we pray.
But how do we pray? That was the question uppermost in the minds of Jesus’ disciples when they saw him praying. And Jesus answered by first giving a pattern for prayer, which we know as the Lord’s Prayer, and then two parables to encourage prayer in a way which will overcome our doubts about whether or not prayer is worthwhile. And it is to those two parables we now turn in Luke 11: 5ff.
The first lesson Jesus wants to teach us about prayer is that we should pray shamelessly-vv 5-10, ‘Then he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.' 7 "Then the one inside answers, `Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.' 8I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. 9"So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.’
Now at first sight the story and the point Jesus is making by it is pretty straightforward, although in the original is quite a convoluted sentence. ‘Look’ says Jesus, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you turn up on his doorstep at midnight because you have another friend who has turned up on your doorstep after a long journey.’ This did happen. You didn’t have text messages or telephones and so although you might have some vague idea that a friend might be coming to visit you, you had no precise way of telling exactly when he would arrive. Also, travelling at night was not uncommon. In fact it made sense during the summer when it was blazing hot during the day, and therefore a midnight arrival was certainly not unreasonable. ‘The reason you go round’ says Jesus, ‘is that you are out of bread and Middle Eastern hospitality demands that you provide for your guest.’ Remember this was not a knife and fork culture, bread was essential not simply as part of a staple diet, but as a utensil, using it to pickup morsels of meat and mopping up. And so it was not inappropriate to wake up another member of the village asking to help out, otherwise shame would be brought down on the whole of the village and that was unthinkable. So Jesus continues by saying, ‘ You call on your friend, you tell him of your predicament, but he replies that he is already in bed, the doors are locked and the children are asleep and replies ‘I can’t get up and give you something.’’ But that is not what he really means. He really means that he won’t get up, but in this culture you don’t admit that you say you ‘can’t get up’. It is like with the Spanish, a Spaniard would not say, ‘I dropped the plates’, he will say, ‘The plates fell from my hands’, so distancing himself from taking personal responsibility- it’s a cultural matter.
Then Jesus adds his comment in verse 8: ‘I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.’ The whole point of the story turns on the meaning of one word, it is the word translated in the NIV, ‘boldness’. Some versions have ‘persistence.’ Or is it as in the AV, ‘importunity.’ Which is it? For whichever you opt for will give the parable a different meaning. If it is persistence then the point would be that because the man was bothersome and would not go away that is why the friend eventually gave in. When translated to our praying that would mean that likewise we have just got to keep going on badgering God until we get what we want- keep on knocking, keep on seeking and keep on asking. But that is not what the word means. This is the only time the word is found in the New Testament (anaideia) so you can’t compare it with another passage to get its meaning. But it is a word which appears elsewhere in Greek literature, some 250 times, and in pretty well every case it means ‘shameless’ or ‘audacious’. So we might translate it like this: ‘I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's bare face cheek (shamelessness) he will get up and give him as much as he needs.’ Do you see what kind of approach Jesus is saying we should adopt when we pray? He is not encouraging us to be rude or arrogant when we come to God to ask for things, but he is saying- don’t hold back; don’t feel that it is inappropriate to ask God for things, feeling it is out of order, that God won’t be interested, that there are certain etiquettes to be observed before you can talk to God. Rather we are to have a holy boldness when we come to God in prayer, so that to the outsider who knows nothing of the special relationship we have with him as ‘Our Father’ which is more intimate than a friend, it could appear that we are being cheeky. So they say, ‘How dare you ask God for that? Who do you think God is?’ Well, he is my Father, that is who he is.
You see Jesus is not comparing God to the reluctant friend. He is not portraying God as some hard nosed Scrooge-like figure whose arm has somehow to be twisted before he will give us anything. On the contrary, it is a ‘how much more’ kind of argument. He has already spoken of God as the Father who gives us continuous bread, who willingly and not reluctantly forgives sins- which is a big thing for God to do given that his name is hallowed- holy. It is not a comparison Jesus is making but a contrast for God’s character is that he is generous. So we are not to hold back in asking him, we are not to think that somehow we are inconveniencing God by going to him on prayer with requests which are on our heart. And are we not grateful that God isn’t like the friend in the house? Can you imagine having a God like that, a God who says, ‘Just go away. Don’t bother me with you petty little wants; don’t you know I have got bigger and more important things to deal with? Who cares about your desire to get the Gospel out not going very well or the hard time your kids might be having at school when I have North Korea to sort out and a global economic crisis to deal with? Come back some other time.’ What kind of God would that be? Then our prayer life would soon dry up, wouldn’t it? Because we would have no incentive to ask God for anything. But you know that is the kind of doubt the devil often sows in the mind of a Christian isn’t it? ‘Do you honestly think God cares about that? Should not your prayers be couched in terms which are a little more reverent- put in a few ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, talk about the big stuff, but not what is crushing you at the moment- that is so self-centred.’ Or am I the only one who has such problem thoughts when I am praying? You see, Jesus says, when you pray, be shameless, go for it- ask, knock and seek, because if you ask, it will be given to you, if you knock the door will be opened to you, and to everyone who asks (that is all encompassing), they shall receive. And just as it is the honour of the man and the village that causes him to go around to his neighbour for bread at an unearthly hour, so it is the honour of God’s name which should cause us to pray at whatever time and in whatever circumstance- because it is God’s honour which is at stake for he is glorified in giving.
In the second parable Jesus teaches us that we should pray confidently; v11 "Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Now what kind of doubt which would hold us back from praying is Jesus targeting here? In the first parable it was the doubt that God would not hear us because of our approach, here it is the doubt that God would not answer us because he is not good. Jesus is getting us to view God correctly so that we can pray securely. You see, God is consistent with us, he is not capricious, he does not play games with us or play jokes on us, asking for a fish and instead giving us snake- with him sniggering ‘Got you there didn’t I?’ God is not like that, although it has to be said that the Greek gods were often like that. They did like to play tricks on human beings, sometimes pretty nasty ones, especially if you annoyed them in some way. But not the true God. And to make his point Jesus compares God as heavenly Father with human fathers, as if to say, ‘Look, you who are fathers, even though you are evil (that is in contrast with God who is good- it’s a relative term), would not be so perverse as to play such a wicked and low down trick on your children such that if they asked you for an egg, you would produce something which looked like an egg but was in fact a curled up scorpion with a poisonous sting. You would have to be pretty far gone in the twisted department to pull such a sick joke like that. So what makes you think that God would do such a thing? But there’s the rub. Although we may not voice it as such, sometimes we are reluctant to ask God for something because we are afraid that somehow he will short change us and spite us and so we don’t dare ask him at all. Sure, it may be that things get worse before they get better. Certainly we may not always get what we want when we want it, but the suggestion that God does not have our best interests at heart is a lie as old as time itself, for it is the suggestion made by the serpent to our first parents in the Garden of Eden, ‘. 5"For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." That is God is holding back on you, he wants to spite you. Well, who would want to ask a God like that- he can’t be trusted.
But Jesus corrects that false view of God. If human fathers who are flawed give good give to their children then how much more our heavenly Father who is perfect will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.’ Now why does Jesus speak of the Holy Spirit as a gift? Surely all Christians have the Holy Spirit- the apostle Paul says so in Romans 8:9? That is true, but we can have the Holy Spirit in increasing measure and with increasing influence in our lives. Remember the Holy Spirit is a person which means having a personal relationship with him. And as with any relationship it can be close and intimate or it can be distant and strained. And what greater gift can God give to his children than himself in the form of the indwelling Spirit- here both the Giver and the Gift are one and the same- God. And as we ask for more and more of the Holy Spirit, will we not receive with him the fruit he brings- love, faith, kindness, patience, peace, self-control as well as the gifts. With more of the Spirit in our lives come the things we need and which we are to ask for in prayer, and most of all, comes the greatest thing God longs for- for his Son to be glorified. In John 16: 14, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as being sent to his followers so that ‘he will glorify me’. The Holy Spirit acts like a spotlight which turns away from himself to make known the Son, to exalt him, which he loves doing and has been doing within the Godhead for all eternity. And so to pray for more and more of the Holy Spirit so that Jesus will be glorified more and more in our lives will be the prayer which will always be answered. Because with the Holy Spirit in increasing measure we shall start loving each other more in the way we should, giving over our money to God’s work in the way we should, witnessing more effectively in the world in the way that we should, getting our thought life and personal life sorted out more in the way that we should. This is the supreme gift of prayer.
Sadly, as we know, human fathers do abuse their children’s trust, terribly so and their little lives are shattered, sometimes irreparably so. And it may well be that because of such experiences some people do find it difficult to trust God who is also called ‘father.’ But here Jesus himself says that whatever might be the case with human fathers with your heavenly Father, it is totally unthinkable and impossible that he should do such a thing- for he is consistent, holy and good. That is why we can pray confidently and shamelessly.
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