The God who loves to answer prayer - Luke 11:1-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
~~The God who loves to answer prayer 10.6.18
A few weeks ago our eldest grandson, Jeb who is eight years old, was staying with us, and he, together with his two sisters, came to the morning service here at St Johns. At one point he turned to Heather and said, ‘Gran, I like your church’. Heather said, ‘That’s nice, but why do you like our church?’ And he simply replied, ‘Because you’re here.’!
In many ways that is a picture of what it is meant to be like between of the Christian and their heavenly Father. The reason why it is so good to pray is because He is there.
Prayer has been called ‘eye contact with God’ which is a lovely phrase when you think about it as it describes the intimacy of what is actually taking place when we talk with our Father in heaven. The Bible speaks of ‘seeking God’s face’. It is the same thing- that close, one-on-one, deeply personal enjoyment of God, as our grandson enjoys his Gran. But there is even more to it than that because when we pray we give glory to God in all his perfections. Just think about it: We glorify God in his omnipresence-he is never out of earshot of our prayers. We glorify God in his omnipotence-God can do all he intends to do. We glorify God in his omniscience- he knows what we are going to pray even before the words leave our lips- but he wants us to ask nonetheless. Prayer adores God in the beauty of his holiness, celebrates his faithfulness and delights in his kindness. It is in many ways the visible expression of faith- trust in the God who has promised to hear us when we pray in the name of his Son.
But if you are anything like me there are times when that trust falters with the result that prayer becomes joyless. Well, in the passage we are looking at this evening, the Lord Jesus gives us three grounds for confidence in prayer and each one of them arises out of the character of God himself- the kind of God he is.
So, why can we be confident in praying?
First, because the Father invites us
Look at verse 1, ‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father”’.
That one word makes all the difference in the world. He is not some distant being called “God’, he is the one we know personally as ‘Father’. He is not only great, he is good, not only distant but near. The Jews would rarely, if at all, use the term ‘Father’ to speak of God-it was way too familiar. Jesus, however, because of his unique relationship spoke of ‘my Father’ and then to his followers- ‘your Father’, so sharing with us his special privileges as Son. He is the eternal Son by generation; we are God’s sons by adoption. At the beginning of his Gospel, John tells us that from all eternity the Son has been ‘in the bosom of his Father’ (1:18), you cannot get any closer to God than that. But now, by virtue of us being ‘in Christ’, we occupy that very same position. Following this line of thought through John Calvin in his Geneva Catechism goes so far as to say that when we pray, we do so as it were, ‘through Jesus’ mouth’ (rpt). Just hold that thought. There never was a moment while Jesus was on earth that the Father didn’t long to hear the prayers of his Son. Similarly, there is not a moment when he doesn’t long to hear our prayers which are prayed in the name of his Son. As someone has said, ‘It may be that your heart is cold, your love is weak and your prayers are shabby, but what matters is that, united to Christ and in him, you are a cherished son- and your Father delights to hear you.’
The second reason we can be confident in our praying is because the Father always hears us. Look at verse 5-7, ‘Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’
Let me tell you that when Jesus told this parable his hearers would have been smirking at the shear absurdity of the story-it couldn’t have happened. What he describes is what you could call an ‘impossible possibility’ in this culture. Let me explain.
At first sight the story and the point Jesus is making seems pretty straightforward, although in the original it is quite a convoluted sentence. ‘Look’ says Jesus, ‘Just imagine this happening: you have a friend, and you turn up on his doorstep in the middle of the night 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 middle of the night arrival was certainly not unusual. ‘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 pick up morsels of meat and mopping up. And so it was not inappropriate to wake up another member of the village asking them to help out, otherwise shame would be brought down on the whole of the village and that was unthinkable. So Jesus continues, ‘You call on your friend, tell him of your predicament, but he replies that he is already in bed, the doors are locked and the children are asleep and says ‘I can’t get up and give you something.’’ But that is not what the man really means. He actually means that he won’t get up, but in this culture you don’t admit that, so 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 what has happened- it’s a cultural thing. So Jesus is saying to his audience ‘Can you for a moment even begin to imagine that happening?” And they are shaking their heads at the utter absurdity of the thought- of course there is no way this would happen because that is not how we operate- the rules of hospitality demand that you get up at whatever the time of night or day to respond to such a need. No one they knew would ever behave like this- it seems ridiculous that Jesus should ever come up with such a contrived and absurd scenario.
And that is exactly the point Jesus is making in relation to God and our prayers. Just as there is no way a Middle Eastern father would not respond to the needs of a friend for his friend’s needs, God our heavenly Father will not fail to respond to our needs. It is an impossible possibility. Do you see?
Then Jesus adds the comment in verse 8: ‘I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.’ The whole point of the story turns on the meaning of one word in the original (anaideia), translated ‘audacity.’ So we might rephrase it something along these lines: ‘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 (shameless audacity) 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 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 in such a way that to the outsider who knows nothing of our special relationship with him as ‘Our Father’, it might appear that we are being impertinent. One small but significant point is this: the man did not knock on the friend’s door, he called out to him because only stranger’s knocked. And yet Jesus goes on to in v9, ‘“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. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.’ We can call out to God as his friends, like this man in the story, and he will hear, but God is so willing to answer us that even if we knock on heaven’s door like a stranger might knock on a door in a Galilean village, God will still answer.
So Jesus is not comparing God to a reluctant man whose arm has somehow to be twisted before he will give us anything, quite the opposite. He has already spoken of God as the Father who gives us continuous bread-v3, who willingly and not reluctantly forgives sins, v4. It is not a comparison Jesus is making but a contrast for it is an essential part of God’s character is that he is overwhelmingly 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 with requests which are on our heart. And just as it was the honour of the man and the village which motivated 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 for it is the Father’s good pleasure to honour his Son and he does so by answering the prayers of those who pray in the name of his Son.
But let me also point out that the words of verse 9 are in the continuous tense, ‘Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking’. The point is to encourage us in believing that prayer is never a wasted work when we are tempted to ask, ‘Why the delay, why do we have to keep on asking, seeking, knocking?’ Jesus is not saying ‘Keep on and eventually he’ll take notice of you’, but ‘keep on because he’s drawing you’. Again, going back to the illustration of our grandson: his relationship with his Gran is not one of asking and asking-though it involves that-but drawing closer and closer deeper. So they do things together, walk down the street hand in hand chatting, she reads him stories, corrects him, and even- believe it or not for a Gran- says ‘no’ at times. He likes the church because she is there. And so it is in our ‘seeking and knocking’ in prayer. God’s delay in answering prayers is not a pushing us away from him, but drawing us ever closer to him. The Father always hears us.
The third reason for certainty in praying is that the Father only gives good things to us, v11, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If 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 might 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, in this second parable 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. God is consistent with us, he is not capricious. He doesn’t play jokes on us, like someone asking for a fish and instead giving them a snake- 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. And to make his point Jesus contrasts 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 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. You would have to be pretty far gone in the twisted department to pull such a sick trick like that. So what makes you think that God would do such a thing? And yet isn’t it sometimes the case that we do entertain such thoughts? The sneaking suspicion that life is going far too well for us at the moment and so something nasty must be waiting for us just around the corner- God won’t allow us too much happiness.
No, no says Jesus, you have it all wrong thinking like that. If human fathers who are flawed give good things to their children how much more will your heavenly Father who is perfect 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? Certainly, 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- he is there! And as with any relationship it can be close and harmonious or it can be distant and strained. And what greater gift can God give to his children than himself in the person of his indwelling Spirit? And as we ask for more and more of the Holy Spirit, we receive along with him the fruit he brings- love, faith, kindness, patience, peace, self-control. With more of the Spirit in our lives come the things we need which we are to ask for in prayer, and the more we have of the Spirit the more we will pray as led by the Spirit and so it goes on in one grand endless cycle.
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 called ‘Father.’ But here Jesus 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.
Let me finish by giving you an actual example of what can happen when Christians grasp hold of these truths.
Elsie and John Harris worked for the Leprosy Mission for 40 years mostly in Nepal and Congo. One day Elsie received a letter (her husband had died several years earlier) which related to a time in their early career, about 35 years earlier. To understand this you need to know that John and Elsie had a very profound and sustained prayer ministry of which John spoke very little, a ministry of intercession which reached into every day (and night) of their lives.
In 1969 they were living and working in the Kathmandu valley about 20 miles from Kathmandu. In those days no one was allowed to witness to Christ to the Nepalese. Ex pats in the hospital could have their own services but there was to be no evangelism whatsoever. It was a closed country. During their work John and Elsie had become increasingly burdened about the nearby Lille Valley. It was a place of such spiritual darkness and occult power that the missionaries used to say it could actually be felt by Christians who passed near.
Well, one day in the leprosy hospital a mother brought her little daughter who needed some attention though they did not have leprosy. The child was very dirty and scruffy and as John was talking with the mother and the child he felt a tremendous conviction that this ten-year old would be used to open up the notorious Lille valley to the gospel.
It seemed a ridiculous thing but John felt the assurance of the Holy Spirit that it would certainly come to pass and he covenanted with God to pray every day for the child and this outcome.
You know, he prayed for seventeen years, every day without fail, even when they left Nepal to take up Leprosy work in Congo. In 1986, when visiting Nepal, they heard from a paramedic friend named James that the Lille valley had opened up to the gospel. Soon after, he wrote with details that entire families had become Christians through the witness of one woman. John asked simply ‘What is the name of this woman?’ His friend said ‘Daya’. You’ve guessed it; it was the very same girl John had treated so many years before! Not long after John died, Daya wrote to Elsie to say that James, the paramedic, had told her that it was John who had treated her as a girl and prayed for her through all the years. Neither she nor her mother had ever known of John’s conviction but she was writing to Elsie to say that there were now whole groups of worshippers in the Lille valley. Later Elsie had another letter from her to say they were standing strong in the faith of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is now even a plaque to John Harris there in open celebration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
That is what happens when you know God as Father, who always hears and who only gives what is good.
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