TEXT: Luke 11:1-13
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to 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.” (Luke 11:9-10)
The first time I remember praying, I was 12 years old. Oh, I know I had prayed before that. Certainly, I had recited “The Lord’s Prayer.” I’m actually old enough that—when I was a kid—the Winnipeg public schools began each instruction day with the entire class reciting it. If you didn’t want to recite the Lord’s Prayer, you had to get special permission to opt out—and very, very few people ever did that.
But this was different. This time I was praying as hard as I could, and in my own words, for something I wanted more than anything. I was praying for my grandfather’s life.
My mother and I lived with her parents, you see. And my mother’s mother—and my mother’s father—were closer to me than anyone else on earth. My grandfather was more like a father to me than a grandparent.
He had just had a massive heart attack in our living room. Back in those days, doctors still made house calls, and we had summoned ours. I remember waiting anxiously at the front window for him to arrive—which he did, very quickly. I still vividly recall the sight—and the sound—of his big Buick screeching to a halt on our front street. The doctor sprang from the car, and—medical bag in hand—he ran to our door.
At that point, I must have been ushered into the back porch, because that’s where my recollection of things picks up again. And that’s where I was, terrified, on my knees, praying as hard as I could: “God, please don’t let my grampa die … Please, don’t let him be dead.”
The next thing I remember, I was back in the living room, helping the doctor lift my grandfather’s lifeless body out of the easy chair where he had been sitting. We laid him out on the chesterfield, on his back, like he was sleeping. I think by this time my mother had been called home from work, and together—she and I and my grandmother and the doctor—we waited until the hearse arrived.
That is my first vivid memory of praying for something—and of its results, which were not what I was so desperately hoping for. It’s still a painful memory, after all these years. It’s an intensely personal story—and a difficult one to tell. So why am I mentioning it now? Because I want you to know that—like many of you—I have struggled with the words of Jesus in our gospel text: “Ask, and it will be given to you … For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
However, it doesn’t always seem to work that way, does it? As someone has said, “Prayer is not like ordering a pizza.” You do not always get what you ask for.
So, what was Jesus talking about, anyway? After all, we know that he himself made at least one request in prayer that was not granted. In Gethsemane, on the night of his arrest, he was—as the Scripture says—“distressed and agitated.” And “he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said … Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:35-36).
At the beginning of chapter 11 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus gives us a parable, which might well be a reminiscence of his own boyhood. It’s sometimes called the Parable of the Importunate Friend. Let’s consider what it might be teaching us.
Imagine, if you will, a first-century family asleep on the floor of their one-room dwelling, laying round the fire with its embers still glowing. Suddenly there is a pounding on the door. The father awakens. And then he hears a voice calling from outside—a voice he knows well: “My friend, I know it’s midnight, but … I need to borrow three loaves of bread. My old army buddy has shown up, and I have nothing to feed him.”
We probably all have a friend like that one, don’t we?
Now, you have to understand: hospitality was a vitally important thing in the ancient world. So this scenario might not have seemed as bizarre to Jesus’ disciples as it sounds to us. But even so, the father in this case could not answer his friend’s request without disturbing his entire household. They were all sleeping together in that one little room, you remember. Even to get up and answer the door, he would have had to pick his way between the sleeping bodies on the floor of the darkened room.
So he tries to give his friend the brush-off: “Look, this is not my problem! The door’s locked. My kids are in bed. I’m not giving you anything. Go away!”
However, as Jesus tells the story, the midnight caller won’t take “no” for an answer. He refuses to be brushed off. He keeps pounding on the door and calling out … and eventually the father gets up and gives the guy what he’s asking for.
Who but Jesus would think to use an illustration like this one when speaking about prayer? Still, it’s a pretty good one. There’s no danger of serious misunderstanding here. If a human being who does not want to get up out of bed can be made to do so by sheer unashamed persistence, how much more will your heavenly Father—who welcomes the knock at his door—be quick to listen and reply! Even so, God often has difficulties greater than we can dream of in answering our prayers, and appreciates our perseverance.
Jesus does not tell us that we shall get what we want when we ask; or that, when we seek, we shall find what we expect. When we knock at the door, there is no guarantee that what waits for us on the other side will be altogether to our taste. But it will at least be the best thing possible. God does not play practical jokes on his children, as the heathen gods do with their worshippers, leading them on, and then cheating them with snakes that look like fish.
Jesus, you know, loved hyperbole. He used exaggeration to grab people’s attention—to shock them, even—to make a point. “If your right eye causes you to sin,” he said, “tear it out and throw it away … and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away …” (Matthew 5:29-30). No one hearing him would have taken his advice literally—but they would have understood what he meant: sin is a destroyer, and it must be dealt with radically and decisively.
Likewise, he said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). But this, also, is clearly not meant to be taken literally. Jesus himself spoke about our responsibility to obey the sixth commandment (Mark 7:9-13), and he certainly cared for his own mother (John 19:25-27). Jesus was teaching that following and obeying him was to have number one priority in the life of believer. Nothing was more important than that obedience.
It seems to me that Jesus’ mind was, in more than one respect, the mind of a poet; and poets seldom qualify their statements. The poet sees a truth about life and affirms it—simply, and boldly. But few truths can stand alone.
Every magnificent generalization leaves something out of account. That does not mean the generalization is untrue; but it is true as a great poem is true. It says one thing; other things are true also, but they will be said in other poems or by other poets. If we look at today’s parable in this way, then I think the one true thing this “poem” says is that God cares for us—that he listens to our prayers, that he rejoices to give us what we need. If we didn’t know that to be the case—if we didn’t believe in the truth of that—how could we have any faith at all?
So, why do we have faith? I could ask each one of you that question. Why do you have faith? Why do you believe? And each of you would, I’m sure, have a different answer. But I suspect that—as you thought about the question—many of you would recall instances of answered prayer. You would remember cases where you did get what you asked for—or perhaps something even better than what you asked for.
I could tell you several stories about that. I can certainly tell you that, although I lost my grandfather—which I was, let’s face it, bound to do, sooner or later—the Lord did not abandon me. As awful, as painful, as that day was, it was also the first time I remember feeling God being especially close to me—near to me, and real to me, with a closeness that has never since left me, even in my worst moments.
Our life experiences give us many reasons to believe—and many reasons to doubt. I believe prayer can help us make sense of all that. Either we are speaking to a God who acts, or we are merely prattling on to ourselves. Yet in asking God for things, we have said, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Prayer is conversation with God, not magic. Prayer is not some hocus-pocus through which we hope to entice an apathetic deity to act in a way that pleases us. In prayer, we recognize that God is continually acting in the world. In prayer, we signify our desire to be part of that divine activity.
In prayer, we ask for what God can and will do. But we also, in prayer, acknowledge, “Thy will be done,” realizing what God does not do. There are so many things we ask God to do—feed the hungry, make peace, work reconciliation—that we are unwilling to do ourselves because of the sacrifice and struggle, the conversion and suffering it might cost us. Yet there are things which God, for some reason, cannot or will not do. Why? That’s a good question.
We usually do not understand why we pray for badly-needed rain and get none, or ask for a tumor to be healed and it becomes worse. Prayer does not usually answer the “Why?”—but our prayer can give us the faith to live in spite of the lack of answers.
Thanks be to God for the gift of prayer. Amen.