TEXT: Luke 11:1-13
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given 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)
It’s apparent everywhere you look—from television talk shows to school classrooms, from seminars to social media. People want to be more spiritual. Many, including people in churches, say they want to pray, but don’t know how. Perhaps we in the church even contribute to the feeling of never being able to do it right. We pray certain types of prayers, leading folks to think they need to pray at a certain time of day or for a certain length of time.
Here’s the question most people are afraid to ask: “Is anyone on the other end of our prayers, anyhow?” Or, “If there is a God, does God really care about my little life?”
Jesus tells us that someone is on the other end of the line. The disciples had the same questions we have. “How are we supposed to pray, Lord?” And they take out their pencils and paper to take notes, to write down this new form of prayer. Jesus gives them a different kind of form. It arises naturally from real life. It is real life. Prayer is a response to what is going on right in front of us, a response to what is going on within us.
Our prayers come right out of the circumstances of real life, not apart from it. Jesus gives them an example of a prayer composed of completely natural elements: thanksgiving, petition, and request for forgiveness.
For instance, when something good happens, we are motivated to breathe a prayer of thanks.
Thanks for: the beauty of a cool morning after a series of blistering hot summer days; children who make us laugh; a high grade on a test; a good friend; a kind word.
Thanks for: a new job or joy in a current job; enough money to pay the bills; a glorious vacation; new life in a marriage; a good night’s rest; forgiveness; healing from an illness; good results on a medical test; chocolate!
We don’t have to wait until some set time to give thanks. What if we were moved to say a quick prayer of thanks each thankful moment? Wouldn’t we learn to connect the giver of the gift with the gifts of life?
In the exact same way, we are motivated to pray when things don’t go so well: when someone is sick; when the children misbehave so much we want to give them to the grandparents who think they are perfect; when things go badly at school; when there isn’t enough money to pay all the bills; when the marriage is in trouble; when we can’t sleep at night; when worry overcomes us; when we are grieving a loss; when we hate our job; when the medical tests don’t turn out right. Rhubarb pie …
Again, prayer at such a time draws us into the connection between faith and life. We cry out to God, wanting God’s presence, hope, love, protection. And sometimes we feel those things immediately. Sometimes they come along slowly.
Sometimes we don’t feel them at all. That’s when we wonder if God really hears.
Our own failings, too, lead us to think of praying: we realize it’s probably not right to wish the children would move to live with their grandparents; we cheat to make our money stretch; we say something and the second it leaves our lips we wish we could take it back; our anger overcomes us and makes us do things we regret.
Afterward—hopefully—it occurs to us to ask forgiveness and to hope we can keep from making the same errors in the future. That is when we turn to God, again in prayer.
Jesus’ model prayer arises out of the ordinary acts of living: thanksgiving, petition, and forgiveness.
Luke then reports an additional teaching about prayer, in the form of a parable that is based on a Middle Eastern understanding of the requirements of hospitality.
Hearing with our 21st-century ears, we often misinterpret this parable, feeling sorry for the one who was awakened in the middle of the night by a rude neighbour who was too lazy to prepare something for his own houseguests. Jesus’ listeners would have heard something quite different.
A traveler who came to the home of someone in the village was considered to be a guest of the entire town. Inasmuch as hospitality was—and still is—a tremendously important cultural value of that area of the world, anyone in town could be called upon to help make the visitor comfortable.
An unexpected guest at night could be a cause of particular anxiety, if one had no leftover bread from the day. At night, you do not build the fire for baking, but you might be aware that your friend next door had baked a few extra loaves that morning. The neighbours would consider it an honour to help you out of your bind.
The neighbour in Jesus’ story is the one who does not act according to the way the listeners would expect. He refuses even to get out of bed and answer the door, but shouts from within, “Leave us alone! The children are in bed. You can’t expect me to get up and help you.”
Well, of course the friend could and did expect the neighbour to get out of bed and offer whatever he had to ease the discomfort of the other. Finally, when the friend continues knocking and calling out for help, the lazy and selfish neighbour forces himself out of bed and to the door, just to shut the guy up.
“How much more than this awful neighbour,” asked Jesus, “is a good God willing to hear you?” You may think your prayers are unheard, that no one is listening. But that is not true. God hears. Always.
“Okay,” you say, “suppose I buy the line that God hears my prayers, that there is someone on the other end when I raise my voice to God.
“Then what about when I ask for something good and receive something bad instead?
“What about the time I prayed for my friend to be healed and she wasn’t? What does that say about God’s character?”
Those are good questions, and they have been asked for as long as people have been able to conceive of a good God. And to those good questions, Jesus offers no glib answers. But here is what he makes clear: God hears us even when we think no one is listening or paying attention, like that unhelpful neighbour.
We may feel as though we are pounding on the doors of heaven, trying to awake a sleeping God to our desperate, heartfelt need. At such times, we need to keep pounding!
Don’t give up on prayer. Pray as people who know that God is listening, even if you feel that nothing comes of your prayers. Pray as people who are knocking on heaven’s door, and imagine God leaping from bed, not even bothering to put on shoes, running to the door to see what it is that you need. Imagine God flinging open the door, putting an arm around you, and inviting you in to share your joy or your pain.
Ask, and it will be given 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.
Thanks be to God! Amen.