St Aubyn’s, 8th October 2015
Reading – Luke 11:5-13
So there you are in bed fast asleep, with your family tucked up for the night, when suddenly you hear a tap at the door. You grunt and roll over, but the tapping continues. Bleary-eyed you get out of bed, not really certain if you’re dreaming or not. Cautiously you walk down the hallway, trying to make sure you don’t wake up the whole house. You put the chain on the door, and open it a few inches. It’s your neighbour. He’s got some story about a friend arriving unexpectedly and he needs three loaves of bread. “Who needs three loaves at bread in the middle of the night?” you wonder. So you shake your head, and you try closing the door, but he’s not giving up that easily. Whoever his friend is, the visit is important, and he’s begging you to help. In the end, just because you want to get some sleep, you give in. You go to your freezer, pull out the loaves and give him what he wants.
Now take a moment to imagine what it must have been like for the neighbour to go round at midnight and ask for help. He was faced with an emergency. He didn’t have what he needed, and he didn’t know where to turn for help. It was a crazy, crazy idea waking up his friend next door, but what could he do? There really seemed to be no other solution. The shops were shut. There was no time to bake anything. He just had to go round and beg.
Can you, I wonder, sympathise with this neighbour? Can you think of a situation in your own life where you have come to the end of your resources and didn’t know what to do? If you have, then I guess somewhere down the line you have probably asked yourself on more than one occasion where God was in that situation. The point Jesus is making in this story however is that God is not like the man woken up by His neighbour. He is not fast asleep. He is not behind a locked door. He is not reluctant to give. He is our Heavenly Father who delights in giving good gifts to His children, and He wants us to ask.
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; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (11:9-10)
Now there’s no doubt that these words of Jesus are very precious, and I am sure that many of you here this morning do have stories of answered prayer. But I’m also aware that for every story of answered prayer we can probably share occasions where we asked and we did not receive, where we knocked and the door was not opened. The mystery of how and when prayer is answered is not an easy one to explain, and I am certainly not going to try and offer cheap solutions to this problem this morning. Rather, I just want to offer three pointers from this passage that may help us to gain some insight into what we are doing when we pray, and how our Heavenly Father responds to our requests.
First of all, I think it is important to realise that when we come to the Lord in prayer, He already knows the whole story. In the parable Jesus told His disciples, the neighbour only knew as much as his friend knocking at the door was prepared to tell him. He had to take on trust the tale of a visitor arriving at midnight and the need for three loaves of bread. By contrast, when we come to the Lord in prayer, He already knows the deepest desires and longings our heart. He knows better than ourselves the hidden motives that lead us to pray, He knows our shortcomings and our wrongdoings that we try to conceal from ourselves and others, He knows the temptations we find hard to overcome and the habits we struggle to break.
That’s why, before we lay our requests before the Lord, we need to take a moment to recognise that we are in presence of our Creator and our Redeemer from whom no secrets are hidden and all desires are known. It’s why when we gather in worship we begin with a moment of confession – not simply to express our unworthiness to stand in His presence but to come back in gratitude to Jesus Christ whose grace and mercy is new every morning. Because it’s when we recognise the wonder of the undeserved love and forgiveness that comes from Him, that our prayers become less about ourselves, and more about how best we can offer ourselves in His service and learn to do His will.
This leads on to the second point I want to make that we need to put Jesus words here alongside his great promise in John 14:14 that if you ask me anything in my name, I will do it (my translation). Jesus here isn’t saying that we can simply come to him with our own lists of requests and demands. We have to ask in His name, that is, in accordance with what we know of the very character and nature of Jesus Christ. It’s the reason why prayer has flow out of the direct experience of a living relationship with Jesus. We need to attend to what He might be saying to us through the Word of God, through the Sacraments, through the liturgy, so that we might learn to follow Him more closely and seek to walk in His footsteps.
Which may sound obvious, but how often do we find ourselves reading the Bible but thinking about something completely different, or going through the order of service but not taking in the words! If we are not listening and learning, then we will not know how to ask. Prayer is a relationship, a two-way process. And while God already knows all there is to know about us, I suspect all of us have some way to go before we fully understand Him, and know what it means to walk in His ways.
Of course we can come to our Lord in penitence and faith. We may be faithfully asking in the name of Jesus and still apparently not seeing any answers to our prayers. What then? Well, if that is your situation this morning, take some encouragements from the final verses of our reading from Luke:
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! (11:11-13)
Because if we are in a living relationship with the Lord Jesus, then we can be sure we always have the gift of the Holy Spirit, whatever we face, whatever we are going through: the Holy Spirit who gives us comfort when we are perplexed, who gives faith when we are in doubt, who gives us hope when we are in despair. And while our circumstances may not change, our understanding of our Heavenly Father will.
For in the end prayer is not about asking God to do what we want, but learning to respond to His mercy and tracing His hand at work through every season of life. And although at times we may still grapple with the mystery of unanswered prayer, we at least can be sure of this: that – just Paul writes in Romans 8:38 – nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ. Because, as Jesus shows us in our reading, our Heavenly Father is not hiding behind a locked door. He is not asleep. He is not reluctant to give. He is the God who is there whom we can always approach through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And that is why ultimately our prayer should link into praise, as the most wonderful gift He gives us, for which we should always and forever thankful.
For His name’s sake. Amen.