Sermon for Lent 4, Year A, March 30, 2014, Sermon on the Mount Series on Matthew 7:7-11
“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. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
I want to talk about prayer today because there is one aspect of prayer that I am an expert in: I’m an expert in not getting what I ask for. I pray for peace, but the wars just keep going, and new ones pop up frequently. I pray for unity in the church, but churches keep splitting. I pray that our political leaders would be wise, just and compassionate, and look what we get instead. I could go on, but you get the point.
I know lots of the verses in the bible about prayer, like the ones we read today, that seem to promise quite a bit. We heard today that “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” but we know that lots of times nothing is received, the seeking does not end in finding, and the door stays shut.
Other times, though, prayer does seem to work. We pray for safe travel and we arrive safely. We pray for healing, and our loved ones recovered. We pray for our church’s future when things look bleak, and we are blessed by a generous bequest.
So, that leaves us wondering what to expect. This is personal to each of us. We have all been on hospital beds looking up at the ceiling lights, praying for good outcomes. We have all prayed many prayers for loved ones with cancer, and heart disease and all the other things that can go wrong with our bodies.
Promises and Caveats
Everyone who prays knows not to automatically expect to get what we want. There are these odd little caveats that come up in bible verses on prayer. Jesus once said “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” but before that he said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,” which puts an oddly vague condition on the “whatever.” (John 15).
He tells us that we will receive anything we ask for “in his name” – which again seems to make it possible to ask in a way that is not “in his name” – and we have heard sermons on what that could possibly mean.
Some verses, like in James, tell us to pray in faith, because if we doubt we will not receive anything. That one is particularly unsatisfying because if the very nature of prayer is that nothing is automatically guaranteed, how could we not have at least a measure of doubt.
In fact the more we are desperate for the prayer to work because the situation is dire, the more reasons there are for doubt; the cancer has spread, the breathing is worse, the medicine does not seem to be working.
We cannot beat ourselves up about this, as if it is our fault for not meeting all the vague criteria when prayers are not answered: even Jesus himself experienced prayer requests that were refused. In the garden, on the night of his arrest, he famously asked for the bitter cup of suffering pass from him – but instead he had to drink that cup to the bottom. His request was refused.
Prayer has fundamental questions built into it. They are conundrums: we will never solve them. We could ask:
Why pray, since we are not telling God anything God does not already know?
Or, we could ask, does God need to be coaxed or begged to do good? Clearly not.
Prayer Questions off the Table
But though there are mysteries, this teaching of Jesus on prayer does something extremely important. It takes some of our prayer questions off the table.
The most difficult question that we ever raise is the “why?” question. I just saw that twenty years after writing a book on prayer, Philip Yancey has a new one coming out entitled, “The Question that Never Goes Away” – and that question is “why?”
Why are our prayer requests sometimes rejected? Why do people we love suffer? Why do they die before reaching old age? Why do bad things happen, even when we pray.
The Fault Fear
The biggest issue for all of us is that we fear that we know the answer, and the answer is us. We fear that we are at fault. We fear that we are the reason the prayers were not answered. We were not good enough, or we were not praying in the right way, or the right quantity, or worse, we are being punished for past sins.
This is exactly what Jesus is taking off the table. These dark thoughts are simply wrong. It is not the case that God punishes us by rejecting our prayer requests, or holds out on us until we fulfill a list of vague requirements.
How do I know? Why am I sure? Because I would never do that to one of my sons, and Jesus invites us to make exactly that comparison.
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
Once when my son was little we had just gotten an ice cream cone. As we were walking, he held the cone at an angle instead of straight up, and the ice-cream fell to the ground. Immediately he burst into tears. The look of despair he made I will never forget. It pulled at my heart! I bent down and comforted him and assured him that we would replace it.
If I, being evil, in other words a fallible human being, not good, as God alone is good, if I know how to do the right thing as a loving father, “how much more will our Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”
Yes, we are authorized to make the comparison. God is like us fathers, only much better than we humans can be.
God is at issue
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife of 25 years, “Do you love me?” Golde responds, “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, Cooked your meals, cleaned your house, Given you children, milked the cow.”
Every question about prayer is, in the end, a wider question about God. And it is a question about his love for us.
Here is the point: would even an earthly father give a child who was hungry for bread a stone instead? Would he withhold something good just to punish with a pay-back some insult to his ego?
A pompous, insecure king might, but is God like that?
No, Jesus tells us. God is like a loving father, only so much more than we humans ever could be. He is more loving, more kind, more merciful, more gracious, more generous, and infinitely wiser.
Now there were times when my sons cried for something that I refused – like staying up later than bed time, or an ice cream cone before supper. I’m sure God feels put into that position by our many silly, selfish or self-indulgent requests.
We have all sung a long like, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” – right?
But we have also prayed for healings, for someone’s survival, for all kinds of things that we did not receive. We knocked but the door stayed shut.
This teaching does not answer the why question that never goes away, except that it takes one answer off the table. God does not use rejected requests as punishments. No good father would do that. God is good. God would never do that.
This teaching invites us to consider God our Father
- not as an impersonal spiritual force,
- not like a capricious, moody Zeus,
- and not like an easily offended and vengeful monarch.
Those ideas are simply immature and mistaken. God is our heavenly Father as Jesus repeatedly called him. God, as Father, longs for our relationship to him, which includes frequent, honest, open communication. Ask, Seek, Knock. He is listening.
So, when you are on that bed, or beside that bed in the hospital, when you are still awake at night because of concerns that will not let you sleep, even when you are in doubt that anything good could happen, know this: you are not being punished by God.
Rather, do this: pray. Ask. Seek. Knock.
The one you are asking is your heavenly father, so keep asking.
The one you are seeking something good from loves you.
The one on the other side of the door is the father who has invited you to knock, so keep knocking.
And then trust your Heavenly Father with the outcomes.
The mystery will not go away, and the questions will not be answered. But we can at least know who it is we are praying to; our Father is Good. He loves us. Trust him.
The personal is political and the political is personal.
If we can imagine God caring for us as a good Father, how could we not imagine his care for all of the human begins on this planet whom he made “in his image?”
If we can imagine that God does care for each person, whom are we free not to care for?
If we can understand our own personal needs and ask the Father to meet them – for financial security, for decent wages, for reliable affordable housing and health care, for a decent education, to be treated fairly, humanly, and justly, how could we not see that these needs are shared by all people and work to achieve them?
If we can pray for the safety of our sons an daughters in uniform, how can we not see that our enemy’s soldiers are sons and daughters as well, and to work, pray, and vote for peaceful solutions?
If we can pray that our children and their children are able to live on a planet which sustains them with clean water, air, and uncontaminated soil, how could we not set ourselves to working to promote policies that protect our environment?