A sermon preached at Luther Seminary Chapel on 7/24/2013.
A pastor friend of mine has a toy called an “Answer Me Jesus.” Also informally known as a “Jesus Magic Eight Ball.” It is a pink, velvet Jesus, about a foot tall, that when turned upside down, will issue an answer to your question, just like the magic eight ball toy of the mid-nineties. With such answers as, “Yes, my child”, “Wait for a Sign”, and “pray harder”, it is clearly a joke. Yet, these on-demand answers to questions asked of the velvet Jesus are not too much different from the way that we often find ourselves in prayer. From the anxious prayers before important job interviews and classroom exams in an attempt to harness the powers of God for our own success, to the desperate pleas to avoid heartbreak, to the painful questions asked at the time of sickness or death. “Why is the cancer back?” “Why did you take my loved one so soon?” “Why me?” We want answers to our prayers and we want them now.
In today’s Gospel text we hear Jesus instructing the disciples on how to pray. Jesus returns from his own time in prayer and one of the disciples asks, “How are we to pray?” Jesus instructs them in the familiar words that we know as the Lord’s Prayer, encouraging them to ask for what they need, to beg for forgiveness from their sins, and ask for help in times of trouble. To encourage perseverance in prayer, Jesus uses a parable of a man knocking on the door of a neighbor asking for bread in the middle of the night. Finally, Jesus continues with the most difficult part of this passage, “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.”
Except for when we don’t receive what we ask for. When we don’t find what we are looking for despite relentless searching. When the door is slammed closed AND bolted shut. Decidedly not opened. These perceived unanswered prayers are really painful. We have all been on the brink of this despair. We have all watched loved ones suffering the ravages of illness and age. We hear about tornadoes and wildfires and earthquakes that ravage creation. We pray that God would make the violence stop on our city streets when we hear about another shooting.
There are no simple answers, although simple answers are often given. And we’ve all heard these nice answers given before, “God answers prayers according to God’s will”, “God will give me what I need even if is not what I am actually asking for”, and “The more we get to know God, the more our desires will be in line with God’s” and so on. There is something very powerful in naming the grief of feeling like our prayers are not heard, that the world can be a very cruel and unjust place, and that we wish more than anything that God would respond to our prayers in a way that is equal to the effort that we put into them. A friend of mine remarked this week, “If Jesus knew the world was a seriously messed up place where good prayers might seem to go unheard, where desperately-needed justice was slow in coming, and where he was about to be crucified, why did he still say this so confidently to so many people? What do we pray for that is good? And when will God give it?”
The answer…well…there isn’t one that is singularly satisfying. Nor should there be.
Prayer is when we bring our whole selves to God. The broken, messy, desperate parts as well as the parts that we want to show the rest of the world. We hear in the Gospel text today that we are to pray with persistence and God will listen. God wants to hear our prayers, and there is much freedom in the asking and we are to turn to God again and again in prayer. Except sometimes, we think if persistence is good, then talking nicely and asking for the right things is better and going to make God even MORE likely to listen to our prayers.
The problem with approaching prayer in this way is that it makes the answering of our prayers a value judgment on our worthiness. If our prayers are not answered in the way that we wish for them to be, it must be because we are not good enough or should have prayed longer or harder or better. We put ourselves in charge.
This passage is far too often preached as a command to pray more fervently, and as you pray more often, you will know what God wants from you and soon, your prayers will be more in line with what God will have them be. Except we are not Jesus, our prayers will never be like Jesus, and at the end of the day, we are all selfish enough to ask only for what we want, no matter the consequences for anyone else.
We sometimes view our prayers as a vending machine. Like the cash that I put into a soda machine to get an ice cold Coke, I should be able to put in my effort in prayer to God, and get what I want in return. The problem is that we are applying the logic of the world to our prayers, and it just doesn’t work that way. God simply doesn’t play by human standards of what appears to be fair and just. We like to think that if we work hard enough or do enough good things or pray in just the right way, our prayers will be answered in the way that we want because we DESERVE it.
Or, perhaps we do not ask for what we need because we are afraid of unmet expectations. If we pray as we are commanded and yet we still do not hear an answer, are we going to lose our faith in a God who is listening to us? Or what if we do not like the answer to our question? When we approach prayer in this way we are making prayer a one-way transaction with some far-off God and we put ourselves squarely in charge of orchestrating the outcome.
In the last part of today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus asking the disciples how they respond to the requests of their children. He asks, “if you, who are evil” (or another definition of the word evil used here could be “broken or weighed down by the weariness of human affairs”) “ if you know how to provide good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?!”
This comment about the Holy Spirit, I think this is the turning point of this Gospel text. Jesus does not say that God will answer every prayer in the way that we think it should be answered because we asked nicely. Or because we deserve it. Or refuse to listen because we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. No, Jesus makes the bold statement of, “God is going to give the Holy Spirit!” But what does this mean? It’s certainly not a nice little thing that you can box up and bring home with you and put it on a shelf. The Holy Spirit is wild and unpredictable and is more likely to break you wide open and transform your heart than she is to give you comforting answers and easy solutions. This indwelling of God’s presence by the Spirit provides for a new reality, a new creation, a new healing that we could have never imagined.
When we read today’s text in the larger context of Luke’s Gospel, we hear about a God that so deeply and passionately loves the world, the entire world, no exceptions, that he sent his only Son to be salvation and good news for ALL the people. This Holy Spirit will stir up new life in the midst of death, creation in the midst of destruction, and hope in the midst of despair. So bring your prayers and your whole self to God. Bring your tears. Bring your disappointment. Bring your anger. Bring your joy. When you cannot think of words to pray on your own, be swept along in the prayers of others. When we come to God in prayer we are making a radical confession, whether we know it or not, that we are utterly dependent on God for the things that bring us life, daily bread, forgiveness, hope and the kingdom.
When we pray the words that Jesus taught us, and say, “your kingdom come” this is the new reality to which we are testifying. It’s scary. Because it means that we cannot control it. We cannot do anything to earn it. And we cannot stop it. God wants to hear our prayers. God wants to provide for our needs. But above all, know this, God wants to transform us through the Holy Spirit. God is relentlessly for us and for our salvation. This is the answer to the question that we did not know that we were asking. Amen.