OT Reading: Jug.16:4-22
I wonder if you know what it is like to have a child come to you and repeatedly ask you for something. Maybe they want to go to the park but you’re not ready yet. But that doesn’t stop them does it? On and on it goes: Can we go now? Can we go now? Is it time yet? After a while you wish they’d just shut up about it; a little later and you begin to feel seriously pestered and pressured.
It’s easy to become annoyed and perhaps respond with some harsh words. Don’t they know you’ve got some other things that must be done before a trip to the park becomes possible? Well no, they don’t know that – all they know is they want to go the park so they keep on asking.
"Shameless audacity" – that’s what it is and children do it all the time without realising it.
"Shameless audacity" – it doesn’t sound very positive does it? And yet this is precisely the type of attitude Jesus wants you to demonstrate when it comes to prayer.
Sunday mornings we’ve been working our way slowly through Luke’s gospel and in recent weeks we’ve looked at the model prayer that Jesus gave his followers when one of them asked to be taught how to pray. Well we’ve finished with that model prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, but Jesus isn’t ready yet to move on from the subject of prayer.
Having given his followers a model prayer to help them with their prayers Jesus went on to urge his followers to pray with fervency and with persistence and we need to ask ourselves "Do we pray like that?"
You see it is all too easy to be content to go through the motions, to repeat a few words, and then to imagine that we’re done, that we’ve prayed and that now it’s all in God’s hands.
The trouble with this approach has been well expressed in a hymn written originally for children:
I OFTEN say my prayers,
but do I ever pray?
And do the wishes of my heart
go with the words I say?
I’m sure that you will understand that sentiment that is expressed here. Many, if not all of us, will know the Lord’s Prayer off by heart and will have repeated it many times – but isn’t it easy to find yourself mouthing the words but all the while thinking about something else completely? Simply to repeat a few words, a few religious words, even words that came from Jesus’ own lips, is not what prayer is all about.
In order to help his followers get their thinking straight about prayer Jesus told another little story. Or rather he invited his listeners to imagine their own. Let’s look at what it was all about.
Jesus invited his followers to think about how they and in particular how they would expect one of their friends to react in a given scenario. It’s there recorded for us in vv.5-7.
The scenario Jesus wants them to think about involves the arrival of a friend in the middle of the night. This friend has been on a journey and has arrived late but there is no food in the house to be laid before him.
Now we might be tempted in our culture to say "Tough" or "What does he expect arriving unannounced like that and at such an hour?" But in Bible times in the M.E. hospitality was extremely important. Whereas we might find the responsibility of hospitality burdensome in Bible times it was considered an honour and a privilege to offer hospitality. To fail to offer proper hospitality would be a serious failure indeed.
In other words Jesus wants his followers to think about a situation in which they find themselves in serious need.
Don’t you have a friend you could turn to? Surely none of your friends would refuse to help you in such circumstances? asks Jesus. Of course not is the implied reply. A friend would be sure to help so you wouldn’t hesitate to go to him even if it were in the middle of the night.
Now imagine the scene. That friend has come to your home but don’t have anything to offer him but you do have a friend living nearby. What are you going to do? Well, he’s a friend and he’s sure to help so off you go to bang on his door.
Now in those days a whole family would sleep together in the same room and they would have all been asleep for some time by midnight (in the days before electricity most folk would take to their beds not long after sunset). Then your knock sounds at the door. The man of the house isn’t enthusiastic about getting up – he’s still sleepy himself and he knows too that if he does get up his whole family will be disturbed and he doesn’t want that.
What are you going to do now? Are you going to give up and go home empty-handed? No, you’ve already woken your friend up and you’re within touching distance of getting what you need – you can’t go home yet so you keep on hammering on his door and you keep on calling out: "I need some bread, I need some bread." You believe that your friend is sure to help eventually.
Even if he won’t help out of friendship sake, Jesus continued, he will because of your persistence, your importunity, your huztpah, your unbelievable gall, your shameless audacity.
In appealing to his followers’ knowledge of their friends along with the demands of their culture Jesus knows that they would all press on until they got what they needed; they all knew that it was by no means a hopeless situation.
And Jesus’ whole point is that if a sleepy friend can be trusted to help you out (even if he only does so to avoid a scene or to have a quiet life) how much more certain is it that our Heavenly Father will respond and give us what we need!
Do we pray with anything like this same persistence?
Humanly speaking we can easily describe such an approach as nagging and we can complain "stop going on about it". After all the word "importunity" that is used in some of our translations means to beg so persistently that it actually starts to become annoying.
But, says Jesus, in the realm of prayer such an attitude and approach is commendable and desirable – God doesn’t reprove us for acting in this way rather he reproves us for when we don’t.
How Does persistence work?
There are a number of examples in Scripture that illustrate how persistence can wear down the reluctance of another to give what is wanted. Further on in Luke’s gospel we’ll find Jesus’ parable of the Persistent Widow or the Unjust Judge but for the moment I want to draw your attention to a couple of examples drawn from the life of Samson:
In Judges ch.14 we find the account of Samson’s marriage is recorded and there we find Samson presenting a riddle to the young men invited to the wedding feast. It is a riddle that has costly stakes attached.
The young men look like losing their wager with Samson and so they threaten his bride forcing her to help them. She in turn goes to Samson and pleads with him using every emotional weapon she can think of:
Jug.14:16+17 "And Samson’s wife wept over him and said, "You only hate me; you do not love me. You have put a riddle to my people, and you have not told me what it is."... She wept before him the seven days that their feast lasted, and on the seventh day he told her, because she pressed him hard. Then she told the riddle to her people."
Then in Judges ch.16 another example is found involving another woman in Samson’ life, Delilah.
Delilah isn’t threatened to make her cooperate but instead she’s offered a large sum of money if only she can betray Samson into his enemies’ hands. The problem is Samson is tough but nobody knows the source of his strength – "Can you find it out for us Delilah?"
She tries and she tries but with no success so she too turns to a little emotional blackmail:
Jug.16:15-16 "And she said to him, "How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and you have not told me where your great strength lies." And when she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death."
That is how persistence and nagging often works upon humans but we are not to imagine that this is how it works with God!
Persistence, or boldness, in prayer overcomes OUR insensitivity, not God’s.
To practice persistence does more to change our hearts and minds than God’s, and it helps us understand and express the intensity of our need.
Persistence in prayer is the way we truly own our requests – we will only persist in asking for those things that are really important to us.
Don’t imagine that God will change His mind if only we badger him long enough. It’s simply silly to think that we can browbeat God so that he changes his mind.
To encourage us in our persistence in prayer Jesus went on to speak about a threefold exhortation and a threefold promise and it is a combination about which he has already taught before:
Ask – Seek – Knock
Receive – Find – Opened
More accurately we should perhaps say:
Go on asking; go on seeking and go on knocking – persistence is after all in view. It is however a persistence that is married to expectancy:
Lk.11:10 "For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened."
Now this is tremendously encouraging and Jesus meant it to be. Persistent expectant prayer will be answered and this is not reserved for a select bunch of super-saints but is for everyone who will meet the conditions of serious prayer.
Does this amount to Jesus giving us a blank cheque? How exactly are we meant to take his words?
Context, context, context...
A little earlier I quoted the first verse of a hymn that began:
I OFTEN say my prayers,
but do I ever pray?
In his original version the author continued with the following lines:
Or do the wishes of my heart
Suggest the words I say?
When he wrote like that the author drew attention to the question of what is the real source of our prayer requests and herein lies a problem.
The Word of Faith movement which is also known as the Prosperity gospel maintains that we are authorised to ask for whatever we like and that God is committed to answering our prayers whatever our request might be. Thus it is our desires or the wishes of our heart that are dominant – and how appealing that sounds to so many people who would love to be able to somehow plug in to instant health, wealth and material prosperity. It is not for nothing then that this movement is also referred to as "the name it and claim" school of theology or even "blab it and grab it"!
The author of our hymn was most definitely not a supporter of that particular way of reading the Scriptures for in his final verse he wrote:
Lord, teach me what I need,
and teach me how to pray;
but do not let me seek Your grace,
not meaning what I say.
Do you see he wanted to pray with seriousness and sincerity but he also wanted to make it clear that God, and God alone, could truly determine what he should be praying for.
It is this view that is taught here in this church because it is this view which is in harmony with the teaching of the Word of God.
Just pause for a moment and think. Where do we find these extraordinarily encouraging words about praying persistently and with great expectation of being heard and answered? They are not found in splendid isolation but surrounded by other verses all addressing this wonderful and important subject of prayer!
Jesus had only just finished teaching his followers how they should structure their prayers beginning with God and only then moving on to pray about more personal concerns – one request about mundane matters – the necessities of life – and two on the more critically important spiritual aspects of life: the forgiveness of sins and direction in life.
In the verses that will bring this section to a close Jesus employed another illustration from everyday life that is easy to understand.
While we all know that there are some bad parents out there they are not the norm. When a child asks for something good from their parent the vast majority of parents will not respond by giving something that is bad or which will be detrimental to their child’s interests. When a child asks for an egg or for a fish no normal parent will respond by giving a serpent or a scorpion.
Now if that is what we expect from ordinary men and women who are far from perfect how much more should we trust our Heavenly Father, who knows not the slightest imperfection, to give good gifts to his children!
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus when speaking about this threefold exhortation and promise referred to our Father giving good gifts while here in Luke the Father responds by giving the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.
These extraordinarily rich and encouraging promises that Jesus makes to his followers (all of them) are to be understood in this context. The believer is to pray earnestly, eagerly, persistently and with great expectation for the things the Father has promised and those things for which Jesus has told us to ask.
To pray any other way is not to pray Jesus’ way. As James would later write:
Jam.4:3 "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions."
If we persist in imagining that prayer is a means of forcing God’s hand and of obliging him to give us just what we want then we will end up frustrated, disappointed and disillusioned. We may well end up thinking that Christianity just isn’t for us and we may turn our backs on the very Saviour we so much need.
James Montgomery shows us a better way to go:
LORD, teach us how to pray aright,
with reverence and with fear;
though dust and ashes in Your sight,
we may, we must draw near.
2 We perish if we cease from prayer;
O grant us power to pray!
And when to meet You we prepare,
O meet us by the way.
3 Burdened with guilt, convinced of sin,
in weakness, want and woe,
fightings without, and fear within;
Lord, whither shall we go?
4 God of all grace, we come to You
with broken, contrite hearts;
give what Your eye delights to view,
truth in the inward parts.
5 Give deep humility; the sense
of godly sorrow give;
a strong, desiring confidence
to hear Your voice and live.
6 Faith in the only sacrifice
that can for sin atone;
to cast our hopes, to fix our eyes,
on Christ, on Christ alone.
7 Patience to watch and wait and weep,
though mercy long delay;
courage, our fainting souls to keep,
and trust You though You slay.
8 Give these, and then Your will be done;
thus strengthened with Your might,
we by Your Spirit and Your Son
shall pray, and pray aright.