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Greenwood Forest Baptist Church

Persist in Prayer

Scripture: Luke 11:1-13

Sermon text

The kindergarten Sunday School teacher began her lesson with a question: What do you know about God? One little girl raised her hand and said, “Oh, oh, I know! I know! God is an artist!” The teacher replied, “Oh yea?” The little girl said, “Of course! Remember how the prayer goes? Our Father, who does art in heaven, Howard is his name!” The Lord’s Prayer is the most well-known prayer. It is prayed by Christians of every denomination each Sunday. We teach it to our children as soon as they can talk. We pray it over our loved one’s death beds. Even people who’ve long ago left the church can recite it. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray in our text for today, he gives them the words of the Lord’s Prayer. It is indeed one of the most important texts of our faith.

Many people understand prayer to be only about petitioning God for things they want or need –anything from an ice cream cone to a cure for cancer. But often as we mature in our faith, we learn that prayer is about more than just asking for things; we learn that prayer can mean being in God’s presence, simply breathing, or even repeating a simple prayer over and over again. Daniel Wolpert in his book Creating a Life with God says that prayer is about creating a relationship or a life with God and that we can do this through these seven prayer practices: solitude and silence, Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, creativity, journaling, body prayer and praying in nature. Some of these mean exactly what they say; others are ancient practices. Lectio Divina is a practice that we do together as a staff; it is a slow, deliberate, and prayerful reading of scripture; we do Lectio Divina every Monday with the text that will be preached on for the coming Sunday. The Jesus Prayer, if you aren’t familiar with it, goes like this: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It’s a specific type of breath prayer, where you inhale and exhale as you say the words. This is a prayer I teach in my grief groups here at GFBC. It’s a prayer I use when I’m anxious and need to center my thoughts on God. It’s a prayer that sometimes helps me fall asleep because it helps me to let go and to rest in God. These examples demonstrate that there is a wealth of prayer disciplines that we can draw from to help improve our prayer lives. But what is it that Jesus teaches us about prayer in this passage from Luke?

After Jesus had finished praying, one of his disciples approaches him and says, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He was asking Jesus to teach them something they had witnessed him do many times. They had seen him withdraw to deserted places to pray and go out to the mountains to pray. He prayed before he chose them to be his disciples; he prayed when he fed the five thousand; he prayed the night before he died; he prayed from the cross. Jesus was always praying! Here, the disciple’s request is that he teach them to pray as John taught his disciples. By the first century, there were set prayers. It was not uncommon for rabbis to teach their disciples a prayer that would help identify themselves as a certain rabbi’s followers. John had taught his disciples a set prayer.  So what was Jesus’ response to this request? He responded by saying, “Say this.” And then gave them the text of the Lord’s prayer that we know so well. He responded with a formula. He gave them certain words. He did not say make sure to quiet yourselves or breathe well or go off and find a deserted place or walk in nature or be creative or journal. He did not require a certain attitude or posture or give them a particular prayer practice or discipline. He said, “Say these words.”

I agree with theologian Douglas John Hall who says Jesus’ response is refreshing because it “does not require of us that we become anything we are not already. It is a deeply human kind of prayer. It is a prayer for human beings, that, is for creatures in need.”[i] There are no prerequisites required to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus gives us the words, and we can pray it as we are. And it is a prayer that is in tune with our most pressing human needs. Notice also how direct it is. Look at all those verbs and commands. There is no feigned politeness that we often hear in spontaneous prayers, “Lord, please just be with us right now and give us what we need…but only if you see fit.” Instead we hear, “Come. Give. Forgive. Do not bring.” It is brazen and forward. Jesus does not intend for us to mess around.

We are more familiar with Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer; it is more elaborate. It is the version of the Lord’s prayer that we pray together every Sunday as a congregation at the end of the Prayers of the People. Luke’s version is the version of the Lord’s prayer that we are least familiar with; it is the bare bones. It is direct and to the point. It starts with an address to God. Jesus calls God, “Abba” meaning “Father,” indicating not just his own intimate relationship with God but ours as well. He doesn’t mean to address God as a man; God is not a man; he’s showing the familial relationship that he and we have with God. Then, he says may your name be holy, revered, sanctified. May your kingdom come. May the kingdom that Jesus has been teaching the disciples all about become a reality. Then he goes on to give specifics about how the kingdom can come. Give us our daily bread. He says us, not my. It’s about all of us, all of God’s children, not just each of us individually. Give all of us what we need each day. It recalls the manna in the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings. For all of us to have what we need, we can only take what we need. If we take more, then there won’t be enough for all.

For the kingdom to come, we also have to be forgiven of our sins, and we have to forgive those who are indebted to us as well. There is an assumption that in order to be forgiven, we must forgive. Notice the use of the word “debt.” This word conjures up tangible debt, financial debt. In God’s kingdom, there is no tomorrow where we owe anyone anything. In God’s kingdom, all have what they need, no one lacks anything, and in order for us to help God’s kingdom come, we must forgive anyone who owes us debts. It’s as radical as it sounds though we’ve tried hard to tame this one by making it more personal than communal! We should ask ourselves – what does it mean to live as a faithful Christian in a world where indebtedness is a part of our economic reality? For the kingdom to come, we must also not be brought into the time of trial. This could be a plea to not have to deal with persecution or to not have to resist temptation. Either way, it is a plea for them to remain faithful.

The words of the Lord’s prayer are a summary of the kingdom that Jesus is helping to bring about. It is a reminder of who God is and who Jesus’ followers are to be. We live in a time where we often think that the way that we think or believe influences what we say or do, but Jesus’ command to pray these specific words is a reminder that what we say and do influences what we think or believe. Jesus’ command reminds us that the Spirit uses words and rituals to shape who we are, to make us into more faithful people. If we, as Jesus’ disciples in this age, pray those words of the Lord’s prayer, the Spirit can draw us away from our own selfish desires and reorient us towards God’s desires for us, to the abundant life that the kingdom of God has to offer, a life where God is revered, where the hungry are filled, where our sins are forgiven, where no one is paralyzed by debt, and where we all remain faithful.

The Lord’s prayer in Luke is followed by one of the strangest parables in the gospels. After giving the disciples the specific words that they are to pray, Jesus tells the story of a man who receives a surprise guest late in the evening and finds himself with no bread. The man goes knocking on another friend’s door to ask for three loaves of bread. This friend does not want to be woken up from his sleep and bothered. He doesn’t wake up because of their friendship but because his friend keeps knocking he gets up and gives him the bread! I don’t know about you, but this story isn’t comforting to me. It sounds like Jesus is saying God is asleep and doesn’t really want to be bothered, but if we keep aggravating God, God will answer us! The commentary that follows only gets more confusing. It says keep asking, seeking, knocking and the door will be opened for you. And then declares that evil parents wouldn’t give a child requesting a fish a snake or a child requesting an egg a scorpion, so if even evil parents know how to give good gifts, then the Father knows how to give the gift of the Holy Spirit!

While the story sounds confusing on the surface, it would have really struck a nerve with someone familiar with the cultural expectations in the Ancient Near East. A Galilean village would have been made up of houses that had one or two rooms. Women baked bread in ovens in common courtyards so they would know who might have bread left at the end of the day. Failure to provide bread for a guest would bring shame on the host. The man would not have wanted to be shamed by his failure to provide bread so he would keep knocking until his friend answered the door. His desire to be a good host made him persistent, so perhaps what Jesus is saying is that our desire to follow Jesus and bring about the kingdom should be strong enough for us to want to keep on knocking. We should want what Jesus wants enough to persist in prayer. And the final section of the text, if we can get past the snakes and the scorpions, teaches us that the real gift that God will give to us is the Holy Spirit. God is not a slumbering friend. As Psalm 121:4 says, “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” We are the ones in danger of falling asleep, in danger of falling away, in danger of getting distracted from the abundant life that Jesus has to offer. The command to ask, search, and knock is the command to seek God’s kingdom, and we can do this through persisting in the prayer that Jesus taught us because the Holy Spirit uses this particular prayer to shape us into people who help bring about the kingdom.

Jesus is telling us to pray with a persistence that is presumptuous! His prayer teaches us that we can be presumptuous because we know who God is and how much God loves us. We know we belong to God. We know God will provide for us. We know God will forgive us. We know God will preserve and sustain us. We are to presume on God like a young child presumes on a parent. One of the cutest and most annoying things Isaac does to me right now is stand at my feet when he wants me to pick him up or give him something and yell, “My mommy, my mommy, my mommy!” To which I respond, “Yes, sweetheart. I am your mommy. And I will pick you up in just a minute but not right now or I will give you yogurt but only after dinner.” I think God responds in similar ways. “Yes, I am your parent. I love you and will meet your needs.” Sometimes God doesn’t meet our needs immediately either. Sometimes I think God works on our hearts so that we can meet each other’s needs. Isn’t that how people get the daily bread they need, through the acts of their brothers and sisters, who are also God’s children? God is not just my God. God is our God so God cares about all of our needs.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells the story of a judge in a certain city that neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” And Jesus said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?"  God will grant justice. God will not delay long. But we have to keep praying because often the way we get the abundant life of the kingdom is to change our hearts and the hearts of others so that we can make God’s kingdom a reality here on earth.

Jesus calls us to persist in prayer. God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us to carry on and to recall those words we memorized so long ago as children. If we want our children to continue the work of helping God’s kingdom to come, we have to teach them to persist in prayer as well. Vacation Bible School is always a reminder of how important it is to teach our kids the story of our faith by teaching them scripture and faith practices. I’m always amazed at how well you do that as a church. But you don’t just do it one week of the summer; you do it all year long. I love to hear my own son sing, “Praise ye the Lord” after he comes home from Sunday School. I love to hear all the children reciting the Lord’s Prayer in our worship service right before walking down for the Children’s Parable. I forever have etched in my mind a video one of you sent a few years ago of your own three year old already reciting the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime. The words we teach our children to say matter. And Jesus commands us to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus gives us the words to say, so that when we are beat down and tired, we just have to say those words we’ve known since childhood, those words that remind us and our children that God is our parent, that we belong to God, and that we live to revere God and to help God’s kingdom come. We have to persist in prayer. And we don’t have to have it all together before we begin. We just have to say the words Jesus taught us. We just have to ask, seek, and knock so that we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Spirit find the abundant life that we’ve all been waiting for.

 

[i] Taylor and Bartlett, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3