07.28.13 Lessons in Prayer, Luke 11:1-13 Sermon Notes
For those of us who could use a boost in our prayer lives, here are some thoughts arising from the lectionary readings for this week.
The passage in Luke immediately follows the story of Martha and Mary that we looked at last week. There we saw that the Christian life isn’t an either/or choice—either an active life of service or a contemplative life of prayer. Both are expected, but they have to be in right relationship with each other.
Following this, Luke tells us, the disciples see Jesus praying—playing the Mary role—and they want to learn how to pray. Some things to think about:
- What makes Christians Christians is that we look to Jesus for instruction
- If prayer can be taught, prayer can be learned
- We can all learn, grow, and become better in prayer
- Prayer can be individual or corporate. The Bible often depicts Jesus praying alone, but in teaching the disciples to pray he starts with “Our Father.”
- Prayer can be short and direct, as in the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s version. Annie Lamott’s newest book makes this point as only she can. It’s called Help, Thanks, Wow; The Three Essential Prayers. In Matthew’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus warns against long prayers. There is no need for obsequious fillers, which when I hear them drive me nuts.
- Prayer can also be long—all night for Jesus sometimes. For some people, prayer takes a long time because they can be “Spirit-led”, following the connections from one thought to another. But we have to be careful to allow for silence—that is listening like Mary—also. Sometimes I think the Holy Spirit is like an introvert trying to have a conversation with two extraverts; believe me, it’s hard to get a word in. We have to make space for listening to the Holy Spirit when we pray.
- Persistence pays off. In the parable Jesus tells, it isn’t because the two neighbors are friends that the second one wakes up and gives the first one bread. It’s because the first one keeps knocking on the door all night.
- And notice what the principle is for giving the food—it is so the first neighbor can be hospitable to the unannounced late-arriving guest. (Remember, this is the situation Martha and Mary found themselves in when Jesus showed up in the passage preceding this one!) I think there’s a hidden gem here, namely that God is delighted to answer prayers whose heart is providing for the needy.
- And notice that the second neighbor satisfies the first neighbor’s needs. Here again is an insight to prayer—God satisfies needs, not necessarily wants. (If you have time, search this blog for “needs wants” for other thoughts about this crucial distinction for our spiritual health.)
- Jesus says ask and you shall receive. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” (4:2-3) James’ point is not against planning, wants, or asking. It’s fine to ask, we just have to listen first to be sure that what we plan, want, and ask is in accordance with God’s will. This is part of what it means to pray “in Jesus’ name.”
- Jesus says seek and you will find. Proverbs says, “You will find the knowledge/wisdom of God if you search for it as a hidden treasure.” (2:4-5) This isn’t how we typically operate in American culture. When I go into a store, normally what I want is right there, easy to find because someone has predicted my needs. God’s wisdom, Proverbs says, stands on the busiest street corner, available to all, but she is buried under everything else that distracts us. It takes treasure-seeking to find her.
- Jesus says knock, and door will opened. A very famous depiction of the Revelation 3:20 shows Jesus standing at a door without a doorknob. It is the door of our hearts, and it can only be opened from the inside. When my family overnights in a hotel, we practice double knocking; if I go to get ice, I knock on the door and someone on the other side knocks back to verify that it is I knocking on the door and not someone else at some other door. Then the door is opened. Jesus is knocking, when we knock, the door is opened.
- In Matthew’s setting, Jesus instructs his disciples to go into their room and close the door. The problem is, no one in Jesus’ audience had houses with rooms, and they didn’t have doors. So what is he saying? If you follow a contemplative interpretation of this instruction, he is saying go into your secret place, into the depths of your heart, into your interior life, close the door to other distractions, and find God there.
- Apparently this is what Jesus did. Luke tells us he went to “a certain place.” Jesus had set times and locations for prayer, it seems. It is an important discipline to consider introducing into your life. After the harsh words of judgment in chapter one, Hosea 2:14 turns and says, “I, God will now allure my unfaithful bride Israel, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” God meets us in certain times and places.
- Speaking of Hosea, one of the things we learn from the lectionary passage from today is that God speaks to us in our personal experience. Hosea had married an unfaithful spouse and discovered his prophetic message to Israel embedded in that experience.
- Hosea also teaches us to take the long view. How long did it take for Hosea to understand God’s message? The births of three children. Life’s messages may not make sense in the moment—“Why is my spouse unfaithful? Why are my children acting this way, according to their names?” But in the long view, our lives have meaning. Hosea reconciles with Gomer, and God reconciles with Israel in the end.
- The long view is well depicted in the Psalm. There taking the long view includes remembering what God as done in the past, reminding God what God has done in the past, and praying that God will do it again in the present. The psalm begins, “You blessed our land, and forgave our sins,” then moves to, “restore us again, Lord, revive us again.”
- Colossians urges us, in light of the long view of God’s triumphant kingdom, to live into this reality now. We have been “buried and raised with Christ” in baptism. Our union with Christ is our union with the one who “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example out of them, triumphing over them in the cross of Christ.” We are called to live in light of this reality, to live with the long view.
Some miscellaneous observations about prayer
- While it’s important to pray for needs and concerns, it’s as important to then let them go. This is a personal struggle for me; I can talk one day to someone whose spouse just died unexpectedly and the next day baptize a newborn. We have to be able to pray and then let go so we can be ready for the next thing God has in store for us. God can be trusted in the long view. Pray and let it go. Listening first helps me do this.
- When God’s answer to our prayers is “yes”, our prayers aren’t over. Our next prayer is a stewardship prayer, “Now that I have this, what does God want me to do with it?”
- When God’s answer is “no”, the best thing is to accept that answer as soon as possible.
- What about when God is “silent”? What if we don’t know if the answer is “no” or whether God hasn’t answered yet? Our next prayer is for wisdom to know. Until we know, prayers of wisdom and prayers of persistence are the order of the day
- Luke tells us God is pleased to give us the Spirit in answer to our prayers. Remember that God’s answers are always related to the Spirit—the Spirit who unites us to God, who guides us into truth, who enables us to live according to our baptism. Sometimes we can recognize God’s answer if we look for it according to these roles of the Holy Spirit.
A Metaphor: the Manitou Incline
- What I’ve shared here are observations regarding prayer arising out of the readings for this Sunday and my own personal experience with prayer. These are like the steps on the Manitou Incline (of which there are 4,123). The Incline is a staircase that seems to reach to the heavens. We can make progress in prayer just as we can make progress up the Incline, but prayer will always be a mystery, approaching something that is beyond our grasp.
- What makes the Incline possible isn’t just the summit at the top, but the mountain itself. There is the mystery at the peak but there is also the foundation underneath. The foundation of prayer is the goodness of God. Jesus compares God to good parents. At their best, parents want what’s best for their children. We fail. Our parents failed. This is because sin gets in the way. But sin does not get in God’s way (remember Colossians). God is the good parent who provides good things for his children. Prayer is the way we recognize this goodness of God, this foundation of our progress in prayer, up to the mystery of God’s presence.
Lord Jesus, you taught us to pray for daily bread, but when you were tempted to turn stones into bread to break your fast in the wilderness, you taught us that we do not live by bread alone. When the masses came to you looking only for bread to satisfy their bodies, you offered them bread to satisfy their souls. Some turned back disappointed, others pressed on with you.
Give us today our daily bread, Lord Jesus, the bread that sustains our bodies, and the bread of your body, of your presence, of your Spirit, to sustain our souls. For some of us, the dawn of this morning has not broken the darkness of our lives. We continue in prayer today as the neighbor who came at night, in our persistence, Lord, lend your assistance. Give us the Holy Spirit in whatever capacity we need her, but beginning with increasing our faith, making your presence real to us, and uniting us to you more and more. For it is in your name we pray. Amen.