Knowing what we have received (part 2)

By in Sermons on August 11, 2019

Psalm 85 | Luke 11:1-13

Prayer is complicated. There is probably no part of the Christian faith that is at the same time so universally valued and respected, and at the same time so diversely understood, or openly not understood.

We all pray – some of us regularly, in a disciplined pattern, some of us more randomly, in response to the situation around us. We pray here in worship, we pray in meetings, we pray, perhaps, at meal times, at bedtimes, as we walk, as we drive, before (and during) difficult situations. We pray at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Even many of our public events still incorporate a formal prayer – the start of each day in parliament, school assembly, scout meetings.

Even amongst those who are not part of any community of faith, most people say that they pray, at least occasionally, even if they at the same time admit they don’t know whether there is anyone to hear their prayer.

Prayer is pervasive, even in our post Christian society. How much more so, then, amongst the Jews of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ disciples would have grown up with prayer; in the home, in the synagogue, throughout society. And yet still they feel the need to come to Jesus as say “Lord, teach us to pray.” Even in a society where everyone knew and valued prayer, they asked, as John the Baptist’s followers had asked him, to be taught prayer.

Because prayer is complicated. We don’t know how, why, if it works. We don’t even really know what “works” would mean. Does prayer change God? The world? Us? Does it do those things, sometimes, always, never? What makes a good prayer? What makes prayer futile or ineffective? Why does God seem to hear the prayers of others, but not ours?

And just to add to our sense that prayer is hard to get our heads around, Jesus’ answer to their request includes what must be one of his most unsatisfactory parables of all…

But before the parable, Jesus did something almost unique in the gospels. His disciples asked him a question: “how should we pray” and he gave them a simple, clear, direct answer: “when you pray, say this…”. I challenge you to find another place in the gospels where Jesus gives such a clear, direct answer to a question! And so we use the prayer Jesus gave his followers – we normally use the slightly expanded version that Matthew records – both directly, but also in its general form – make things on earth the way they should be, give us the things we need, forgive us our failings, we commit ourselves to reconciliation with other, keep us safe from troubles. A thousand sermons have been preached on the Lord’s prayer, a thousand paraphrases written; I don’t propose to spend more time on it now.

And then Jesus goes on to give us a parable, and an analogy, to make sense of what he has just taught. There isn’t a follow-up question recorded, but spoken or unspoken, Jesus seems to be addressing the question many would ask next: but why doesn’t God answer? And I don’t know about you, but Jesus’ response to this unspoken question really doesn’t seem very satisfying.

God is like a man who has gone to bed, and really doesn’t want the hassle of getting up to help his friend out? Who only responds because the one asking makes such a pest of himself?

Surely that isn’t the image of God that Jesus wanted to portray. And yet, the idea that God somehow can be persuaded into action is far from alien in the scriptures. It certainly wasn’t an idea that the psalmist had any problem with….

Psalm 85 was written at a time when the people of God were in trouble. We don’t know the context: there are hints in the psalm that they may have been suffering from poor harvests, perhaps from drought, but you’d really have to read between the lines to get a sense of what the situation really was.

The plea of the psalmist, on the other hand, is very clear. In the opening few verses, its as if the writer is reminding God that in the past, when things have been bad, God has come through for them – restored their fortunes, pardoned their sin, shown fvour to the land. And then the writer continues “you did that before for us, God, won’t you do it again? Are you always going to be angry? You were angry before, but you turned from your anger. We’ve had hardship before, but you spared us. Won’t you do it again? Show us your love, your salvation, so that we can once again praise you”.

It’s a form of prayer which is fundamentally Hebrew in its understanding of God. For the Jews, God was not an entity to be bribed or bought: I’ll bring my offering, my sacrifice, and you’ll send the rains, heal my sickness, give us victory in battle. Nor was God the detached, unchanging, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent iconic pefection of the later Greek philosophers. The God of the scriptures can, in the words of Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman, be haggled with. Moses does it when God intends to destroy the people on Mount Sinai. “What an idiot you’ll look,” Moses effectively said to God, “if you rescued your people from Egypt just to destroy them on Sinai!” Abraham does it on behalf of the city of Sodom. “What if there are 50 good people?” he asks God, “or what about 20? Or 10? Will you destroy them just because the others have forgotten your call to care for the stranger?”

Over and again the prophets negotiate, argue, haggle with God.

To this Hebrew mindset, the idea of continuing to bang on the door, calling out, nagging your friend to help you, was far less alien, far less problematic, than for us. The purpose of the parable is not to explore the reasons that God does not respond, but gives us permission to keep asking, to keep nagging at God for the thing we think we need.

The parable invites us not just to pray, but to keep on praying. To pray when we aren’t sure if anyone is listening. To pray again when nothing seems to happen. To keep on badgering God with our prayers.

There’s another, similar parable Jesus tells in Luke 18, the unjust judge, in which a widow demands justice of an unjust judge, who keeps ignoring her until she makes such a pest of herself that he says “I’ll give you what you want just to shut you up!” Again, not to say that this is what God is like, but to commend the attitude that says “I don’t understand why God has not yet answered my prayer, but I’m not going to stop until God does.”

But there’s one crucial part of the picture still missing, without which none of this makes sense. The psalmist bases his argument with God on one thing alone: “this is what you’ve been like in the past, God. You’ve shown love and mercy and rescued us. If that’s the sort of God that you are, then will you not do so again?” The appeal of the Psalm is for God to act like God; to be who God is. Steadfast love, righteousness, faithfulness and peace: these and other characteristics of God are called out in the hope and expectation that God will live up to them.

And Jesus makes the same point, even more simply: You wouldn’t give your child a snake instead of a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg. And God is a better parent than any of you. Trust in what God is like. Trust in the character of the God that you pray to, the God revealed in your story, the God revealed in the person of Jesus. Trust that, however God answers or doesn’t answer this or any other prayer, God will always give the Holy Spirit, the presence of God alongside and within, to any who ask. That final line, that’s a whole sermon in itself!

But the image of prayer shown to us is not that of cause and effect, of action and reaction, of forumulas and rules, but of the relationship between a loving parent and their child.

The invitation to pray is an invitation into that relationship, an invitation to invest our time in that relationship. We are invited, and we have that invitation to share.

But prayer remains a mystery. And so it should. For prayer takes us into the presence of the divine, into the presence of the creator God who is absolutely, fundamentally, beyond our comprehension. But our story gives to us, and invites us to share with others, the invitation into prayer, the invitation into 

When, why, whether, and how God answers remains beyond us. The witness of the scriptures does not give us simple rules, does not give us formulas or systems or certainties. It does not promise us that God will give what we ask for, or what we think we need.

What it gives us is permission, always, to ask, and ask, and ask again, to badger, haggle, negotiate; to continue to ask, seek and knock in the expectation that God will – sometime, eventually – respond; to remind God of what God has previously revealed to us; to hope that God will come through for us; and to trust, in the end, in the character of God, who is a better and wiser and more real parent than we could ever hope for or imagine.

Reason enough to pray, and not give up.

Amen.

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