Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 17 Year C [RCL Resources Index]
Ask and you will receive
Jesus often withdrew to a mountain or desert place to be alone with God. It was typical of Jesus that he withdrew to the wilderness just before or after significant points of change in his ministry. Those mountain top experiences, which we all have at times, were not isolated but directly related to action in the everyday affairs of human life on the plains of ordinary existence. And what is more, great as the mountain top experiences of being in the presence of God may be, prayer does not belong only to special occasions.
The message I would like to share with you today is that in the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray, prayer is a simple ordinary part of human life, as natural as the relationships between friends or between parents and children. That is the meaning of the parables in the gospel reading today, with the examples of a man seeking bread from a friend and a father who knows how to give good gifts to his children. Special mountain top experiences might help us to establish or to strengthen our relationship with God, but the relationship itself is essentially a very simple thing.
It was Jesus himself who took the example of a little child:
It is true that some people find it easier than others to pray, and some have plumbed great depths of prayer. Sometimes, I think, good Christian people are inhibited in their spiritual development because they think much more is expected of them than they can manage, when all that is necessary is an awareness of the presence of God and that simple trusting attitude of the little child. Or, remember Mary of Bethany sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus listening to him. No complicated formula or secret knowledge or great skill is necessary. Anyone can do it. So I want to encourage everyone because it is not difficult although I also want to say that prayer is important. Not all important things we do are difficult. In fact many of the most important things are very simple.
Prayer was important to Jesus
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray after they had seen him praying. Luke records Jesus praying on a number of significant occasions:-
He prayed after his baptism when the Holy Spirit came on him:
Sometimes he simply escaped. When large crowds gathered he accepted them, but he would go off later when he could to some quiet place where he could be alone and pray.
He went into the hills to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer before he chose the twelve disciples.
He prayed at major turning points in his ministry, like the time when Peter confessed him to be the Messiah.
Then, a little later, at the transfiguration:
And finally when facing death, in the garden:
Praying to God as Father
As we have seen, it was when they saw him at prayer that they asked him to teach them how to pray. Now, why was that? They would have been quite familiar with the Jewish practice of prayer, but they expected him to teach them something new.
When he began by addressing God as Father he added a loving and personal note to the kind of relationship people should expect. This was different from the austere judgmental character of the law giver of many other teachers. He emphasised this by going on the give the little parables of the friend and the father who act in very human ways when asked for help. He encouraged the disciples to expect no less of God.
It ought not to be necessary to say that the sex of the parent figure, whether father or mother, is irrelevant. In a different culture Jesus could just as easily have used the characteristics of a mother caring for her children. The father figure was used because in the Jewish household it was the father as head of the household to whom appeals for help would normally be made. Jesus did use female models on other occasions, as for example when he spoke of a hen gathering her chickens as a symbol of his own love for the people. What matters is that the relationship of prayer is a personal and caring one. Being an exchange between one person and another it is also an interactive one.
This might be illustrated by contrasting Christian prayer with a different kind of prayer. Next week we will be giving attention to the significance of the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and I will say a little about my visit there a few years ago. One interesting thing I saw is more relevant to the theme of the service today. Just out of the city, behind a hill where it was protected from the blast of the bomb is a beautiful old Buddhist temple and garden; and further up the hill, behind that temple is an ancient Shino shrine. In front of that shrine I saw a strange construction something like a rough tea-tree fence almost covered with pieces of paper stuck to it. It was told these were prayers in which people had written what they wanted on the notes. I asked what they prayed for, and was told that most were from students praying to pass their exams. I suppose our students might have such prayers sometimes, and do not pretend to understanding the significance of those prayers for the Japanese, or to whom they prayed. What did occur to me is that talking with someone is more personal than leaving a note. It was the talking kind of relationship, like that with a loving parent, that Jesus taught.
Can God be persuaded?
Jesus encouraged people to be persistent in prayer, to keep asking. We might be inclined to think that God knows what is right, and what he will do, from the beginning, and that he could hardly be persuaded by what we ask or by anything that we might do. The great holy immutable figure of a ruler detached from worldly concerns has often been applied to God, and it fits well those materialistic attitudes which were found in science from the 1600s and 1700s and sometimes still. It is believed that things are going to be the way they are regardless, and there is nothing we can do about it. If there is a God, the old deistic theory went, then he might have created the world, but if so, he lets it run like clockwork and does not interfere. That clockwork view of the universe is, of course, no longer seriously defended in science since the days of quantum mechanics in which there is a basic principle of uncertainty. Nevertheless, there is a high degree of regularity in the physical universe, and I believe that is to our benefit. We need things to be reliable. It would not be helpful to us if things which usually fell to the earth sometimes fell upward; gravity as a basic principle should be expected to apply everywhere, and I see it as part of the faithfulness or trustworthiness of God that the physical world is maintained in reliable and in a fairly, if not absolutely, predicable way. We do not believe in a capricious God; and we do not want a capricious world. In human affairs, however, things are less predicable, and that is part of the spice of life. It is more in this less certain human part of our lives that we might expect some interaction with the Creator to make a difference.
In any case, there is no doubt that Jesus encouraged people to keep trying to obtain what they wanted. There is the parable of the widow's appeal to an unjust judge:-
She kept appealing in spite of refusals and he eventually gave her justice. Jesus then says if even an unjust judge will give justice to a persistent claimant, how much more will God who is just give justice. This is essentially about faith; her persistence showed her faith; so Jesus concluded with a final question: but will faith be found in Israel? His question might have reminded his hearers of Proverbs 25:15 `With patience a judge may be cajoled: a soft tongue breaks stones.' It is like the man who asked bread from his friend at night; he might have helped out of unworthy motives, but he did help: how much more then will God who loves his children help those who ask.
Can God (the Father) be made to feel? Is he really like an unjust judge? Is he unchangeable? Is God stone-faced, or does his regard for us soften a little? Would he be perfect and almighty if he could be persuaded to do something he might not otherwise have done, like an impatient or even selfish housekeeper with someone knocking at the door?
There is an ancient theological controversy about whether such an incorruptible God could suffer, and the development of an understanding of God as one who could choose to make himself venerable - dare we say `herself' - is one of the insights women theologians are emphasising although it was not their invention.
There is even a story of something Jesus himself did which suggests that he might have been persuaded to do what he was not willing to do initially: The Canaanite woman who persisted in pleading for her daughter in the face of rejection by Jesus himself who is seen, at least by Matthew (the most Jewish of the evangelists), in his telling of the story, to be concerned "only with the lost sheep of the house of Israel", and he is reported by both Matthew and Mark as reluctant "to feed the children's food .. to the dogs". The disciples who were worn down by her persistence asked Jesus to give her what she wanted to stop her yelling, and Jesus responded to her pleading. He said `You have great faith. Let your wish be granted.'
Again the woman's persistence is taken as a sign of faith. When seen with other examples of faith which Jesus commended, we can see that faith was very important in granting requests for healing or justice, whether addressed to him, or to God the Father in prayer. We might say that just as a simple trust and belief in a parent's power and goodness lies behind a child's persistent asking, so Jesus expected faith to show itself in persistence. That is the kind of personal interaction with God that should make a difference.
It is important to understand the difference between faithful persistence and manipulation. The analogy with the child asking a parent can break down at this point. Children can be manipulative. Christian prayer is distinguished from magic precisely at this point. It is never manipulative, always trusting. We must trust God to decide what is good. Attempting to use a magical formula is manipulation in which a result follows mechanically if one does it the right way. Prayer is never like that. You cannot get the desired result just by pulling the right lever. Prayer is not mechanical, but interpersonal. We exercise our freedom in a relationship and expect the other person also to respond in freedom.
In the name of Jesus
In his farewell conversations Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray in his name, expecting their prayers to be answered. In a way this is much like the word about faith. Faith is a trusting relationship, and acting in the name of Jesus is acting for him, in his cause, and doing what he would do; it is to act in a relationship of discipleship, which is a relationship of trust and belief.
Asking in Jesus name means praying in accordance with the character of Jesus and in his cause or according to his will; if you love him you will keep his commands; it is not magic but a personal relationship of love and trust, like ordinary human relationships, with the difference that he is entirely trustworthy.
A more perfect God is a more personal God. The Spirit in personal ... "He" not "it" comes to us ... as the other Advocate, guide, counsellor, the Holy Spirit is a personal presence. This was part of the promise "I will not leave you orphans; I will come back to you." Not being a orphan means to have a parent, to know a person. It is in this personal relationship, which like others is interactive and has outcomes that are not fully predictable, that we enter into prayer. It is the same relationship that was and is enjoyed between the Father and the Son when Jesus himself prayed. He invited us into the same family relationship that is found in the very essence of the nature of God. Glory be to our personal God: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Glory be to him.
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