Luke 11: 1-13
I met up with a couple that I don’t know the other day, while walking through one of the villages.
Seeing that I was a vicar, they were telling me about a huge challenge that one of their adult children face. I said ‘well maybe I could go round and pray for them’. The man said ‘I don’t think that there are any words which can help their situation’.
Is prayer ‘just words’? It’s certainly what much of the population thinks.
Or is prayer (as it is described in a book called ‘the hour which changes the world’ which provides an outline to my own daily prayer) ‘the slender nerve of power?’
Are our prayers heard in the heavenly realms? What if they do not appear to be answered? What if God appears to be silent? Not answering? Not even responding?
In the passage we have just heard this morning….Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray.
Why do you think they asked him how to pray?
Well, I suppose, there is the possibility that they wanted to learn some liturgy. Some kind of incantation like those that the pagans might use as they prayed to their gods in the Ancient Near East…
But it seems more likely to me that they asked him how to pray so that they could know how to pray in a way that God was most likely to respond…..
Look, there are lots of reasons why God does not answer some of the prayers that we ask and if you want to examine why he seems silent to your own particular prayers, can I refer you to Pete Greig’s book ‘God on mute’.
He has a helpful checklist, at the back of the book to run through if your prayers are not being answered – he identifies 16 of them! Its a complex area and a sensitive one and I cannot cover all of the issues this morning.
But I do want to look at only three areas, in particular, which will have an impact on whether our prayers are answered:
First, God’s character and objectives
Second, Our Sin
Third, Our boldness and persistence
First, his character
I have often said, but I don’t mind saying again, God is not the genie in the lamp. You know the myth from Aladdiin: rub the lamp and out pops the genie ‘your wish is my command!’ God is our Father in heaven, he is not the genie in the lamp. This is why it is so wrong to use the expression ‘I tried praying but it ‘didn’t ‘work’’. That’s as absurd as a student at university saying ‘I tried that ‘calling Dad for some more money’ thing and it didn’t work!’
God is in control, it is he who is father, he who is God; not us.
So Jesus gets his disciples to state right at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer that they understand this: ‘Father hallowed be your name’ or, in Matthew’s version in Matthew 6:9-13, ‘Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name’. Or, in other words, ‘I recognise you as my Father, may your identity, who you are, be respected by everyone and not abused’. A name carried more meaning reflected more of your identity in the Ancient World, than it does today.
‘Your kingdom come’, this means; ‘may the priorities that you God have prevail, what you want with the universe triumph; not my priorities’.
Now we may find it difficult, when we pray for a new Aston Martin that we don’t get one, but this may not be included in God’s list of priorities. Indeed, the next line ‘Give us each day our daily bread’ suggests that he is concerned about what we need: the daily necessities of life, but not necessarily what we want….
So, firstly, God’s character and objectives.
Secondly, our sin….
God will be entirely deaf to our pleadings, if we have unconfessed sin in our lives. It’s like there is a barrier between us and him which is impervious to the pleadings that we make, unless we first recognise that we are sinners and in desperate need of forgiveness.
‘Forgive us our sin’
The real sign that we are serious about needing to be forgiven, is when we ourselves are willing to forgive others who sin against us. Without repentance for our sin, the heavenly realms will be like brass; unresponsive; unyielding. How do we know what unconfessed sin we have? We ask him. In the words of Psalm 24, as I said last Sunday, we ask, ‘are my hands clean, is my heart pure?’ and he will reveal our unconfessed sin to us.
So, firstly, God’s character
Secondly, our sin, and
Thirdly, our persistence and boldness
When we pray for something, we need to be persistent and bold. It is no good ‘just going through the motions’ with prayer. God will only know, if we really care about it if we put ourselves out and persist. Just as he suggests in the illustration in the passage: suppose you have a friend and you go to him at midnight and say ‘lend me three loaves of bread because I have a visitor’ (and in the ancient world hospitality was a sacred duty) Jesus says that, even if the friend is locked up in bed with his children in the one bedroom of the house with the cattle below and the whole house will be disturbed if he gets up, because of your audacity, your unwillingness to give up, your absolute insistence that your friend help you out, he will get up, not because he likes you, but because you won’t stop insisting and give you what you need. Our audacity and persistence in prayer shows our seriousness.
As one commentator writes ‘if we do not want what we are asking for enough to be persistent, we do not want it very much. It is not such tepid prayer that is answered’
As you will know, I started coming to Itchen Valley back in 2012 when I started my curacy. So I have been serving this community 7 years. But I still think one of the most remarkable examples of prayer that I have ever experienced in this community happened in July 2014…..
You may remember that Andrew Micklefield had left at Easter, a couple of months before and Rebecca and I, both curates, found ourselves leading the parish in the vacancy.
Sonia Cragg, who was living in Easton at the time and who had suffered for years with her kidneys had let me know, on or around 15th July that, unless she received a transplant of a kidney before 23rd July or a cure, she would need to be fitted for dialysis; an unattractive proposition for anyone at any time, but particularly so for a young woman with then small children.
I suggested that we should get the whole community to pray.
Sonia was very concerned that we should not pray that a kidney would be available, because obviously that would be like praying for someone to be killed in a car accident, but to pray rather that, if someone died, that the deceased would be a donor and that the kidney would be a match for her.
So I asked Gerry Stacey who had the email list at the time to put out a message to the entire parish suggesting that we all volunteered to pray for one hour during 24 hours – day and night on Thursday 17th July 2014, for healing for Sonia.
When Andrew Micklefield received this email, having moved to Alton. but still being on the email address list, he told me afterwards that he said to himself ‘ooooh I wonder how that is going to go down in Itchen Valley’.
But amazingly, you all rallied!
I can see today many people who signed up to pray for an hour or in an hour at home or in church for her….31 people in all joined in! Just amazing! All sorts of people, many of whom I didn’t know, some who never came to church, it was truly astonishing…..
The day was wonderful.
But then: nothing happened…nothing happened….nothing happened…
I spoke to Sonia about persistence in prayer, looking at this passage in Luke 11 and the corresponding passage in Luke 18 about the persistent widow. She said ‘Whenever I tell the children, that it’s no good going on and on about something, the answer is still ‘no’! It seems from what you are saying that it is different with God….’
By August, I was travelling to Kent where HTB’s summer camp Focus was happening. I had been persistent and I was cross….with God. I said to God ‘this is the first time that this community has ever done anything like this why have you not answered their prayer? What is the point of me being in this community if you don’t answer our prayers when we are so serious in our intent, so determined so audacious….that they come together to pray in this way, with such seriousness, with such faith, for this young woman.
But as I started this rant at God, I felt him say to me ‘so it’s OK if its Marina’s kidney is it?’ As you will know Marina is our youngest daughter…I replied ‘of course not’. I felt him say ‘Then think about what you are asking me!’ Suitably admonished, I found that all the talks and books at Focus that year seemed to be on humility…
The new term began. But, strangely, although Sonia was fitted for dialysis the doctors said ‘you don’t need to start it until you start feeling unwell’ and she was fine, until the beginning of September.
Then on, Sunday morning, 14th September 2014, there were frantic calls from Mike, Sonia’s husband. The hospital had found a kidney for Sonia, and she was going to have the operation while we were all in church at a family communion at Itchen Abbas ‘could we all pray for her?’ Mike asked.
Immediately after the successful operation, Mike’s constant refrain was “prayer really works!”, “prayer really works!”.
Sonia’s surgeon described the operation as the “perfect kidney at the perfect time” with a very low likelihood of failure.
It was extraordinary!
Sonia said that all the other patients she saw at the hospital had been waiting for years on dialysis for a kidney. She only had to wait for 11 days!
Sonia continues to flourish!
Of course this is a very happy story. But there are also sad stories where, despite doing everything that we can possibly do, despite persistence, prayer remains unanswered and that is very tough for those who suffer. Even King David (who was described in the Bible as a ‘man after God’s own heart’ 1 Sam 13:14) found that, despite his persistent prayer, God seemed to remain on mute (2 Sam 12:15-23). Sometimes we need to trust God when the situation is unfair and doesn’t make sense. As Pete Greig says in his book, in this situation, we need to hold onto God like a hurt child, who doesn’t understand. Sometimes it is just a mystery why he does not seem to respond.
It’s useful to look at the strange way that Jesus ends the passage. Having asked whether, as a father, if your son asks for a fish, you will give him a snake instead, concludes verse 13 ‘If you then…know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’. Give the Holy Spirit! Not what we have been asking for, at all! Sometimes, we just need His presence to get us through what we are suffering, particularly, when we don’t understand why he will not give us what we are pleading to him for.
But wonderfully, sometimes, in my experience, but not always (otherwise he would be setting aside the laws of nature he has put in place), as we recognise that it is God who is Father, God who is in control, not us, that it is God’s priorities which rule the universe, his kingdom that will come, not ours; as we recognise the need for forgiveness for our sinfulness; and as we are serious with our prayer and show our determination and persistence to have our prayers answered, as the Itchen Valley did so wonderfully for Sonia, as we take prayer seriously and are persistent, even fasting perhaps, to show how willing we are to be put out to get God’s attention, then our prayers become ‘the slender nerve of power’ and astonishing and unlikely things start to happen.
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’ ”
Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’
“Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The Holy Bible: New International Version—Anglicised. (1984). (electronic edition., Lk 11:1–13). London: Hodder & Stoughton.