A sermon based on Psalm 138 and Luke 11:1-13 preached on June 26th, 2016
I remember what these summer days during my childhood were like. They were whatever we made them to be. Both of my parents worked during the day, so summer vacation meant the freedom to run around the house doing whatever my young mind could conjure up.
Neighborhood friends would come over. We would play baseball in the front yard, tearing my dad’s lawn to shreds. The slab of concrete at the bottom of the front steps was home plate. There were ghost men on first, second, or third, and I was all-time pitcher. If I threw it a little high, the baseball smacked against our bright red front door, leaving a dent in it. Eventually, my father got smart enough to replace the wooden stair posts with metal ones, because they took a beating, too.
When we weren’t playing baseball, we thought of crazier things. One time, my brother and I tried to make our own Coca-Cola by following the ingredient list on the back label of an empty 2-liter bottle. We found some sparkling water in the back of the fridge, and there was maple syrup in the cupboard which we thought would be a fine substitute for whatever High Fructose Corn Syrup was. A splash of this, and a dash of that, and we ended up with a Frankenstein-like concoction of liquid goo in a glass that neither one of us had the guts to try.
Then there were better thought-out experiments. Mom told us we could make a phone with two aluminum cans and a long piece of string. It was hard to believe, but by God, it worked! Not in any satisfactory way, really. It wasn’t like Atlantic Bell would go out of business anytime soon, but my brother and I had a wondrous time standing 12 feet away from each other, putting our mouth and our ears up to the cans in alternating fashion. My brother’s voice was muffled on my end, and I imagined mine was on his end, too. But it wasn’t long until we figured out that it was a whole lot easier to understand each other through the air than through 2 tin cans and a piece of string. It seemed like a cool trick, but what’s the use, really? In the end, it was just another impractical childhood experiment, something we tried but never could see the advantage of.
Jesus talked about prayer often. And if we pay enough attention to the gospels, we’ll find that He prayed often. But it seems like every time he wanted to pray, he went off on his own, so the disciples were never in on it. It doesn’t seem like Jesus prayed with them all that often, which is a curious thing. So whatever the disciples heard of their Master’s prayers were muffled, too. So, at one point, the disciples have to ask Jesus outright:
Can you teach us to pray?
Jesus answers them with words that we now call the Lord’s Prayer. And its words are startling, really. We’re used to praying it every week, so it might not seem all that odd to us, but basically Jesus teaches his disciples that they can talk to God like He’s right there with them, like He’s on the other end of a string. Like He’s a part of their family: “Call Him Father,” Jesus says.
And the boldness of this prayer doesn’t end there. Next Jesus teaches them that they shouldn’t hesitate to ask God for whatever it is they need. Just come right out and say it. Just like you might ask your parents for something without hesitating, go up to God and do the same thing—go ahead and ask God for what you need. In fact, Jesus says, be really annoying about it. Pray to God like a bothersome neighbor who won’t stop knocking on your door in the middle of the night asking for food, refusing to go away until he gets what he wants. Keep at it until God loses His mind hearing you knock and knock and knock, and ask and ask and ask. Pray until you drive God crazy. Until you make God answer you. That’s Jesus’ first lesson about prayer—do it until God can’t ignore you anymore! Believe that Someone—a Divine Someone—really is on the other side of that door, and raise holy ruckus until you get an answer. Prayer lesson number one: If you’re gonna pray, pray with everything you got, until you’re breathless and God’s exhausted!
For years and years, whenever I would make hospital or home visits, I was scared to pray at all. You might expect a hospital chaplain to end each visit with prayer, but for so long, I tried my best to dance around it.
My reluctance about praying was the thought that I might say the wrong words. Maybe I’d get a name wrong or make some mistake like that. But most of all, I was scared to pray for some specific thing—like for healing or safety—and then come to find out my prayer didn’t work. What if healing didn’t come? What if things just got worse? Wouldn’t the person I was praying for end up disappointed and discouraged? Wouldn’t I end up discouraged, too? I wanted my prayers to be correct, accurate, and realistic! “Why pray for something that doesn’t seem likely?” I thought. So, instead of praying big prayers with big faith, my prayers were these vague, washed out, ambiguous string of words spoken in a miniscule voice that never asked God for anything specific, much less ambitious. Even in my prayers, I was hedging my bets! I thought my prayers had to make sense to me in order for them to make sense to God. It was only with time, and maturity, and the abandonment of that ridiculous notion, that I began taking my chances with my prayers—asking God for bigger things, expecting God to deliver miracles and healings in unexpected and powerful ways. What else is prayer but an ambitious cry for help—a long shot taken in the dark?
In our story for today, Jesus encourages us to go big with our prayers. Speak bold words! he says. Dare to ask for unlikely things!
Prayer is the way we storm the gates of heaven, rattle its bars, and arouse God’s attention. The greatest prayers are the defiant and persistent ones shouted into the skies above, until heaven can no longer ignore the commotion we make, when earth begins to tremble with their volume!
With Jesus’ first lesson on prayer, he says they should be as persistent and as stubborn as a salesman who wedges his foot in the door, or a wrestler who has his opponent in a headlock. Good prayer is shameless and unrelenting. They’re our defiant shouts into the silence of the skies above—demanding that God do something. Keep knocking on heaven’s door, Jesus’ says. If God is anything like the man who doesn’t want to be bothered because he and his family have already gone to sleep, just knock louder until He’s forced to pay attention to you.
A life of prayer isn’t simply about knocking harder. It’s really about establishing a relationship with God. And all relationships take work—marriage, parenthood, friendship. We know that. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that establishing a prayer relationship with God takes effort, too.
In the movie 50 First Dates, Adam Sandler’s character, Henry, falls in love with a woman named Lucy who he meets in a diner. They spend a Saturday morning making houses out of their waffles. That first breakfast together went so well that Henry decides to go back the very next week to see Lucy again, only this time Lucy has no idea who he is. This happens from one Saturday morning to the next until Henry finds out that Lucy was in a bad car crash a year before. She hardly lived through it, and now she suffers from short term memory loss. Every day, she wakes up having forgotten that yesterday happened at all, her brain injury makes her believe that every day is Sunday, October 13th, the day of the crash. Henry refuses to let this get in the way of being in a relationship with Lucy, so every day he wakes up and sets out to introduce himself to Lucy and then make her fall in love with him all over again. And he does this day after day after day. Each day a brand new pursuit. Our prayer life should be like that—a day in and day out pursuit to be in relationship with God.
The disciples ask Jesus a question about correct prayer technique, but instead, what He gives them is a lesson on how to nurture a strong relationship with God. Instead of answering how we’re supposed to pray, Jesus tells us about the kind of relationship we can have with God if we’re willing to invest ourselves in prayerful relationship with Him. And just like any sort of relationship, the first couple conversations might be awkward and a little touch-and-go. We might knock over our drink or stutter through our sentences, but day after day, week after week, by pursuing a deeper relationship with God, investing ourselves in a pattern of prayer, our words will start coming easier, and our ears will be opened wider. We will become increasingly attuned to the cadence of God’s voice, and we will learn how God speaks into our lives.
If you’re done with touch-and-go prayers—prayers like emergency flares thrown into the heavens whenever times get tough—if prayer always gets pushed to the sides of your days, relegated to times of either great suffering or great joy, then God wants more from you.
If you pray, but it feels like you’re talking into a tin can phone with a broken string, then ditch the cans and speak up. Crowd the silent skies until they’re packed-full of your prayers! Pray out loud, even if your family and neighbors think you’re crazy! Make them audacious! Peirce the air with them! Stop being polite with God. Jesus says that with our words shouted into the heavens, we can take God by the collar of His pajamas and rouse Him from sleep.
So, start praying like you mean it! Keep asking, seeking, knocking. Like the neighbor asking for bread in the middle of the night, be shameless with your prayers! And don’t ever stop. Rattle the bars, and make an uproar until heaven itself comes tumbling down to earth. God hears our persistent and audacious prayers. And He answers.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!