“Praying In the Context of God”

July 24, 2022

Luke 11: 1–13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” ***

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

If we could all hear one another’s prayers, God might be relieved of some of his burdens. — Ashleigh Brilliant

Over the years, I’ve been asked by individuals to pray for them. I have prayed for healing, relationships that were broken, concerns about employment, courage to face tests of many kinds, relief of grief and more.

Likewise, I have been asked why God doesn’t answer prayer. But never has anyone come to me asking why they prayed and got exactly what they wanted. Many people have wanted to know why they asked but were not given, why they searched but did not find, why they knocked and the door never opened. I’ve wondered about those questions, too.

There isn’t an answer to why some prayers seem to be answered and others go unanswered. But I have heard some unhelpful attempts: “You haven’t prayed long enough.” “You were asking for the wrong thing.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Something better is coming.” “Sometimes God says no.” “God is testing you.” If you have ever been told any of those things then you know how discourteous and hurtful they are.

The Gospel this day about praying would be easier to read if it weren’t for all the frustrations we have encountered with prayer. Could it be that we have misunderstood the aim of prayer and what Jesus is teaching his disciples? What if neither we, nor God is responsible for unanswered prayer? What if God is neither the dispenser nor the withholder of answers, responses, or whatever it is we want?

Some people approach prayer like a COKE machine. Put in the money of one’s good behavior and earnest intent, make a selection, and get what you want. Coke machine theology is easy, satisfying. It seems sensible, predictable and orderly. It works great until the machine gives you a Dr. Pepper when you wanted a Diet Coke. Or worse yet, it takes your money and gives you nothing. Then what? Push the button harder? Kick the machine? Put it more money and hope for the right response. Walk away vowing never to use another COKE machine?

If anything, this passage teaches us God is not a divine vending machine. Prayer is not a transaction between us and God.

Jesus did not intend that “ask, search, and knock” would be a blank check on God’s account. His instruction to ask, search, and knock is in relationship to what he had just taught — saying “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name …” Wrapped up in that basic prayer is the charge to persist in aligning life to the hallowing of God’s name, giving reality to God’s kingdom in our life and relationships, embracing the sufficiency of this day, freely receiving and extending forgiveness.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer is not about a technique or formula for getting whatever we want. He’s describing an approach, a posture, open and responsive to a way of life undergirded and guided by a holy and life giving spirit.

There is a gem in this passage that comes at the end. It is easily overlooked, but it has significant meaning to our praying and our personal experiences and frustrations with it.

The final phrase announces a divine context: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I learned the importance of context long ago. Every Monday in seventh grade English class, Mrs. Kleve would introduce a list of new words for us to learn to spell, define, and use in a sentence. Every Friday she would quiz us on that list.

She told us many times that the context of a word or phrase is important in the determining the meaning of a sentence.

Contexts vary widely and “how much more” has different meanings according to the situation. If the context is a cash transaction, “how much more” might apply to the time left on your parking meter. If the context is an event, then “how much more” could be the question of when will it end or wishing it will it last longer.

In our personal lives, “how much more?” might be, how much more can I keep up with the demands of my family? How much more of this strained relationship can I take? How much more loss can I survive?

In the contexts of our professional lives: how much more will this job take from me? How much more can I take on before I can no longer?

On a much larger scale, thinking of our world, how much more can we hear about terrorism, mass shootings, racism, homophobia before we begin to believe dystopia as the norm over the Kingdom of God?

When it comes to prayer, it would be wise and reassuring to never forget — the context of God.

In our prayers or our private thoughts, whenever we say from our places of hurt, pain or loss: “how much more?” God’s response is, “how much more will I care for you.”

Whenever we voice, “how much more?” from our feelings of abandonment and rejection, God says, “how much more do I promise to be with you.”

Whenever we utter, “how much more?” from our spaces of disillusionment and disappointment God says, “how much more do I love you.”

Psalm 138 read in many churches this day says: “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” Another assertion that that when we ask, “how much more” from our places of this life, God answers us, increasing our strength of soul (Psalm 138:3).

For every “how much more?” we utter, God responds with God’s “how much more.”

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.