Teach us to pray
Sermon preached at Enmore, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, 24th July 2016
Reading: Luke 11.1-13.
I’ve never been woken up at midnight by someone asking for a few loaves of bread but I do recall one night in Paddington being woken at 12.30pm with the front door bell ringing and finding a distressed young woman and two policemen asking if they could borrow a ladder. The young woman lived in a block of flats just behind St. George’s and she had gone out earlier in the evening leaving her key in the flat. On coming home she realized her error and looked around for some way to get into her flat- that’s when she met the policemen. They came to me hoping that I might own a ladder that would reach to her 2nd floor window and allow access into her room. So I found myself a short time later holding our church ladder with the help of one policeman while the other climbed through the window and then went and opened the door for my very relieved neighbour. I mention this story because it may help shed some light on the parable Jesus told about the friend at midnight who finds he has to cater for unexpected guests and goes down the road to his neighbour to borrow some bread. It’s an important parable in Luke’s Gospel because it is narrated as part of Jesus’ teaching on prayer.
This is a story where an understanding of the cultural background is critical and if we fail to appreciate that we can easily misinterpret the parable. If I were to come knocking on your door at midnight and ask you for some bread and milk to provide for unexpected guests, I suspect, you would be annoyed – although you might put on a brave face and pretend that it was a reasonable request. We live in our self-contained houses with our freezers and microwaves, with shops open late and with all the latest means of communication at our disposal. Scenarios like the one in the parable are pretty unlikely in our society. (People may ask for a ladder but not bread!) So when we listen to this story with our western ears we get the picture that God is like the man asleep in bed who only gets up and answers the door because the guy knocking is so jolly persistent. We apply that to prayer and think God is not really interested in our problems but if we make a real nuisance of ourselves and keep asking he might eventually, reluctantly, agree to our request. Such an interpretation is the very opposite of what this passage is teaching.
The parable is addressed to Galileans who lived in small villages where everyone knew everyone else, where there were no late night shops and very limited methods of communication. The unexpected arrival of a late night guest was unusual but very possible. Furthermore in these communities the provision of suitable hospitality was a sacred duty upon which the honour of the village depended. Jesus begins the parable with the question which can be paraphrased ‘Can any of you imagine having a friend and going to him at midnight…..and as the story unfolds the universal response from his hearer’s would have been, “No. We cannot imagine anyone in our village refusing to come to the door even though it was late and inconvenient.” Kenneth Bailey is a scholar who has lived and worked in the Middle East all his life and he suggests that the key to the parable is the correct translation of the word usually translated as ‘persistence’. He argues that its original meaning was ‘avoidance of shame’ and that it describes the behaviour of the man in bed not the guy knocking on the door. What gets the sleeper out of bed is the knowledge that if he fails to help his neighbour he will bring shame on his name. He will not be able to hold his head up in the village because he refused to show hospitality. Thinking back to my late night call-I responded as cheerfully as I could to my neighbour because I knew that my behaviour would be seen as an expression of the Church’s response to someone in need. So this is not a parable about a reluctant God irritated by our petitions but rather this is the God who will always act in a way consistent with his character of love and justice. But even more than that, our God is one who acts like a parent delighting to hear and meet the desires of her children: the God who longs to pour out the blessing of his Spirit on his children. So the theme of this whole section is an active encouragement to pray and to pray expectantly.
So how do we pray? That was the question Jesus was asked by one of his disciples and in response Jesus gave us the prayer we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ There are two versions of this prayer, one in Matthew chapter 6 and Luke’s version in chapter 11. Luke’s is a shorter ‘no frills’ version compared with Matthew’s but it affirms the same ideas.
Notice first that we address God as ‘father’-the O.T. had a number of names for God, including Yahweh, Adonai, El Shaddai and many more but the word Jesus chooses is the intimate and simple word, Father. The image of God as Father was not unknown in the Hebrew Scriptures: the psalmist had written ‘As a father pities his children even so the Lord is merciful to those who fear him’ but Jesus developed that use in a new way. He frequently spoke of God as his father with a degree of personal intimacy and ease that shocked some of his contemporaries.
Second we notice that the first petition is that God’s name be honoured or hallowed. In the Hebrew mind the name is the person. A person’s name expressed their very character. In John 17 Jesus said that he had manifested or declared God’s name. In other words he has demonstrated the nature and character of God in his life and actions. When as Christians we live in a way contrary to God’s character of truth and righteousness we bring dishonour on his name. When the poor are oppressed, when injustice is tolerated, when the refugee is ignored, God’s name is taken in vain.
Perhaps the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is in the second petition, those three words,
‘Your kingdom come’. The concept of God’s Kingdom was central to Jesus’ teaching and preaching. The Kingdom is not a geographical entity but a spiritual reality which is evident whenever and wherever, God’s righteousness, justice and mercy operates. Donald Coggan, a former Archbishop of Canterbury put it well when he wrote, “Wherever the bounds of truth, beauty and goodness are advanced, there the Kingdom comes. Wherever the forces of darkness, disease and hate are driven back, there the Kingdom comes and God enters in more fully to the sovereignty of His world. The prayer ‘Your Kingdom come’ can be answered even through those who are not consciously the agents of the Kingdom.” It is the desire that permeates our personal prayers and the prayers of the Church.
Praying this prayer helps to give shape to all our prayers. Whether we are praying for peace in Syria or for the welfare of our family we are praying that the characteristics of God’s kingdom will become evident in every situation. It also shows us the inappropriate prayers which don’t fit that pattern. (Praying for Australia to win against the All Blacks can’t easily be seen as an advancing God’s reign!). To pray for God’s kingdom to come is a pray for the present but also a prayer for the future, looking forward to the day when God’s kingdom will be revealed in all its fullness, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us each day our daily bread is a reminder that prayer is not just about the big picture things but the practicalities of daily life. It is a prayer of dependence, a reminder that God is our sustainer. We like to think of ourselves as self sufficient but this prayer expresses humility and saves us from the sin of pride. ‘Give us’ reminds us that this is a prayer for all humanity and not just you and me. Jesus fed the crowds who came to hear him and he wants all his children fed. We have the means to do it and we need to do all we can to see that our government fulfils its obligations in working to eliminate world hunger.
“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” At the heart of Christianity is the belief that while human actions matter deeply and can carry terrible consequences forgiveness is possible and available. This prayer is an acknowledgement of human frailty, that we need forgiveness as much as we need daily bread. But if we receive the forgiveness that God offers we cannot withhold forgiveness from others, especially if it is asked for. To refuse to forgive in some cases may well be understandable but in the end it will only bring harm and further grief to us. Forgiveness brings freedom. We constantly need God’s grace to live out this prayer.
There is much more to be said about the Lord’s Prayer but hopefully these few thoughts will encourage us to use this prayer often and to make it a model for all our praying.