What does Jesus say about prayer?
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Let us pray. Eternal God, we desire to grow in our dependence upon you. Teach us to be persistent in our prayers, asking, seeking, knocking, so that we miss out on nothing of what you want to give us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This story must say something to us about prayer. We cannot come to any other conclusion. What comes immediately before it is the model prayer given in response to the disciples’ request. What comes after is, I think, Jesus own commentary on the parable which includes that well-known trio, ask, search and knock. We know right from the beginning that we are going to learn something about prayer.
There is a clue to this story in something I have noticed recently at the grocery store. There are more and more choices in the bakery for fresh bread made without preservatives. Perhaps, like me, some of you have made such a purchase, had a couple of fresh slices that first day and then put the loaf in your bread drawer. The next day you’re invited out to lunch with a friend and then the next day you decide to have toast with your breakfast. You pull the loaf out only to discover mould has begun to grow already. You think next time I’ll slice the whole loaf and freeze it.
Freezers were rare in the time of Jesus. Bread was baked daily and usually only a day’s worth would be baked. It would not be unusual to be out of bread at the end of the day. What would be a challenge is finding someone who had a loaf left over.
Another clue to the story is to recognize the obligation to offer hospitality. Imagine this scene at my house in Markham. Around 10 p.m. I have headed to bed, read for perhaps 30 minutes and gone quickly to sleep. At 11:30 I am in the midst of a deep sleep. The doorbell rings and the dog starts barking. I cannot sleep through this. At the door is a fellow pastor from Windsor. He is on his way to a meeting in Kingston the next day. He stopped in London for dinner and lost track of time. He’s got a hotel room in Kingston but he’s so sleepy, he’s afraid he won’t make it. Can he use our guest room?
What is the sum total of my reaction? “Top of the stairs, first door on your left. If you want anything to drink, help yourself—coffee’s in the freezer, tea is in the cupboard. See you in the morning.” That’s it! I’m not making tea. I’m not looking for cookies. I’m going back to bed. And yes, I am aware if any of my down-east relatives read this they are now ashamed to admit they know me.
In Bible times, and still in Newfoundland hospitality is thought of as a holy obligation. That included setting a generous portion of food in front of one’s guest no matter when he showed up or how much of a surprise it was.
As odd then as the behaviour of the midnight host seems to us, he would have believed he had no choice but to do whatever he could to discover who might have some extra bread in order for him to meet his obligations as a host. In fact in the original language of the New Testament, this story is an extended question, “Who of you if you had a friend who comes to you at midnight…” The answer which every one of Jesus’ listeners would have given was, “None of us.” In other words, despite disturbing the whole family, if they had some bread left over, it would be their duty to share it.
Who is the main character of the story? I think it is the friend in the middle, the friend who has the sacred obligation of hospitality on one side and the person who can meet the need on the other. There’s no story without him. And as I said, the intention of Jesus in this story is to teach us something about prayer.
Part of the structure of this story is the contrast that is there. The contrast is expressed something like this: if the reluctant neighbour with the extra bread will finally respond to the persistence of the one who must be gracious to his guest, then how much more can you expect God to respond to those who come to him in prayer. 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. If then this—how much more that.
Let’s look again at the story from the prayer point of view. How many of you know someone who has a spiritual and/or emotional and/or physical need? Hands up: how many of us know someone in need? How many of us have faith that God hears and answers prayers? Again, hands up. If you put your hand up twice, you are the friend in the middle.
There are times when requests come our way that we can handle all by ourselves. Some of you, like Chris and I, are part of what have been called “the sandwich generation”—a child or children still at home and aging parents who need and expect more assistance. “Can you help me out with the rent this year?” “The dentist wants to see me a week from Monday. Can you take me? The taxi isn’t cheap, you know!”
I’m the parent or the child in the middle and I have the resources to respond to those requests. But then there are the other sorts of needs. A few years ago I took my mother to an appointment to get an x-ray done on a knee. She had fallen a few weeks earlier and while nothing was broken the knee continued to give her discomfort and the doctor wanted to see what was going on under the skin.
We went out for tea afterwards. My mother said, “I’m still a little shaky.” I, at my compassionate best, said, “From this morning? All you had done was an x-ray.” To which my mother replied, “It wasn’t you that had to lay face down on that cold, hard table with nothing but a little pillow for my head.”
I don’t want to trivialize this discussion but isn’t that a picture of where we often find ourselves? I am presented with a need—this time just a bit of understanding—and I haven’t got what’s needed. I’m the friend in the middle. Someone is desperate for bread and the breadbox is empty. I’ve got to look elsewhere, to knock on the door of whoever might be able to supply what is needed. It’s God to whom we need to go. It’s God who will know what is needed and who will be able to respond.
The problem is we are not sure if we should or can believe it. Let me offer a suggestion. Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to 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.”
Ask, search, knock—it seems to me that Jesus is not talking about different types of prayer; rather Jesus is talking about a rising level of intensity in our prayers. “Chris, do you know if we have any sugar?” “I’m not sure; check downstairs in the pantry.” “None here.” “You’ll need to go next door to the Hendersons and see if you can borrow some.” Ask, search, knock—a rising level of intensity in effort.
You might say, “Well, preacher, it’s one thing to talk about borrowing some sugar from the neighbours, but measure two cups of prayer.” You’re right. But let me continue with Jesus’ example of contrast: if I trust my neighbours enough to know they won’t give me detergent when I ask for sugar, then how much more should I expect God to give me what is needed when I am the friend in the middle and come to him in prayer.
On May 1, 1940, Adolph Hitler’s army launched an all out attack called the Blitzkrieg. Within 2 weeks the Panzer tank divisions had reached the English Channel, pouring like a flood through the French and Belgium troops, leaving the British Expeditionary force, over 300,000 men, pinned against the ocean. All the ports had been destroyed and the British Navy was helpless to approach the shallow shoreline for a rescue. Several British generals said that “only a miracle” could save their beleaguered forces. Winston Churchill said that they would be fortunate to get 20,000 of their men back over the channel before they were destroyed.
In desperation, on May 26, King George VI declared a National Day of Prayer for deliverance, for the hopelessly stranded British troops. The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers from Westminster Abbey. The service was broadcast across the nation by the BBC. Churches opened their doors for prayer.
Shocked at the plight of their soldiers, the British people stopped everything to pray. As these prayers were offered a series of events began to unfold that would change the course of the war.
With certain victory within their grasp, Hitler suddenly halted German tanks just 20 miles from Dunkirk. Acting irrationally against his generals’ advice, he chose his air force instead to finish the annihilation. But just as the planes were taking off, a severe thunderstorm grounded the German planes and thick fog blanketed the area making the normally violent English Channel so calm that even the smallest boats could sail on it without risk of capsizing.
For nine days, the calm and foggy English Channel made it possible for anything that would float—tugboats, yachts, pleasure boats—even the smallest of crafts—as well as naval vessels—to sail the English Channel and ferry 335,000 troops from the shallow beaches at Dunkirk back to England. The whole time the fog made it impossible for the Nazi airplanes to see their targets.
Someone might be thinking, “Bill, that’s just a coincidence. You can never prove anything else.” You’re right, of course. But you’ll forgive me if I choose to believe that a coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.
Here is something I know for sure. I think Jesus told this story about the friend in the middle because he knew there would be countless times when we would have a friend, a family member, a work colleague with some sort of need that was far beyond our resources and that the only way to respond would be to ask the one who has the answer, search for the will of the one who knows what is best, knock on the door of the one who can open up the vault of heaven.
Someone put it this way: “To become more effective in our praying, we need to remember: It is not the arithmetic of our prayers, how many there are; nor the rhetoric of our prayers, how eloquent they are; nor the geometry of our prayers, how long they are; nor the music of our prayers, how sweet our voice may be; nor the method of our prayers, how orderly they are. It is the fervency of our prayers, the constant faithfulness in prayer that wins the day and unleashes the power of God.”