Answered prayer?

Sending a child to kindergarten in Quebec can be complicated – particularly if you want to enroll your child in the English system. The year before Tabea went off to kindergarten, Becky and I realized we’d have to get a certificate of eligibility to enroll her in the English system. As you all know, to send your child to English school you have to prove that one of the child’s parents received their elementary education, in English, within Canada.

Now I figured this would be pretty straightforward. Becky went to elementary school in French in Ontario – which meant it was up to me to prove that I was educated in an English context. So I did the most obvious thing and wrote to the elementary school I attended in Beaverton, Ontario. I wrote to the principal and requested a letter confirming I had gone to school there from First through Sixth grade.

Well, I never received a reply to that letter, which I wrote in the month of September. So a couple of months later I called the school and spoke directly with the Principal. She said she hadn’t received my letter, and that in any case she wouldn’t have any records of my education there – in fact she made very little effort to understand why exactly I needed this letter.

To make a very long story shorter, the Principal of my former elementary school wasn’t much inclined to help me. It took me a number of phone calls, and at least four letters written to Beaverton Public School, over the course of four months, to get what I needed. I even sent the principal a copy of my Grade 1 report card – one of the few that my mother had saved – she happened to have put it in a scrapbook for me.

I can’t help but thinking that when that principal received that copy of my report card that she nodded knowingly to herself when she saw that this annoying guy from Quebec had gotten a D in phonics – just what she would have suspected. Wasting my time with a kid who got a D in phonics.

In one of my phone calls to the Principal she told me that they no longer had records at the school from the time I was a student. But by the time of our next phone call she had found an old box in the school basement with some indication I had been there for Grades 1 and 2.

In another telephone conversation the principal mentioned that Mrs. Jebson – who had been my First Grade teacher – had stopped by the school. The principal had asked Mrs. Jebson whether she remembered a Roland De Vries – ah, yes, the boy who got a D in phonics. This teacher was now in her eighties, apparently, and yes it happened that she had some recollection of a boy named Roland who had had four older sisters. That moment was a kind of breakthrough – see, I did exist, I was a student at your school – I’m not making this all up. It’s quite something when the proof of your elementary education depends upon the fading memory of your first grade teacher.

Well, I finally got what I needed – and I think it’s probably fair to say that by the end of this 4-month episode the Principal of Beaverton Public School was as happy to be done with me as I was to be done with her. In truth I think part of the reason she gave in, without every last bit of proof she wanted, was because she just wanted to be done with this guy from Montreal who kept calling and writing.

No doubt we all have stories like this. Stories about a time when we needed something or wanted something – and the person who could give it – the person who had the power to meet our need – wasn’t inclined to do so. So we had to beg and cajole and get angry and get frustrated and write letters and make phone calls and knock on the door, until finally the other person gave in. Most of us have perhaps had such an experience that we kept asking for something until that other person finally gave in and said – ok, just take it. Enough already. I’m tired of you.

In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells two separate stories like this. The first one is in the 18th chapter of Luke’s gospel – and the other is in the 11th chapter, which we read this morning. In Luke chapter 18, it is the story of the widow who demands justice from a judge. But the judge happens to be corrupt, and not inclined to giver her justice.  But the widow persists in demanding justice, and the judge knows that this woman has a reputation for persistence – and so he says to himself: “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

And then in our passage for today, from chapter 11, we have the story of a persistent man. This man has guests arrive late at night, and he has no food to feed them. So he goes to his neighbour, who is already in bed, and begs him to for some bread to feed these newly-arrived guests. The neighbour is asleep in what is a probably a one-room house – his whole family is lined up on the floor in front of the door – he would have to crawl over all of his sleeping family in order to find some food for this man who has come asking. And so he shouts through the door – go away. But the man outside the door persists – just three loaves of bread – give me just three loaves of bread. And finally the neighbour inside gets up to get the bread, not because he cares about his friend and wants to help him. No, the man gets up to get the bread and open the locked door, only because of the persistence of his neighbour.

Well here is one of the key points in these parables:

Our God is not like the principal of Beaverton Public School.

Our God is not like the judge who didn’t want to give justice.

Our God is not like the neighbour who had to be harangued into lending bread.

Indeed, Luke shares another teaching of Jesus in chapter 11 – another teaching which makes much the same point, and relating to prayer. Jesus says:

If a child asks for a fish, the father will not give a snake.

And if a child asks for an egg, the father will not give a scorpion.

The point of all of these stories, again, and of this additional bit of teaching, is that our God is a loving heavenly Father. Though in some instances the fathers among us are less than perfect. Though in some instances our own fathers were less than perfect, or worse, God remains the loving heavenly father – a parent of grace, a parent with open hands, a parent of expansive love, a parent who leads us gently and persistently in the truly human way of his Son. This is a God who gives his children what they need.

So God is not like the judge who isn’t inclined to give us justice. God is not like the neighbour who doesn’t really care that a guest has arrived late night and needs to be fed. God wants to give. Don’t think of God as being like those ungracious, unwilling, stingy characters.

But at the same time, through these same stories, Jesus does seem to suggest that we will have to show persistence in our praying. So that even though we know God wants to give – even though we know that God is not stingy with his grace – nevertheless there is a suggestion in these passages that in our praying we may need to be like that persistent widow – keep begging the judge. We may need to be like that neighbour – keep banging on the door, asking for bread. We may need to be like that someone who needs a certificate of eligibility – keep writing to the principal.

So it is that 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.” God is loving. God will give. Be persistent in asking. God will answer.

Now of course we may feel this morning that what Jesus is saying isn’t actually the case. Really? Ask and it will be given? Really? Knock and the door will be opened? In the same way that we all have had an experience of asking and asking and asking for something that another person didn’t seem to want to give – perhaps in the same way we have all had the experience of praying for something that God seemed unwilling to give.  Is it not the case that at times our prayers have seemed to remain unanswered. Unanswered in the face of

sickness – whether our own sickness or that of a friend of family member;

unanswered in the face of broken relationships

unanswered when we didn’t know what decision to take

unanswered when we were looking for a new beginning.

Between all of us we could probably make a pretty good list of the prayers that it seems God did not answer. And even if we acknowledge that God sometimes answers prayers in ways we might not expect; and even if we acknowledge that there are times we have asked for things that were not good for us or for others – even after our list of unanswered prayers has been pared down – even then we will probably still have a good list of prayers that God seems not to have answered.

“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.”

We can’t answer this challenge of faith this morning. We can’t even begin to fully describe this challenge of faith this morning.  But we can look at one curious aspect of this passage. One perhaps unexpected aspect of this passage – which will get us thinking a little more deeply about prayer.

In the last verse of our short passage, Jesus says: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give” – and here we’d expect to read, good gifts, wouldn’t we. “Just as you give good gifts to your children, so God will give… good gifts to you.” But that’s not what the passage says. In fact, it reads: “If you 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.”

The Holy Spirit, to those who ask for the Spirit.

In an important sense, these words of Jesus help to discipline our prayers – they give us a sense of what we should be praying for – these words of Jesus give us a sense of the prayers that God wants to answer in our lives and wants to answer within our community of faith. God wants to answer, and wills to answer, prayers of ours that invite the Holy Spirit to be alive in us and in our lives and in the community of his people. Ask, and the Spirit will be given.

In an important sense, within the book of Luke and Acts, which we remember are one volume, written together – it is the Holy Spirit that builds up the church and equips it for ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. And so  prayers that God wants to answer, the prayers that God wills to answer, are our prayers for the Holy Spirit to bring the kingdom of Jesus Christ to life among us. To pray for the Spirit is to pray for the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Ask, and the Spirit will be given.

And obviously this doesn’t set a strict limit on what we pray for – to pray for the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our world and in our church is to pray for

faith where there is doubt,

is to pray for justice where we see injustices;

it is to pray for hope where there is despair,

it is to pray for reconciliation where there is alienation,

it is to pray for peace where there is violence,

it is to pray for goodness where there is wrongdoing.

And to ask God to send the Holy Spirit is not only to pray for all of these things to become real in our world – it is to pray that God, by his Holy Spirit, would equip us, his people, to participate in the coming of these realities in our world. This is the prayer that God wants to answer – this is the prayer that God wills to answer – this is the prayer in reply to which God wants to say Yes, Yes, Yes – that by the Holy Spirit we would participate in the coming of Christ’s kingdom. That by his grace we would enact his faith, his justice, his hope, his reconciliation, his peace, his goodness. To this God can only say Yes, Yes, Yes. Ask and it will be given.

Prayer is spoken about in many other ways in the New Testament. And we may rightly pray for many different things. But within this passage from Luke’s gospel, the prayer that God so clearly wants to answer is the one in which we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit that leads us into the way and kingdom of Jesus Christ.

In our life of prayer, may this prayer be our prayer.

Even you and I – in our messed up broken lives – even we know how to give good gifts to our children and to our family members. How much more, does God want to give the Holy Spirit to those who simply ask. So let us persist in asking for this gift, in seeking the life of God’s kingdom among us and in our world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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