August 31 2014: Why pray? (Luke 11:1-13)

Anyone who has brought up children and anyone who has been brought up, if they’re honest, will know that parents are a big problem to their adolescent offspring. Most teenagers wish their parents gone, perhaps permanently, intensely and often, and many of them say so in clear and hurtful terms. “I hate you, I wish you were dead!” are words thought and perhaps said by confused and angry young people to those who love them the most and whom, we all know, they themselves love deeply, as part of the ordinary drama growing up.

Typically this will be in the context of the refusal of some unreasonably, impossible, or dangerous demand. “Buy me this!” “Take me here!” “Allow me to do that!”

Remembering this kind of intense and passionate but also everyday and even banal confrontation will help us in making sense of what we might think is a puzzling and hard to accept teaching of Jesus. Talking about prayer he says to his disciples: “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened”. He seems to guarantee that if we pray, if we make requests to God, we will receive, we will get what we ask for.

That sounds like an easy promise to test. Is what Jesus says true? Are our prayers answered in this way? The question answers itself. No they are not. The Church has prayed for peace and the world is beset by war. Many many millions have prayed that they and those whom they love might be spared from disease, pain and death and seen terrible suffering continue and premature death come. Uncounted and untold prayers have been made and the things prayed for not come, the things prayed against go on. People have asked and not received, have sought and not found, have knocked and seen no door open.

Should we conclude that Jesus was either wrong or dishonest, that prayer is futile, that asking, seeking, knocking are a waste of time? Should we conclude that this passage gives us the opportunity and the permission to test God in our prayers and that this test has been failed, again and again?

This very familiar promise sits between two other, more difficult to interpret sections of a single passage Jesus’ teaching that follows and supplements his teaching of the great exemplary prayer that we know as the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. He first gives the peculiar parable about the man who knocks on his friend’s door at night demanding bread to share with a visitor and whose very shamelessness, his going beyond what is reasonable will mean that his demand will be met, even when friendship itself will not. Then he compares our requests to those made to a father by his child, requests that the father will meet with fish and eggs, not with scorpions and snakes.

How does this help us with the problem that Jesus’ guarantee about prayer seems not to hold good?

The first word of the Lord’s Prayer, in Luke’s version, is “Father”. This is not a prayer addressed to some impersonal force, or to an alien or totally mysterious being. Our prayer is an address to a person, a member of our family, to our Father. This profoundly intimate and familiar character of our prayer is what defines it, what makes all ideas of testing and experiment beside the point.

When we pray to our Father in heaven he already knows us, knows us well, knows us better than we can know ourselves. A parent can accept and forgive the hurtful words of their child because he or she knows that child as well as anyone can know another, can love another, he or she hears the words as coming from a place of hurt and confusion, knows that the very fact that they’re said to them is a sign of how completely the child trusts and relies on them.

When our children ask for or demand things we don’t refuse them because we don’t want to make them happy, so long as our relationship hasn’t gone wrong. When we refuse them things we do for all sorts of reasons: because we can’t get them; because we think they’re things they shouldn’t have, because we don’t want to spoil them. We have our reasons, sometimes good and sometimes in retrospect less good but we always have our reasons, reasons that we can’t always make understood.

Is it like that with God? Jesus tells the disciples: “If you then, who are evil know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

If God is good and if God is present in the world then when we ask God for what is good he will give us what is good when he can. That’s what Jesus tells us. In the same way that a parent doesn’t wait to be asked to give their child what is needed, so God doesn’t wait to be asked. In the same way that a parent doesn’t give what is asked for if giving it isn’t good, so God doesn’t give what is harmful. And, we must conclude, the bad things that happen, the disasters that befall us, do so not by the will of God.

One might conclude from this that we shouldn’t, or needn’t, pray. Some Christians and some Christian thinkers do reach this conclusion, at least in regard to prayers of request. I don’t think they’re right. Among the requests in the Lord’s Prayer are “thy kingdom come”, “give us each day our daily bread”, and “forgive us our sins”. In these three are summarised a lot of what we pray for day by day, week by week. God’s kingdom is one where absolute peace and absolute justice hold sway. Being given our daily bread is a basic statement of the plea that our needs are met. Forgiveness of sins is a precondition of salvation, of being made right with God.

Our faith teaches us that we are dependent on God’s grace for eternal life. It teaches that we are to trust God’s love to grant us that grace. If we are dependent on somebody who loves us for everything then wanting something must lead directly to asking for it, even if we trust that person to know and to do what’s best for us.

If we don’t pray then it seems to me that we’re saying either that we don’t really trust God and accept our dependence on him or we’re saying that there’s nothing we really want, that we’ve given up on any possibility of happiness and well being. Either way we’re not living as Christians.

Prayer is the great expression of our faith. Pray, pray, and pray some more, and God will grant you the very greatest gift of them all, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit which gives tranquillity, goodness and holiness, strength to endure and love to illumine our lives.

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August 24: What should I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 10:25-42)

When the lawyer in our story comes to test Jesus he does what anyone has to do when they test another. He asks a question that he knows the answer to, after all, if you don’t already know the rights answer how will you know if the test has been passed?

“Teacher,” he says, “what should I do to inherit eternal life?” We’ve heard the story so we know he knows the answer: love God, love your neighbour. We know he knows because Jesus refuses to even take this test. Instead of answering the question Jesus turns it back. What do the books of the law say? How do you read them? Jesus doesn’t submit to this examination, he doesn’t recognise the lawyer’s authority. Jesus takes control of the conversation, turning the test back on the tester and telling him he’s passed, or at least passed the theoretical part. “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

Is this good news or bad news for this learned man? To learn that not only does he know what he needs to do but that Jesus knows that he knows? To find out that he isn’t the one setting the test but the one taking it? Is this good news; that he’s passed a test he thought he was setting? It doesn’t seem as if feels like good news to him. He doesn’t thank Jesus, doesn’t go quietly back to trying to live up to the two great commandments he’s quoted.

Instead he presses on with trying to test Jesus, but now, one suspects, he isn’t so sure of the right answer. “Who is my neighbour?” he asks. Once again Jesus refuses to answer. He tells a story and asks a question. This time, though, he does something more as well. He doesn’t just turn the test back on the lawyer, he changes it. Instead of asking “who is the neighbour I should love?”, which is what is the question put to him, he asks “who acts like a loving neighbour?”. When the lawyer’s question comes back to him it has shifted from looking out at people the questioner might help to looking for people who might help him.

“Which of these three proved neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?” Jesus asks. “Go and do likewise”, he says. The one to whom we are to be a neighbour is the one who needs us. We are commanded to love, to help, whoever we are put in a position to help. We can’t predict who that will be and what they will be like. We will come across them, lying by the road and we are to be ready, ready to see them, ready to act. We shouldn’t worry about whether we’ll be able to tell who they are. Their need will tell us. We don”t need to go looking for them. They will be lying in the ditch we pass. That’s what Jesus tells our lawyer.

He knows what he has to do, he has to love God and help his neighbour. He will know who his neighbour; they will be the person lying by his road, in need of his help. It’s all very simple. It doesn’t need great learning or expertise. What’s more it’s all so simple there’s no need of tests and Jesus won’t take any. He doesn’t need, doesn’t want, to prove himself to anyone. He is who he is and if you don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear then there’s nothing he can do about it.

What this conversation doesn’t cover, as a consequence, is what it means to love God, to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength. Why the lawyer didn’t press on with this as he did with the second isn’t explained. If he really wanted help with inheriting eternal life this would seem a more difficult matter, it seems to me. As Jesus shows him he already knows what love of neighbour means. Does he know about love of God?

Loving our neighbour means helping them, as the Samaritan does. What does loving God mean? Is it just a feeling inside? Is it a matter of sacrifice and prayer? Is it about going to the Temple, the Synagogue or for the Church?

It’s to answer this question that Luke goes on to tell the story about Martha and Mary. Mary does nothing, she says nothing. She sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. That’s all we’re told. She sat at his feet and listened. She didn’t ask any questions. She didn’t express her acceptance or her love. She didn’t leap up and start proclaiming the gospel nor did she search for neighbours who were in need of love. She didn’t even help with making Jesus comfortable, let alone washing his feet with her tears or anointing his head with precious oils. Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.

When Martha complained Jesus replied that there is only one thing that is needed and that Mary has chosen the better part. Sitting and listening. It seems to me that this is the answer we’re given to the question the lawyer didn’t ask: “how shall I love the God I can’t see and who doesn’t need my help?” This is actually much more difficult than loving our neighbour, which is hard enough itself, which is why nobody comes right out and asks. We’re afraid to ask in case we seem stupid or lacking in faith and in case the answer tells us to do something we can’t begin to attempt and in some ways we’re right to be worried because the answer is rather like that to the question about the neighbour.

The Samaritan acted as a neighbour not because he knew the answer to the question about who his neighbour was but because he was able to recognise the time to act when it came. Mary chose the better part not because she was an expert in theology but because she recognised the time and the place to sit and listen. When Jesus came to her house she knew that the right thing was to pay attention to him not to get busy in the kitchen. When Jesus comes to us, as we’re told he does, do we have the sense to be still? Do we know to be quiet? Do we sit and listen?

What should we do to inherit eternal life? Pick the broken people up from the ditches along our way and sit and listen when Jesus comes to call. It’s that simple, it really is.

Hannah and Mary praise God (1 Samuel 2:1-11)

We have heard Hannah’s wonderful song of praise and joy. She takes what God has done for her and she links it to all the things God does for his people.

God, Hannah says, disarms the warriors and strengthens the weak; he casts down the rich and fills the hungry; hallelujah, he brings fertility to the childless. God kills but he also raises up; poverty and wealth, high status and low, come from God; he lifts up the destitute and seats them with princes. All of this comes from God, because he is the creator and he will take care of the faithful and confound the wicked. It is not by strength, says Hannah, that one prevails, it is through the grace of God. He will thunder from heaven and he will judge the ends of the earth. His anointed king will be exalted. Praise the Lord.

Hannah’s story is a little like that of Rachel, about whom I spoke here last week. She is a much loved wife mocked by her fruitful rival. God hears her plea, in Hannah’s case a heartfelt and silent prayer at the sanctuary at Shiloh, and he grants her the gift she asks for, a child, six children. Her story is a happier one than Rachel’s, though. Her first-born, Samuel, like Rachel’s first-born Joseph, becomes the leader and saviour of the people of Israel, but unlike Rachel Hanah lives to see her children grow and prosper.

It is appropriate, then, that her great hymn of thanksgiving is picked up and echoed, quoted, by Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her song of thanksgiving, the Magnificat, early in Luke’s gospel.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Mary, pregnant with Jesus, sings out her happiness, her joy, her adoration of God. Like Hannah she points both to his goodness to her and to his goodness to Israel, his people. Like Hannah she rejoices in God’s great reversals: his scattering of the proud, his bringing how of the mighty from their thrones, his exalting of the humble and his filling of the hungry. God has kept his promises, he has done mighty deeds.

From Hannah’s son, Samuel, comes the classic pattern of God’s representatives to his people Israel. Samuel, trained as a priest becomes a prophet and helps restore the priesthood to its proper order by fighting its corruption. Through Samuel Israel’s first king is chosen and anointed, David, with whom God would enter into a special covenant. After this there will be two family lines, the priestly line of Aaron and the royal line of David appointed to their proper roles in the holy people and there will be a line of prophets, not descended by blood but directly inspired by God’s Spirit.

The kings will be God’s instrument in worldly matters, doing justice with and protecting without. The priests will be those who bring the gifts and worship of the people to God in the rites of sacrifice and who will teach the divine Law.

The prophets will be the conscience of the nation, bring words of warning and instruction directly from the Lord when things go wrong.

And then in Jesus all of this will, after hundreds of years and many diversions and missteps, be brought to its glorious and astonishing climax. God himself will come as the king, the one anointed, the Messiah, to use the Hebrew term for the anointed one, the Christ, to use the Greek word. This king will not work alongside a priestly order. He will be in one the great high priest and also the sacrifice that priest makes. This king won’t need the warnings or advice of any prophets, he will himself be the promised prophet like Moses.

What’s more this king, priest and prophet, won’t merely announce the future coming of the day of the Lord when all the nations will come to hear God’s Law. He will announce that the day has come. His apostles will not only reform and re-found Israel with restored monarchy, Temple and prophetic witness, they will reach beyond historic Israel to a new community of all the nations. In Jesus and his Church God will break free of the Temple, of family descent, of all restrictions. In Jesus all will be embraced.

No wonder Mary’s song soars! No wonder she magnifies the Lord! No wonder she says God has done great things for her!

In her son a new covenant has come into being. In her son God himself has come meet and save us. In her son we are offered new birth into new family, a family with God at its head and God’s son as our brother.

Through Sarah, through Rebecca, through Rachel, through Hannah, the continuity of God’s promise to Abraham was maintained. Through Mary it was made new and is made with us. Praise the Lord, Christ is risen and we are members of the new covenant people.