Everyone who asks receives

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (25 July 2010)

Luke 11:1–13

Rosie was one of the more memorable students I had early on in my teaching career. A teenage girl more blessed with a quick tongue than with a reliable sense of when and how to use it. What Rosie was thinking was very rarely a secret to anyone nearby. From the point of view of a teacher, you could say that it made Rosie hard to ignore or to forget.

One particular outburst of frankness from Rosie sticks in my memory. We were studying the subject of wealth and poverty from a Christian perspective, and were looking at biblical teaching related to it. And one of the passages we studied was the Lord’s Prayer and what Jesus had to say about asking God to supply our needs in Luke 11. Having got to the end of the reading, her voice rang loud and clear from the back of the room: “That’s just stupid! ” “What do you mean stupid? ” “Well it is, isn’t it, sir! Completely stupid.”

It turned out that her objection was this: If you look around the world, there are lots of Christians praying for good things, even things they really need, and not getting them. It’s not like the Christians of a particular region are immune to natural disasters, famines or wars in those places. The Boxing Day tsunami didn’t leave Christians unscathed. Many Christians must have prayed fervently for their loved ones to be rescued, to no avail. Many weren’t even fortunate enough to have a body to bury at the end of it. They asked for a fish, and were given a serpent, for an egg and received a scorpion.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

Try telling that to someone watching a loved one die of a terminal disease, in spite of endless prayers for healing. Try telling that to the man or woman, desperately pleading for the joy of human warmth and companionship, seeing their life slip by in unrelenting loneliness. Try telling that to the long-term unemployed, reduced to enforced idleness and hardship, who receive the dreaded note—“I’m afraid we are unable to make you an offer”—not only from every potential employer but also from the heavenly Father. I could go on.

If you feel that your prayers are not being heard, that the words of Jesus in the Gospel don’t ring true in the hard school of human experience, you are hardly alone. This is a dilemma that has plagued the saints of God at all times. Just hear the anguished cries of the Psalmist:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

(Ps. 13:1)

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!

Why do you hide your face?

Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

(Ps 44:23–24)

Or most famously of all:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,

and by night, but I find no rest.

(Ps 22:1–2)

And met by this barrage of silence, of prayers unanswered despite Jesus’ clear words, we are quickly given to despair. Some despair of God’s goodness, and turn away from Him, in anger or despondency, taking the advice of Job’s wife: Curse God and die.

Other’s despair of themselves, certain that it is some defect in themselves—faith that is too weak, the lack of some necessary ingredient in the prayer, a hidden sin—that is preventing God from answering their prayer.

Either way, God’s apparent silence drives us to doubt Jesus’ clear promise: “Everyone who asks receives and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” Everyone, that is, except I, and the dozens of others I know who are in the same boat with me, who hasn’t received, who hasn’t found, to whom the door appears forever shut. And so, we are left with that terrifying question of another another Psalm: “Has God forgotten to be gracious? ”

But as is so often the case, when we doubt God’s word, it is not because of a defect in God’s word but because of our defective attention to it, together with our mistaken notions of how things ought to be.

Jesus’ teaching in Luke 11 is in response to a request from His disciples: Lord, teach us to pray. And so He taught them, not so much how to pray but what to pray. In other words, Jesus didn’t give us some general rules and suggestions for godly, or effective, or successful prayer. He didn’t say: “When you pray, do it in this sort of way.” Rather, He gave us the very words to pray, the prayer itself: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, etc.”

And it is to this prayer He attaches the promise:“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” It is this prayer that He likens to a friend asking for help in the night. It is a prayer for good things, which a loving father would never refuse a son—the ultimate good gift from God being the Holy Spirit. It is the Lord’s Prayer: the prayer given by the Lord, the prayer addressed to the Lord, the prayer accompanied with the promises of the Lord.

This takes us back to where we left off last week with Martha and Mary: with the question of what is necessary and truly good, the difference between Jesus’ priorities and what are ours. In worship, as we learnt from the experience of Martha and Mary, what is necessary and truly good is what God gives us in Christ. And so it is in prayer as well.

What Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer is what we truly need from God: spiritual gifts. That His name is kept holy among us, that His kingdom come, that we receive bread from Him, that our sins are forgiven, that we are preserved from temptation. And as a friend wouldn’t dream of ignoring the urgent request of his neighbour, much less will God ignore our petition for our needs.

But notice the word “needs”. Not desires, wants or wishes but needs. Jesus promises to us that our heavenly Father will give to us what we need, and He will do so with delight. We run into difficulties when we define our own needs from our perspective and then measure God’s goodness and faithfulness against whether He gives us what we think we need.

This is not to say that our requests are frivolous, or that we should not ask for things in our times of need. Of course we should. Elsewhere, in John’s Gospel, Jesus encourages the disciples to ask for “anything” in His name. However, as Jesus reminded Martha when she was distracted by her serving from the word of Christ, there is only one thing that is necessary. Because there is only one thing that lasts beyond the grave.

Everything else, all the other good gifts of God: health, family, friendships, mortal life itself, will all come to an end. They may come to an end peacefully, at the end of a long and contented life; or they may come to an end suddenly and violently, or unexpectedly, or at the end of a life of hardship and suffering. We may enjoy God’s temporal blessings abundantly or sparingly. But the end of all of them is the same. And so is the end of them who put their trust in them as their only good.

By contrast, God’s kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom. The word of the Lord endures forever. The heavenly bread, together with those who eat it in faith, is imperishable. When Jesus fed the 5,000, the crowd went wild and wanted to crown Jesus as their king, and He had to remind them:

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

Now, I am sure that my erstwhile pupil Rosie would greet this saying of Jesus with the same exclamation: “That’s just stupid! ” Because it’s not difficult to demonstrate that there are plenty of Christians among the hungry and thirsty of the world. And plenty of Christians who go short on the temporal gifts of God, gifts of clothing, housing, family, income, health.

But it is not stupid. Because the true daily bread, which Jesus invites us to pray for, is the bread of life, the imperishable and life-giving bread. What would be stupid would be to place our hope in things that have no hope of lasting, and to judge God’s goodness by them. To decide whether God loves us by whether we survive this particular illness, whether we overcome this particular pain, or whether we live in wealth or poverty, is to miss the point. Jesus Himself knew this: on the eve of His own great anguish—an anguish greater than that of any human before or since—He too prayed for relief: “Father, take this cup away from me. But not my will but Your will be done.” For He knew that the Father’s will is the best—and we are the beneficiaries both of the Father’s good will and the Son’s obedient submission to it, God’s ultimate gift to us.

And now, we live in the happy world where we can both have our cake and eat it. All the good gifts we receive come as tokens of our Heavenly Father’s love for us, to be received and enjoyed with gratitude. But even when He withholds the earthly gifts, either for a time or for good, we are nevertheless blessed beyond all measure: children of the heavenly Father, heirs to His kingdom, raised to life in His Son, eating here the bread of heaven as a foretaste of the Kingdom to come, sanctified by His Holy Spirit and kept from the Evil One until sin, death and the devil are destroyed and we will live forever in pure enjoyment of His love for us.

Now that doesn’t sound so stupid, does it?

Just sit there

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (18 July 2010)

Luke 10:38-42

Spare a thought for Martha. The patron saint of every eldest child who has been let down by an idle younger sibling, left to protest: “It’s not fair! ”

Left to run the house, the kitchen, the washing, the animals, all by herself the moment it’s filled with Jesus and his entourage of 12 apostles. While she serves them—cooks, cleans, tends—while she works her cotton socks off to get everything done, Mary just sits on the floor, gazing at Jesus and listening to him talk. When Martha finally snaps and asks Jesus to intervene, he adds insult to injury by reprimanding her and commending Mary. It couldn’t have gone much more badly for Martha.

But the situation was even worse than that. Whatever Martha mumbled under her breath after the embarrassing reprimand from Jesus, she may well have said something along the lines of, ‘‘‘… but you said …” Had not Jesus Himself had said that it is better to give than to receive? Had he not taught His disciples repeatedly about the importance of service, about how it is the one who serves that is greatest of all? When He sent out the 72 disciples, He taught them to expect hospitality wherever they went. And the last bit of teaching, in the verse immediately preceding today’s reading, Jesus concluded the parable of the Good Samaritan by commending the Samaritan for his selfless service to the victim of a highway robbery by these words: “You go and do likewise.”

So here was Martha, giving rather than receiving—while Mary just sat and received. Here was Martha, serving, while Mary just sat and did nothing. Here was Martha, providing hospitality to the Lord Jesus, while Mary did nothing but sit and listen. Here was Martha, putting herself through the paces in order to serve the needs of Jesus and His disciples. And Mary just sat, listened, received, without a thought for giving, serving, showing hospitality—or even helping her increasingly stressed and harassed sister in her need.

Having heard, listened and learned all these teachings of Jesus, she put them into practice in His very presence—and got a gentle but unmistakeable dressing-down for having the wrong priorities. Seemingly, it was better after all to receive, to be served, to neglect hospitality, not to care for the needs of Jesus and His disciples.

You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Martha. By the standards of almost any society at any time, Mary’s behaviour is slovenly at best, and Jesus’ defence of it is just bizarre and more than a little unfair.

But apart from the bare facts of the case, there’s another reason why our immediate sympathy is likely to be with Martha. For Martha is in so many respects like us, and we are so much like her. Martha, we are told, was “distracted” with much serving. She was “anxious” and “troubled”. For her, the presence of Jesus was a burden, an additional demand. Yes, it was probably an honour—but there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and this honour brought with it many cares and troubles.

This, dear friends, is the way of the Law. Martha had heard everything Jesus had said, but they had come to her as law. She was determined to do all that Jesus had commanded: to give, to serve, to show hospitality, to love her neighbour as herself—and more than that, to welcome Jesus into her house in a way that was befitting of both His honour as an esteemed guest and hers as the head of her house. She did everything that was expected of her.

And that was Martha’s mistake. Jesus entered her house, and she sprang into action. It was the wrong thing to do. It was Mary, the one who sat and did nothing, who made the right judgement. She chose the good portion: she chose Jesus and His words. She understood that what Jesus brings to a house is far more significant and important than what the house can provide for Him. And so she sat and did nothing and allowed Jesus to serve, to give, to show her His love.

This was a hard lesson for Martha, and it is a hard lesson for us. The way of the Law is hard-wired into us and it is so ingrained that we find it impossible to escape. “Don’t just sit there—do something! ” We are naturally suspicious of free gifts. In fact, we don’t like them. Have you ever squirmed uncomfortably when someone has given you a gift or treated you to something? Uncomfortably, because it leaves you feeling that you ought to give something in return. Because you are too proud to accept sheer unrequited generosity. Because there’s no such thing as a free lunch, or at any rate there ought not to be!

While the world may think it reasonable enough, there’s no space for such thinking in the Church. As Jesus taught the apostles: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt 10:8). This reminds us of the importance of giving freely—but it also reminds us how vital it is to receive freely.

In the Christian church, the only lunch worth having is the free one. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. When Jesus enters a house, a home, a heart, he comes to give—to give Himself. He is the King of Glory, but His moment of glory on earth was not the adulation of the crowds, or the triumphant entry to the cheers of bystanders, not even the subjection of demons and nature itself to His power. No, the Son of Man was glorified when He was exalted—that is lifted up—on the cross. The attention that He craves from us is not our gifts to Him, our selfless service. He doesn’t ask to receive anything from us—not even Mary-like devotion—and He doesn’t require any service from us. All He asks for by way of hospitality from us is to allow Him to serve and to give.

Martha meant well. She had taken Jesus’ word seriously. Like Abraham in Genesis 18, she recognised that someone extraordinary had come to her village and she went to great lengths to receive Him rightly. But she had the whole thing back to front. The three angels did not visit Abraham in order to taste the best of Sarah’s cooking; Jesus did not enter Martha’s house in order to be entertained and looked after. And Jesus does not come to us in order to receive from us. Not anything: not our worship, not our service, not our goods, not our lives, our obedience, our devotion, our piety, our prayers, our songs, our thankfulness. The Son of Man came not to be served—with these or any other things—but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.

So you can just sit there and do nothing. Nothing at all. Just receive: receive His forgiveness, receive His promises, receive His salvation. Because He is here now. Here, in this house, visiting this church family. Asking for nothing and doing all the giving. Gently but firmly telling you that you can leave the distractions of your life, the stresses and troubles, at the door, because you have come to an oasis, a watering hole, a place of rest and refreshment. Where all the goods are on the house, pre-paid and without limit. If you came to do stuff—to offer your service, to dignify Jesus with your gifts—I’m afraid you came on the wrong day.

But wait a minute, pastor! Am I not supposed to love my neighbour as myself? Am I not supposed to show hospitality? Am I not supposed to serve others, to make myself the least of all? Am I not supposed to be seeking to do God’s will in obedience and to honour Him with my life?

No. Not just now. Just now, you are supposed to sit there and do nothing, to receive and to enjoy your good portion: Jesus present here, for you. On another Sunday, He would be here with the very body and blood that sat in Martha and Mary’s house and was exalted on the tree of the Cross so that we could sit in His presence in an even more tangible and intimate way.

The moment we sing the final Amen this morning, you will again have plenty of opportunity to be distracted, stressed and troubled—and also to love because you have been loved first. But now, just for a moment, sit there and do nothing. Jesus wants to do the doing. For you.

Listening to a Sermon Fruitfully

“Isn’t it the case that we all – and I include myself here – complain so often about the sermon without ever asking whether the real basis for our discontent doesn’t perhaps lie within ourselves? When a hearer gets nothing from a sermon it is not always the sermon or the preacher that is to blame. Listening to sermons is like work, or better yet an art that one must learn. Fruitful listening requires a measure of Christian formation and spiritual receptivity that few seem to possess anymore (in fact, I dare say that I have only seen it today in ‘simple’ people, in farmers and labourers in country areas). The lack of this formation cannot be compensated for by the thundering rhetoric or the emotional eloquence which most people seem to expect nowadays from preachers if they are to stay alert.”

From Hermann Sasse, ‘Concerning the Hearing of God’s Word’, a sermon preached in Erlangen, Germany on Rogate Sunday, 18th May, 1941 (Text: James 1:22-27)[trans. M.A. Henderson].

HT: Cyberbrethren