In our series on Discipleship we come this evening to the topic of PRAYER, and that’s my title. We're looking this evening at Luke 11.1-13. Please have that open. It’s on p 1042. And my prayer for this evening is that we will learn to pray better.
Ronald Dunn, in his helpful book “Don’t Just Stand There… Pray Something” tells how a missionary received a letter from a little girl in a Sunday School class. The whole class had been writing, and their teacher must have told them that real live missionaries were very busy and might not have time to write back. The letter simply read:
Dear Rev. Smith,
We are praying for you. We are not expecting an answer.
Too many of us pray like that. We need to get back to the basics of prayer – talking to God our Father, and expecting answers.
The place to learn from is the Bible, and what we have in this passage is teaching from Jesus about prayer. You can see my four headings on the back of the service sheet. They’re my attempt to encapsulate the key lessons in these verses. So:
First, LEARN TO PRAY FROM THE LORD JESUS (vv 1-2a)
Look how this passage starts. From verse 1:
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, 'Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.' He said to them, 'When you pray, say: …'
If you feel dissatisfied with your own praying, you're in good company, because clearly that's how the disciples of Jesus felt. They'd obviously heard about other people learning to pray – the disciples of John the Baptist. But they’d been motivated to learn in another way too: they could see the prayer-life of Jesus. The description of Jesus praying here is typically terse. But the disciples saw enough to know that what Jesus had, they wanted some of.
And one day, as Jesus finished praying, they plucked up their courage and asked to be enrolled in Jesus's school of prayer. 'Lord, teach us to pray…' And how does Jesus respond? He begins their first seminar there and then: 'When you pray, say…' Now there are some very basic and important things to notice here.
First, they knew that Jesus was the one who could teach them. They went to him. They had other options. There were John's disciples. Or the rabbis. Or the super-spiritual pharisees. But those disciples went to the right place to learn to pray. They went to Jesus. We should do the same. In our multi-faith world which is in some ways so like the religious supermarket of the Roman Empire in the first century, there are so many voices wanting to guide us on to their spiritual path. But only Jesus can teach true prayer. Go to him.
Second, they were already following Jesus. 'Lord,' they called him. And that's what he was to them. At his command, they’d left everything to follow him. When and only when we’ve bowed the knee to Jesus as the Saviour and Lord of our lives does our request to learn to pray have integrity.
Third, they asked him to teach them. They didn't just get depressed about their prayer lives. They took the simplest and most effective action open to them. They just went to Jesus and said, 'Lord, teach us…' Do you want to pray better? Ask Jesus to teach you. Let the disciples request become your prayer: 'Lord, teach me to pray.'
Fourth, Jesus teaches them. If ever there is a prayer that Jesus will answer with a resounding 'Yes', this is it: 'Teach us to pray'. Jesus isn’t going to say to you, 'Well, no. I'm too busy. I'm not interested in teaching you. Go away. Don't bother me.' If you're prepared to learn from him, he's ready to teach.
Fifth, prayer takes time. It’s a distinct activity. Jesus prayed, and then he finished praying. And he said, 'when you pray…' Prayer has to be given time. So we have to make time to pray. There’s always time, if it’s our priority.
Sixth, prayer is talking to God. It isn’t silent meditation, or humming with your legs crossed, or communing with nature. It isn’t even Bible study, or being aware of God's presence. Keep your definition of prayer simple, and you'll avoid confusion. Prayer is talking to God. In the silence of your own heart, or out loud, it’s talking to God.
Seventh, prayer can be learned. There’s a lot we pick up unconsciously as children of God. But there's also a lot we need to learn by direct teaching. Who from? From Jesus, and from his Word, the Bible. If you want a practical training course in prayer, here's the workbook. And Jesus is the tutor. Learn to pray from him. So what does Jesus teach his disciples? My next heading is this:
Secondly, PUT THE FATHER FIRST WHEN YOU PRAY vv 2b-4)
He said to them, "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.'"
This, of course is the alternative, slightly shorter, version of what we call the Lord's Prayer. It begins with God. We’re speaking to him – because he is at the very centre of our thinking. And God is 'Father' to us. That doesn't come naturally to us – not in this intimate sense. Left to ourselves, God is not our Father but our enemy, because we have made him so. But God has not left us to ourselves. Through the death of Jesus, God reconciles us to himself, brings us right into the heart of his family and makes us his children.
The great privilege which is the foundation of our praying is that we can now call God, who holds the universe in his hands and who controls all things, our Father. Every Christian has a hotline to God. We have open access. But that's not something we can just make use of when its convenient.
In the film 'Parenthood' the Steve Martin character has a younger brother who is continually getting himself into serious financial trouble. And whenever he does, he comes home to his father. His father knows that whenever he sees this son, he will end up asking him for money. And he knows that once he's handed the money over, his son will disappear out of his life again until the next financial crisis.
The point comes where the father’s had enough. He promises to bail out his son on condition that he stays put, settles down and sticks at a job that the father has arranged. Otherwise, he's on his own. The son goes away empty handed – though not before trying to flog his father's prized classic car without his father knowing, so that he can pocket the proceeds himself.
God will not have us treat him like that. The Father must come first when we pray. And that doesn't just mean sticking his name onto the front of our demands. It means we have to recognise fully his total rights over our lives. It means we have to understand our complete dependence upon him. It means that his glory, his honour and his plans become our top priority - not ours. 'Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.'
Thinking like that, of course, has a radical effect on what we pray for. What he wants becomes our great passion. His great plan of salvation through Jesus becomes our supreme concern. We suddenly see that the whole purpose of our lives is to further that eternal plan. Nothing else matters anywhere near as much. All the other things that concern us, sometimes wrongly, sometimes rightly, are put in a completely different perspective. God our Father comes first in everything.
So when we think about our daily needs we realise that they're not just physical but also, and above all, spiritual. 'Man does not live on bread alone' as Jesus quotes (Luke 4.4). And we realise that our heavenly Father is the only one who can supply them. So we pray, 'Give us each day our daily bread.'
And when we assess our lives, we become aware of our failures, and we realise that when we do wrong, it’s our Father against whom we’re sinning. He is the one from whom we need to seek forgiveness. But he is also the one who’s made provision for our forgiveness through Jesus. So we pray, 'Forgive us our sins…' And we realise that in all our struggles against sin and evil, it is only our Father who is powerful enough to bring us through. So we pray, '… lead us not into temptation,' which means really 'lead us out of temptation.'
In all these ways – in every way – we need to learn to put the Father first when we pray. When we've got that understood, then we won't misunderstand the lesson in my next heading:
Thirdly, ASK UNASHAMEDLY FOR WHATEVER YOU WANT (vv 5-9)
Then [Jesus] said to them, 'Suppose [in other words, 'can your imagine this happening…'] one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.' Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.'
Can you imagine that? No of course not. It's unthinkable. Why? It's not the friend arriving at midnight – people might travel late to avoid the heat of the day. Nor is running out of bread hard to imagine. They’d have done the baking for the day early in the morning and used everything up by nightfall, and there was probably no shop at all, let alone a 24 Hour Tesco.
Nor would it be strange to think of going round to a friend's house to borrow some bread. Hospitality was a sacred duty in the days before Travelodges and Premier Inns. There was no way the traveller could be turned away, and not to feed him would be a shameful thing. No, all of that is quite believable, though obviously rather irritating when the children have finally got off to sleep and you can't get up without waking them.
What’s unbelievable is that the friend would refuse to give the bread that was needed.
Just last week a friend and near neighbour of ours phoned me and said: ‘My smoke alarm’s going off because I’ve just had my chimney swept. The noise is deafening. It won’t stop. I can’t reach it. Can you come round and switch it off?’ Did I say, “Too bad, I’m not coming”? Of course not. I went straight round.
If you're in a serious bind, and you go to a friend for help, and you make a direct and heartfelt appeal for help, that friend won't refuse you because it's a bit inconvenient. Jesus goes on (v 8):
I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
The word that's translated 'boldness' there means 'shamelessness'. This request is made with unembarrassed boldness because the man has an obvious and legitimate need of help. And what he wants isn’t even for him, but for someone else in need. In fact if the man in bed didn't get up, his name would be mud. So of course he'd get up, however personally inconvenient.
The point is this: if you have a legitimate need, even your friend down the road will help out. He might be irritated, but he'll probably keep his irritation to himself, and he'll give what's needed. So what about God your heavenly Father? Do you think he's going to ignore you when you go to him with your requests? Of course not. Put the Father first in your life. Get that priority right. Then if there's anything you want, ask God for it unashamedly.
My mind goes back to when my now adult daughter Katy was a little girl. She wanted a hamster. We’d been in a superstore looking for something else, without a thought of hamsters on our minds. But there they were. Katy already had an extensive menagerie at home, but all those animals were made of cloth and cotton wool and fake fur. They weren’t flesh and blood. Katy was pretty taken with these hamsters, but when the assistant opened the cage and dropped that writhing bundle of real fur in her hands, she was smitten.
So she decided she wanted a hamster. Badly. As her father, I knew that. How? Because she told me. In fact I knew before she uttered a word, because I could see it in her pleading eyes. But she left Vivienne and me in no doubt. She absolutely had to have a hamster. And just in case I didn’t get it, she told me again. And again.
I didn’t immediately grant her request. Why? Because I could see that she wasn’t fully aware of all the consequences of what she was asking. Hamsters need cages, space, equipment, food, mucking out, taking for walks. And so on. I had to assess what was best for her and for the rest of the family. I promised I’d give an answer. But she’d have to wait a while.
She couldn’t understand why she had to wait. And she certainly couldn’t understand why I should be in any doubt that she’d keep her promise to do all the cleaning and caring for this animal, with no complaint and in perpetuity. Of course she would!
Did Katy get her hamster in the end? Yes. She did. Humphrey, his name was. Verse 9:
So I say to you [Jesus says]: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
Jesus is giving us permission here to approach God our Father without apology and make unashamed requests.
Of course, if we are rather ashamed of what we're asking for because deep down we're just being selfish or whatever, then we're not going to get far. But the Father wants us to go to him with all the genuine requests that we can think of. And he will not let us down. Or to put that another way, as in my final heading:
Fourthly, KNOW THAT GOD WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU NEED (vv 10-13)
For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
My wife Vivienne and I had a friend who needed a lift to a bus station, and she asked us to take her. No problem. Only the bus was leaving at 5.30 in the morning. Did we take her? Of course we did. It would have been unthinkable to refuse. Vivienne went.
Even self-centred human beings like us know how to do a good turn when we're needed. Parents don't deliberately poison their children when what they need is healthy food. How much more will your heavenly Father give you what you need when you ask for it. So ask for it.
Notice that Jesus never says here that you will automatically get precisely what you've asked for. If you ask for a fish, maybe you won't get a fish. But if you don't, it'll be because you're given something that'll do you more good in the long run than the fish would’ve done. A steak. Or something.
Our heavenly Father knows better than we do ourselves what we really need. So the answer to a request may come back rather different to what we anticipated or hoped. He may say yes, or no, or wait, or yes but with changes. But whatever the answer, it’ll be loving and wise and the best for us. From his heavenly vantage point our Father sees many things that we don’t. He knows better than us. And let’s make no bones about it, that can be a tough, tough lesson.
Above all, what you can be sure God will give you is himself.
… how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
He will give us his Holy Spirit. Because when we pray we’re simply children talking to our heavenly Father. And it’s that reconciled relationship with God the Father, through Jesus, in the Spirit, which is what ultimately meets our greatest needs and satisfies our deepest yearnings.
Is that what you want? Then learn to pray from the Lord Jesus; put the Father first when you pray; ask unashamedly for whatever you want; and know that God will give you what you need.
Lord Jesus, please teach us to pray. Amen.