On this Vision weekend it's good and no doubt providential that we're looking at Luke 11:1-13, for how we need to pray as well as act and how we need the Holy Spirit. RA Torrey once said: "So often we're too busy to pray, and so we're too busy to have power. We have a great deal of activity but we accomplish little; many services but few conversions; much machinery but few results." The opportunity of St Joseph's Benwell came in answer to prayer and we need to pray on in the way Jesus teaches here. So let me pray for us now: Lord, teach us to pray, Amen
And in reply to that request Jesus says, "When you pray". Did you notice that? Jesus expects us to pray. And from what follows he expects us to pray daily. To pray daily to our Father in heaven, through him in the power of the Spirit.
But what are we to pray to our loving heavenly Father for? And with what approach are we to come to him in prayer? Well Jesus answers by first giving us a perfect and powerful pattern for prayer and then two parables to encourage prayer in a way which will overcome our doubts about whether or not prayer is worthwhile.
So what are we to pray to our heavenly Father for? Well Jesus teaches here that prayer is largely about asking, about asking God our Father for 5 things daily. So as we'll learn a little later we shouldn't be ashamed to ask God for things according to this pattern. First, "hallowed be your name" - literally, "let your name be regarded as holy". So this is a prayer for us to remember God's control and total sovereignty over all of life and the universe, however difficult or impossible things may seem, such as growing to 5000 in a multi-site church. It's also a prayer for others throughout this region, including the west of this city, and people all over the world to believe and trust in the God of the Bible. Secondly, "your kingdom come". We're to pray that the God who's in control and ruling all things may have his way in the world and in our own lives now, even before his rule is finally and completely established at Christ's return. Then, thirdly, for "daily bread" - this is for all material and physical needs - ours and the church's. Note it's for bread not caviar and daily that we might keep trusting God. Fourthly, we're to pray for the forgiveness of our sins and the evidence we're genuine in wanting to be forgiven is that we can say "for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us". Fifthly we're to ask "that we're not led into temptation" - that God won't let you be so tempted and tested that you fail him.
But with what approach are we to come to him in prayer? Well first Jesus teaches that
We Should Pray Shamelessly v5-10
'Look' says Jesus, 'suppose you have a friend, and you turn up on his doorstep at midnight because you have another friend who has turned up on your doorstep after a long journey.' This did happen back then. Although you might have some vague idea that a friend might be coming to visit you, you had no precise way of knowing when they'd arrive. Travelling at night made sense during the summer when it was blazing hot during the day, so a midnight arrival was not unreasonable. 'The reason you go round' says Jesus, 'is that you're out of bread and Middle Eastern hospitality demands that you provide for your guest.' Bread was essential not simply as part of a staple diet, but as a utensil. And so it wasn't inappropriate to wake up another member of the village to help out, otherwise shame would be brought down on the whole of the village and that was unthinkable. So Jesus goes on, you call on your friend with your predicament, but he replies that he's already in bed, the doors are locked and the children are asleep and says 'I can't get up and give you bread.' But that's not what he really means. He really means that he won't get up, but in that culture you don't admit that you say you 'can't get up'.
So then Jesus adds his comment in v8: I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. The whole point of the story turns on the meaning of one word. It's the word translated impudence in the ESV. In the NIV, 'boldness'. Some versions have 'persistence.' The KJ has, 'importunity.' So which is it? For whichever you opt for will give the parable a different meaning. If it's persistence then the point would be that because the man was bothersome and wouldn't go away that's why the friend eventually gave in. When translated to our praying that would mean we've just got to keep going on badgering God until we get whatever we want- keep on knocking, keep on seeking and keep on asking. But that's not what the word means. Now in Luke 18 in the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus teaches that we ought always to pray and not lose heart for what is right, perhaps especially for the second coming of Christ and his final triumph over evil. So what is Jesus teaching here in Luke 11? What is the meaning of the word translated impudence?
Well this is the only time the word is found in the New Testament, so you can't compare it with another passage to get its meaning. But it does appear 250 times elsewhere in Greek literature and in just about every case it means 'shameless' or 'audacious' or 'impudence' as here in the ESV, impudence meaning cheeky. So we might translate it like this: '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 bare face cheek (shamelessness) he will get up and give him as much as he needs.' My eldest son who's in his final year at university rang me up the other day to ask with a similar bare faced cheek if we could buy him this expensive item he says he needs for his course. But did I say no - no!
Do you see what kind of approach Jesus is saying we should adopt when we pray? He's not encouraging us to be rude or arrogant when we come to God to ask for things, but he is saying- don't hold back; don't feel that it's out of order or inappropriate to ask God for things such as JPC's multi-site future and the necessary finance, don't feel that God won't be interested, that there are certain etiquettes to be observed before you can talk to God. Rather we're to have a holy boldness when we come to God in prayer, so that to the outsider who knows nothing of the special relationship we have with him as 'Our Father' which is more intimate than a friend, it could appear that we're being cheeky. So they say, 'How dare you ask God for that? Who do you think God is?' Well, he's my Father, that's who he is.
You see Jesus isn't comparing God to the reluctant friend. He's not portraying God as some Scrooge-like figure whose arm has somehow to be twisted before he'll give us anything. On the contrary, it's a 'how much more' kind of argument. He's already spoken of God as the Father who gives us continuous bread, who willingly and not reluctantly forgives sins. It's not a comparison Jesus is making but a contrast - for God's character is that he is generous.
So we're not to hold back in asking him, we're not to think that somehow we're inconveniencing God by going to him with requests which are on our heart. And are we not grateful that God isn't like the friend in the house? Can you imagine having a God like that, a God who says, 'Just go away. Don't bother me with you petty little wants; don't you know I have got bigger and more important things to deal with? Who cares about your desire to get the Gospel out in Benwell, the £700,000 the church needs or the hard time your children might be having at school when I have ISIS to sort out? Come back some other time.' What kind of God would that be? Then our prayer life would soon dry up, wouldn't it? Because we'd have no incentive to ask God for anything. But you know that's the kind of doubt the devil often sows in the mind of a believer? Something like 'Do you honestly think God cares about that? Shouldn't your prayers be a little more reverent- put in a few 'thees' and 'thous', talk about the big stuff, but not what's crushing you at the moment- that's so self-centred.'
You see, Jesus says, no - when you pray, be shameless, go for it- ask for more sites as well as SJB - ask, knock and seek, because if you ask, it will be given to you, if you knock the door will be opened to you, and to everyone who asks, they shall receive. And just as it's the honour of the man and the village that causes him to go around to his neighbour for bread at an unearthly hour, so it's the honour of God's name which should cause us to pray at whatever time and in whatever circumstance - because it's God's honour which is at stake for he's glorified in giving.
In the second parable Jesus teaches us that
We Should Pray Confidently v11-13
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 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!"
Now what kind of doubt which would hold us back from praying is Jesus targeting here? In the first parable it was the doubt that God wouldn't hear us because of our approach, here it's the doubt that God wouldn't answer us because he's not good. Jesus is getting us to view God correctly so that we can pray securely and confidently. You see, God is good and he's consistent with us. He doesn't play games with us or play jokes on us. And to make his point Jesus compares God as heavenly Father with human fathers, as if to say, 'Look, you who are fathers, even though you're evil, you wouldn't be so perverse as to play such a wicked and low down trick on your children such that if they asked you for an egg, you'd produce something which looked like an egg but was in fact a curled up scorpion with a poisonous sting. You'd have to be pretty far gone in the twisted department to pull such a sick joke like that.
So what makes us sometimes think that God would do such a thing? Well there's the rub. Although we may not voice it as such, sometimes we're reluctant to ask God for something because we're afraid that somehow he'll short change us and spite us and so we don't dare ask him at all. Sure, it may be that things get worse before they get better. Certainly we may not always get what we want when we want it, but the suggestion that God doesn't have our best interests at heart is a lie as old as time itself, for it's the suggestion made by the serpent to our first parents in the Garden of Eden.
But Jesus corrects that false view of God. If human fathers who are flawed give good gifts to their children then how much more will our heavenly Father, who is perfect, give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.' Now why does Jesus say how much more will he give the Holy Spirit? Surely all Christians have the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9). Well we can have the Holy Spirit in increasing measure and with increasing influence in our lives. Remember the Holy Spirit is a person which means having a personal relationship with him. And as with any relationship it can be close and intimate or it can be distant and strained. And what greater gift can God give to his children than himself in the form of the indwelling Spirit- here both the Giver and the Gift are one and the same - God. And as we ask for more and more of the Holy Spirit, we'll also receive the fruit he brings - patience, peace, self-control as well as the gifts. With more of the Spirit in our lives come the things we need and which we're to ask for in prayer, and most of all, comes the greatest thing God longs for- for his Son to be glorified. In John 16: 14, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as being sent to his followers so that 'he will glorify me'. And so to pray for more and more of the Holy Spirit so that Jesus will be glorified more and more in our lives will be the prayer which will always be answered. For with the Holy Spirit in increasing measure we shall start loving each other more, giving over our money to God's work in the way we should, witnessing more effectively in the world, getting our thought life and personal life sorted out more. This is the supreme gift of prayer.
Now sadly, because of their experience of human fathers it seems some people find it difficult to trust God. But here Jesus, the Son of God, says your heavenly Father is consistent, holy and good. That's why we can pray confidently and shamelessly.