Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 24, 2016
Luke 11:1-13 Commentary
The Lord’s Prayer is hands down one of the most famous prayers ever. So how ironic it is to notice that in Luke’s presentation of this prayer, the narrative details are very sparse. Today if we were documenting the first-ever presentation of something that went on to become very famous and momentous, we’d want to nail it down to a specific date, place, and occasion. But in Luke 11:1, Luke very casually says that when Jesus uttered this model prayer, it happened “one day” when Jesus was praying “in a certain place.” The curious reader wants to ask, “Well, WHAT day was it? WHERE did this happen?”
But Luke gives us no such clue. Given how sizeable Luke’s narrative skills are, you have to assume there was a reason for this. And I think we can guess at the reason: the disciples saw Jesus praying so often that it was, as a matter of fact, difficult to recall the precise day and location of the time he gave them this particular model prayer to follow. Had Jesus prayed only rarely or on only certain high ceremonial occasions, then maybe it would have been both easy and important to record a few more details. But Jesus prayed so regularly that in the minds of the disciples, it all blurred together. This was not like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—a one-time, rather unusual event worthy of a very specific memorializing. When someone prayed as much as Jesus did, it really didn’t matter where this precise incident took place—the point is that Jesus prayed all the time to the extent that the disciples finally just had to know how to do that themselves.
All of which leads to an important point when it comes to preaching on Luke 11: often we think that what the disciples asked for were the words to say when praying. But in reality what the disciples wanted was not a litany of key phrases or a checklist of prayer items. What they were inquiring after was how they could, in imitation of their Master, turn the entirety of their lives into an extended act of prayer, the same as they observed was the case for Jesus himself. (And if this perspective on Luke 11 is correct, we could observe a degree of irony in the fact that subsequent generations of Christians did turn the Lord’s Prayer into a word-for-word memorized form of prayer!)
When you frame the Lord’s Prayer as a way first of all to pray without ceasing, the specifics that Jesus mentioned make more sense and take on a new meaning. Because when you think about it, each petition and phrase Jesus gives is a nearly all-encompassing reality.
What do we pray for? The hallowing of God’s very Name. That’s pretty cosmic. What do we pray for? The coming of the kingdom. Hmmm, that’s pretty big, too. What do we pray for? Daily bread and ongoing forgiveness—we pray to be forgiven on the basis of the fact that we are ourselves engaged in acts of forgiveness all the time. What do we pray for? That we not be led into temptation. And when is it that we don’t want to be tempted? Is it just for the next half-hour or so? The balance of this particular day? Just tomorrow? Or is temptation something we want to avoid forever and anon?
Let no one who hears us preach on this passage conclude that what the Lord’s Prayer is mostly all about is a list of certain requests. In a way, the two brief parabolic examples that Jesus gives back up this perspective on life as ongoing prayer. The “Friend at Midnight” story reminds us that prayer pops up all the time and does not wait for convenient seasons or moments. Prayer isn’t always polite. Prayer cannot be sequestered to safe corners of our lives. Life is bumpy and unpredictable. So also will be prayers that occur across the whole sweep of just such a life.
And what about the father-son analogy with which Jesus concludes? As any parent can tell you, a son or daughter who asks for a fish or an egg is unlikely to make such a request just once. Kids have this annoying need to eat all the time! And as any parent can also tell you, sometimes the sheer volume of requests from your children can, now and then anyway, tempt you to want to throw them the odd snake or scorpion. Oh, not literally, of course. But there are those times when, after being asked by your daughter for the fifteenth time in a row if she can have just one more cookie—and after your having said “no” to this request fourteen times in a row—sometimes even good, conscientious parents fairly throw the cookie at the hapless kid. “There! Eat it! You happy now?!”
Oh dear. Patience can wear thin. We repent of such things, of course. But the point here is that it’s not the nature of the request per se that can cause a person to erupt so much as it is the constancy of the requesting. Thanks be to God, Jesus tells us that our Father in heaven manages to hold things together far better than we frail, fallible human beings.
Bottom line: we tend to think that the content of prayer is the key. In truth, Jesus always seemed more interested in the incessant nature of prayer and its never-ending desire to stay connected to the Father, who alone gives us all good things.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Where did the Holy Spirit come from? Until the final verse of this lection from Luke 11, there had been no mention of the Spirit. Jesus says something in conclusion that we didn’t necessarily see coming. The model prayer Jesus gave was all about bread, forgiveness, and the avoidance of temptation. The subsequent little parabolic examples he gave were likewise about common, everyday realities like bread and eggs. So how arresting it is to then come to the capper of this teaching on prayer to hear Jesus saying that God will give “the Holy Spirit” to those who ask for it. But where in the twelve verses that led up to this last line is there any mention of the Holy Spirit? Jesus’ model prayer doesn’t mention the Spirit. The people in the analogies aren’t talking about the Holy Spirit. So why does Jesus conclude with mentioning something that has not cropped up before?
Maybe the answer is that whether we know it or not, in all our praying, in all our asking and begging and pleading with God, what we are finally asking for–and what we for sure will in the end receive–is nothing less than the indwelling Spirit of the Living God. We pray in the power of this Spirit, who is our sacred companion that brings to us the fullness of Christ Jesus in our hearts. And when we pray in the power of the Spirit, we find that same Spirit living in us and assuring us that no matter what happens, we serve a loving God who holds us tenderly every moment of our lives.
That is perhaps the best piece of news in Luke 11. This passage began with the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus did that wonderfully but in and through all the specifics he laid out, these final words tell us that it was the Holy Spirit we have been seeking all along. When Jesus tells us to ask, to seek, to knock and then says that we will be answered, that what we seek will be found, that the door will open, he’s talking about the Spirit of God there. Anyone with much experience with prayer knows full well that despite the blank-check appearance of verses 9 and 10, God does have to say no sometimes, the door does remain shut sometimes, what we seek remains elusive sometimes. We know this.
But if it’s the Holy Spirit we receive in and through all of our praying, then we can understand Jesus’ words here a little better without getting forever hung up on the counter-examples that just about every person in a given congregation could mention. If God always gives the Holy Spirit to those who pray, then even when a prayer goes “unanswered,” God has provided a deeper answer after all. This is not an easy truth. If someone in your congregation prayed for a husband to recover from cancer and he died, then that person is right to come to you as a pastor to claim she didn’t get what she prayed for. Period. And who on this earth would dare to say he or she knows the why or wherefore of such a thing? But even still, as a praying person, this woman received the Holy Spirit to help her even in the grief that came despite her most ardent prayers that it would not come. The love of God is not less because something did not come. The proof of that abiding love comes through the gentle ministry of the Spirit, assuring us all that the gospel is still true, the hope of the resurrection is still real, and Jesus remains in our hearts by his Spirit.
Not even our Lord Jesus would expect us to give thanks to God for an unanswered prayer. If you doubt that, consider the example of Jesus. One dark night long ago in a placed called Gethsemane, he made a request and, in the end, his Father had to say no. A certain, bitter cup of suffering would not pass from Jesus. The next time we know Jesus prayed, he was crying out in dereliction, “My God, my God, why? Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus moved from an unanswered prayer to a lament and yet his prayer life remained intact. His Father had said no, had had to abandon him for a time. But before he bowed his head and died, Jesus said to this same Father, “Into your hands do I commit my spirit.” In our lives, too, our every prayer contributes to the thankfulness we owe to God. Even at our most disappointed, the Holy Spirit is in us and we receive the further anointing of that same Spirit every time we pray.
There is a slight variation in the request for bread between Matthew’s presentation of this prayer in Matthew 6 and Luke’ presentation here in Luke 11. Matthew uses the word for “today” (SEMERA) whereas in Luke 11:3 Luke uses the general phrase for day (HEMERA), giving his presentation more the sense of “day by day,” thus lending more of an ongoing feel to this particular request. It’s not just today that we need the gift of bread but day after day after day. As noted elsewhere in these sermon commentaries, the disciples, in asking that Jesus teach them how to pray, were doing more than seeking a litany of requests or a catalogue of key phrases. They were actually asking for Jesus to teach them how to turn the entirety of their lives into an extended form of praying even as they had seen to be the case in Jesus’ own life. Luke’s way of making the request for bread go on and on and on adds to this sense.
Some while back I heard about a video that someone made to illustrate what it might be like to be God. It runs for just over an hour and it features nothing but one person after the next making a request, asking for advice, seeking direction, requesting money, and so on. Face after face after face appears on the screen, each in a plaintive mode of asking for something. It’s curious that Jesus more than once illustrates prayer with images of exasperation. In Luke 11 we have a friend at midnight baying for bread from someone already tucked cozily into bed. A few chapters farther on in Luke we find the parable of the unjust judge who finally gives in to the persistent widow not for any noble reason but just to get her off his back.
It has always struck me as odd that Jesus would use these somewhat negative images to talk about prayer. Surely we don’t want to think of God as being exasperated but maybe just maybe Jesus, as the Son of God, knew what it was like to be barraged day and night by an endless line of people asking for advice, money, direction, or whatever. It is a credit to the almighty power of God that he is able to handle the simultaneous prayers of millions, if not billions, of people all the time.
Do you remember the opening scene to the holiday classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life? The camera careers in and around the streets of Bedford Falls and from every single house on just about every single block of the city we hear people praying for George Bailey. With voices tumbling on top of one another, you hear over and again, “Dear Lord, be with George, with George, bless George, O God, be with George, George Bailey, bless George.” Of course, those people were all praying for the same thing but in reality exactly such a chorus of prayer takes place at every moment except that most of the time the requests and petitions are all different from one another. At the same moment you are praying for your child to recover from the flu, your neighbor next door may be praying for her son in Iraq. Meanwhile, the folks in the house across the street are begging God to help them make ends meet even as the people in the house next to that one are praying for rain to fall over in Iowa so their brother-in-law’s corn crop won’t fail. In the wider cosmic scheme of things, prayer is a universal constant, the sheer volume of which staggers the imagination.
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