Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 07/24/2016

His disciples saw Jesus praying and wanted to know how to do it. Having been around him for awhile they must have sensed that Jesus’ relationship with God was different and better than theirs and they wanted what he had. “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” It really wasn’t an unusual request and it’s one that persists as many of us struggle with prayer, feeling like it’s something we should do more of as well as thinking that it’s something we should be better at. We see other individuals or groups who we think have it figured out, I think of my monk friends up at the Jampot, and so like the disciples, we want what they have, we want the “how to” manual. These days of course, you could just Google “How to pray” which out of curiosity I did and not surprisingly all kinds of things come up.

Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to Google it. He responded, giving them the framework of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. From there he tells them a short parable that has to do with the nature of prayer but perhaps has even more to do with the nature of God and then finally he adds some proverb like commentary, statements such as “Ask and it shall be given, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you,” statements that also have to do with the nature of prayer and the nature of God and it’s not all what we might expect.

We’re so familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, probably often praying it without thinking, that we don’t notice how similar it is in some ways to Old Testament prayer that isn’t particularly polite but which instead makes demands of God. We call the various phrases of the Lord’s Prayer “petitions,” but petition is defined as “a solemn supplication or request, especially to a superior authority.” The last part of that is true relative to the Lord’s Prayer; it is offered to a superior authority, but several of the phrases are not exactly solemn supplications or requests. They don’t ask God, they tell God to give us this day our daily bread, to forgive us our sins, and not to bring us to the time of trial. They tell God to do what God is supposed to do!

Like I said, the prayer is so familiar that we don’t notice the demand behind these petitions, but it’s there. Mostly though, we are just thankful for these words that Jesus provided, giving us a go to prayer when we struggle to find words. Even if we do pray it without thinking sometimes, it still has the effect of moving us into the presence of God, and that in itself is an important aspect of prayer.

Jesus did more than provide the words of a prayer though; he also used the disciples’ question as an opportunity to think more deeply about the nature of the God to whom we pray. In the little parable that he told about someone knocking on a friend’s door at midnight with a request for bread, Jesus imagines God as a friend, but a friend who really doesn’t want to be bothered, finally relenting and providing the requested bread only because of the persistence of the one who is knocking. What we would expect is a God who is ever vigilant, always alert, waiting for our prayers, ready to act, but Jesus challenges that perception.

That’s a bit troubling isn’t it? It’s not the image of God that most of carry with us. The good news is that it is a God ready to give good gifts, but maybe only if asked and…maybe only if we persist is our asking, only if we disturb God with our shameless knocking, our shameless reminder to God concerning who he’s supposed to be and what he’s supposed to do which, according to today’s Psalm, is a God whose steadfast love endures forever, a God who does not abandon the work of his hands. That’s the God we want; that’s the God we expect.

In Luke, this conversation on prayer comes right after the Mary and Martha story from last week. In that story, among other things, Jesus talks about the one thing that is needful and when we unpack that, what we find is that the one thing needful is a relationship with him and of course as Christians we understand a relationship with Jesus to be the same as a relationship with God. Today’s reading starts a new chapter but it can be seen as a continuation of Jesus’ concern about the relationship. He’s searching and trying to help the disciples understand the kind of relationship into which they are invited as well as the nature of the one with whom they are invited to relate, but it does challenge our image and expectation of God.

As I’ve said before, the image of God that is probably the dominant one for most of us is that of God as the Big O: omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent; all powerful, all knowing, always present. You might have learned those “O” words in confirmation and it’s not that there isn’t scriptural witness for God as the all powerful holy one, the one who is completely other. That witness is there and it is important but that’s not what Jesus gives us here and it’s not how God is portrayed in much of the Bible.

Jesus emphasizes being in relationship and with God as the Big O, if that’s your only image, there’s not much room for a relationship apart from one that is just about awe and reverence. That God is so aloof and distant and beyond us that there’s no need to inconvenience God with prayer, other than praise and thanksgiving, because God already knows what’s going to happen anyway. Praise and thanksgiving are an important part of prayer, but the God Jesus proposes wants more than that. The God portrayed in the first reading, a God with whom Abraham bargains, wants more than that. The God of the Bible is holy and other, sometimes aloof and distant but not totally so.

With the parable of the friend knocking at midnight and with the Abraham story there is a real transaction going on, a relationship not between equals but still a relationship where both parties have a stake, both are at risk and the input of both is valued. It’s a relationship that is needed by both parties. What Jesus is saying is that neither we as human beings nor God as God are fully who we are supposed to be without this relationship.

That’s what the Bible says about God and we are a church that is supposed to be Bible centered. Sola scriptura, word alone, was at the heart of one of Luther’s major disagreements with the Catholic Church of his day. Yet, as biblically centered as we claim to be, we tend to settle on an image of God that, at least to a degree, ignores what the Bible says about this relational aspect of God and instead focuses on those “O” words.

That focus is perhaps even more surprising when you think that as Christians we profess faith in Jesus as God revealed in flesh and blood, God as a fully relational human being. On the other hand, maybe it’s not that surprising because in a lot of ways, that distant and aloof all powerful God is easier to understand than the God the Bible actually gives us, a God who is less predictable, more elusive, harder to pin down.

Trying to pin God down is always problematic and the biblical witness does vary, but what is consistent in the Abraham story and in the parable that Jesus told as well as in the follow up commentary, what is consistent throughout most of the Bible, is that a God who listens and a God who responds is described. “Ask and it will be given, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” It’s still not God as a vending machine, put in your prayer, push the button and out comes the desired result; it’s still a God not totally predictable, often elusive and hard to pin down. But it’s not a God who is aloof and indifferent to our existence; it’s a God who listens and responds even if the responses are sometimes hard for us to make sense of or even to recognize.

What Jesus gave his disciples and what he gives us though, is a model of prayer that refuses to accept silence as a response. He also gives us a God who doesn’t just want us to be in a prayerful relationship but who needs us to be in that relationship. It is a God who is ready to give good gifts, a God whose steadfast love does endure forever, a God who will not abandon the work of his hands as we persist in asking and searching and knocking.

Pastor Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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