The Audacity of Prayer

Scripture:  Luke 11:1-13

I imagine we did what a lot of people do when they find out they are going to be parents for the first time.  We went out and bought a lot of books about being a parent.  You know, those books make it all sound so easy.  Those books do not tell the truth though, because It is not.  There is a lot about being a parent that the books do not tell you.   One of those lessons that we had to learn is how hard it is to teach children when it is and is not appropriate to ask for things.   In the late toddler years both of my kids were shameless about asking for things.  If an adult especially had something they were interested in, they would ask for it.  This led to more than one awkward situation where the adult did not want to give up the thing, but they also did not want to tell a volatile three year old no.  It is nearly impossible to explain to a three year old something like social etiquette and protocol.  Though perhaps my kids were on to something, because one of the pieces of conventional wisdom about questions that is passed down is “you don’t know, if you don’t ask.”   Mike Hayes proved this to be true in the late 80’s.  As he was set to graduate high school he was several thousand dollars short of the money he would need for college.   In order to make ends meet he asked for money from strangers in one of the most audacious ways possible.   He wrote a letter to a syndicated newspaper columnist named Bob Green.  Green ran the letter in which Hayes asked for help, by having people send him just one penny.   Thousands of people chose to invest in Hayes’ education.  One penny at a time he raised more than $26,000, and that was more than enough for him to go to college and successfully graduate a few years later.

Jesus also seems to support making big ask.   In this morning’s scripture Jesus seems to actively encourage asking with “shameless audacity.”  This morning’s scripture is how Luke records Jesus’ teaching on prayer, and shameless audacity is really not the kind of language that we would often associate with prayer.  We often think of prayer as something that is supposed to be solemn, formal, humble; not audacious.   Yet the language Jesus uses here clearly inspired boldness.   Jesus does not say “Present your petition with reverent humility”.  No he says, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  A Pew study on prayer found that 2/3rds of people who identify as Christian believe prayer is an essential part of their Christian identity.  Given the importance of prayer then to how we practice our faith it is vitally important that we properly understand what our Lord and Savior has to say about prayer in the first place.  Doing so, might just change the way we pray.

At first glance this scripture begins with what we call the Lord’s Prayer, but there are some subtle differences.   However, we can move straight to the familiar words that we gloss over what comes first.  This scripture begins because the disciples observed Jesus praying, and then asked him for instructions on how to pray.   This was not exactly early in Jesus’ ministry either.  At this point he had already done a lot of miracles, and the disciples had just been with him for some time.   It seems odd then that the disciples are just now getting around to something, which to us, seems fundamental.  How to pray.

Now it was not like the disciples did not pray.   They probably did.  It was the practice of all faithful Jews to pray daily, but those prayers were memorized, they were the same every morning and every night.   For the first century Jew, prayer was less a conversation with God, and more a religious ritual.  However, the disciples noticed that Jesus prayed differently.  It is not that they did not know how to pray, but they did not know how to pray the way that Jesus prayed.     It is clear that the approach that Jesus brought to prayer was different, perhaps more dynamic and exciting than what the disciples were used to.   In seeking to be good disciples and follow Jesus as much as possible, they wanted to learn to pray the way that Jesus prayed.

Given that the disciples might have been disappointed that Jesus’ answer was seemingly another prayer to recite.  However, Jesus then goes on to tell the parable about asking for bread.   This parable seems a bit odd at first, especially in our modern day era where a lot of houses have smart doorbells so they can see who is there without even having to get up.  Indeed, in this parable Jesus was relying heavily on the social network that would have been present in a Galilean village.  It was a strong cultural value that people extend hospitality to those who visit them.  It was also a strong cultural value that people took care of their neighbors and respected their neighbors.  This means that normally people would have no problem sharing bread with a neighbor, but it also means that they expect not to be woken up at midnight by the request.    The man who did that in the story was committing a big party foul.  It was a major faux pas.  Despite that though, the neighbor will give the bread not because of their relationship but because the audacity of asking in that way communicated the importance of the request.

The point that Jesus was making is that we do not have to grovel before God, but we can ask boldly.  We can pray audaciously.   We can ask, and receive.  We can seek, and find.  We can knock and the door will be opened.  Now, unfortunately this teaching of Jesus has been twisted from time to time.   God is not Santa Claus, and prayer is not bringing our wish list before God.   Jesus is not teaching here that if we name it and boldly claim it then God will give us whatever we want.  Despite what the TV preachers say, Jesus does not teach that prayer is a tool to reach prosperity.

Jesus told the parable of asking boldly only after he said “When you pray say. . .”   The example prayer Jesus gave, was a model of the type of things we can be confident praying for.  If we look at verse 2-4 we see example areas given where we can and should pray boldly.  When we pray we should pray boldly that God’s kingdom comes, we can pray that God provides us with what we need (not necessarily what we want) to make it through each day healthy, we can pray for forgiveness- both for our own sins, and for the strength and mercy to forgive those who have wronged us.  Finally, we can pray for the fortitude to resist temptation.  Even in the story that Jesus told, the emphasis was not on getting our wants fulfilled.  The bread that was being requested in the dead of night, was not for the person making the request but it was for the benefit of someone else.   This morning’s scripture does encourage us to make bold asks of God in prayer, but those request are not supposed to be about fulfilling our wishes and living lavish, comfortable lives.

In one of his sermons John Wesley, the found of the Methodist movement, does a great job at focusing on what prayer is supposed to be.  Wesley wrote, “Prayer is lifting up your heart to God.  All the words of our prayers that do not expose our true selves to God are sheer hypocrisy.  Therefore, whenever you attempt to pray see that your single purpose is to commune with God.  Lift up your heart him and pour out your soul before him.”

Perhaps Wesley’s writings on prayer can be summed up in one word:  “authenticity.”  Our reason for prayer should not be to manipulate God to get what we want or to fulfill a ritualistic religious obligation.   Wesley is right, the purpose of prayer is to commune with God.  If you notice, in the prayer Jesus give his disciples it did not begin with a flowery title for God, but instead it began “father. . .”

We should approach prayer as honest conversation with God.   When we have a real need, a pressing concern that sits funny in the depths of our hearts and troubles our very soul, then we should share that with God in prayer.  Then as Jesus makes clear in this morning’s scripture we should be willing to make the bold ask.  If we are truly seeking God in the type of prayer that lifts our hearts before God  and makes communing with God our singular purpose, then we should not be afraid to pray big prayer that are marked by their shameless audacity.

Honestly though, all prayers should be audacious.   We all have little pet peeves, annoyances, that when we see them tend to just bristle against us the wrong way and really get under our skin.  There is a common one that I see regularly on social media.   Someone will have something going on in their life a job interview, a possible promotion, or even awaiting the results of a medical test.   This person will then request that everyone said all of the positive thoughts/prayers/good vibes their way.   That annoys me.  I do not know what a good vibe actually is, but I know it is not prayer.   Even the now overused and worn down phrase “thoughts and prayers” kind of bothers me, because it equates thoughts and prayers as connected.  Prayer is so much more than the partner to sympathetic thoughts.   If we are taking prayer serious, then it is audacious, by its very nature.   Think about what we are doing when we are pray.   We are approaching the Creator of the entire Cosmos.   We are asking the sustainer of the universe to pay attention to us.    Not only that, when we ask something of God in prayer we are asking God to intervene.  When we pray for something miraculous, we are asking God to literally change the rules of reality.   That is so much more than thoughts.   When we pray we ask God to literally change the way the universe works on behalf.   That my friends is truly audacious.   You could even say it is shameless in its audacity!

The truly amazing thing, the thing that should honestly just blow our minds, is that it works!   When we pray, when we ask God to change reality to do the miraculous, God does it!   Our God is a faithful God who hears our prayers, and answers our prayers!   I know this is true because our collective experience backs it up.   Pick any Christian church in the world, seriously any single one.   If you walk in there and ask for people to share how they have seen God work miracles, then you had better get comfortable because every single church is full of miracles.   Every church will have someone who can walk even though medically they were told they should not, or someone who can see even though they were told they would never see again, or someone who is alive who by all rights should be dead.   Every single church that truly seeks to commune with God in prayer has stories of miracles, stories of when God heard our prayers and changed reality for us.

Given how audacious prayer truly is, it kind of brings up the question why on earth does God literally sometimes move heaven and earth for us.  I think there are two answers that really stick out here.  First, it is because God loves us.  Before we ever knew God, or loved God in return God loved us.   From our very inception we have been loved more than we can fathom by the God who crafted us, created us, and stitched us together by hand.   I do not think it is a mistake that this morning’s language is full of parental language.  It begins with addressing God in prayer as Father, but this theme is continued in verse 11 where Jesus states, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?  Of if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion.”   The love that a caring parent has for a child might be the closest analogy that God has for us.   As Jesus illustrates, even as flawed people parents know how to care for their children.  If our kids have a true need, then we will do anything to meet that need and provide for them out of love.   If that is what we are willing to do in our imperfect state, imagine then how much God, with God’s perfect love is able to do for us.

The second answer as to why God responds to our prayers is because we ask.  This does not mean God gives us everything we ask for.  Just like a parent does not give everything to a child that they want for various reasons, there is sometimes God’s answer to our request is no or not right now.

It has been my experience though that the more authentic we approach God in prayer, the more we seek to make the sole purpose of prayer to commune with God, then more our prayer line up with where God already is.   So may you realize that prayer is so much more than thoughts and good vibes.  May you not use prayer as a good luck charm to get what you want, but may you approach prayer with vulnerable authenticity.   In prayer may you be willing to pour out your heart and soul, so God can pour in God’s love and grace.  Then with confidence you will be able to make audacious prayers, the kind of prayers that truly transform this world to be more like God’s Kingdom.

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