A sermon based on Luke 11:1-13
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
July 28, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life is considered by many to be the greatest Christmas movie ever made. (Let’s see a show of hands: How many of you would agree with that assessment?) I would be surprised if there is anyone here who has not seen the movie. Some people that I know make it a practice to watch it every Christmas season. I think it is ironic that It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated for 5 Oscars, including “Best Picture”—but it did not win any of them. However, despite its lack of initial recognition and middling box office success, its popularity has grown to the point that it consistently is named as one of the best movies ever…
Of all the discussions that I read about It’s a Wonderful Life in research for this sermon, I think that the most insightful commentary is one that I encountered on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. The review begins like this: “It’s a Wonderful Life is not particularly complex, deep, or stylistically marvelous. None of that is a criticism of the film. It is, in fact, the very reason why this film is so brilliant.”1
Perhaps you remember how the movie begins. It is Christmas Eve in the town of Bedford Falls, New York. We watch as the snow falls thick and heavy on the houses and the streets of the small town. All the while we watch, we hear voices. These are the voices of people who are praying on the behalf of the central character of the movie, George Bailey. First we hear a man pray, “I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father…”
Another one prays, in what sounds like a thick Italian accent, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph—help my friend George Bailey…”
“Help my son George tonight…” says a woman’s voice.
Another man prays, “He never thinks about himself and that’s why he’s now in trouble…”
“George is a good guy. Give him a break, Lord…” prays a fourth man.
Then we hear Donna Reed, who plays the part of George’s wife Mary: “I love him, dear Lord. Watch over him tonight…”
1 (Accessed July 19, 2019)
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And finally we hear the voices of two young girls, whom we will later recognize as George’s daughters. They ask, “Please God, something’s the matter with Daddy. Please bring Daddy back…” (If hearing the voices of those two little girls pray that prayer for their daddy’s safety doesn’t make you at least a little bit misty-eyed, then nothing will…)
All of those prayers were being prayed on behalf of friend, son, husband and father, George Bailey. As you know, George was contemplating ending his life on that Christmas Eve by jumping off a bridge. That is, before a somewhat inept angel named Clarence was sent to his aid. You all know how the movie is about what the world would have been like if George had never been born—and of what a difference that one person can make in the lives of others. In the movie, these prayers of George Bailey’s friends and family were answered…and lessons about life were learned…
Prayer is recognized as one of the most important parts of living life in the Spirit. There are few people who would seriously argue otherwise. After all, our Lord Jesus himself set the example for us as he was very much a man of prayer. Concerning the importance of prayer in the life of the believer, the prominent 20th Century theologian Karl Barth wrote, “It is not possible for us to say, I will pray, or I will not pray, as if it were a question of pleasing ourselves; to be a Christian and to pray mean the same thing, and not a thing which can be left to our own wayward impulses. It is, rather, a necessity, as breathing is necessary to life.”2
But not all prayers are answered in the same obvious, immediate way as they are in the beginning of It’s a Wonderful Life, are they? If we were to be honest, we would have to say that prayer—and how prayer works—is one of the mysteries of the Christian faith. We do not always understand it. Though the scriptures tell us that our Lord wants us to pray, there is much that we do not grasp about the nature of prayer…And regardless of where you are in your spiritual life or how long that you have been following Jesus, it must be said that we are all still novices in the school of prayer…
In today’s gospel passage from Luke, Jesus addresses the subject of prayer in four different ways. This text could actually form the basis for four complete sermons in and of themselves…but I promise that I won’t try to cram it all into our time this morning. Instead I will focus our attention on just one of the sections…
The passage begins with Luke’s version of what has come to be known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Jesus gives this prayer to his disciples as a guide by which they can model their own prayers. You may have noticed that this version of “The Lord’s Prayer” is somewhat shorter than the one that we usually say together—the one that is found in the book of Matthew.
In verses nine and ten, Jesus teaches his disciples that they are to be diligent in their prayers. They are encouraged to ask, to seek and to knock on the door of heaven. Jesus then concludes this discussion of prayer in verses 11-13 by giving a couple of illustrations about how God is interested in
2 Karl Barth, Prayer and Preaching (Napierville, IL: SCM Press, 1964), 19. Emphasis mine.
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giving good things to his children, just as earthly fathers are interested in giving good things to their children.
What I want to consider for the rest of our time together is verses 5-8. These verses make up what scholars call “The Parable of the Friend at Midnight.” The story goes like this:
A man has a friend who has arrived from a journey at his house around midnight. (The text does not say this, but I think it can be implied that the friend’s visit was unexpected. Otherwise, perhaps the host would have been ready…) In order to show hospitality to his friend, he must give him something to eat. However, like “Old Mother Hubbard,” the cupboard was bare and he had nothing to set before his guest. So the man goes next store to borrow three loaves of bread. But there is a problem.
As he knocks on the door, the voice of the neighbor calls out to him from inside the house. The neighbor is a grouch. He has retired for the evening and does not want to get himself up out of bed to give the man the bread that he has requested. So he refuses. But the man at the door is relentless. He will not take “No” for an answer.
[Side bar here: In the English translation that I read earlier, the man is described in verse 8 as being “persistent.” That is way too polite of a translation. The Greek word used here is the word anaideia. This is the only instance in the New Testament where this word occurs. The word literally means “shamelessness” or “shameless audacity.” This man in verse 8 was just not being “persistent.” He was being shameless, bold—obnoxious, if you will—in his desperate attempt to get what he needed from his neighbor …]
After being initially told “No,” the man keeps calling out to the neighbor, beating on his door, and pleading for his help. After some time, the neighbor finally relents, gets out of bed, and gives the man the bread he desires. And Jesus adds that he did not do this because he was his friend, but because he wanted some peace and quiet…
This parable does not paint a very flattering picture of God, does it? If the neighbor is supposed to be representative of God, then it appears at first glance that God is a grouch…that God will only do for those who pester him until he is moved to action. The teaching of the parable seems to be the spiritual equivalent of “The squeaky wheel gets the grease…” or something like that…
In Luke 18, Jesus tells another parable that has some similar themes to the one that we are considering this morning. Beginning in verse1, Luke writes,
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said, “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ’Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time, he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’”
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So what’s going on here? God does not come off very well in this parable either, does he? That is, if the judge is supposed to be a picture of who God is. But maybe that’s not the point of the story…Maybe that’s really not the point of either story. Maybe that is not at all what Jesus was trying to teach…
At the beginning of Luke 18, Luke tells us that Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow in order to teach his disciples that they should pray and not to become discouraged. I would suggest that the teaching of Luke 11 is very similar. Jesus instructs us to pray and to be earnest…and to be fearless…and to be persistent in making our prayers to God… Perhaps the very act of not giving up in prayer is a method by which God strengthens us and builds up our faith…
A couple of observations about prayer…The first one is this: Prayer is simple.
From very early on in church, we are taught in Sunday School that prayer is nothing more than talking to God. And that is true—as far as it goes. In order to pray, you do not have to memorize specific words. Your language does not have to be all fancy or beautiful, because God is interested in the attitude of your heart rather than the specific words that you use. You can pray anywhere, at any time, under any circumstances. And anyone can pray. You do not have to be a super-spiritual Christian to pray. You do not need the services of a priest or a deacon or some other church person in order to pray on your behalf. You can do it yourself without anyone coming between you and God. In that way, prayer is simple.
But this also must be said: Prayer is a mystery.
Think about it with me for a moment. The God of the universe…Creator of all that there ever has been, all that there is, and all that will ever be…Lord of limitless space…Master of ten thousand times ten thousand galaxies…the God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, who stands outside of space and time…It is this God who intimately knows all about you and seeks to have an intimate relationship with you through prayer. It really is mind-blowing when you think about it—why such a God would be intensely interested in such small parts of his creation—people like you and me. That God would reach out to us in such a way—insignificant as we are—is mystery enough…
But then there is also the mystery of unanswered prayer. In Matthew 21:22, Jesus told his disciples, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Not much question about it. But anyone who has tried to make prayer an essential part of their life knows the disappointment of prayers that went unanswered. It is as if God did not hear them…or worse, that God did not care about the requests that you made known to him…
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From time to time, I have heard some of my African-American minister friends exclaim, “When the prayers go up, then the blessings come down.” And sometimes that is true. I know that it is sometimes true because I have seen it with my own eyes.
But what I have also discovered is this: Regardless of how much I pray, regardless of how much I pour my heart out to God, regardless of how much faith that I think I have, sometimes my prayers go unanswered.
We cannot understand why it is that God chooses to answer some of our prayers while others are left unfulfilled. It is one of the mysteries of the faith and one of the mysteries of prayer. It is something that Godly people have struggled with for as long as prayers have been offered. And for more than three millennia, no one has been able to come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why it is so.
You all know Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as one of America’s greatest men of letters. But he was also possessed of a vibrant Christian faith. In considering the question of unanswered prayer, Longfellow wrote some words that call our attention to the fact that, now we know only in part and we cannot see the big picture from God’s perspective. Perhaps that is why some of our prayers go answered. Longfellow wrote, “What discord should we bring into the universe if our prayers were all answered! Then we should govern the world and not God. And do you think we should govern it better? It gives me only pain when I hear the long, wearisome petitions of men asking for they know not what.”3 Frankly, I can relate to Longfellow’s words in this regard…
In Mark 9, there is recorded a story of a man who brought his son to Jesus to be healed. The man told Jesus that the boy had been possessed by an evil spirit from a very early age. He went on to describe the situation to Jesus like this: In addition to being unable to speak, the boy would sometimes foam at the mouth and be thrown into convulsions, making the father fear for the boy’s life. No one had been able to do anything for the boy. The man made this request of our Lord, “If you can do anything for him, please take pity on him.”
Jesus responded, “IF you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” The man replied, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Jesus was evidently pleased with the father’s answer because he proceeded to heal the boy of what afflicted him right then and there.
As the sermon draws to a close, hear again the words of the boy’s father: “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief.” At the end of the day, that is really the best that any of us can do when it comes to matters of faith…or when it comes to the subject of prayer. But thanks be to God…through Jesus, it is enough…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
3 Quoted in George Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1942), 293-294. Italics as in the original.
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Hymn # 42 “Seek Ye First”