Our words from Jesus this morning are filled with promise and hope, but also a challenge to our faith:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
What if you knew with absolute confidence that every request you made of God would be answered? What would you ask for? It’s James who makes the claim in James 3 – “You do not have because you do not ask…”
What Jesus seems to promise us here is a positive, assured, confident expectation of what awaits us if only we will pursue it. And in truth, so many of the blessings of God go unclaimed in our lives because we think too small, our vision is too shortsighted. The size of our requests is limited to the size of our God, and for most of us, our God is too small. Here is how Jesus describes God’s answer to prayer: “… a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured into your lap.” (Luke 6:38)
So, does this mean that whatever I want or desire, God is obligated to give to me? Shall we see God as some celestial leprechaun with a pot of gold at the end of his rainbow, or Aladdin’s genie in the bottle, and we come to him with outstretched hand and read our list of requests?
And what happens when God doesn’t grant our requests as we imagine he should? Our last state is worse than the first – “See, I told you God doesn’t care.”
Far from being a universal promise that God has pledged to do for us anything that we may ask of Him, this is actually something much bigger than that.
Who is it that has this special privilege of making their requests to God?” Jesus says, “Everyone who asks receives...” Jesus rules out no one – but at the same time, this promise is limited to those who understand certain things about themselves – who comprehend certain things about their relationship with God.
Who is it that is going to ask? The one who realizes his own desperate need. The one who is conscious, not only of his need, but also of the riches of God’s grace will ask. The other person isn’t even aware of his need. Only the one who can say like Paul, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me…” will ask to be delivered.
Who will seek? The one who knows there is something beyond his grasp. The man who thinks he can, by his own ingenuity and resources, attain everything he needs won’t be seeking, or at least won’t be seeking in the right place.
Who is it that will knock? The one who recognizes that there is a door he can’t open himself.
In fact, let’s make sure that we see this passage in the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has already defined some rather stringent requirements for the one who would live in intimate relationship with the Father.
· The one who is poor in spirit, mourner, meek, hungering, peacemaker, merciful, etc.
· The one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees…
· The one who forgives others as he himself has been forgiven.
· The one who seeks first God’s kingdom and righteousness.
· He excludes the hypocrite and the unrepentant and the unmerciful.
This is not the first time Jesus has broached the subject of prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. He cautioned against the arrogant, self-centered prayers of the Pharisees. He warns against the long-winded, vain-glorious prayers of the pagans. He models the prayer of simple faith that begins, “Our Father, who is in heaven…”
Prayer is a powerful tool. It is forbidden to no one. But God’s richest blessings are going to be in answer to the prayers of those who live in right relationship with him.
What kind of person are we looking for? A person, perhaps, like Abraham. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew with whom he was going. And he went, and God richly blessed him because of his faithfulness.
Jesus modeled this same kind of faithfulness and dependence – “But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.” (John 16:32)
We are looking for a man like Elijah, about whom James writes, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5:16-18). Elijah’s prayer was powerful and effective – but you know what really gives me courage – I’m glad James wrote – “Elijah was a man just like us…”
That lets me know that prayer isn’t just for the superheroes of the faith that have access to God. It’s every one of us – regardless of our failures and shortcomings, in spite of our struggles and our lack of faith.
Jesus makes an incredibly bold statement – that when we ask we will receive, when we seek we will find, when we knock it will be opened. I’m curious about these gifts which Jesus promises in response to our asking, our seeking, our knocking. If this isn’t a blank check to fill our wildest dreams, then what is Jesus saying concerning what we can expect God to do in answer to our asking, seeking and knocking?
Again, let’s look in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. What has Jesus already said about what it is that God gives so graciously in response to prayer?
· Mt. 5:3-12 He begins by promising a blessedness for those who are poor, mournful, meek… And blessedness communicates a richness of relationship and a communion of will and purpose with the Father.
· 6:8 There in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says, God knows what we need before we ask him.
· 6:12 He says God will forgive your sin
· 6:13 He tells us God will deliver you from the evil one
· 6:25-33 God will provide for your daily needs – food, clothing, drink. And that when you trust him he will give you everything else as well.
In fact, what I hear coming through so clearly is that God not only gives gifts, but gives to us those things which are truly gifts. They are not grudgingly given tokens, not chincy hand-me-downs, but truly gifts of inestimable value. And more than that – they are given to meet our real needs – not always my perceived needs (not what I want, not what I think I need.)
You remember the scripture from James 5 a few minutes ago – he has something else to say about our problem with prayer: You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)
There are times in my life when I look back with deep gratitude to God that he didn’t give me everything I asked him for – didn’t open every door that I wanted to go through. God responds to my prayers with a far greater understanding of my needs and my best interests than I can ever have. And as I pray, I want always to ask with an implicit request that he do what is best and defeat me in those things which I ignorantly ask for which will only bring me harm.
And even those things which I consider selfless requests for another – healing of someone’s disease, provision for someone’s job, changing of someone’s life – I know that there are things I cannot understand – that only the sovereign Lord can see that will determine whether my prayer will be best, or whether God has something even better in store.
And there are even those times when I pray for God to take away suffering and pain and death, when the truth is that God does his best work in our lives when we have to go through those very things. And my need, and your need, is not necessarily to be spared from those, but to learn to trust God through them.
There is a shrine in the French Pyrenees where people come to pray for healing. A war veteran who had lost a leg made a trip to the shrine to pray. As he hobbled his way along the street to the shrine someone said, "Look at that silly man! Does he think God is going to give him back his leg?" The man overheard the remark and turned towards the speakers and said: "Of course I do not expect God to give me back my leg. I am going to pray to God to help me live without it."
Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will upon God, or for bending his will to ours, but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to his. It is by prayer that we seek God’s will embrace it and align ourselves with it. Every true prayer is a variation on the theme “your will be done.” (John Stott)
And so, ultimately I want my prayers to be filtered through that lens of trust in God’s perfect knowledge and goodness – to commit myself to whatever he chooses by praying, “not my will, but thine be done.”
What is most remarkable to me about prayer is that God desires it so much – he makes it a prerequisite for our receiving what he has prepared to give us. It’s not that he is ignorant until we inform him, it’s not that he is reluctant until we persuade him – it is that he understands us so completely, so perfectly that he knows our need to ask, to seek, to knock, to admit that we are dependent upon him. The question is not whether he is ready to give, but are we ready to receive?
Jesus gives us an insight into God’s nature as he contrasts the giving ability of an earthly father to our heavenly Father. “Which of you?” The implied answer to Jesus’ rhetorical question is “No one!”
A stone instead of bread, a snake instead of fish? Even the average father is going to try to provide what his children ask of him. He is going to provide what is beneficial and helpful. He isn’t going to be cruel and sadistic, deceptive and deceitful.
If an earthly father is going to do his best to give the best to his children, what kind of giver is our heavenly Father going to be? Limitless resources, our best interest at heart, perfect understanding of our real needs. God’s generosity and good will eclipse the very best fathers among us.
The comparison is this – “if you who are evil” (i.e., limited by our own selfishness and resources and short-sightedness) “know how to give good gifts,” your Father in heaven eclipses your giving – he gives the very best.
In speaking about the generosity our heavenly Father, Jesus tells us something powerful about the nature of God – as Jesus paints this portrait, he portrays God as the one who cares deeply for us, gives richly to meet our deepest needs, often at tremendous cost to himself.
Like last week, there is a verse here at the end of the passage that challenges us to action, and again, it has to do with how we treat people. Interestingly, this is this context in which we find the “Golden Rule” “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (vs. 12). It has been said, if only we followed this one rule, we would need no other rules. We would treat every other person with perfect love – we would seek their very best. All other commands concerning human interactions are really commentary on this one fundamental principle.
“So in everything” – everything you do, say, think… And especially in this context of generosity – imitate God.
“Do unto others” – stated positively, not negatively (other cultures had a similar proverb, but it was stated from a negative position: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you”, from a position of revenge: “do unto others what they have done to you”, from a preemptive position: “do unto others before they do unto you”). And that is what distinguishes followers of Jesus – this is not a rule for self-preservation, but a principle of actively seeking to take the initiative to bless the lives of others.
And finally, Jesus says: “This sums up the Law and Prophets” – Jesus already said he didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. The OT message was always one of God’s love and care for his people. That hasn’t changed. His demand for people’s lives was always compassion and forgiveness and self-sacrificing love. That hasn’t changed either.
What has changed is that once these principles were chiseled on stone, written on paper – now they are modeled in a life – as Paul says, “written on human hearts”. When we look at Jesus, we see the one who lives out in vivid, bold clarity what it means to live the life of one who selflessly gives himself or herself for others.