Luke 11:1-13 & Genesis 18:20-32
A year ago during Lent we studied the Lord’s Prayer with the confirmation students, and here we are again today with Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer coming up during our Sunday lectionary series. As we turn today to meditate on the Lord’s Prayer and how we should pray once more, I’d like to open up the sermon with an illustration that I used a year ago from the television show, The Big Bang Theory, about how we, and popular culture, often regard prayer.
Now, I like this clip for a couple of reasons. First, what it gets right: we can talk to God like that when we pray. We don’t need a prayer with prescribed, formal words. God hears us no matter what kinds of words we use to talk with him. Sometimes those words can be formal, yes, but other times they can be an informal conversation as if we were talking to our friends here on Earth. Sometimes prayer can be sung, as we will sing the Lord’s Prayer a little later in worship today. And sometimes, even, prayer—that is, conversation with God—can happen in the work that we do with our hands. God hears our prayers no matter how we pray. But, what I want to really stress about this clip that we just watched is what the people who are praying get wrong: God is not a genie, and, while our prayers very often will contain what we wish, God does not have to grant what we wish.
We see that in our lesson from Genesis today. Abraham has just finished entertaining and providing hospitality to three visitors who have come to his tent, at least one of whom, somehow, is the Lord God. When they have finished their visit, the Lord says that he has heard the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin, and that he must find out if what he has heard is true. Somehow, Abraham knows, even though God doesn’t specifically say it, that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and he starts bargaining with God. And in the process of bargaining with God for fifty righteous people all the way down to ten, Abraham shamelessly flatters God and appeals to his honor. He is praying with what in Yiddish is called chutzpah, which can mean boldness, impudence, and shamelessness. I mean, this is the God who created the entire universe, the God who created Abraham and who could wipe him out in a minute, and Abraham is bold enough to speak to God and to bargain for the lives of the people of Sodom as if he were bargaining with a merchant in the marketplace! And God goes along with it, and eventually promises that he will not destroy the city if he finds only ten righteous people there.
But, what our story does not tell us today is that Abraham does not get what he asked God for. God destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in spite of Abraham’s prayer: we’re left to infer that there were not even ten righteous people there. And although God’s angels get Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and Lot’s family out of the city alive, Abraham does not know it, for Genesis merely records that Abraham looked down on the plains where Sodom and Gomorrah had been and saw the smoldering wreckage left in the wake of the destruction of those cities. We don’t know if Abraham ever saw his nephew again.
This story is both comforting and scary, isn’t it? Comforting because we know that we can talk to God in prayer any way we want to. We can talk with chutzpah to the Lord and Creator of the universe in any way we want to, and he will hear us. But it’s also frightening because we know that, even though God loves us and wants to give us good things, as the Gospel of Luke tells us, we may not receive what we wish for, and sometimes the world goes on as if God has never heard us.
So, what exactly is it that Jesus is telling us about prayer? Well, the first thing to note about the Lord’s Prayer—and this is the same in Matthew as it is in Luke—is that it is a communal prayer. Now, this is not to say that we can’t pray this prayer when we’re alone. But, when we do pray the Lord’s Prayer alone, the plural pronouns in this prayer put us in mind of the whole community of faithful Christians around the world who are praying this just as we are. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, not only are we asking for God’s name to be hallowed and God’s kingdom to come, but we are also asking God to form us into a community who shows love to one another as God has shown love to us.
But then, after the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives us more teachings about prayer. And the theme behind the story of the friend who comes at midnight, and the theme behind his teachings of asking, seeking, and knocking, seems to be the theme of persistence. Keep praying, Jesus says, and don’t give up, for God wants to give us what we need. For me, this can be problematic. Why doesn’t God answer the first time I ask God for something? Why do I have to keep asking? What happens when I keep asking God for something, and nothing seems to happen? What happens when I pray for what I think I need and I don’t receive it? Does that mean that God didn’t want to give me good things? Or, does that mean that my prayers weren’t good enough, or that I wasn’t persistent enough in my praying?
Well, the answer to the last two of these questions is “no”. We are human beings, and we are flawed and fallen, and God knows that our prayers are not going to be perfect. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” So, when we are praying and God seems to be silent, we can trust that the Holy Spirit is with us, walking beside us, urging us to keep on praying, and interceding for us when we don’t pray as we should be praying. It’s kind of like this: If I pray to win the lottery, the Holy Spirit might say, “God, you know what she meant. She’s just praying to have enough money to pay her bills and to give some to someone in need. Don’t hold it against her.” Our prayers are always good enough for God, because praying, in the end, is not about what God is giving to you. Praying is about that relationship with God, that relationship that gives us the chutzpah to say, “You know what God? Things are not going very well right now, and I’m hurting and angry and wondering where you are.” God even delights in that prayer, because it means that we are still speaking with him.
So, what happens when we pray the good prayer: the prayer that someone we love would be healed, the prayer for wars and conflict to cease across the world, the prayers for decent leaders in government, and those prayers are answered in the negative? Well, I think we need to remember that God is God and we are not. We are to be persistent in prayer, yes, but, as one of my colleagues said on Wednesday, we need to remember that we can’t bully God into doing what we want God to do. We might flatter, wheedle, or cajole God. We might get angry and yell, or we might break down in tears and plead with God. We can even bargain with God. But in the end, God’s decisions are God’s decisions. We might never know why our loved one wasn’t healed. Or, many years after the fact, we may look back and see God’s hand leading us, and Jesus walking beside us through that rough patch. But in the end, the reasons that God does or doesn’t do something are God’s own, and God does not choose to reveal those reasons to us.
But the miracle is this: that God, who created the universe, wants to be in a relationship with us, those he created. And, like any relationship, there may be some rough patches that we will have to get through. But God will always be there, beside us, even when it seems like God is silent. And when we ask, no matter what else God gives to us or doesn’t give to us, God will give us the Holy Spirit. Always. The Holy Spirit who walks beside us, who advocates for us, and who intercedes for us. The Holy Spirit who urges us to continue to pray, to tell God what is happening in our lives, to have that conversation with God, and to not be afraid to talk with God. What an absolutely amazing gift that is, and what a privilege, to be able to talk intimately with the one who made us!
The prophet Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. As much as we try to figure God out and to understand the reasons for things that happen, we will always run into the mystery of who God really is. But one thing that God has revealed to us, and one thing that we can always count on, is that God loves us. God loves us and God wants to be in relationship with us and to have conversation with us. Even though God already knows what’s going on in our lives, God wants us to talk to him as we would talk with our father or our mother, through both the good times and the bad. God loves us so much that God sent his Son Jesus to us, to teach us that we can talk to God any time and in any way that we want, and to finally break down any barriers between us and God by dying for us on the cross. So, let’s keep talking, and let’s be persistent. Let’s have the chutzpah of Abraham and be bold when we pray. And let’s trust that God will always hear us, and that the Holy Spirit will be beside us. Always. Amen.