Sermon 03-03-13: “Journey to Jerusalem, Part 1: Prayer”

March 7, 2013

Fading Footprints in the Sand

In this sermon, I discuss one obstacle that prevents us from praying as consistently as we should: the mistaken idea that we’re doing it wrong—that we’re praying incorrectly, or praying for trivial things, or praying in a selfish way. On the contrary, I argue that when it comes to prayer there is no “wrong way.” As one Christian thinker puts it: “In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.” 

Do you need help or encouragement in your prayer life? This sermon is just for you!

Sermon Text: Luke 11:1-13

The following is the original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

So I got depressed for a few moments last week. Someone posted a video on YouTube of my high school graduating class from 25 years ago. It was strange seeing it—in living color, as if it were filmed yesterday. It was strange seeing my high school, which no longer exists; school administrators and teachers, who are long retired or dead; students voted “most likely,” whose lives may not have turned out as superlative as we had hoped: Did that young woman voted “most likely to succeed,” actually succeed? Does that young man voted “most athletic” now have a beer belly?

And there in the video—for just a few frames, at least—was me. It was as if the person holding the video camera had mistaken me for someone else, someone popular, and quickly aimed the camera elsewhere. This video, after all, was of, by, and for the popular kids, and I wasn’t popular.

If I was popular, I now tell myself, I would have gone out on many more dates than I did. But that’s not quite right.

Do you want to know the real reason I didn’t go out on more dates in high school and college. It’s real simple: I didn’t ask! I didn’t ask girls out! People who get what they want in life are people who tend to ask.

If you want something, ask for it! For me, that’s easier said than done! I don’t like asking for help. I don’t want to depend on someone else. I want to be self-sufficient.

So you can see, I hope, how very challenging Jesus’ teaching in today’s scripture is for me. “Imagine that one of you has a friend and you go to that friend in the middle of the night. Imagine saying, ‘Friend, loan me three loaves of bread because a friend of mine on a journey has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’” It’s hard for us to imagine the problem that the man in this parable faces: We tend to always have well-stocked refrigerators and pantries. And even if we don’t, Waffle Houses, and convenience stores, and even some grocery stores are open 24 hours a day. But that was hardly the case back then. And the rules of hospitality were such that if you didn’t have bread to give a visiting friend, it would have been deeply embarrassing.

The man is so desperate to avoid this embarrassment that he goes to his friend’s house—at midnight—and knocks on his friend’s door, waking him up! At midnight! This action was also much more intrusive than it would be for us today: The people hearing Jesus tell the story were poor: they didn’t have multi-story houses with lots of bedrooms. It’s likely that he and his wife and kids all slept in the same room, side by side, and if he got up to give his friend what he was asking for, he would risk waking up his children. Parents know that we don’t wake up sleeping children!

One of the highlights of my life was giving a bottle to my sweet baby girl Elisa, when she was this tiny thing, born as a preemie, and she woke up hungry at three o’clock in the morning every night. Lisa nursed, but her doctor wanted us to supplement with a bottle in the middle of the night. And that was my job, and I loved it! Anyway, I would turn the radio on softly and tuned it to Coast to Coast with Art Bell—remember him?—and I would hear about U.F.O.s and Area 51 and Big Foot the latest conspiracy theories while I gave my daughter a bottle and rocked her to sleep—just her and her daddy.

Can I confess now that I didn’t usually follow the rules? See, I was supposed give her half the bottle, burp her. Then give her the other half, burp her again, and then put her down and hope she went fast to sleep as I slowly crept out of the room—and I’m like, “Please don’t cry, please don’t cry, please don’t cry.” Often, however, my daughter would fall asleep as she was finishing the last few drops of the bottle. If I put her over my shoulder and burped her, she would wake up, so… I wouldn’t burp her that second time. I’d just put her in her crib. And she turned out all right!

But my point of saying this is to illustrate the truth that all parents know: You don’t wake sleeping babies if at all possible! If you do, it had better be an absolute emergency! Right? So when the man goes to his friend’s house in the middle of the night and asks him for three loaves of bread, he’s asking his friend to do the unthinkable: to risk waking up sleeping babies! It’s a lot to ask. Under what circumstances would you do it? It’s no wonder that Jesus refers to the man’s “brashness” or “boldness” or “shameless audacity” in asking his friend to do this.

But notice that Jesus uses this parable to make a positive point about prayer, and our relationship with God: Jesus says that we should approach God in prayer the same way this annoying neighbor approached his sleeping friend and family at midnight. We should be just that bold, just that brash, just that shamelessly audacious in asking God for what we want or need.

So here’s my question… Are we like that? Do we approach our heavenly Father with this kind of boldness in order to ask him for what we need? If not, why not?

I had two profound experiences of prayer when I was in Kenya last week. I want to share one of them with you today. As you probably can tell, in general, Kenyans sing to and praise and adore and worship God more than we do—with more exuberance, with more enthusiasm, with more conviction, with more faithfulness. We need them to come here and teach us how to do that. We also need them to come and teach us how to pray. I’m serious! Twice during our worship service on Sunday and every morning at the beginning of the class, while they were singing praise songs, they would transition to prayer… It was spontaneous. And when they prayed, each person in the group of dozens or hundreds would shout out their praise and gratitude and supplications to God—individually, out loud, all at once. It was a beautiful cacophony of voices, and I had never heard anything like it before. Some of the pastors were literally weeping as they prayed.

At first it made me uncomfortable. It made me feel self-conscious. It made me feel spiritually dry—like, What’s my problem? When it comes to my own prayers, why don’t I share these pastors’ enthusiasm? Why am I so buttoned-up all the time? Why do I have to play it so cool when I worship? Good heavens, I don’t even feel comfortable lifting my hands when I worship!

Fortunately, God did something for me on the trip to help me be a little less self-conscious when I pray. He allowed me to lose an expensive video projector. We were borrowing this projector from someone else, and I had been responsible for lugging it back and forth, from my hotel to the conference center where we were teaching the class. Then one morning it was gone. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I was panicked. I had already resigned myself to having to buy a new one—like how much does one of those things cost? I was cursing myself for being so careless and absentminded.

But, in the midst of my panic, I also did something good. I prayed. Heartfelt, impassioned, desperate prayer—not for anything lofty like successful world evangelism, or the eradication of malaria, or the end of human trafficking. No, I prayed for something very self-centered: that God would please please please find that stupid projector for me! And guess what? He did! The night before, I accidentally left it on the patio outside our conference room. One of the pastors in class picked it up for safekeeping and returned it to me a few minutes after I prayed this desperate prayer.

That morning when we gathered for class and the pastors started praying out loud in this way that they do, I joined them, only this time without self-consciousness—I was praising and thanking God for rescuing my projector. And while I was at it, I thought of a dozen other things that I also wanted and needed God to do for me. I spoke those prayers out loud, too. I added my voice to all those other voices. It was a beautiful and formative experience for me! See, whether I acknowledge it or not, whether I like it or not, I depend completely on God for everything. I need to pray like I depend on God for everything!

Somewhere along the way, I’m afraid that many of us Christians have gotten the idea that there’s something wrong with petitionary prayer—that is, asking God to do stuff for us or give us things. Many of us have gotten the idea that there’s something a little selfish about it, or at least self-centered. That if we were only more spiritual, more mature in our faith, more like Jesus, then we would see that we already have everything we need. In fact, we already have more than enough, so what right do we have to ask God for anything else?

Or we believe that if we do ask for things for ourselves, we should at least limit the amount of time we spend praying in this way—that it’s O.K. to pray in this way, but only if it’s a life-and-death emergency, not for trivial things.

Brothers and sisters, I have often fallen victim to this same way of thinking. But I’m telling you right now: It’s completely wrong! It flies in the face of Jesus’ own words about prayer in today’s scripture! We must get over the idea that there’s some “right way” of praying, and until we sort it all out, let’s not bother God with our prayers!

I’m convinced that one major obstacle to developing the kind of prayer life that Jesus wants us to develop, and praying consistently and regularly the way Jesus wants us to pray, is believing that we’re doing it wrong!

Here’s the good news: There’s no wrong when it comes to prayer. One Christian thinker I admire, Richard Foster, has written a lot on the subject, and he put it like this: “In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.”[1] Isn’t that the most liberating thing you’ve ever heard about prayer? In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer. You know it’s true, right? Listen, obviously that small child’s drawing isn’t a Rembrandt—but I’ll bet Rembrandt’s parents treasured his imperfect, stick-figure drawings when he was a child almost as much as his grown-up masterpieces!

Here’s another way of making the same point: If you’re worried about praying incorrectly—if you’re worried about doing it wrong—let me set your mind at ease by saying this: You are doing it wrong! Objectively speaking, your childish little stick-figure prayer is, in fact, horrible. Let’s face facts. But here’s the good news: it doesn’t matter to God! He wants you to pray anyway! Listen to Richard Foster again: “The truth of the matter is, we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives—altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture.”[2] Amen!

In other words, we live by grace, and we pray by grace. And God wants to give us what we ask for, not because we say all the right words with the right spirit, but because he’s our gracious, perfectly loving heavenly father. That’s also what Jesus teaches us in today’s scripture: He wants us to call God “our father.” He wants us to think of God as our father!

I mentioned earlier holding my sweet baby girl in my arms, feeding her, rocking her to sleep. For purely selfish reasons—namely, I wanted to go back to bed and get some sleep—I didn’t like when I put her back in her crib and she started crying. But even I, imperfect father that I am, in all my human weakness and sin, would do anything necessary to give this child what she was crying for. And sometimes it’s difficult to figure out what a baby is crying for. But we parents will not give up until we figure it out, right?

If what Jesus is saying in today’s scripture is true, we are like a baby in a loving parent’s arms—in fact, we are helpless, vulnerable, dependent, self-centered children in the arms our loving heavenly Father. If you’re a parent, you know how you felt holding your baby in your arms. You know that strong, powerful bond of love that connects you to your child! You know that that child is not going to do anything to break that bond of love. Amen? Amen? Sometimes we get this crazy idea that God loves us, his children, less than human parents love their children. Where does that idea come from?

No, you and I are like babies in our loving Father’s arms. If you’re a child of God in your loving Father’s arms, say Amen! If you’re a child of God in your loving Father’s arms, say Thank you, Jesus! If you’re a child of God in your loving Father’s arms, say Hallelujah!

We are children in our loving Father’s arms, and God, who is love, just couldn’t love us more than he does! Think about that next time you pray. We children cry a lot, and often we don’t know what we’re crying for. But our Father does. And even as we imperfect and sinful parents will do anything to give our children what they really need, so our perfect, and perfectly loving, heavenly Father will give us what we need. Amen?

Hasn’t he proven his love time and time again? Didn’t he prove it most convincingly of all when he came to us in his Son Jesus and suffered and died for us on the cross—in order to rescue us from sin and death and make us whole? And make us his beloved children?

[1] Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco: 1992), 8-9.

[2] Ibid., 8.

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