Sermon 05-26-19: “Permission to Pray with Power”

In today’s scripture, Jesus encourages us to pray bigger and bolder prayers than many of us are comfortable praying. What prevents us from praying the way we should? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: Luke 11:1-13

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We learn more about the prayer life of Jesus from Luke’s gospel than any other gospel. For example, all four gospels describe the Spirit’s descending on Jesus after he was baptized by John, but only Luke adds the detail that the Spirit came upon Jesus while he was praying.[1] Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe Jesus’ call of the twelve disciples, but only Luke tells us that Jesus had been up all night praying before he called them.[2] Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Messiah, but only Luke tells us that it happens after Jesus had been praying by himself.[3] 

And again, those same three gospels describe the Transfiguration, but only Luke tells us that this miracle occurred while Jesus was praying.[4] All four gospels describe Peter’s three denials of Jesus, but only Luke tells that because Jesus prayed for Peter in advance, Peter’s faith did not ultimately fail, and that he would later be used by God to do great things for the kingdom.[5]

Luke emphasizes the priority that Jesus placed on prayer—and shows Jesus doing it again and again. And here’s what I want us to consider: Jesus was God in the flesh; fully human but also fully God. He was the only begotten Son of the Father; he was perfect and sinless in every way. He enjoyed a more intimate relationship with his Father than any human being who ever lived. Yet when he walked this earth he needed to rely on prayer the same way we do. Doesn’t it go without saying that if even the perfect, sinless only begotten Son of God needed to pray, how much more do we sinners need to pray?

Yet as you hear these words, many of you—perhaps most of you?—are feeling convicted, or even guilty: “Prayer is so hard for me,” you think. “I know I don’t pray enough. My prayer life isn’t anywhere close to what it should be.”

If that describes you, don’t fear. Don’t feel discouraged. Don’t feel guilty. Jesus’ words in today’s scripture are nothing if not encouraging! And they are meant to inspire all of us to pray more! And I want to explain why in this sermon.

I hope you’ve seen one of the greatest movies ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life. If so, you probably remember the scene in which George Bailey, the character played by Jimmy Stewart, says a prayer. He’s in the bar on Christmas Eve. He’s in trouble. His hapless Uncle Billy has lost an $8,000 bank deposit, which the authorities believe George has embezzled from his Building and Loan. Since George has no ability to pay the money back, he fears that he’ll soon be arrested. His life is in ruins, or so he thinks. And so he prays: “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man,” he says. “But if you’re up there, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope, O God.” George knows he’s not worthy to ask for anything, and he feels ashamed to be asking God to do anything for him. 

And the premise of his prayer is this: If he were a praying man, then… then… he would be worthy of asking his Father for something. I mean, sure, we all know that God would gladly answer the prayer of Donna Reed, his wife. Why wouldn’t God do something good for her? She’s wonderful. She’s sweet. She’s faithful. The movie opens with her praying for her husband! She deserves a miracle from God. Not George Bailey!

See, I believe we secretly or not so secretly buy into this premise. One reason we don’t pray like we should is because we don’t feel worthy to pray. Praying is for all those other, saintly people we know. Not for ordinary sinners like us. The less we pray, the less worthy we feel. The less worthy we feel, the less often we pray! It’s a vicious circle.

But I need you—and me—to hear some really good news, which I say with the full confidence of the gospel of Jesus Christ: This idea—that we need to make ourselves worthy before we pray—is absolutely wrong! Look at this crazy parable Jesus tells in verses 5 though 8. What this man asks of his neighbor—to get out of bed in the middle of the night and fetch him some bread for an unexpected guest—is completely inappropriate. He’s asking too much of his friend! It’s midnight. It’s a small house; the family slept in close quarters back then. If the man gets up to get bread for his friend, he’ll wake the whole family—and what if you wake up a sleeping baby? But maybe it doesn’t matter because this man’s knocking and shouting is going to end up waking everybody up anyway! Besides, why is the man’s pantry empty in the first place? If feeding an unexpected guest were so important that you would wake up your friend in the middle of the night, then it ought to be important enough for you to make sure your pantry well-stocked with bread in the first place… you know, just in case of emergency.

So this man was wrong for doing what he did. Some translations say he’s shameless—which means he ought to be ashamed of himself, he ought to feel embarrassed to do what he does—but he does it anyway.

Yet somehow Jesus says, “Be like him! Pray like that! Be as shameless as this man when it comes to prayer.” Of course you’re unworthy to pray. Of course you don’t deserve to ask God for anything. Of course you have no right to expect God to give you anything. But do it anyway! 

Why does Jesus say this? I mean, how can we be so bold? Well… Jesus has already told us in verse 2: The most important fact about a Christian’s relationship with God is this: God is our Father. And we are his beloved children. Consider how young children ask their parents for things: Boldly! Audaciously! Without a thought to how expensive their request might be! Fully expecting their parents to meet their request. Think about it: By the time a young child is able to form the words to ask their mother or father for something, they’ve already accumulated a massive debt: Doctor’s visits before and after they’re born; hospital bills; room and board; insurance; clothing; furniture; diapers; extra childcare or babysitting—not to mention time! Parents sacrifice so much of their time for the sake of having and raising children! Lack of sleep! Worry! So much worry! The nerve of a child to ask his parents for anything else! 

But young children don’t care! They do it anyway! And when they do—assuming they need it, or it’s good for them, or if at least it won’t hurt them or hurt us if they get it, and we can afford it, well… we parents are more than happy to give our children what they ask for. 

Since we are God’s little children through faith in Christ, we ought to be bold enough to act like little children! Ask our Father for what we need, and keep on asking, expecting him to give it to us!

Because make no mistake: Jesus is telling us that God will gladly intervene to do things for us when we prayeven supernatural things, miraculous things if necessary—that God would not otherwise do if we don’t pray! God’s Word is clear on this point: There are blessings that you and I are missing out on right now because we are failing to ask for them! “You do not have,” the apostle James says, “because you do not ask.” You do not have because you do not ask.[6] Do we have the faith to take God at his word? Do we take God’s Son Jesus at his word? Is Jesus telling the truth here? Do we believe him?

Does our prayer life reflect the fact that we believe him? 

Look again at the parable. Verse 8: “I cannot get up and give you anything,” the friend tells the man. This cannot be done. What you are asking is impossible. I cannot do this. But that’s not true, is it? This neighbor can get up, and he does. In the same way, there may be a million reasons why the thing we’re praying for cannot happen. Common sense, logic, life experience scream at us, “Don’t bother praying for that… it’s too much… it’s too difficult.” 

But “no,” Jesus says. “Pray for it that difficult thing… and keep on praying for it until God tells you to stop praying for it. Because impossible as it seems, God can make it happen!

You probably heard last weekend what happened during the commencement speech at Morehouse College. A billionaire investor named Robert F. Smith told the 396 young men in his audience that he was going to pay off all of their student debt. That’s good news for the students, for the parents of the students… You know who it’s not good news for? Every other commencement speaker in America! Because they will never top the speech that Robert Smith gave! They’re going to have to begin their speech, “Let me just say up front, I’m not going to be paying off your debt. I hope that’s O.K.! Instead I’m just going to talk for the next 30 minutes! How about that?” 

But when I heard about Robert Smith’s incredible act of generosity, I thought, “I’ll bet someone was praying—some faithful Christian in the student body, or some faithful mother, father, aunt, uncle, or grandparent. Someone was looking at their massive student debt, and was praying boldly and persistently, asking God to work some kind of miracle to help them pay it off. And look what God did!

Or is that too big of a miracle for God to pull off? “That cannot happen!”—or so our common sense tells us. Yet it did happen!

But the moment I tell you that we need to stretch our faith and ask our Father for bigger, better, and bolder things is the moment I have to deal with the difficult question of unanswered prayer. Maybe we didn’t get a serpent when we asked for a fish, or a scorpion when we asked for an egg, but we also didn’t get a fish or an egg, either. So is Jesus telling the truth?

By all means… But we need to interpret Jesus’ words in light of the rest of God’s Word, including what Paul tells us in Romans 8:26: “we do not know what to pray for as we ought.”[7] We simply can’t foresee all the myriad consequences that would result from God’s giving us what we ask for. Only God can. So, sure, we may ask for what we think is going to be a fish or an egg, but it would end up being a serpent or a scorpion to us or to someone else—because if we got the thing we were praying for, it would hurt us, or hurt others.

But don’t be discouraged: After Paul says that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought,” he writes, “but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words,” and he “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”[8]

So… while it’s true that we don’t always get what we pray for, there is Someone we know whose prayers on our behalf are always answered, without fail, every time. Indeed, this Person’s prayers are always effective, because—get this!—he always knows exactly what we need, even more than we know what we need. And unlike us, when he prays, his prayers for us are always perfectly consistent with God’s will and God’s plan for our lives.

That Person is none other than the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, who is God himself. To say the least, God the Father will always answer the prayers that God the Holy Spirit prays for us. As strange as it is to say, God always answers God’s prayers. And God’s Word promises that the Holy Spirit is always at work in our lives, praying for us through our prayers. 

And what is the Spirit praying for us? What does the Spirit want for us? Only… the very best! 

The Holy Spirit is always praying that God will give to us not something that would be nice, something that would be pretty goodbetter than nothingnot bad… No! The Bible says that the Holy Spirit is praying for something that is the best for us! 

And you say, “Wait! Why is God’s best for me not as good as God’s best for that other guy?” And you’re tempted to feel jealous. But how do you know what’s best for you? You’re not living that other person’s life, and he’s not living your life! If God gave you that other person’s “best,” it might prove harmful to you. If God gave you, for instance, that person’s salary or job title or possessions or accolades, it might go straight to your head; you might become conceited; you might start trusting in money and possessions for your happiness instead of God. You might make shipwreck of your faith. Only the Lord can know what will happen.

The Lord wants you to trust that he’s giving you what’s best for you.

We got a puppy last weekend, the cutest little English Springer Spaniel you’ll ever see. His name is Ringo. To say the least, Ringo does not like being in his crate at night while we’re sleeping. And he let’s us know it, too! At all hours of the morning! If it were possible, I’d want to tell Ringo something like this: “I know you think that this crate is the worst. You’re begging me to let you out, so you can sleep in my lap. I’m not ignoring you. I hear your anguish. I hear your pain. But I’m much smarter, much wiser than you, doggy. I know that you need to learn how to put yourself to sleep at night. Once you learn that, you’ll get more sleep, you’ll be happier, you’ll be more independent. Your owners will be happier. And you’ll enjoy more freedom later on in life. So while I’m saying ‘no’ to you at this moment, it’s only because I’m saying ‘yes’ to something better further down the line. I’m saying no because I’ve got something better for you in the future than you’re able to imagine right now.”

If you are a Christian, this is what it means when our Father tells us no.

Listen… I’ve often heard it said that God answers every prayer in one of three ways: “yes,” “not yet,” or “no.”

But in light of what I’ve just been saying, I’d rather put it like this: God answers our prayers in one of three ways: “yes,” “not yet,” or “I’ve got something better.”

I’ve got something better. I’m going to show you something better. Just trust me!

Pastor Tim Keller, in his many sermons on prayer, puts it like this: “God will either give us what we ask for, or he’ll give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows.” I like that! But notice what Keller doesn’t say: He doesn’t say that God will give us what we would have asked for… you know, if only we’d bothered to ask! None of the Bible’s many promises about the power of prayer apply when we don’t pray at all! The Holy Spirit prays through our actual prayers, not through our good intentions to pray! It’s true our Father won’t give us a scorpion if we ask for an egg, but he may not give us anything at all if we don’t ask!

So we ask him! And we keep on asking! Amen!

1. Luke 3:21

2. Luke 6:12

3. Luke 9:18

4. Luke 9:28-29

5. Luke 22:32

6. James 4:2 ESV

7. Romans 8:26 NLT

8. Romans 8:26-27 ESV

2 thoughts on “Sermon 05-26-19: “Permission to Pray with Power””

  1. Very good sermon. I’ll make an effort to pray more! The only question I have for you is some of those “other verses” that deal with prayer. Four in particular. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” “Treat your wives well so that your prayers be not hindered.” “You ask and you receive not, because you are praying for things you lust after.” “The fervent prayer of a RIGHTEOUS man avails much.” I do certainly agree with you that NONE of us “measure up” to being worthy of having God answer our prayers, and that we should pray in all events, whether worthily or unworthily! However, I must admit that sometimes I feel a bit discouraged as to my prayers when I consider verses like the ones I just mentioned.

    1. In the original draft of the sermon, I was going to say something about the Lord’s Prayer, and how Jesus teaches us to call God “Father,” to hallow his name, and to ask God to do things for us BEFORE we even get around to asking for forgiveness. My point is, the sins we’ve committed since the LAST time we asked forgiveness are not obstacles to our relationship. But I decided I wouldn’t have time to make that point without giving the impression that “sins are no big deal.”

      Obviously, they are a big deal. And our sins impede our prayers to some extent. But we must remember that Jesus directs these words to sincere, born-again disciples. (I made that point explicitly in my sermon.) God may “discipline” us, which may be reflected in the success or failure of our prayers, but he does so because we are his beloved children for whom he wants only the best—the “best” in some cases will be NOT giving us what we ask because of our sin.

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