Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lost and Found

Luke 15:1-10

It was “senior skip day” during my senior year of high school, and I was in Physics class, talking to my friend David. If you looked around the classroom, you would have seen six students present; two were sleeping, and the other four were engaged in various conversations. In front of the classroom, our teacher lectured. He had material he wanted to get through, and whether or not the few students who had not chosen to skip school wanted to listen was none of his worry. We simply weren’t listening.

Today’s scripture follows immediately after Jesus’ words: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 14:35b). The issue is that there are some who just are not listening to Jesus. The tax collectors and sinners are all gathering around to hear Jesus, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law are complaining.

In Jesus’ time a tax collector wasn’t just a despised IRS agent. Not only did a tax collector take your hard-earned money, but he did it for Rome. Rome required its conquered territories to pay them, and the way they got their money was by tax collectors, who would bid for the job and then get to keep everything they collected above that amount. So not only were they taking money, they were doing it for the despised Romans… and then some. They are a disgrace to their people, traitors even.

The problem was that Luke presents the tax collectors entirely positively. They continually hear Jesus’ words and act upon them. Tax collectors like Zaccheus, the wee little man, have become famous for how they responded to Jesus. Tax collectors have ears, and they are hearing Jesus.

It’s obvious that Jesus has something that they want – that they need. They are flocking to Jesus, which just makes the religious leaders grumble. They have been doing everything they can to keep Judaism pure, and here Jesus comes, “welcoming sinners and eating with them.”

One of our problems is that we don’t recognize ourselves in this scene. For example, many of us were raised to dress nicely for church, out of respect for God. This is a good thing. We who are Christians should want to give our very best to God, when it comes to the way we act, the way we use our money, the way we talk, the way we behave, our work ethic, and, sure, even the way we dress. But we should also ask ourselves the question: why am I doing what I’m doing? Two answers should emerge: to please God and to share Him.

If it’s for any other reason, especially if that reason is to show off (including to show people how holy you are) then it’s getting in the way of your relationship with God and it has become an idol for you. If you are more concerned with the way someone is dressed than with worshiping God, I suggest you are here for all the wrong reasons. Yes, if you are a Christian, please dress modestly, please don’t dress to distract, because we’re here for God, not for a fashion show, and church is not primarily about me or you. It’s about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The Pharisees knew and understood God’s law. They knew it was sinful to allow themselves to become polluted by the sinful world. They knew that to associate too closely with sinners was to risk becoming defiled themselves. This is true. However, they missed out on half of the covenant God made with His people; they were always blessed to be a blessing to the nations. How are the nations supposed to know God if they have no contact with God’s people?

So the religious leaders are muttering about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners. This plays itself out in churches across our nation every week, usually something like this: The youth ministry has a new, huge, exciting outreach where dozens of new kids come to the church. They don’t look like church kids. None of them is wearing a jacket and tie, and some of them are (gasp) wearing hats in the church building. They’re dressed in whatever young people are wearing today, which isn’t what we wore when we were young – we always looked perfectly respectable. Our styles never looked so horrible or disrespectful.

I’ve got news for you: ours were just as bad. I just hope people take lots of pictures so today’s young people can be as proud of their teenage style choices as I am of mine.

I was in a church building early on a Sunday morning a while back, and one of the church women was incensed. She was fired up mad. One of the teenagers there for a retreat was smoking outside the church. She wanted to pull the plug on the church’s participation and hosting of this retreat. How dare they! What she didn’t know was this young man’s story, which I had found out parts of the previous evening when I stopped to talk to him. At 16 years old, he was a recovering heroin addict. Yes, he still smoked, but God was transforming him.

You see, Jesus’ mission isn’t just to keep church people happy. Jesus himself said, “I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)

So Jesus turns everything on its head yet again. Tax collectors and sinners had been defined by not being among the righteous, as being objects of God’s wrath, as actually even deserving Hell, but now Jesus is presenting them as those to whom the Good News is aimed. They are the ones who are actually willing to repent, to turn from their sin and follow Jesus.

Contemporary America is one of the toughest mission fields in the world, because it is full of people who have “heard” the Good News but who haven’t appropriated it for themselves. It is full of people who have been inoculated from the Gospel by self-righteous, Pharisaical believers who have treated the outsiders, the marginalized, and even the poor entirely unlike Jesus treated them. Jesus ate with them, treating them as if they were his very family.

And so Jesus tells the religious elite a story. “Suppose one of you has one hundred sheep and loses one of them.”

Jesus puts them in the story, casting them as wealthy landowners. A normal family would have had between 5-15 sheep, so having 100 would mean they had considerable wealth. Having wealth certainly meant having God’s blessing. Now Jesus is talking their language! Notice that Jesus casts them as “owning” those 100 sheep. He is not saying that they are the under-shepherds, the dirty, stinky ones who take care of the sheep. These guys actually own the sheep.

Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? (Luke 15:4b) When the Pharisees and experts in the law hear this, they automatically would think of Ezekiel’s prophecy: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not the shepherds take care of the flock?” … “You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost…” (Ezekiel 34:2 and 4)

Through Ezekiel, God offered a stinging rebuke to the religious leaders of Israel. Jesus is shaming the religious leaders, demonstrating that He is the one who is acting as the shepherd, the one who is bringing back the strays and searching for the lost. The Pharisees are shamed because they don’t care about the lost.

And Jesus goes another step, showing the true character of the One who goes out seeking the lost: “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” (Luke 15:5-6)

The Pharisees aren’t celebrating the rescue of the lost. They are too upset about the character of the people Jesus is eating with. They’re upset that what they have is being diluted or polluted by people who don’t look the part. So Jesus finishes with the last zinger: I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.(Luke 15:7)

Jesus immediately tells another story, this time about a woman who loses a coin. The situation has escalated; before, the subject of Jesus’ story was a wealthy landowner. Now we find a poor woman, living in a windowless home (otherwise she would have had no need for a lamp). These coins would represent this woman’s meager life savings, certainly not much at all from the standpoint of the wealthy, but a whole lot for someone who has little.

And again, for Jesus there is no question –Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? (Luke 15:8b) Of course she does! Without question, she goes to every length to find what was lost, and when she does find it, it’s party time! (And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’- Luke 15:9)

And Jesus again offers the punch line: In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”(Luke 15:10) This story is not about a woman searching for a coin and then throwing a party when she finds it; it’s about God seeking the hearts of his wayward children. I always thought it was cool that the angels were throwing a party over each lost soul who returns to God, but that’s not what Jesus says. He says that there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels. Meaning someone in their presence is rejoicing. And that Someone is God Himself!

This is God’s character: one who continually seeks the lost and wildly celebrates over the recovery of the one person who had been lost. Jesus is justifying his mission, a mission to the marginalized, to the weak, to the poor, to the outsider

We have seen this mission in several of Jesus’ stories; when he told the parable of the banquet, the instruction was to invite those who couldn’t pay you back. When he told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man ended up in Hell for not showing hospitality to the poor beggar. Let me put it this way: outreach, service, and evangelism are not optional for the Christian.

God’s attitude toward sinners is grace and love. As most of us remember from John 3:16, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God seeks the lost, and when the lost are recovered, God celebrates. When one person repents, God throws a party!

How do we reflect God’s attitude? How do we respond to the lost? I recently watched a video from Penn Jillette, half of the duo Penn and Teller, in which Penn, who is an extremely outspoken atheist, told of a fan who gave him a Bible.

“If you believe that there’s a Heaven and Hell and people could be going to Hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward, how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them about it?  I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe it, and the truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”

He has a valid point: how much do we have to hate the world to not share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world that is on its way to Hell?

In Jesus’ two parables, he invites his audience to imagine they are in the story. Imagine you are the owner of 100 sheep and you lose one. Suppose a woman loses one of her ten coins. But at the end of each story, he goes back and changes the background. He has really cast God in the central role of each story. God is the owner of the sheep, the one who goes out in search of the one lost sheep. God is the poor woman who turns her house upside-down to find her one lost coin. And God celebrates over the one lost soul who repents. God rejoices.

Let’s think about it this way: our purpose on earth is to share God’s grace, to please God, and to bring Him glory. By sharing the Good News with others, we do all three of these.

So I ask you: what are you doing to share the Good News with others? Whose salvation is on your prayer list? The time is too short for us to play church. The time is too short for us to sit around and talk about it. The day is gone when we can just expect people to show up just because we have a church building and open doors. Churches are closing their doors all across our country, largely because we have neglected our responsibility to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. I am so glad that our church has begun to realize the necessity of focusing on programming for children and families – not necessarily just for church kids, either.

Do we want to be a church that wins people for Jesus Christ, or do we want to be a social club that exists for ourselves until we eventually die out? That is a serious question, and I don’t just want a knee-jerk response. Jesus began these parables by challenging, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” I imagine there are going to be people who don’t hear what God is telling you through this message. You’re thinking about all kinds of other things right now, and you don’t have in mind the things of God. You think evangelism is someone else’s job – it’s the church’s job. People around us are on their way to Hell, and we have the means to do something about it.

God has ordained the local church to be the primary tool for doing His will in this world. That is our call. It’s not up to someone else; it is our job. When we as a church begin to bicker about territory or furniture or worship style or space usage, then we have lost our purpose. In fact, all of the bickering that goes on within local churches grieves God.

The book of Revelation begins with several letters to the churches in Asia Minor. The letter to the church in Ephesus complemented them on many things, but in Revelation 2:4 we read this: Nevertheless I have this against you: that you have left your first love.

I love this church, and I don’t mean the building. I love the people here. We have a great group of people. Whenever there is a problem or a need, people from this church will step up to serve. Some of you give generously of your money to make sure that we can continue to do ministry. Some of you are always on the forefront of doing ministry; you see a need and you step out in faith to do it. Yet for many, you have lost your first love. People in our community are heading for Hell, while we hold the keys to the gates of Heaven in our pockets.

And we will be held accountable for what we do with those keys.

What can we do to better mirror God’s character?

We all have an assignment, and it all starts with prayer. Who here knows someone who doesn’t know Jesus? I have made this assignment before, but it’s time to do it again. If you know someone who needs Jesus, write their name on a post-it and bring it to the stage. Then write it on a second post-it and keep that somewhere that you will continue to see it and pray over that person. Prayer is our first line of offense against Satan. Pray for this person as if their life depended on it – because there is more at stake than their life.

Part two of your assignment is to spend time with God. You have to do that if you want to really know Him, not simply know of Him. Spend time listening. Spend time in the Word, asking the Holy Spirit to speak to you. Spend time praising Him. If you can’t find something to praise, ask Him to show you something to praise. Put yourself in a position to learn from and with others. If you need some help on this, there are multiple opportunities for spiritual growth, especially for the women of our congregation. Men, some of you need to step up and re-start our men’s group.

Part three of your assignment is to be intentional. Ask God to put you in situations where you can share the Good News. Then talk about what God is doing in your life. Offer to pray with your friend. Invite them to your community group. Serve intentionally in one of our outreach ministries, like the food pantry or Faith Weavers, or, if you don’t see us doing the ministry that you’d like to take part in, let’s talk about starting it.

And finally, join in the celebration as lost people, people who God loves dearly, come to know His saving grace.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What's Important?

Luke 16:19-31

“What happens after you die?” has been a popular topic of discussion for quite a while, recently it has hit the forefront with a popular book from a Minor Christian celebrity, a book that denies the existence of Hell. The point of the book is that a loving God wouldn’t send people to Hell. It would be great if that was true, because Hell is a terrible place of punishment and separation from God, and nobody wants to go there or for their friends to end up there, and a modern interpretation of who God is might suggest that a God who loves us so much wouldn’t want anyone to end up there, and if he doesn’t want anyone there, and since he is God, after all, he could make it so that nobody ends up in Hell.

The problem with this view, however, is that it doesn’t hold up under biblical scrutiny. Jesus Himself talks about Hell, and when he does, he is clear in its existence.

The context for today’s parable is that Jesus was teaching his disciples and the Pharisees were listening in and got mad at what he was teaching. Not surprising, since he was teaching on money (see Luke 16:13b). If you want to get church people riled up, al you’ve got to do is talk about money. So the Pharisees, who loved money (Luke’s words, not mine), got mad and sneered at Jesus, so he turns to them. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke 16:15)

So Jesus continued to teach, and now he aims a story at the Pharisees, who loved money. He begins his story with a rich man. Now this isn’t just any rich man; this guy is ridiculously rich. The wealthy of Jesus’ time dressed in fine linen; the white garment is enough to establish him as belonging to the wealthy class, but the purple was over the top. It was a long and expensive procedure to dye fabric, and purple was chiefly worn by nobles and the extremely wealthy. So the “rich man” is described as wearing what only the richest of the rich would wear.

Contrast that opulence with Lazarus, who is covered in sores. Because of his sores, he would have been considered unclean – and even cursed by God.

The rich man lived daily in luxury. Where it says he lived in luxury every day, this is descriptive of the feasts he had daily. Many of you are familiar with the parable of the prodigal son – when he returned home, his father killed the fatted calf to celebrate the return of his wayward son. This kind of meal could feed up to a hundred guests. The rich man Jesus is talking about… he ate like that every day.

Lazarus, on the other hand, longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. In researching this passage, I found out that in an over-the-top feast like this rich man threw daily, they would use loaves of bread essentially like napkins, and when they were done with them, they would throw them on the floor. And like the prodigal son, who longed to eat the pods he fed to the pigs, Lazarus went hungry. Instead, he is licked by dogs. Dogs in the Bible are not man’s best friend. They are always contemptible creatures.

The rich man lived in luxury; his house was in a gated compound, while Lazarus was homeless. He didn’t even choose to sit at the rich man’s gate; scripture says he was laid there. So not only does he have no home, but he doesn’t even have the means to choose where he begs.

Jesus continues the contrast between the two men in their deaths. When the rich man dies, he is buried. To be denied burial in Jewish culture was tantamount to bearing the curse of God, while Romans thought that to leave a corpse unburied would have bad repercussions on the afterlife. Jesus does not give any details about Lazarus’ burial, and I don’t think it’s by accident.

Speaking of what Jesus didn’t say about Lazarus, I want to bring to your attention what Jesus didn’t say about the rich man. Jesus never accuses the rich man of getting his money by theft, extortion, or any other dishonest means. Jesus never accuses the rich man of using his money for anything dishonest. In fact, everything would suggest that it would be the rich man, not Lazarus, who ends up in paradise.

So why would this rich man end up in Hell? I think he gives us a pretty good idea with his after-death conduct. Remember what God told Samuel when He was sending Samuel to anoint a king over Israel? “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7b. There is nothing of the rich man’s appearance that would suggest he should end up in torment, but his actions speak louder than words. Even in Hell, this rich man is unwilling to give up his status. His circumstances haven’t humbled him whatsoever. In a former church, I had the opportunity to visit a young man in jail. He had been arrested for a crime he had most certainly committed, and he had lost his work-release job for failing a drug test. Yet he continued to protest that he was innocent. It was all someone else’s fault. If he hadn’t been drinking… the drug test was faulty; he wasn’t doing drugs – he was just in the car with the drug users; he didn’t have anywhere else to eat his lunch, that’s why he was with them. The rich man is acting like this young man. He’s in torment, and he’s making his demands.

He is demanding the rights of God’s chosen people, calling Abraham “Father Abraham,” In Luke 3, John the Baptist comes, calling the crowds to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8-9) The fruit that we bear is important because fruit only comes from fruit trees, and every fruit tree necessarily bears fruit. Otherwise it’s no longer a fruit tree but firewood. You can tell what kind of tree it is by the fruit it bears. And Jesus says that his family (meaning the family of God!) is open to all who hear and obey God’s Word.

Why might the rich man not be included? Did you notice that he calls Abraham “Father” but he still wants Abraham to do his will? When Jesus teaches us to pray, it’s “Thy will be done” – not our will.

Furthermore the rich man’s demand is that Abraham send Lazarus, whom he never served in life, to serve him in death, to make him feel better. He is denied for two reasons. First, because Jesus reversed the assumed order of things. Listen to Jesus’ words from Luke 6:20-26.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:20-26)

Simply by virtue of being born where we were born, we have more resources and wealth than most of the world. There are people who live on $1 a day, who never know when they are going to have a meal. Why were we born here? Why were they born “there”? Jesus is saying that those who have suffered here on this earth will receive comfort, wealth, satisfaction, and joy in the life to come. Heaven will be unbelievably wonderful, incomparably good.

But Jesus makes it clear – the rich have already received their reward.

The rich man is also the victim of his own choices. He has chosen to live a lavish life of luxury without regard for the plight of Lazarus or anyone else. And the truth is, our lives mean something. The choices we make today have eternal consequences.

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ (Luke 16:25-26)

So the rich man has his first bout of conscience, begging Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house. (Luke 16;27-28) He still thinks of Lazarus as lower than himself. Even his place of torment has not humbled him. C.S. Lewis suggests that the doors of Hell are locked… from the inside. That those who would turn and accept God’s free gift of grace could do so, but because of their selfish pride, they do not, even when the result is pain. I don’t know if I can accept Lewis’ view, but I am absolutely certain that Hell is real.

It could be hard to understand how someone could sit in Hell and fail to acknowledge God, but I’ve seen plenty of people on earth, in trying situations, railing at God. After September 11th, there were plenty of people in churches… and plenty of others shaking their fists, angry at God for “allowing this to happen.”

But Jesus’ parable really doesn’t have to do with getting out of Hell. What it does have to do follows in the final dialog between the rich man and Abraham. The rich man’s family, who were presumably just as Jewish as he was, needed warned. It was obvious to the rich man that they were not headed for Heaven. If they continued on their current path, they would end up joining him in Hell. Won’t somebody tell them?

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ (Luke 16:29-30)

They have no excuse. They have the Law and the Prophets, but they have not listened and obeyed, and thus, they are not included in God’s family. And with a final denunciation he prophesies (Luke 16:31) “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

How true is this? Our culture is full of people who will accept Jesus as a good teacher but who reject what he taught. We can empirically prove to someone that Jesus existed and even rose from the dead, but they refuse to take Him at His Word.

Friends, these words Jesus spoke were not spoken to unbelievers. They were not spoken to pagans or heathens. They were spoken to the Holiness movement of Jesus’ time. Someone has been complaining about sermons that have made them feel uncomfortable - talk about making people squirm! Here Jesus is, suggesting that the Pharisees were on their way to Hell, not because they were on the margins of society, but because they loved the wrong things. Jesus said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke 16:15)

I’ve been struggling with this passage all week long. I’ll be honest when I tell you that this has been one of the most difficult passages to preach. One thing I always try to do in every message is to answer the “so what” question – what does this mean to me, and what do I do about what I’ve heard? Honestly this is a struggle.

Jesus’ point in this parable is that he turns the values of our culture upside down, but when I look around, I often see a church culture that values the same old things. We value comfort. If that wasn’t true, I wouldn’t still be hearing about the old pew padding. We value the familiar. If that wasn’t true, there would never be any complaints when someone changes the order of worship or the placement of furniture. We value money. If that wasn’t true, we would have to go looking for ways to spend it all. I would never have to mention the word “tithe” because people would come back saying, “God only required a tenth? That’s it?” The sad thing is there are a lot of people in churches who are not Christians. There are a lot of church people who have put their trust in something other than Jesus Christ, who place their worth in the things of this world. Jesus Himself says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7: 21-23)

He says this to reinforce the truth that we will be known by our fruit. This week is a good time to stop and evaluate your fruit. You can do this various ways; I’d like to suggest a few. If  you’re not very adventurous, simply ask yourself, “Who has come to love Jesus more because of what I’ve said or done?” or “Are people closer to Jesus because of the things I say and do?” If you’re a little more adventurous or extroverted, ask someone who you trust enough to give you a true answer the same questions. And no matter what, ask the Holy Spirit. For truly the Holy Spirit is the One who grows the fruit.

If you get an answer that isn’t satisfactory, your responsibility is to find out what it is that is holding you back and to ruthlessly eliminate it from your life. Jesus said if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Don’t sit around and wait for someone else to do it for you. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you what is in the way of you giving your all to Him. 

The lesson of the rich man and Lazarus is two-fold. For the poor, the suffering, there is a reward, there is comfort. For the rich, those of us who have the word of the One who has come back from the dead, there is a mandate. Don’t wait until tomorrow; what we do right now counts. It means everything, and eternity hangs in the balance.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ask, Seek, Knock

Luke 11:5-13

I don’t specifically remember being taught to pray; it is something that my mom taught me when I was too little to remember. I do remember thinking that my cousin Chad was really spiritual because he used really grown-up language like “beseech” in his prayers. Even in modern times, there is confusion on how to pray, so Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray. The most well-known aspect of this teaching is the Lord’s Prayer. We pray this prayer all the time, but then we stop. When we look at the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s gospel, there is no break between the words of the prayer and the discussion that follows. In fact, the language suggests continuity rather than a break. “Then Jesus said to them” connects the former to the latter. 

So we have the Lord’s Prayer followed by the parable of the friend in need and the question to fathers, all strung together in one teaching.

Then Jesus said to them,“Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’  And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

 “So I say to you: 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; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 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 the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

After he gives what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus continues to teach on prayer. In studying this passage, I always understood the first part to be what Jesus teaches us to pray and the second part the how. What should we pray? Our Father… How should we pray? Like the friend who needs bread, with persistence and shameless audacity. If we demand enough, then God will finally give in and give it to us.

The problem with this is how this view affects our view of God. If we believe that God will only answer us if we continue to bother him with prayer, it leads to some dangerous conclusions. The first conclusion is that God is somehow distant from us and that he doesn’t really want to answer our prayers, but if we bother him long enough, he’ll finally relent just to get us off his back. The other conclusion is that if we don’t get an answer, it’s that we’re not praying hard enough. Again, the only problem with these views is that they aren’t biblical. So if that’s not the interpretation to this story, what is?

What Jesus is doing with this first parable is introducing a familiar scene to his audience. They would know what the cultural norm is and would have an expectation of how the parties involved are supposed to react. His framing of the story: “Suppose you have a friend…” is the same as if he started out with “can you imagine…”

Jesus asks, “Can you imagine turning away your friend in need?” This might put the scene into perspective: imagine your best friend lives next door to you, and in the middle of the night your phone rings – it’s your friend who explains that there has been an emergency and they want you to let their little one sleep at your house. Now, imagine the little one has slept over at your house before, in fact, let’s make the little one your grandchild. You even have a room set up for her. Now Jesus’ scenario might make the same kind of sense to us as it would have to his first century audience.

To provide hospitality was of paramount importance, and a friend is needing to do so. Your excuses have nothing to do with the situation; you have the means to give to your friend (notice that the excuses the homeowner gave were: 1) the door is locked; 2) we’re already in bed. He never says anything about not having bread. So Jesus offers the punch line in v. 8, admitting that the scene is preposterous. Of course the householder will get up and help his friend.

 There is a reason Jesus makes up this preposterous scenario: he is shaping prayer not so much in a “how to” but in a “to whom.” The key to prayer is not the words we use or our posture for prayer. The key to prayer is the identity of the Father to whom we pray.

The main idea of Jesus’ teaching on prayer is, again, not how we are supposed to pray. The main idea is who is this God we’re praying to, and how does he relate to us? So Jesus gives another hypothetical. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? (Luke 11:11-12)

I don’t think we need much translation from 1st Century Palestine to today; the very idea that Jesus suggests is ridiculous. Of course a father won’t give his son a snake or a scorpion when he asks for something to eat. The expected reaction is one of self-righteousness: of course I wouldn’t give my child something dangerous!

But Jesus puts us all in our place with his next comment: 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 the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13) What does he mean, we who are evil? Who does he think he is, calling the dads of the earth evil? If you get down to it, that’s a pretty good description of us. Without the Holy Spirit, we are unable to do anything good whatsoever. We are inherently selfish, and there is nothing we can do about it on our own.

One complaint I hear from anti-Christians is that most people are basically good. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. We live in a world, as John Stott put it, where a promise is not enough; we need a contract. Doors are not enough; we need to lock and bolt them. Law and order are not enough; we need police to enforce them. This is all due to man’s sin. (John Stott, Basic Christianity). This isn’t just “someone else’s sin” because, as 1 John 1:8 tells us “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”

Let me quote again from John Stott: “Our sense of failure depends on how high our standards are. It is quite easy to consider oneself good at high jumping if the bar is never raised more than waist-high.”

In the book The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence, a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in the 1600s, expressed that as far as the miseries and sins he heard of daily in the world, he was so far from wondering at them, that, on the contrary, he was surprised there were not more, considering the malice sinners were capable of. In other words, it’s not surprising that people are as bad as we are. What’s surprising is that we’re not worse, considering what we are capable of. Indeed, each and every one of us is capable of atrocities. And Jesus specifically points at parents.

Now I can understand that there are bad parents. Last Sunday I read an article in the front section of the Columbus Dispatch about one such parent:
CHICAGO — Raised in a $1.5 million home in Barrington Hills, Ill., by their attorney father, two grown children have spent the past two years pursuing a unique lawsuit against their mom. They accuse her of bad mothering and say she damaged them when she failed to buy toys for one and sent another a birthday card he didn’t like.The alleged offenses include telling her then 7-year-old son to buckle his seat belt or she would contact police, “haggling” over the amount to spend on party dresses and calling her daughter at midnight to ask that she return home from celebrating homecoming.Last week, an Illinois appeals court dismissed the case, finding that none of the mother’s conduct was “extreme or outrageous.” To rule in favor of her children, the court found, “could potentially open the floodgates to subject family childrearing to … excessive judicial scrutiny and interference.”In 2009, the children, represented by three attorneys including their father, Steven A. Miner, sued their mother, Kimberly Garrity. Steven II, now 23, and his sister Kathryn, now 20, sought more than $50,000 for “emotional distress.”Among the exhibits filed in the case is a birthday card Garrity sent her son, who in his lawsuit sought damages because the card was “inappropriate” and failed to include cash or a check.
Pretty tough upbringing, eh?

Jesus recognizes that there are times when we do good things, such as providing good gifts to our children, even if we fail to include cash or checks in birthday cards. Human parents wouldn’t think of withholding food from their children, instead giving them poisonous animals. And if humans, who are at root evil, can give good gifts to our children, how much more will our Heavenly Father, who is at root good, give the best gift?

Parents, who are sinful, can only give good gifts, but God, who is GOD, demonstrates his superiority over human as He gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask. This is the best gift; there is nothing else that even comes close. The gift of God Himself, living within us!

Finally we get to the most famous portion of this text, a portion I chose to take out of order. There’s a reason I skipped verses 9-10 until last. Listen to Jesus’ words: “So I say to you: 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; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10)

Because of who God is in his very character, a loving Father who gives His children the best gift, and because of His love for us and the promises He gives, he invites us to bring our requests to Him. God will give us what we need. Remember the context of this command; God isn’t a genie in a bottle, and we often have a lot of discerning to do in order to differentiate between wants and needs. We have generally seen our basic needs falling into one of four areas: food, clothing, medical care, and shelter, In a recent newspaper article, I read that American Baby Boomers are redefining basic needs. In a survey by MainStay Investments of 1,049 consumers aged 45-65, these were deemed as basic needs: an Internet connection: 84%; shopping for birthdays and special occasions: 66%; pet care: 51%; yearly family vacation 50%; weekend getaways: 46%; professional hair color/cut: 43%; children/grandchildren’s education: 42%; dining out: 38%; domestic travel: 35%; ordering takeout: 34%; movies: 30%.
The truth is, we get confused about our wants and our needs, primarily because we fail to recognize that our chief need is for God Himself. As God supplies our needs (and even some of our wants), He doesn’t do it indiscriminately! The purpose is always to draw us to Him. As we turn our attention to Communion, I’ll invite you to ask God, who gives the best gifts to His children, to give Himself to you.