Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Friend Who Wouldn't Quit (May 23, 2010)

If you grew up in the 70's like I did, you probably remember Godspell…or the song “Day by Day." It's the background music playing as Greg (Ben Stiller) goes shopping with his fiancé in the romantic comedy, Meet the Parents. Later, when they ask him to say grace in an awkward moment, this is what comes out of his mouth: "Oh, dear God, thank you. You are such a good God to us…So we thank you, O sweet Lord of hosts, for the smorgasbord that you have so aptly lain at our table this day, and each day. Day by day…. Day by day by day. O dear Lord, three things, we pray: to love thee more dearly, to see thee more clearly, to follow thee more nearly. Day by day, by day. Amen."

What makes that moment so funny is that we feel the discomfort and awkwardness of a guy who's trying to act "religious" in order to please his girl friend's family. Whatever we think about the song, it expresses an intimate friendship with God that many of us don’t feel we can authentically claim. In The Story of the Friend Who Wouldn’t Quit (Luke 11: 5-13) Jesus helps us see how such an intimate relationship is possible with the God who calls us his friends and invites us to come to him boldly and honestly. Here are three truths that characterize that friendship…

As God’s needy friends, we will boldly request his help. “And Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs" (5-8).

Jesus’ story is told in the form of a question: Can you imagine waking up a friend in the middle of the night to request some bread for an unexpected visitor who has come to your house? The fact is that you and I -- living in the 21st century -- can’t imagine knocking on someone’s door at midnight for a loaf of bread, when we could go down the street and buy it; or, if the market is closed, simply wait until morning! But in Jesus’ day this would have seemed like a legitimate request. Why?

Well, as Kenneth Bailey points out in his book, Poets & Peasants, a first century visitor might arrive at your door at any time because there were no phones or postal services. Nor would it be unusual for someone to arrive late because journeys were slow and, in the heat of summer, it was better to travel at night. The point is that it’s a situation he could not have planned for. Regardless of when a visitor arrived, it was expected that you would provide a meal, especially after a long journey. In this story, the host has run out of bread, (which is the knife and fork of a Middle Eastern meal)! He wasn’t asking for the whole dinner…just the knife and fork to eat it with.

One more thing: hospitality was the whole village’s responsibility, not just one family…and so this midnight request though inconvenient was really not that unusual. So Jesus asks if his listeners can imagine asking a neighbor for help in such a situation, and they would have said, “YES”. But, he goes on: Can you imagine that this friend of yours might not want to be bothered, that he would use the lame excuse that his children are in bed with him, or that he doesn’t want to unbolt the door (7)? As a listener who understands the sacred duty of hospitality, you would have said “NO WAY!” To refuse such a request would be unthinkable!

Jesus finishes the story saying that if this reluctant friend would get up and help you not because you are his friend, but “because of your persistence” (8), how much more will your heavenly father get up to help you when you simply ask. In other words, your heavenly Father is not reluctant but eager to hear your requests. God delights in my asking…both for myself, and for others – just as the friend who came at midnight asked not only for himself, but for his hungry friend.

Philip Yancey was asked a year ago by Time magazine how to pray during an economic crisis like the one we’ve been experiencing. He gave some good advice. You can begin, he said, by crying, “Help me!” For someone who faces a job cut or a health crisis or watches retirement savings wither away -- prayer offers a way to voice fear and anxiety. Yancey says, “I have learned to resist the tendency to edit my prayers so that they sound sophisticated and mature. I believe God wants us to come exactly as we are, no matter how childlike we may feel. The other part of “Help me!” is “Help me to learn from this catastrophe." Help me to see that you must be the foundation of my life. Because if I put my ultimate trust in financial security or in the government’s ability to solve my problems…I will see that foundation crumble.

If the first prayer in a crisis is “Help me!" the second prayer must be “Help them!” The same week that global wealth shrank by $7 trillion, Zimbabwe's inflation rate hit a record 231 million percent. In other words, if you had saved $1 million Zimbabwean dollars by Monday, on Tuesday it was worth $158. Yancey said, “This sobering fact leads me to the…most difficult stage of prayer in crisis: I need God's help in taking my eyes off my own problems in order to look with compassion on the truly desperate. …” [Philip Yancey, "A Surefire Investment," www.christianitytoday.com/ct (2-3-09)]. And so we boldly pray, “Help us Lord…and help us to help them too.”
As God’s real friends, our requests will proceed in the manner of a dynamic relationship. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened" (9-11).

If the first point of this parable and what follows is meant to encourage us to make requests of God, the second point is that our requests will proceed in the manner of a dynamic relationship. Prayer is often about asking, but it’s never just about asking, as if God was a cosmic bell-hop. Prayer is not mechanical like putting quarters in a coke machine, or ordering pizza for home delivery. Prayer is not a formula we have to figure out. It is communication between persons; it is about a relationship. Remember that Jesus says it is “because of his persistence [that] he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you….” Jesus encourages “perseverance” in prayer (The Greek word, anaeidea literally means, “shameless boldness"). He tells us to ask, seek, & knock (The present imperatives here convey the sense of continuous action in the present. Ask, and keep on asking...knock and keep on knocking. Why? Because prayer often involves patiently waiting...as in any relationship. We don't simply demand things from our spouse...we ask patiently, we wait, and we take into account his or her will and desires as well.

In other words, don’t play “doorbell ditch” with God -- a childhood game where you ring a doorbell and run. No, you have to knock and wait until the door is opened, until you get a reply and the matter is resolved, as in all real relationships. Does this mean that God will not answer our prayers until we have knocked long enough? Is God playing games with us? No, it means that prayer must take into account not simply our will and desires, but God’s will and desires.

By the way, thank God we do not always get what we want! If we did, as C. S. Lewis once observed, we would likely destroy ourselves (Work & Prayer, God in the Dock).” And remember that when God does want to give us what we want it will probably mean changes in us, and in other people…which often takes time.

Jesus teaches us one more thing about prayer in this parable which is truly breathtaking, and that is that God chooses to be moved by our prayers…and I find that exciting. God is so powerful, that he can also be flexible. The scriptures clearly teach that while God’s nature, identity, and over-arching purposes for humankind are unchanging, his intentions with regard to many particular matters that concern us is not inflexible. Case in point, in 2 Kings 20: 1-6 Isaiah tells Hezekiah that he will die; but the Lord hears his prayer for more time and adds 15 more years to his life. This week, a resident missionary at our church who works as the director of our International Student Ministry received an "Intention to Deny Request" from the INS regarding his green card application. Now I believe this is a call to prayer…not despair. I asked my congregation to join me in praying that the Lord might see fit to open the door and allow him to remain where he is helping us to build friendships and share the gospel with dozens and dozens of international students who live in nearby UCLA married student housing.

So, be encouraged! Your prayers do make a difference, and God is moved by them, because he has chosen to be moveable. Again, this flexibility and interactivity shows God’s greatness, not his weakness. As needy friends Jesus wants us to ask God for help. As real friends, Jesus wants us to come to God in the manner of a real dynamic relationship that takes into account not only our will and desires but God’s. Jesus’ story of The Friend Who Wouldn’t Quit has encouraged us to come to God and ask, and to ask boldly. After all, he is our Mighty Friend! Blessed with that knowledge, we’re ready to ask him for the best gift of all…

As our Mighty Friend, God’s desire is that we ask for and receive his greatest gift…the gift of the Holy Spirit. "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (12-13)!

Imagine the unimaginable, Jesus says: imagine that your son asked for a fish sandwich, and you threw a snake on his plate; or that your daughter asked for some egg salad, and you put a scorpion between two slices of bread! What father or mother would do such a thing? Many of us imagine God to be just like that or worse (which may tell us more about our own families than it does about God). Let's face it: we will never come to God boldly in prayer if we think he is cruel, distant or disinterested. Whatever your family history, God is your loving Father. He loves and wants to give you good gifts…and the greatest gift of all is his Holy Spirit.

Because it is the Holy Spirit who tells us the truth about our own brokenness, who draws us into a love relationship with the Father and the Son, and who is the very presence of Jesus dwelling within us, helping us to live like him. Jesus’ promise is that the one who seeks God’s Spirit, will receive it! “For everyone who asks, receives and everyone who seeks, finds.” Now as we think about receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit …I want to return to The Story of the Friend Who Wouldn’t Quit. Here Jesus gave us a picture of a needy friend who went to his Mighty Friend on behalf of a hungry friend.

As I was running around the park the other day I passed a woman I’ve seen before who suffers from schizophrenia. She was speaking loudly to herself and was disturbed. The first and second time I passed her I said nothing, but as I passed her the third time -- I spoke to her spirit. “God bless you!” She turned and looked at me and smiled. The fourth time, I stopped and said: “God bless you! Jesus loves you! Be filled with his Spirit!” Her eyes opened wide and she smiled at me, "Thank you! God bless you! I’ll see you the next time” she replied. That was the most rational thing I've ever heard her say. I know God’s Spirit touched her, and on that particular day, she was my hungry friend, and Jesus was calling me to come to him on her behalf.

Who is your hungry friend? God wants us to seek the Holy Spirit not only for ourselves but for others. Like the friend who came at midnight, he wants us to pray that those are sitting next to us would be filled with the Holy Spirit (see John 14: 15-17, 26; Galatians 5:22; 1 Corinthians 12:7; Romans 8:9; Acts 1: 7-8, 2:4, 4:31; Ephesians 5:18) that the Spirit would have the fullest control of their lives, and bless them with God’s peace. You may feel spiritually exhausted, discouraged, or simply hungry for more of what God has for you today. You may feel like giving up on hope and on God, but Jesus says, Everyone who asks, receives.” If you desire to be filled with the Spirit, than I encourage you to ask someone who knows the Lord to pray for you with the laying on of hands. I also encourage you to go to the Lord on behalf of a hungry friend this week. When we pray for the Spirit’s filling, when we ask for his love to be poured out on a friend, we too will be blessed. 
Thank you God that even if we feel like quitting you are the Mighty Friend who will never quit on us, who loves us, and who longs to give us the gift of your indwelling Spirit...day by day by day. And so we cry, “Come, Holy Spirit!” You reveal to us the truth of our own sin, and bring us from darkness into the light. We long for this. You are the Comforter and Counselor in all our troubles. We long for this. You breathe the mind and life of Christ into us so that we might live as he did. We long for this. You bring the gifts and power of God so that we might do the work of the kingdom: proclaiming and reaching, healing and blessing, equipping and sending. We long for this. Now, believing that all who ask, will receive -- we receive you, Holy Spirit, by faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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