It's About the Prayer, Not the Answer


A sermon on Luke 11: 1-13

(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here)

Do you all remember the old Garth Brooks song Unanswered Prayers? (It was very popular back when I was in High School, so it has a certain nostalgia for me).

If you don’t know it, the song tells the story of running into an old high school flame later in life, after marrying someone else. The song recalls the desperate, persistent prayers of teenage longing for that first love, but the point of the song is that it’s a GOOD thing those High School prayers were not answered. As the chorus repeats: “Some of God’s greatest gifts, are unanswered prayers.”

I like the song. It’s relatable, and singable, and it tells a sweet story of appreciating what we have. It’s also a neat and tidy way to deal with the elephant that stomps into the room when we hear today’s gospel reading:

“Ask, and it will be given to 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.” (Luke 11:9-10).

It sounds like a pretty great promise … except, we all know that it’s not always true. We don’t always get what we ask for in prayer; or find what we are looking for. Sometimes we stand knocking, and knocking, and knocking… and it doesn’t seem like anyone is even on the other side of the door.

And so, of course, we want to know “why?” Why, when Jesus seems to be promising his followers that their prayers will be answered… why doesn’t God keep that promise?

Garth’s answer has the virtue of simplicity: sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers, because God knows better than we do what we really need. It’s an answer that defends God’s character in the face of unanswered prayers. It keeps God BOTH good and all-powerful. God gives us what we need, not what we ask for.

In some cases, I think that explanation is absolutely right. My biggest unanswered prayer from High School was that my parents’ marriage wouldn’t fall apart. But despite all my prayers, and all my desperate efforts to moderate their conflicts, the truth was, their marriage was a bad one. It needed to end. And while I’m not exactly grateful for the trauma of being a child of divorce, I can thank God for not answering my prayer. It really was for the best.

But I also know, from my own experience, that sometimes unanswered prayers can’t be explained away so easily. Sometimes the perspective of years doesn’t offer us the solace of seeing how God knew what we really needed all along. It’s been twenty-three years since my prayer for my Dad to survive his depression went unanswered. And his death still breaks my heart. I still wish God would have answered that prayer and saved my dad.

And I know I’m not alone. Many of you also carry deep pain in your lives from unanswered prayers. Or you are living now with the pain of knocking, and knocking, and hearing no answer.

And in the face of those experiences, the wisdom that a county-music star gained from an encounter with his High School crush… it doesn’t seem like quite enough. We look at what sounds like a promise to answer our prayers, and we look at our own experiences of unanswered prayers, and they don’t seem to match. And – of course – we want to know WHY?

I wish I could answer that question. Unfortunately, I don’t think this gospel teaching offers us an explanation of unanswered prayers. This scene is not presenting a defense of God’s character in the face of unanswered prayers, much as we might want it to.

But that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer us. Just because Jesus isn’t explaining unanswered prayers, doesn’t mean he has nothing to teach us about prayer. Rather, his teaching offers to reshape the way that we approach prayer.

Jesus disciple asks him, “Lord, teach us to pray” and that is what Jesus does. He teaches them to pray… and that teaching isn’t about prayer in the abstract. It’s not a master class in how to pray effectively… how to get what you ask for. It’s about how to be someone who prays.

Jesus teaches his followers to pray in three ways: with a model prayer, and then with a parable, and then will an assurance about the one to whom we are praying. And while these three teaching methods are very distinct, they have a common theme. See if you can hear what it is…

First, comes the model prayer: “When you pray, say (this)...”

The prayer is probably familiar, although, not to the word. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is a bit different than Mathew’s which is more closely linked to the Lord’s Prayer as it has been codified in Christian worship.

But more important than the specific nuances of Luke’s version of this essential prayer is the basic structure, which all versions of the prayer have in common: The prayer begins by naming God as Father – as one with whom we have an intimate, trusting relationships – and by offering God honor.

Then, the prayer moves to petition – asserting that in the realms of our daily needs, and our spiritual status, and our strength to endure difficulty, we need God’s intervention.

Just that brief format for prayer is a rich and powerful teaching, but Jesus moves right along to a parable that gives us a different angle on what it is to pray.

In the parable the disciples are asked to imagine finding themselves in a difficult position. A friend shows up, late at night, in need of hospitality, and they have nothing to offer. In ancient near-eastern culture, hospitality is paramount, so food MUST be provided. It is a source of shame for the host to have nothing to give, and so, he goes – as a desperate petitioner – to a neighbor to beg some bread.

The neighbor isn’t very enthusiastic about getting up in the middle of the night. He wouldn’t do it just out of neighborly feeling… but he will give the bread, in the end. Not so much because of the asker’s “persistence” (that’s a clumsy translation from the Greek). Rather, because of the man’s “shamelessness.” Because of, as one commentator describes it, “(his) lack of sensitivity to what is proper, a willful lack of concern about acquiring public shame.”[1]

The man that Jesus compares his disciples to is willing to publicly confess his needs, to say “I have nothing to give.” He is willing to own the shame for himself in order to get something for his visitor. And that willingness to own his own shame is what convinces the reluctant neighbor to help him.

Finally, Jesus offers a series of assurances that prayers will be heard.

He begins with the familiar passage of “ask, seek, knock” that invites the elephant of unanswered prayers into the room… But he adds another kind of assurance, an argument from their own experiences as loving parents (the same relationship – by the way – with which he told them to begin their prayers to God). He reminds them that they know how to give good gifts to their children.

But he offers that reminder in a peculiar way… “if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts…(Luke 11:13)". Jesus makes it a central element of his argument that his disciples – the ones he is teaching to pray – are evil! But even in their moral failings, they will meet their children’s needs.

So…did you hear the theme?

Fundamental to Jesus’ teaching on prayer is the recognition that our prayer is based in an awareness of our need, of our dependence. To be a person who prays as Jesus taught us, is to be a person who confesses our own vulnerability… who lets go of any self-satisfaction, or illusion that we can actually meet our own needs… who falls at God’s feet as a helpless child – knowing we can’t demand anything because of our own goodness, but we can present our need and trust to God’s goodness.

To be a person who prays, is to be a person who trusts God to respond to our needs.

On the surface, it’s the same message as the Garth Brooks song. Thanking God for unanswered prayers certainly affirms that God is trust-worthy. But the song is based on the premise that we don’t really need what we are praying for, and that’s why God doesn’t answer those prayers.

Jesus’s teaching goes deeper. It makes us confront the reality of our need. It forces us to set aside our belief in our own goodness, or our own capacity to meet the need at midnight without having to shame ourselves by confessing our lack. Jesus calls us to embrace our fundamental neediness, because that’s what breaks the chains of the self-sufficiency that hold us away from God.

That’s also what makes the unanswered prayers so painful. Because when we admit that we can’t fix what is broken in our lives or in the world, we feel incredibly vulnerable. And the danger of that vulnerability is that it scares us. It makes us afraid. And when we are afraid we act out of fear, not love.

But, that vulnerability that can drive us into fear, it’s true! We can’t fix the brokenness. Not through our own strength, and not by somehow forcing God’s action through prayer. That’s not what prayer is about.

But, if we can learn to pray as Jesus taught us, naming God as our loving parent AND the one with all the power... confessing that we cannot claim our own goodness OR meet our own needs. If we can learn to pray without worrying about the shame of owning our own brokenness and inadequacy.

Then – prayer is no longer about trying to get what we are praying for. It’s about forming us into disciples who truly trust our Loving God.

And that kind of trust… it changes everything… even the unanswered prayers.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Brian Peterson: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4119

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