11He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5And he 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; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And 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.’ 8I 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. 9“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. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!”
How do we pray? It is an interesting question, isn’t it? We all know how to pray, of course. When I have the occasion to teach mission team leaders who travel to far away countries to serve the Lord, I teach them the missionary prayer, which is especially appropriate when traveling to places with exotic cuisine: where you lead me, I will follow, what you feed me I will swallow. And I remember reading one time in a collection of nursery rhymes the prayer of a jealous child: as I lay me down to sleep, I ask the Lord my soul to keep and if I die before I wake, I ask the Lord my toys to break.
In some ways, it is a silly question, because most of us know how to pray. Most especially the disciples knew, for they had learned everything they knew about God from the mouth of Jesus himself. It is not as if they were clueless. But, to their credit, though they were a ragtag bunch, though they frequently messed up and missed what Jesus was talking about, the reason they were asking the question was not because they did not know, but because they wanted to do right.
And what Jesus said is one of the most popular, most well known bits in all of scripture, for it begins with the Lord’s prayer which we said earlier in the service and ends with knocking so that the door will be opened to you, seeking so that you will find.
What is not so well-known is what comes in between those two lovely pieces of scripture, and I guess I understand why, because there are few things in life more absolutely terrifying as a knock at the door in the middle of the night.
Has this happened to you? I remember once several years ago when Stacey and I were living in a townhome down LaVista towards Tucker, we awoke in the middle of the night to a loud crash . . .
It is terrifying, that noise in the middle of the night, because you don’t know who is behind the knock. It could be someone with a gun or a friend asking for bread. And it is only that call from below that says, “friend, I have unexpected company, throw me down some bread,” only that familiar voice that can begin to slow your heart rate, calm your breathing.
But even the familiar call is not enough, so although we know that God loves us and we love God, we are to pray insistently! Insistently! I am reminded of my time at pastors school this past week, in which we were able to spend good quality time with our clergy friends, several of whom, like us, have young children. We even got to spend a day at the end of the trip at the beach with our best friends in ministry who are a clergy couple serving in Rome, Georgia, and their son, Charlie. And I thought of this passage this week as I watched Charlie, who is almost two, bug his father as his dad tried to work on a sermon. “Dad. Dad. Daddy. Daddy. DADDY.” “What?!”
This is the story of the knock at midnight, of course. If you are persistent enough, if you knock long enough, you will receive your bread.
But. Be careful what you pray for, for if you are below knocking and your neighbor sticks his head out of the upstairs window and says, “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” and then you keep knocking anyway, you may well receive your bread, but let us imagine, just for a moment, the velocity with which that bread will come hurtling towards you. When knocking at midnight, I don’t think you ought to expect the loaves to arrive with bows on them, passed down wrapped in paper and gently handed over. If I am the man with the locked house and you are knocking on my door in the middle of the night, I should tell you that while I love you, deeply, if it is three in the morning and you are looking for bread, I am going to launch those loaves at you with some force so that you leave me to sleep! Be careful what you pray for, for you may well receive it!
I am reminded, too, of this week’s Old Testament lesson, the psalm, for it is, at its heart, both a remembering of the mighty acts of God and a prayer that those mighty acts continue, that the people of Israel might be restored. I have been thinking a lot about this idea of restoration because I am somebody who thinks a lot about the state of the church, not this congregation alone, but the big-C church, the church all over the world.
Y’all know the church in the United States is not in great shape. The prognosticators and pundits have told us that we are facing a death tsunami, that there is little to do but wait and watch the church die. Let me tell you, I find this kind of prophesy utterly foolish, for it does not take into account the fact that we worship a God who can deliver, who has delivered us before, who has delivered me from my own demons, my own *stuff*, and who can deliver all of us again, who WILL deliver the church because God has done it before and God promises us—promises us above all things!—that we worship a resurrecting God.
And I don’t know what you have heard about the Israelites, because some people don’t seem to think the Israelites believed in this kind of resurrection, but all you have to do is look to Psalm 85 to see that they not only believed it was possible, they believed God had done it already! God had restored the fortunes of Jacob, forgiven the iniquity of God’s people, pardoned all their sin, restored them. And now, the Psalm writer says, they were in need of restoration again. They had asked for it, God had given it, and here they were in need again.
Have you ever needed restoration? Have you ever been restored only to find that even then, you still needed God? I know I have. And this is the position the Israelites found themselves in, praying for restoration. We could do worse than to pray for restoration. I pray it for myself, I pray it for the church universal, I pray it for you and for the church that all of us make up.
. . .
But restoration is interesting, for it does not simply mean a return to the good old days. I believe it was the theologian Billy Joel who reminded us that the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.
Let me share this—and now I’m just talking, so you can dismiss this as the young naïve preacher spouting off if you want—but let me share with you that I am convinced that nothing is ever as good as we remember it being. You know what they say about hindsight. Humans are incredibly talented at wearing rose colored classes as we look back upon our histories, and we can lament where we are in life, or where the church is, or where our families are, but it is not as if things have always been peaches and cream and cupcakes and unicorns. We remember fondly, but not accurately, which is just fine in many ways, because I have no intention of dwelling on the pain in my past, on all the things I have had to overcome to get where I am.
But there is a danger as we pray, for when we pray for restoration, we ought to remember two things. One, restoration does not mean an exact replaying of what things once were, and thank goodness, for there are so many people we’ve missed along the way, so many rich experiences we have missed in the interested of going along. When we pray for restoration I have to think that God knows we don’t mean an exact return, because we’d rather not relive the difficult bits, we’d rather not miss out on the people we’ve missed out on before, and, after all, the world we live in is markedly different than it has ever been or will ever be. Yesterday’s situation does not fit today’s context. So, yes, let us pray for restoration, but not simply a replay of the past, and let us be open to the Holy Spirit who promises us in scripture that God is doing a new thing with us, even with these old tired bones, even with old traditions and carpet and sound equipment. God is doing a new thing.
The second danger of praying for restoration is that, I believe, this is one prayer that God always answers in the affirmative. Always. God always restores us so that we may more closely follow God, always restores us individually and corporately as the church, but of course restoration is not always what we expected it to be. The psalm says that the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase, not that the Lord will give us what we want. Restoration does not always mean that things will go as we hoped, or that there will not be significant pain involved in the restoring. I will remind you that once upon a time, those who spent decades praying for a king to deliver them were sorely disappointed when the messiah they finally received was hung on a cross to die. That story has a happy ending, of course. But it was not easy.
There’s a lesson there, for the church, and it is not that we ought not pray, nor that we should be scared of all that it is to come. I think the lesson is that God is with us, all of us, each of us, and that when we pray for restoration, when we knock and knock and knock at midnight, when we are persistent, restoration will come. We may well have it hurled at us a little faster and a little harder than we were expecting, but we will receive it nonetheless.
So be careful what you pray for. You just might get it. But, oh, what a what a privilege. What a privilege.