Have you ever earnestly prayed for something that ultimately did not come to fruition? How did this seemingly unanswered prayer make you feel? This week we will study Matthew 7:7-11 where Jesus instructs us to keep asking and seeking and knocking with confidence, because we approach God not on the basis of our performance or our spiritual track record, but solely on the basis of the sheer goodness of God the Father.
Matt will help us explore the truth that God hears all our prayers, and that God responds not with reluctance but rather with attention. It is in this understanding that we get to bring everything to God, and bring it to God often.
Highlighting two kinds of prayer to help us ask and seek and knock, our time in the Sermon on the Mount will help us dive deeper into our communal and individual prayer life.
I will pray about whatever is on my heart, the ordinary events of my day.
When my mind wanders in prayer, I will pray about whatever that is.
I will make a commitment to pray for people who don’t know God.
I will ask God to open the door to spiritual conversations with people who don’t know him.
We’re going to start today in Luke 11. It’s a similar passage as the one we’re at in the Sermon on the Mount. The one difference is — in Luke 11 Jesus starts with a story about a cranky neighbor. This is what he says: Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, “A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.” And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, “Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.” But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence. Luke 11:5-8 In our day you could go to a neighbor and ask to borrow something and normally a neighbor will say yes. But it’s nothing like Jesus’ day. Hospitality was a much higher value then. We need to walk through this a little bit to get what Jesus is driving at. He says someone arrives at your house. Of course, in those days there were no places to stop along the way for food — no chick-fil-a, chipotle or in-n-out burger. Giving and receiving hospitality were essential for survival. The hour of arrival was irrelevant. Even if it was midnight, the host has to provide the meal whether he wanted to or not, and the guest has to eat the meal whether the guest is hungry or not. That’s just the way hospitality worked. When a stranger came to someone’s house, that stranger was regarded not just as the guest of that home but as the guest of the whole village, so the meal had to be the best the village could offer. Now, here a guest arrives, and the host is not adequately prepared to feed him that kind of a meal. So Jesus said the host goes to the neighbor, and the host says, “A guest has arrived. I have nothing for him.” That doesn’t mean there was literally no food in the house. The host wasn’t starving. Do you ever hear someone say something like, “I have nothing to wear”? Does that mean literally “I have nothing with which to cover my body? I can only go to this event if it’s clothing-optional.” No, it means “I have nothing that won’t make me look like a fashion-challenged cheapskate.” This host is going to the neighbor saying, “I have nothing to serve this guest that will uphold the honor of our community.” Out of politeness he asks for just the minimum. He says, “Could I have three loaves of bread?” Bread in that day was not the meal. In a sense, bread was like the knife and the fork. They would have the main dishes in a pot, and then people would take a fresh piece of bread, dip it in, and that’s the way they would eat the meal. So the host here is asking his neighbor for just the minimum, kind of out of politeness, but with the understanding that the neighbor will offer everything that’s needed. He’s trusting the generosity of the neighbor. “I need to set forth the kind of meal that will not shame us as a community.” Now, if you were a neighbor, you wouldn’t hesitate at something like this. It would be an honor to be asked. It meant you were thought of as a person of substance and generosity in the community. Of course, this is going on publicly. Several people in the neighborhood who’d be able to hear would be listening in on this conversation. To say no would be to disgrace yourself before the whole village. Jesus says, now, imagine this happens — you go to your neighbor, and your neighbor says, “We’ve already bolted the door for the night. The kids are already in bed. They might wake up. I can’t do it.” These would be recognized by Jesus’ listeners as ludicrous excuses. And that’s the point. Grammatically, Jesus starts the story like this — “Can you imagine this happening? Can you imagine this?” The expected reply would be, “No, that’s unthinkable. It could never happen.” It’s so absurd they’d be chuckling over it. “It’s impossible.” Jesus says, “Okay, but for the sake of argument, pretend like it happens. What should you do?” He says, “Just stand there by the door. Don’t go home. Just stand there by the door and keep knocking, and your neighbor won’t be able to go back to sleep.” Eventually, Jesus says, he’ll respond. You know he will. If nothing else, if he won’t even do it because he’s your friend, just sheer persistence will wear him down. Now, it’s very important to understand what Jesus is not saying in this story. So stay with me here for a moment. I want to say what Jesus is not saying, because this can lead to horrible misunderstanding about prayer. Jesus is not saying that God is like a cranky neighbor. It’s important that we understand this because there are people who think God is reluctant to give anything in response to prayer, that he’s not really concerned about my desires or my fears or my hopes. When that happens, people start searching for the right technique or the right secret to make prayer work. I remember having a conversation with a woman who came from another kind of tradition. She had heard some of the prayers around the church, and she said, “You won’t get your prayers answered around here because you don’t pray right around here.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” She said, “You shouldn’t ask God to do things. You should just boldly demand it.” The secret to getting prayers answered is this technique, she thought. Just boldly claim. Make demands of God. And God will do it. My parents loved me. They enjoyed giving gifts to me. But it would not have worked out well for me if i would have gone to my mom and said, “Mother, I demand you to buy me a new bike.” God is not withholding stuff until you find the secret technique. Some people think the secret technique is to have a high degree of certainty. They’re convinced that if they don’t get the answer they want, it’s because they just don’t have enough faith. People beat themselves up over this. They forget the story of the father who comes to Jesus and says, “If you can, would you help my son.” Jesus says, “Why do you say ‘if’? Everything is possible to the one who believes.” The man said, “I do believe. Help me with my unbelief.” And that’s enough. All you need is just enough faith to go to Jesus. Jesus is not saying that praying to God is like making a request of a cranky neighbor. Jesus is saying something like this: “When you go to this neighbor, everything’s against you. It’s night, he’s asleep, the doors are locked, the kids are tucked in. He may not even like you, and yet still you go to him and you know he’ll be responsive. You know eventually, if nothing else, persistence will do it, and so you persist.” “If that’s the case with your neighbor,” Jesus is saying, “how much more should you persist with God, who is never asleep but always attentive to you?” Right now God is paying attention to you as you listen to these words. God is never reluctant but always eager to give. Right now God longs to pour out blessings on you as you listen to these words. He’s never distant, always closer than the air you breathe. Right now God is closer to you than you can imagine. Jesus says if you persist with cranky neighbors, then how much more should you persist in prayer with God? Alright, now, this brings us to what Jesus teaches in the Sermon not he Mount. The next part in Luke 11 is identical to what Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:7-11. “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, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 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 good gifts to those who ask him! Matthew 7:7-11 Verse 7 is where Jesus really gives the command of this text — “Ask.” Grammatically each of the verbs here is given in the present tense and the imperative, which could be translated, “Ask and keep on asking. Seek and don’t stop seeking. Knock and just stand there and knock and knock and knock and knock.” Then he goes on to give another picture, another analogy, and this is one that involves a parent. Again there’s some irony here. He says, “Who among you would give a child a snake when he asks for a fish?” Generally parents don’t do that sort of thing. That’s not the heart of a loving parent. Then Jesus makes this remarkable statement, which I hope we can fully unpack here today. It looks kinds of shocking at first, but it’s very good news. He says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts” — that word comes as kind of a slap in the face, “evil.” Of course, that’s not the whole truth about us, but it is the truth about us. I’m a fallen man. I am self-centered. I can be vindictive. I can be amazingly petty, but even so, I know the joy of giving to my children. I learned real early on that feeling on Christmas morning when my young children would walk into our living room and see a fully assembled toy — that I was up until two o’clock in the morning assembling, because some pathological liar at the factory wrote the words “easy to assemble” on the box. I know what it’s like to see their faces light up and to know it was worth it. Even I know that feeling, fallen as I am. But in God there is no falleness, no evil. This is how we must come to think and believe with our whole being about God. There is nothing reluctant, nothing withholding about him. In the heart of God there is nothing but goodness and generosity. So if in your life, you’ve ever for a moment felt any joy at giving, take that feeling and purge it of all selfishness and intensify it a thousand times, and extend it throughout all eternity. Then you get some glimmer of the self-giving, joy-filled love of the Father. That’s who God is. Therefore, Jesus says, keep asking and seeking and knocking with confidence, because you approach God not on the basis of your performance or your spiritual track record, but solely on the basis of the sheer goodness of the Father. Jesus says you’ve just got to ask and keep asking, seek and keep seeking, knock and keep knocking. Just don’t quit. You get disillusioned, you get disappointed, you have prayers that aren’t answered, we don’t know why. We don’t understand all that. Jesus says just know this, that far more than you want prayers answered, God longs to give wonderful things to every one of his children. So whatever else you do, don’t stop. Alright, in the time that remains, I want to talk about two kinds of prayer that I’d like to invite us to pursue to help us ask and seek and knock. We’ll get to that in just a moment. Announcements Alright, the first kind of prayer that will help us ask and seek and knock is what Richard Foster calls ordinary prayer The idea here is you just pray about whatever is on your heart, the ordinary events of your day. * Pray about your family as you think about them or are concerned for them. * Pray about your work. * Pray about your frustrations. * Pray about your problems. * At the start of your day, maybe, or at the end of your day, just go through what’s on your heart. * Talk to God about what you’re really concerned about. Ordinary prayer means you come as you are to God as God is. Because, here’s the thing — this is real important — when you pray, if you only pray for things that sound spiritual but that you’re not genuinely interested in, if that’s all you pray about, it will kill your prayer life. Interestingly, most prayers in the Bible fall in the category of what might be called ordinary prayer. One of my favorites is in the Book of Jonah. You may know the story. Jonah resists God, he’s swallowed by a fish, finally he preaches to Nineveh, and he tells them they’re about to be judged and they’re going to be destroyed. The people of Nineveh believe him, and they repent, so they’re not destroyed. Now, you would think Jonah would be happy that the people had responded to his preaching this way. You would think Jonah would be thankful for God’s mercy and goodness. But the text says — “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” He was angry that God didn’t destroy Nineveh. Maybe he felt like it would ruin his prophetic track record or something… because he said it was going to happen. So Jonah prayed to the Lord and said: “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah 4:2-4 That’s what Jonah prayed to God. Then he goes out on the side of the hill, and he sits down to watch what’s going to happen to Nineveh. While he’s out there sulking, it’s real hot, and God notices this. So the writer says that God caused a vine to grow up around Jonah, and it provided shade for him as he sat there sulking and pouting, watching Nineveh, waiting to see if it was going to be destroyed or if HE was going to be destroyed. God sees his discomfort and brings a vine. The text says Jonah was very happy about the vine. But then God sent a worm that ate the vine and made it wither… because Jonah had some growing to do. So the vine’s gone. Then the text says: When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” Jonah 4:8 This is Jonah — the prophet of God — praying about shade, asking God that he might die because he no longer has shade. I mean, he could have moved. No, he prefers to just die, get it over with, no shade. — “The vine’s gone. I like the vine. The worm came, I’m not happy about the worm, it would just be better for me to die.” But here’s what’s amazing — God is perfectly willing to talk to Jonah about shade. God, who sent the vine, is perfectly willing to talk about this. But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” Jonah 4:9 So God is going to act wisely to help Jonah become a bigger person. So he goes on to say: “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” Jonah 4:10-11 God’s going to help them grow up. But here’s the deal with Jonah — about the only virtue of his prayer was that it was honest. It was just real. And that’s enough for God to take seriously. C. S. Lewis put it like this: We must lay before God what is in us, not what ought to be in us. C. S. Lewis So, when it comes to this business of prayer, I want to recommend that you just start with what concerns you. Even if those concerns seem small or selfish, God will help you grow. If what’s on your mind is the vine, just start by praying about the vine, and God will help get you to the place where you’re praying for Nineveh. Have you ever had your mind wander when you’re praying? I used to feel so guilty about that. Here’s something I’ve learned though — if you find your mind consistently wandering toward something, it’s probably because you need to be praying about that. Now, we get troubled by mixed motives, and that’s understandable. For instance, you want your business to go well, and part of that is concern for your clients or being able to give more resources to God. But part of it is selfish concern for your own success. But if we wait to pray until our motives are pure, we’ll wait until we’re dead. So don’t wait. Just bring it all before God. It may be that you’re single and you’re aware that you want God to give you a relationship with a person of strong character, keen moral fiber, but you also want someone who is heart-stoppingly physically attractive, and it feels kind of superficial to pray about that. God already knows what you want. It’s not like it’s going to come as some big shock to God — “Gosh, what a superficial person you turned out to be. I had no idea.” He already knows. The alternative to ordinary prayer is that we worry and obsess and isolate ourselves from God. So pray the unvarnished concerns of your heart. Pray about whatever concerns you as you wake in the morning, as you go through the day, as you go to sleep at night — your relationships, your work, everything. * You get some financial news. * Your boss is upset with you. * You have a project. You’re not sure it’s going to be done on time. * You’re on the road, and you’re frustrated. Do you know, even with the person who really loves you, they love to know the details of your life. That’s one of the ways you gauge the intimacy or the affection level of a relationship. The deeper you go with someone, the more interested they are in listening to your details. If you don’t like the person, it bogs you down when they start getting into the details. Well, there is not a detail in your heart, not a detail in your life in which God is not intensely interested. That’s who God is. There’s not a thought that goes through your mind, there is not a feeling that surges in your heart that is not the object of intense interest to God. You need to reflect on that, and you need to talk to him about that. Alright, that’s the first kind of prayer, just ordinary, unvarnished, raw, unguarded, human prayer. The second kind of prayer is what might be called “ evangelistic prayer ” and I would say this one is extremely important. We need to pray for people who don’t know God. We just need to be constantly reminded about this one. There are times of the year — Christmas and Easter — when we challenge you to pray for your friends and neighbors and coworkers who don’t know God. And we pray for them around that time of the year. But I want to remind you today that we need to ask and keep on asking, seek and continue to seek and knock and knock and knock. Don’t stop now because you never know what God is going to do. I want to share with you a story about a prayer for someone who didn’t know God. It’s about a guy named Tony Campolo. There’s a Pentecostal college near Eastern College where Tony teaches. He’s not Pentecostal, but he says he talks so fast that they think he’s speaking in tongues, so it works out okay. One day they invited Tony to speak at a chapel service. He likes speaking there because they’re dynamic, happy people. Just before the service, eight guys took him to the back room and got him down on his knees. They laid their hands on his head and prayed for him, which was a good thing. As a teacher, I know you want all the prayer you can get. The only problem was, these guys prayed for a long time. That’s usually okay, but the longer they prayed the more tired they got. The more tired they got, the more they leaned on his head. Eight guys leaning on your head doesn’t feel so good. One guy wasn’t even praying for Tony. Instead, he went on and on praying for someone named Charlie Stoldfuss. “Dear Lord, you know Charlie Stoldfuss. He lives in that silver trailer down the road about a mile. You know the trailer, Lord, just down the road on the right-hand side.” Tony was thinking, “Knock it off. What do you think God’s doing, saying, ‘What’s that address again?’” But this guy kept going on and on about Charlie Stoldfuss. “Charlie told me this morning he’s decided to leave his wife and three kids, walk out on his family. Lord, step in. Do something. Bring that family together again.” While Tony is kneeling there, eight guys leaning on his head, he’s asking himself, “When’s this guy going to knock it off so I can get these preachers off my head?” But he kept going on and on about Charlie Stoldfuss, leaving his wife and kids. Constant reminders about the silver trailer a mile down the road on the right-hand side. Finally the prayers were over, and he preached a great sermon. After he finished, he got in his car, drove down the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading for home. As he drove onto the turnpike he noticed a hitchhiker. It’s probably not wise to pick up a hitch hiker, but Tony said he’s a preacher, and whenever he can get anyone locked in as a captive audience he does it. So he stopped to pick him up. They drove a few minutes, Tony said, “Hi, my name’s Tony Campolo. What’s yours?” He said, “My name is Charlie Stoldfuss.” Tony couldn’t believe it. He got off the turnpike at the next exit and headed back. Charlie got a bit uneasy with that. After a few minutes he said, “Hey, mister, where are you taking me?” Tony said, “I’m taking you home.” Charlie narrowed his eyes and asked why. Tony said, “Because you just left your wife and three children, right?” That blew him away. “Yeah, that’s right.” With shock written all over his face, he plastered himself against the car door, and never took his eyes off Tony. They drove off the turnpike at the next exit. Then Tony really did him in as he drove right up to his silver trailer. When he pulled up, Charlies eyes seemed to bulge as he asked Tony, “How did you know I live there?” Tony said, “God told me.” He believed God did tell him. They got out of the car, and Tony ordered him to get in the trailer. Half shaking, he answered, “Right, mister, I’m going.” When Charlie opened the trailer door, his wife shouted, “You’re back. You’re back.” He whispered in her ear, and the more he talked the bigger her eyes got. Then Tony said with real authority, “The two of you sit down. I’m going to talk and you’re going to listen.” And man, did they listen. That afternoon those two young people began a relationship with Jesus Christ. Now, here’s the deal — it doesn’t usually happen this dramatically for most people, but Jesus says when you begin to pray, the Father will give the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit, in some way that we do not fully understand, is unleashed when we pray. So don’t stop. * Today when you drive somewhere, pray. * When you get ready for bed, pray. * When you wake up, pray. * As you go through the day, pray for the ordinary concerns of your heart. * Pray and ask God to do the work of his Spirit in the lives of people who don’t know him so that once again the church will explode… and we’ll be filled with awe. Jesus says don’t stop asking. Don’t stop seeking. Don’t stop knocking. Blue Oaks Church Pleasanton, CA