The opening verses from the Gospel today are some of my most favorite “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.” These words stir something in me, but they are also words with which I struggle. These words speak to me of prayer and the power of it. And they also raise questions in me about what we are to make of it when it feels like nothing has been given, found or opened despite our most ardent asking, searching, and knocking.
I recognize that this scripture takes us into the very personal and intimate realm of prayer. It takes us into a very tender space of our own personal relationship with the Holy One. So I want you to know that, I have no intention of standing up her and telling you what prayer is or is not, or how you should or should not go about engaging in it. That is for you to decide.
Instead what I hope to do is simply to share with you some of my own experience with and understanding of prayer with the hope that, perhaps, with God’s grace, it could be of use to you. So in that spirit let us dig in.
But first let us pray: May the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, Amen.
I have come to realize that for a good portion of my life I have thought of prayer in one of three equally unsatisfying and ultimately, I have decided, erroneous ways. I call the first – the Downton Abby model of prayer. The second — the Door Dash model of prayer. And the third, the Make the Grade model of prayer. Let’s take them one at a time.
First the Downton Abby model of prayer. For those who may have watched that PBS series do you remember the opening to each episode? In the montage of images, there is a close up of the panel of a bells in the servant’s quarter as one of the bells starts to ring. Someone upstairs has pulled the chord in his or her room that then set the bell ringing downstairs. In this way those upstairs signal that they need something. And what happens of course is that the servant that is assigned to that particular person who is ringing runs upstairs straight way to attend to what is needed. It never crosses the mind of the person ringing the bell, I am sure, that they won’t be tended to immediately.
I dare say that there have been times when this type of entitlement has crept into my prayer life. I pray to alert God to a need in my life. But I pray with the expectation that it is God’s job to be constantly alert and listening for that little bell of mine to start ringing and then when it does, to set off answering my prayer straight away. If that does not happen, then when I slip into this model of prayer, I can get rather judgy about what kind of God, God is and the quality of the job God is or is not doing.
Then there is the DoorDash model of prayer that I can fall into. You know DoorDash right? It’s this rather remarkable food delivery service that will go to whatever restaurant you may have happened to place an order and pick up that order and delivery it to your house for a small delivery fee. In this model of prayer, it is not so much that I feel entitled to having my needs met, but more like it is the reasonable thing to do given the arrangement I have made with God. This is when prayer starts to feel transactional. I work hard, pledge to the church, show up at Bible Study. I am doing all I am supposed to do to keep up my end of the deal, so when I place my order through prayer, I expect that it will be delivered and in a timely manner. I do my part. God does God’s part. That is how it is supposed to work.
And the final way I can fall into in my prayer life is what I call the “Make the grade model.” What happens here is that I can start to think that there is a worthiness bar that one has to meet before God even considers hearing one’s prayer. It’s as if one has to have met a certain proficiency of faith, belief, or trust. And not just the person but the prayer as well, right? The prayer has to be really good, well-articulated and perfectly calibrated between praising God on one hand and making one’s humble request on the other.
I realize I am being a bit playful here, but this is actually really quite serious. It is pretty easy to fall into any one of these three conceptions of prayer. I can easily start to think that the purpose of prayer is to get what I need by getting God to do something. Prayer in these models is not of value in and of itself. Prayer is of value only if it results in me getting what I need. And when that does not seem to happen it is easy to simply throw up one’s hands and walk away from prayer all together.
But Jesus has an all together different understanding of what our life with God is to look like. Far from being transactional, Jesus has been instructing the disciples there on the hillside about a life with God that is transformative. And what is really provocative about this way of living is its implications of what prayer is all about. In last week’s scripture there was this little phrase tucked in just before Jesus taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. A little phrase that is easily overlooked but that is really quite revelatory. Jesus tells them when you pray you don’t have to use a lot of words because quote “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Wait? What? “your Father knows what you need before you ask him?” If God already knows what we need then why do we pray?
When Jesus finished speaking to them that day they were amazed because he was one who spoke with authority. He spoke with authority not because he knew how to get to God or how to get God to do what he needed. Jesus was one who spoke with authority because more than any other human being ever alive, Jesus knew God. Jesus spoke with authority because Jesus knew and had an intimately close, loving relationship with God. God was not an abstraction to Jesus, someone or something out there to be summoned or placated. God was as real and as close to Jesus as his own breath.
Prayer for Jesus was the language of this relationship with God. For Jesus, prayer is not the summons of the entitled, nor the expectation of an arrangement nor a way to measure up. Prayer is the language of love. Prayer it seems for Jesus was precious in and of itself and not for what change or effect it can set into motion.
So if we let go of seeing the function of prayer as a way to get God to act and instead as a way to be in relationship with God then that changes how I think we are to see God. Instead of being my servant waiting to tend to my every need, instead of being my transactional partner doing God’s part as I do mine, and instead of being someone to judge me to see if I merit attention, God is freed to be who God is.
And who is this God that is freed from my expectations? Who is this God that Jesus seems to know.
God is first and foremost for Jesus – kin. Very early on Jesus seems to have come home to a deep sense of belonging to God and being loved by God. God is not servant or system or arbitrator of worth. God is the ground of Jesus’ being, his home and dwelling place. Remember that story when Jesus is a teenager and Mary and Joseph take him up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival only to find that Jesus has stayed in the Temple and not returned with the others? And when Mary and Joseph return to Jerusalem in a panic to try to find him and discover him there enthralled in conversation with the rabbis in that house of God, he says to them, “did you not know I would be in my father’s house?” From a very early age, Jesus seems to have had a deep knowing of belonging first and foremost to God.
I think this is hard for us to really take in. I am not sure that many of us have ever known the kind of belonging, love and acceptance that Jesus felt when beheld by God. This is hard for us because our human relationships can be so broken. And what we do is project that brokenness onto God instead of seeing that our relationship with God could really be the way we are to be with each other.
God is also worthy of trust. When Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days tempted by Satan to choose another way, Jesus holds fast and chooses God. It is always so moving to me that Jesus experienced the wilderness. Jesus knew hunger and thirst. Jesus knew temptation. A life with God is not a life without hardship but it is a life with God in the midst of hardship. God is worthy of trust.
And the last thing I will lift up today from this relationship that Jesus has with God is the knowledge that God is already at work saving, delivering, bringing about wholeness. Jesus’ life was not to get God to do something, but instead was to join in and be a part of what God was already doing. To reveal that in a way that we could start to see.
So if any of that is true, if any of what Jesus witnessed to is to be believed then how would that change how we are to understand prayer and these verse of scripture this morning?
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.
What I have come to hear in these verses is that there is an eagerness in God to engage. I have come to know that prayer does indeed bring about change but it is a change that first starts in me. When I engage with God through the language of prayer, I find that God is eager to partner with me. I am given understanding, I find that which I have been searching for and doorways that I am meant to walk through are opened. Not because that is the work God needs to be doing, but because it is the work I need to do and God is willing to show me what I need and what is needed of me.
So these days, I am trying hard to have my prayer be not modeled by Downton Abby or DoorDash or making the grade. Instead I am trying to let my prayer be: “I know you love me and with you I belong. I know I can trust you in your steadfastness and unchanging grace towards me, I know you are at work in me and for me and for all that is to bring about salvation deliverance and wholeness so let me walk with you into what will be.”
Standing in that place, prayer acts on me as much as who knows, it may act on God. Prayer draws me deeper into the heart of my relationship with God and moves me from a transactional place of working to get my needs met to a transformative place where I feel heard and loved in the midst of my need.
And so how have I come to see these verses for today? I still struggle, but I do catch glimpses of what it could be to no longer do so. And for that I am grateful.