Brazen Beseeching – Sermon on Luke 11:1-13

July 24, 2016
View a video of this sermon here.

I like Luke’s gospel a lot. He’s a good storyteller, and I love a good story. I mean, what would Christmas Eve be without Luke? As we read today’s passage together in a moment, you will find words that may be quite comforting to you, because, like the Christmas story, they are so familiar. That’s just the problem.

Maybe this never happens to you, but sometimes, as I read a familiar passage of Scripture, I tend to tune it out. ‘Oh, I know this part,’ says a little voice in the back of my mind. As my eyes scan the page, my brain goes on autopilot, and before I know it, I’m making a grocery list in my head, or planning the next day’s activities – even as I read words that should be challenging me and transforming me.

And I have to confess that I’m a little bit afraid to tackle a text that is so familiar to many of us. What on earth could I possibly add to what has already been said about the Lord’s Prayer? But here it is, the gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, that well-organized three year cycle of readings from the Old and New Testaments, the Psalms, and the Gospels that we use to center our weekly worship in the Word of God. Following the discipline of the Common Lectionary forces us to face difficult passages, but it also forces us to revisit words we think we already know, to hear God speak directly into our lives. So let’s begin. Let us dive into the gospel lesson together this morning, and see what the Lord would have us find.

He [that is, Jesus] 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.” He said to them, “when you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

And 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, 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.

“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. 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!” (Luke 11:1-13)

There are at least four sermons available to us in this gospel reading, and you’ve probably already heard all of them. We could dissect the Lord’s Prayer, which some scholars suggest should really be called ‘the Disciples’ Prayer’ since this is the only place in the gospels where the disciples actually ask Jesus to teach them something.

Prayer is a central theme throughout Luke’s gospel, and we find Jesus praying at key moments in his ministry. In his book, Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass points out that “Luke emphasizes the prayer life of Jesus by including seven references not present in Matthew and Mark: [Jesus prays] at his baptism, 3:21; after the cleansing of the leper and before the conflict with authorities 5:16; before choosing the twelve, 6:12; before Peter’s confession and the passion prediction, 9:18; at the transfiguration, 9:28; the Lord’s Prayer 11:1; and on the cross at 23:34 (omitted in several manuscripts).”[1]

This is the only instance we find where the disciples are asking to be taught, and it is significant that the lesson they want to learn is How to Pray. This request may not reflect a deep desire to converse with God as Jesus does, so much as it shows a desire to be identified with Jesus, even by the way they pray. And isn’t that what we claim to want, too? To be identified with Jesus by the way we live our lives, and even by the way we pray?

Of course, whole volumes have been written on the Ask-Seek-Knock verses, and you’ve already heard the Children’s version of the “how much more” verses. But perhaps the key to this passage lies in the parable of the Friend at Midnight, for this parable is unique to Luke’s gospel, and it contains a word that occurs no where else in the New Testament. Let’s take another look at verses 5 through 8, and this time, I’d like to read to you from the English Standard Version, to give us a slightly different translation than the one we read a moment ago.

[5] And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, [6] for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; [7] and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? [8] I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.   (Luke 11:5-8 ESV)

Because of his impudence! Now, that puts a little different spin on this story, doesn’t it? The Greek word, translated here as ‘impudence,’ and in the version we read earlier as ‘persistence’, is anaídeia – and it only occurs this one time in the entire New Testament. Since we cannot infer its definition from other Biblical usage, scholars have examined ancient literature from the first and second centuries to determine its meaning. In those other writings, anaídeia most commonly refers to a lack of sensitivity to what is proper, a lack of modesty or respect, a brazen or shameless manner of behavior. Until Jesus told this story, anaídeia was considered a negative term. This kind of shamelessness didn’t even care about being shameless.

We have to remember that the culture of Jesus’ day was one in which honor and shame held great importance. You wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared for company, for this would bring shame on both you and your guest. Likewise, your neighbor would not want to bring shame on either of you by failing to help you maintain your honor.

So these verses (5-7) are really a long rhetorical question, typical of Jesus’ teaching style. The question “Who among you…?” introduced an everyday situation that was common enough for everyone to know the answer. No one would think of denying a neighbor whatever he needed to welcome an unexpected guest. It just wasn’t done.

It’s interesting that some translations interpret this shameless, brazen entreaty as persistence, because nowhere in this passage does it say anything about repeated asking. The man seeking help asks once. After the parable, Jesus says, “ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.’ He does not say, “keep on asking, seeking, and knocking until you get what you want.”

God is gracious and eager to supply all our needs. Our asking isn’t for God’s benefit, but for our own, to put us in the right frame of mind to humbly remember that all things come from God alone.

But this awareness begs another question: Just who is behaving shamelessly in this parable? Is it the one knocking at the door, asking for help? Or is it the one in bed, who won’t get up for friendship, but will for honor’s sake? The original Greek doesn’t help us much here, because the same pronouns – “he”, “him”, “his” – refer to both participants in the drama.

Maybe Jesus is describing the knocker-at-the-door as the Brazen Beseecher. In this scenario, we find a person who is willing to impose on one friend in an effort to maintain his honor with another. He knows he can depend on his neighbor to help him, not because they are friends, but because they both understand their social structure and they want to uphold it. Isn’t it ironic that such a culture allows someone to become vulnerable to a neighbor’s displeasure, risking the loss of honor with that friend, in order to maintain honor with a guest?

Or maybe the friend-behind-the-door is the Shameless Steward, climbing out of bed in the middle of the night, risking his family’s displeasure and the embarrassment of being seen ‘ready for bed’ when he opens the door, just to help a neighbor who didn’t get his baking done yesterday. Either scenario is possible, and maybe both possibilities are true. Maybe both friends are behaving without any regard for shame, stretching the limits of appropriate behavior with each other for the benefit of yet another.

Often, as I consider this parable, I find myself assuming the role of the one knocking, asking for help. As I lay my heart’s concerns before God, I find myself asking God to help me with this, or help me with that, shamelessly asking for the things I see as my greatest needs. I’m a lot like the guy banging on the door in the middle of the night, begging for help.

Now, mind you, I’m not asking for anything bad. I ask for wisdom and discernment. I ask God to give me courage when I’m under stress, to keep me focused on what’s really important, instead of being distracted by petty issues. I ask God to protect my children from evil. And I ask God to guide my steps, to keep me disciplined.

None of that sounds so awful, does it? But it does sound pretty specific, like the man asking for exactly three loaves of bread to feed a hungry traveler.

But, if I’m the person knocking on the door, that makes God the one inside, willing to get out of bed in the middle of the night for his own honor’s sake, to give me – notice it doesn’t say ‘three loaves of bread’ here – no, to give me whatever I need. And why? For his honor’s sake. So that God may be glorified.

“Hallowed be your Name. … Give us each day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches us to pray.

But what if the roles are reversed? What if I am the one in bed, and Christ is the one shamelessly knocking at the door? We find this image in Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

“I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Christ isn’t asking to borrow bread. Instead, he shamelessly offers table fellowship to anyone who will hear his voice and open the door. Christ bore the shame of our sin on the cross. He died for us. He brazenly knocks at the door of our hearts, waiting for us to hear his voice, to open the door, and to invite him in.

As we join Christ at the table, he does ask something of us. Christ asks that we bring honor to God by shamelessly, brazenly sharing the good news that God loves us and will provide for us – all that we ask, and all that we need.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard another very familiar story from Luke’s gospel, one that we often call the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a story Jesus tells in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Today’s story turns that question around and asks us to consider, “Whose neighbor am I?” Who needs me to set aside my own ideas of proper behavior so I can shamelessly offer mercy and give glory to God?

But we also need to remember that this whole passage is about prayer. It’s about asking for what we need. And what we need is often not the three loaves of bread we see as our most pressing issue. What we need is God’s Spirit, breathing life into us and through us into the world where we live.

Jesus says, “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!” No snakes instead of fish. No scorpions instead of eggs. God will not ration out three loaves of bread to share with a friend. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to us, if we dare to shamelessly ask!

So what would it look like for this congregation to be made up of people who shamelessly ask God to give us what we need, instead of what we want? Are we ready to dare to ask for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us in ways we haven’t seen before, ways that might not look too polite? Are we willing to risk embarrassment for the sake of the gospel?

Because I know people in this community who risk embarrassment every day, coming here and brazenly asking for what they need because they can’t find it anywhere else. We can give them “three loaves of bread,” but how much more God asks us to offer them! How much more God offers to us, if we will only ask for it.

One of our Five Strategic Goals is to “create an environment for Pentecost to happen.” Luke’s other book, the Book of Acts, tells us that the believers were all gathered together in the upper room after the resurrection, waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them. And what were they doing during those fifty days of waiting? They were praying. They were praying shamelessly, asking God to come among them and give them what Jesus had promised.

Jesus says, “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” He reminds us that even in our human frailty, we know how to give good things to our children. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” So let’s ask. Let’s get on our knees and beg brazenly for the very thing God wants to give us: his own dear self, in the person of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray.

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 440.

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