March 10, 2019
Jesus has just taught his disciples to pray, using words we say every Sunday, and now he continues the lesson …
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!”
The summer I turned ten, I knew exactly what I wanted for my birthday. I wanted a diary. I wanted a private place where I could write down my most personal thoughts, and lock them away where my sisters couldn’t see them. I wanted something that I could call my very own, that didn’t have to be shared, that wasn’t a hand-me-down. I wanted a diary.
And I got one! My grandmother gave it to me. She must have had to go to a nearby town to find it at Woolworths. I’m not sure if it meant more to me that I actually owned my own diary, or that my grandmother had paid attention to my ten-year-old wish list, and gone out of her way to give me something that was so important to me.
It was a five-year diary. It was green, and had a tiny key to lock the strap that fastened the book closed. It wasn’t very big for holding five years worth of memories – it had just one page for every day of the year, and a few blank lines for each year. Not exactly enough room to write a full journal entry, but enough space to track what was important.
Years later, I found that diary in a box of photos and memorabilia my mom saved for me. It was fun to read back through the scribbles – and notice all the blank pages – but it was also interesting to see what had been the focus of my attention when I was ten, eleven, twelve years old, as my point of reference changed.
During this season of Lent, the point of reference, the compass bearing we are using for our journey together, centers around one core command: Listen to him. As we read together, pray together, fast together, this is our rallying cry. Listening to Jesus requires a radical shift of surrender. We will be intentionally leaning in to hear his voice over our own inner chorus of appetites, allegiances, and affections. This requires the death of self in exchange for his life in us.
And yet, here in the early steps on this road to resurrection, we receive a surprising word. As we lean in to listen to him, today’s text shocks us with the reminder that he listens to us. Like a good Father, who knows what we need before we ask him, who delights in lavishing good gifts on his children, He is listening to you.
Jesus lets us in on a mystery of the universe, one we still can’t get over or get our minds around. Your heavenly Father loves you and hears every prayer, whether you speak it out loud or it remains hidden in the safety of your soul. And beyond hearing, he cares.
Jesus offers a famous threefold relational invitation. This is not a formula for fast results, so don’t think for a minute that he is giving us a quick, three-step method for getting what we want from God Almighty. This is an invitation to become intimately connected to our Creator. And Jesus begins with the command to ask.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Really? This is what you are giving me today? In the face of everything I’m walking through and everything I need, are you really going to tell me to just pray about it?” Yes, I am.
When did prayer stop being enough for us? When did it become too shallow to speak to the God of the universe as a child speaks to a father? When did the invitation to commune with the Holy and cast our cares on the Almighty become a cliché? He is listening to you. Ask.
But, this invitation comes with a warning. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, and he often taught in the tradition of the great rabbis. Meaning, he often answered questions with other, better questions. Jesus has the power to change your life with a well-placed, well-timed question.
- You ask to know my will, but what are you doing with what you already know?
- You want more knowledge and revelation, but are you moving in obedience?
- You ask to know the map of where the road is going, but have you taken the steps I’ve already shown you?
- You want the full, illuminated picture, but what have you done with the light you have?
This is not to intimidate us, but to encourage us. It is a reminder that Jesus listens to the request, but cares most about the one who is making it. He has a way of getting to the rock bottom of our desire and addressing our deepest need. He listens well, and he knows how to give good gifts.
Some of you know that I was a middle school teacher before God called me to be a pastor. For several years, in addition to my classroom duties, I was the activities coordinator for the school. This meant that I organized the school parties, advised the student council, and coordinated a couple of experiential learning days each year. One of those learning events was something called “BLAST” Day.
The thing everyone loved most about BLAST Day was that teachers got to show students another side of themselves than the one students saw in the classroom every day. The Latin teacher taught knitting and crochet. The Spanish teacher taught kids how to use public transit. One teacher showed them how to find good bargains in thrift stores. Another teacher took kids horseback riding, and two teachers took a bunch of kids on a train ride to a nearby town, where they engaged in a scavenger hunt for historical artifacts.
My job was to make sure every teacher had a workshop planned, every student signed up for the workshops and paid their fees, and 60-70 parent volunteers were well-prepared to make the day run smoothly, so everyone could have a BLAST.
One year, as BLAST Day got underway, I found a bunch of students waiting with a couple of parent volunteers at the front door. Where was the teacher who was scheduled to lead them on an adventure only that particular teacher could lead?
It was one of the most popular workshops offered, and always filled up quickly every year. Part of the draw was that the itinerary changed every year, and only the teacher knew exactly where they were to go, and how they were to get there. And the teacher was nowhere to be found.
I went to his classroom, and found him in tears behind his desk. “I can’t do it. I can’t go. I just can’t.”
I did not know until that moment that this beloved teacher, the one who always made everyone laugh at silly jokes, suffered from severe depression. He had managed it for years with medication, but something had snapped, and at that moment, he could not move from behind his desk.
We found an itinerary from a previous year, and sent the students off with the parent volunteers to explore on their own. The teacher went home, and stayed on medical leave for several weeks. I prayed for him, but Christ was nudging me to do more. Christ was asking me to fast for my friend.
I had never really fasted before. Not the intentional kind of fasting where you set aside the time you would be spending with food, and devote it to prayer. But for one year, I fasted a day each week, and devoted those meal times to praying for my friend.
On the morning of BLAST Day the next year, I bumped into him in the teacher’s lounge. There was no one else in the room, so I confessed to him that I had been fasting and praying for his health since BLAST Day a year ago. I said, “I don’t know if it made any difference to you, but it has changed my life.”
He sat down at the table and said, “It did make a difference. I could tell someone was praying for me, but I didn’t know it was you. Thank you.” And then he wanted to know how that year of fasting and praying had changed me. I told him how I had learned to recognize physical hunger as hunger for God, how I had learned that you only get so hungry, and how important water had become to me, as I realized that sometime what I perceived as hunger was really thirst.
We talked about the theological implications of this, and the fact that we had both been changed by God’s grace working in each of us over the past year. While my friend was seeking renewed mental health, I had been seeking to know God in a way I had never experienced before.
Lent is a season that is built around seeking. It invites us into a time of set apart preparation. Through the ancient Christian practice of fasting, Lent challenges us to submit our most fundamental and essential cravings to our even deeper need. It serves to focus our appetites and attention on the only one who truly sustains us.
It doesn’t have to be a fast from food, necessarily. You can fast from social media, or constantly checking your phone throughout the day one day a week. You can fast from criticizing others, or leaving your bed unmade. Whatever fast you choose, it is an opportunity to submit to the discipline of consciously surrendering your own desires to God’s desire, to seek to know Jesus in a way you have not experienced him before.
As you fast during this season, what are you seeking? Are you seeking more clarity, more provision, more opportunity? Or are you seeking more of him? Do you see that distinction between the gift and the Giver?
Jesus reminds us in this text that, if even a bad father knows how to give good gifts to his children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” How much more. As J. D. Walt pointed out this week in the Listen to Him book, these three words of “how much more” could be of greater importance than “ask, seek, knock.”
Ask, seek, knock is about what we desire from God.
“How much more” is about what God desires for us.
As you move further into the practices of prayer and fasting, seek his ‘much more’ for you. The reality is that his ‘much more’ for you will be ‘much more’ of himself. If you knock on the door, Christ will open it.
To knock is to take action. It requires courage and risk. But Jesus indicates that the act of knocking is what opens the door. There is no hidden code or secret password. He says plainly, “Knock and the door will be opened.”
Too often we are afraid of the door being slammed in our faces. Or we’re afraid of being told to go away and come back later. But the image Jesus gives us is of a good father who delights in giving good gifts. He is not just the friend who can’t be bothered to get out of bed until you’ve banged loud enough to wake up the whole house. He will not be pestered into action or annoyed into answering.
You don’t have to fight for him to see you. We often present fasting during Lent as a way of gaining God’s attention. If we will give up this or that, then God will take notice of our meager spiritual progress and give us the crumbs from his table as a reward.
Fasting is not a hunger strike to win him to our cause. Fasting does not put his focus on us. It puts our focus on him. It teaches us to long for what we need most—the much more of him. Ask for that. Seek after him. Knock on that door. And your Father, who knows how to give good gifts to his children, will give more of his best gifts to you. Namely, much more of the Holy Spirit.
This week, I invite you to fast for a day. If you have never fasted from food before, one way to start is to skip supper one night, then breakfast and lunch the next day. When you get hungry, take that as a signal to pray.
Drink lots of water. You may find that hunger makes you feel cold. A cup of hot tea will warm you – try to avoid caffeine on a fast if you can. Let your first meal after the fast be a light one – soup is my favorite. If you cannot fast from food, try abstaining from an activity that eats your time – like watching television or browsing social media or the internet, or playing video games.
Let’s challenge each other to focus our fasting and prayers on the ‘how much more’ that God longs to pour out on us. Let’s ask, together as his children, for more of the Holy Spirit, and surrender to all that the Holy Spirit brings. Let’s ask, seek, and knock for more fruit of the Spirit, deepened gifts of the Spirit, more holy love that is the truest sign of the Spirit. And, most importantly, more of the Spirit within us.
The rabbi answers our questions with deeper questions, questions that speak to our greatest need. Today he is posing this one to us: How much more? 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 grudgingly share with a friend. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to us, if we only dare to ask!
This message is based on an outline provided by J.D. Walt for the Listen to Him Lenten study series.