God's "Not Now" to Bethlehem
Last Sunday I stood here and prayed publicly that the Lord would give us $1.4 million dollars in pledges toward Freeing the Future. That was $300,000 more than we needed to end the $1.1 million debt on this building. It seemed to me that this was where God was leading us. And I still find myself praying toward that number. I claim no divine authority for it. I could be wrong. But until I see a different cloud to follow, that is the direction I will pray.
God's response last Sunday and in this week was to bring in, not $1.4 million in pledges, but about $850,000 in pledges. Which means that our goal of debt elimination in 1996 calls for an additional $250,000 in pledges in the next six months. The Resource Task Force of the Master Planning Team is meeting tomorrow to seek God's leading in how to complete what we have begun. I'm sure they would appreciate your prayer and input (Tim Johnson is the chairman).
A Word from the Lord About Prayer
My sense of what we need to hear from the Lord today is a word about prayer. I prayed, and many of you prayed, that we would reach our goal last Sunday, and we didn't reach it last Sunday. How are we to understand this? Over 700 cards came in. That is staggering. We've never had 700 cards or pledges on anything before. There are only about 600 giving units in this church. So a lot of children have done exactly what we asked, and pledged. So old and young—we all need a word from God about the (temporary!) shortfall.
The word I think he wants us to hear is Luke 11:1–13. This whole section is about prayer.
1 And it came about that while He was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples."
2 And He said to them, "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.'"
5 And He said to them, "Suppose one of you shall have a friend, and shall go to him at midnight, and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves; 6 for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him,' 7 and from inside he shall answer and say, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
9 "And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it shall be opened.
11 "Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?"
Notice that, as this section on prayer begins in verse 1, Jesus is praying, "And it came about that while He was praying in a certain place . . . " Jesus didn't just teach on prayer. He prayed. In fact, Luke emphasizes the praying of Jesus more than any other gospel. He records nine prayers of Jesus, and seven of the nine are only in his gospel. So let's let Jesus teach us about prayer. He knows about it from both ends: he prayed as a full human; and he receives and mediates prayer as God himself. There is no better teacher on prayer.
What does Jesus have to say about all the prayer that went toward last week's pledging and the $850,000 that was pledged instead of $1.1 million? I want to draw out four lessons on prayer.
Prayer is always supposed to be God-centered and God-exalting.
I see this in verse 2. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray and the first thing he does is give them a sample prayer—a kind of summary prayer. It begins (verse 2), "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come.'" Notice two things.
The name of God is the first and main thing to pray about in prayer. "Hallowed by thy name." That is, "Lord, I ask that your name—your reputation and your character and your honor—be reverenced and worshiped and glorified and exalted and esteemed and cherished." First and foremost in prayer, we ask God to work in human hearts to cause them to hallow his name.
And notice that we are to pray this "when" (literally: "whenever," hotan) we pray. In other words, this isn't a formal prayer that we pray every now and then, like on a Sunday morning when we pray the Lord's Prayer. This is the summary content of normal daily prayer. "Whenever you pray," express a desire for the name of God to be valued more in your own heart and in the church and in the world. "Hallowed be thy name" is a prayer for passion in the soul and revival in the church and awakening in the world. And we desire this "whenever" we pray.
So last weekend, when we gathered to pray on Saturday night, we spend most of our time praying not about money, but about our hearts and our church and the mission of God in the church and the world. And when I chose my sermon for last Sunday, I chose a text not about money but about magnifying God, "Let those who love thy salvation say continually, 'The Lord be magnified!'" The whole point of the weekend was, "Hallowed be thy name." Or: Supreme be thy name in all things for the joy of all peoples. That is the aim of Freeing the Future—the removal of debt for the sake of the Name.
God answers prayer for penitent sinners, not perfect people.
I am emphasizing this as a balance to the other side of the truth, namely, that unconfessed sin can shut the door of heaven. Psalm 66:18 says, "If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear." This truth should make us search our hearts after every prayer that doesn't get answered the way we hoped. Did we fall short last weekend because of sin in our midst—attitudes or actions that are displeasing to the Lord and hinder our prayers?
We put a high premium on getting our hearts ready for last Sunday, and I know some difficult things were done and God was honored in many relationships.
But I want to make sure that we not elevate the condition of answered prayer more highly than the Bible does. God answers the prayers of sinners, not perfect people. And you can become perfectly paralyzed in your praying if you do not focus on the cross and realize this. I could show it from numerous Old Testament texts where God hears the cry of his sinful people, whose very sins had gotten them into the trouble from which they are crying for deliverance (for example, Psalm 38:4, 15; 40:12–13; 107:11–13).
But let me show it from this text—in two ways:
In this version of the Lord's Prayer (verses 2–4) Jesus says, "When you pray say" . . . and then in verse 4 he includes this petition, "and forgive us our sins." So, if you connect the beginning of the prayer with the middle, what he says is, "Whenever you pray say . . . forgive us our sins." I take this to mean that this should be as much a part of all our praying as "Hallowed be thy name." Which means that Jesus assumes that we need to seek forgiveness virtually every time we pray. In other words, we are always sinners. Nothing we do is perfect. As Martin Luther said, on his deathbed, "We are beggars, this is true." It doesn't matter how many relationships we made right last weekend, we came to the Lord last Sunday as sinners—all of us. And God does not turn away the prayers of sinners when they pray like this.
The second place I see this taught here is in verse 13: "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?" Jesus calls his disciples "evil." Pretty strong language. And he did not mean that they were out of fellowship with him. He did not mean that their prayers could not be answered. He meant that as long as this fallen age lasts, even his own disciples will have an evil bent that pollutes everything they do, but doesn't keep them from doing much good. We are simultaneously evil and redeemed. We are gradually overcoming our evil by the power of the Holy Spirit. But our native corruption is not obliterated by conversion. We are sinners and we are beggars. And if we recognize this sin, fight it, and cling to the cross of Christ as our hope, then God will hear us and answer our prayers.
Our Father in heaven never gives us a snake when we ask for a fish.
The key verses here are verses 11–13:
Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?
Jesus says that ordinary dads will not give snakes and scorpions to their children when they ask for fish and eggs. And then he adds, neither will God our heavenly Father. In fact, he goes further and says, "How much more . . . " will God respond positively to your prayers, since he is a perfect Father and not a defective father like all the rest of us dads are. Even we won't give snakes and scorpions to our children. How much less will God!
From this I conclude that God did not give us a scorpion or a snake last Sunday. The $850,000 pledged instead of $1.1 million or $1.4 million is not a snake in the grass or a scorpion in the bed.
What was it then? It was what a perfect Father always gives to his asking children: it was what is good for us. We must keep this simple fact before us: God is Father and we are children. The Father always keeps the right to do what is best for the children even if they don't understand why it is best. If this were not so, then we would be saying that we should run the Father's house. We should be the Father and he should be the child. Which in this case would mean we should rule the universe and God should learn from us how to do it.
Prayer has never meant that God should stop being God. We do not have the wisdom or the grace to run the universe. God is God. And he will continue to decide how to run the universe in the best way. If we ask him for a fish, he will not give us a snake, but he may give us Pepto Bismol or ibuprofen or grapefruit. He will give us what is good for us.
The utterly amazing thing is that he has ordained to include us in running the universe. He really does respond to our prayers. They are woven into the fabric of causes that God wills to be moved by. We do not pray in vain. He is our Father. And when he hears his children, he responds. He is not deaf or indifferent or powerless. He hears and he acts.
How then should we respond to last Sunday? That comes from . . .
Persistence in prayer will prevail where giving up won't.
This comes from verses 5–8. Jesus tells a parable to illustrate exactly this point.
And He said to them, "Suppose one of you shall have a friend, and shall go to him at midnight, and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves; 6 for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him'; 7 and from inside he shall answer and say, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' 8 "I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs."
What's the point of this parable? The point is given in verses 9 and 10: Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking; keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.
Why compare answered prayer to a friend who is unwilling to get out of bed for the sake of friendship, but willing to get out of bed to stop the knocking on his door? Is it to say that God is tired or irritable or stingy? That can't be, because he is so ready and able to give in verse 13. Then what's the reason for this parable?
I think it is simply a striking, shocking way of saying, God has his reasons for waiting that for us may seem as strange and provocative as a friend who doesn't want to get out of bed but then does. At first he doesn't give the $1.1 million, and then he will—if we keep knocking. If we keep knocking—that is clear. If the friend had gone home after the first refusal, he would not have gotten the bread he needed. But since he stayed and kept on knocking, he got "as much as he needed" (verse 8). The point for Bethlehem: Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.
This is a hard lesson about prayer. But it is clearly biblical: Persistence in prayer will prevail with God where giving up won't. It is so biblical and so important that Wesley Duewel wrote a whole book on it called Mighty Prevailing Prayer (Zondervan Publishing House, 1990). In his chapter on this text called "The Dynamic of Importunity," he quotes Andrew Murray,
[Importunity] begins with the refusal to at once accept a denial. It grows to the determination to persevere, to spare no time or trouble, till an answer comes. It rises to the intensity in which the whole being is given to God in supplication, and the boldness comes to lay hold of God's strength. (p. 80)
Thomas Watson, a Puritan pastor from 350 years ago, asked in his book, Body of Divinity, "Why does God delay an answer to prayer?" In other words, why would God ever keep us asking and seeking and knocking when he could respond sooner? He gives four answers (Baker Book House, 1979, pp. 399–400). I give these to you for your pondering as we press on in prayer for Freeing the Future:
- Because he loves to hear the voice of prayer. "You let the musician play a great while before you throw him down money, because you love to hear this music."
- That he may humble us. We may too easily assume we merit some ready answer, or that he is at our beck and call like a butler, not as sovereign Lord and loving Father.
- Because he sees we are not yet fit or ready for the mercy we seek. It may be he has things to put in place—in us or in our church or in the world. There are a million pieces to the puzzle. Some things go first to make a place for the others.
- Finally, that the mercy we pray for may be the more prized, and may be sweeter when it comes.
If you belong to the Lord Jesus, if you trust his Word, and if you love Bethlehem, join me in "mighty prevailing prayer" and do not grow weary, for we shall reap if we do not faint—the elimination of debt for the sake of the Name.