The Lord’s Prayer
Perseverance in prayer
Luke 11 1-13
with Revd Helen Mitchell
Incy Wincey spider climbed the water spout, down came the rain and washed the spider out. Out came the sunshine, dried up all the rain, Incy Wincey spider climbed the spout again.
In my child-hood Incy Wincey spider was held up as a model of perseverance. He didn’t give up, but determinedly climbed that water spout over and over again.
In my children’s childhood he was still at it, climbing that spout again and again.
I don’t know if he’s still going, but if so his perseverance throughout the generations has been truly heroic.
Teresa May reminds me ever so slightly of Incy Wincey,
I read that, as a school child, her ambition was to be Prime Minister and I think she’s been quietly, persistently getting on with things ever since, climbing that treacherous spout over and over without us really being aware of it.
Perseverance, persistence in adverse circumstances is a really great quality if we want to get anything done in life and perseverance in prayer is also necessary, as Jesus makes clear in our gospel passage today, with his lovely little story about that poor chap going to his friend at midnight and waking him up and asking for the loan of some bread,
While he isn’t actually sworn at, he receives a pretty dusty answer. Unsurprisingly, we can all imagine how we might feel in the circumstances.
But Jesus says that although the disturbed sleeper won’t get up for the sake of friendship he will get up because of his friend’s persistence.
The Church Lectionary has set as our Old Testament reading, a story about Abraham, for us to read along-side this passage today, in which Abraham with an admirable persistence seems to be trying to persuade God not to destroy the city of Sodom.
The combination of these two stories might give us the impression that the purpose of perseverance in prayer is to persuade God to change his mind, to twist his arm by our un-wearying prayers, either to do something he wasn’t going to do, or not to do something he was going to do.
Is that really right?
I’m suggesting that we look carefully today at the rest of the gospel passage, the context of the story of the friend at midnight, to see if that’s right
Before the parable we have the teaching we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus’s disciples have seen how much time Jesus spends in prayer to God and so they say to him, teach us to pray and Jesus responds with this deceptively simple prayer.
This version in Luke is an absolutely pared down version so we can see the really important features of the prayer.
Firstly we are taught to address God as Father.
This is not to give God a male identity.
If it bothers you, or sometimes for a change of feel, you can use Mother instead. The point is that we can address God directly as a loving parent, not as a remote power.
Look at the circumspection with which Abraham addresses God. O Lord do not be angry if I speak, I who am dust and ashes. He seems to be fearfully addressing a tyrannical despot.
Not so, says Jesus, God is no despot, to whom we must crawl like miserable worms. God is your loving parent who delights in you and wants only the best for you.
God is not just love, God is love for you. You are God’s beloved child, God knows you intimately and loves you dearly and you can talk to him with trust and confidence knowing that.
God loves you. Believe it!
At the same time, we are to remember that God’s name is to be held holy. God is as near to us as we are to ourselves and yet is wholly other and we cannot control or manipulate God.
God is to be worshiped with reverence. Think of the awe and wonder with which we see an amazing sunset or a beautiful flower, how much more awe and wonder is due to one who created for us all this beauty, hallowed be his name.
So the beginning of this prayer immediately puts us into a right relationship with God. God is our parent, but we are not demanding manipulative toddlers but confident respectful children securely rooted in love we can trust. And then we pray “your kingdom come,” that God’s kingdom of love and truth and beauty may come on earth, God’s kingdom of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and wholeness.
This is the heart of the prayer, it is the prayer of the kingdom, every time we pray it we are asking that it happen, “lord may your kingdom of love happen here.”
And we are also praying “God, may your kingdom come in me. May my heart be a place of love and forgiveness and truth, may my life be an effective sign of the kingdom.”
By praying this prayer we align our-selves with God’s purposes in the world.
And then we pray for our own needs.
Give us each day our daily bread. This includes everything both material and spiritual that we might need.
We are to ask for what we need.
God longs to give it to us, but we must learn to ask. To ask is to acknowledge that everything, every single thing we have, comes from, is given to us by God.
It is all pure gift. The way Jesus teaches this connects us with the story of the Hebrew people in the wilderness, when God fed them with manna, the bread from heaven that appeared on the ground every morning..
The people were instructed to gather it each day, they could not keep or hoard it. If they did, it had rotted by the next day.
They had to trust God that it would be there again tomorrow.
We are such fearful graspers and hoarders.
We hang on tightly to our own little kingdoms.
How hard it is to trust that God will give again tomorrow.
This petition prayed every day, teaches us to trust God, that what we need will indeed be given
Forgive us our sins.
Because of Jesus we stand before God as forgiven people. That’s essentially what Christians are, forgiven sinners. Not people who don’t sin, but people who know they are forgiven, loved and believed in.
God believes in you
But if we ourselves live in hatred and un-forgiveness we will never be able to believe in God’s forgiveness, forgiving and being forgiven are two sides of one coin.
When you find your heart is hardened, let your belief in God’s forgiveness soften and free you to forgive.
Do not bring us to the time of trial.
This petition is an acknowledgement of our weakness, our need to be saved.
Save and deliver us O God from all that threatens us, especially from the evil we may be tempted to think or do.
So that is the teaching before the parable.
A simple prayer which is easy to pray, but which, as we pray it slowly every day teaches us how to live in a relationship of trust with an all loving God..
After the parable we hear “Ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened” and “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children how much more will God will give his Holy spirit, to his beloved children.”
I hope we can now see that Jesus is not teaching us that we have to batter God with our prayers, or to twist his arm, just the opposite; that the little story about the friend at midnight is a parable of unlikeness.
Jesus is saying, God is not at all like the disturbed householder, but if even this man eventually got up when he was asked, we can trust that God, our loving father, will listen, will hear our prayer, without needing to be persuaded or cajoled or brow beaten into it.
But nevertheless, Jesus does want us to persevere in prayer.
Why? If we don’t need to persuade God to do what we want, why bother?
Here are three answers to this question.
Firstly our prayer keeps us in touch with God and his love for us.
Also that Jesus is clear that our prayer is needed, that it does make a difference; that for God’s kingdom to happen here we need to pray for it. That our prayer enables God to enter a situation and work in it for the coming of the kingdom in ways he could not unless we prayed.
Thirdly that our prayer changes us so that we become ourselves the answer to prayer, a sign and an agent of God’s kingdom of love. In intractable situations we must be prepared to be ourselves God’s only hope.
Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jew who wrote a diary and letters from the transit camp where she lived before being sent to and dying in Auschwitz.
She prayed this before being sent to the camp.
Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight I lay in the dark as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me… You cannot help us but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last. …
There are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping, but who are nothing more than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings, And they say “I shan’t let them get me into their clutches”, but they forget that no-one is in their clutches who is in your arms,
Patrick Woodhouse comments:
“This young woman lost her life but was “delivered” She triumphed. Through her trust to the last in the indwelling reality of God she became a radiant presence in that hell of a camp.
A person who, in a place of death, cared for others, particularly the most vulnerable, and so bore witness to life and to the love of God.” *
Our prayer, if it is persistent, that is, regular and faithful and whole hearted, transforms us, so that God, through us, can transform the world.
*Life in the Psalms