Message: Knocking On Heaven’s Door
Scripture: Luke 11:5-13
Date: July 26, 2015
As I was beginning to prepare for this message, Bob Dylan’s song from quite a few years ago called: “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” kept playing in my head. Well actually just the chorus which just repeats the phrase “Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door” four times. I have heard that song many times down through the years but realized that I had never paid attention to any of the verses. I just got caught up in that one phrase. And it kept going through my head and now it’s probably going to go through some of your heads for the rest of the day. You’re welcome. But no matter what I try, I can’t seem to get past it. But then I realized that that really is not that much different then how I have approached this story in the past. I have read it many times but I can’t say that I ever really gotten past the part about the friend knocking on the door at midnight. In the past, I haven’t really processed that Jesus told this story as part of a continuing lesson on prayer that begins with the Lord’s prayer and ends with the affirmation of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to those who pray. I just get hung up on the neighbor knocking on the door in the middle of the night. And, I suspect, many of us do the same thing. We view the Christian life as continually knocking on Heaven’s door until we finally wear God down and when our life is over on this earth he let’s us in. But in Jesus’s story, knocking on the door is really the beginning of a much deeper understanding of life and prayer then the Disciples ever had before.
Now, it begins when the Disciples noticed that Jesus frequently went off by himself to pray. In fact, I think we can assume that, though not specifically told in scripture, everyday Jesus went off and spent time in prayer. And the Disciples had noticed the strength and renewal that Jesus came back to them with after these times of prayer. And so they say to Jesus, “We would like to experience that same kind of power surge in our lives. Teach us to pray like you pray Jesus.” And so first Jesus teaches them how to pray by giving them the outline of the model prayer, “Our Father who is in Heaven”. The Lord’s Prayer. All these centuries later we still repeat this prayer every Sunday in worship. Now we could debate whether Jesus was telling the Disciples to pray these exact words or include these concepts when you pray. Reverence, confession, forgiveness, petition, etc. But the point is that with the Lord’s prayer He is telling them how He prays. And then He tells this story so they will understand why He prays.
And so, the first thing he wants them to understand is that Disciples should approach prayer with a sense of celebration and anticipation of great things happening. Elsworth Kalas, the former President of Asbury Seminary, in his book, Parables From The Backside, Vol. 2, contends that Jesus told this story with kind of a tongue in cheek attitude. Prayer is relationship and so there needs to be an element of celebration for all of the good things that come out of the relationship, as well as seeking strength in the difficult times. That a very important part of God’s will for us is joyful living, but too often we forget about that when it comes to prayer. That we only take the bad things to God. Every Monday one of our wonderful volunteers goes through all of the registration cards that are received on Sunday, and compiles a list of prayer concerns and then circulates those concerns around the staff and the church. And During the week we pray for illness, and grief, and job loss, and other serious needs, as we should. But you know what’s missing most weeks from our prayer list, our joys and celebrations. We are quick to take all the difficult, even tragic circumstances of our lives to God, but we are not nearly as anxious to take the joys and celebrations. Now think about that in terms of the relationship that is represented by our prayers. Our relationship with God. Is God only present with us in the difficult times of life? Because often that’s what our prayer life reflects. Have you ever had a friend who only had negative things to say? Every conversation was filled with the tragedies and the disappointments of life. They travel through life with a dark cloud around them always. I know I have had friends like that, and inevitably there comes that time when I feel so sorry for them, but I realize that there is really little I can do for them, and so, I start trying to avoid them. I don’t feel good about it, but no relationship can survive if it is based solely on that which is negative. Well, I think that’s the way it is with our relationship with God. Certainly we need to take to God the concerns, even the pains of our life, but we have got to balance that out with the joys of life too. God certainly cries with us, hurts with us, but He also wants to celebrate with us.
In the early Twentieth Century, Rollin Walker taught Bible at Ohio Wesleyan University and he came to be known by many as America’s favorite Bible teacher. But he also became well known for the prayers he would offer in the chapel services at the college because sometimes he would pause in the midst of his prayers and start to laugh at something he found amusing and that he figured God found amusing also. Most loved it and had their own Rollin Walker stories but there were some who were offended by the thought of mixing laughter and prayer and believed it to be offensive to God also.
The story is told of St. Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 1500’s at the time of the Protestant Reformation. It was a time when there wasn’t a lot of humor in the church, to say the least. But Teresa would encourage the nuns in her convent to dance on their way to Mass and she passed out castanets for them to use during feast day celebrations. It was reported that during prayer she would often carry on frank and amusing conversations with God. None of this sat well with the Mother Superior of the Convent and after another session in which the Mother Abbess had chastised her for her light hearted, joy filled attitude, Teresa unfazed reported to her fellow sisters that she had complained to God, “Lord, if I had my way that woman wouldn’t be Mother Superior here” and then she reported that God had replied to her prayer, “Teresa, if I had My way, she wouldn’t be either.” Elsworth Kalas says: “Sometimes when I’m praying I have to smile at my own absurdity. Prayer is a particularly good time for being relieved of the burden of taking ourselves too seriously.” For the neighbor who knocked on the door at midnight this was not a life or death situation. But it was certainly a matter of enhancing the enjoyment of life. Hospitality wasn’t a crucial element to sustain life but it was crucial to enjoying life. And so by adding that element to this story, Jesus, I think, is trying to impress upon the Disciples that there needs to be an element of joy and celebration in our relationship with God that should be reflected when we pray. So look again at this story. Late one night, a man hears a knock at his door and opens the door to find a friend there who has traveled a long way to visit. But the man didn’t know that his friend was coming. And because his wife was old school and only prepared enough bread and food for one day (remember God’s instructions concerning the Manna in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt that they were only to gather enough to feed their family for one day). And so at this hour all the bread had been consumed. But yet hospitality was a serious matter in Israel in those days, and so the Disciples would have immediately understood the difficult situation the man was faced with. How would he save face with his friend who had traveled so far to visit him? Now we may be thinking “but the friend came in the middle of the night, so he shouldn’t have expected a lot of hospitality.” But what we may not understand is that the common time to travel in those days would have been at night to avoid traveling in the intense heat of the day. There were no air conditioned camels. A visitor arriving at night would not have been unusual and would not have absolved the host from the need to offer hospitality. And so he snuck out the back door and ran to his neighbor’s house to borrow some bread that he could share with the traveler. Of course, had he thought about it he would have realized that at that hour his neighbor was not likely to have any bread either, but he was frantic. And he knocks on his neighbor’s door, and has the audacity to ask – not for one loaf – but three loaves. One for his friend, one for his wife and one for himself – “because a friend has come and I don’t have anything to set before him. ” And yet how absurd that he thinks his neighbor will have not just one loaf, but three. And if that isn’t enough for us to get some sense of the lighthearted mood that Jesus was wanting to set in telling this story, consider the reaction of the neighbor. When the knock comes on his door, he doesn’t get out of bed because he says he is afraid that in doing so he will disturb his wife and children. Now to really get the picture, we need to understand that houses in Israel were usually just one room that they used as a living room, kitchen, dining room and bedroom. So at night, they would push any furniture they had aside and place a mat on the floor and the whole family would sleep together on that mat. It was tight quarters. So if one of them got up in the night, they couldn’t help but disturb everyone else. So it just wasn’t worth it to disturb the whole family to go to the door and respond to his neighbor. So from the sleeping mat he hollers in a voice loud enough to be heard through the door, “Go away. I won’t give you any bread because getting up will disturb my sleeping family” as if anyone could still be asleep with all this racket going on. But the neighbor is undeterred. He can’t save face if he goes back empty handed. So the neighbor is persistent and keeps knocking on the door (knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door) until finally, I’m sure at the insistence of his spouse over the wailing of the now awake children, the friend gets up and Jesus says gives him as much as he needs. But he makes it clear that he does not do so because they are friends, but rather just to make him go away. And then perhaps Jesus chuckled and said: So why do I pray? Because if you keep knocking, the door will be opened to you. Jesus told another story that was similar in tone about a widow who had been wronged by another to the point of financial ruin. She was facing life on the street as a beggar if she couldn’t have her grievance addressed. But widows had no legal status and she couldn’t get a judge to even hear her case. And so she started to stalk the judge. Every time he looked around, she was there pleading with him to hear her case. We can just picture the judge sneaking around. Before he stepped out in the street he would look around to make sure she wasn’t there. He would hear her coming and rush out the back door of the court house. But the widow persisted. And finally the judge gave in and in doing so he said, “I don’t care about any man or woman, and I certainly don’t fear God – but I am going to intervene on her behalf so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming.” William Barclay says that the literal translation for the phrase “wear me out” is “lest she give me a black eye.” So what Jesus was saying was that this mighty judge, who didn’t fear God, gave in because he was afraid of this lowly widow’s right cross. In both of these stories, Jesus goes to extremes to show that persistence will be rewarded. And then he says, if that’s the case with these who don’t really care anything about their neighbor or this widow, how much greater will the rewards be from a God who loves and cares for His children. If these who have evil thoughts and desires end up rewarding persistence with good, how much more will your Father who loves you give you. In fact, He will give the key to life, the Holy Spirit, to those who ask. And so, there is an element of persistency in prayer that we often miss. But why should we keep bringing the same prayer to God? Why should we repeat the Lord’s prayer every time we come together for worship. Does God forget our need? After all, doesn’t scripture tell us that God knows our needs even before we ask? But the truth is, persistence in our prayer life is more for us then it is for God. It is at this point that these stories move from the humorously absurd to the profound. Why did Jesus pray? Because prayer is the reflection of our relationship with God, which for the Disciples needs to be persistent and all encompassing. Prayer is more for the Disciples then it is for God. Those who love God, who are in relationship with Him will pray with persistence. The Apostle Paul may have had this story in mind when he wrote to the Thessalonians, Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus FOR YOU. Prayer is not reserved for those times of pain and tragedy. Prayer should also be an expression of the joy we find in our loving relationship with God. I suspect that Jesus detected that the Disciples, in watching Him go off to pray, in those times when the persistence of the crowds as well as the religious leaders had worn Him down, had made the assumption that He was always knocking on Heaven’s door seeking a loaf of bread to sustain Him, and, of course there was some of that. But He also wanted them to see that part of His prayer was in celebration that the crowds were coming in the first place, that some were responding, and that the religious leaders were, at least listening to Him, and some of them like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimithea and even the Disciples themselves were responding to Him in a positive way.
When we pray we are doing life with and in Jesus Christ. And sometimes life is amazingly wonderful, and sometimes it’s unspeakably painful. But it’s all a reflection of our life in Christ. For Disciples, prayer needs to become our life. Not just something that we do when the clock strikes midnight and we find ourselves next to a loved ones hospital bed, or contemplating our test results. It is who we are, all the time.
And then it seems to me that in Jesus’ thinking boldness is a cousin to persistence in our prayer life. The Apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonians about boldly petitioning God. Eugene Peterson, in his scriptural paraphrase, The Message, translates Paul’s words this way:
Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, let God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.
Both the neighbor and the widow were bold in their approach and were rewarded. Often times we are too timid in our prayer life. Pray with hope and confidence. A pastor tells of receiving a terrible call in his office one day informing him that a part time staff member of the church had been attacked while walking his dog and been stabbed in the heart and rushed to the hospital. He was intensive care and the doctors weren’t giving him much chance of survival. And so he gathered the church staff together to pray and standing around the communion table in the Sanctuary they each lifted up their prayers. And the pastor said they prayed for comfort and strength for the family, each prayer giving in to the seeming inevitability of death. And then it came to the custodian to pray. He refused to give in to death and the pastor said he practically yelled his prayer at God. He pointed his finger in the air and shook it at God and said:
You’ve got to save him. You just can’t let him die. You’ve done it many times, Lord. You’ve done it for others, you’ve done it for me, now I am begging you to do it again. Do it for him. Save him Lord.
The Pastor said it was like he grabbed God by the lapels and refused to turn Him loose until God healed his friend. And He did.
Of course, that’s much easier to understand when we knock on Heaven’s door and it is opened to us and we are given the justice that we seek and the bread that sustains us. But sometimes we knock, knock, knock on Heaven’s door, and it seemingly remains closed to us. Because it seems to me that when Jesus summarizes this story with the words Ask and it will be given to you: seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you, Jesus is implying that all of our persistent, bold, faithful prayers will be answered. But we know that does not always seem to be the case, does it? So was Jesus lying to the Disciples? Kalas writes: Sometimes prayer is heartbreaking. If you’re praying for someone with a life-threatening malignancy, or if you’ve tried for years by both prayers and deeds to save a marriage, unanswered prayer is not a theological problem for thoughtful discussion; it is pain and disillusionment staring you in the face.
J.B. Phillips was a parish priest in London during the Second World War who wrestled with the question of answered and unanswered prayer during his lifetime. It began early in his ministry with two men in his parish who were both stricken with inoperable cancer. Both of them active in the Parish and fine Christian men. Phillips said he prayed for both with the same earnestness and fervor. But one was miraculously healed while the other died. Phillips sought counsel from another, older parish priest who said to him that it must have been God’s will that one die and the other be healed. But Phillips felt that was the easy explanation, and so began a life long quest to understand God’s will. He said the question came to him again in the bomb shelters of London during the terrible bombing of London, leading the people in prayers for peace but still, night after night the bombs fell. And once again He asked Why are some prayers answered and others aren’t? Well, I don’t know if Phillips ever found a satisfactory answer to his questioning, but I think it might lie in this story that Jesus told. When we read Jesus’ words here: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened; we associate our individual prayer concerns with what Jesus is saying here. That all we need to do is share our concerns with God, and our prayers will be answered. Some change these words to mean ask in prayer and God will answer your prayers. And then others say that’s true, but sometimes the answer is no. You see, I am not sure Jesus has any of that in mind in telling this story. But let me suggest that what Jesus is doing is referring the Disciples back to the words that He had spoken as part of the model prayer He had given them, when He said: When you pray say: Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. I think when Jesus talks about persistence and boldness in our prayer relationship, He is more concerned with seeking God’s will then he is in seeking a loaf of bread. Because Disciples, just between us, gathered around this Campfire, there are forces on this earth who do not want God’s Kingdom to come at all and who fight against God’s will. You see, in that Kingdom of God I’ve been telling you about God’s will is perfect, and so when God’s Kingdom comes all of our prayers will be answered but in this earthly kingdom in which we dwell, there are forces that fight against the Kingdom coming at every turn.
Elsworth Kalas goes on to say this:
Some quickly sweep the issue (of answered and unanswered prayer) under a sort of ecclesiastical carpet with the phrase, “It must be a question of God’s will.” That’s the easy answer; and like so many easy answers, it’s a bit of a cop-out. A very great deal of what happens in our world is not God’s will; that’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray for God’s will to be done because it won’t automatically happen. God’s will happens as God’s people work, love, give, and pray to make it happen. Which is to say, there’s something at work in this world of ours that doesn’t want God’s will to happen.
And so this story, in the end, says that our task as Disciple’s is to keep knocking on Heaven’s door, until God’s Kingdom comes into all, and to keep seeking His will until, in the words of Paul to the Phillipians, at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is indeed Lord.
And , in the vision of the church Jesus Christ is truly in every life.
And the day will come when every prayer is answered in Heaven and on earth to the glory of God.
Oh Lord, may it be so, and may it start today, right this moment, in the hearts of we Disciples who are knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door.