Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Matthew 7:7-12

7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

   9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

 

            Before we get into our scripture today I want to make sure that we are clear on a couple of points.  The first point is that we have absolutely no idea why some prayers are answered in the way that we want them to be answered and why others are seemingly ignored or answered with a “no”.  Can we just admit that right up front?  I have heard a lot of Bible scholars say a lot of fancy things and propose a lot of reasons why certain prayers are answered as we would like them to be and why some are not.  Some of these arguments are more convincing than others, and I will touch on a few of these today as we go along.  But I just want to note before we get too deep today that nobody can say for sure why your prayer for healing for your grandmother was answered and my prayer for healing for my grandmother was not.  We are left guessing and questioning, and that is really about all that we can do. 

Perhaps Isaiah 55:8-9 is helpful: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.  ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”  That is helpful to me…somewhat.  Sometimes it gives me comfort to know that I can’t figure God out and never will be able to figure God out.  So I can relax a little bit and just know what can be known about God and this includes things like God is good and God is loving.  So if God is good and God is loving, I can trust God.

            But to be honest, I get a little bit frustrated when someone tries to make prayer into some sort of formula or a recipe where if we were to just add a little more of this here and a little more of that there, let it bake just a little bit longer and adjust for the altitude, then God will answer our prayer.  For instance, in one place in the Bible Jesus says that if we ask for something “in my name” that Jesus will do it.  So we make sure to end all of our prayers with the phrase “In Jesus’ name.”  That will make God answer our prayers.  No, I think it is helpful to consider some of the reasons why God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way that we want him to, but to look at prayer as a recipe that just needs to be slightly tweaked misses the point of prayer.  Prayer is a conversation between us and God; it is our opening up our lives and inviting God to act in our lives.  Prayer isn’t a magic formula or recipe.  There are times when the Bible tells us that the words that we prayer aren’t even that important because the Holy Spirit intercedes and communicates for us.

            The second thing that I want to point out before we look at today’s scripture is even though we don’t know why some prayers are answered and some prayers aren’t answered, we know that prayer is important; perhaps even the strongest tool that we have to change the world.

            2 Chronicles 7:14 says, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”  This verse makes it sound like the healing of the land, which in this case was from drought and locusts, will come about only “if” the people humble themselves and pray.  The healing of the land is contingent upon prayer.  Now that is power!  James 5:16 tells us, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”  But then again, Romans 3:10 tells us that there is no one who is righteous, not one.  So does this mean that nobody’s prayer is powerful and effective?  I think you can begin to understand why I started with the first point.  We don’t understand prayer.  But we don’t have to know how prayer works to know that we are called to be people who pray.

            Okay, enough of that, let’s look at the scripture to see what we can learn today rather than spending all of our time looking at what we can’t know.  Verses 7-8 from our text say, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

            There is a pastor that I follow on the internet that preached on this passage about 1.5 years ago.  And after he had read this passage he asked the congregation what went through their heads.  He then shared with them the very thing that his mind went to: a song by Janis Joplin titled Mercedes Benz.  The lyrics to the song: Oh Lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes-Benz?  My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.  Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.  Oh Lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes-Benz?

            Janis Joplin drove a Porsche herself, so we all know why God didn’t answer that prayer.  That’s right, she never said, “In Jesus’ name.”  No, I think we would all agree that God is not some cosmic genie who will grant us three wishes if we just rub the bottle.  God doesn’t promise that he will give us everything that we want.  This scripture should not be taken out of context to say that if we ask, God will give us a bigger house, faster car, or better-paying job.  These things can become idols in our lives and I don’t think that God is in the business of giving out things that will become our idols. 

So while God doesn’t just give out things like Mercedes when we ask, our passage is clear that God wants us to ask for things and God wants to answer our prayers.

            Our passage goes on to ask the question Is there any of you that would give your child a stone if they asked for bread or a snake if they asked for a fish?  Jesus doesn’t even bother answering this question because it is quite obvious.  Of course you wouldn’t give your child a stone if they asked for bread or a snake if they asked for a fish, although the snake thing might be a little bit funny if it wasn’t a poisonous snake.  The point is that God wants to give us the things that we need.  And notice the difference between the examples that Jesus uses here and what Janis Joplin was asking for.  The examples that Jesus used are essential for daily living.  We need food.  We don’t need a Mercedes-Benz. 

            I was thinking about this some this past week as I was preparing for today.  I often work at home on my laptop throughout the day.  I am checking email, doing research, and downloading random Janis Joplin songs from the internet.  That is one of the nice things about my job: I can do it from a variety of locations.

            So this week I was working on my sermon and my little boy, who is 16-months-old, comes up to me carrying a book: Curious George: 1-10 and Back Again.  He loves this book, and I suspect it has something to do with the puppy that is on one of the pages.  So this is what happens; I am working, typing, researching, reading and Paxton comes up to me with this book.  I have read this book many, many times.  We have gone from 1-10 and back again enough times that I can tell you without looking that the puppy is on the page that highlights the number nine on the way back down.  There are “Nine nice neighbors and one good dog.”

            I had a pretty busy week.  I did a wedding last night and the rehearsal was on Friday, which was, of course, followed by the rehearsal dinner.  I wanted to have my sermon ready for today as early as possible because I had two sermons to give in a period of about 16 hours.  And I really would have liked to have been able to spend half of those 16 hours sleeping.

            So here I am, working at writing one of my two sermons for the week, knowing very well that it was going to be a busy weekend and that I would be forced out of my normal routine-and just a side note: I love my routine.  Don’t mess with my routines.  It is a good thing that I enjoy doing weddings because otherwise I might turn people away because I don’t want to sacrifice my routine.  So this little boy of mine walks up to me holding a book that we have read many, many times.  He knows what he wants, and now I know what he wants.  And I did not tell him, “Go play by yourself with your toys.  Daddy is busy now.”  No, I read him that book.  We went 1-10 and back again until Paxton got tired of the book.  And I am pretty sure that he has a longer attention span than I do.

            Why did I read that silly little book to Paxton when I knew that I needed to be working?  Because that is my son.  And to be honest, it is an honor to just have him ask something of me.  I know that the teenage years will come and he won’t want anything to do with me.  He won’t think he needs me, at least until he needs gas money.  So right now, when he asks something of me, if I think it is a good thing, I’m going to give it to him.

            I am 31-years-old and I believe that my parents still enjoy giving me things.  From the very day that I moved out of the house to go to college, my mother started sending food with me every time I walk out the door.  She would make things that she thought that I would like so that she could give them to me.  This is one way she shows her love.  And our scripture tells us that God wants to give us the things that we want as well…if they are good things.

            When Paxton came to me with that book, one of the reasons that I took the time to answer his request is because I want him to like books.  What parent doesn’t want their children to be smart and successful?  I read to him because I think that it is good for him. 

            Grandma and grandpa were here last weekend, and they brought candy.  Lots of candy.  Are you familiar with smarties?  Well Paxton is now.  Smarties are small cylindrical candies packaged in rolls.  They are made up of approximately 1% artificial flavor, 1% artificial color, and 98% sugar.  It seems as if there isn’t a hiding place that we can put the candy that Paxton is not able to find.  He is able to open drawers and cabinets and he is now tall enough to see on the top of tables.  But there is one problem: He has trouble opening the wrapper.

            We might allow Paxton to have a little bit of candy from time to time, but he got his daddy’s sweet tooth.  So if we would let him, he would eat rolls and rolls of smarties, one after another.  On the same day that Paxton brought me the book to read to him, he also brought a roll of smarties to me to open for him.  So we shared the roll of smarties, though perhaps we did not share them 50/50.  Not five minutes go by before he brings me another roll of smarties.  Using non-verbal clues he indicates that he wants me to open this second roll of smarties.  He is asking, but I know that is not what is best for him.  So I don’t give it to him, which makes for one unhappy little boy.  And he just can’t understand why I won’t open these smarties for him.

            Here is the thing.  I know that he shouldn’t have the second roll of smarties, but he doesn’t.  And they probably aren’t going to hurt him.  He isn’t going to become a victim of childhood obesity because he ate a few more smarties.  He isn’t going to have a heart attack because he ate the roll of smarties.  But I am thinking long-term here.  I don’t want to teach him poor eating habits that will affect his health when he gets to be my age.  By not answering his request, I believe I am doing him a favor.  And if I am able to do that with my very limited amount of knowledge, especially knowledge of the future, how much more should we be able to trust that God is making the right decisions when we do not receive following our asking?

            I am obviously oversimplifying things a bit.  God wants to answer your prayers and I do not mean to suggest that if God doesn’t answer your prayers that it is because it isn’t good for you or that there is something that will cause you more issues in the future if God answers your prayer.  That may be the case some times, but not always.  Like with cancer, I believe that God always wants to heal cancer and I believe that God can and has healed people of cancer before.  So when God did not heal my grandmother of cancer and she died when she was in her early 60’s, I don’t think that God didn’t heal her because he didn’t want to and he didn’t heal her because otherwise something worse would have happened.  There isn’t much worse than dyeing at a relatively young age of a disease that eats you alive from inside.  And this is when I go back to the first point that I led off with this morning when I said we don’t know why prayer works sometimes and not others.  I don’t think my grandmother died because she didn’t pray “in Jesus’ name” or because she had lived a sinful life or didn’t have enough faith.  I was too young to remember, but I am sure that she asked, sought, and knocked, but she did not receive the answer that she wanted, she didn’t find, and the door she wanted opened remained closed. 

            When someone asks you why a prayer of theirs was not answered, I believe that the best thing that we can say to them is “I don’t know.”  There might be some biblical texts that support the belief that a prayer wasn’t answered for whatever reason, but we can’t know all of the details.  What we can know is that our God loves us and cares for us.  The Bible tells us that Jesus is the perfect representation of God and if we have seen him we have seen the Father.  So if Jesus does something we can know that God is that way as well.  Jesus wanted to heal people.  I don’t remember a time in the Bible when Jesus was asked to heal someone and he simply said, ‘No, I don’t feel like it today.”  God wants us to ask, seek, and knock because God wants to answer our prayers.

            I would like to end today with something that might challenge your thinking about this scripture for today.  And I just want you to keep an open mind as I walk you through this passage looking at it from a different angle.  What if when Jesus instructs his listeners to ask, seek, and knock, he is not simply teaching us how to communicate with God but also how to interact with our brothers and sisters in Christ?

            I am really bad about asking favors of other people.  I don’t like to do it.  I like to be independent.  I don’t want to be a hassle.  So when I need to ask someone to do something for me, I will often have a little prelude to my request.  I often start by saying, “I hate to ask you this…”

            Do you do this, too?  Do you ever start a request by saying I hate to ask you this…?  And sometimes I think it is really just silly, because I shouldn’t “hate” to ask people for small favors.  One time I had a meeting in Harrisonburg and our usual baby sitter was not available so I went to the backup babysitter and she wasn’t available either.  Well I knew that a certain person would be available during the time of my meeting but I didn’t want to seem unprofessional in asking her.  You see, it was the person who was running the meeting’s wife that I knew would be right next door and free over lunch.  So I said, “I hate to ask you this, but would you mind watching Paxton while I am in this meeting?”

            Without hesitation and with excitement in her voice she said, “Why would you hate to ask me?  I would love to watch him!  Thanks for asking!”

            You see, I believe she has three grandchildren: two live in Richmond and one in Pennsylvania.  All three of her own children had moved away.  She wanted to do this favor for me and she wanted to be able to play with someone’s grandchild if she couldn’t see her own.

            If you were to ask those who first heard Jesus’s instructions to ask, seek, and knock if he had intended that teaching to be instructive of how we are to communicate with God or to communicate with others, I think their answer would have been…yes.  The New Testament teaches radical generosity for those who follow Jesus Christ.  If you have two coats, give one to the person who doesn’t have any.  Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.  They shared all that they had and there was no need among them.  Do these things sound familiar?  How about this one: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

            That is verse 12 from our scripture for this morning; we often call that “the Golden Rule.”  Immediately after Jesus tells his listeners to ask, seek, and knock as they bring their petitions to God, he says that they are to do unto others as they would have others do unto them.  The radical generosity of God who wants us to ask, seek, and knock is to be reflected in our lives.  We are not only called to be the kind of people who ask, but the kind of people who others can ask.  We are not only called to be the kind of people who seek, but the kind of people that others can seek out.  We are not only called to be the kind of people who knock, we are called to be the kind of people who open the door for others.

            Ask, seek, and knock.  It isn’t a magical formula to get your prayers answered every time.  In fact, I will guarantee you that not every prayer will be answered as you want it to be.  But just because a prayer isn’t answered doesn’t mean that God didn’t want to answer it and it doesn’t mean that you were lacking in faith.  We don’t know why some prayers go unanswered.  But we do know that some prayers are answered and that prayer can heal the nations.

            There is an old saying in basketball: You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.  Whether you are asking, seeking, or knocking by praying to God or you are asking, seeking, or knocking by looking for help from someone that God has put in your life, I think the Bible is clear.  We serve a loving God who wants to give us the things that we need.  We are to love our God and love our neighbor.  We are to treat others as we want them to treat us, with love and radical generosity.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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