How Do You Pray?

Luke 11:1-13

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 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 the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

A new pastor moved into a town, and he went out one day to visit his parishioners. All went well until he came upon this one house. It was obvious that someone was home, but no one came to the door even after he had knocked several times. Finally he took out his card, wrote on the back “Revelation 3:20” and stuck it on the back of the door. Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.”

Later in the week, as he was counting the offering, he found his card in the collection plate. Below his message was the notation “Genesis 3:10.” Genesis 3:10: “And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked: so I hid myself.”

If you were here last week, you are probably thinking that today’s scripture sounds pretty familiar. Yes, we are looking at the same text two weeks in a row. I hope that you like it, because we will be looking at it again in August. What started as a single sermon soon became a two-part sermon series on prayer. You know how it goes, you start writing something and you just can’t get it all said in a limited number of words. So I broke the sermon into two parts: “To whom do you pray?” and “For what do you pray?” But as I was writing the sermon for this Sunday, I realized that much of what Jesus says here is not about either of those things. This isn’t just about to whom or for what you are to pray. The entire passage is about how to pray.

Luke tells us that Jesus is praying, and Jesus’ disciples come to him and ask him to teach them to pray. In some ways, this is silly. How long have they been with Jesus, and they are just now asking him about prayer? Prayer was and is a part of the Jewish tradition, but we must remember that it is understood differently than in Christianity. Jews pray regularly, but not in the same way we assume Jesus did, based on how he taught his disciples.

In many ways, I don’t think that it really matters how you pray. I don’t think that one prayer is better than another. Sometimes we hear people stand up and pray long, flowery prayers that last for hours at a time. Is that prayer better than a short prayer? Are you more spiritual or is a prayer more effective if it is long? I don’t think so. We have examples where Jesus prayed all night long. But when he teaches his disciples to pray, this prayer can be said in less than one minute.

Think of all the variations of prayer and options for prayer. Must you close your eyes when you pray? I hope not, because I know that some people pray while they are driving. Don’t just throw your hands up and scream, “Jesus, take the wheel.” That’s just not safe, and I’m sure that Carrie Underwood is to blame for multiple accidents every year.

Does your posture matter in prayer? Which is better, to stand, sit, or bow down? What about the time of day. Is it better to pray in the morning or evening? Hands lifted, folded, on a rosary, or in your pockets? How important is it at mealtime to assume the position of elbows on the table, hands folded, with forehead resting on the terminal knuckle of the thumbs—maybe that’s just me.

What about prepared prayers. Are they effective? My family sings “Johnny Appleseed” before most meals. If they are hungry, they will try to hit a starting note while the meal is being served, “Oh…. The Lord’s been good to me…” Is that better or worse than an extemporaneous prayer where you just pray whatever comes to your mind? What about praying the Lord’s Prayer every day, or the Shema, like our Jewish brothers or sisters do? Is praying these kinds of prayers over and over effective? Some people use prayer books, reading the prayers that other people have written. Is that okay?

The answer is yes. That is okay. You may not like prewritten prayers, or you may not like long, off-the-cuff prayers. But in my opinion, I don’t think that God minds them one bit. I always say that how you pray is less important than that you pray.

Prayer is simply communicating with God. God created us to be in relationship with God and with one another. We pray because we have a personal God. How we pray doesn’t seem to be really important to me. Much of it is just a personal choice.

Yet we do learn something about how to pray in today’s passage. We learn how to pray with “shameless audacity,” according to the NIV.

Jesus tells the story of a man who has a visitor that shows up in the middle of the night. Showing up unannounced at midnight seems rather rude to me, yet in 1st-century, Jewish culture, it was more than rude to not provide for that friend. It would be disrespectful and offensive. The host doesn’t have any food in his house, so what does he do? He goes to wake up a friend to see if he has any food that the host can share with his visitor.

How does the friend inside the house respond? How would you respond if someone woke you up in the middle of the night and asked you to raid the fridge for them? I’d say, “Cletus, you know the Wal-marts is open 24 hours a day. Why are you bothering me?”

I get a little more redneck when I’m short on sleep.

The friend inside makes some excuses. The sleeping arrangements were different in those days, and the friend is worried that if he goes to get some food for the visitor, he will wake up his children. And those of us who have young children know how it feels to have your children wake up in the middle of the night. You hear those two little feet hit the floor, step, step, step, over to the door, creak goes their door, creak goes your door.

Not only is the friend afraid of waking the children, he has already locked the door. This wouldn’t have been a simple deadbolt lock like we have. Oh, you’ve locked the door. “Twist,” now it’s unlocked. To lock the door probably meant that they had put a large board across the inside of the door or barricaded it with something heavy. To unlock the door meant an act of physical exertion on the part of the half-asleep friend.

What makes the friend inside the house finally break down and give the visitor some bread is the shameless audacity of the man hosting a late-arriving visitor. Essentially, the host wears down his friend until he gives up and gets the bread…presumably to make the host leave so he can get back to bed!

One of the challenges of being a parent is, well, everything about being a parent is a challenge. One in particular that I’m thinking of is their desire to always buy something when we go to a store. I’m sure that it is confusing to them because that is what stores are for, you buy things at a store. So when they go with me, they want to buy something. I remember once as I was checking out at a grocery store the children were looking at the candy that is conveniently located at each checkout area. They were saying, “Dad, can we have this, can we, can we, can we? I want a blue push pop. Dad, can I have a blue push pop?”

The person working the cash register actually said to me, “I don’t know why they put that stuff right there.”

I looked her in the eye and I said, “Oh, Sweetie,” because when I’m disappointed in someone’s intellect, I turn all southern belle. “Oh, Sweetie. Really, you don’t know why they put the candy three-feet high in each aisle?” I said as I shelled out an extra $1.25 for the push pop.

This seems to be the scenario that Jesus is describing. I’m not giving my children these push pops because they are my friends. I’m not giving the candy to them because it is a healthy treat. Often I’m not even getting them this snack as a reward for good behavior. The only reason that I get them the push pop is so they will stop asking for a push pop! They wear me down and I give them the push pop because of their shameless audacity. And let’s face it, nobody has more shameless audacity than a 4-year-old.

It sounds like Jesus is saying that if we keep praying, and praying, and praying, God will eventually give in. And he follows this parable with verses 9-10: “So I say to you: 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.”

Well isn’t that great!? Keep bothering God like a visitor in the night, keep bothering God like a little kid waiting in line at the grocery store, and God will eventually give in. That is wonderful news, because I can be very persistent as well. That’s how I got my wife to finally marry me!

This is the story that a lot of Christians tell. If you just keep asking, God will give it to you. Just have faith and keep asking and you can have money, riches beyond your imagination. Just have faith and keep asking and your health will be restored. Just have faith and keep asking and your children will never have any problems.

Well, I have a problem. This formula doesn’t work like that. I know that it doesn’t work like that because I have tried. Growing up, I prayed a very specific prayer every night before I went to bed. I wanted to be a professional basketball player when I grew up, so I prayed that God would make me grow to be 6 foot 7 inches tall, 220 lbs, with a vertical leap over 40 inches. This was the ideal body, in my mind, for a professional basketball player, because these were the metrics of one of my favorite ball players. So I prayed every night for years to grow to be 6’7”, 220 lbs., with a vertical leap of over 40 inches. For years I prayed this prayer. With faith I asked God to give me this size and athletic ability. I even bargained, if God gave me the physical size and athleticism, I would work on my skills on my own to get me to the level that I needed to be at. God, just make me 6’7” tall, 220 lbs., with a vertical leap over 40 inches.

Turns out I got one out of three. But 220 lbs. is a lot different on a 6’ 0” frame than on a 6’7” frame.

This is just a “fun” example of how the basic formula of how to pray does not guarantee anything. There are many more serious examples of how the formula has failed us. We have all prayed for sick people to be made well, only to see them die. Children with cancer die in spite of the persistent prayers of people around the world. People with chronic pain pray with shameless audacity and never get better.

One of them was the Apostle Paul. He prayed to have an unnamed thorn in his flesh removed, but it wasn’t. Jesus himself prayed until drops of blood formed on his forehead, praying that he need not be crucified. He was.

So this leaves me with two options. Clearly, Jesus told the disciples to pray with shameless audacity like a child wanting candy and he followed that by encouraging them to ask, seek, and knock because if they do they will be given, they will find, and the door will be opened. Either Jesus was wrong, or we have misunderstood him.

Guess which option I’m going with.

Repeat after me: This is not a guaranteed formula for having your prayers answered as you would want them to be. This is not a magic trick or a recipe.

The interpretation of this story about the shameless audacity of the asker hinges on the context of this passage. Look at verses 11-12, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” I keep joking around saying that this is a real low bar that Jesus is setting. When you hear this from Jesus you think, What kind of father would do such a thing? I’ve got a twisted sense of humor, but I’m not going to give my child a poisonous creature when they ask for food.

The father in this rhetorical question isn’t supposed to represent God. The father in this rhetorical question represents to opposite of God. Verse 13, “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 the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

God isn’t the kind of Father that gives scorpions and snakes. God is the kind of Father that gives fish and eggs. And this story is parallel to the one about the friend who doesn’t get out of bed to help provide for the night visitor. God isn’t that kind of friend. God isn’t the kind of friend that gives because you wear him down, break him down, with your shameless audacity. God is the opposite kind of friend, the one who gives because you are his friend.

When Jesus’s Jewish, 1st-century audience heard this story, they wouldn’t be able to conceive of a person who wouldn’t get out of bed to help a friend in need, even in the middle of the night! Not doing so is like giving your child a snake when they ask for a fish or a scorpion when they ask for an egg.

Prayer isn’t about wearing God down with shameless audacity. It is about bringing your petitions to a good Father and a good Friend. God will get out of bed in the middle of the night, wake up the children, and throw open the locked door to help you out. But we also have a part in all of this. We ask God, that’s traditional prayer. But what is next? We seek. Again, in just a few chapters Jesus will tell the story of a shepherd who searches for a lost sheep, and a woman who searches for a lost coin. Prayer isn’t just about asking God for something. Prayer requires an action from us. We need to start looking high and low, seeking what is lost. Prayer isn’t simply asking God to do something, it is about partnering with God to do something.

When we pray, God expects us to do something as well. We don’t pray for daily bread and turn down a job offer because we expect that God will give us daily bread in some miraculous way! Ask, then seek. Get up off your chair and do something.

We also knock. There are three options that I can think of when we go to a door and knock. One, the door will be opened. Two, the door will remain closed. Or three, someone will ask us to come back later.

It is by all means a cliché, but I think it is a true cliché that God answers all prayers. Sometimes with a “yes,” other times with a “no.” And still other times with a “not yet.”


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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