Sermon - 28th July 2013
Scripture - Genesis 18:17, 20-32; Luke 11:1-13
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Introduction – What do we think of prayer?
About a year ago George and I were staffing the open church that we do here every Thursday morning. Someone came in and asked if we could pray for someone. We said “yes, of course” and as she continued to stand over where we were sitting it was clear she wanted us to pray then and there. George and I duly bowed our heads and prayed. Suddenly a voice came from above. Not, I’m afraid, the voice of the Lord but the voice of the woman saying, “Don’t you pray out loud then?” Clearly we weren’t spiritual enough for her and off she went, no doubt shaking the dust from her feet.
So, we’re all in church, we’re all sitting – hopefully comfortably. We all expect that prayer will be part of the service. We all, hopefully pray – with me so far? What, then is prayer for you? (Get some ideas.)
It seems to me that there are many Biblical views of prayer:
- asking God for things,
- berating God – all those Psalms which tell God off,
- nagging God – just as the householder nagged his neighbour in our Gospel reading,
- being still before God and simply listening– like Mary in our Gospel reading last week,
- perhaps even bargaining with God like Abraham in today’s reading.
We may prefer one style of prayer more than others; some styles may be very difficult – being still in God’s presence is something some find hard. Others might be horrified at the idea of nagging God! But all these styles, and probably more, can be found within the Bible and all make us engage with deeper questions about prayer.
God is mysterious - Scripture helps us understand this mystery a bit, as do our church traditions, our sharing of ideas, our own experience of God – but, in the end God is a mystery. This mystery can be seen most clearly when we think about prayer – we know that God is good, we believe that God is all powerful and yet dreadful things still happen in our world. Prayers seem to go unanswered for some, perhaps many. Millions pray for food and rain which doesn’t come, for an end to endless wars, to freedom from oppression, for healing from sickness. These things can affect our faith profoundly – particularly if we think that God hasn’t answered our own sincere prayers.
The Genesis passage is, itself, rather mysterious. Before the passage we’ve read today we meet three rather odd visitors, who come to see Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is the good host and gets busy organising Sarah and his servants in offering hospitality to these visitors. Yet the text seems to imply that these visitors are, somehow, also the Lord. The text seems to alternate between talking about the three visitors and talking about the Lord so Christians often think this is a reference to the Trinity. Jews prefer to think of these visitors as angels. But it’s really not clear from the text who these guys are.
But the mystery continues in the passage we heard today. First, God wonders if he should share his mind with Abraham – he wonders out loud and then he decides to share his plan to annihilate Sodom because of the outcry that has reached his ears. This isn’t a picture of God that many of us are comfortable with. First he doesn’t seem to know his own mind and, second, he is planning to destroy a city!
We don’t know what the outcry about Sodom was about – we don’t know what the sin of Sodom was. This is the chapter before the angelic visitors encounter Sodom so whatever happened to them is after God had resolved to destroy the city. Ezekiel, in chapter 16, states that Sodom was destroyed because of its pride and oppression of the poor but, at this point in Genesis, there are no clues about what Sodom’s sin was.
As the passage goes on we see that God can be bargained with. He seems more like an ancient tribal leader than the omniscient God we try and relate to. Yet, at the same time, this bargaining makes Him rather more easy to grasp than the notion of a distant God sitting on a cloud in the heavens.
Then there is the mystery of a God who needs to go and see for himself what Sodom is like – our view of God would insist that God would have already known – and then there is this view of a God who needs to be reminded that he is, after all, just. Duly reminded God relents, a bit, Sodom will be destroyed only if 50 good people can’t be found, then the number is reduced until we get to 5. It’s a great story, and it may be an interesting model for being persistent in prayer but it’s a troubling portrayal of God. It troubles us as this portrayal of God seems different to what we’re used to – but often when we pray we wonder if we should bargain with God – just like we may bargain at the end of a relationship or when bereaved.
In our reading from Luke we’re given another image of prayer. After the straightforward teaching on how to pray – which we have turned into the set Lord’s prayer – Jesus tries to explain what prayer should be like and uses this story of the guy who disturbs his neighbour at night.
When we read the story we feel a bit sorry for the person who is disturbed – after all, if you’re like me, you get grumpy at people who want to sell us insurance, charity or religion at the door! This bloke has gone to bed, he’s asleep, his household has settled down for the night.
In our culture it would be very rude to disturb people unless it was an emergency. In Jesus’ culture, however, there was an absolute duty to offer hospitality – the unexpected guest must be given food and drink and shown every mark of welcome. If the householder didn’t show this hospitality he would be shamed so he has to do everything in his power to fulfil his obligation – even by waking up his friend! He is shameless in his persistence and the friend has to give in because he knows that his mate can’t be shamed. Jesus seems to be saying that we have to be as persistent as the householder when we pray – to ask, and ask and ask again. This flows into his words about asking and things being given to us.
Now, of course, we know that we should ask God for what we need in prayer. We know that God answers prayer and that we have many blessings. But that’s not all we know. We know that it seems that God doesn’t always answer prayer, that people go to bed hungry, that wars continue, that the evil remain unpunished.
Of course all the generations have struggled with this mystery – a God who promises us good things but who also seems to withhold those very things to so many in the world. The rabbis and Church thinkers have offered various possibilities to solving this mystery.
Sometimes we don’t ask for what we should: I’m tempted to pray for the forthcoming lottery numbers but would winning several million ultimately be good for me? (Though I wouldn’t object to being tested in that way!) We do not always ask wisely, and God, to be a truly loving God, must refuse our request. Yet this explanation cannot account for the many cases in which our requests must surely be in tune with God’s will – when we pray for the end to suffering, war and injustice for example. Scripture bears witness to God’s will that everyone have enough to eat and that violence and war cease. Jesus tells us to pray for daily bread and for God’s kingdom to come. Yet millions continue to go hungry and wars rage on.
Another explanation often given to the problem of unanswered prayer is that “everything happens for a reason.” God has some purpose in everything that happens. No matter how bad it may seem, it is all part of God’s plan to bring about some higher good. This is a troubling explanation, to say the least, as it holds that whatever happens must be God’s will. One would then have to say that all kinds of evil -- such as violence, torture, starvation, and premature death -- are the will of God. We dare not call the tragic results of our own sin and rebellion “God’s will.” Of course we believe that God can bring good out of evil. Indeed, this is our only hope and the heart of our faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But that is quite a different thing from saying that whatever evil thing happens is God’s will.
What then can we say about unanswered prayer? It is wise to be wary of saying more than we can possibly know, and in offering easy answers to complex questions. We can, however, affirm what Scripture tells us: that God is all-powerful, yet God is not the only power in the world. There are other powers at work, the powers of evil which seek to thwart God’s will. The powers of evil and death are often manifested in human sin. Although God has won the ultimate victory over these powers through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the battle still rages on until it will be finally over when the Kingdom comes. Consequently, God’s will can be -- and often is -- thwarted.
All this can leave a sense of incompleteness. All (or maybe most) of the explanations given for unanswered prayer may be true, or at least partly true. They may help balance the mystery of our experience of some prayers being answered and others not. But maybe we need to change our view of God a bit.
Maybe the authors and editors of Genesis portrayed God as best they could but that portrayal is lacking. We don’t see God as someone who thinks out loud, who has to send messengers to see what a place is like and who needs to be bargained with in order to change His mind from destroying a city. We are always tempted to create God in our own image, to make God seem more like us – it’s an understandable reaction, after all, we have to try and relate to God. But part of the problem maybe that we make God seem to much like us and we forget there is a tension between God who is close to us and a God who is different from us.
There is no answer to this mystery but the exploration of these tensions enriches us and gives us more of an insight into the mystery that is God. We wait for the Coming of the Kingdom when the mystery will be revealed but, until then, we wait and trust and pray and see prayer as food for the journey.