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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Matthew 7:7-11
“Why Pray?”
January 11, 2015 - First Sunday after Epiphany

         This past summer our daughter Joanna learned about wire nuts, faucet stems, pipe wrenches and lots of other hardware and tools. She worked in the warehouse of the maintenance operation for an apartment management company in Chicago. She helped organize and computerize their inventory of parts and tools used by the maintenance people making repairs in hundreds of apartments owned by the firm.

         George or Juan would come to Joanna and request washers or a pane of window glass or a large tool like a drain rooter. Things went smoothly when they thought through all the parts and tools needed and submitted a good, complete order for everything necessary. When unforeseen problems cropped up or if they hadn’t planned well, they came back to the warehouse to ask for other items to complete the job.

         Our text today is Jesus’ provision of a kind of spiritual parts warehouse system for His disciples. For everything that He asked them to do, they were to come to God and ask for whatever was necessary. Take a look before this in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, 6 and the beginning of chapter 7. Jesus told us to be perfect like God is perfect, to not get angry, to not look at others with lust, to tell the truth, to not hit back, to love our enemies, to give and pray and fast without seeking any attention for it, and not to worry and not to judge. It’s a huge work order and it requires a huge amount of resources and spiritual tools if you or I are going to come anywhere near living that way. Our text tells us where to go to requests what’s needed.

         Putting this text in context defuses some of our confusion when we read verse 7 and hear, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” By itself or together with verse 8, which promises again that our asking will be answered and our seeking will find and our knocking will get the door opened, it sounds like a blank check for prayer. We can get whatever we want, so shoot for the moon!

         But connect what Jesus is saying here to what He’s just asked of us, and you see that His call to ask is a call to seek all that’s necessary to get done the spiritual work He’s just given us. He’s not inviting us to pray expectantly for a new car or a six-figure income. He’s telling us to ask for what we need in order to love others and love God.

         If you’re going to take these verses, as I’ve decided to this morning, as an answer to the question “Why pray?” it’s not to that we should pray because it’s a good way to get wishes granted. As C. S. Lewis and many other Christians have said, thinking about prayer that way turns it into magic, not an act of true Christian faith.

         God answers prayer to help us live as and become the kind of people He wants us to be, people who know how to turn the other cheek and forgive and do good without bragging about it. That’s the work He’s given us to do and the materials to do that work are what He wants us to ask for. So the first answer to the question, “Why pray?” is that we have to pray, we have to ask God for what’s needed, if we’re going to come anywhere close to obeying and following what Jesus asked of us.

         The second answer to that question, “Why pray?” is that it is also, like most of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, something Jesus told us to do. The Lord commanded us to pray. Karl Barth thinks that is reason enough. [1] If God tells us to, we should do it, even when we cannot see any other reason. Why pray today for your daily bread when you’ve already earned money to buy it or put in the effort to bake it and it’s sitting safely in the cupboard ready to take out and put in the toaster for breakfast? Simply because we are commanded to pray, to ask, to search, to knock on heaven’s door for whatever we need.

         God directs us to pray so that we will never, whether we are deeply in need or doing very well, imagine that what we have comes from anywhere or anyone else but Him. We’re never to sit and say, “Look what I’ve accomplished for myself,” without acknowledging that nothing would have happened, nothing would be achieved, nothing would be gained but for God’s gifts to us.

         One of those maintenance guys who Joanna worked with might twist together the last connection and then tighten the screws on a light fixture, then flip the switch and step back to beam with a little pride as light floods the room. But a repair person still must acknowledge her dependence on the warehouse. That room would still be dark without the new fixture or bulb or switch that was provided. Likewise, Jesus tells us to pray so that, however hard we work, we will always admit that we depend on God’s provision.

         This reason for prayer is the answer to all those times when we want to say, “I just don’t feel like praying,” or “I can’t pray,” all those times when we fold our hands or bow our heads or kneel down and our minds go blank and our hearts are empty and no words want to form. There is much more to say about those moments or days or even months when our spirits feel dry and lifeless and it’s hard to pray. But the basic fact is that Jesus commanded us to pray, to ask, to seek, to knock, even when we don’t feel like it.

         We are commanded to pray because prayer constantly reminds us that we live by grace. That’s the heart of our faith. We do not earn God’s forgiveness and love. It is not a right which we claim. Our Lord came to us in great love and sacrifice, giving His own life, to give us a mercy we do not deserve. Prayer reminds us that everything we have and are is like that, a gift, a blessing from heaven which would not be ours but for the grace of God.

         I recently read a review of a book[2] that wants to argue that when the Declaration of Independence says, “all men are created equal,” equality can be true even if we leave out the “created” part, leave out God. We have those “unalienable Rights… Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” even if they are not “endowed by their Creator.” But without God, nature and the universe owe us nothing. If we have rights, it’s only because God has graciously created us with them, given them to us. The whole idea of human rights only makes sense if we are people who pray and acknowledge that those rights, like all the other things we possess or accomplish, are gifts from the God who made us.

         That’s why it is a happy and good coincidence that we also read the first five verses of Genesis this morning, the Bible’s basic premise that God made heaven and earth, including us. God commands us to pray because prayer is the way we constantly remember that premise, remember that God is the source of our world and of our lives. Barth says that when we are obedient to God we are “ready to begin at the beginning every time” we pray. And that beginning is the fact that everything we are and have comes from God.

         And remembering that God is our creator brings us to the third reason to pray in these verses this morning. We pray because prayer works. Verses 7 and 8 repeat that reason three times with utter and complete confidence. “Ask and it will be given you… For everyone who asks receives;” “search and you will find… and everyone who searches finds;” “knock, and the door will be opened for you… for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” That absolute assurance that God can and will give us what we need is also based in the fact that God created us and our world. It is all His to give and He can and will give it as He wills.

         This third reason for praying, that it works, is not without its difficulties. Jesus may say “Ask, and it will be given,” but almost all of us know what it’s like to ask, to pray and not receive what we prayed for. Many of you have read Takayo’s heart-rending messages from Japan about her sense that Jesus is far from her there, that her prayers are not being heard. But that’s exactly why Jesus reassured us here. God is listening and God will answer when we ask and seek and knock.

         The need to wait for answers may be exactly why Jesus included that third image here. Prayer often feels like knocking on a door that isn’t being opened. Jesus used that image explicitly in Luke 11:5-8 before He said the words we’re reading here in Matthew 7. He had us picture someone knocking on a friend’s door in the middle of the night with an urgent need. Prayer is like that, banging on God’s door, waiting for it to open. We often wonder if it ever will. But Jesus promises that it will. Prayer will be answered. That’s why we pray.

         So as Barth and others point out, don’t think that prayer is primarily about worship or devotion or self-improvement. Prayer at its core is not a spiritual exercise to calm your mind and quiet your spirit, not a way to make yourself feel better. Yes, prayer often does those things for us, helps us focus and find peace, but the root of prayer is asking for what we need, and we ask because God answers, even if it takes a long time, even if it takes a lifetime.

         Please don’t misunderstand. As I said, we probably all know what it feels like to have prayers go unanswered. Paul talked about that experience in II Corinthians 12, praying to have some physical ailment healed and getting what seemed like no response. But then Paul says he did finally receive an answer, the voice of God saying, “My grace is sufficient for you.” And that’s the promise here, that when we ask we will receive… whatever is needed, whatever is sufficient for us, and that is the grace of God.

         Which leads us then to the fourth and last reason to pray and to the rest of our text today, verses 9 to 11. We pray because God is good, because God loves us. That’s the rest of the story about our relation to God. God is not just the all-powerful Creator, the one who made us and therefore holds all the cards. We don’t just toss up our prayers hoping they will appeal to God’s fancy in some way. We pray trusting that God truly wants to answer, because He is good, because He is love.

         Jesus teaches us that truth about God’s goodness by using a kind of question He employed more than once. He asks if there is anyone among His listeners, among us, who would not behave in some good way, in this case by answering a child’s request in a good way. Then He asks us to consider that if even imperfect, evil human beings are good enough to do such a thing, how much more God who is perfectly good is likely to do it.

         There’s a principle we ought to work into all our theology, all our talk and thinking about God. God has to be at least as good as any human being is and in truth much better. So when we start worrying that somehow God isn’t being fair or kind or loving, then we need to remind ourselves to expect God to be even more fair or kind or loving than any human being we might imagine.

         In this case, Jesus asks us to imagine a child asking for food. Any of you who are parents know how powerful that request is. No nursing mother is going to push her baby away. No father is going to hold back a healthy sandwich or a plate of vegetables when a child asks for some. And if we with all our imperfect and faulty parenting skills can be at least that good, then how much more will God answer the requests of His children?

         I’ve been reading Alister McGrath’s biography of C. S. Lewis and I’ve just come to the point late in Lewis’ life when he lost his wife. He wrote down his raw thoughts and feelings in the little book A Grief Observed. He’s totally honest and so he tells how he wonders about God, whether God is just playing with us, whether it was just some cosmic joke that He  gave Lewis a wife to love for just a short time before taking her away. In the end, Lewis finally realizes that’s not true, God is not a cruel cosmic jokester, but that fact is not always easy to see.

         That’s why Jesus gives us these pictures here. A lump of stone instead of a loaf of bread is a joke. A squirming snake instead of a wriggling fish is a joke. But no human parent would play such a joke on a child and neither would a heavenly parent.

         God loves us like a father. God loves us more than any human parent loves her child. That’s why we pray. That’s why we pray with hope and confidence. We are praying to someone who wants to answer our prayers, someone who wants to give us whatever good things we need. And that’s why God tells us to pray. It gives Him joy.

         Look how strong the human feeling is. When our children get older, one sad feeling we get is that they don’t need us any longer. So sometimes when they do come back and ask for help, it feels really, really good. Our daughter Susan got stranded in Chicago flying home after Christmas last year. A blizzard moved in the night before and her flight to Toronto was cancelled before she even got to the airport. What was she to do?

         To my pleasure, she called Daddy. I talked to her, got the story and then got on-line. I didn’t think I would be able to help, but then I had the idea of buying a whole new ticket on a different flight using frequent flyer miles. And lo and behold, there was a seat available for a small amount of miles and a small fee on a flight still scheduled to go. I clicked and grabbed it, then called Susan. She went to the airport and ended up taking off and getting home on one of only two flights that flew that day, while dozens were cancelled. Because she asked Daddy for help. Let me tell you, that felt pretty good. And that’s how God feels and so much more when we come to Him for what we need.

         I will not claim too much credit for Susan’s ticket because I prayed for her as I scrolled through that airline web site. Ultimately, I know, it is God who got Susan home that day, just as it is God who give us everything and gets us through everything. That’s the faith in which we pray all our prayers.

         Yes, there are times we don’t seem to get what we want. Paul didn’t get his thorn in the flesh removed. Lewis’s wife died. I’m sure there were many people in that airport with Susan who prayed but didn’t get home that day. I think that’s why over in Luke 11:13 Jesus helps us out by clarifying the “good things” that God will give us by saying, “If you… know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

         That’s why we pray. God loves and wants to give us what is good. And the very best good thing He can give us is Himself, His own presence in our lives by the Holy Spirit through the grace of His Son Jesus Christ. Let us always pray for that good gift. And our Lord will always give us Himself, give us His Spirit and everything else we truly need.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, 4 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), p. 95f.

[2] The book is Our Declaration by Danielle Allen, reviewed in First Things, January 2014.

Last updated January 11, 2015