Sunday, 16 September 2018

Ask, and ye Shall Receive

This sermon was preached at our Evensong service on Sunday 16th September. The New Testament reading that day was Matthew 7:1-14.


We’ve had some interesting juxtaposition in our readings tonight; our Old Testament reading which we heard first, covered how Moses set up Israel’s system of Judges, and, then we heard our New Testament reading, which starts off with Jesus saying “Judge not, so that you may not be judged.”

Now, I preached on Moses at Evensong only the other week, so I don’t propose to preach a sermon on him again so soon. And it was only as recent as last Sunday morning that Rev’d Cath gave us an excellent sermon on judgement based on the readings for that day, so I also don’t propose to re-tread the ground that Cath has already trod – if you want to hear that sermon and you haven’t done so, do get hold of Cath and ask her to share it with you; it was very good!

Instead, then, I’d like to continue the theme of prayer I took up last time I preached at Evensong; when I spoke about Moses and how his conversation with God in the desert changed the whole plan for creation. So, in that vein, let's look at a very famous passage from Jesus’ own sermon from our New Testament reading tonight. It’s only two verses long, but it’s oft-quoted: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks, receives, and everyone who searches, finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

It’s a famous passage for a reason. It’s extremely comforting, letting us know that God is listening to us, and comparing him to a parent giving good things to his children. But, it’s also quite a tricky passage. It's often misused.

Some sections of the Church have taken this piece to its literal extremes, and used it to back up all manner of wacky views. It can be used to contort God into some sort of divine vending machine, showering out sports cars, money and jet planes to any televangelist who asks (and yes, it is only the televangelists for whom this seems to work – presumably something to do with the constant and relentless requests for donations direct to their own charities.)

And as for the rest of us, who don’t get what we ask for? Well, we’re condemned as having too little faith. We should be (so the televangelists tell us) more persistent in our requests, like the widow in the parable that Jesus tells us, with the unjust judge.

Prosperity Gospel preacher, Kenneth Copeland and an aeroplane. Don't know if it's his. Don't care...


But, no amount of persistence will cause God to magic me up an aeroplane. For the rest of us, not fortunate enough to have our own private charities, we must find a less childish meaning to this passage. No matter how much I ask for my own personal version of Air Force 1, God is never going to grant me that request. I can ask, but I will not receive. And nor should I; I have no need of such a vanity, and would be able to find no good use for one were it to fall out of the sky at my feet (which, I really hope does not happen, by the way – that would be a disaster!)

Christ gives us a clue to the meaning in the next verse; he asks us, which of us would give a stone to our children when they ask for bread? And who would give a snake when they wanted a fish? And that makes us think. For, if your children or grandchildren, or the children you know, are anything like my little boy, they don’t ask for fish, or bread. They ask for ice-cream, or sweets, or to keep watching TV… and in those cases, I don’t always give Isaac what he asks for. I give him what he needs, or what is good for him – and yes, in some cases, a treat.

And I think it might be the same with God. Christ does not state “ask and you’ll receive what you asked for”. He simply says “you’ll receive”. And if we're supposed to be looking at the example of parenthood here, then, if we ask of our heavenly Father, then we will receive what we need, which may be quite, quite a different thing than that for which we originally asked.

But, that’s part of what makes this whole thing a relationship. God is not that inanimate vending machine where we press a button, get what we want and walk away. He’s our creator, our father, our mother, our friend who –when we make a request of him – wants to talk to us about that request, and for us to talk to him about it. Prayer is not a magic phrase, or secret password, getting us what we want; it’s a dialogue – a conversation – between the almighty and his beloved creation. It changes us, and – as I said the other week – it allows us to have an impact upon our maker.

And thinking about that has left me with another thought. I mentioned earlier in passing the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. If prayer is a dialogue, then those roles of widow and judge can be reversed. We often think of ourselves in prayer as being that persistent widow, continuously trying to communicate with a God who does not always (or even often) answer us in the way we wish. But… what if it’s the other way around? What if God is that widow asking and asking and asking, and we are the judge who is not listening?

Christ says in our famous passage we heard tonight, “knock and the door will be opened”. What if Christ is – as John writes in Revelation – the one who is standing at the door and knocking, but we simply are not hearing?

So… here’s my thought to take away tonight. What if instead of viewing this famous passage as a passage about prayer, we instead viewed it as a prayer? 

What if it is not us who are asking, or seeking, or knocking? What if it is God?

I’d like to close my sermon tonight with that prayer. I hope you’ll join me.

Father – ask of me, and I will give to you.
Search me, O God, and find me.
Knock, and I will open my door to you.

For, if you ask of me, I will give. 
If you search me, I will allow myself to be found, 
and if you knock, I will open those doors that I have kept locked.

Amen.

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