"The Request God Always Honors"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 22, 2001
Amos 8:4-12; Luke 11:1-13
One that Patti and I get every year concerns outdoor weddings. As we are helping a couple plan their ceremony, we will ask the obvious question, "Have you considered an alternative site if it rains?" Frequently they will look at us in dismay that we dared even hint at such a possibility. They will say, "That is your department. You are the one with that special "in" with God."
My fondest memory of such a wedding took place when we were in Cheverly. About 150 people were invited to this occasion that was to take place on the lawn of the groom's home, a home that happened to be one of the oldest in the town. There was no way that the house could have accommodated such a number of people if it rained. The wedding was at 6:00 p.m. and the skies looked as though the world could end any minute. As the winds increased, people were actually looking for funnel clouds. In all directions, the sky was black.
The chairs were all arranged on the lawn. The family had created a gorgeous arbor covered with flowers. The flower beds and shrubs had been manicured by professionals. All was ready. However, a lawn ceremony was not to be. I told everyone to head for our church that was several blocks away. Once everyone was safely inside the skies opened up. It was one of the worst storms the area had experienced in years. Several inches of rain fell in an hour and a half.
An added variable was that the bride had not yet arrived. She was coming from East Pines. She called me at the church sobbing about how this was the worst day of her life. She said, "Dick, I can't get out of the house. There is a river flowing out front. The lawn chairs are slapped up against the railing at the end of the porch. I don't know when I can get there. Do something!" I said, "I'll think of something."
Jenny and Jim had invited two friends to sing a couple of musical selections during their wedding. The pair had sung together for years. Jimmy Payne and Dana McCann simply strapped on their guitars and kept the audience entertained with their impromptu concert that lasted until the bride arrived. Once she entered the church, the wedding unfolded beautifully. They will remember their wedding day for the rest of their lives.
My point is that I had been asked to pray for a great day, i.e., sun, low humidity, cool temperatures, and an ever-so-slight breeze. Perhaps the reason such a day did not happen was that I had not honored the bride's request. I did not ask God for good weather. I do not talk to God about such things. We do have farmers who often need the rain. So without the special request and instructions from Dick Stetler, God brought torrential rains and flooding conditions. Well . . . not exactly!
We all have our ideas about prayer. We often wonder whether or not our requests will affect God's ideas about our present and future so they will unfold in manner that is favorable to us. And there can be confusion in our minds over what we can expect from our prayer life, a confusion that could easily be reinforced by our lesson this morning. At first it appears that even Jesus is clouding our thinking about our relationship with God.
He told the story about a man who knocked on the door of a neighbor's home late at night. He needed bread to feed someone who had arrived from out of town. The neighbor said, "Go away! The door is locked and we are all in bed." Jesus said, "I tell you that even if he will not get up and give you the bread because you are his friend, yet he will get up and give you anything you need because you are not ashamed to keep on asking."
What are we to think about this teaching? Is Jesus suggesting that we can wear down God by repeatedly asking for something? It sure sounds like it. Further, Jesus said, "Would any of you who are fathers and mothers give your children a snake if they ask for a fish? Would you give them a scorpion when they have asked for an egg?" The implication here is that we should continue our requests for what we want because God knows how to give good things to those who ask.
This line of thinking could be interpreted to mean that when our daughter wants to make the cheerleading squad, we should ask God to make that happen long before she auditions. Or, when you are relocating to another state, we should pray without ceasing for God to remove all the hurdles. And if we wish for a beautiful day for an outdoor wedding, begin praying for it every day months in advance.
What was Jesus teaching when his disciples asked him how they should pray? The answer to this is found in the last verse of our lesson. Jesus answered this question following his illustrations of how parents know how to give good things to their children who ask. That answer is, "How much more, then, will God in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?"
This one verse changes everything that we have thought up to this point. This verse suggests that God is not predisposed to changing aspects of the material world simply because we pray constantly for what we want. According to Jesus, the request that God always honors is the one where a person asks for increased power by the Holy Spirit.
This understanding should forever change our expectations of God. God constantly wants to enhance our abilities of spirit. This is why we were born. This understanding should remove any thought that God has nothing better to do but bend and manipulate the material world each time our perceptions tell us that something does not suit us, or that something threatening is standing in front of us.
Think about this! One of the best ways to grow in our abilities of spirit is to walk straight toward those things which in our past made us fearful. God will enable us to grow in spirit when we ask for such power while walking in trust toward uncertainty. Learn to ask for strength of spirit and not deliverance from the very experience that will give you the power you desire.
During the last two 7:30 a.m. services we have been considering the incredible see-saw life of one of the saviors in the Hebrew Bible. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. What a downer! The Ishmaelites in turn sold him to Potiphar, who eventually gave Joseph total responsibility over his entire household. What an upper! Potiphar's wife accused Joseph of an attempted rape and he was imprisoned. What a downer! Joseph's numerous administrative abilities were so apparent that the officials of the prison placed him in charge of the jail. What an upper!
All through the story of Joseph there is a basic theme. All his seemingly unrelated experiences were molding one of the best-loved characters of the Hebrew Bible. There were no uppers and downers. There were no just and unjust events. Joseph eventually saved his people from starvation, a feat he accomplished because what remained unbroken was the chain of events that led him to Pharaoh's court.
Our lives can unfold in much the same way. Yet we continue to interfere with life's flow. We believe that we know what is best for us. Do we? How many incredible opportunities were missed because we wanted something else? When such temptations come, think of the Joseph story.
Who of us knows where our experiences are taking us? How many of us look at where we are today and simply shake our heads in disbelief? We wonder how we got here. Lois and I were extremely content to remain in wild and wonderful West Virginia for the rest of our lives. The Bishop had another idea. We were asked to trade the gardens, orchards, and the peaceful tranquility of that area of our country for the District of Columbia, a city that never sleeps. Capitol Hill had its own set of spirit-strengthening adventures.
Every move the Stetlers' made had an impact that was very similar to what happens when a mother cat drives her young kittens away from the nest. She does this so they can learn how to survive without her. Joseph's life is very similar to what everyone experiences. We know the see-saw of living, but not all of us have confidence that this process is what strengthens the Holy Spirit within us.
In fact, many people become so convinced that the opposite is true that they commit suicide. They believe that "being carried into Egypt" spells their doom. It signals the end of their drama. They choose to leave the stage long before Act II has a chance to begin. This is so sad, particularly when teenagers make this choice.
Life is painful! There is sadness. We have moments that are very disappointing. Our experiences teach us that we have areas where we have little or no skill. Should we pray to God during such moments and ask for deliverance? No! A thousand times, No! All such experiences are pointing in the direction where our future strength of spirit awaits. Jesus said, "How much more, then, will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?"
What did Jesus mean when he invited us to ask and we will receive, seek and we will find, and knock and it will be opened to us? Again, was he teaching us to wear down God by the constancy of our requests? The answer is, "No." This is why Jesus stressed that we have to be asking, seeking and knocking. This means that we must be prepared to stretch each time we confront something that requires it.
During my high school days, I worked a summer job with the Prince George's County Board of Education's Maintenance Department. The young man with whom I commuted every day to Upper Marlboro told the men in his shop, "I'll bet I can lift the shop's giant anvil over my head by the end of the summer." They laughed.
Every day Jim went over to that anvil and tried to pick it up. In the beginning he could not lift it. He thought it was bolted down. It was not. He was asking, seeking and knocking by doing so. He had three months to condition his mind and body for his final attempt. On the last day of work, he lifted that anvil over his head and held it there. No one could believe he had done it. It took two men to help him return that anvil to its resting place on the work bench.
Every moment of struggle can strengthen us when we understand the grand purpose behind each of them. The true power in life is strength of spirit and not in asking God to manipulate the elements of the material world so that we become winners. We would never have learned how to tie our shoes if our parents did it for us every time we asked.
Until Jesus' disciples understood this, there was no spreading of the Gospel. They were too busy hiding, too afraid of their own shadows. Once they stood forth with their faith, they knew the meaning of Jesus' words, "How much more, then, will God in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?"
In our prayer life, are we asking for more power of spirit or for God to make our experiences on earth less challenging? When we think about the people through whom God has shaped and continues to mold the thinking of humanity, the most powerful life-strategy becomes very clear. Which path have we taken?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal God, the thought of timelessness is well beyond our grasp. We live in circumstances that will not permit us to see the bloom from the seeds we have sown. We are not able to see the changes in others that our friendship has inspired. We cannot know the impact on others that our leadership has provided. Yet in spite of such insights remaining beyond our reach, we stand forth in trust that you will create a brighter world through our hope, faith, and enthusiasm. May we become the steady hand for another's uncertain journey. May we be the rock upon which another may stand to receive a better view. In someone's failure, may our patience be the gift of another chance. May our faithfulness continue to advertise who we are and whom we serve. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, for these moments when our lives are open to you in a very unique way. It is true that we can worship you anywhere. It is also true that we can pray to you at any time. Yet what makes this experience so unusual is that here we are available to what may be the unexpected. What happens here can unmask a need we may be denying. What happens here can challenge one of our more unproductive habits. What happens here can deepen our awareness of the needs of others.
We confess how easy it is to make excuses why we do not change. Such reasons are logical and fit our desire to be involved only with those issues that interest us. Yet we frequently find ourselves unprepared when the storms come. Our lives can be disturbed by such trivial matters. We lose sleep over uncertain circumstances we cannot control. We can be hurt when those we love do not live up to our expectations. It is during such moments that we realize the poverty of our skills of spirit.
Lead us to begin our journey at the point of what causes our frustration. Inspire us to come to you directly. You have created us to be peaceful and loving men and women, so who better than you, O God, to teach us what we do not know. May we find the power for living in spirit rather than pursuing the elements of our world that appear so attractive. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .