Joshua 24:14-18, Matthew 7:7-12
November 11, 2018
Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be given, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be open to you.” When I think of those words, I think of a little plaque I had on my wall for years. I think my Mom gave it to me. It said, “Ye have not, because ye ask not.” That’s James 4:2. And it goes with this passage from Matthew… sort of!
Because it is a wonderful sentiment, isn’t it? “Ye have not, because ye ask not.” In other words, we don’t ask God enough, and that’s why we don’t receive. However, it doesn’t sound so noble in the context in which it was written! Listen to the whole paragraph!
“You desire and do not have. So you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask.” (There’s the verse) And then this! “And when you ask, you do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:2-3) That makes the whole thing sound more like a rebuke rather than an inspiration, doesn’t it? We always have to be careful in taking things out of context!
Here’s another one! This is something we used to say in my earliest days of Sunday School. At the end of class, we would gather in a circle, take hands, and all say together, “May the Lord watch between me and thee, while we are absent one from another.” Did you ever hear that one? We used it as a sort of “benediction.” And I always assumed it was about asking God to watch over us until the following Sunday.
Well, later on I learned that the verse was taken completely out of context. It’s found in Genesis 31. And it comes after Jacob and Laban had settled an argument by making a covenant. And those words were said because Laban mistrusted Jacob! He was asking the Lord to “keep an eye on” Jacob! It was a statement that was all about the distrust between two people! It’s still a nice sentiment, but that “benediction” isn’t quite as nice as it once sounded! (Sorry if I spoiled that for you!)
So “Ye have not because ye ask not” means a little more than my little plaque intended. Over the years, James has been criticized because people who have failed to look at the “big picture” of what he was saying! Even Martin Luther thought the Letter of James in the New Testament to be “an epistle of straw!” He thought the words, “Faith without works is dead” sounded a little too much like “works righteousness,” meaning we “work our way into heaven.” To Luther, that was the opposite of Paul’s words, “By grace you are saved through faith, and not by works.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
But I don’t think he was seeing the “big picture” of what James was saying. I don’t think James and Paul would have disagreed on this at all! James was just being practical, as was his “propensity.” And the “big picture” of what he was saying was sound! “How can you say you have faith,” he was asking, “if you don’t live it?” That’s was it! Luther didn’t agree, and as you might know, in some early Luther translations of the Bible, there was no book of James!
So then, with all that in mind, consider again our scripture for today from Matthew 7. “Ask and it shall be given, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” And think about the words of James. I think they’re good words, that go a long way towards answering the question people have often had about what Jesus said. Some people have asked, “Why isn’t that working for me?” “Why am I not receiving when I ask, and all those other things?” Well, James might say to them, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly!” That’s a pretty harsh rebuke, isn’t it? But maybe it should make us think about the things we ask for, and why we are asking.
The bottom line here, and I believe the basis on which Jesus made that statement, is what he said in the previous chapter. Do you remember? “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and then all these things will be added to you.” Think about it! If we’re seeking God’s kingdom first, if we’re looking to his righteousness, will that not affect what we ask for, what we’re seeking after, and what we wish to have opened to us?
That’s the big picture! You see, the whole idea here is that we cannot use these words of Jesus to turn God into some big “Mail order house in the sky.” God is not Amazon.com! (I thought I had stumped Amazon the other day. But I didn’t!) God is not just somebody we use just to “get things!” That’s not the idea@ This is not only about asking. It’s about God’s kingdom. It’s about his righteousness. It’s about our relationship with him! Those things are crucial! (At least they are to God!)
We have to remember that God wants the very best for us. In his own words here, Jesus tells us that. He likens our relationship with God to that of a good parent who wants what’s best for a child. He says, “How much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!?”
That’s what God wants. And we know all this, don’t we? But isn’t it too easy to forget, and to fall back into that mode where we look to God only in times of need, and where we remember him only when we are jarred into doing so? Isn’t it too easy to find ourselves in that place where we haven’t turned away from God, but we’ve just slowly “drifted away?” I believe we need to be reminded, to be brought back, again and again.
It’s like driving down the road. The car is going straight, but we’re constantly making little adjustments to our direction so that we can continue going straight down the road! And if we don’t look far enough ahead, we can drift off to one side, can’t we?
I remember one dark night years ago, when I was driving up I95. I was in my little white Volkswagen, and there was a very thick fog that night! I remember I could only see one of the broken lane marker lines ahead of me. So I was only going 20 or 25mph! And all of a sudden, out of the fog on my right, there was a Stop sign! Well, as far as I knew, there were no stop signs on I95! So, without seeing far enough ahead, I had left the highway! I was on one of the ramps!
Is it ever like that for us in our faith? Do we ever fail to see far enough ahead to keep ourselves on the path God sets for us? We’re only seeing things immediately in front of us! We have to be brought back again and again. And in this passage, we have to remember again and again that it is our relationship with God that’s the most important thing. If we seek his kingdom first, then we ask and seek and knock, and in doing so, we receive, we find, and we have the things of God’s kingdom opened to us.
And so, once again, hear these words of Jesus. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” And then, “Ask and it shall be given, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” “For how much how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”
Eternal God, help us in all things to seek first your kingdom. Then give us the courage and the direction to ask, to seek, and to knock. Help us to share all of our lives with you, and to rely on you in all things. Give us the strength we need, for we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.