Higher Living – August 31, 2008

Exodus 3:1-12, Matthew 7:1-12

August 31, 2008

I hope you remember our reading from Matthew’s Gospel. It is indeed from the Sermon on the Mount. I know times being what they are we preachers can no longer assume that the people listening will know all the stories from the Bible! But I think you probably know this one. It comes from that wonderful sermon of Jesus. And it follows a long section on prayer, a shorter section on storing up treasures in heaven, and then a section on not being anxious, but seeking first God’s kingdom. Well, in our reading for today, Jesus is moving from there into what I would call “a series of exhortations.” And these are exhortations which call people to a “higher level of living.” I suppose we could see all of this sermon as one big exhortation to higher living, but this portion is a whole series of different things – different rules or guidelines on how to be the kind of people God wants us to be. They represent a number of ways God calls us to live life on a “higher level.” I thought this would be a good time to give you an exhortation of my own. And that would be that you take some time to read this sermon – Jesus’ sermon, that is. The sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5-7. And this is an incredible oration! When I read this, I often think that, if we had no other Christian writings at all, but we had this sermon, we’d be ok! If we had only this, we’d have almost everything we would ever need! So take some time and read again the Sermon on the Mount. For today, I’d like us to focus in on this one little section of that sermon. I want us to think about this part in verses 7 through 12. This is about prayer. As you know, we’ve been spending time this Summer thinking about prayer and its importance in our faith and in our lives. Well, today I’d like us to give some thought to the whole idea of the “answers” we get to prayer, and to those times when our prayers “seem to go unanswered.” This is an important thing in our faith. It’s the subject of many, many books, sermons, and discussions among God’s people. The Bible tells us that we are to ask God for things in prayer. Even Jesus tells us that! And yet sometimes it seems as though we receive answers, while other times it seems like we don’t. What are we to say about that? As I said, there have been a lot of books and articles written on that subject! Many people have offered their suggestions over the years of what we are to think. For example, it has been said that “all prayer is answered.” But it’s not always answered in the way we might want. The answer might be “no.” Or the answer might be “not yet.” And that’s true. Remember, it’s not us who are in charge of things. It’s God. We need to remember that. Because that’s too easy to fall back into the understanding that we are the final authority in this universe! Well, what I’d like us to do today, is to think about that whole thing in terms of the “big picture.” How does prayer fit into our whole life of faith? How do we think of prayer in terms of asking, listening to, and worshipping God. And I hope that will give us just a little more insight into this whole business of the answers we get to our prayers. Listen again to this one verse from what we read. This is Matthew 7:7 “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and to everyone who knocks the door shall be opened unto you.” Now, what I’d like you to see here – big-picture-wise – is that there are only two sentences there. The first three parts of that verse are all part of the same sentence – “Ask, seek, knock.” Some folks would rather keep them separate. In fact, thy would like to lift out just that first phrase and use it alone. “Ask and it shall be given you.” Well, I have to tell you that it doesn’t work that way. We cannot take that verse by itself. And we cannot take any of its components by themselves. We must have the context of the whole life of faith to see the big picture. Because prayer is not something that we are to separate out from that life of faith. And “asking for things” is not the only thing we are to be doing in our prayer life. The sad thing is that some people see it that way. They never pray unless they are asking God for things. That’s not the kind of relationship God wants to have with us. He doesn’t want to hear just our requests and that’s it! Prayer is an ongoing conversation with God. It is part of the “everydayness” of God we talked about the week before last. “Ask and you shall receive” is not a complete sentence. It doesn’t end with a period, and it isn’t just one in a long list of other “guidelines for life.” It is part of the sentence wherein we are also seeking – as in seeking God’s presence and his kingdom; and knocking – as in knocking on doors of learning and of opportunities for service. It is in that context that prayer and the answers to prayer start to make any real sense. Even if were only thinking in terms of prayer, asking is only part of the picture! But as I said, that’s often the only part of prayer that people do. And when they do, when they talk to God only when they are in need of something, I ask you, is it any wonder they have this dilemma in understanding prayer that seems to go “unanswered?” Think about it this way. If we focus on only one part of our prayer life, should we be surprised if that prayer life seems unfulfilling in some way? If, for example, we listened only, and did nothing else in our prayers, would we be surprised if there seemed to be something missing? I don’t think we would. So if all we do in prayer is speak and ask for things and nothing else, and God “couldn’t get a word in edgewise” if he tried, should we then be any more surprised that our prayer life seemed unfulfilled somehow? Yet how often, and for how many people, and even for us at times, does the life of prayer consist of just that? How many times do we find that we are only talking to God when we need to ask for something? I love this little passage. And not just because it is so uplifting and so inspiring. But it’s also a great picture, not just of prayer and of asking and getting things, but also about the whole of the life of faith. “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you.” And yes, we do need to think about asking God for things. Sometimes our faith is too small, and we don’t bother asking because we really don’t believe God can answer. Or we don’t think we’re important enough for God to work with us and to grant us things. So that definitely needs to be part of our life of faith. We need to grow in our belief in Gods’ power to work in our lives – even to work miracles in our lives! But we also need to be about seeking – seeking God’s presence, seeking God’s spirit touching our own. We need to be knocking – knocking on the doors of opportunity of service in his kingdom. Those are just as much a part of the big picture of the “life of faith” that Jesus is painting here. This is about our relationship with God. This is about the “everydayness” of our faith. We can never get away from that! (I hope you see how many of my sermons lead us back there!!) So I think it’s no coincidence here that Jesus uses this metaphor of the Father giving gifts to his children. His relationship with us is to have that “everyday familiarity.” It is to have that closeness – even the closeness of immediate family. That’s the big picture. And by the way, there’s a side benefit in all this. And this also has to do with the whole business of answered and “unanswered” prayer. When we see ourselves in that big picture, when we strive to find that everydayness with God, when we ask and seek and knock, then we will be in a position and a mindset in which we will be more aware of God working in our lives. When we are in that constant relationship with God we will be better able to see the answers to prayer that he does give us! So, when we think of this, when we think of prayer that we aren’t sure has or hasn’t been answered, may we remember that the answer to prayer is only part of our life of faith! God doesn’t want to be an answering service for us. He is the ruler of the universe! He is the almighty creator of every that is. But he loves us because we are his creation, and he wants to share this life with us! He wants to lavish his love and his blessings on us. That is the big picture. When we are part of that picture, we will know much more than answered prayer – wonderful though that may be. Our lives will be a prayer answered, our lives will be a relationship sought and found, and opportunities will be opened to us that we never dreamed before! And we will just begin to know the joy of living in God’s presence and in God’s kingdom, which is beyond our comprehension!! Prayer Eternal God, we are grateful for our lives lived in your presence. Help us to know you and to know what it’s like to speak to you every day! Help us to listen, and to know the things you are teaching us and telling us. Help us to know the power of your spirit living in our hearts as we live our days in and aware of your presence. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.