Lenten Parable Series- One
March 1, 2009
On Wednesday night there were five people in line at Subway with smeared, ashy black marks in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. People in the restaurant looked at us with questions in their eyes- “what in the world?”
This past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of our 40 day journey to Easter. In the church we call this season Lent, and it is a time for us to humbly remember that we belong to God. Lent is a time for us to be solemn, reflective and prayerful. Lent is a time for us to practice discipline in our spiritual life, whether it is making a special effort to spend more time with God, or denying ourselves something we normally enjoy. Most of all it is a time for us to journey with Jesus, a time for us to know him more deeply, and walk with him on the last few steps of his earthly journey- leading us ultimately to the empty tomb.
This Lent, Dee and I have a special kind of journey in mind for you. This is a journey that we are calling a “40 day journey of love.” For the 40 days of Lent we want to focus on the teachings of Jesus. Reflected within those teachings is the heart of the gospel, and as Jesus said himself the heart of life with God is love. When asked what the greatest commandments were Jesus talked about loving God and loving others. That will be our focus this Lent- on how we can love God and love others. The tools that accompany us on the journey are the parables of Jesus.
Jesus taught in parables not to give easy answers but to reveal the kingdom of God to us in little bits and pieces. In the gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” Hidden knowledge! If we explore the parables deeply, hopefully we will gain a little more insight into what the realm of God is really like, and what we are supposed to be doing to help bring it about in the here and now. This will not be an easy journey, anything worth doing is rarely easy, but with the help of God we will grow together in our understanding. Studying the parables is one way that we can journey with Jesus through Lent, so that we might be more fully ready to share the joy of the resurrection on Easter morning.
It is possible of course to let time pass between now and April 12 and not do anything at all active during Lent, but I don’t think our Easter experience will mean as much unless we do the hard work that the season requires to get there. The authors of our Lenten devotion book had a great illustration about the challenges of Lent in their introduction. The Piatt family talks about their son Mattias, and how easy it has been for them to buy shoes with Velcro for him instead of teaching him to tie laces. However, they say, “Just because an easier way appears doesn’t mean it’s the only option, or even the best one. What if he gets married someday and his wife buys him a nice pair of lace-up shoes? Sure, a person can get by in life these days without knowing how to tie shoes, but who are we to limit Mattias’s choices, simply because it’s easier on us right now?”
In the same way if we skip the hard work of Lent we might limit our experience. Who are we to limit what God has in mind for us by skipping the hard work it takes? I’m convinced God has big plans for our time during Lent- who are we to limit what can happen by choosing not to dive more deeply into Jesus’ parables?
This first parable we’ve chosen to study is about prayer and persistence. Jesus talks about a friend in a desperate situation. One man has run out of bread and needs this essential meal ingredient because guests have come to his door and he needs to be able to offer them bread. He goes to his friend’s door and pounds. The friend is all snug in bed. He tells the man to go away; he and his family are in bed. But the man keeps knocking, and eventually, Jesus says, he will get what he as asked for.
On a first reading it may seem to ask that this friend that asks for bread in the middle of the night is a special brand of annoying. Not only to wake someone up from sleep by asking for bread, but to do so in the middle of the night and to keep asking with urgency after a no? We might consider that more annoying or downright rude, than seeing the man’s persistence as something to be admired.
However, we might be forgetting about hospitality in the ancient world. We might be forgetting that the ancients had even southern hospitality beat. In the ancient world it was a social mandate to entertain, feed and house any guest that came to your door. The thought was that you never know when the stranger at your door might be a representative of God, or God himself come to your door- and so hospitality was a must. And bread was the center of any meal- the essence of a hospitable meal. For the man not to have any bread to offer put him a desperate situation- he needed help. And so he asked for help, and he got a no, and so he asked again, until the answer was yes.
In the same way, out of our desperation and utter dependence on God, Jesus says we should approach God in prayer. He tells us that we should ask, and seek and knock on God’s door with the deepest desires of our hearts. For in the conversation, and I truly believe prayer is a conversation, we come to know ourselves more fully and we know God more fully. Prayer is essential to the life of faith- it is the language with which we communicate with God. This does not mean our every whim will be indulged, our every wish granted by God. Prayer doesn’t work like that- it is the act of prayer itself that is so critically important, even more so than the result. Remember the movie, “A Christmas Story,” where the little boy wished for a red rider bb gun every day before Christmas? Everyone kept telling him he’d shoot his eye out? Then on Christmas morning he got his wish and immediately went outside, shot the gun and broke his glasses, in essence shooting his eye out?
Not every desire, every wish that we have even should be granted, and many requests we make in prayer will not turn out the way we intended. But the benefit of spending time in prayer with God is the same benefit of spending time with a dear friend, a growing love between the two parties. Prayer is about love, and showing up, and being willing to open yourself up- even to the dark and scary parts of your life. God knows what we need before we ask- so part of our prayers can even be lifted up in silence.
It is said that the two famous writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau were great friends. “One evening Thoreau came over to Emerson’s house and, for a couple of hours, they both sat in front of the fire saying nothing. At the end of the time, Thoreau got up to leave, thanked Emerson for the evening, Emerson thanked him for coming, and that was their time together. Being silent together is one beautiful expression of the relationship between good friends or lovers.”
Jesus urges us to come to God in prayer- and it doesn’t matter how we do it. Whether we come desperate, sad, joyful, silent or shouting the key is to come before God. Jesus says, “ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened unto you.” Pray often: ask, seek and knock on God’s door for what you need- even if it is in the middle of the night.
Sometimes we make a mistake when we interpret parables. We look quickly to locate ourselves in a parable and then we try to see what character God plays. It would be a mistake to look at this parable today and say that God is the annoyed friend. Instead of a direct comparison between God and the man who eventually gives bread to the friend in need, what we have is an “if….then” situation. If this human friend would be willing to get out of bed to honor a request, how much more will a loving God grant us if we ask? The key phrase is “how much more”. Think of the kindest most loving human action you have ever been a part of- then realize that God is capable of love and generosity beyond all human imagining.
If a human parent would never dream of giving a child who asked for an egg a scorpion, or a child who asked for a fish a snake instead, then how much more does our heavenly father love us? God is waiting to love us, and to hear our prayers. God stands on the other side of the door and waits for us to knock, so that our lives can be filled with blessing beyond what we can even imagine for ourselves.
This week I want to issue a new challenge. I want you to pray for someone who needs it this week. Think about the feeling that you get when you are told by someone, “I’ve been praying for you.” It’s wonderful- isn’t it? I want us to practice loving God and loving our neighbors by praying for someone else this week. Maybe someone you know needs prayer each day of this week. Or maybe you know seven people who need to be prayed for. Whatever the case, your challenge this week is to pray each day for someone other than yourself who you know needs prayer.
Jesus says prayer is as simple as knocking on a door. When we approach God in prayer and we will be given what we need. This week on our 40 day journey of love, go to the door and knock on behalf of someone else. You might even find it appropriate to let the person know, “I’ve been praying for you.” I pray for each one of us a week filled with prayer and the knowledge that God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. Amen and Amen.