Not long ago a very funny commercial showed up on FB. Here it is. Watch it and weep. Then laugh. Shake and nod your head and laugh some more!
What a great “gotcha” this commercial provides! We are so well-led down the path of one storyline, and things turn a totally quick and surprising corner at the end. We are so expecting a particular conclusion, and then….
Ha ha ha ha ha!
Because this commercial is so clever and funny (and true), it has a very strong impact. We’re probably more likely to think about wearing condoms because we so enjoyed receiving this message and are impressed by the brains that went into communicating it.
Jesus delivers a similarly funny, clever, true – and effective -- “gotcha” in Luke 11, where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.
Chances are, the disciples want to learn from Jesus how to ask God for stuff. Isn’t that the first thing we all associate with prayer? We need money, healing, relief from suffering, romance, housing, food, victory, so we pray to God to receive such things. Even if we’ve never turned to God before, if and when we need such things desperately, we’ll give prayer a try. Even if we don’t believe God exists! After all, there are no atheists in foxholes.
Our instinct is to throw up to God our need for specific help. And to look to receive a specific and sensible response. After all, Jesus – and others – are always talking about how God is a loving parent. So of course we look for God to respond like a loving parent should – ie making sure we’re provided with the specific thing we desperately need and have asked for. Maybe especially because we’ve been very very good and have asked very very nicely and so deserve a dream come true.
Like the commercial above, Jesus responds to the disciples' request by leading them down a path that's most expected.
Jesus starts with sharing with them “The Lord’s Prayer.” (Or at least the part of the prayer that scholars think comprises the original. The other petitions that are a part today were added later.) According to Jesus, the things (and they are “things”!) that we are to ask God for include:
1) God’s Kingdom;
2) enough food;
3) forgiveness; and
4) a free pass from the test of temptation.
Jesus continues encouraging the disciples to keep praying for things - the things they desperately need - by telling a parable of a man who must become obnoxiously persistent in asking for help from his neighbor in order to show proper hospitality to an unexpected guest. The neighbor doesn’t want to help, but will do so in order to get the ask-er off his back so he can get some sleep!
Boy, Jesus is painting a really rosy picture now that when we ask God for stuff, we will most certainly get it…even if God doesn’t all that much want to provide!
And then Jesus makes it crystal clear. “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.”
Then Jesus makes his point with over-the-top adamance. “Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion?”
Jesus can’t stop finding new ways to tell the disciples to ask God for stuff wait for that stuff to most surely be delivered! Will he ever stop???
Then Jesus says….
“Soooo....how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
What? The Holy Spirit? That’s what we receive in prayer? That’s what we’re supposed to pray for? What about money? Healing? Escape from death? The stuff we really need and can’t help but ask for? What about food? Forgiveness? The Kingdom of God? The stuff Jesus taught us we’re supposed to ask for?
Why is the Holy Spirit the thing we’re to pray for? It’s not even a “thing” really, and even if is, it’s so unpredictable. After all, Jesus says to Nicodemus it’s something “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8)
When chaos is all around you and you so need help, this (and only this?) is what God, our loving Parent, is so happy to provide?
Ha ha ha ha ha! By the end of Jesus’ teaching, he’s probably laughing (at least inside), although his disciples are shaking their heads. This doesn’t seem to be the right answer at all!
However, as they start engaging in a life of prayer, asking for the Holy Spirit or, more likely, the other stuff they need, the stuff they’ve been told to ask for even, they start discovering something really interesting.
They pray for their daily bread – and what they receive are constant lessons in “enoughness.”
They pray for forgiveness – and because they have to forgive others’ first they are drawn into surprising and powerful experiences of love and healing with those who have hurt them.
They find themselves participating in building the kingdom in ways they never ever expected.
I’ll never forgot the period of time when I was seriously unsure if I should answer the “call” I’d received to pastoral ministry because I hadn’t had enough leadership experience. I’d been praying for awhile for God to bring me some such opportunity, then out of the blue I got a call to direct the “Real Live Brady Bunch” in Sydney Australia. And I’d never directed before!
Ha ha ha ha! That in itself was a “Gotcha!” A completely hilarious, clever, and perfect response to my prayer.
I think what Jesus is getting at is that when we pray, God always responds but never in the ways we expect. It’s always deeper, broader, and, because it’s surprising and in more ways than we could have imagined life-giving, it’s better. (Even when it seems at least at first so clear God’s answer is “no.”) Sometimes God's response is downright hilarious - like a really good condom commercial!
In any case, what we receive a sign that God’s unpredictable, crazy Spirit is at work. Involved in particular, peculiar work in our lives.
And thar -- no matter what we ask for -- is what God always always always brings to us when we pray.
And that’s what makes the adventure of prayer really so pleasurable. Even when the situation is very scary and severe. There’s always going to be a punch line of some sort discovered at the end.