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September 17, 2017

“Ask, Seek, Knock”

Matthew 7:7-12

I remember as a child watching a lot of commercials between cartoons on Saturdays. Some were memorable, others not so much. But there was one commercial that really got my attention when I was a child back in the late 1960’s - the Vegomatic! It looked to me like the Vegomatic would change my mom’s life! “It slices It dices!” You can slice and cut vegetables much faster, without sharp knives. You can cut up a whole potato into perfect fries ready for cooking! Julienne Carrots! Cut up an onion without any tears!!! All for only $19.95, plus shipping and handling.” I suddenly knew what my mom needed for her next birthday. I remember running to my mother after seeing the commercial on the Vegomatic, and telling her excitedly how it would change her life in the kitchen and make her life better! She was not impressed, probably said it was promising something that was just too good to be true. I swear I remember having one of them , but mom says we never got a Vegomatic. We did have a Salad Spinner, however…

The Vegomatic, Ginsu Knives, The Perfect Meatloaf Pan-(we have that one, by the way and it works pretty well)- all promise to make our lives better. They all promise something that seems just too good to be true. At first glance, today’s passage almost seems like one of those commercials that promises more than it can really deliver. Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find it; knock and the door shall be opened. For everyone who asks receives! He who seeks finds it! And if you knock, that door will open!” This passage is about prayer, but it sounds too good to be true. Really, God? I can have anything I want? Financial success? A huge home?  If I pray and ask, you’ll give it to me, just like that? If I am trying to find a certain item or something or someone that is lost, and pray about it, I will find it? And if a door in my life is closed- If I have lost a job, or am facing some medical difficulty and I lift that prayer to you, you will open another door if I knock on it? Sign me up, Lord!

Some ministers have seized on this and a few other passages to suggest God will give us anything we want. We just have to ask.  After all, doesn’t it say in the book of James, “You do not have, because you do not ask?” (James 4:2) Radio and TV evangelists assure us we can have it all, pray for a million dollars, and pursue those material goals, because that is what God wants for us. “God slices and dices! You can have it all!”

They are nothing more than false prophets. Theologian Doug Hare says, “The New Testament makes it perfectly clear that prayer is not intended as a means of manipulating God into satisfying our selfish desires.” The answers to Christian prayer consist of Christian graces, not material treasures.

And consider that Paul, a pillar of faith, prayed earnestly 3 times for God to remove the thorn from his flesh 2 Cor. 12:7-9. Many scholars believe that this thorn was either a person who gave Paul significant trouble in spreading the Gospel, or was actually a physical ailment that tortured his body.  God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Also, consider that Jesus prayed with conviction, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” He then concluded the prayer, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Mat 26:39

So if this section is about prayer, it certainly doesn’t seem to fit either Paul’s or Jesus’s situations. God isn’t some big Santa in the sky, didn’t just give them whatever they asked for.  What then IS Jesus talking about in this section? As is true for realtors who are trying to sell a house, so it is often true for scripture, location matters! In this case, the location of today’s passage is incredibly important. Consider that Jesus has been preaching from chapter 5:21 up until this point upon a list of very difficult issues- Don’t be angry; Don’t be lustful; Divorce is not an option; Don’t seek revenge; Love your enemies; Pray for those who persecute you; Don’t be fake about your holiness or about your prayer time with God; Forgive others and God will forgive you; Don’t be fake in your suffering when you fast; Turn away from the love of material things; Don’t be anxious…about ANYTHING; Don’t judge others. What a list! Now we have spent time over the last couple of months going through one of these topics upon Jesus’ list per week- challenging enough. The disciples around Jesus heard this entire list in ONE sermon. They must’ve felt very overwhelmed to have to consider following all of those things at once.

How are we to understand this section then? The answer- This next section about prayer is related to all that has come before- When we hear Jesus’ lists of imperatives regarding relationships with other human beings, they sound impossible to do on our own. Jesus says, the only way we can fulfill these demands as his disciple is to pray to God for help. Only by persistently asking, seeking and knocking at God’s door will we find enough grace and wisdom to live out these demands.

Jesus re asserts the promises- “For everyone who asks receives, everyone who seeks finds, everyone who knocks on the door, it will be opened.” And, if your relationships with others are anything like mine, we need to ask, seek and find not just once, but continuously! Now you may think that would bother God. When our children were much younger, I can remember at Christmas time them asking me repeatedly for something, some particular toy or video game which they REALLY wanted to get for Christmas. It became incredibly annoying, and there were times I thought to myself, “Perhaps a lump of coal instead”? But for God, when we are asking for help in relationships with others, God is eager to oblige, to offer guidance, wisdom, and open doors that were once closed. I think God is even more eager to assist the more we ask, because it means we are depending upon God more, which would be incredibly pleasing to God! We are not supposed to have a silent relationship with God in which God is too divine and holy to be bothered, or that we are just too sinful to talk with God(Jesus fixed that and made us righteous in God’s eyes).

What this section on prayer is about is maintaining relationships with others, repairing them, and about controlling our actions with God’s love. God is all over those requests, and eager to help us with them. I speak from experience, over and over, that when I have asked God to help me with a relationship, or to strengthen my faith in some way, God ALWAYS answers with a thought, an idea, or sometimes a push through a door to reconcile where needed. And if you still think this section on prayer is about God being like a big Santa and giving us everything we could ever want or need, Jesus clarifies things for us. “What Father, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone instead? Or if he asks for a fish, you will give him a serpent instead? If you then, who are evil (that is, we who are sinful) know what good things to give to our children, how much more will God give good things to us?” If you have been blessed and challenged in being a parent, you know that sometimes our children ask for things that we know will hurt them, or are things which simply aren’t good for them. This is especially true when it comes to material things. Alistair Cooke wrote, “Does God always answer prayer? Yes, and sometimes the answer is ‘no.’” So the analogy here is: God will give you what you need, if it is within God’s will, if God knows it is good and right for you. Just like a wise and loving parent, you will receive it. If not, then the answer is “no,”  or sometimes it is, “Wait,”or in Paul’s case, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

 

Through prayer, God will help us not be angry or lustful, will help us to try to reconcile our relationships, to not seek revenge, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to be authentic in our prayer time, to forgive others, to be able to turn away from the love of material things, to keep from being anxious, to keep from judging others. This section is meant to encourage us. Have confidence that God is ready and eager to answer prayer with any personal struggle, any relationship, with your personal walk with God, and will help as needed. If a parent will grant requests that his or her child’s needs will be met, how much more will God answer our prayers with what is right and needed? The answer is a LOT more! This is a comment on what God is like with us in God’s providential care.

Finally, let’s take a look at one of the most famous verses in the entire Bible, Matthew 7:12, known as the Golden Rule. Now sometimes there is confusion as to what the Golden Rule actually is. Kymberly Nies wrote, “We've always tried to instill in our children God's desire that they respect and obey their parents. One morning, following an evening of explaining the Golden Rule to my preschool daughter, Katie, I quizzed her. ‘What's the Golden Rule?’ I asked. With a look of exasperation she replied, ‘I know, I know. You're the mommy!’ (Kymberly Nies, El Paso, TX. "Heart to Heart," Today's Christian Woman.) When I was in 7th grade, I can remember a rather rough individual with long hair used to wear a t shirt that said, “Do unto others, then split.” Above the lettering was a cartoon of a teenager flipping the bird. He looked at me once and said, “Dude, you probably don’t even know what this means.” In reality I was confused, because I had heard Jesus’ original version… Just what IS the Golden Rule?

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Or, in more contemporary language- “So the way you want people to treat you is the way you should treat them: This is what the Bible is all about.” Jesus says this rule in verse 12 to sum up all the preaching he has just done, for this one simple verse really does cover it all.

 Just why is this verse called the Golden Rule? 19th/20th century English Congregational minister Joseph Parker wrote, “The Golden Rule would reconcile capital and labor, all political contention and uproar, all selfishness and greed.” If we all just followed this rule, our lives would be so much better, almost too good to be true.

Why would our lives be so much better? Religious historian Karen Armstrong says,  “When we try to live this rule, all day long, every day, we dethrone ourselves from the center of the world, put another there, and are brought into the presence of God.”

By the way, The Golden Rule is prevalent throughout many different world religions. In Judaism, Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” In Islam, The Prophet Muhammad said, “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.”In Buddhism it is written, “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Undana- Varga 5.18.) In Hinduism, it is written, “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:15:17)

So this rule is in almost all of the world’s major religions, yet we live in a world where violence, strife, hatred, warfare and greed seem to rule the day. Why is this? Maybe we like ourselves to be the center of our world. Or perhaps we all think it is just too good a promise to be true- that if we treat one another in the way we want to be treated, our lives would be much better, so we don’t even try. So let me encourage you to try, and begin by memorizing this one verse of scripture. But memorizing it is only a portion.19th/20th century American Poet Edwin Markham wrote, “We have committed the Golden Rule to memory; let us now commit it to life.” Do so, and you will sum up almost 2 chapters of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and your lives will indeed be better. This is one promise that isn’t too good to be true. Alleluia! Amen.
 

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