Three Life-Changing Words

Delivered May 6, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
as part of a series on the parables.

Theme: God will be there in Your Time of Need.

Sermon Text:
Luke 11:5-13
and Psalm 145

First, I want to tell you a little story about a horse thief. A man in the old west was being tried for stealing a horse and, as you probably know from reading history, this was a very serious offense. You could be hung if you were caught stealing a horse. Now, the problem with this situation was that the man whose horse had been stolen had gotten the best of every person on the jury at one time or another. Each one of them had been swindled, cheated, or conned in some way by the plaintiff. And so the case was tried. The man whose horse had been stolen was sitting there and the judge asked the foreman of the jury, “Have you reached a verdict?” And the chairman said, “Yes we have, your honor.” After a few moments of silence the chairman spoke and he said, “We find the defendant not guilty, if he will return the horse!” Laughter broke out, and so after the judge silenced everybody in the courtroom, he admonished the jury, “I can’t accept that verdict. You have to retire until you reach another one.” So they went back into the jury room and thought about how to render the verdict. Each jury-member thought about how the plaintiff, at one time or another, had gotten the best of them. So an hour later, the same thing happened. “Gentlemen of the jury have you reached a verdict?” the judge asked again. “Yes we have your honor,” replied the foreman. “What say ye? What is your verdict?” The courtroom was deathly silent. You could have heard a pin drop. Eagerly, everyone awaited the verdict. The foreman stood and said, “We find the defendant not guilty and he can keep the horse!” The courtroom burst into laughter again.

After hearing this story, you can come away from it thinking, “Well, what’s the moral of the story?” If you cheat people and if you do wrong by people, sooner or later you are going to get yours? If you desire to be a friend, then you had better be a friend? If you desire other people to help you then you better help others? And if you desire justice at the hands of others, then you better practice justice towards them? And these are all good morals. But I often come away from these kinds of ideas with this thought: Aren’t these statements a bit self-serving? Have you ever wondered if our motivation in ministry, or doing good, is simply–“enlightened self-interest?” That we really do for others because of the benefits that come to us. I think we all have a mixture of motives when serving in ministry. But I want to read for you, in this series on the parables, a story of a person with definite mixed motives; and it teaches something about understanding the kingdom of God.

The gospel lesson is from Luke, Chapter 11, verses 5-13. Hear the word of God.

Then he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me , and I have nothing to set before him. Then the one inside answers, ‘don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. ‘So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Dear Lord, help us to understand this text again. We need special help and we need special insight to see how much you deeply care. And we ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.

In the world that Jesus lived and taught, there was a different cultural reality than the cultural reality of the year 2001. It’s very important that we understand Jesus’ reality because we can’t make sense of his parable apart from it. And that’s this: In the reality that guided first century village life, hospitality was all-important, because lives depended upon it. In this culture everybody was inter-dependent upon everyone else. If you didn’t help your neighbor, somebody could suffer seriously as a result. It’s hard for us to relate to this idea today, but if we try to draw an analogy from our culture, I think we could agree that everybody would respond if a baby appeared on their doorstep. To not respond in this situation is inconceivable. Well, in Jesus’ day it was inconceivable that a person would not help their neighbor in village society. Now Luke places this parable in the context of prayer. Just before the passage I read is the Lord’s Prayer, and Jesus’ words at the end of the passage about “asking, seeking, and knocking” and also how we as parents will give to our children when they are hungry. Traditionally, this parable has been taught to teach persistence in prayer. But I think the emphasis is somewhere else today. If we understand the text, the emphasis is less on our persistence and more on God’s willingness to hear and answer. Why the “persistence” interpretation? Why has this been taught so much through the years? I think because everything hinges on the word, in Verse 8, that translates in the NIV as “boldness.” I don’t think that this is the best translation of the Greek word. In fact, the King James Version of this word is “importunity” and the New American Standard uses the word “persistence” in this text. So, in English, if we read the passage in light of these words, we would understand where the traditional emphasis on persistence comes from. Just as we did two weeks ago, we have to think in terms of how people who heard the parable in the first century would have responded. So I will give you the version of the passage that I think it is, but I want to ask you to try knocking down this persistence argument. Since Jesus’ original hearers were peasants who lived in villages, and village life was down-to-earth and grounded in the principle of hospitality, and since, it was inconceivable to them that someone would not be hospitable when asked to be, then why does the person outside knocking need to be so persistent? I would submit to you that they don’t, because that’s not the meaning of the parable. The man outside doesn’t need persistence. I think that Jesus is teaching something that’s very different from the traditional “persistence” translation of the text. And again, the context of the parable emphasizes the shear willingness of God to give to us, just like we give to our children.

Let’s look at the text a little bit. In verse 5, Jesus says to the people, “Suppose one of you has a friend.” Another way to translate this is, “which one of you having a friend” and we could even paraphrase it by saying, “Can you imagine a friend who would do this? What I am about to tell you? Can you imagine a friend who would,” and now not only do we have the framework of hospitality, we also have the added framework of friendship. The word “friend” is mentioned four times in verses 6-8. So now Jesus’ hearers are thinking, “Okay, somebody goes and knocks on the door and asks for something, we know what’s coming.” And not only is this person a neighbor, but this person is a friend. So, for two reasons, the person being asked should immediately respond. But, in verse 7, Jesus engages his hearers by saying, “Can you imagine this? Can you imagine the man inside answering and saying, ‘Don’t bother me. The door’s already locked. My children are in bed and I can’t get up?.'” And the people listening to Jesus, in the first century, scratch their heads and think, “No, I can’t imagine that at all. That’s not the way we do things around here.” Then we come to verse 8. One of the tricky parts about verse 8 is that there are so many masculine pronouns that you never know which one of the persons in this exchange is being referred to. So let me try to do it by using the words “Sleeper” and “Requester”. Please follow me through verse 8: “I tell you though Sleeper will not get up and give Requester the bread, because Sleeper is his friend, yet because of Sleeper’s shamelessness he will get up and give Requester as much as Requester needs.” The Greek word that’s translated here as boldness, involves shame. If you put an “A” or “AN” in front of a Greek word, it negates it. So, the Greek word here is always translated as “shameless,” not only in classical literature, but also in many other places. And so this word, “shameless,” turns the whole meaning of the text around. Jesus is saying that Sleeper won’t answer Requester because he is supposed too, but because he doesn’t want to be thought of by his other neighbors, like the man in the old west, because he doesn’t want to be thought of as a man who would refuse another neighbor’s request, and because he doesn’t want to be thought of as a person who would refuse a baby at the doorstep. So, Sleeper will get up and give Requester as much as he needs. Now, if that’s the meaning of the parable, it seems to me that Jesus is teaching something fascinating about prayer and God’s way with us. And that’s this: That God’s ways and God’s desires are always achieved. When you pray, God will do anything that needs to be done in order for you to get what you need. You don’t have to be persistent with God. Jesus emphasizes this idea with a parable about a man who wouldn’t do something because he was a neighbor, because he was a friend, or because hospitality called for it, he did it because he didn’t want to be thought of poorly by other people in his village. That also fits the context of the parable because in verses 11-13, and especially verse 13, the text says that we give to our children and Jesus says, “If you then who are evil, do for your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good things to those who ask?” Jesus is saying that God will do anything, and even prompt evil people, to get what you need. God is our Father in Heaven; he isn’t like Sleeper who didn’t want to be thought of poorly by his neighbors. And to get anything in ancient culture, you had to go to the Father to get what you needed. If you wanted something for someone in the family, you had to go to the Father first.

Do you want to hear three life changing words from the mouth of our Heavenly Father? God is saying to each and every one of us, “I’ll be there.” I’ll be there for you. If you have ever had to call a plumber during a weekend, or a furnace man on a cold winter night, and he says to you, “I’ll be there,” you know how good those words can sound. If you have ever been stranded on the road and your only car battery is running low, or you have just used your last bit of change to call for help and someone says, “I’ll be there,” you know how great it can sound. “Grandma, I’m graduating in June.” “I’ll be there, honey.” “Dear, I’m stuck at the office and I can’t get to the airport to pick up my sister.” “Don’t worry, I’ll be there.” “Mom, this baby cries all night and if I don’t get some sleep I’m done for.” “Don’t worry sweetie, I’ll be there.” You know when you’re stressed, how wonderful those words can sound. And as sweet as they sound spoken by friends and family, they sound even more beautiful in the mouth of our Lord. The parable teaches through a scoundrel something about those who dwell in God’s kingdom, that God will be there for you; no matter what

I was talking with Tom Brantigan in a meeting earlier this week and he told me that he thought at one point that he would never again be working on a church staff in any capacity. Now there he is. He is working and doing such a wonderful job with the choir and the music and everything. Years ago he just came here to get a look at the organ and to play it, right? And suddenly, he meets all these wonderful people. He meets you and he sees the organ and he starts to play. Somebody must have been praying, “Lord we need a music director. We need a choir director.” And even though Tom was thinking, “Not me,” there he is. And not only that, God, as Tom shared with me, has worked in his life, too. And I am sure we could all come up with these kinds of stories about how God’s “been there” for us. Sometimes, people are not there for us. Even those closest to us can let us down. But this morning Jesus is saying, in this parable, “God will not do that. The Lord will be there no matter what happens and he will use any means and every means to answer your prayers.”

Do you ever feel like so much depends on you in your relationship with God–that you have got to pray harder, try harder, and work harder? If so, relax. You know, that doesn’t appear anywhere in scripture. Have you ever heard the phrase, “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform?” That’s not in scripture, but I will tell you that this text is as close as you can get to substantiating that statement: That God will work in any kind of way to meet your need. Even in the most surprising way possible. And I wonder if there is somebody here today whom would desperately love to put their whole trust in God, to give their life to Christ for the first time or the tenth time, but is afraid that they would be disappointed if they did so. Have you ever been afraid to pray something? Jesus is teaching that you don’t have to be afraid to pray for anything, anytime, or anywhere. God will sort out whether your prayer is a Yes or No. You pray it. You pray, “God do whatever you want with me and I will go wherever you want and I will do whatever you want.” Whatever way He answers your prayer, it will be for the best-the best for you, and for me.

I was talking to somebody after the first service and they said that their heart was set on a home and it fell through. And they just said, “Thanks for the reminder that God is meeting our needs and knows exactly what we need before we ask.” God says, “Just try me, I’ll be there for you.”

A few years ago, a young woman named Amy wrote to Dear Abby with the hopes that the stranger who helped her in a busy airport would read her letter. She wanted to thank him. Amy flew to Washington State to apply for an interview to veterinary school, and before she left she made a reservation for a rental car and a motel room. She had everything planned out, hoping to have a couple of hours in the motel room to prepare for the interview. But things didn’t turn out the way she planned. As she tried to use her credit card to pay for the rental car, it wouldn’t go through-it wasn’t accepted. She made a payment five days earlier, but for some reason, it hadn’t been credited to her account. Amy had no other way to pay for the room or the car. So she immediately went to a phone and called a friend back in California. She was crying hysterically and didn’t know what to do. At that moment, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She thought that the person who touched her was telling her to get off the phone, so she turned around and a man, who she had never seen before, handed her a $100 bill and walked away. Because she was still on the phone, she lost sight of him and didn’t have a chance to thank him. He disappeared into the crowd. In her letter to “Dear Abby,” Amy wrote, “I want him to know that I was accepted into Washington State Veterinary School. Not only did this anonymous benefactor make if possible for me to arrive on time for my interview, he made if possible for me to start my future.” Amy said she would remember that for the rest of her life. Now that’s a small example of how God will use whatever it takes to meet our needs when we need them met. God’s ends are always achieved in this life, and the one to come. God says to anyone who puts their trust in Him, “I’ll be there for you.” At the end of verse 8 the text says, “He will get up and give him as much as he needs.” When we pray, we say, “God I need you. I need the Spirit, I need the things of the Spirit, I need Your help.” God will give you as much as you need. No matter how dark the night, no matter how late the hour. Let us pray.

Dear Lord, we do ask that You would again seal this word to our hearts because we are often doubtful. Lord, we often struggle in our faith. Lord, we sometimes try too hard. Help us to see You again as a loving, caring, and generous, Heavenly father who loves to give good things to those who ask. Help us in the perplexities of our mind when those good things don’t come as we think they should. Help us to trust in You. We ask it in Christ name. Amen.