Sunday’s Sermon: Finding the Words

Texts: Psalm 85; Luke 11:1-13

  • Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians that we are to “pray without ceasing,” a short but vexing phrase, infinitely simple in structure and at the same time, infinitely complex in execution. Sure, it’s easy to pray at church or to pray before meals or bedtime. It’s easy to offer up a prayer when we hear the sirens from the fire engine or see the medevac helicopter overhead. But what about those times when life renders us unable to pray? What about those times when we cannot find the words?
    • Happy –> story of hearing from committee and finding out we were having twins
      • Truly at a loss for words
      • Table server at Applebee’s probably thought we were crazy!
    • More often, find ourselves at a loss for words when …
      • Angry  
      • Sad –> story of losing Grandma Joanne
      • How then are we supposed to pray when our words have been swallowed up by a stunned, painful silence?
  • The reality is that sometimes life just leaves us speechless … and that’s the issue addressed by both our Scripture readings for today: prayer when we have no words for prayer.
    • Gospel lesson for this morning begins with ever-familiar words given to us in NT passage cover “basics” of prayer – scholar’s description: [The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples] does not require of us that we become anything we are not already. It is a deeply human kind of prayer. It is a prayer for human beings, that is, for creatures in need.[1] –> Satisfies our creaturely need by giving us words for prayers of …
      • Praise: Father, hallowed be your name.[2] –> God, we love and honor you.
      • Purpose: Your kingdom come.[3] –> God, we want to do your will. Show us the way.
      • Protection: Do not bring us to the time of trial.[4] –> God, save us.
      • Provision: Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.[5]
        • Now, I know that we could spend all day talking about the different elements of this prayer, but I want to hone in on this one part for today: Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. –> about asking God to provide for us – welfare for our bodies and our souls
  • Jesus expanded on this in second part of today’s gospel lesson –> You see, in the rest of the New Testament reading for this morning, Jesus addresses how we can and should approach God when we know that we’re in need.
    • Jesus gives 2 illustrations of this: 1) story of neighbor asking for bread and 2) what I’m going to call the “would you give” questions.
      • Bread illustration: certain person entertaining guests – probably unexpectedly since person has no food appropriate to present to guests –> goes next door to ask neighbor for assistance –> neighbor is reluctant, but certain person is persistent –> pays off
        • It is in this passage that we hear what have become fairly infamous words of Scripture – Jesus: So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.[6] –> When it comes to this passage, we like to focus on what it says. It says God will give us whatever we ask for, whatever we seek, right? It says that if we keep on asking – if we’re just downright persistent enough – God will eventually give in like the neighbor, right? Hmmm. Instead of focusing on what we think the Scripture says, let’s take a minute to look for what it doesn’t say.
          • Doesn’t detail what will be given to us –> Ask, and it will be given you.
          • Doesn’t describe what we will find when we search –> Search, and you will find …
          • Doesn’t hint at what’s behind that door we’re supposed to knock on –> Knock, and the door will be opened for you.
          • This presents a very important Scriptural and theological point for us: the difference between what we want and what we need.
            • Distinction that’s gotten lost amidst trappings of today’s consumeristic culture –> If we want it, we go out and buy it. A short trip to Target or a few clicks on, and there’s very little we can’t have.
              • Extreme e.g. – eBay auction: place in heaven
              • There’s even a theology for that, misguided though it may be: “Prosperity gospel” – idea that atonement and “right” visualization and confession lead to personal empowerment, health, wealth[7] –> problem: far cry from life Jesus lived among those who had been rejected – those who were lacking power, health, wealth
              • This passage doesn’t guarantee that God will give us whatever we want if we beg hard enough or ask in the “right” words. Grace, salvation, and forgiveness don’t work like that. –> gifts given freely because God loves us … not necessarily because we know when or how to ask for them
      • I think this leads us to another very important point: More often than not, we can’t actually tell the difference between what we want and what we need. – Scholar: [The] community of disciples is responsible for considering, critically and faithfully, how it would actually look for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, rather than simply ascribing God’s favor to whatever it has seized upon as advantageous to its own preferences.[8] –> God’s will vs. what’s “advantageous to [our] own preferences” … what we need vs. what we want
        • Sometimes it’s easy – do we need the ice cream, or do we want the ice cream?
        • Sometimes it’s harder
          • Do we need to take that other job, or do we want to take that other job?
          • Do we need to make that aggressive statement, or do we want to make it?
      • This is what Jesus is getting at with the second illustration that we encounter in this passage – the “would you give” questions.
        • Jesus: Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will you give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him![9] –> Jesus makes the point that when we approach God in need of those things that are as necessary for our spiritual survival as food is for our physical survival, God will provide. Whether or not we know how to ask, whether or not we can find the words, God knows what we need – in our bodies, in our minds, and in our souls.
          • Also stated in Ps: The Lord will give what is good.[10] –> It doesn’t say, “The Lord will give whatever we desire.” It doesn’t say, “The Lord will give whatever the Lord feels like giving.” “The Lord will give what is good.” I don’t know about you, but I find that reassuring. Even when life has left me speechless – even when I don’t have a clue what it is that I need let alone how to ask for it – God knows what I need and will be there for me.
  • Find evidence of God’s response to prayer – spoken and unspoken – in the rest of the Psalm
    • Response – forgiveness and restoration: You forgave the [guilt] of your people; you pardoned all their sin. … Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.[11]
      • Heb. – “forgave” = lifted à connotations of clear action, not just passive decision so God is a hands-on God. God is active in the removal of our sins from us.
        • Often reticent or unable to pray for forgiveness because we’re too ashamed to name what it is we’ve done that needs forgiving –> God = active in knowing what we need – knowing the prayers of our hearts – before we do
          • Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. –> Emerging Church movement: Untie the knots of failure binding us as we release the strands we hold of others’ faults.
    • Responses – steadfast love and salvation: Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.[12]
      • These are the kinds of response that, when we are lost in the midst of whatever pain or confusion has rendered us speechless before God, we don’t dare to hope for or expect. But Psalm 85 reassures us that God hears us cry out even when we are silent, giving us what our dry and weary souls really need – steadfast love, salvation, faithfulness, righteousness.
  • You see, God is always listening not just to the spoken words of our prayers but also – and maybe more importantly – to the hearts behind them. God hears those words that we’re too scared, too sad, too ashamed to say. God hears those words that go unspoken but are clearly demonstrated in our actions.
    • Like listening to babies crying –> Is that the …
      • Hungry cry
      • Dirty diaper cry
      • Bored cry
      • “I need to be held” cry
      • In our house, the first question is, “Who’s crying?” –>Thankfully, God is much better at this guessing game than we are. God can tell who’s heart is crying out without even looking, and God can also come to our side and fill our need whether the words are there or not. Amen.


[1] Douglas John Hall. “Proper 12 (Sunday between July 24 and July 30 Inclusive): Luke 11:1-13 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 288.

[2] Lk 11:2a.

[3] Lk 11:2b.

[4] Lk 11:4b.

[5] Lk 11:3-4a.

[6] Lk 11:9-10.

[7] “Prosperity theology.”

[8] Mark D. W. Edington. “Proper 12 (Sunday between July 24 and July 30 Inclusive): Psalm 85 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 276.

[9] Lk 11:11-13.

[10] Ps 85:12a.

[11] Ps 85:2, 4 (emphasis added).

[12] Ps 85:7.

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