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A Friend at Midnight

July 25, 2016

“A Friend at Midnight” Luke 11:1-13 © 7.24.16 Ordinary 17C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Knock, knock, knock!

The man awoke with a start. “Who could that be at this time of night?” he wondered, thoroughly annoyed at being disturbed after a day of work.

Knock, knock, knock!

“Who is that at the door?” the man said from his bed, which in his little house wasn’t far from the entrance. “Don’t you know what time it is?”

“It’s your neighbor, Shemuel bar Simon,” came the somewhat muffled reply. “I know it’s very late….”

“You’ve got that right!”

“I know it’s very late, but my friend Hasid has come from Damascus unexpectedly, and I have no bread. My wife said that you might have some left from the day’s baking at the community oven.”

“How is your woman’s lack of preparation my problem? If I get up and help you, I’ll wake the whole family. I’ve got an infant, you know, and he’ll start crying, and we’ll never get him back to sleep. Go away. I won’t help you.”

Knock, knock, knock!

“Doesn’t this guy ever quit? Some people won’t take ‘no’ for an answer! “I told you to go away and quit bothering me,” he said to the door.

“But, neighbor, I must show hospitality to my visitor. Do you want me to be talked about in the village? Please help me.”

“OK, OK. Anything to get rid of you. Give me a minute.”

We no doubt identify with the man so rudely awakened. How dare the neighbor disturb him and his family! But for the original audience, the behavior of the sleeping man would have been unimaginable, and the midnight visit of the neighbor perfectly understandable. The ancient sages taught: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’—when you have it with you” (Proverbs 3:27,28). The obligation was strong to provide a guest with a meal, always including bread. People were expected to help each other to fulfill their duty to stranger and friend alike. Hasid, in my retelling, had been traveling since sundown, to avoid the heat of the day, and thus he arrived at midnight. Even if he were no closer than a friend of a friend, he would have sought out lodging in the home of someone he knew or who was recommended to him, no matter what the hour. Inns in that day were notorious places of ill repute, dirty and crime-ridden. The visitor could not be turned away to spend the night on the street or have to seek a bed in such a place.

What’s Jesus doing with this parable? As in all of them, he intends to disturb and confront anyone who hears. This story certainly fits the pattern, leaving us a bit confused. A surly, mean-spirited man who puts his own comfort above the concerns of his needy, desperate neighbor seems an odd choice if our Lord wanted to picture God. But the point is being made by the Hebrew wisdom method of qal v’homer or “light to heavy,” which we call “lesser to greater.” If even the sleeping neighbor could be moved to action by persistent, shameless asking, how much more will God, who doesn’t have to be begged to be gracious, but freely gives to all? “Ask, and keep on asking, and you will receive; seek, and keep on seeking, and you will find; knock, and keep on knocking, and the door will be opened. If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts, how much more will your heavenly Father?” God is more than willing to give to his children.

Right away, “Houston, we have a problem.” If that’s so, why do we pray and pray and pray, yet receive no answer? What about the faithful person who asks daily and fervently for healing or for protection of a child or a friend, yet the friend dies and the child is bullied mercilessly or has an accident? What of the constant prayers of the church, year after year, for peace, for an end to violence and prejudice and greed, yet those blights on humanity keep spreading and consuming us? Why do prayers go unanswered if God is so good and wants to shower blessings?

Simple and simplistic answers are often given, usually vindicating God and blaming the one who prays. We’re told we ask for the wrong things or that prayer doesn’t work like that or our sin gets in the way or something of the sort. But as someone has observed: “There is no simple answer to this question, though simple answers are often given. One answer given is that it only seems that God has not answered our prayers; God always answers, but sometimes says no.

“There are times, perhaps, when that is the case. We do not always ask wisely, and God, to be a truly loving God, must refuse our request. Yet this explanation cannot account for the many cases in which our requests must surely be in tune with God’s will. Scripture bears witness to God’s will that everyone have enough to eat and that violence and war cease. Jesus tells us to pray for daily bread and for God’s kingdom to come. Yet millions continue to go hungry and wars rage on.

“Another explanation often given to the problem of unanswered prayer is that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ God has some purpose in everything that happens. No matter how bad it may seem, it is all part of God’s plan to bring about some higher good.

“This is a troubling explanation, to say the least, as it holds that whatever happens must be God’s will. One would then have to say that all kinds of evil—such as violence, torture, starvation, and premature death—are the will of God. We dare not call the tragic results of our own sin and rebellion ‘God’s will.’

“Of course we believe that God can bring good out of evil. Indeed, this is our only hope and the heart of our faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But that is quite a different thing from saying that whatever evil thing happens is God’s will” (Elisabeth Johnson http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1724).

In the end, I simply have to admit that I don’t know. What God is up to is most of the time a mystery. I’ve often been disappointed in, angry at, God, and—be honest now—so have you, because he is indeed like the neighbor at midnight, refusing to help.

Having said that, though, Jesus commends prayer to us, despite the mystery and the disappointment. No, strike that. Because of the mystery and the disappointment. We can’t let God off the hook of his covenant obligation any more than the man at midnight let his neighbor slide on his duty to help out. The kind of prayer our Lord teaches is gutsy, impudent, shameless, audacious, bold. It’s simply not caring about how stupid we sound or how emotional or how many times we ask for the same thing for the same people, how much we rail against the injustice and inactivity of a God to his face who’s supposed to be all-powerful and more than willing to give good gifts, up to and including the Holy Spirit, to all who ask. We pray, in a word, with chutzpah, the Yiddish word which someone has defined as “‘gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible “guts,” presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to’” (quote from Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chutzpah).

What, then, is accomplished by such a brazen approach to God, such constant assault on the doors of Heaven? As someone has commented, it may be that banging on God’s door until we get an answer is “‘hardly an appropriate theology of prayer,’” (David Buttrick, quoted in Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: 255), but this text at least tells us that’s what we’re supposed to do.

I’m about to make some suggestions about the benefits of persistence. But let me just say first that my ideas about what happens in us and for us through constant, gutsy prayer are very tentative, more think-pieces than anything else, wonderings aloud. These are possibilities, and you may agree or disagree, find they are helpful or regard them as utter nonsense.

That said, note first how persistent prayer may help us clarify our motives and desires and come to terms with our feelings. As we go to God day after day, over the course of time, will our anger cool? Will the grief and hurt we have been suppressing come to the surface? When we pray, do we know what we want and why we pray for it? Is it possible we don’t really want what we’re praying for?

Suppose, for example, we pray for healing from some brokenness or sorrow or a physical ailment. But deep down, we enjoy complaining because it gets attention that we crave more than being well. Do we really want to be made whole? Or say we pray to be free from some sinful behavior. But do we truly want to live a “sober, chaste, and godly life,” as the old prayer put it? Would we be bored by such a lifestyle?

Or consider how we sometimes pray for others from the wrong motivation. We may not have all the facts about somebody’s life and needs; we may want him or her to come over to our way of thinking or behave according to our preferences. But what we pray for may not be what is best for the would-be recipient of God’s bounty. Rather, our petitions may reflect our desire to have our superior spiritual judgment confirmed or our hope that the change in someone may redound to our benefit. God gives good gifts, and one of them may be time to get our motives and feelings sorted out.

Second, keeping at prayer may intensify our desire for God’s will to be done. Think of the power of anticipation. There’s a reason rock bands don’t play their greatest hit until the end of the concert. Why the groom doesn’t see the bride on their wedding day. Why we get excited about going to our favorite restaurant where we had that fabulous dish we’re going to order again. Consider, too, the power of “no.” Isn’t it true that telling a kid “no” makes him or her want to do what’s forbidden even more or to acquire what he or she can’t have, and the child keeps on asking and/or figuring ways to get the thing or do the activity? So I wonder, is it a clue something is really important to us if we’re willing to keep on shamelessly badgering God for it; if we struggle intellectually, seeking an answer; if we knock ourselves out working hard for a cause?

Next, persistent prayer may open us to the neighbor with great need who knocks on our doors. As we pray for an end to oppression or for peace or for the healing of enmity among races and nations and people with differing viewpoints, we may realize that part of the answer is to open our hearts to those who have no advocate, to live more peaceably ourselves, to own up to our complicity in the evils that plague our land, to say a kind word or lend a helping hand. We come to realize that our prayers lack authenticity, and are not really very audacious or courageous if we are not willing to put them into action. They are instead, pious rhetoric, ritual fictions. Constant prayer purifies our hearts and deepens our commitments.

Finally, shameless, chutzpah-laden prayer opens us not only to our neighbor, but to the receipt of God’s Word, God’s gifts, and indeed, to a deeper relationship with God himself. And it’s that latter that God truly desires to give and will give in abundance. Prayer is intimate conversation with God, and in persistent prayer, we’re kept invested in the relationship and grow in it, even if we’re arguing. We don’t keep talking to people we don’t care about. So it is with prayer. We pray because we more than anything else want to be one with our Creator. As someone has said: “Prayer is the process of opening ourselves to God” (Mac and Ann Shaw Turnage, The Mystery of Prayer), and I think, too, it’s the process of God’s opening of himself to us. Prayer isn’t small talk. It’s serious conversation about things that matter. In our persistence, we are drawn closer and closer to the One who is love and life and wisdom, our greatest treasure.

All of us have those time when midnight has come, and an unexpected guest has shown up who expects us to provide. I mean we arrive at a turning point in life, and something happens that brings new challenges, questions, commitments. Tragedy, illness, death, doubt, questions, being overwhelmed to our breaking point. Even something good like a windfall or fame or a new job can nevertheless throw us for a loop, because life has changed, and change by its nature brings stress. It’s then that we go knock on the door of the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps, and we ask for bread for today and bread for tomorrow. And he says “Come on in.”

Though there may be times we wonder, the gracious, gift-giving God is our friend at midnight.

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