“Ask. Seek. Knock.”

February 16, 2014

 

Genesis 18:20-32

Matthew 7:7-11

 

Ask. Seek. Knock.

The covenant that we make with one another when we join this congregation includes that wonderful commitment to “walk together in the ways of Jesus Christ, made known and to be made known to us.”

It is a covenant deeply rooted in the Congregational tradition, recalling the words of John Robinson to the Pilgrims as they departed for the New World: “God has yet more truth and light to break forth from his word.”

We keep returning to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount because in it we find good markers of the way of Jesus Christ that has been made known to us. We listen closely to those old, familiar words and discover in them more truth and light, making known to us the new ways of Jesus Christ for today.

Ask. Seek. Knock.

To ask is to be open.

Have you heard recently that Facebook is falling out of favor with many people? There are a number of reasons, but a major one seems to be that people generally use the social media site to show how good their lives are. Every post is about something wonderful they are doing—or eating. And many are finding this somewhat depressing. It’s like getting one of those bragging Christmas letters several times a day, 365 days a year.

So I was surprised by a post that I saw a few weeks ago.

It was from a Facebook “friend”—really someone I knew a little, many, many years ago.

And the message was short. Out of nowhere he asked: “How am I going to do this?”

Some people responded with light-hearted banter. But it was a serious question.

Facing a very difficult situation, he dared to ask publicly: “How am I going to do this?”

It was a moment of stark vulnerability on a forum known for showing our best.

It is not easy to be the one who asks. Questions come from a place of emptiness.

When we pray, we come before God with empty hands and open hearts. Empty hands and open hearts are ready to receive.

Open hearts find that on our own we have nothing. The Reformers who wrote the Heidelberg Catechism reminded us that “neither our work and worry nor God’s gifts can do us any good without God’s blessing.”

The processes theologian Bruce Epperly suggests that “‘asking’ is not primarily about us, but our relationship to God’s reign in our lives….We utterly depend on God’s graceful and forgiving presence for our spiritual and personal well-being….God is giving us good gifts at each moment of experience. God weaves together our deepest needs and the needs of the world in such a way that our quest for wholeness enhances the lives of others….We are encouraged to ask God to respond to our deepest needs, even though God is constantly seeking the highest good for us and those for whom we pray….Prayerfully asking creates a spiritual field of force in which God’s vision can be more effective and clear in our experience.”

We are taught and invited to pray as those who ask. It is difficult to find that we come to prayer with empty hands. But because our hands are empty, because our hearts are open, we can receive what is given to us when we pray.

It’s an odd business, the kind of prayer in which we ask and it is given to us. Always, what is given is God’s Spirit that we might better see and use all that we have, all that is available to us.

Such prayer is not always easy. People often feel let down or rejected or abandoned by God. At such times trusting in God’s goodness seems extremely difficult, perhaps even foolish.

At just such times, Jesus calls us back and invites us into a relationship of trust. We come slowly to the sense that, as good parents can be trusted to give good gifts to their children, even more so can God be depended on in our daily existence.

Oh, in case you’re wondering how the rest of the story went, my friend from Facebook found a way through.

In prayer we take the risk of not having it all. We take the risk of not having it all together. Because God can be trusted, we dare to come before God in need.

We come, Jesus suggests, not to give, but to receive. We come empty. We come asking. Prayer is an occasion of openness.

Ask, seek, knock.

To seek is to be dissatisfied.

Remember how Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his own dissatisfied seeking and the wonderful way he encouraged us to have the same spirit: “I never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination,” he said. “I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many and give luxuries to the few. I never did intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. And I call upon all [people] of goodwill to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.”

We seek because by God’s grace we are not content with what is. We seek because we are dissatisfied with we know, with what we currently understand, with what we are able to see. When the choreographer, Liz Lerman, was here last summer, she told of working with a Nobel laureate who said of his search: “I am fueled by my own ignorance.”

We seek in the hope of finding something. We seek what is misplaced or lost. We seek what is not yet known. Have you explored a new city for the first time? Or have you looked at a familiar place with new eyes?

I still remember my first trip through Iowa City sometime back in the 80’s: taking wrong turns, heading out the Coralville Strip only to find, well, nothing. What a strange and wonderful place this city was. And it was something new again when I came back years later. Even today it is possible to look at it in fresh ways, to discover something new in someplace familiar.

Prayer is an occasion of such exploration, of such surprise. The opposite of faith, after all, is certainty, not doubt. If you have certainty about all things, you don’t need to pray—indeed you cannot pray. Prayer calls for doubt and questioning. So it is that we are a congregation that respects questions. In prayer we search after what is needed—and after what it not known.

In prayer we find ourselves looking at the world, at our lives, at our souls. We can explore those regions of life that are usually ignored.

Because of this, prayer takes each of us into the shadow side. Seeking what is truly needed in prayer, keeping at it, we are bound to run across, well, evil in our own lives. M. Scott Peck once said that there’s a part in each person that “belongs in jail.” Our seeking in prayer will lead us to better know that part. Our seeking in prayer will also lead each of us to discover in ourselves and in our neighbor the person that God loves without limit, the new creation that we are becoming in Christ.

In the shadows we encounter our sin—our separation from God.

And in that shadow region, we find the light of Christ shining all the more. The forgiveness that we encounter tells us that it’s all right to keep exploring even if we’ve made some wrong turns, even if it seems that we’ve come to a desolate place.

We are seekers—in shadow and light. Prayer is the seeking of the dissatistfied.

Ask. Seek. Knock.

To knock is to persist. It involves us in the active waiting for that which we desire.

There is perhaps no better example of this kind of persistent knocking than what we find in the story of Abraham’s conversation with God in Genesis—and what is prayer but conversation?

Taken aback by God’s threat of destruction, Abraham knocks: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” he asks. If fifty righteous people can be found, certainly God would relent.

With delightful humility Abraham knocks: “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?”

Abraham knocks: “Suppose forty are found there.”

And knocks: Thirty.

And knocks and knocks: twenty…ten…

And knocks until the door of God’s mercy swings wide open.

Karl Barth, one of the theological giants of the twentieth century, both inspires us and challenges us when he says that we should pray with the awareness “that God answers. God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, God acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts and influence upon God’s action, even upon God’s existence.”

This was the experience of Abraham.

This is the way of prayer to which Jesus calls us.

How easy it is to forget the good news of God's love that waits for us, ready to welcome and embrace each one. When we knock we actively wait for the welcome that we desire and discover as Robert Frost famously put it: “Home is the place, where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”

We knock until we might enter through the open door.

Ask. Seek. Knock.

The way of Jesus Christ is a way of openness, dissatisfaction, and persistence before God and with one another.

Ask. Seek. Knock.

Yes, there are times when we ask only to be answered by great silence or an empty hand, when we seek in the darkness and no light is seen, when we knock with scraped knuckles on unmoving doors. These are not the times to stop. They are the times to continue in the way of Jesus Christ, letting our vulnerability be seen, letting our emptiness be known, letting our weariness be obvious to all who would look—even to God.

Jesus promises fulfillment to our asking, our seeking, and our knocking. But that seems to be secondary.  The important thing is to do as Jesus says: ask, seek, knock.

It is a way of life, not just a way of prayer. In following, we find that we receive, we discover, we are welcomed.

Ask, seek, knock.

In doing so, we learn to pray. We learn to live.

We learn to follow in the way of Jesus Christ even as new ways are made know to us.

And we find ourselves embraced by the God whose love does not fail.