1 Chronicles 14:8-17

8 When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over all Israel, they went up in full force to search for him, but David heard about it and went out to meet them. 9 Now the Philistines had come and raided the Valley of Rephaim; 10 so David inquired of God: “Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you deliver them into my hands?”

The Lord answered him, “Go, I will deliver them into your hands.”

11 So David and his men went up to Baal Perazim, and there he defeated them. He said, “As waters break out, God has broken out against my enemies by my hand.” So that place was called Baal Perazim. 12 The Philistines had abandoned their gods there, and David gave orders to burn them in the fire.

13 Once more the Philistines raided the valley; 14 so David inquired of God again, and God answered him, “Do not go directly after them, but circle around them and attack them in front of the poplar trees. 15 As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the poplar trees, move out to battle, because that will mean God has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army.” 16 So David did as God commanded him, and they struck down the Philistine army, all the way from Gibeon to Gezer. 17 So David’s fame spread throughout every land, and the Lord made all the nations fear him.

Luke 11:1-13

11 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:

hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

9 “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. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 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!”

If you’ve been around Saint Peter’s at all this summer, then you know we’ve been reading the Psalms together and looking at the life of David, and some of the famous stories in his life: being chosen and anointed as the future king of Israel among his seven older brothers, defeating Goliath, and last week his affair with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah — which led to a devastating moment of David acknowledging his sin before God, confessing and repenting from it after the prophet Nathan opens his eyes to what he’s done.

We can relate to David in many ways: to his imperfection — his humanness — though few of us have probably ever messed up as bad as he did. And this should be comforting, considering how the Bible also praise David for his faith.

But then there’s also David’s prayer life, and this is where frankly I get a little intimidated. We see evidence of it throughout some of the Psalms that we’ve been reading. David’s prayers are so passionate. They’re real. They’re honest. They’re poetic, beautiful. They’re disturbing even at times!

And so, on the one hand, it’s amazing that we have these prayers in the Bible to imitate and pray for ourselves.

But on the other hand, you see the kind of relationship that David has with God, how much he worships God and delights in praising and singing to God in his prayers. And it can make my own prayer life and prayer-relationship with God feel a little wimpy — a little weak!

In 1 Chronicles 14, David is trying to make a final stand against the Philistines who continue to pursue him and prevent Israel from expanding the kingdom of Israel and fully overtaking the city of Jerusalem to consolidate David’s reign and move the Ark of Covenant there, making it the capital city and the future site of the temple.

10 so David inquired of God: “Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you deliver them into my hands?” The Lord answered him, “Go, I will deliver them into your hands.” … 13 Once more the Philistines raided the valley; 14 so David inquired of God again, and God answered him, “Do not go directly after them, but circle around them and attack them in front of the poplar trees. 15 As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the poplar trees, move out to battle, because that will mean God has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army.”

And the in the course of this story, David is able to simply pray and ask God, not only if he should do something, but also, what the outcome will be! Which must be nice. And it’s hard to believe. I mean, can you imagine this kind of communication between you and God? With this level of confidence big decisions? Other people’s lives at stake.

Something else that’s impressive about David’s prayers to God here are that after the first one works, and he has success in his endeavors, he goes back to God again when the problem returns. Because a lot of times what success will do to us is create this false sense of self-sufficiency, so when the next trial approaches, we think we’re good to go. But that’s not what David does. He inquires of the Lord again, it says, asking expectantly for very concrete direction from him, which leads to a victory.

So here’s the question that I think this story in David’s life raises for us: are we asking God, are we crying out for what we need, and do we expect to hear from a response? How should we ask, and why is it important?

You know if you’re like me at all, sometimes we don’t pray because we honestly just aren’t very confident that’s it’s going to make much of a difference. I find this to be one of the biggest hurdles for people, and it’s been a big one for me at times. I think I’ve always believed that prayer does something to me, but I have a harder time believing probably that it doesn’t something to God — maybe you’ve heard it said, “prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us.” Which may sound good, and it’s not wrong.

It’s true, that prayer changes us, and God’s character is unchanging. I had this powerful realization about 9 years ago now, that God wants to do something transformative in us — in us, in our hearts, and our character — that this is even more important than what God wants us through us in the world, through our actions, though that matters to God too.

But this was something that, once I learned it, my form of pray changed. I stopped praying as much for things to happen. I stopped praying as much for other people. And if I’m honest, I also stopped praying as much in general.

Now, I still believed, and I’ve always believed that prayer affected me and could make me into more a spiritually mature person. You know, it remind you of your dependence on God, and of the limits of our ability to control things.

And this was also good — I matured because of this. It exposed me to liturgy. To liturgical prayers. It was easier for me for a while to prayer the prayers that other people had written rather than to come up with my own. It’s part of what drew me to the Anglican church. My prayers became less focused on my wants. They became simpler and shorter. Sometimes I wouldn’t even use words when I would pray. And I still do this some when I practice meditation and what’s called contemplative prayer.

But in the process, I inadvertently subordinated petitionary prayer — prayer that asks things of God — to contemplative prayer. To meditative prayer. And to liturgy and so on. And lost something when I did. I believe that was a mistake, even though I was still growing in some ways at the same time.

As I was preparing to talk about this, I came across two quotes that really grabbed me:

Petitions that are less than pure can only be purified by petition. — P. T. Forsyth.

In other words, if your prayers are a little immature, the way to grow in prayer is not to pray less but to pray more — to ask for more!

Here’s another one:

It is quite wrong to subordinate petition to contemplation, as if petition were more for beginners and contemplation more for the more advanced, for each determines and assumes the other. They lead directly to each other. – Hans Urs von Balthasar

I actually wrote my dissertation on this guy, Balthasar, so it’s kind of ironic that I had never seen that before. Of course he wrote more than I could ever read, but still, I think God was having a sense of humor with me on that one.

But what’s kind of funny, that I noticed, is that sometimes when you’re so focused on prayer for the purpose of growth, it can be hard to grow — have you ever noticed that? A theologian named Philip Carey wrote a book called “Good News for Anxious Christians,” and the subtitle is, “10 Practical Things you don’t have to do.” One of the chapter titles is: “Why you don’t have to keep getting transformed all the time.”

You know why God gave us some good laws and commandments, and morality? So that we wouldn’t have to worry about transforming ourselves.

Because oftentimes we grow the most when we’re not thinking about it too much. That doesn’t  mean we’re not praying or that we’re not disciplined, but it opens us up more to face the suffering of the world and the needs of others. It allows to let go of ourselves more in the care of others. My guess is that those of you who are parents in the room know this very well.

But it’s funny too how sometimes when if the only reason we’re supposed to pray is because it changes us, we won’t do it as often.  In other words, if we don’t believe that prayer can actually make a difference in what God does, and how God is moving and acting in the world, then the incentive to pray is diminished, isn’t it? It’s only human.

One of the most unique aspects of Christianity, if you compare it to other major world religions, for example — is that God is personal (Eastern religions don’t believe this), and that God is close (because of Jesus’s human nature, and because of the presence of the Holy Spirit). Muslims of course believe in a personal God, but not in the Trinity, so their idea of God tends to be a little bit more removed and less intimately related to us. But we may not think about this very much.

God is not distant. God is personal, and God is with us. God hears us, and wants to be in close conversational relationship with us, and to answer prayers.

But I know that there are still questions about this. Is God a cosmic vending machine, like Santa Clause? If we’re good and believe, we’ll get what we ask for?

Because it’s true, that, the Bible does say things at times that sound a lot like this. The Psalms themselves in certain instances suggest that God will reward us for our righteousness and faith, and punish the wicked. Right?

This section of the Old Testament where we find the Psalms is right next to a few other books, like Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Altogether they are called the books of Wisdom — the wisdom literature in the Bible. One of the traits of a person who has spiritual wisdom, is the ability to believe two things that are both true but that appear to contradict each other on the surface — when in fact they don’t. It’s called a paradox. You know the term.

And in this case, it is generally true, that righteousness and faithfulness can lead to a more blessed life, a more fulfilled life and abundant life than a life lived in sin and self-centeredness. But we all know there are exceptions. Jesus says the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. This is actually the main message of the story of Job! Which is also a wisdom book.

And this is a difficult truth, because it means our prayers and our faithfulness will not necessarily exempt us from suffering. But Go still wants to give and will give good gifts to us in the face of our suffering, Jesus says.

9 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. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  Luke 11:9-10

But the key to this promise, “ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find.” is what comes just before it. It starts with the Lord’s prayer:

hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

Obviously, this is a deep prayer, and a lot could be said about it, but it’s also pretty simple. Just a few quick things about it: It’s starts with “Our Father.” And this intimate but reverend name for God almost governs the whole prayer. Because it depicts God as personally relate d to us, and as a parent who is concerned and who would like nothing more than to bless his children.

And let me say one thing about this word “Father” for those of you in the room for whom the word may not have the best connotation. If it isn’t a warm and comforting word for you. Because obviously some of us have not had an altogether good experience with our dads, And, you know, of course if that’s true, part of what Jesus is saying is, no matter your experience with your father has been, God is your good and perfect Father.

But even that might not be enough. I think we also need to say, God is a mother as well as father. God is not just male. God possesses the attributes of both genders and is beyond both genders. So if it helps you to think of God’s feminine qualities as well as masculine ones, then I encourage to do that. To think of God as both father and mother, and to pray to God that way.

Richard Foster writes,

“Do you know why the mighty God of the universe chooses to answer prayers? It is because God’s children ask. God delights in our asking. God is pleased at our asking. God’s heart is warmed by our asking.”

You parents in the room must know what this is like! You want your children to come to you when they need something, and most of the time, it is your joy to give them what they need, if you’re able. And of course you like it when they just want to be with you and not just ask you for stuff, so that’s important for us to remember as well.

The second thing that’s important about the prayer is this: our petitions, when we seek God and when we asking for things from God, Jesus is saying, our petitions are formed and heard best when we are: Desiring and praying for God’s kingdom to come, and forgiving as we’ve been forgiven. Longing for God’s kingdom to come, and forgiving as we’ve been forgiven. This is context for hearing God. This is what enables us to tune in.

Because again, this still might sound like an outrageous promise, that if we ask, we will receive: but what we overlook, is that, we don’t always know what to ask for, and what would be good for us. So sometimes we ask for scorpions and snakes, and God’s not going to give us those things, anymore than you would your children.

And what we really need, according to Jesus, is the Holy Spirit, and God’s going to give us the Spirit, and God has. But we don’t always know how to ask for the Spirit and how to receive it. It’s the role of the Holy Spirit to establish our relationship with God!

Seek first God’s kingdom, and his righteousness, Jesus says in Matthew 6, and all these things will be given to you as well — “all these things” meaning the stuff we usually worry about it. Our basic needs getting met.

To pray for God’s kingdom to come, and to actually reside in that Kingdom, the currency of which is forgiveness, requires a different kind of vision for what life is supposed to be all about. Just look at all the tragic things that have happened in our country and around the world this summer (Unprovoked shootings of black people by police offers. Police officers themselves being targeted. Bombings hitting the wrong people, more terrorist attack and mass shootings).

And notice how people are responding. What has been the political response: the further of climate that runs on fear and self-righteousness that blames and demonizes the other side for everything. Do you think there’s a little bit of unforgiveness circulating in our society? Can we hear God when there’s bitterness and unforgiveness in our hearts? Unacknowledged sin?

Sometimes God will mercifully knock us off our horse and get our attention. That can happen. It happens in Scripture. But usually, God doesn’t force his way or argue with us. He’s very patient. And I’m not saying we have to be perfect to hear God, but we need to be repentant and humble. Admitting our brokenness and our own blind pots. David was ultimately contrite and confessed his sin. Which is why he still had a future and was able to receive forgiveness after his great fall.

And the question I have for the church is, do we look any different? Are our Facebook posts any different? Are our hopes any different? They should be! We know that. Jesus tells us and shows us another way, another kind of kingdom.

Now, there are some things God’s not going to ask you to do. Like ever. You’re not going to hear God tell you to break one of the Ten Commandments, for example. It’s just not going to happen. Yes, God tells David to go and defeat this enemy army, but if God ever asks you to kill someone, be sure to remind God of the command not to murder, and then at least please run it by a trusted friend first. Jesus seemed to say something about loving your enemies.

And if you don’t ever sense that God is asking you to do something you don’t want to do — if everything you ever feel like God is telling you to do just seems to pretty much be what you already want to do — that could be a sign that what you’re hearing if more of your own voice than God’s. Because God will ask you to do things you don’t want to do, and God will surprise you.

But we also shouldn’t be anxious when we’re not hearing anything specific. Again, there’s no indication in Scripture that the normal way we conversationally relate to God is through constant download of specific instructions.

The example of Jesus… in his own prayer life. Hearing God always, but not like a robot. Here’s the verses we focused on this morning in the Thessalonians class:

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Ephesians 6:18

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

John Newton Hymn: “Begone Unbelief”

Begone unbelief, my Savior is near, And for my relief will surely appear:

By prayer let me wrestle, and He wilt perform. With Christ in the vessel, I smile at the storm.

Also published on Medium.