Persistence Training

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

You still see this scene on a hot summer day: a couple of little kids, sitting beside the road, selling lemonade.
Even if you just finished your lunch—even if you don’t like lemonade, the sight of the kids sweltering in the sun, hoping to make a few dollars, is just impossible to resist. You hear their sales pitch—“Fresh lemonade!”—and you can’t find it in your heart to say no.

Jesus draws on the universal appeal of children when he says, in today’s Gospel lesson, “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 give a scorpion?”
The answer, of course, is no: no one in Christ’s day would give a snake to a child who wants fish to eat, or a scorpion to a little one who asks for an egg.

But the more general point that Jesus is making is a different one: when you want something, you need to ask for it. Moreover, if you don’t get what you want right away, you should keep on asking.

We see this in the longer story Jesus tells in the Gospel. Imagine, Christ says, that an unexpected guest has arrived at your home and you have nothing to feed her. The stores are closed and the only thing you can do is to go to a neighbor’s house to ask for some bread for your guest.

Jesus predicts that your friend won’t be pleased when he’s disturbed. He will say, ”Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’”

This verse in Christ’s story is easier to understand if we take into account the sleeping customs in rural Israel at that time. People lived in simple houses that had no bedrooms or even beds. At night, family members spread out mats on the floor next to each other to sleep. So the father of the house couldn’t go to the door and open it without disturbing his sleeping family.

Yet even in such circumstances, as Jesus observes, if you keep knocking, eventually your friend will get up and give you the bread you want. It may not even be friendship that’s wins you your food. Your neighbor will answer your knock just to get rid of you!

Now the religious point to the story would have been obvious to Christ’s hearers, who were Jews. The Hebrews believed that it was perfectly acceptable to argue with the divine. Indeed, the name “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.”
Jesus encourages his listeners, then, to ask God to give them what they need. They are to ask, and to go on asking, for those who are determined in their quests will be rewarded.

Unfortunately, modern people may not be comfortable with this approach to God. For one thing, we expect—as Jesus himself once observed—that God knows what we need before we ask. So why do we have to bang on the door?

Another point is that we very likely have asked for favors in the past that we haven’t been granted. So why should we think that this time will be any different? Can we really believe that knocking on the gates of Heaven improve our chances of success?

I myself have thought a lot about these questions over the years. I have asked for things from God that I haven’t been given and I’ve wondered about the whole process of what Jesus called, “seeking and finding.”

During my sabbatical this summer, I have been working on some new approaches to these issues this summer during my sabbatical and I expect to inflict a few more sermons about spiritual searching on you this autumn.

Today, though, I just want to stick with this one Gospel text. I want to consider the guidance Jesus is offering in his brief remarks. Notice that this guidance includes the following ideas:

First, we should remind ourselves that God doesn’t always give us what we want, when we want it. The neighbor didn’t leap out of bed in the middle of the night, happy to answer the door.

That fact about god God work suggests that we shouldn’t take unanswered prayer personally! While God “never slumbers or sleeps,” God always has a number of requests to consider. Answering one person’s prayer may not allow God to answer someone else’s. (We had a good example of this recently: think how many of the prayers offered during the World Cup tournament went unanswered! Only fans of Spain could claim that all their prayers were granted!)

Second, Christ’s story advises that persistence pays off. We need to keep knocking and trying to get God’s attention. Struggling with God is an essential part of religion.

And this need for persistence tells us something interesting about our relationship with God. Since God remains the same, whether we persist or not, the ultimate effect of our struggle is to change us. When we commit ourselves to our religious search, we change.

Think of a man who is exploring Christianity. While he may not find it difficult to attend church once in awhile, more strenuous efforts seem beyond him. He may not want to get up a few minutes early to pray. He may find it hard to apply himself to reading the Bible. He may be shy about asking other Christians how they live their faith.

Yet, if the person devotes more of himself to his spiritual needs, he may discover that his mind and his heart begin to open. His diligence leads him to spiritual answers to his question.

And finally, remember the image Jesus uses of the child who asks for something. Even hard-hearted human beings don’t give scorpions to hungry kids.

If we persist in persisting, we can be sure of a response. The answer may not be immediate—indeed, putting up with the lag time between seeking and finding is one of the great challenges to faith. But even though we have to wait, we discover that our quest pays off, and the Spirit of God gives us the refreshment that our souls thirst for.

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