Luke 11:5-7 “Then he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.” Then the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.”
Somebody listened to Jesus praying, and when he had finished the disciple asked longingly, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Immediately Jesus responds; he wants to help us to pray. He gave them a model of true praying, what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, which contained the elements of God-pleasing praying, but he hadn’t finished. He said, “Let me tell you a story . . .” When we hear sermons on prayer we’re often given illustrations and that is great – except for those occasions when they’re not helpful illustration. Sometimes they are so triumphalistic; they get the $50,000 they asked for in the mail the next day, and everyone they pray for is healed. The Christian life is not like that. My own particular bugbear is the tall tale of different groups of anonymous old ladies whose prayers, we are assured, have been the reason for many of the different revivals in the western world in the past 200 years. How can speakers affirm that it was these prayers in particular that were the reason for God raising up Whitefield or Edwards? How in the world can speakers be so confident? Who can know that? No one at all. It is sheer romantic speculation. Surely the reason lies in the secret things that belong to God alone. Nobody knows why we haven’t been granted more than one single revival in Wales in the past century (that which took place in Sandfields, Aberavon in the late 1920s and 30’s). It’s certainly not because elderly Christian women have ceased praying. Where would we be without their prayers?
I am saying that we do need sweet, clear illustrations in preaching particularly when the message is about prayer because how to pray is a daunting, guilt-creating subject. The message needs windows of light and hope because none of us pray as we should – even after hearing tremendously inspiring messages on prayer. We need there to be parables and stories of true encouragement to accompany those messages so that privately we pray a little longer and a little more fervently and hopefully, and we don’t give up, and we don’t get guilty hearing sermons about praying, rather we receive them as a gentle loving nudge from Jesus.
So after Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer he told them a story, “Suppose . . .” he said, just suppose that one of you has a friend. O.K? I can grasp that. Those of you who say you can’t understand the Bible certainly you can understand this, that you’ve got a friend. Maybe phrases like “Hallowed by your name” and “Your kingdom come” are a little more illusive to grasp but you do have a friend, and to him or to her you can turn in a time of need. You are a blessed person. Some people don’t have friends. When their lives are in a mess then they are very much on their own. My wife would talk to an Asian woman at the check-out counter in a local supermarket, and then after a few years she told Iola that her husband had a job somewhere else and they were moving. “I will miss my friends,” she said “like you . . .” I don’t think she knew my wife’s name, but some human contact, some regular brief conversation and kindness had meant something to that woman. She had come to count Iola as her friend though they only ever met at the check-out counter. Please give your friendship to other people. Don’t hurry away from them for things you think are more important. I write letters to a circle of friends. Pastoring is searching for time to sit with friends.
LOVING FRIENDSHIPS CREATE DILEMMAS.
It is not always a positive thing to have friends. Friendship brings obligation. It brings phone-calls and requests for help. Friendship creates inconvenience. Friendship requires love and patience and wisdom. Here was a man who late one night was disturbed by a knock on the door. It was the arrival of a friend who needed hospitality, that is, a meal and somewhere to sleep that night. Inns were few and far between; people relied on friends and an extended family to give them hospitality. The social norms of hospitality were strictly observed. He had no idea that this man was going to turn up, but the householder didn’t mind the inconvenience though unprepared for his arrival. It was a privilege to welcome a friend to stay under his roof. “So very glad to see you,” he said, giving him water to wash his feet and fragrant oil to anoint himself. While he was doing that he looked at his wife, and his wife looked at him. As they hadn’t been expecting anyone they had eaten all the food in the house. There were no refrigerators in those days, and no shops open late at night, but their friend was obviously hungry and the cupboard was bare. The householder had a high obligation to provide a bountiful meal, even to kill the fatted calf. Bread would have been an essential ingredient, as Philip Ryken points out, “not just to eat, but to use for dipping and sopping everything else. It was ‘the knife, fork and spoon with which the meal was eaten.’” (Commentary, Volume 1, p.583). The man had a real dilemma. What could he do? He only had one option, that he would go to the home of another friend even in the middle of the night, and ask him for bread.
In our time we would phone, although knowing that phone calls after midnight are always emergencies and men’s hearts race when they pick up the phone after midnight. We hate to disturb a friend at such an hour, but there is nothing else we can do to fulfil our solemn obligation to a friend. We hit on another friend. That is what friendship is all about. So we call; “Hello Bill, Geoff here, I know it’s terribly late, so sorry about this, but I’m calling regarding a matter of urgency. Can you lend me three loaves of bread at this very time?” There is an exasperated gasp at the other end and a sleepy, “Sorry, no, we are all in bed,” and the phone hangs up. You know what it is when you have children who are light sleepers and you have finally got them all off to sleep. If your father is visiting you and he has a loud whistle then you say to him kindly, “Shhhhh Dad; the children have just gone to sleep.”
Children, are you listening? Jesus told a story about a man calling on his friend in the middle of the night and asking him for bread. It was very late, and he was in bed. The story is here in the Bible in Luke 11. My youngest grandson, Osian, loves Winnie the Pooh. There is one story in which Winnie the Poor goes to visit Rabbit, but Rabbit doesn’t want to be bothered, and so when Winnie the Pooh calls out the Rabbit is silent. “Is anybody at home?” There was a sudden scuffling noise from inside the hole, and then silence. “What I said was, ‘Is anybody at home?’” called out Pooh very loudly. “No!” said a voice, and then added, “You needn’t shout so loud. I heard you quite well the first time.” “Bother,” said Pooh, “Isn’t there anybody there at all?” “Nobody.” Rabbit didn’t want Pooh coming in and eating all his grub.
In this story of Jesus there is a negative response that comes from within the house. The man is bed tries to get back to sleep, but the phone rings again, “Hello Bill, I know this is terrible but my old friend Keith has called to stay the night and we’ve no bread in the house . . .” “No Geoff. I have told you . . . it is too late. The door is already locked. I am here with the children in bed. Good night – try someone else.” A minute later the phone rings again, “So sorry Bill. Me again, but there’s nobody but you to help me. I can’t send Keith to bed on an empty stomach. I’d rather endure your anger than do that. Have you got three small loaves? I’ll be down at the house in a minute if you have them. It will be such a help to me, and God will bless you for your generosity. Please Bill . . .”
Bill has told him no in four different ways. None of his excuses was very persuasive. If the door was shut, it could be opened. If the children woke up they could be tucked back in. The real issue was not that it was impossible for the man to help his friend, rather he didn’t want to help him at that time. Oh there would be times in the future, on baking day, at three o’clock in the afternoon with a tray of fresh bread and its smell filling the house and all seemed well in the world that he would be proud to give ten loaves of his wife’s best fresh bread to his friends, but not at an inconvenient time. We can all be generous when we are in a good mood; it’s no big deal. Jesus says we will greet those who will greet us. The acceptable time is when it is a convenient time to us, then we’ll be real Christians, patient and generous-hearted, when no sacrifice is being asked of us, when it’s easy we’ll be Christians. We will do what our wife asks from us; we will do what our pastor requests, but if it is in any way inconvenient we’ll grumble like this man grumbled, finding one excuse after another for not joining in.
So Bill in his warm bed, on the other end of the telephone, sighs; he’s now wide awake. He tells Geoff that he wants him to understand that he is not going to do what he’s requested because they’ve been friends for thirty years, but simply because Geoff keeps calling him on the phone, and there seems to be no end to the phone ringing. So he’ll do what he says. “I cannot believe it!” he tells Geoff. “It is your sheer audacity that is getting me out of bed, going to the pantry and bringing to the door three loaves of bread. It’s not our friendship at all Geoff. Understand? You won’t take no for an answer will you?” So with high reluctance he creeps out of bed, gets the three loaves and without a smile goes to the front door where his friend has just arrived. He hands over the bread, closes the door and locks it again and goes back to bed wondering how long he will take to get back to sleep. He then hears a little child calling for its mother . . . That is the story Jesus told – without any of my reference to telephones.
IMPORTUNITY IS ENCOURAGED BY OUR FRIEND JESUS CHRIST
The man doesn’t get out of bed and pick up the three loaves and unlock the door because he values this man’s friendship. In fact Jesus tells us that that friendship, at that hour of the night, was under its greatest strain. “He will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend” (v.8). Then why does he do it? It is because of the man’s ‘boldness.’ The Greek word does not have an exact equivalent in English. It combines shamelessness with boldness. You read this story and you say, “What a nerve, disturbing a man’s whole household in the middle of night and asking for three loaves of bread.” What cheek! It was only because of that audacity that the friend got out of bed and gave him the bread. Friendship had nothing to do with it. In fact the ESV translates the word ‘impudence.’ The persistent man acted without any sensitivity to shame or disgrace. He kept on and on bothering this man until he got what he wanted.
That is what this parable centres upon. It is a story about importunity. The word ‘importunity’ means persistent pleading, refusing to give up until the desired object is obtained. I will have said the word ‘importunity’ so often during the course of this sermon that you all will have learned it, knowing exactly what it means and you will be using it yourselves for the rest of your lives. You will be praying in the Prayer Meeting, “Lord, make us a praying people who won’t give up, full of importunity.” We don’t want to be people playing at praying. Let me break it down using the approach of the Victorian preacher, G.R.Leavitt. I have six lessons about importunity.
i] Importunity has an object in view. The object here was not the man himself. You see that? He was not saying, “Gimme, gimme, gimme.” He was interceding and pleading for his neighbour whom he was under obligation to love as himself. His neighbour happened to be a starving friend whom he was responsible for feeding. He was not importunate on his own behalf but on behalf of his neighbour. We also can suddenly find ourselves in times of need, and we don’t know how on earth we are going to meet the need. We have literally nothing to meet it, and the problem is not going to go away. Our only resource is to ask another friend to help us, and, through us, our guest can be helped. So that is the simple lesson being presented to us; we have a need that we cannot meet from our own resources; but what a friend we have in Jesus! Asking the Lord in prayer is the link between the need and its fulfillment.
Edmund P. Clowney was the principal of Westminster Theological Seminary when I was a student there – I graduated in 1964. In the 1999 I was speaking at Westminster Seminary California at the centenary of the birth of John Murray, and Edmund Clowney was teaching there and he asked me to come and see him. We had coffee together and he told me how he had prayed for me every day since I graduated, 35 years earlier, and that it was a little demoralizing asking God, “Bless Geoff Thomas,” every day. Was there some need I had that he could pray for? I was greatly humbled. Ed had an object in view and that was me. He was importunate in bringing me to the throne of grace each day. Do you have some people, and some issues that you are bringing to your heavenly Friend each day?
ii] Importunity goes to God. You pray constantly. You have set times in the day and the week, and on Sundays but you pray particularly when there’s a sudden need. We send up arrow prayers, “Oh God help me now.” You go to God there and then, wherever you are, and whatever time it is. In Jesus’ story the man couldn’t wait until the shops opened in the morning. It was after midnight, yes, but the traveler had turned up apologetically at his house at the midnight hour. It was at this unseasonable time that he stood shamefaced and famished in the hall; he was starving. He had not eaten all day; he was weak with hunger and he did not refuse your offer, “Shall I get you something to eat?” He was in need, and so he put you in need too. The householder must go somewhere that night to get food. He must make haste. That is the picture and the lesson is that we who are disciples of the Son of God must not hesitate to go to God the Father with our need. Van Doren is hepful here with ten staccato encouragements:
a) Our petitions are never unseasonable to God
b) No time is unsuitable to God.
c) No spiritual mercy is too great to ask from God.
d) God is never unwilling to bless.
e) No needed blessing exceeds God’s power to grant it.
f) God is never disinclined to hear us.
g) God is ready to answer us.
h) God is able to grant above all that we ask or think.
i) God is willing to bestow.
j) God is waiting to be gracious.
This God will give us the best possible answer. Jim Packer talks of his boyhood in Gloucestershire, a tall gangling child he longed for a bike for Christmas and talked about this at great length. On Christmas morning he went downstairs and in the living room there was his present, a typewriter. His parents judged him to be unco-ordinated and that a typewriter would be a far more suitable gift than a bike, because he loved reading and words. It was in fact, a perfect gift, and he used that typewriter for many years. It was his pride and joy. God gives us answers to importunate praying in much the same way. The little poem says;
“He knows, he love, he cares;
Nothing this truth will dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to him.”
iii] Importunity will not be put off. The sleeping friend behind the locked door of his home initially refuses to help. He has many sensible excuses for saying, “I cannot help you at this hour.” But the friend still keeps knocking on the door. So it is with our praying. At first our cries for help may not seem to reach God’s ear. But we don’t stop calling to him, until God answers us. We may be rebuffed with a silence from heaven, or a voice that answers, “No! Trouble me not. I cannot rise and give you anything. Good night.” So we’ll be tempted to stop asking because there’s initially no response. But we refuse to stop because we are confronted with an earnest, pressing case. We won’t stop knocking at heaven’s gates. We don’t understand why God is delaying in responding to us and doing something good, even doing a saving work, but we trust his delays. The reason is a secret thing belonging to God leading him to delay in answering us.
Maybe there is this misconception even in the man’s words to his friend, “Lend me three loaves.” Why not, “Please give me . . . ?” God never lends; He gives. His is not a niggardly heart, grudging and reluctant; he gives freely. “He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.” Wouldn’t it wound a mother’s heart to have her little girl coming into the kitchen and asking quietly, “Mam, lend me a piece of bread.” Surely Mam would find a way of teaching her that a mother’s heart is not a lending heart but a giving heart. So it must be with our heavenly Father. We are being encouraged by Jesus not to cease from praying if we get no immediate response. “Keep on praying,” God the Son is saying to us. “Tell your Father what you need. Overcome your reluctance and hesitation. Keep confiding in the God who loves you. Ask heartily!” Jesus is saying. Importunity cannot be put off by initial coolness or silence.
So Jesus is commending persistence in praying, a godly boldness with the Almighty – as you find in many of the psalms – “Why is this . . . do you know what you are doing . . . do you have any knowledge in heaven of what is happening on earth . . . look at the state we are in . . . have pity on us.” So here we are told that prayer is a sharp knocking on the door, rat-tat-tat, an insistent asking, a search that refuses to give up. This is nothing like, “I say a little prayer for you.” There is nothing routine or perfunctory or twee about intercession with the Ancient of Days. This is not going through the motions of prayer. There is a fight on with the forces of darkness and we are being called to be good soldiers in our particular skirmish. There are things that are urgent and complex facing us; we are few and we are at our wits’ end. So praying isn’t about adopting the right posture, lying down or kneeling facing the east, at the right time and then repeating the right formulae. Prayer is living; it has energy; it is this kind of dogged or even amusing determination as, wryly, you wake up your sleepy friend in order to get you out of a tight spot to help another friend who is starving.
The lesson lies in arguing from the greater to the lesser. If a friend with poor motives and a bad attitude eventually gives what we seek, how much more can we be certain that our heavenly Father, who is eager to hear and willing to answer, grant the requests of his children? The story Jesus tells here is first and foremost about God and his graciousness in hearing prayers and answering requests.
iv]Importunity is specific. How specific this man is in stating his case! He wastes no words. “A friend of mine, on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him” (v.6). Nineteen words. He is succinct and precise in describing his problem. There may be times when we express some sentiments for the whole of mankind in our prayers, 6,000 million people. And there will be times when we will pray for all the congregations of Jesus Christ everywhere in the world. I cannot say that such general prayers are forbidden in Scripture, but most prayers are not like that, and should not be like that. They are specifically for “a friend of mine,” a man who has just perforated your life; he has gatecrashed into your home. The petition on his lips was as clear and definite as the event that had created his dilemma. “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread.” It was specific and it was a biggish request. I would be sent down to my grandmother’s at 44 Brynglas Street in Penydarren as a small boy to ‘borrow’ a cup of sugar. Not a big request, even during food rationing, and I never returned from Nana empty handed whether it was sugar or some butter or a cup of milk – whatever she was asked for, if she had it. But this is something bigger! What student would ask another student for three loaves of bread especially when that student had gone to bed an hour and was asleep and had exams the next day? Yet this man asked at midnight for three loaves! “One for the friend,” says an old Christian, “one for himself, and one to spare.” The man meant to ask for enough, didn’t he? He didn’t want a miser’s meal to be set on the table when a friend had dropped by.
So, I am saying, let’s be specific about our requests to God; let’s name people, and name meetings, and specify times, and sicknesses, and emergencies. Don’t let’s pray, “Bless them all, the long and the short and the tall; bless them all.” If bread is what you are in need of, ask for bread; if you want three loaves, pray for three; if you mean them for your friend on a journey, please supply his name, tell God who he is, and God will be pleased, if it is not flippantly done. We know that God does not need the information as something ignorant to him, but we serve a precise God. Let us be fervent and specific in our desires.
v]Importunity is hopeful. This simple-hearted man knocking at his friend’s door, refused to accept the idea that this was a fruitless errand. The very idea was forbidden any entrance at all into his mind. He would not think that he was going off on some wild goose chase, that he would be ignored, that the door was never going to opened and he was going to return empty-handed to his hungry friend. No! That was not going to happen. He went on his errand full of hope.
Now multiply by infinity. Your heavenly Father is the God of hope, and we come to him expectantly for mercy and for grace to help us in our times of need. You can really trust in God. You can live in expectation that your Father hears and that he answers. Such faith God honours. That is the faith that overcomes the world and its coldness towards God as it says disdainfully: “I used to pray but I never got an answer. I don’t pray any more.” We overcome such atheism by going on praying. The famous George Muller who founded children’s homes in Bristol prayed for an unconverted friend every day for sixty years. “Never give up until the answer comes,” he wrote. “He is not converted yet, but he will be.” He was, after Muller’s days.
vi] Importunity prevails. Does God answer prayer? Of course he always answers prayer. The Bible has but one confident declaration to that question. God answers prayer, and our experience confirms its truth. I have been told that there are thirty-four specific personal prayers in the Scriptures from prophets, apostles and our Lord himself, and every single one of them is answered. The answers did not all come immediately. Let me give you two examples of prayer being answered after delays.
In John 11 we read of the sickness of Lazarus. The Lord ‘loved’ him, but he was absent from Bethany where Lazarus lived. The sisters sent a messenger to the Lord to acquaint him with their brother’s condition, and notice particularly how their appeal was worded – “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.” That was all. It was specific and direct. They did not ask him to heal Lazarus, but that was their longing. They did not request him to hurry at once to Bethany, but that was their expectation. They simply spread out their need before him; they let him know what was their hurt, and they left him to act as he deemed best! What was our Lord’s reply? Did he respond to their appeal? Yes. Did he answer their request? Certainly he did, though it was not in the way they’d hoped for. He answered by remaining for two days in the same place where he was (John 11:6), and letting Lazarus die. But that did not end his involvement. Then he traveled to Bethany and he raised Lazarus from the dead. The answer was delayed but it was a more magnificent answer because of the delay. The delay glorified God in a unique way.
Again in 2 Corinthians 12 we are told of the unheard-of privilege that the apostle Paul had been given. He has been transported up into Paradise. His ears had listened to and his eyes had seen that which no other mortal has heard or seen this side of death. This wonderful revelation was more than the apostle could endure. He was in danger of becoming “puffed up” and useless by this extraordinary experience. So, a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan, was sent by God to buffet him, to bring him low to save him from pride, from being exalted above measure. He needed to write letters like the epistle to the Romans and preach mighty sermons in Greece and plant churches there. He couldn’t do that if he were puffed up. So God brought him brought low for better usefulness by a thorn in the flesh. How did he respond? Not by saying, “Praise God anyway.” Rather the apostle spread his need before the Lord; he had three focused sessions of importunate prayer, beseeching the Lord that this thorn in the flesh should be removed. Was his prayer answered? Certainly it was, but not in the manner Paul had hoped. The ‘thorn’ was not removed; it was with him till his dying day, but grace was given to bear it. The burden wasn’t lifted, but strength was given to bear the burden while traveling and writing and preaching, and many long-term benefits were achieved while the thorn in the flesh throbbed, so much so that a congregation meeting in Wales 2000 years later would benefit from what Paul wrote during that time.
Importunity prevailed, even though there were delays to the answers. There is no promise, “You pray and immediately you will get an answer according to your wishes;” the tenor of Scripture doesn’t suggest that. The answer is always immediate from God’s point of view. Our prayers don’t float along somewhere in the Milky Way on their tortuous journey to heaven. Through Jesus Christ they immediately enter heaven. Sometimes God’s answer is, “Do you really want this, or are you asking for it among many other requests to make life easier for yourself?” He delays in answering. Yet other times he answers before we ask. We are always taught to wait upon God, to wait patiently for him, and to continue to be importunate. Importunity prevails. Prayer is never out of season, never out of order, never inopportune, but for prayer to be effective it has to be importunate.
In a sermon of Marvin Vincent he says, “God is better than all his gifts, and the object of prayer is to make us acquainted with himself. Your boy comes to you and asks you to buy him a fishing-rod ; and he says, ‘I saw one to-day in a window, on such a street, which was just what I want. Can’t I go down now and buy it?’ And you say, ‘No, not to-day. Wait a little. You shall have your rod.’ And doubtless your son is disappointed, perhaps a little sullen for a time, and days pass and he hears nothing about his rod, and he begins to say to himself: ‘I wonder if Dad hasn’t forgotten all about it.’ Then, just at the end of the week, you creep up on your son and say, “Surprise!” and put into his hands a better rod than he’s ever seen before, and with it a complete outfit for angling. The boy is overwhelmed with surprise and pleasure. The main thing in all this is not that your son has received what he wanted. You intended him to have that; but the gift given, after that delay, has given him a new view of his father’s wisdom, and a new confidence in his affection. It makes him think, ‘After this, when I want anything of this kind, I’ll leave it all to Dad.’ That’s the main point gained. So the main thing which a man gains when God at last answers his prayer with whatever ‘three loaves’ he asked for, is not the bread, but the clearer consciousness that God is better than all his gifts, that he has all things in God.” (Marvin R. Vincent.)
Why do we pray? Because the Lord has taught us to pray; he has bid us always pray and not faint; he has told us to pray without ceasing; he has told us that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. The Lord Jesus himself, the perfect man, prayed and so I am going to pray. Terry Johnson has some helpful things; “There is a sense in which there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. Sometimes God overrules our requests and denies them because they are destructive or foolish. The answer on these occasions is ‘no.’ Normally He says ‘yes’ and grants our requests. But often our ‘prayers’ don’t qualify as prayers, anymore than the ‘hunter’ who steps out his back door and fires randomly into the air can claim to have gone duck hunting. A real, that is, sincere hunt takes hours of preparation, travel, and patience. Anything less is self-deception, a mere trifling at hunting. One shouldn’t claim to want to be a great golfer, or musician, or student, and then fail to put in the hours that are necessary. A monthly trip to the driving range, banging on the piano keys once a week, cracking a book now and again, do not a golfer/pianist/student make. Persistence is proof of sincerity, a sign of earnestness, an indication that one’s requests represent not fleeting interests, not momentary impulses, but deeply held convictions and deeply felt desires.
“This is how it is in prayer. Don’t toy with prayer. Don’t pray one day for this, then the next day for that. ‘Be devoted to prayer’ says the Apostle Paul (Rom. 12:12). Don’t play at it. Don’t just pray when you feel like it, or when it happens to occur to you. You know what it is to be devoted to something. Focus your attention and energy on prayer. ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). Maintain your regular discipline of prayer. Don’t quit your prayer routine. Keep at it. Don’t cease. It was said of James, the author of the epistle, that his knees looked like camel’s knees from all the time he spent on them praying. Persist! Do you want to know God? Pray. Do you really want to know God? Persist in prayer. Do you want to victory over sin? Persist in prayer. Do you want to see loved ones healed? Persist in prayer. Do you want to see loved ones saved? Persist in prayer” (Terry Johnson, The Parables of Jesus, Christian Focus, 2007, pp. 342&343).
23rd May 2010 GEOFF THOMAS