It was a day not so different from today. A couple degrees warmer, maybe. For the land of Israel, that was about as cold as you needed to worry about, even on a mid-winter's day. But there was one dire difference between that day and today. We here had rain just two days ago. But that day in the land of Israel, it had been much, much longer. It was supposed to be the rainy season. But not a drop – not a drop. That's why he'd come.
Drawing his cloak tight around him, he marched into the eerie stillness outside the holy city. He knew who he was. More importantly, he knew who God was. And they'd asked him to fix this. They'd said to him, “Pray for rain.” He'd told them to get ready for rain – to take the clay Passover ovens into their houses so they wouldn't get soft when the rain began to fall. He reached his destination outside Jerusalem – a little nook of the great outdoors where he liked to go to meet God. And there, he raised his hands toward heaven and began to pray. Not a long, eloquent, fancy prayer. Just a simple request. Rain. That's all he asked. Rain.
And the skies were dry. He'd asked for rain, and the skies were dry. So it was time to think. This wasn't a time for slinking away unsatisfied, resigning himself and his countrymen to drought. This was a time to desire. This was a time for boldness. So he took up his staff in his hands – a rough piece of wood, not too knotted – and thrust the tip into the dirt. He turned, and turned, and drew a circle around his feet – not too small, not too big, just right. And he lifted his eyes toward the cloudless sky, toward the God he knew and loved – the God who needed to send rain.
The man opened his mouth and spoke to God as if they were face-to-face. “O Lord of the Universe! Your children have turned to me! They know that in your presence, I'm like a member of the family. So I swear now by your great and holy name, there's no way I'm budging from this circle until you show mercy on your children!”
He stared confidently at the sky, as if daring God to disagree. And then he blinked – but only as a raindrop hit his eye. A soft, sparse drizzle began to fall.
But he wasn't satisfied – not yet. He looked up toward God, as though seeing his face, and said, “This wasn't what I meant. A drizzle? Come on! I meant a rain, a healthy rain, the kind that fills up the wells and the pits and the caves! Send us rain!”
And he waited, gazing up as thicker clouds rolled in from the sea. The drizzle swelled, grew harder, faster, began pelting and pounding the earth with great globs of water – a mighty storm with harsh wind and abundant rain started whipping his cloak around him. He clung to it tightly.
Closing his eyes, he struggled against all natural instinct to lift his face toward the violent torrents pouring from the sky. With water nearly choking his mouth, he yelled into the wind, “That's not what I meant either! Send a pleasant rain – mild rain that blesses the earth and shows your generous hand!”
And with that, the rain soon eased. It was a hard but gentle rain; and as the wind abated, it fell straight down and filled the wells of the city. And it rained, and it rained, and it rained for hours, maybe a day. Jerusalem wasn't built for that sort of rain; the people had begun climbing the Temple Mount for safety. And so they sent messengers to his village, asking that he might make sure the rain stops. He prayed – and soon it was all dry.
Another messenger soon darkened his door. It was an official message from Simeon. Not an ordinary Simeon. Simeon, the queen's brother. Simeon, the great rabbi of the Pharisees. Simeon, the president of the Sanhedrin. The messenger relayed that, if the man were anyone else, he'd be excommunicated for daring to talk to God that way, pull those kinds of stunts, be so irreverent. But what is there to do with a man like Honi, the man who can throw a tantrum at God and yet be forgiven and indulged like a favorite son?
It's a true story – at least, the Mishnah says so. Honi was a wise man who lived about a hundred years before Christ's ministry. And his story, and the stories of the precious few miracle-workers like him, lived on. The disciples, the crowds, who gathered on the mountainside – they knew about men like Honi, and about the men from the Bible they imitated, like Elijah the great warrior of prayer. And people like Elijah, people like Honi – that was what it looked like to have real access to God. Only the rare few did. Sure, all could pray. But only a few delighted God so much they could dare to pray like that.
And now the disciples and the crowd hear this new teacher, this Jesus, speaking and acting with authority like a new Moses; he does wonders even Honi never did, wonders even Elijah never did. He heals the sick! He banishes the demons! And they get to listen to what he has to say.
And the wonderful thing about this Jesus is, he talks about God like a Father – a real Father. It's not an abstraction, not a distant figure, but a real and present provider. He's offering to make us God's children in a new way. And he's showing us how to live that way. But the crowd is feeling a bit discouraged. To be honest, the disciples are feeling a little self-conscious themselves.
Jesus says God's children are more righteous than the Pharisees. Jesus says God's children are cured from anger and lust; they're peaceful and pure like their Father. Jesus says God's children are truthful like their Father; they don't trick, they speak straight. God's children are generous. God's children are kind. God's children don't look to tear down those who attack them, because that's not even what God's like. And in fact, God's children love everyone, they work for their worst enemy's benefit, because God gives the wonders of nature and life even to them.
God is a perfect Father, and he's looking for his children to be like him. God stores up rewards for his children who love him and do good because it's good, not because it earns them praise and applause from their neighbors. God asks for his children's total devotion – for them to really imitate his generosity and to look toward heaven where he is. And God asks for his children's complete trust – to rely on his care and not worry.
Jesus says that the Father's children don't judge; they live by their Father's word, but they don't scramble up on that throne and play-act his part. In fact, says Jesus, God's children should resemble their Father so much that they look on everyone with equal love and treat them like they themselves would long to be treated.
The disciples, the inquiring crowd – they hear these things, and they're reminded of all the times they've failed. All the times they've fallen short of the life Jesus is describing – and not just describing, but demanding! And it sounds almost like being God's children is too much pressure, too much work, to reflect him in all our deeds, all our words, all our attitudes. They wonder how they can ever live like that. And Jesus sees their crestfallen hearts. They need to be reminded, not just of the demands, but the privileges of living as God's children, God's actual beloved children.
And so Jesus tells them, in so many words. He says that God loves them – God loves us – no less than he ever loved Abraham his friend; no less than he loved Noah and Enoch; no less than he loved Elijah and Elisha; and, indeed, no less than he loved Honi. In what Jesus says, he's telling them that what Honi and other great saints enjoyed as a special privilege, he's offering to those who learn from what he's saying here, who learn to trust and treat God as Father – they, too, can approach God's throne of grace with holy boldness, like little children barging into the throne room because the King of the Universe really is their dear Abba.
The disciples have been worried; they've been concerned. Does God really listen to their prayers? Can they ever achieve this? Or are they forever too far away? And Jesus explains. Those in the crowd who have children – imagine that your little one, maybe three or four years old, totters over to you and asks, “Daddy, may I please have a bread?” In those days, a typical loaf of bread looked a lot like a round stone. What kind of father, hearing his little one's voice asking for bread, goes outside, grabs a stone, walks back in, and says, “Sure, sweetheart, here's your bread” – and watches as his child breaks his teeth? Or, if he hears his little son, little daughter, ask for a fish, what kind of father catches a snake and figures, “Well, they're both scaly, so same thing, right?” (cf. Matthew 7:9-11).
No! A father who thinks like that isn't just a run-of-the-mill sinner; he's a psychopath! And throughout history, even some of the worst sinners and dictators – the Pharaoh of the Exodus, or King Nebuchadnezzar, or folks like Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Vlad the Impaler, and the rest – didn't treat their own children like that, no matter how cruel or careless they were toward the rest of the world. Not a one of them, for all their many flaws as people and as parents, would torture their own little child by giving a stone and calling it bread.
And, Jesus challenges us, if even evil people give their own children bread when they ask for bread, how can we think to fear that our Father in heaven, the perfect Father, the ideal of all goodness, would give us stones, snakes, and scorpions? Can't we expect more from our Father God than we do from our parents on earth, kind or cruel though they be?
The answer is yes! “How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” So much more, is the answer! Do not be afraid to ask! Don't give up so easily! Don't walk away from the throne of grace, but ask, and seek, and knock, and wait, and wrestle with God. But when you wrestle with God, you aren't trying to tear a blessing out of unwilling hands; you're enjoying the delights of your Father's presence, and he wants to bless you more than you want to be blessed.
Remember who Jesus is talking to. He's speaking to disciples. And disciples are Sermon-on-the-Mount people. They're Golden-Rule people. They're God's-love-for-everyone people. The Father's children have their Father's ear, they have their Father's heart, they have their Father's priorities. So often, we “ask and don't receive, because [we] ask wrongly, to spend it on [our] passions” (James 4:3). We ask with wrong motives for the wrong kind of things.
But what has Jesus been teaching his disciples to pursue? What kind of “good gifts” are first and foremost on our priority list? What should we ask for? What do we seek? Where do we knock (Matthew 7:7)? We knock at the narrow gate that leads to life, even by a hard road (Matthew 7:14). There's a reason Luke's version of this passage says that the Father will give, not just any good gift, but “the Holy Spirit” (Luke 11:13). We “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” trusting that “all these things,” the other necessities of life, “will be added unto [us]” in God's good timing (Matthew 6:33).
And we keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking – Jesus is talking about a continuous action, like Honi being more and more clear about the rain. We're so used to thinking about the gospel in once-and-done terms. But that isn't what Jesus describes. And it's not how our forefathers gained their peace with God.
There was a man once – Moses Dissinger – he eventually became one of the great evangelical preachers of his day. But in his youth, he was a much rougher sort. He would've fit in so well with the Buzzard Gang and maybe shown them a thing or two, because he never lost a fight. But one day he went to a revival meeting. He heard the gospel preached in power, and felt the word of God pierce his soul like a double-edged sword. And he saw that he was a sinner, that he was far from God, and he began to pray for forgiveness and for the Holy Spirit. And he prayed continuously. He was digging a foundation for a house, and every time he hurled a shovelfull of dirt behind him, he cried out, “O God, grant me grace!” Another shovelfull: “O God, grant me grace!” And the Lord heard his prayer and accepted him as a child, and filled him with the Spirit and with fire.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Pray first his name be hallowed, his kingdom come, his will be done. And then ask for your daily bread or your little fish; ask for forgiveness and guidance; ask for what you need to survive. And then, living in your Father's love, receiving righteousness to follow his Son's teaching, dare to boldly ask him for whatever else you still desire; and if it's a good thing, if you've had the sense not to ask for a bowl of rocks for breakfast or an angry snake for supper (and all of us, looking back, can see how some of our prayers were just that), you can keep on asking with confidence your Father won't let you down.
The more I've tried to personally practice what I've been preaching, the more clearly I've been able to see the Father's active presence in my life. Oh, it might look differently than you or I would've thought. In Gethsemane, Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the One able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7). And the Father heard Jesus and answered that prayer – not by avoiding the cross, not by taking the cup of wrath away from him, but by answering his prayer on the other side of death itself. Some of our prayers to our Father may look much the same.
Our Father does love us – more than we can understand or imagine. But the truth is, he shows his care for us in a broken world east of Eden. It's a place that's sometimes more rolling dunes and cracked mud than leafy trees and lush gardens. And as so many sinners and saints before us have learned, there will be times, out in the desert, when the Father seems, to our sin-stained shortsightedness, almost like a deadbeat. Because our child minds can't understand why it's hot or cold, why the walk is so long, why our Father may have secrets we don't know yet, why we don't seem to get what we ask for and have to believe would be a good thing. It's easy to get discouraged in those times, when we cry out for bread and our stomach growls and we see no bread.
It's out in the desert, the wilderness, that Satan comes and whispers temptation in our ear, tells us to believe a lie, that our Father isn't good, that our Father is a taskmaster whose approval we need to earn and haven't, that our Father doesn't love us, that our Father isn't around, that we've been abandoned or disowned or orphaned. The only way to resist that temptation, when we wander in the desert for forty days or even forty years, is to cling in faith to the word of God our Father, which is so much more valuable than bread.
It isn't easy to trust. Not in the desert, not in a faith-crushing place. In the desert, we easily grow cynical, jaded, worldly – we think it the mark of sophistication to call our Father into question; we regard it as a sign of mature stature to rebel and move out of our Father's house, to look at him with critical grown-up eyes. Or so we keep hearing from that Snake following us around. But the Father never gave us a snake for a teacher; he gave us a fish – the Fish, as some early Christians called him: Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. (The first letters spell out 'fish' in Greek; that's why early Christians drew fish in the sand to recognize each other, and why even today you might have a 'Jesus fish' on your bumper.) And what the Fish tells us is the last thing the Snake wants us to hear: “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
We can't afford to let the desert break us. We can't afford to let the snake tempt us into world-weariness, jaded cynicism, perpetually extolling the virtues of doubt. “Ask in faith, with no doubting” (James 1:6). Learn all over again to trust your Father. Even when the bread looks stale. Even when the bread is tough to chew. Even when it seems slow to come. When your hand doesn't feel the warm fresh bread, watch what your Father's doing. He may be baking you a cake. He may be arranging a feast for a generation yet unborn. But you can trust he'll feed you; you may spend a few extra hours hungry (and a day with the Lord is as a thousand years), but you'll get that bread at the right time – not too late, but not too soon.
God isn't a microwave, he's not a toaster, not a heavenly home appliance; he's not a bread maker, a machine designed and primed to pop out fresh loaves at the push of a button. He's a Father. Prayer doesn't 'work,' as though it were a technique, a formula, an incantation; prayer is just an honest conversation with our Father. He's looking for a relationship with you, and with us all together – a relationship with his children – not to spoil us, but to strengthen us, to raise us, to share delights with the whole family together forever.
With that kind of Father, why wouldn't you pray? And he asks us to pray – and to surrender, to obey, to wait, to endure, and to love. It's all part of the same Christian life, the journey on the hard and narrow road – holding hands with our Father. And even if that road turns through the darkest valley, with death looming all around us and wolves waiting in the shadows, take heart: your Father is strong and carries an awful big stick (cf. Psalm 23:4). And even with your enemies watching, you can dare to ask for a loaf of bread, and he'll get the table all ready for you (Psalm 23:5). But dare to ask; dare to seek; dare to knock. “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:8).
The grave plight of the church today is that we don't ask, seek, or knock. We satisfy ourselves too easily. We're so used to not receiving – or, at least, we worry that we won't receive, or we don't receive because we ask for what isn't good for us or what we won't use right, or we don't think we receive because we can't recognize the gift when we get it – and we're so used to that, that we train ourselves not to ask. We willfully live as people of low expectations; we snuff out our God-given longing. We settle for mediocrity. We settle for things we think we can accomplish by our own power, so that if God doesn't come through, at least we can make it without him.
That's the plight of the church today: we learn not to yearn. We settle for meeting once a week and burying each other, and we think that's all we can have in this life; we normalize it, because it's easier for us to be normal than to dare to ask. It's like what C. S. Lewis said seventy-four years ago:
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Brothers and sisters, let us not be so easily pleased. We are all that Honi or Elijah was, and more; we are the sons and daughters of God, the heirs of our Father's kingdom; we are our Father's family. We don't have to settle for less than the Father longs to give us. Let us be once again a craving church; let us learn again to yearn – yearn for the kingdom, yearn for righteousness, yearn for the Holy Spirit, yearn for our daily bread, and yearn for still more – bring our desires to our Father, and with the boldness of a child, ask, seek, and knock on heaven's door with all faith that our Father loves this little band of children. Amen.