July 29, 2001
Proper 12
Eight Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Luke 11:1-13

The Underlined / Linked Text above will take you to
A Sermon on the Gospel Reading


"Bargaining with God"
Genesis 18:20-32

Have you ever bargained with God?

Bargaining with God happens when our prayers fit a formula something like, "Lord if you will ______, I will __________."  Or it might take the form, "God could you do this... instead of that?"

I can recall the first serious bargaining with God that took place in my life. I was not attending church all that regularly in my high school days and prayer was something that took place only occasionally. Like the day of an algebra test when you have not done the proper amount of study. "God, please help me pass this test." Those are kind of, "God the bail bondsman" prayers where we want God to get us out of trouble which we brought on ourselves.

The bargaining I did was more serious however. I was absolutely head over heals for a girl named Debbie and my chances of getting a date with Debbie were slim to none since she was going out with the captain of the basketball team. I did some serious praying. "Lord, please let her say yes when I ask her out and I will go to church every Sunday and maybe even teach Sunday School." (Like this would be a real bargain for God!)

Amazingly, Debbie said yes and I promptly neglected to keep my part of the bargain. I did live with a few weeks of fear that God would reverse the situation and the basketball guy would once again enter the picture. But, as I became more confident, the fear -- and my prayers subsided.

***

Prayers about algebra tests and girl friends seem a bit trifling in light of the horrendous pain and trial some persons and communities endure. It is in times of great distress that we can understand someone's desire to bargain with God.

Some years ago a young man in his early thirties found himself bargaining with God. He was a fairly well to do banker whose values were admittedly centered in the goods of this world. He had two children and a wife and he felt that life was good and that all things were going as he had always hoped they might. "I had a good family, good job, good friends and good income," he reflected on those good days.

Then everything changed in a split second when a large truck ran a stop sign and hit his car broadside. He was grateful that he had been alone in his car, but on the way to the hospital in a speeding ambulance he knew his life was ebbing away. "I made a bargain with God," he said, "I promised that if I was allowed to survive this accident so that I could be there to raise my son and daughter, I would faithfully serve God in the church for the rest of my life."

To this point, he had not been a churchgoing person. I met Douglass years after the accident and he shared his spiritual experience in a conversation we had while I was associate pastor of his church. He was on the Church Council and I had heard people refer to him as a "pillar of the church." It was during a church retreat that he told me about his bargain with God. "I kept my end of the bargain just as God did," he said. And it was clear that Douglass had made a complete turn around in his life and values after his promise to God.

***

So what do you think?

Was God swayed by Douglass' offer to turn his life around? Did God change the outcome of this young man's life because of his  bargaining?

The text from Genesis today goes beyond bargaining. It shows Abraham trying to negotiate with God. And it works! Abraham gets God to reduce the requirement for saving the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from fifty righteous people in the city to ten people. That's an 80% reduction Abraham negotiated.

This isn't the only instance of this kind of interaction between God and our biblical heroes. Moses' relationship with God is filled with bargaining and negotiating. At one point when Moses is receiving the law of God for the people of Israel, Aaron is helping them craft a golden calf to worship. God is angry with the continuing rebellion of the people and asks Moses to stand aside while they are eliminated. But Moses begins to press his case for the people and asks God to remember the covenant with Abraham. Besides -- if the people are destroyed, everyone will say that God was up to no good with the people of Israel. Moses goes beyond bargaining and negotiating -- he is outright asking God for a change of mind.

Does it work?

Exodus 32:14 records the result. "And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people."

With Abraham, the whole situation was hypothetical. Although he had negotiated an 80% reduction in God's requirements for sparing Sodom and Gomorrah, there weren't ten righteous people to be found anyway. The city was smoked!

In Moses' case, the intercession of Moses with God was absolutely critical for the life of Israel. Moses stands between the extinction of the people and life in the promised land. In the story, (Exodus 32:7-14) God tells Moses that the people of Israel have become so persistent in their rebellion that the creation of a golden calf to worship is the last straw. They will be eliminated and Moses will be the leader of a new nation that will be faithful to God. Moses' response is bold. He asks God to; "...turn from your fierce wrath,"  from wrath, "...change your mind," and, "...remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servant..." And amazingly, the story says God changed the outcome.

There are generally two directions that emerge in discussions on this kind of interaction between God and persons in the bible. The first affirms that God is immutable and that all things have been predetermined by God. God knows the end from the beginning and knows our thoughts before they are expressed. The second direction affirms that there is an "openness" in God's knowing and that outcomes are in part determined by human action.  [See the article mentioned under the Genesis notes below for a larger discussion of these positions.]

***

Does our praying and interceding for others make a difference? Neither of the extremes  just mentioned are very helpful. The first makes God an immovable force remote from our concerns and not at all relational. The latter reduces the knowledge and sovereignty of God to something less than divine.

The gospel reading has some insights that can help us to understand how our prayers and concerns are important components in our relationship with God. The disciples have asked Jesus how they should pray and the result is the "Lord's Prayer." (which might aptly be called "the disciples'" prayer) After giving them the pattern for prayer however, Jesus adds a story about how persistence in prayer is important.

A man has unexpected company in the middle of the night and does not have anything to offer his guest. He goes to a friend at midnight and asks if he can borrow some bread. The friend says, "Don't bother me. The whole family has gone to bed, the house is locked for the night. I can't help you out right now." Then Jesus goes on to say that even thought the friend won't get out of bed to help out of friendship, he will get up to help if the man is persistent and won't leave.

Then... get this, Jesus says that if his followers ask and keep on asking, search and keep on searching, knock and keep on knocking, they will receive and find and have doors opened.  Strangely, it sounds as though we can "bug" or "bother" God long enough and get answers to our prayers!

And this is precisely where the insight begins to come. We are unable to fully comprehend the mind or the actions of God. God is of course not a sleepy friend who does not want to be disturbed in the middle of the night. In fact, Psalm 121:4 says, "He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." All human language or attempt to reveal the "Godside" of things will come up short of complete accuracy. On the other hand, the "humanside" of the equation is instructive.

"Be persistent in prayer," Jesus teaches us. Persistence in prayer leads to fulfillment of those things we ask for, search for and long for. We cannot bring into being the outcomes we are looking for. We can however follow the injunction of Jesus and the apostles to persist in prayer, and to pray without ceasing... trusting that the instructions of the Lord are purposeful even though we are not able to grasp the inner workings of the divine ways. It was Isaiah who said on behalf of God, "...as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." [Isa. 55:9]

Moses' intercession for his people was absolutely essential and the response of God, while appearing to be a "change of mind" in human terms, is rooted in the loving nature of the divine in a way that fails accurate expression.

Countless ages later, a young man named Douglass feels his life ebbing away as he is being rushed to the hospital. He makes a promise and his life is spared. Exactly how this worked in the will and ways of God, we simply will not know this side of eternity.

There are no magical formulas and no guarantees that all things will have the outcomes we desire. There is however, the promise of the Lord that all of God's children are precious and that God wants the very best for them. The response of faith to God's call to prayer (even when it feels like bargaining) is precious to the Lord and always appropriate.

It is not blind faith, but faith informed by the continuing story of God's relationship with faithful people that brings us to an inner peace when we place our lives and our cares in the hands of God. Dame Julian of Norwich said it best when she wrote, "All is well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well."  Though she did not receive the intellectual answer to her concerns for people who had never heard the name of Christ, she did receive assurance that the God whose nature is love is good - always.

Though we may not understand fully how our pleading with God in difficult times works in detail, we can always trust that the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.


 

Reflection on the Texts

The Genesis and Luke texts both address the issue of persistence in prayer. Abraham is persistent to a point of getting "pushy" with God. His apologetic, "Oh do not let the Lord get angry if I speak just once more...." betrays his feeling that he might have moved to the edge of his good graces with God. In Luke, Jesus is teaching the disciples about prayer and then uses a surprising analogy about a man who persists in waking his sleepy friend to secure some food in the middle of the night. In a similar way, they can persist in prayer and secure that which they seek.

The epistle deals with the sufficiency of Christ. Every spiritual pursuit apart from the fullness Christ offers is futile and unnecessary. There is no natural thematic connection with the gospel and Old Testament texts, however one might make the case that the sufficiency of Christ is akin to the sufficiency of prayer. In persistent prayer we receive all we search and ask for.

NOTE: We are experimenting with linking the lessons to Bible Gateway over the next few weeks. You need to be online to use this function, but when you click on the lessons (and some texts referred to in the notes) you will go to the passage at the Bible gateway site. The text will be in RSV, but you can read the text in several different versions when you are at the Bible Gateway site. If you explore the different versions, there are footnotes and other helps that may enhance your study along with our notes and sermon suggestions.

Let us know if this is helpful for your study.  It takes a bit of time, but if it helps we will continue the practice. If we do not hear from you - we will not continue the links.

Genesis 18:20-32

Abraham's appeal to God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah raise questions about the nature of God and the relationship of prayer and intercession to the action of God. An article in Christianity Today raises the question, "Does God know your next move?"  The introduction goes on to ask, "Does God change his mind? Will God ever change his plans in response to our prayers? If God knows it all, are we truly free? What does God know—and when does he know it? Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders debate openness theology."  You can see the full text of the article which is a series of letters between the two authors >> Here <<

Luke 11:1-13

Notes on Luke from the last cycle:

v.1 Luke once again shows Jesus at prayer. (cf. 6:12; 9:28) He teaches by example. Instead of "You {disciples} need to pray more" he entices them with his own example until the want the vitality in prayer their Master has.

v.2 Father = "pater" In this elemental teaching on prayer, Jesus expresses the unique relationship with God we have in the faith he reveals. Some feel that Jesus likely used the Aramaic term "abba" "dear Father" in every prayer he spoke to God. "Abba" would naturally be translated into the Greek "pater" <father>. (cf. J. Jeremias: The Lord's Prayer [Fortress, 1964])

The intimacy with God Jesus reveals is connected immediately to the holiness of God. "Your name is Holy" is a basic ascription of worship throughout biblical literature.

v.3 There is a difference in the way Luke and Matthew express the "daily bread" theme. Luke's order translates to "keep on giving us our daily bread" Matthew's aorist tense is more; "give us our bread today." The term "epiousios" (translated "daily") is used in Luke in a way that communicates the idea of trusting God day by day ... give us sufficient food day by day. (And so also sufficient, trust, faith, direction...)

v.4 "Lead us not into temptation" -- "eis peirasmon" Likely "testing" rather than "temptation". There is a coming great "peirasmos" that will severely test all who endure it. This eschatalogical testing may be referenced here.

vv.5-8 This parable is unique to Luke. In a Palestinian home, getting the whole family down for the night, bolting the door and windows was no small task. The point of the parable is not that God can be pestered into answering prayer. It is more... if a friend can finally be moved into action by persistence, how much more will God give to his children?

vv.11-13 Matthew's parallel passage uses the general term "good gifts" while Luke uses "The Holy Spirit". Luke specifically points to the promise of the Spirit. (Acts 2:33; Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4)

 of the concern for "many things" that places Martha under the tyranny of the urgent.

***

Colossians 2: 6-19

"You can never know that Christ is all you need until Christ is all you have."  I can not give the exact source of this quote and have heard it more than once. It is however, the essence of this text from Colossians. The situation addressed by the apostle is not unlike our own culture where spirituality is "in" and the "weirder the better."  It is amazing what people will believe - even very intelligent people. Marshall Applewhite and his band of followers who committed mass suicide in the expectation that they were discarding their bodily shells and would be picked up by a space ship in the tail of Haley's comet is a "sign of the times."

While the consequences of most spiritual "tripping" may not carry such horrendous consequences, the landscape is littered with failed spiritual journeys. Search for meaning has led to "captivity" and new religions frequently turn into bondage. And so the epistle warns, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit..."  The Christian person has everything they need in Christ.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 138)

L:  Let us give thanks to the Lord with all of our hearts,
P: Let us give thanks for the steadfast love of God.
L: The Lord our God hears and answers our prayers,
P: And gives us strength for the living of these days.
L: Let us sing and rejoice in the ways of our God,
P: For great is the glory and honor of the Lord!

 

Confession of Sin

We come in humility O Lord.  We come trusting that your mercy is sufficient to cover our sin, for our hearts would fail under the burden if Your were not the gracious God You are.  We have spoken badly of others, your children in the Body of Christ.  We have been silent when we should have spoken for You.  We judge others and often place ourselves above judgment.  We pray that You would forgive us our wrong and help us to so embrace Your love that we will become courageous followers of Your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon

Friends, the word of the Lord assures us that if we confess our sin, God is faithful to forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Open your hearts to receive the grace of God and the forgiveness of your sin.  May you be in peace.

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving

We rejoice and give thanks O Lord, for the great gift of salvation you have made possible for us through the sacrifice and suffering of your Son Jesus Christ.

We can not fathom the depths of your love. As the heavens are high above the earth, so are your thoughts higher than we can grasp. We come so short of fully embracing the peace of Christ, for it goes beyond all understanding. The greatest news that has ever come to this world is ours because of a grace we could never have imagined.

Help us, O Lord God, to turn from all those things that seek our attention and distract us from the important things. Give us grace to so rearrange our priorities that we see clearly the life you have designed us for. We so often settle for so much less than we could know if we but placed your will and your ways at the center of our living. Help us to choose the better part even as your servant Mary did so long ago.

Bless you Lord, all praise and thanksgiving belong to you. You alone are worthy of the devotion of our heart and mind and soul and body. Amen.

 

Prayer of Dedication

We are blessed, O giver of life, to even consider bringing these gifts to You.  How can we give to the One who has given us life, forgiveness of sin and hope to sustain us through all the days of our lives.  Thank you Lord.   Receive these gifts as the tokens of our hearts.  Amen.