10/31/21 “All Treats, No Tricks”

Matthew 7:7-11

My parents were not fans of Halloween, probably because they shuddered at the thought of the trouble my brothers could get into when they were let loose at night on an unsuspecting neighborhood. So, for me, Halloween was an acquired tasted—and not just a taste for Reese’s peanut butter cups. Now, Halloween is a big deal at my house.

It got its superstar status when my daughter was little. Peyton loved Halloween. She still does. I’m not sure what the attraction was. She never really seemed to care all that much about the candy. Maybe it was the novelty of being out in the dark, racing from house to house. Or maybe it was her specially chosen costume made just for her by Mommy. Or maybe it was bring with her Daddy, dressed in his companion costume. Whatever the attraction was, she anticipated Halloween more eagerly than her birthday or even Christmas. Peyton’s excitement was contagious, and I began to look forward to Halloween almost as much as she did. Even though she’s now opening her own door to trick-or-treaters, a special fondness for Halloween has lingered at our house.

In those years when Marc escorted Peyton on her rounds, my job was to stay home and open the door to trick-or-treaters. Many years of handing over snack-sized Milky Way and Snickers and KitKat bars have taught me something very special about Halloween. I’ve come to realize that Halloween offers us a glimpse into the nature of God’s grace. After all, how often does someone with no good reason to ask us for a gift come knocking at our door, with every expectation that we will open the door and give them something good? Jesus tells us that, like those trick-or-treaters, when we come before God, undeserving as we are, God opens the door to us and offers us gifts in the very same way.

Our passage for today is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It comes late in the sermon, and the heads of Jesus’ listeners must have been spinning. He’d begun with what we call the beatitudes—sayings which took every assumption the listeners had about how the world works and turned them upside down and inside out. Jesus had laid out some pretty heavy demands for how life should be lived. He took the laws that were familiar and added to them: insults and name-calling are as liable to judgment as murder. Swearing to something in the name of God or by anything else is forbidden. Lustful thoughts are as wicked as adultery. Revenge is out; loving your enemy is in. Retaliation is out; passive resistance is in. If you’re sued for your coat, give your cloak as well. Give or loan to anyone who asks. Praying and giving and fasting are to be done for God alone, and not in a way that brings acclaim to the one doing the praying and giving and fasting.

Jesus’ listeners, the disciples included, must have been very dismayed. How on earth could they live up to these new and more challenging standards? Think about how we might react, hearing those words today. If the insults and name-calling that pass for public discourse these days are as liable to judgment as murder, then most of our political leaders and many of us are in deep trouble. Do we need to cancel our HBO and Netflix subscriptions, so that we won’t be tempted to lustful thoughts about our favorite actors? Do we settle any lawsuit against us immediately, for more than what’s demanded? If we start handing out money to anyone who asks, where will it all end? Maybe with us being the ones with our hands out? What should we do the next time we’re asked to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God” or pledge allegiance to the flag? What would the neighbors think? How can we live this way?

It may be that the crowd began pelting Jesus with questions much like these about how exactly they could live according to the new expectations he had laid out. Some scholars suggest that our passage for today, along with the ones that follow, were Jesus’ response to these questions.

Jesus explains that the way we find the strength and the wisdom we need to live faithfully is to come to God in prayer. We are to come to God the same way trick-or-treaters come to our doors—with our hands out, confident that the one behind the door wants to give us something good.

“Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened,” Jesus assures us. In Greek, the word for “ask” has the sense of demanding, with every expectation that an answer will be forthcoming. “Seeking” has the nature of a quest. “Knocking” isn’t a gentle tap—it’s an impact that will make itself heard. These words suggest insistence. They’re not timid. They expect a response, like the repeated ringing of your doorbell by an excited child on Halloween. In the Bible, they are also all synonyms for prayer.

So, what is it that we should ask for in these prayers? What is it that we will find? What is behind the door that will open to us?

Each week when we gather for worship, we pray. We pray for a job to be offered, food supplied, rent money found. We pray that our children and grandchildren will be safe and secure—that they will be happy and healthy. We pray for the mending of relationships that have been disrupted by betrayal, disappointment, and misunderstanding. We pray that the diseases affecting our bodies or minds, or those of the ones we love, will be healed. We pray for peace between ourselves and others, between nations and races and ethnic groups, between rich and poor. We have warrant in Scripture to pray for those things.

But here, Jesus is responding to a different need. It’s the for a spirit of wisdom and discernment. It’s a prayer for the spiritual gifts we need to live out the greatest commandment: to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. The Sermon on the Mount includes many instructions on what such a life should look like, and it’s not an easy path to follow. We need the help only God can give us, and the only way to get that help is through prayer.

Jesus assures us that we have only to ask for that wisdom and God will give it. We have only to authentically seek it, and we will find it. We have only to knock on God’s door in prayer, and the door will swing open, with a loving God waiting to give us what we need.

Jesus’ listeners must have been looking a little skeptical at this point, because Jesus continues. “Look, is there anyone among you who would give your child a stone when they ask for a piece of bread? Would you give them a snake when they ask for fish? Would you give them something unnourishing or even dangerous when they ask to be fed? No? Well, then, if you who are evil—that is, you who are universally sinful—if you know how to care for your children, can you imagine God doing anything less for you? If you who are about as far as possible from being like God provide for your children, how much more will the One who is God provide good things for you?” We can pray with confidence because it is in the very nature of our gracious God grace to give good gifts to God’s children.

Do we pray with that kind of confidence—with the sure expectation that what we ask for will be given to us? That we will find what we seek, and have doors opened so that we can sail right through? When was the last time you prayed like that? And if we don’t pray with that kind of confidence, why don’t we?

Maybe it’s because we’ve deeply instilled the line from the Lord’s prayer, “Thy will be done.” Praying for what we want or need seems to run counter to desiring God’s will. Just before Jesus speaks the words we now know as the Lord’s Prayer, he reminds us that God already knows what we need before we even ask. So, shouldn’t we be polite and assume that God knows what we need without our asking?

Maybe we lack confidence because too many times when we’ve prayed for the thing that our souls most desired, we didn’t get what we asked for. The job didn’t materialize. The family member who stormed out of the house doesn’t return our calls. The doctor called; the test results aren’t good. The hospital called; a loved one has died. Each week in church we pray for others, and each week we hear the same needs repeated over and over. Maybe we begin to think that Jesus was wrong—that when we pray, whether for our material or spiritual needs, God isn’t listening very closely or, worse, is as likely to give stones and snakes as the bread and fish—tricks instead of treats.

Perhaps most dangerous of all is that we have lowered our expectations of what God can do in our lives. We begin to pray more with a sense of wishing than with all the confidence that Jesus tells us to pray with. We begin to have a “hope-I’m-holding-the-winning-lottery-ticket” kind of expectation rather than a certainty that God is waiting with good things to give us. We lower our expectation of what God can and will do to wishful thinking rather than the sure hope of Christian faith.

If we allow this theology of low expectations to infect us, our faith becomes more a kind of wishful thinking than a true confidence in God. It becomes a weak “I think I can” rather than “I know God can.” It forces us to rely on ourselves rather than place our confidence in God, a position that sounds eerily like the situation Adam and Eve found themselves in when they didn’t trust in God.

If we adopt a theology of low expectations in our prayer, where will those low expectations spread? To our confidence in Jesus’ redeeming love and forgiveness? To the reality of the resurrection and of a living Savior? To the promise of salvation and eternal life in the kingdom of God? How low might our low expectations go?

Before we start down that slippery slope, we should hear again Jesus’ words that set before us the highest expectations: “Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Jesus assures us that we can ask and seek and knock with high expectations that God will give, that we will find, and that what is closed will be opened. But in our asking and seeking and knocking we should keep a few things in mind about how God gives.

First is that throughout history, God has worked through intermediaries, and those divinely-appointed assistants have come from all walks of life. We can expect that the giving and finding and opening might come through other people. God may send a wise friend or counselor to help us find the answers we are looking for and guide us into the paths we need to follow. God may provide the person who can walk with us, giving us an arm to lean on when our own strength fails us. We can expect that God will work through other people in our lives.

Giving and finding and opening may happen as we work toward the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. In a passage shortly before ours, Jesus reminds his listeners—and us—that we should strive for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness before everything else. Our asking and searching and knocking should first be about how we can live faithfully with God and with others. In fact, one ancient version of our passage suggests that this verse should say, “God will give good gifts to those who seek God.”

When we hold the hand of a grieving friend, when we work alongside someone who is different from us, when we share our faith with others, we can expect that God will give us the kingdom gifts of understanding and compassion that we need to live out Jesus’ instructions.

Sometimes God’s gifts require that we enter a new and unfamiliar place. That can be unsettling. But, Jesus says that the door we knock on will be opened for us. Some translations say it will be opened to us, but I like the idea of the door being opened for us. A door being opened to us suggests that someone on the inside invites us in. Even if the place is new to us, the one who opens the way knows what’s inside. That’s fine, if we can trust the one behind the door.

But a door being opened for us can mean that the one doing the opening isn’t behind the door but standing next to us. We don’t walk through the door alone into that new and unexplored place. We are accompanied by a trusted friend who has access to and knowledge of what’s on the other side of the door. We can confidently enter that place where we may find a new opportunity, a second chance, an unknown strength, a different understanding, a fresh inspiration, a unique insight. The door will be opened for us, and the one standing with us on the threshold is Jesus.

We shouldn’t be discouraged when our asking and seeking and knocking don’t result in the outcome we desire. God’s gifts to us are not caused by our prayers; they are God’s freely given gifts. Sometimes we need to remember with Paul how unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways. We need to rely on faith—that assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.  Our ignorance of God’s ways doesn’t justify our low expectations of what God can do in the world and in our lives. Jesus has promised that God will give good gifts to God’s children, and we can rely in faith on that promise.

Praying with the expectation that God will give us good gifts in response to our asking and searching and knocking will shape our faith and the Church. I believe the words of the pastor in Great Britain whose church is a center of healing and prayer. He said, “A church where the congregation expects prayer to be answered is very different from one where there is simply a formal attendance because they feel it is their duty. The experience of Jesus as being alive, active and present with us throughout our life, as being faithful to his promises, and forgiving and loving in his attitude towards us, brings about in us a response of love and trust, not only towards him, but towards each other.” This kind of expectation shapes the one who prays, and the church is shaped by that kind of expectant prayer.

When next we pray, let’s pray with that kind of confidence. Pray with the passion and certainty of John Wesley when he spoke about seeking Christ’s forgiveness: “Look for it every moment! Look for it every day, every hour, every moment! Why not this hour, this moment?” Pray expecting that God has good gifts to give you, and that God has every intention of giving them. Pray knowing that Jesus has promised that when you pray for the knowledge, wisdom, and strength you need to live faithfully, what you ask for will be given to you, what you seek you will find, and when you knock, the door will be opened. Pray with the joy and confidence of a child on Halloween, who trusts that when the door is opened, there will be no tricks—only treats. Pray with confidence in the name of the living Christ, who always keeps his promises. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young