Last in series: The Sermon on the Mount
Ask, Seek, Knock... And Expect Good News
As you may know, we’ve been spending the summer going through all of the richness and depth in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Let me help us recall where we are thematically - The word we’ve returned to again and again is humility… Everything comes back to humility… that’s where life is, despite life's ever present pulls toward trying to be in-control, strong, cool, protected We've visited many different facets of life as Jesus has delivered this message From security to money to prayer to relationships to self-image We continue today picking up at Matthew 7:7
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
What’s notable is that there’s no specific gratification mentioned here in response to the asking, seeking, and knocking Jesus is encouraging. Why is that? Prior to this in the sermon on the mount, Jesus talks very specifically about praying for our daily provisions. But he’s not specific here. At other times recorded in the Gospels, Jesus uses specific language like “healing”, “saving”, “cleaning”, “freedom” in encouraging people what ask for in prayer. But he’s not specific here. Here, it’s just ... “ask and it will be given to you” — what exactly? you know... the proverbial it “seek and you will find” — like in general you will find… ummm… things “knock and the door” — which door exactly? not clear The emphasis, rather, is on the actions Jesus is encouraging… not on what specifically we might ask for, what specifically we might seek, or which specific door on which we’re knocking The emphasis is on these actions of curiosity: Asking, seeking, knocking All of these are about engaging curiosity It’s as if Jesus’ message is: Curiosity is an end itself, not just a means to something else. It’s not just the response to our ask, or the thing we’re seeking, or what’s on the other side of the door The experience of acting curiously is a reward on its own — that does something to our spirits, it transforms us as people.
That’s a good message. Right? Very feel-good. Very life affirming… Be curious! Ask, seek, knock!... I can see the bumper stickers and social media memes now. Lots of modern science would confirm this idea that maintaining curiosity is essential to living a good life.
But it is Jesus’ follow-up statement, I think, that makes what he is saying here really insightful… Jesus actually never just left people with simply a good message… I mean, he loved himself some good messages, of course… But in some ways it seems Jesus had more of an interest in the challenge of living good messages out In what we’re about to read, he seems to anticipate something that forever threatens to close people off from living out this good message about curiosity He seems to perceive a fear underneath the surface in his listeners. See if you can read between the lines and pick up on the fear...
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
I think the fear is that God is a deliverer of bad news The people in Jesus’ day, not unlike today, were swimming in all different kinds of messages about God, about spirituality And, also not unlike today, a lot of those messages made God out to be someone not very attractive Jesus’ audience here of common Jewish people likely would have heard messages that… Their low social status was due to a lack of God’s favor Their illnesses were because God was punishing them The injustice they experienced was God ordained Do you ever find yourself believing God is the great deliverer of bad news? If we ask him why we're still single, we’ll feel hopeless and angry If we ask him about our life direction, we’ll feel ashamed If we ask him about the horrible tragedies and injustices we’ve experienced or witnessed, we’ll feel dissatisfied
Unhelpful voices about God will always have a louder megaphone than helpful voices about God.
It is such a deeply human struggle to sift through those unhelpful voices to get to the helpful ones, and Jesus is full of compassion for this. He anticipates it.
And to address it, he speaks to us almost cheerfully. He appeals to our good nature: You all know what a good father is, yes?… God is like that! Jesus here is (as he did so many times in the three years of his public teaching) delivering his life message: That God has good news and good things for us Expect good news from him! Not the bad news you’ve been taught to expect! They needed to hear that then… we need to hear this today Because what we come into a relationship expecting, of course, dictates a lot about how that relationship goes If I expect trust and affection from my wife, our interactions will feel safe and productive and enjoyable If I expect distrust and animosity from her, our interactions will be guarded, confusing, and a chore The same is true of our relationship with God So Jesus says: don't listen to those voices that harm you or torment you. Listen to me. Let me shape your expectation of God.
The implied encouragement here from Jesus is: So, really, be curious with God about whatever it is that's on your mind, whatever it is that's troubling you. Your doubts Your questions Your anger Your fear Your sadness This is what’s implied when Jesus says: “ask, seek, knock” Teach yourself by experiencing for yourself that you do not have to be afraid of what you might hear. God is not the great deliverer of bad news. God is the great deliverer of good news! He does not give stones or snakes. He gives good gifts. Once again, here, we see Jesus’ overriding theme in the Sermon on the Mount highlighted: humility Bring these things to God? Be so not put together before him? Yes! Exactly. God does not want us to impress him. He wants us to be honest with him. God seems not at all insecure at the prospect of our hard questions. He is entirely confident that that will take our relationships with him in good directions.
The hardest questions I've had to process in my life have been around the deaths of my mom and my brother - my mom when I was 15, and my brother just 2 years ago.
As I'm sure any of you who have lost loved ones know, grief can confront you with your most pessimistic and hopeless thoughts. Thoughts like: Of course this happens to me. The worst things always happen to me
And I remember so many unhelpful religious voices swirling all around me at these times. Voices that, to my mind, dissatisfyingly tried to justify and explain where God was in my loved one’s sufferings (or in my suffering, as someone in grief) These voices made it feel like if I did go to God with my grief, all I would get is bad news. I would hear something that felt trite, hollow, and dissatisfying
But, thankfully, in both of these seasons of grief, I also had experiences of being confronted with the helpful voice of Jesus. In the grief after my mom died, that was actually my first ever experience of hearing Jesus’ voice I knew it was a different voice because it wasn’t defensively trying to explain or justify God… It was a calm and compassionate voice… that actually seemed just as full of grief as me And the sense I felt in the presence of this voice was NOT that I should hide my questions and doubts and unsatisfied curiosity for fear of bad news Instead I felt like God made me a promise... that I could be totally open and I would NOT be met with something trite, hollow, or dissatisfying
And that has absolutely been the case In my prayer life, I have never once heard a trite, hollow word from Jesus in response to my losing my mom and brother. I’ve heard plenty from many religious people. But never from Jesus. Prayer has not been a space that threatens me with bad news Prayer has been a space that has brought me comfort and peace — very good news! I taught myself by experiencing for myself that God is a deliverer of good news. That I can bring my curiosity to him about even the most challenging things, and I will not be disappointed. And in my questions, doubts, and unsatisfied curiosities… ‘why them?’, ‘why me?’, ‘how could this happen?’, ‘how can things like this in general happen if you’re a good God?’ I haven't been left in dissatisfaction. In spite of the many unhelpful religious voices out there, I have actually found helpful ones that have guided me in making sense of my experience and bringing me peace of mind. Just to quickly say, whether it’s grief or something else that leads you to similar questions, doubts, and unsatisfied curiosities — abuse, injustice, suffering, whatever — helping people make sense of the cruelty of life in a way that is in fact satisfying and doesn’t feel like you’re swallowing some bitter pill is something I’ve become quite passionate about. If a line of questioning like this torments you, a little later in the service we’re going to collect connect cards from everyone, and there’s a spot on those to write out anything you’d like prayer for. Tell us if this specifically is a struggle for you, and I will follow up with you. Perhaps what has helped me can help you too.
Here’s the encouragement I want to leave us all with today: To press in with God about an enduring question, doubt, or unsatisfied curiosity in you. It probably won't take long for any of us to identify something... what is something you avoid engaging with God because you're afraid you'll be met with bad news? How pressing in looks practically could be any number of things; the only instruction I'd give is to make sure you have some real time available, like a half hour at least... a couple examples: Journaling - this a great way for many people to process their thoughts, spiritual or otherwise But doing it in the company of God, or directing your writing to God, is especially helpful for many people. This is a less frequent practice in my life currently, but does from time to time play a very helpful role for me. You can go the old fashioned route of something like a notebook, or when I do journal I use technology - with an app like DayOne or Evernote Prayer walks - This is more frequently one of my go-to practices currently. Sitting still in prayer can be challenging in some contexts, especially when a smartphone with wifi is in arm's reach. Walking has a way of keeping us focused internally in prayer because what our eyes and senses can externally focus on is continually changing. Whatever way you choose to create space to pray, Ask, seek, and knock with God about the question or doubt you’ve identified in you Don’t stifle yourself. Remember, Jesus is not insecure, like us. He won’t get defensive, no matter what you say. Once you feel you’ve expressed yourself fully in prayer, then try to listen for Jesus to respond And, best you can, expect good news, not bad news.
With this, we're coming to the final flourish of Jesus' sermon on the mount. We won't get to all of his concluding statements but I want to close today with one of them. Jesus begins to summarize all he’s said (all we’ve been going through this summer) this way...
12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. 13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
This is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible - this “enter through the narrow gate” bit Part of that is because I have a special affinity for helping people reinterpret passages from the Bible that have been commonly misinterpreted This is definitely one that has been misinterpreted I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen religious people wield this verse (and others) as if it’s a weapon to judge other people they deem “sinful” and pad their own egos for being what they think is “courageous” Conspicuously overlooked in these cases, of course, is Jesus’ comment only a few verses earlier about “removing the log in one’s own eye before addressing the speck in your neighbor’s” -- which Kyle spoke on a couple weeks ago. Anyway, I think a proper interpretation of Jesus’ summary encouragement to “enter through the narrow gate” would of course brings us back to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount theme: humility As I mentioned, every behavior and mindset and practice that Jesus leaves his audience with in the Sermon on the Mount (including what we’ve talked about today) comes down to humility And Jesus wants us to know: humility is a narrow gate It really feels true that few find it, doesn’t it? Jesus is not drawing a religious boundary line here. He is describing reality… And he’s describing it accurately. Striving to be impressive is just more prevalent than humility, isn’t it? It’s easier to default to than humility, isn’t it? That is just true. But when we do find ourselves pursuing humility… usually after reaching the limits of ourselves in some way… man, that is where life is at. That is where joy is at. And freedom and calm from anxiety and all the things we all most need in life. And that’s Jesus’ purpose in teaching us in the Sermon on the Mount
Alright I want to pray for us right now, and afterward today’s band is going to help us stay in a space of prayer by leading us in song Music is incredibly helpful for this! Engage in whatever way feels best to you: Singing along or just sitting back letting the music hit you.
And also, I want to invite you to be prayed for by someone on our prayer team Especially if what I’m talking about is hitting you in particular, or if you came in today feeling some kind of weight -- emotional, physical, circumstantial, whatever... Our prayer team are trained, safe folks, who are here to help you have an interaction with Jesus and receive help from him; They’ll be in the middle section of the theater with a lanyard that says prayer team No one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice, and everything you share is confidential. Stand with me and I'll pray