Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
For those of you who are joining us for the first time this winter, we’ve been making our way through a sermon series on Q&A (or questions and answers) with Jesus from the gospel of Luke. Today’s text, like others we’ve read, actually includes a few questions in a row. And while some questions in this series have clearly been challenges from Jesus, today’s questions bring us words of comfort. Listen again. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” “Of course not, Jesus, don’t be absurd!” is the answer to both clearly rhetorical questions. Parents love their children, know how to meet their needs, and want to give them good things. And this is Jesus’ point, as he continues with his third question: “if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give ... to those who ask him?” God loves us more than we can imagine, loves us so much – as our second Scripture reading remind us – that we are called children of God. So imagine the love a parent has for a child and then multiply it, to the nth degree – that’s the love God has for us.
Granted, we may not be wild about the use of the adjective “evil” to describe ourselves as parents. I looked up the Greek, hoping to soften the blow a bit, I confess. But it’s about what you’d expect. Poneroi, plural of poneros, is a word we generally do translate into English as bad, wicked, evil. Outside of the New Testament the same word seems occasionally to imply being full of hardship or harassed (and the parenting connections there, for some of you, might be tempting!), but the New Testament examples are pretty clearly just synonyms of “bad.” Still, I presume Jesus is primarily highlighting the contrast here between us and God. If God is purely good, in every respect, then compared to that level of good, we clearly fall short. And perhaps this even helps our understanding of the text, rather than hurting it. After all, Jesus’ main point here is clear enough. Even we, who are mortal and flawed, know how to be good parents to our children. And if we, as imperfect human mothers and fathers, know how to give our children what they need, “how much more will the heavenly Father give…?”
Now, if you were reading along with our Scripture passage this morning, or listening carefully, you may have noticed I’ve left a few things out so far. First of all, it began with those beautiful lines many of us know as a song of praise, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” It continued: “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10) Again these are comforting words… at least they would be if we could believe them, right? I expect I’m not the only one who has sung this song for years, but still found myself wondering about these promises from time to time. As analogies for prayer, these are powerful images: asking, seeking, knocking. But what if we find ourselves in situations where we’ve been doing our part – the asking, and seeking, and knocking – but the prayers don’t seem to be answered? At the very least, we can’t seem to find any evidence of receiving, or finding, or of those promised open doors.
But this is where a close reading of the biblical text is so important. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say: “ask and you will receive everything you ask for… seek, and you will find just what you are looking for… knock, and that particular door you imagine yourself walking through will be opened to you.” No, he says “ask, seek, knock…” and then what is the promise he offers? It comes in that final verse again: “If you … know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” So it’s not necessarily the particular gift we request that we’re promised. But it is a tremendous gift, nonetheless. It’s the gift of God’s presence with us. The gift of God’s Spirit, no matter what happens in the particular situations about which we’ve been asking, and seeking, and knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.
When we hear what Jesus is really saying here, we won’t confuse the act of prayer with a vending machine type transaction – insert prayer; receive just what you want. Nor will we confuse Jesus’ message with a gospel of success. In fact, elsewhere in the gospels Jesus warns that his disciples will face incredibly hard times, will be persecuted for their choice to follow him, even. He’s not saying I’ll give you anything you want, anything you ask for. He’s not even saying he’ll spare us suffering. He’s saying, whatever you ask for, you can be sure you’ll get me, as part of the deal.
The gift of God’s presence. We don’t have to look far in Scriptures to find reminders that God is with us, through any circumstances we might face. In the Old Testament, Yahweh led the children of Israel out of their captivity in Egypt, clearly visible with them in pillars of fire and cloud. And God continued to make his presence known to the Israelites in their tabernacle, in their temple, through the gift of the law and the voices of the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented to us from before his birth as Immanuel, which literally means “God with us.” And throughout the gospels and letters of Paul we find reminders of that eternal presence. Reminders such as this one from Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
How much love does God have for us? That much. So much that there is absolutely nothing we could ever face, that we’d be facing it without God’s love holding us close throughout.
Baptism Sundays certainly present us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on that love. For once we are marked as a child of God in baptism, we are invited to remember always that we are God’s own. In every moment and in every situation life sends our way, we can recall we have been baptized and claimed as God’s beloved. And who among us doesn’t need those reminders from time to time? To help us keep our bearings, when times are hard. To remind us who and whose we are, when temptation strikes. To motivate us toward greater generosity when it would be all too easy to be selfish. To bring us comfort, when we are faced with tragedy.
In baptism we are marked – did you hear it? – marked as Christ’s own forever, and forever is quite a long time, as it turns out. Today this beautiful little girl we baptized is less than a year old. But someday she will be a 5 or 6-year-old ball of energy bounding off to her first day of kindergarten. And someday that same smile that can light up a room will be found on the face of a teenager holding her first set of car keys in her hand. And someday Esther will be a young woman eagerly heading off to college, or nervously interviewing for her first job. She will remain God’s beloved, she will remain Christ’s own in each and every one of those moments, just as we all are. And if she stands in a church like this one to be married someday, or becomes a parent herself, she can continue to take comfort in reminders that her journey of faith had its start here at the baptismal font. Even when she takes her final breath, she will belong to the God who loves her in life, in death, in life beyond death. If raised to understand the importance of this simple act we have celebrated with her today, Esther can find joy and comfort in her baptism her whole life long.
Now I ask you. Which of us – parents, godparents, grandparents, church family – which of us, looking at this beautiful baby girl, wouldn’t do everything in our power to give her what she needs? In fact, that’s what we’ve all promised today. Because we’ve promised to help her understand God’s love for her. And if we, who are imperfect, can get that part right, “how much more will the heavenly Father give” her?
And not just her, but us all.
“See what love [God] the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God – and that is what we are.” (I John 3:1)
Thanks be to God! Amen.