Sermon: Less than Ten

July 24, 2022

Genesis 18:20-32
Luke 11:1-13

by Eric Anderson

Abraham and Jesus had… different notions of prayer.

In Genesis 18, Abraham went back and forth between different ways to speak with God. The chapter opens with that great story about three figures arriving at Abraham’s tent. He and Sarah prepared an elaborate meal for the unexpected guests, and as the meal ended one of the visitors – whom the text names as the LORD – announced that Sarah would conceive and have a son in her old age.

Sarah’s response to this was to laugh and, challenged about it, to deny that she’d laughed. God didn’t think much of her denials.

That’s just before the section read this morning, in which two of the three set off for Sodom to see what was going on there. God announced the judgement against Sodom and Gomorrah – if, that is, the reports of their wickedness were confirmed – and Abraham began this careful argument or negotiation with God. It sounds like careful petitions to a monarch combined with haggling over something in a marketplace. By the end of it, Abraham had worked God down to an agreement that ten righteous people would be enough to save the cities.

Which… didn’t work. As Genesis tells the story, the travelers didn’t find ten righteous people. And if you’re wondering what the sin of Sodom was, well, it’s described in Ezekiel 16: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy.”

How many societies – including ours – could be described as prideful with excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy?

In a very short span of verses, Abraham and Sarah’s modes of prayer included: warm welcome, celebration and feasting, laughter, lying about laughter, hyper-respectful petition to a monarch, and market stall haggling.

That’s quite a range.

Jesus, in contrast, offered rather simpler instructions to his disciples when they asked about prayer. The fates of cities didn’t arise. Nor did the inception – conception – of family lines. Nor did laughter, which is kind of sad, but neither did denial of laughter, which we could have done without anyway. Jesus’ teaching about prayer lacks the obsequiousness of Abraham’s “I who am but dust and ashes.” Instead, Jesus simply addressed God as “Father,” offering no over-the-top expressions of praise beyond, “hallowed be your name.”

But like Abraham, Jesus concerned his prayer with the welfare of others. Even in this individual prayer, this prayer of a single person, the grammar is plural. Jesus told his followers to pray for our daily bread, forgiveness for our sins. Cyprian of Carthage wrote in the third century, “The God of peace and the Teacher of concord, who taught unity, willed that one should thus pray for all, even as He Himself bore us all in one.”

The prayer of one, of less than ten, is nevertheless the prayer for all.

By the way, if you’re wondering why the prayer sounds both familiar and unfamiliar, it’s because Matthew recorded it differently, and when we pray it together in a few minutes we will follow Matthew’s version more closely than Luke’s.

There is a hint of haggling, though, isn’t there, when we pray, “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”? It implies some kind of arrangement between Christ’s followers and God. Forgiveness on our part brings forgiveness on God’s part. We may not have negotiated that bargain, but we benefit from it.

Abraham would understand.

Abraham would also appreciate Jesus’ teaching about persistence. He didn’t stop with fifty, no. He pushed until he’d whittled God down to ten. Jesus shifted to this story about persistence in waking up a neighbor, a friend, so that one can receive help in the middle of the night. As Niveen Sarras writes at Working Preacher, “What motivates a person in need to appeal to his friend at night to give him a loaf of bread is their friendship. One does not hesitate to ask a close friend for help in a challenging situation. However, the bond that connects the disciples with God is more vital than friendship; it is a familial and intimate relationship. This relationship invites the believers to persist in prayer.”

This is a real shift between the approach Abraham took in negotiating from fifty to ten. Jesus made God sound like a neighbor, a friend, someone you would trust to aid you even when you were being really annoying and inconvenient, someone you would wake up in the middle of the night because who else would respond?

Jesus’ story wasn’t about the need to harangue God in order to get a reply. Jesus’ story was about the kind of relationship between human beings and God that consists of that kind of deep trust, deep confidence, deep love.

Lest we miss that point, Jesus shifted from this comparison with a newly woken and rather grumpy friend to parents who know how to give their children good things. A noio knows what fish is good for a fledgling. A human being knows better than to give their children snakes or scorpions. “If you then, who are evil, 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!”

In just these few words, Jesus taught his followers a pattern for prayer, that they should persist in prayer, and that they should anticipate good prospects from prayer.

We should note, however, that that does not mean there won’t be different experiences of prayer.

Abraham’s prayer, I have to note, was successful and unsuccessful at the same time. His goal, remember, was to preserve the cities. He had hopes that ten righteous people would be found in them – and his hopes were not fulfilled. God delivered those few who were righteous – Abraham’s cousin Lot and his household – but the cities themselves passed away.

Likewise Jesus implied that sometimes our prayers don’t find response – or not the response we desire. D. Mark Davis writes at LeftBehindAndLovingIt, “If we’re looking at the experience of those of us who are pray-ers, there may be some more resonance here. Some of our experiences of prayer seem to be God lovingly providing everything that we need. Some of them feel like we are knocking over and over, with very little response. Our prayers vacillate between expressions of confidence and of persistence. Taken together, these teachings cover quite a spectrum of prayer experiences.”

I can never quite talk about Jesus and prayer without observing that one of Jesus’ most fervent prayers did not go his way. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” It was the cross, that bitter cup, that Jesus ended up drinking in full, despite that earnest prayer.

At such a moment, Jesus’ prayer included the words, “not my will but yours be done.” The pray-er trusted that the snake and scorpion of the cross would be a fish, would be an egg, and not just for himself but for the world.

I can only pray that you and I never face such a circumstance in which we offer such a prayer.

Jesus taught a lot about prayer in very few words. He taught a pattern. Come to God as to One who loves you, acknowledging God’s holiness. Ask God for the most basic needs of human beings – food and forgiveness – not just for yourself but for all people.

He taught persistence because it is so easy to give up on prayer. There are circumstances like that midnight guest when God seems sleepy or reluctant or grumpy or just plain silent. God may seem that way, but in truth God is more faithful than the best of friends.

Jesus taught the promise of prayer. God, Jesus said, loves us like a parent. God will no more inflict harm upon us – even if that’s what we pray for – than our parents would.

And one other thing…

Last year, Terry M. Wildman published the First Nations Version, an indigenous Native American translation of the New Testament. He translated Luke 11:9 this way: “So, keep dancing your prayers, and the way will open before you. Search for the ancient pathways, and you will find them. Keep sending up your prayers, and they will be heard.” (First Nations Version, Terry M. Wildman, trans. (Downer’s Grove, IL, IVP), 2021)

Keep dancing your prayers.

Kristofer Phan Coffman writes at Working Preacher, “Imagine now if we learned the persistence to keep ‘dancing our prayers’ until the way opens for us. Instead of just repetition, we might learn variation and flow in our prayers. Instead of sweating in solitude, we might learn to see ourselves dancing in the great cloud of witnesses, lifting up our prayers together with all believing Christians.”

Keep dancing your prayers, friends. Keep dancing your prayers.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

There is always something new in a sermon preached as compared to a sermon prepared. You’ll probably notice the differences.

The image is The Importunate Friend (The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ), drawing by John Everett Millais and woodcut by the Brothers Dalziel (1864) – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on July 24, 2022

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