by Daniel Harrell
My sermon theme this fall is “doors in the Bible.” Doors play recognizable roles in our everyday lives, literally but metaphorically too. Doors open and close all the time, they provide passage and protection, they lock to ensure a certain amount of safety and privacy, they shut outside and welcome in. Doors provide opportunity but also curtailment. They convey responsibility too. We like to say that “when God closes one door he opens another,” the implication being that it’s still up to us whether to cross the threshold. This maxim about God closing one door and opening another isn’t actually in the Bible, but something like it does show up in church liturgies for Advent. There’s an antiphon sung just before Christmas (which will be here before you know it) that celebrates Jesus as he “who opens what no one shuts, and who shuts what no one opens, who breaks down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and who delivers his captive people into freedom.”
Here in Matthew’s gospel, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” suggesting that deliverance from captivity and prison is but a tap-tap away. However most scholars assert that “to knock” requires more persistence. For Jesus to say “ask-seek and-knock” means that a simple rap on the door won’t suffice to get God’s full attention. As you can imagine, with so many people praying at the same time, getting through might be a challenge. In Luke’s rendition of this passage, a comparison is made to your late night need to borrow food from a friend. However, your knock on his door greatly annoys him and he yells for you to go back to bed. Instead you keep banging and banging until finally, and furiously, he gets up and gives you what you need if only to stop you from making so much racket. The analogy of “God as Annoyed Neighbor” notwithstanding, the moral of the story seems to be that in regard to prayer, you just have to keep at it.
While I appreciate that prayer isn’t supposed to work like a vending machine or an ATM, persistence doesn’t always pay off either. I’ve banged and banged at times only to have the doors of heaven stay shut. Jesus went on to advise, “if you believe you will receive whatever you ask for,” which I’ll admit can be a problem sometimes. So I believe but still don’t receive. “Have faith in God,” Jesus insisted, “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done.” So believe without doubt? That would be easier if I received more of what I asked for. It’s not like I always pray selfishly. I’ve asked, begged even, for diseases to heal, for conflicts to cease, for a marriage to reconcile—but the sick got sicker, the conflicts worsened and the marriage fell apart. Outcomes I never wanted I’ve had to accept.
It’s usually at this point of deep disappointment and unmet expectations where someone, trying to be helpful, will say, “when God closes a door he opens another,” though as far as I can tell there’s not an open door in sight. There’s no door here in Matthew either. Jesus never uses the word. English translators add the noun based on the verb “knock” since what else would knock on except for a door. But all Jesus says is “it will be opened to you,” the same way he says “it will be given to you if you ask” and “you will find it if you seek.” “For everyone who asks receives it, and everyone who searches finds it, and for everyone who knocks, it will be opened.” Maybe you’re not supposed to get whatever you ask for in prayer. Maybe all you get is it. Which leaves us wondering: “What’s the it?”
Scroll down a few verses and the answer appears to be “good things to those who ask God.” But that can’t be it since clearly we don’t always get even the good things we ask for. Scroll up a few verses then into chapter 6 and the good things we get are not the it but only added bonus. The it, it seems, is found in that familiar verse we grew up singing at church camp: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these (good) things will be added to you.” Ask, seek and knock for God’s kingdom and justice, Jesus says, and then you’ll find you have all that you need.
We discussed the concept of kingdom a few weeks ago when we read Jesus’ very first sermon—a much shorter one than the Sermon on the Mount. “The kingdom of God is near,” he preached, “Repent and believe the good news!” We typically interpret Jesus to be speaking primarily about heaven and personal salvation. but kingdom is a political term, more having to do with power, sovereignty, dominion, and control. Moreover, Jesus said that the kingdom is near—a word also translated as at hand, or even right here—making you wonder whether Jesus had in mind heaven up there or even Christ in your heart.
Throughout the entire Bible, the concept of kingdom is all about power and who wields it. There were plenty of kings in the Old Testament, but up until fairly late in the game, the people of Israel had been without one—at least humanly speaking. Unlike other nations in the world, Israel’s king was Almighty God himself. Yet for reasons that had a lot to do with unmet expectations, disappointment and unanswered prayer; Israel eventually rejected God as their king. They decided they wanted a real live human rendition like the other nations had. God was too unpredictable. Too unreliable. Too confusing. Too demanding. Too much.
Remarkably, God obliged and answered this prayer. He gave them just what they wanted—a real live human king named Saul. But human nature being what it is, Saul didn’t work out so well as king. Yet God, being God, showed his people mercy. Though they rejected and despised him, God gave them David, a king after God’s own heart. And while this was never as good as it could have been, it worked out well enough for God to promise David that his throne—which was actually God’s throne—would endure forever through David’s descendants. But David’s heirs let the power go to their heads; they deluded themselves into thinking that they ruled by their own authority and ability rather than by God’s grace. Even Solomon, David’s direct descendent, despite all his God-given wisdom ended up screwing up everything. Consequently, Israel ended up beaten, conquered and captured. Solomon was the last king to whom God personally appeared. After that, God only spoke through prophets, though by the end of the Old Testament he’d stopped doing even that. It’s as if God gave up the whole kingdom enterprise including his promise to David.
I say as if because God keeps his promises. And thus the New Testament opens with the return of God’s voice and the return of the king, embodied in none other than the Son of David, Jesus Christ our Lord. “The kingdom is near,” he preached, “repent and believe the good news.” For Jesus’ original congregation, Galilean Jews chafing under brutal Roman persecution, to hear that the kingdom of God had arrived could not have been construed as anything other than a radical, political denouncement of Roman oppression. This is what made it good news. God’s kingdom had come and Caesar was doomed. Except how was anybody supposed to believe that this impoverished, scandal-ridden carpenter from Nazareth could take down Caesar? Especially once he started talking about “loving your enemies” and “losing your life”. Serious doubt set in. “Blessed are those who are persecuted,” he said, like that made any sense.
It still doesn’t. Jordan’s Za‘atari refugee camp on the Syrian border has a population approaching 200K, making the camp Jordan’s fourth largest city. The horrific upheaval in Syria reached its nadir last month with the deployment of chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people—a horrible and detestable deed. All the violence has forced women and children to Jordan’s border, fleeing as the Syrian army fires on them too. For those who make the border, their dispossession is absolute. Everyone has lost her country, her home, a livelihood, a family member or close friend to the war. Once in the refugee camp, persecution, rape and extortion proliferate, dreadful deeds in some instances committed by those commissioned to help. Physical conditions are abysmal—from woeful sanitation to inadequate medical aid. Ironically, the cost to upgrade the camp and provide adequate security would be less than to launch a single cruise missile. And yet Congress debates whether to support the President and fire missiles anyway, even though everyone knows such action will hardly do justice. Syria needs more than US or even UN intervention.
“The kingdom of God is near,” Jesus preached, “ask and it will be given,” the presumption being that you do have to want it to get it. But mostly all any victim ever wants is vengeance.
A Lutheran bishop told a story in the paper this week about a boyhood friend, Harold, who thought he was the toughest kid in town. So did another kid, Jerry, four blocks down the street. One day the inevitable spark ignited a fierce fistfight in front of Jerry’s home. Jerry’s mother, a no-nonsense woman, leaned out the window of her apartment only a few feet from the fight scene. Fists flew; noses ran blood; eyes, black and blue by morning, puffed red, and the dust swirled. A well-intended passerby stopped to intercede. “Leave them alone,” bellowed Jerry’s mother. “If they don’t fight it out now, they’ll fight forever.” After another ten minutes, Harold and Jerry—each too weak to throw another punch—parted and went their ways, both claiming victory in what was an obvious draw. And they never fought again.
For the bishop, the story’s application to US foreign policy is apparent. But when you’re talking about something as serious as international conflict, do parenting analogies apply? For Jesus, parenting analogies work just fine. He applies them to someone as serious as God. He asks, “What parent among you, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone instead? Or if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” The analogy is one from the lesser to the greater: if evil parents give good things to their children, how much more goodness will great parents give to their children? And who’s a greater parent than “our Father in heaven”? Ask and ye shall receive.
Which basically leaves us back where we started. Desperately disappointed. But then again, if God were trying to meet our expectations, he probably wouldn’t have had Jesus show up as an impoverished, scandal-ridden carpenter from Nazareth. And he definitely wouldn’t have let Jesus die on a cross, a gruesome death if ever there was one. What good parent ever sanctions such evil? How do you believe and not doubt when your God fails so badly? Your prayers are met by so much senseless tragedy and grief. As writer Annie Dillard so poetically puts it:
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power of evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.
This given only faith can reconcile. Scripture resounds with hard knocks, the loudness of colliding opposites: to lose is to find, to be last is to be first, to die is to live, evil and good are a unified field. Just because something has dire and sometimes deadly consequences does not mean it is not true or even good. And just because something makes you happy does not make it right. For God, evil is the dirt in which righteousness roots. On the cross—that ultimate instrument of political violence—God takes the worst that Caesar and Satan dish out and makes peace and beauty and mercy and love. In God’s kingdom, justice get not done through the shedding of enemies’ blood, but by the king shedding his own.
Getting what you want when you knock is the goodness of God when it happens, but it’s not necessarily the badness or indifference of God when it doesn’t. Faith teaches that the reason God doesn’t respond like you’d like is because He doesn’t want you to want what you want. Life is tragic. You will be broken and humbled and will end up dead one say. Why? Because this isn’t it. God wants you wanting the kingdom. He wants you hungry for his righteousness. He wants you disillusioned with worldly existence enough that you eagerly hope for a greater reality. Seeking his kingdom means first letting loose of all other kingdoms. But this is hard to do—which is why Jesus says we have to repent to believe the good news. Faith blows open our souls with God’s spirit. In Luke’s version of these verses, the “good things” Jesus says God gives is the Holy Spirit—Christ in us, the source of glory. “You have been raised with Christ,” St. Paul confidently wrote if it had already happened, “so set your sights on things above, where Christ sits enthroned as king at the right hand of God.”
Now the temptation might be to treat such encouragement as permission to evacuate this world: if heaven above is my ultimate home why bother about anything here? There’s some truth to that. “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus said. “It won’t add a single hour to your time on earth.” While hanging out with the Benedictine monks at St John’s last month, they spoke with great pride to a group of us Protestant ministers about their worry-free life. Their secret? “We do death really well,” bragged one brother. “All our life is practice for heaven, so whenever the time comes we’re ready. When your hope is in Christ, you’re not afraid to die. And when you’re not afraid to die, you’re not afraid of anything.” The Kingdom is here, Jesus said. Seek and you’ll find it. Ask and you have it. Knock and you can step right in.