David A. Davis
March 5, 2023
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Some refer to our parable this morning from the 11th chapter of Luke as “The Friend at Midnight”. As you heard, it begins at the 5th verse. In the first four verses of the 11 chapter of Luke, one finds Jesus offering the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples. Here in the NRSV: “Lord, teach us to pray….Jesus said to them, ‘When you pray, say Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” This is what comes next: “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight.” The friend at midnight. The parable comes right after the Lord’s Prayer. And the parable comes right before Jesus in Luke says “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you, search, and your find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
When Luke tucks the parable of the friend at midnight in between Jesus teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer and “Ask, and it will be given you, search, and your find; knock, and the door will be opened for you”, it is pretty difficult to come to any other conclusion than the friend at midnight is a parable about persistent prayer. The parable of the friend at midnight, then, is sort of a companion or can be coupled with the parable of the persistent widow who kept demanding justice from a judge in Luke. Luke writes, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and to not lose heart”. That parable concludes with these words from the judge: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming to me.” Not surprisingly, the tradition names labels this one “The Parable of the Unjust Judge.” It should, of course, be labeled the parable of the bold, courageous, persistent widow.
The friend at midnight, the persistent widow and the gospel’s call to a life of prayer and the role of prayer in the life of discipleship. Last week in the adult education session introducing our Lenten series on the parables, Professor Dale Allison said more than once that a parable can have many meanings. It is the beauty, the power, and the wonder of the parables of Jesus. A preacher could tackle the same parable for a month of Sundays and never repeat the same sermon or even give the same take on a parable. So it is with the friend at midnight. But Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer and dropping the iconic verse “ask, and it will be given you, search, and your find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” can sort of take all the interpretive air out of the room in the first half of Luke’s 11th chapter.
Listen to this clip of one preacher’s different take.
“Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.” (Luke 11:5, 6)
“Although this is a parable dealing with the power of persistent prayer, there is much in it that can serve as a basis for analyzing many of the problems of the modern world and the role of the church in grappling with them. The first thing we notice in the parable is that it is midnight. It is also midnight in the world today. The darkness is so deep that we hardly see which way to turn.”
Yes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and the beginning of his sermon entitled “A Knock at Midnight”. He preached the sermon in many places and he turned the manuscript into a chapter of his book Strength to Love published in 1963. The driving metaphor for Dr. King throughout the sermon is that amid the world’s darkness of midnight there comes a knock at the door of church. Take a look at the artwork on bulletin cover. It is a reproduction of Ned Walthall’s photograph he titled “Midnight Visitor”.
For Dr. King, it is a midnight knock at the door of church from those seeking the bread of social justice and racial equality. A knock at the door in a time of war from those seeking the bread of peace. A knock from those seeking economic justice and a fight against poverty. And then King moves from the midnight darkness of the world to the midnight darkness of people’s lives. His call is for the church to offer to the discouraged and disillusioned the bread of hope and belief that God has the power to bring good out of evil. To offer the bread of Christ’s forgiveness to those tormented by their own sinfulness, the bread of hope and proclamation of eternal life for those who find themselves in the valley of the shadow of death. In King’s words “Midnight is a confusing hour when it is difficult to be faithful. The most inspiring word that the church may speak is that no midnight long remains.”
Nowhere in the parable of the bold, courageous, persistent widow is she described as persistent. The parable simply tells how she “kept coming” to the judge and the judge complains because “she keeps bother me” and “wearing me out.” Jesus concludes the parable of the friend at midnight like this: “ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything out of friendship, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” His persistence. His perseverance. His tenacity. His importunity. The Greek word can also be translated “shamelessness.” Because of the friend’s shamelessness in knocking at the midnight hour, the man will get up and give him whatever he needs.
The midnight hour of our lives is confusing because, in fact, God doesn’t always give us whatever it is that we need or ask for in prayer. A peace that passes all understanding doesn’t always come amid the midnight darkness in the soul. Who among us has not experienced the silence of God amid our own knocking on the door. And yes, there will always be grieving families who sit here before in the front row at a memorial service. When it comes to our faith, the midnight hour can be confusing. God doesn’t always give the world what it needs either when it comes to peace and justice and righteousness and abundant life for all. That sermon by Dr. King was 60 years ago! If the parable of the friend at midnight is always and only about prayer, someone is always going to shout back, “Really, Jesus?!”
Years ago, the writer Anne Lamott offered her conclusion that sometimes in life, perhaps often times in life, one’s prayer life comes down to just about two prayers. “Help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Maybe that’s all we can expect or the best we can do when its midnight. Or maybe that’s about all we can understand when it comes to prayer and figuring it all out. Figuring God out. Because parables often leave the listener with more questions than answers. In that way parables are a lot like life. More questions than answers. Yet, the call to the church and to you and me is to shamelessly proclaim along with the psalmist that “weeping may last for the night, joy will come in the morning” Even when that night lasts a whole lot longer than 12 hours. “The most inspiring word that the church may speak is that no midnight long remains.”
Persistence in the body of Christ goes far beyond proclamation and inspiring words. Because when someone is experiencing life at midnight and a darkness that keeps them from seeing their hand in front of their face, someone else is being called to walk along in love. Embodying, if by nothing more than being present to the broken-hearted one, that the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it. When someone is coming to the midnight hour of exhaustion in being a caretaker for a loved one, or when someone is so concerned about their child there seems to be no tunnel let alone a light at the end of tunnel, and being worried sick doesn’t even begin to describe it, or when someone’s weariness at the sorry state of the world hangs like a fog of never-ending darkness eating away at the spirit, someone else is being called to bear witness to God’s promise of a coming dawn and live out the exhortation of the Apostle Paul “to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” Persistence in the body of Christ goes far beyond proclamation and inspiring words. For when the tyranny and reality of death never stops and brings everyone at some point in life to that gut-piercing midnight taste of loss, sorrow, and grief, the members of the body of Christ shamelessly remember that according to the Gospel of John, the women arrived at the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus “early on the first day of the week when it was still dark”. They discovered “He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed”
In parables class 101, the first move for us is usually to find our place in the parable. When the injured man is in the ditch, are we the religious folk walk by on the other side or are we the Samaritan stopping to help. Maybe we’re the one in the ditch. Are you more like a younger brother who returns after a the worst gap year ever or the older brother who resents the welcome home party, or the father who runs with open arms. Trying to play the naming game with parables usually hits a wall at some point. Who wants to believe in God as a judge who gives in to the bold courageous persistent widow to get her to stop bothering God? When the friend comes knocking at midnight, is God really going to tell the friend to go away, roll over, and put a pillow over the head?
Imagine when it comes to the parable of the friend at midnight, if that is you and I all tucked in with the kids soundly asleep and it is God who comes knocking. What if God is the friend at midnight. Knocking to ask for your help because “It is midnight in the world today. The darkness is so deep that we hardly see which way to turn.” God, the friend at midnight, the persistent, persevering, tenacious, shameless friend who even at the midnight hour, won’t go away.
The Victorious Christ in the Book of Revelation, to the church in Philadelphia: “Look, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut.” And to the church in Laodicea: “Behold, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me.”
The persistent and shameless presence and promise of God in our world and in our lives…even and maybe especially, at midnight.