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December 5, 2023 Third Day of Advent

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Matthew 7: 7

Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of North American Christianity at the Duke University Divinity School. She did her Ph. D. dissertation on the history of what is commonly called the “prosperity gospel”. For those of you who do not know that term, Bowler defines it this way in her New York Times op-ed piece, Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.

Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth [within the course of their human life] to those with the right kind of faith. 

Bowler points out that when Prosperity Gospel people do prosper, they call themselves “blessed”. They are blessed because they have the right kind of faith and so will receive from God whatever they ask for. It’s kind of like that Janis Joplin’s song “Mercedes Benz”:

Oh lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?

I’m counting on you, lord, please don’t let me down.

Prove that you love me and buy the next round,

Oh lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?

If Janis’ prayer would have resulted in a mysterious envelope with enough cash for an evening out, it was because she had enough faith to be blessed. If not ... well ... woe to Janet. Is this what Jesus is talking about? All we need to do is ask, search, knock and we will get whatever we want? No. We need to read the rest of the passage:

9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If 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!

What are we to ask for? Not “goods” but “good things”, because “good things” is what God will give us. You see, this passage is about prayer. It teaches us to rely on God for the things we need, in accordance with God’s will. Remember this passage follows Jesus’ teaching his disciples the Lord’s Prayer where we are told to pray for the will of God to be done. Not our will – but the will of God – will be provided.

I like the way Willam Barkley puts it:

God will always answer our prayers; but [God] will answer them in [God’s] way, and [God’s] way will be the way of perfect wisdom and of perfect love. Often if [God] answered our prayers as we at the moment desired it would be the worst thing possible for us, for in our ignorance we often ask for gifts which would be our ruin. This saying of Jesus tells us, not only that God will answer, but that God will answer in wisdom and love.

How does God answer our prayers? With the incarnation. There is nothing more we can ask for.

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