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Home » A Knock at Midnight: Martin Luther King Jr. (Transcript)

A Knock at Midnight: Martin Luther King Jr. (Transcript)

Full text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon titled “A Knock at Midnight” – February 11, 1962

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Martin Luther King Jr. – Baptist preacher

I come this morning to try to preach, and I would like for all others, men and women alike to think with me from the subject: ‘A Knock at Midnight.’

Our text this morning is taken from one of the familiar parables of our Lord and Master found in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel as recorded by St. Luke. It begins at the fifth verse…

Luke 11:5-8: ‘And He said unto them, ‘Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him’; And he from within shall answer and say, ‘Trouble me not, the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee’?

I say unto you, ‘Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity, he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.’

Now this is a parable dealing with the power of persistent prayer. But one of the things we always notice about the parables of Jesus is that although they were always told to get over one basic thought, you can usually find in every parable of Jesus great facets of thought not intended as the main point.

And as I look at this parable, I see within it a basic outline and a basic guide in dealing with many of the problems that we confront in our nation and in the world today and the role of the church.

Now the first thing that we notice in this parable is that it is midnight. It is also midnight in our world today. And we are experiencing a darkness so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn. It’s midnight.

It’s midnight in the social order. Now the Middle East has had the headlines over the last few days, but it should not all cause us to forget that there is another war. It’s a futile, bloody, costly war taking place on Asian soil. And we look over to Vietnam and what do we see? We see the rice fields of a little Asian country being burned at will and trampled at whim.

We see innocent peasants and little children being burned with napalm. Then we see the fine young men of our country dying in mounting numbers. All of this is indicative of the fact that it’s midnight.

The nations of the world are engaged in a bitter and tragic contest for supremacy. And you see the real danger is that if we don’t change our course in this world, all of the modern weapons of warfare will soon conspire to bring an untimely death to the human family on this globe.

The late President Kennedy was right, mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.

Not only is it midnight in man’s collective life, but it’s midnight in his individual life. It’s midnight in the psychological order. People are more worried, more frustrated, more bewildered today than at any period of human history. So many of us find that clouds of anxiety are floating in our mental skies, the psychopathic wards of our hospitals are full today.

Who are the popular psychologists today? They are the psychoanalysts who delve into the inner chambers of the subconscious.

What are the popular books in psychology? They are books entitled ‘Man Against Himself’, ‘Modern Man in Search of a Soul’, ‘The Neurotic Personality of Our Time’.

What are the popular books of the bestsellers in religion today? They are books entitled ‘Peace of Mind’, ‘Peace of Soul’.

And who are the popular preachers? They are so often preachers who would preach nice little soothing sermons on how to be happy, how to relax, how to keep your blood pressure down.

And so we have re-translated the Gospel to read, ‘Go ye into all the world and keep your blood pressure down, and lo, I will make you a well-adjusted personality.’

All of this is indicative of the fact that it is midnight in the psychological order.

Not only that, it’s midnight in the moral order. Midnight is a time when all colors lose their distinctiveness, and everything becomes merely a dirty shade of gray.

In the sense of the moral order, midnight is a time when all moral values lose their distinctiveness. So in our world today, for so many people, there’s nothing absolutely right, nothing absolutely wrong. Just a matter of what the majority of people are doing.

Over and over again we see this. Most people live by the philosophy: everybody is doing it, so it must be all right. It’s midnight in the moral order.

And you know, midnight is a time when everybody’s trying to get by. And this is exactly what we have done so often. We have ended up with our ethical relativism, feeling that the only thing right is to get by, and the only thing wrong is to get caught. And so today we don’t talk about the Darwinian survival of the fittest, that was the theory that came along, but for us it’s a philosophy of the survival of the slickest.

Nobody is concerned about obeying the Ten Commandments in so many instances. They are not important. Everybody is busy trying to obey the Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou shall not get caught’. According to this tragic philosophy, it’s all right to lie, but just lie with a bit of finesse. It’s all right to exploit and rob, but be a dignified exploiter so that when you do it, it becomes embezzlement rather than just stealing.

It’s all right even to hate, but dress your hate in the grommets of love and make it appear that you are loving when you’re actually hating. Just get by. This tragic moral laxity, this tendency to be caught up in the chains of conformity, is destroying the soul of our nation, the soul of the world, and so many individuals.

We find ourselves today standing in the midst of a threefold midnight. It’s midnight in the social order. It’s midnight in the psychological order. It’s midnight in the moral order. But as in the parable so in our world today, the deep darkness of the midnight is interrupted by a knock.

The parable talks about this man seeking three loaves of bread, physical bread. In our world today, men and women are in search for three loaves of spiritual bread. They want the bread of faith. So many people have lost faith in themselves. They’ve lost faith in their neighbors. They’ve lost faith in God.

And in the midst of this faithlessness, they find themselves crying out, ‘Lord, I believe, but help thou mine unbelief.’ They want the bread of faith. And then there is a quest for the bread of hope. Everybody needs this bread. Everybody wants it. When you stop hoping, you die.

And yet so many people have lost hope today. They feel that they have nothing to look forward to. So many young people have lost hope. They have become cynical. They see all of the problems of the world. So many young men feel that there’s nothing to look forward to in life but going to the battlefield, giving one’s life may be in something very futile.

They look around the world and they lose hope. So many people find themselves crying out with Shakespeare’s Macbeth that life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. So many find themselves crying out with the philosopher Schopenhauer that life is an endless pain with a painful end.

So many find themselves crying out with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s: ‘A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in, A minute to smile and an hour to weep in, A pint of joy to a peck of trouble, And never a laugh but the moans come double, And that is life!’ In the midst of this hopelessness, men and women reach out for the bread of hope.

Then there is the quest for the bread of love. Everybody needs this bread. We need it in two ways. First we need to learn how to love. The great problem of mankind today is still that there’s too much hatred around. More than anything else, we’ve got to learn to love.

In America, the white man must love the black man, and the black man must love the white man because we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny. And we can’t keep having riots every summer in our cities. We can’t keep having all of these problems all over our nation. Our white brothers must understand that we are too poor, and the federal government has enough money to get rid of slums and poverty and get rid of these conditions that make for riots. There’s no point in continuing to make up excuses.

Our white brothers have got to come to see one thing. We are in America, and we are here to stay, and we’ve got to learn how to live together. We ain’t going nowhere. That’s the basic need in this country.

There are 22 million Negroes that we have counted up. The census figures give us that. Now they don’t take under consideration the number of Negroes that ran when they saw the census man coming, thinking it was somebody to collect the bill. So when you add the numbers, they didn’t get it. It’s at least 30 million Negroes in America. And we are here to stay.

And our white brothers have got to learn to live with us. Now in our anger and in our response to the oppression and the hatred that we face, we must not, you know, turn around and do the same thing.

You see, you never solve one problem of tyranny by substituting a new tyranny. A doctrine of black supremacy is as evil as a doctrine of white supremacy. God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers and every man will respect the dignity and the worth of human personality.

And the one way that every man will be able to do this is to remember that one word that Jesus talked about so often, and that is the word love.

So in the midnight hour of the life of our world and our nation, I see men and women by the thousands running toward the church of God trying to get the bread of faith, the bread of hope, and the bread of love.

Now go with me a little further if you will. You remember when that man knocked on the door? The man on the inside said, in substance, don’t bother me. I’m busy. My children are in the bed and I’m engaged in something else. Don’t worry me. So that man from within left the man on the outside disappointed at the hour of his greatest need.

And oh, my friends of Mount Zion, I come to you this morning having to honestly admit that the church has often left men and women disappointed at the greatest hour of need, the hour that they needed bread most.

I stood in Westminster Abbey not long ago in London, that great cathedral of the Church of England, and I had a marvelous experience on the one hand, an enrapturing experience. One cannot help but be moved by the beauty of the architecture with all of its gothic outpourings.

And on the other hand, I had a sad experience because I had to remember that there was a day when they could honestly say that the sun never sets on the British Empire. They could say that because more than 785 million of God’s children were dominated by the British Empire. And the Church of England never took a significant stand against colonialism.

And I stood there in Westminster Abbey over the tombs of kings and queens that had been buried there. And I said to myself, the church can die as a result of the judgment of God, as a result of refusing to stand up against evil. And so often the church has left men and women disappointed at midnight.

And there are men who stand up in the pulpit and preach every Sunday. I’m speaking now of white preachers. And yet they can look at racial injustice and never open their mouths against it. We would have peace in this world today. We could have peace in this world today. The church would really take a stand against there are almost a billion Christians in the world. Never forget that.

We’ve got to go back to the early church. Early Christians would not fight war. Stood up before Caesar and Caesar’s household. Said, no, we will not fight war. Sometimes because they wouldn’t obey the edicts of the Roman Empire, they were thrown into the lion’s den. They were thrown on the chopping block. And they went there with a hymn on their lips and praises to God. And they often went there smiling.

And somebody would say, ‘What is it that makes you so happy? Is it in your ecclesiastical machinery?’ No.

Is it in your credal system? No, it’s not merely that.

What is it then? We are happy and we are inspired because we love the brother. And that is what it is.

We’ve got to recapture that. Now, I don’t want to sound provincial and say that all of the problems are just the so-called white church. Well, the Negro churches often left men and women disappointed at midnight.

We have two types of Negro churches that leave men disappointed at midnight. One freezes up and the other one burns up. Now, the one that freezes up is that church, you know, that says it’s a dignified church. And the preacher preaches a nice little essay on Sunday. And he’s really afraid to get in his sermon and say it like he really means it and believes it.

And then the choir is afraid to sing with meaning and power. And they don’t sing Negro spirituals and gospel songs because that reminds them of their heritage. So they’re, you know, they’re busy trying to be, they’re ashamed that they’re black. And they’re ashamed that their ancestral home was Africa. And so they mage on trying to build a church that has no relationship whatsoever with their past.

And then, of course, they boast about their members. They go on to tell you, if you go there, we have so many doctors. We have so many lawyers. And we have so many school teachers. And we have so many businessmen. And, of course, it’s good for all of these people to be in church, all professional people to go to church.

But you see, they say it as if the other people don’t count. The other people who didn’t count forget to get to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, talk, they talk like the other people don’t count.

Now there’s another church that burns up. Now in this church, the emphasis is on muscleality rather than spirituality. And in this kind of church, people have more religion in their hands and feet than they have in their hearts and souls. In this church, sometimes even the pastor doesn’t prepare any sermon to preach. He just depends on his voice, on volume, not content. And the people leave on Sunday and say, you know, we had a great service today. And the preacher just preached this morning.

And somebody said, what did he say?

I don’t know what he said, but he preached this morning.

Now the danger of this kind of church is that people will play with God. The danger of this kind of church is that people will make religion irrelevant. It becomes merely emotionalism.

Now religion, when it is real, is emotional, as well as intellectually meaningful and respectable. But it is emotional. But the danger of this kind of religion is that the pastor and the members will have what Paul called a zeal of God, not according to knowledge.

When I quoted that passage earlier, it said not only love the Lord thy God with all our heart, but it said with all our minds. And the other danger of this kind of church is that everybody involved will become so caught up in the irrelevant that they will not be concerned about the day-to-day problem.

It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, don’t play with Me and don’t play with My people. It seems that I can hear the God of the universe speaking to the Negro church and the white church also. And He’s saying, ‘My people are hungry and they need a bread. Don’t play with Me and don’t play with them. When they come at midnight seeking bread, provide it for Me. If you don’t do that, I won’t hear your beautiful answer. You can preach your eloquent sermons. You can pray your powerful prayers, but I won’t hear any of it because your hands are full of blood. The thing that I’m concerned about is that you will let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. And if you want to know what it is that I require of you, it’s simply this, do justly. Love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.

We must never leave men and women disappointed at midnight. Come on with me a little further and I’m about to close out, but there are one or two other things I want to say.

The interesting thing is that after that man knocked on that door, the man on the inside didn’t open the door. The man on the outside kept knocking. The passage uses a big word, importunity. Importunity means persistence, perseverance. It means, you know, to keep on keeping on. It means staying with it.

And it says that that man just kept knocking. Now, if you would allow me to use my imagination a minute, I’ll tell you why he kept knocking.

He realized that there was some bread in that house. You see, if he had thought for one minute that there wasn’t any bread in that house, he would have gone on to the next house. He wouldn’t have been wasting his time around there after he had been disappointed if he had thought there was no bread there. But deep down within that man knew that there was some bread in that house.

No, this is what we must hear today as a church. This is what I want to leave with the men here this morning and all of the members. Mount Zion, you have the bread of life. Keep the bread fresh. Don’t let it get stale because somebody’s coming by here to try to find a little bread. Some young man disillusioned about life is going to come by here one day to try to get the bread of faith and the bread of hope. Keep it fresh.

Some young person who has made a mistake in life and caught up in tragic guilt feelings will come by here one day. Somebody who’s made a mistake, some young person who tried to drown the guilt by finding an amse elsewhere, they tried to find it in the nightclub, they didn’t find it there. Tried to find it in an excessive drink, they didn’t find it there. They tried to find it in sex promiscuity, they didn’t find it there.

But one day they’re coming by here, wanting the bread of forgiveness. And you’ve got to keep it fresh enough to let them know that there is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins. Keep the bread fresh.

One day some old person is coming by, someone who has been through the morning of childhood and the noon of adulthood, and now they’re moving toward the evening of life. They’re worried about bad health, they’re worried about death. They need a little bit of bread to tie them over. One day they’re coming by, keep the bread fresh enough to let them know. They don’t have to worry about death if they love God. Keep the bread fresh enough to let them know that death is not a period which ends this great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more loftier significance.

Keep the bread fresh enough to let them know that death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door that leads men into life eternal. Keep the bread fresh enough to cry out one day: I am persuaded that neither life nor death, angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come, can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Keep the bread fresh.

We have the bread of life in the church. It is our job to keep it fresh. I’m coming on home now, but I don’t want to sit down for fear. You may go away despondent. I talked about midnight. I talked about darkness.

And my last point is that that man who knocked on the door was just trying to get enough bread to tide him over until the dawn. He knew that morning would come. And I want to leave you this morning letting you know that however dark it is now morning will come. Therefore, I’m not worried about tomorrow.

There is a pendulum swinging in life, I guess. It goes between darkness and light, midnight and morning. And our slave foreparents taught us so much in their beautiful sorrow songs, one of which you sang so beautifully this morning. They looked at the midnight surrounding their days. They knew that there was sorrow and agony and hurt all around.

When they thought about midnight, they would sing, nobody knows the trouble I see. Nobody knows, but Jesus would pretty soon, something reminded them that morning would come and they started singing, I’m so glad that trouble don’t last always. This is it, my friends.

I get kind of disillusioned about the race problem. I get worried about Alabama. I get worried about Georgia. I get worried about all of these other places. And I get worried about the white backlash. But then ever and again, I go back to Alabama. My boss says to me, God has not yet turned His world over to Governor Wallace.

And I can hear another voice saying, the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Morning will come.

Centuries ago, Jeremiah, the great prophet raised a very profound question. He looked at the inequities around and he noticed a lot of things. He noticed the good people so often suffering and the evil people so often prospering.

Jeremiah raised the question, is there no balm in Gilead, is there no physician there?

Centuries later, our slave foreparents came along and they too confronted the problems of life. They had nothing to look forward to morning after morning but the sizzling heat, the rawhide grip of the overseer, long rolls of cotton. But they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiah’s question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point and they could sing, there is a balm in Gilead to make the wound be whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Then they came with another verse, sometimes I feel discouraged. And I don’t mind telling you this morning, sometimes I feel discouraged. Sometimes as I move about dealing with the race problem, I feel discouraged. Having to live every day under the threat of death, there are times that I feel discouraged.

Living with all kinds of abuse and criticism and misunderstanding, I feel discouraged sometimes. I go on back and listen to all of that verse, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my works in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead.

And so I can sing that and another song comes to me. I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I’ve felt sin breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus ‘stand still to fight on’. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.

For Further Reading:

What Is Your Life’s Blueprint? by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Full Transcript)

Martin Luther King, Jr.: 3 Dimensions of a Complete Life (Transcript)

Martin Luther King Jr. on Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool Speech (Transcript)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have Been to the Mountaintop Full Speech (Transcript)

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