Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The problems of prayer. . .

Sermon for Easter 6C preached on Sunday, May 1, 2016.
    Of all the laments and disappointments both of pastors and people, none is as vexing and as troubling as our prayer lives. We know we ought to pray more and yet we find it so difficult to pray.  If you don’t know what I mean, take a couple of minutes of silence during the Divine Service and see how quickly you run out of either words to say or attention to the task of prayer.
    Our lives are too full to pray – too full of sins that both shame us and cause us regret and too fully of struggles from which we must figure a way out.  But our lives are also too full of distractions, of pleasant diversions, of happiness and of joys that equally distract our hearts from prayer.  We find it hard to pray when things are falling apart and we find it hard to pray when things are going wonderful.
    God does not give us the option.  He commands us to pray. In teaching the Our Father, our Lord does not say IF you pray but WHEN you pray.  Yet we do not only pray because God commands us, we pray because the promise is great.  “Ask and you shall receive... says Jesus... that your joy may be complete.”
    We find ourselves struggling to pray because even with the promise of Jesus, we pray and are still left empty handed.  We asked and have not received – at least not what we asked for.
Is this not the case for you?  It is for me.  We tell the Lord clearly what we want and explain why we should get it and then we wait for nothing to happen.  We have come up against God’s will – is it a roadblock to what we want OR the gracious interjection of God who gives us not what we want but we need.
    The easiest response to unanswered prayers is resentment. If God is not going to give me what I want or ask, then what is the reason I pray at all?  But God’s will is not a roadblock; the will of God is our lifeline.  Prayer is where we exercise our faith and trust in the Lord to do not what we ask but what is good, what is right, and what is salutary.
    We ask for the desire of our hearts – prayers should be honest and not deceptive – but we trust the good and gracious will of God.  We ask for all things but we are content with what the Lord gives, with the answer of His grace and Fatherly wisdom.  Prayer only works when faith is what prays, when the one praying has confidence in the gracious will of God, and when the prayer is conditioned upon God’s knowledge of what we need and what is best for us.
    Jesus says bluntly: “Ask and you shall receive.”  Yet this is not some magical power to get what our sinful hearts desire.  This is the voice of the new person created in baptism who prays by the Spirit for the needful things of body, soul, and eternity.
God gives us all things needful.  All that is needful for this body and life.  For food, home, spouse, pious life, and peaceful death – and everything that fits in between.  God knows we need them and God gives these to us just as He supplies these to the wicked and the unjust.  If your earthly father knows you need these things, do you imagine your Heavenly Father is stupid or evil and will not give you these things as well?
    Though our prayers might be full enough with only this life as the subject of those prayers, we do not pray for these only.  We pray for things beyond our imagination – for forgiveness of our terrible sins done not innocently but willingly.  We pray for life that death cannot steal and for the victory that will not give the last word to the grave.  We pray for the salvation of our souls as gift of pure grace – given to the unworthy by the only worthy One, by Jesus Christ, who became our brother in flesh.
    And we pray for Christ’s presence in all the seasons of our lives, in all our situations we face, and for every moment of life that exposes the fragile nature of our lives and the sturdiness of God’s grace and mercy.  We pray for Christ’s presence even though this is His promise.  He will not forsake us, abandon us, or leave us orphans. Yet this is the ultimate fear that undergirds our struggle to pray.  Do we believe God is with us when our eyes cannot see Him and the circumstance does not reveal Him?
    Christ says “I have overcome the world.”  These are not empty words.  He has died to pay the debt for our sin.  He has won salvation for a people condemned by sin and death.  He has clothed us with His own righteousness because we had none.  He has opened the grave and will not die again.  He did this not for Himself but for you.  Yet you still live in this world.  You still live amid the evil and injustice of a world set against the Lord.  You still live with joys too few and sorrows too many.  So this life is one of prayer to Him until our final journey home to God.
    Have you ever thought that God loved us enough not only to command us to pray and to promise to answer those prayers with grace, but also enough to give us a script to follow, words to pray not merely when none come but to teach us to pray.  Not just when we cannot manufacture words of our own but so that we can as one pray in one voice with confidence: Our Father, who art in heaven.
    When you pray “Thy will be done” you are not giving up on your prayer, you are expressing your confidence in His will, your contentment with what God has already done on the cross. Prayer is the voice of the strong speaking with courage to doubt and confidence for our future.  To say Amen is to pray joyfully in Christ’s name knowing the outcome of our faith and leaving our fear at the foot of the cross.  If we get this, it’s easier to pray, easier to teach our lips the words, our minds the hope, and our hearts the joy of Him who lives to give us all things in Christ. 

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