Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Does it pay to pray?

Sermon for Easter 6C, preached on Sunday, May 26, 2019.

    Of all the claims of Christianity, claims about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of prayer are most in dispute.  I have people who come to me every week and say, “Pastor, I prayed but the Lord did not answer my prayer.”  Sitting in the homes of those who were once good Lutheran folks are a people discouraged because they have prayed day and night for something only to find no answer to their prayers – at least not what they wanted.  To a few God seems very talkative but to most God is a mask of silence before their petitions.

    This is, in John’s Gospel, the third time that Jesus says, “Whatever you ask of the Father in My name, he will give it to you.”  John 14, 15, and now 16 record the same promise.  So is Jesus a liar or a mere exaggerator or do these words mean what they say?  There is not one of us who cannot lament that we have prayed the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and being and come up empty handed.  So either there is a hidden secret to getting what you want from God or some impediment in our lives preventing the prayer of righteous people from availing the answer we seek, or maybe we have missed what Jesus is promising.

    Note that our Lord does not promise that whatever we desire, we will get.  Once Herod was so enamored of the dance of his step-daughter Salome that he vowed to give her whatever she asked – up to half his kingdom.  Only when the servant brought up the platter with the head of St. John the Baptist did Herod lament a promise made in haste and kept only because he feared losing face before his rich and powerful friends.  The Lord makes us no such open ended promise to fulfill every desire of our sinful hearts.  We have no pledge from Him that we will get whatever we want.  God is no vending machine in which we put in our prayers and await the prize.

    Jesus connects our desires with the words “in My name.”  This does not render the promise mere figurative language but it does place the promise within the context of the faith.  Whatever we ask in Jesus’ name is not an open ended promise to give us the moon if we want it but to pray from faith, out of faith, and in faith.  Whatever we might ask does not free from its prison the unbounded desires of the sinful heart and lay them before God as Salome laid before Herod the demand for the head of John.  The promise lies in the context of faith.  We pray "in Jesus' name" or to put it another way, from the foot of the cross.

    Jesus Himself makes this more clearly in the next sentence of the Gospel reading for today.  “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” He says: “The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.” The prayers of the faithful are prayed in the context of the hour that is coming when Jesus will not speak in words but in deeds, that is, in the cross.  Our prayers are prayed from the vantage point of the cross, by hearts connected to that death by baptism, and by minds who know the saving will and purpose of God through the cross of Jesus Christ.  What does this mean?  It means that our prayers flow out of our knowledge of God’s good and gracious will as revealed by Christ’s death upon the cross to redeem us and the whole world.

    Prayer is not a matter of catching God on a good day or praying in some secret code or convincing God why He should give us what we desire or asking for the moon and then reminding Him that He promised us nothing less.  The people of God pray from the vantage point of the cross where the saving will of God is revealed and as a people who, through the power of the Spirit, have not simply been reconciled to this will and purpose but delight in it.  It is not that we begin by trusting in God for the little things and build up to the big ones but God has given us the moon, literally heaven, first in Christ, and from this treasure beyond price we learn to trust Him for the little things of daily live.

    But what does this mean, you might be thinking, for me when I have something I want from God and pray for it?  How can I pray so that I will be sure to get it?  And that is the point.  When we offer our prayers through the cross, we pray for those things that are in accord with the saving and will and purpose of God revealed in that cross.  He who gave up His only Son, how will He not give us all things in Christ?  What things?  The things for which Christ became incarnate, for which He suffered, and for which He died and rose again.

    Too often we treat God and prayer as if He were some miserly ogre who does not want to give us anything.  To often we treat God and prayer as if there were limited grace and God had to pick and choose on whom to bestow the limited quantity of His grace, favor, and mercy.  We pray as if our prayers were in competition with others and we had to convince God that we were more worthy, our needs more urgent, and our prayers more righteous.

    How foolish we are!  The God who has given us all things in Christ, will He withhold anything we need or fail to bestow upon us any of the rich gifts our Savior won for us on the cross that was made by us?  Of course not.  To pray in Christ’s name is to pray from this confidence that God has given us all things in Christ – already – and that He will bestow upon us all things needful and withhold from us all things harmful, so that we may be kept in faith to the day when He comes again to bring us and all His people into His eternal presence – when prayers will no longer be needed as they are today.

    I do not say this to tell what you should not be praying for but to place the prayers of your heart within the context of that cross.  When we pray as the people of that cross who have received so generously the gift of salvation by our Lord’s suffering and death, we know that we can be bold and confident before that cross.  We can pray with the greatest assurance that what we pray for through the sacrificial death and life giving resurrection of Jesus will be granted us.  We know that whatever the answer, God’s good and gracious will cannot let us down.

    The Name of Christ has power because He suffered and died on our behalf, fulfilling the Father’s will.  This is not some secret code word to tack onto the end of our prayers but a people praying from faith, in faith, and for the outcome of that faith.  In the Our Father, we say this with a profound economy of words:  Thy will be done.  We know the will of God in Christ and have seen it on the cross and now, kneeling before the Lord in prayer, we pray for that will to be done, with respect to the concern of our heart now lifted before the throne of God.  Whether they are small and insignificant things or the great and impossible things of this life, we pray them as dear children coming to their dear Father who already trust that He will hear and answer us rightly because He has given us Christ and salvation in Him.

    Apart from Christ, prayer is a crap shoot.  It is a people offering their what ifs to a maybe God.  But in the name of Christ, we pray as a people who wear that name by baptism, who know that name through the cross where forgiveness, life, and salvation was won, and  who confess that name before the world.  Prayer’s answer is not nearly as important as what we already know of God and have already been given from God before we even knew to pray. 

    Apart from Christ, we have nothing certain but eternal death. When we ask God for anything in faith in Christ, when we ask Him to help and heal, forgive and save, comfort and give peace – we pray as Christians. We obey God’s command to pray and we trust in His promise to hear and answer.  Prayer is the posture of faith.  We look to God for every necessity because God has shown us His goodness in giving us His only Son to die and rise for us.  We expect mercy from God because mercy is what the cross reveals.  To pray is to confess this.   Prayers do not work because of many people pray for the same thing but because we already have the answer that counts most of all – the cross. 

    The sad truth is that we Christians act as if prayer were superstition.  Read on Facebook and people who claim faith tell you that if you pray for this cause and pass it on to five of your friends, good things will come.  How foolish we are and how pitiful.  For we think prayer is answered for any other purpose except the mercy we already know on the cross.  We have surrendered the real promise of faith for fake assurances.  We have the cross.  The Father in heaven knows what you need and He who has given you all things in Christ will hear your prayer and give you the answer that is in accord with that cross – even when the answer is not what we want. 

    God waits for your prayers.  He has planted the cross before you, given you grace beyond measure or imagination, and He who has given you all things, how will He not give You all things in Christ.  Whatever you ask in Jesus’ name and He will grant.  If whether we live or die, we belong to Christ, there is the freedom to pray.  We must be taught to pray not because we don’t know what the desires of our heart are, but because we don’t know who to offer them to.  This is what Christ does in the cross and this is why we pray.  Amen.


John Joseph Flanagan said...

An old Pastor told me this years ago, and I never forgot it: God does answer all prayers in one of 3 ways, Yes. No. Or Wait, The Lord need not explain Himself, and He is sovereign. He knows what He is doing, and He may elect to deny our petition or prayer request for reasons only He understands. We pray in the name of Jesus for the will of God in a matter, not disrespectfully or presumptuously as if we know better, We must pray with humility of spirit.

Anonymous said...

"Too often we treat God and prayer as if He were some miserly ogre who does not want to give us anything. To often we treat God and prayer as if there were limited grace and God had to pick and choose on whom to bestow the limited quantity of His grace, favor, and mercy. We pray as if our prayers were in competition with others and we had to convince God that we were more worthy, our needs more urgent, and our prayers more righteous."

When Jesus walked the earth, he healed some but not others. His blessings were selective and seemed random. If our prayers were consistently answered with instant results, we would not be so hesitant to pray. We are also asked by the pastors of our congregations to participate in small prayer groups (prayer warriors!) and also to pray as a congregation for specific requests near the end of Sunday services. Does this mean a specific prayer has more power in numbers? Jesus is sovereign and we are but filthy beings slightly lower than angels - but slightly higher than apes! He doesn't owe us anything.

God has the power to strike us down like Moses' sister Miriam, who was struck down by God with leprosy. Or perhaps we were supposed to carry out God's will but not sharp enough to recognize exactly what it was. Not all of us get solid cues as King Saul did when he was ordered not to spare the kings of the pagan nations his army conquered, but he disobeyed God's orders anyway. I feel ashamed approaching God not knowing for sure what I am supposed to be doing and how I fit in His will.

God can change his mind. Lot convinced God not to destroy a small city where he wanted to flee after the angels told him to flee Sodom. There are other examples in the Old Testament of God changing his mind via our petitions. Maybe if we pester like the widow did to the unrighteous judge in Jesus' parable, God will answer us sooner. Some of us have prayed and waited decades for help for a specific problem, but help never arrived.

Jesus saves some, but not all. Jesus blesses some, but not all. No one knows for sure the impact of their prayers. Some are blessed with much greater rewards than other people - either in this life, in the next life, or in both. I do now understand the role of purgatory and the efforts of Roman Catholics to pray to the dead to urge God to change His mind and to give our deceased relatives a greater reward. I have noticed that both the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics encourage us to pray to the dead on our behalf. How do we know if the dead can hear us or can intercede for us?

It is too easy to get discouraged and give up. We can always resign ourselves to the fact that our next life in Paradise is supposed to be much better. When should we let go and let God handle it all? I don't know.

"For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever."

By the way, why does Rome omit this last sentence from the Lord's Prayer? I have been to mass at several Roman Catholic parishes, and this is never recited.

Your blog article has generated more questions than answers.....