Sermon preached on Sunday, July 25, 2010 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. Due to technical difficulties, the audio version of this sermon is not available.
Lectionary texts: Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! This morning I want to talk to you about prayer. Specifically I want to talk to you about why it is important to know our place in prayer and to persevere in it. How many of you have prayed for something and have not gotten what you asked for? How you respond to unanswered prayer will give you keen insight into the state of your faith and your pride. If we find ourselves getting angry at God over unanswered prayer, at some level there is a good chance that human pride is at work. Our anger surely is at least a by-product of our belief, either spoken or unspoken, that we know better than God regarding what is “best” for us and when God does not answer our prayers in the way we expect him to answer, our pride can get ruffled.
Our anger over unanswered prayer can also betray a lack of faith at some level, especially if we stop praying to God or asking him for things that are on our heart. After all, if we do not think God can answer us in the way we expect or that he cannot deliver at all, why bother praying? To be sure, there are other things that might be going on in us if we get angry at God over unanswered prayer, but surely sinful human pride and/or lack of faith are ingredients in the mixture.
And as our OT lesson reminds us in quite vivid and earthy language, our pride is the thing that can cause us to find ourselves separated from God in a hurry. The Greek word for sin, hamartia, means literally to miss the mark, the mark being God and our relationship with him. Our sin causes us to want to play God, to think we know best what is good for us and for our loved ones. It caused the people of Israel to pursue their own interests instead of pursuing God’s will for them. Human pride is what got us kicked out of the garden of Eden and it has bedeviled us ever since.
Where is God’s Grace?
But it doesn’t have to be that way for us in our prayer life, thanks be to God. All of today’s lessons as well as the broader corpus of Scripture remind us that God is not some ogre. No, God loves us and wants us to have the kind of relationship with him that he created us to have. Even for sinful Israel who had forsaken God’s covenant, God promised to be ultimately merciful. And as Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, God extended his mercy to the rest of the world when he became human and reconciled us to himself by the blood of Christ. God created us to live with him forever, not to destroy us, and he has solved the intractable problem of human sin and the separation it causes through the cross of Christ.
Through the blood of Christ we have become adopted children into God’s family and we have the wonderful privilege of calling God “Father.” It is a privilege because we have done nothing to earn our status as God’s children nor do any of us deserve to be called God’s children (or to call God “Father”) based on our own merits. No, we are children of God only because of God’s great love for us and his wondrous grace demonstrated for us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus himself reminds us that God is a God who loves us and whom we can trust in prayer, and that is what I want to spend the rest of our time looking at this morning.
Where is the Application?
So how should we approach our prayer life? How should we deal with seemingly unanswered prayer? If human pride and faltering faith cause our prayer life to be diminished, it follows that two necessary ingredients for a healthy prayer life are humility and faith. We must approach prayer with the understanding that God is God and we are not. We must really believe that he loves us and knows what is best for us, even when we find ourselves in the most dire of circumstances.
This is the implicit basis for Jesus’ command for us to “ask, seek, knock.” After all, we do not ask if we do not think we need anything or if we think we can supply everything we need. But when we understand that we all too often want what we do not need, or that we cannot provide everything we need to help us grow in our relationship with God, we humbly ask God to provide for us that which he sees fit to give us (or withhold from us). We acknowledge to him that he knows what is better for us because he is God and we are but broken and finite people who desperately need his love, guidance, and gifts in our lives. We trust him to deliver because we know his love for us is perfect and he is God our Father. We see this attitude of humble asking reflected wonderfully in the following prayer attributed to Thomas á Kempis:
Grant me, O Lord, to know what I ought to know, to love what I ought to love, to praise what delights you most, to value what is precious in your sight, to hate what is offensive to you. Do not allow me to judge according to the sight of my eyes, nor to pass sentence according to the hearing of the ears of ignorant people; but to discern with a true judgment between things visible and spiritual, and above all, always to inquire what is the good pleasure of your will. Amen.
We also see this attitude of humble asking reflected perfectly in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus tells us to start our prayers by focusing on who God is. First, we are reminded that God is our Father. He is a person, not some thing, and we are therefore able to have a relationship with him.
Second, we are reminded that God is holy, the meaning of “hallowed,” and that if we are to live with him forever, we too are to become holy. This, in turn, should help us frame our requests to God. Are we asking for things that will make us holy or are we asking for things that will lead us away from God and cause us to miss the mark of having a right relationship with him? Again, notice that this requires humility and faith on our part. We acknowledge that we are not holy and cannot be except through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit living in us. In asking for things that will make us more holy (not holier than thou, just more holy), our faith leads us to believe that God is both willing and able to grant us our requests. We also believe he is able to help us learn to pray for things that are really good for us.
For example, it is not uncommon for people to ask me to pray for them when they are seeking a particular job. Often they will ask me to pray that God will help them get a specific job. But this is typically not how I pray for folks. Instead, I pray that if the job they desire is the best thing for them, then God will grant their prayer requests. But if there is something better in the wings or if God can use rejection to help those persons grow in their trust in God or to accomplish some other end, then I pray that God will bless them with that.
Do you see the difference? In the first instance we see God’s answering prayer as being tied to a specific outcome, an outcome the person believes to be in his or her best interest. But that may not be the case at all. However, when we in effect ask God for his will to be done in our lives instead of our own, and we are willing to keep our eyes and ears open to God’s prompting through prayer, Scripture, circumstance, or through the advice and counsel of a Christian friend, we are ready to receive what God is willing to give us. We trust that however God answers our prayers (or shows us why he didn’t grant our original request) it is for our best. That takes both humility and faith.
Third, the Lord’s Prayer continues by acknowledging the sovereignty of God. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer spells this out: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” Here we acknowledge that God is sovereign, that he will accomplish all he intends for us. We remember the promise of the New Creation that awaits us. We are also reminded that if we submit ourselves to God’s will, we can be confident that we will profit by it, even when we are called to hardship or suffering. For you see, this world is broken and finite, and we will inevitably have to suffer and/or face periods of uncertainty. But we also remember that God is ultimately in charge so that even if we must walk in a season of darkness, there is a better day coming and ultimately that day will last forever. This too requires both faith and humility.
The Lord’s Prayer then turns to our needs and we note that Jesus spends more time focusing on our relational needs than on our physical needs. Yes, we are to ask that our physical needs be met, but we remember that we often think we need more than we really do. Given that we are all mortal and our ultimate fate in this world is death, the one thing needful is to grow in our relationship with God because he is the Source of all life. Yes, our bodies need the basics. But our physical sustenance will not lead us to life forever. Only a right relationship with God in Christ can accomplish that. This is why Jesus focuses on asking God to help us resist temptations that can draw us away from God. He also asks God to help us be merciful, just like our Father has been merciful to us in Christ. If we are to become like Christ, mercy is a good place to start.
In sum, real prayer always acknowledges our need. It recognizes God for who he is and ourselves for who we are, and it asks accordingly.
But if we stop at just asking, we ignore the rest of Jesus’ teaching. Our Lord tells us to ask, seek, and knock. If we stop at asking, we likely will be disappointed. We must also roll up our sleeves and do our part. If, for example, we ask God to give us better understanding of his word in Scripture and then never pick up a Bible, read it, ponder it, and struggle with it, then we likely will not have our prayers answered. Or if we are unemployed and ask God to help us find work but then do not send out applications for jobs, we should not be surprised if God does not answer us because we are in effect telling God we are not willing to seek after that for which we ask. God is our ultimate provider but we must do our part.
Finally, our Lord reminds us that we must persevere in our prayers. Why? Because we are on God’s time, not ours, and we must learn to live with that fact, much as we might not like it. In his parable from today, Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If the grouchy, sleepy friend is unwilling to give us that for which we asked because he is grouchy and sleepy, surely he will do so because we are persistent. And God is much more gracious and giving than any human! God does not know how to give bad gifts and his timing is always perfect!
Moreover, because we trust God to be our Father and to have our best interests at heart because he is God, we can have confidence that however he answers our prayers, it will be for our good and our relationship with him will be strengthened. Do you pray with this goal in mind, that your relationship with God will be strengthened and that you will learn to become more like him through the gifts he bestows or withholds from you?
Prayer can be tricky if we do not acknowledge our place and God’s in it. We are the creatures and God is the Creator. We are broken and fallen people who sometimes do not know what is best for us or what is best for us to avoid. God, on the other hand, knows all of this and much more. When we enter prayer with the desire to grow in our relationship with God, if we are willing to do our part in those things for which we ask, and if we are willing to listen to God in prayer, in Scripture, and in fellowship with other Christians, we can be sure that God will answer our prayers or show us why he cannot. This requires humility, faith, and patience.
But we are aided in this by the wondrous Goods News of Jesus Christ. We remember what our destiny is—living with God forever in his New Creation where there will never be anything hurtful again. Until we get there, our faith reminds us that we have access to God’s good will and gifts to us through prayer, as long as we acknowledge that he knows better than we do on how to answer our prayers, and as long as we pray with the main goal of growing in our relationship with Christ and to be transformed in to his very likeness. We remember too that we have his very Spirit in us to help us pray when we do not know how (Romans 8:26-27). When you understand all this, if do not already, you really will have Good News to sustain you for the living of your days, folks, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.