Wednesday, August 4, 2010

God's Gift of Prayer

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 11:1-13
July 25, 2010
Pentecost 9--Proper 12C

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

Not long after bringing their newborn baby home from the hospital, her parents began to suspect that something was wrong. The little girl seemed far too lethargic—even for a newborn. She showed little interest in eating. Within a few days her breathing became labored and a major heart defect was diagnosed. The hospital chaplain baptized little Bethany in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And shortly thereafter the tiny baby girl departed this life, and was received into the loving arms of her heavenly Father.

Her parents, as you might imagine, were stricken with grief and guilt. Brothers and sisters in Christ gathered around them to help them bear the burden. Many loving and comforting words were expressed. They remembered the promises of God which had been applied to their daughter in Holy Baptism. But one friend of the family, attempting to rationalize what had happened, said this: “I guess we just didn’t pray enough.” The implication was that if more people had prayed more fervently and with enough faith, then perhaps things would have turned out differently. The woman had unintentionally taken God’s gift of prayer—intended for our comfort and joy—and had turned it into a source of guilt, a burden, an unmet obligation of the Law.

Unfortunately, God’s gift of prayer gets distorted and twisted like that all the time—mostly by faithful and devout Christians. Christian bookstore shelves are lined with volumes that claim to give you the proper methods, techniques and attitudes for effective prayer. But before running off to purchase the word of man about prayer, let’s listen to what the Word of God offers us concerning the gift—God’s gift—of prayer.

Jesus Himself was a man of prayer. You can’t read too far in the gospels without encountering a passage where Jesus is engaged in prayer. Today’s Gospel reading is all about one such occasion. When Jesus had finished praying, one of his disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Even the disciples of Jesus—men who were situated around the Savior for days at a time—even they could not pray without the help of Jesus. Even they needed to be taught. Prayer doesn’t come naturally for anyone. That’s lesson number one about prayer—we can’t do it apart from Jesus—apart from His help and His invitation.

Jesus first of all teaches us how to pray by giving us the Lord’s Prayer. You heard Luke’s version in today’s gospel. Together with Matthew’s fuller version we have some very well-known words—probably the best known words in the Bible. We pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, at every Baptism, at every wedding, at every funeral. For many of us it is part of our daily devotions.

There’s not enough time this morning to unpack every petition of the Lord’s Prayer, but here’s a little insight into this prayer. It’s called the “Lord’s Prayer” not simply because the Lord Jesus is the author and giver of these words. It is called the Lord’s Prayer because it is, properly speaking, His prayer. This is the prayer that Jesus Himself prays. He alone has the right to address God as Father. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer Jesus prays—and He invites you to pray it right along with Him. He shares His prayer with you. Jesus didn’t give this prayer as chapter one of the prayer textbook—as a mere homework assignment for the prayer apprentice. Rather, Jesus says, “Here is my prayer. I’m inviting you to join with Me as we together go to our Father in heaven.”

In short, know this: You never, ever pray alone. Jesus joins you in your praying, even as you are joined to Him. When you pray, it’s not like you’re a peasant before the king. No, you go to the King with the King’s Son at your side, and you are honored and listened to as if you yourself were a son or daughter of the King. And that is what you are through faith in Jesus, the Son of God. You never, ever pray alone. You’ve got friends in high places—in fact, a friend in the highest place.

To drive home this point about prayer, Jesus also gives us a prayer parable. In this parable Jesus compares God the Father to a grumpy next-door neighbor. A needy neighbor comes knocking at midnight because an unexpected guest has arrived, and the host has nothing to set before his guest. Do neighbors still go to one another when there’s a food emergency? As a little boy growing up in a small town, I can recall times when a cup of sugar or a few eggs or a stick of butter would get passed along neighbor-to-neighbor, especially if the one and only grocery store was closed.

In the parable, the grumpy neighbor eventually gets up to give his neighbor the needed bread because of the man’s “boldness,” (it says in the NIV). Some have taken that word “boldness” to mean that if you want your requests answered then you need to storm the gates of heaven, badger, beg, cajole, manipulate and engage in all manner of arm-twisting to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want, then you haven’t been bold enough.

Beloved in the Lord, banish that thought about boldness. The word “boldness” is better translated as “lack of shame” or “shamelessness.” The man requesting the bread exhibited a lack of shame. It wasn’t what the man did, or even how he did it. It wasn’t his technique or even his persistence that caused his request to be granted. It was something the man didn’t have that made his request un-ignorable. He was without shame and without guilt and without fear to go to his neighbor in the middle of night to present his need for help.

In Jesus Christ YOU ARE THAT MAN. Jesus Christ has taken away your shame. Jesus Christ has taken away your guilt. Your shame and guilt were placed upon Jesus. He was crucified for your sins and raised again for your justification. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God—so that in Him we might be shame-free and guilt-free—so that we can be joined to Jesus as sons and daughters of God—so that we can pray without fear and in the glad confidence that our prayers are heard for the sake of God’s beloved Son.

Now, the exact events described in this prayer parable are rather unlikely today. It’s rare that guests show up unexpectedly at midnight and you have nothing to feed them. But let me ask you this, how often each day are you confronted with needy friends and acquaintances—with people who need help from you, either physically or spiritually? What do you have to offer your friend who has lost his job? What do you have to offer that couple whose marriage is struggling? What do you have to offer someone who is dying of cancer, or someone who has lost faith in God? What can you give them? You have nothing to give them. Your cupboard is bare. But . . . you do have access to a friend next-door. There is someone you can go to in prayer who can help. You can shamelessly borrow from God for all your neighbors in need. You can go to Him when you have nothing to give. And your God who neither slumbers nor sleeps, who is never grumpy, will lend you His help and His mercy. On the one hand, you have nothing to give your needy neighbors. On the other hand, you have the resources of heaven at your fingertips!

And this help and mercy God gives not because you are some highly trained prayer warrior; this He does because of His Son who has taken away your shame and your guilt and your sin. Through faith in Jesus you are holy and loved and honored by God. This is why we so often conclude our prayers with the phrase, “in Jesus’ name.” It’s not a magical formula, but a confession that all we are and have—that our very identity and status comes from being joined together with Jesus. What a joy to see both Savannah and Esme joined together with Jesus today in the miracle of Holy Baptism. What a friend they now have—in Jesus!

Jesus puts an exclamation point on this parable by directly inviting His hearers to “ask, seek, and knock.” Askers receive. Seekers find. Knockers will find opened doors. Ask, seek and knock are plain and simple directions when it comes to prayer. We don’t have to use prayer to wear God down or pester Him like demanding children often do with their reluctant parents. Nor do we need to spend a lot of time informing God about what we need, as if He were ignorant of what’s going on. Just ask—ask Him for what you need. Ask Him for what your neighbor needs.

It is in this asking, seeking, and knocking that Jesus Himself joins us. Jesus joins us as we knock at the door of His Father’s house. And when our heavenly Father opens the door, like any good Father He doesn’t merely ask, “What do you want?” He also invites us in. He doesn’t just give us things, but as an added bonus we get His company, His fellowship, His very life.

Jesus concluded His teaching on prayer that day with a great analogy: If we earthly fathers can give good gifts to our children—if even we who are flawed by sin can take delight in helping our children—then how much more will our heavenly Father respond to the needs of His children? So what are you waiting for? Get busy asking, seeking, and knocking. Jesus Himself joins with you in your prayers. In Jesus you can shamelessly present your requests to God. In Jesus you have a friend—what a friend—all your sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer. Amen.

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