05. May 2013
St. John 16:23-30
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
John 16:23 In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
It was only a little while before Jesus would leave His disciples. Soon they would see Him no more. The intimate personal contact would be broken. We have seen the despair and fear of the disciples after the crucifixion. It seemed as if the bottom had fallen out of everything. The disciples had staked all on Jesus. They had given up their businesses and followed Him. Their lives had come to revolve around Him. Where Jesus went, they followed. The disciples’ lives were given to Him. But when Jesus was gone, the heart was taken out of their lives.
Jesus knows this feeling too. He was human like you and I, and He knew how far the disciples would be able to get along without Him on their own strength. So during the forty days between Easter and Ascension, He prepared them for His departure. The risen Christ did not fit back into the lives of the disciples as they had been living with Him previously. That is what Mary Magdalene wanted, but Jesus said, “Touch Me not.” Before Calvary the disciples had leaned heavily on Him. Jesus had carried them as lambs, as children. Now He wanted them to stand upright like men and go forth into all the world with brave hearts and voice, proclaiming the crucified and risen Savior. The visible presence of Christ, like spiritual hand holding, was soon to be withdrawn. Jesus was going on ahead, and He told them, “Follow Me!” Through all their lives, they were to know that Jesus was leading them forward. “I am with you.” The disciples walked in His steps. Following Christ, their journey was set from earth to heaven. They were to learn to walk by faith, not by sight.
Jesus knew the disciples’ weaknesses and promised them that He would not leave them comfortless. Down to their weakness would come the strength of the Spirit of God. By His power, the living connection with Christ would be maintained and strengthened. Although the tangible contact with the visible Jesus would be gone, a deeper, more inward contact with God was thrown open to them. The disciples were granted the renewed privilege of prayer. They had prayed before, but now they were to learn to pray so prayer would be for them a mighty, strengthening contact with God. So far they had prayed with sight, now they were to pray with faith alone. To all disciples of Christ who walk by faith and not by sight is given this same privilege and promise.
Much ridicule is nowadays heaped on Christian prayer. They say, “Do you suppose that a puny individual like you can change the laws that govern the universe? Can you, who are so sadly shoved around by others, influence the course of this world or interrupt the chain of gigantic events? If there is a God, do you suppose that He is going to pay any attention to you?” Before the barrage of such contempt, Christians have sometimes weakened and backed down. They qualify and weaken the Lord’s promise to match their own prayer experience so lacking in faith.
But this talk about unchangeable laws isn’t nearly so impressive as it once seemed. The scientists aren’t at all as sure about their unchangeable laws. The speed of light may not be constant after all. Thus, it isn’t by our own power that we seek to achieve anything. If we stood alone in our own puny weakness, then we must certainly shudder at the thought of God and hide our faces before Him. In us there is no hope, and if in heaven there is no Father, then we certainly cannot pray. If we cannot pray, it is all up to us. But our Gospel text does not just speak of God. It speaks of the Father. That makes all the difference in the world, all the difference between life and death.
It is only because God has come to be our Father that we can pray to Him. Only because Christ has taken our sins on Himself and wiped them out by His victorious death can we stand before God, forgiven, His children in Christ. Only as we are bound to Christ in Holy Baptism like little Esther, can we come before God as His children. In Baptism God sees us in Christ, wearing the garment of Christ’s righteousness. This is the key to a living connection with God our Father. All contact, all prayer with Him must be in Christ, in the name of Jesus, that is, with faith in Him.
Prayer can only rise from faith in Christ. Apart from Christ and His atoning, redeeming work, God is no one’s Father. It is delusive sentimentality to talk of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man without Christ. Only in the acceptance, the clinging to, the giving of ourselves over to Christ is God our Father or anyone our true brother or sister. Faith in Christ is rejection of self and all we have to offer. “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling” (The Lutheran Hymnal, 376:3). Not I, but Christ. We come as beggars before God and have no right to ask anything. “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment” (Luther’s Small Catechism).
The perfect example of humble, selfless prayer is that sinner who, not venturing to go right into God’s temple, bowed his head, beat on his breast and sighed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” There was room for God in his empty heart. In the Pharisee there was no room. He felt no lack. He was making such a beautiful job of his life. His prayer was a summons to God to admire him. The publican went down to his house with a glad peace in his heart, justified. Jesus says so, as He does with the absolution, He bestows on penitent sinners by His use of the mouth that He has put there to speak, His forgiving words in His name. Our Amen speaks the prayer of faith in Jesus’ name.
Praying “in Jesus’ name” means to pray in the spirit, manner, and character of Jesus. Our prayers must be of the Jesus kind. Just as faith is created in our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, so by the Word we are given guidance and example in the art of prayer. There we find our Lord in His life so rich in prayer. As we come to know Him better and are drawn closer to Him, our prayers will take on more of His character. We often take on the manners and speech of those with whom we associate. Traveling closer with Jesus, our prayers will be more and more pulled into the purposes for which Jesus gave Himself. In the name of Jesus is in the name of Him who is our Savior. Therefore, in the name of Jesus, we can ask nothing that is contrary to our salvation. Whatever would harm us or draw us away from our Savior is not in the name of Jesus.
Can we always know what is good or not good for building us up in stature for our salvation? Of course not. The confession that our heavenly Father knows better than we is basic to all rightful prayer. If you ask Christians, “Are you wiser than God?” they will, of course, say no, but if each of us will examine our prayer life, we will surely see how often we speak to God as if we know better than He. We become impatient and grumble when God doesn’t jump to it and do as we tell Him. But someone will object, “Hasn’t God promised to hear our prayer and give us everything for which we ask?” That is true, so long as it is asked in Jesus’ name. As we might say, that is the catch. Is that just a loophole for God? Not so! God would not be our loving heavenly Father if He gave us everything that we wanted, just as those are pretty poor parents who give their children everything they want.
God loves us too much to give us everything we want. He draws a boundary around the things that He promises to give us in answer to our prayer. That boundary is His love. So often God’s curse is His letting people have just what they want. That is the way people get to hell. God says, “Well, if you insist on cutting yourself off from Me and going full speed to hell, you shall have it your way.” If we deliberately shut God out of our life, God finally says, “All right, you shall have it as you want it.” Because God is our loving heavenly Father, He restricts His promise to those things that are for our good, which draw us close to our Savior, in whose name alone we pray properly. As our mind and wishes come more and more into line with our Father’s mind and wishes, we shall more fully pray in the name of Jesus. If we learn to pray in the manner of Christ, we shall learn of Him to say, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
Yet even when our Father, out of love, refuses to give us that particular thing for which we may be foolishly asking, our prayer is not unanswered. The heart of our prayer is always granted us. Take the old example of little William asking Mother for a sharp knife. The heart of the child’s request is that he may have fun playing with the knife. Mother refuses to give little William the knife, yet by doing that, she grants the heart of little William’s prayer. Young William thought he would be happier playing with the knife. Mother knew he would be happier not playing with it. The happiness of William has been granted, though he may pout for an hour and think his mother most hard and unloving. So also our Father in heaven deals with us as His children, who so often ask for foolish and hurtful things.
It does not follow from this that we ought not to ask for particular things. We should have no desire about which we are ashamed to tell our Father. He is pleased with us when we speak to Him as dear children speak to their dear Father, even if it is about a new pair of shoes or the tomato plants, but always with the confession, “Lord, You know only too well what a foolish person I am and how apt I am to ask for hurtful and selfish things. To me it would seem that these things would be good for me and my neighbor, but I will leave it all up to You.” Not my will, but Thine be done. We will learn to pray, “Lord, teach me to serve Thee with all I am and have” instead of a prayer that goes no further than “Lord, give me more money.” In the perfect prayer our Savior taught us, there is only one petition for earthly things. We need them for a while and are glad and grateful for them, but the whole weight of prayer is in the things that last for good, that work our salvation, the things our Savior came to accomplish.
For these we can ask without condition. God has to grant them to us. He has promised, and God is faithful. Claiming Jesus’ blood and merit, God has to forgive us our sins. That certainty is “in Jesus’ name.” We can hold God to His promise. That, however, means that we trust His promise. We may never complain of our prayer not being heard if we pray with a hit-or-miss attitude that says, “I don’t know whether it will do any good, but I don’t suppose it can do any harm either, so I may as well give it a go.” This is insulting to God because not taking God at His word entertains the possibility that God is a liar. Thus all our prayers must be with confidence. We must take God at His word: “Not one word has failed of all His good promise” (1 Kings 8:56). When we pray for our salvation for Jesus’ sake, God has to give it to us. When we pray for earthly things, we tell our Father what we would like and are confident that He will give it to us. If it is for our good and He does not grant it just when and how we like, we know that He gives us what is better for us. The heart of our prayer, our sure good, is always granted. We confess, “Lord, You know what best, and we trust Your promise to hear our prayer.”
When prayers seem unanswered, let us not first blame God but begin closer to home. Let us examine our prayers and see if we are not, perhaps, trying to order God around, telling Him just how and when He is supposed to do what we tell Him. Let us ask ourselves whether Jesus and all He stands for and wants to accomplish in us are at the heart of our prayer. If there is no Jesus in our prayer, then it is no prayer and we have no Father to hear us. How beautiful are our Collects that end “through Jesus Christ our Lord” in their recognition of this fact that without Jesus it is no prayer. Yet not in words mechanically added on for a prayer, but only in heart-filling faith and reliance in Christ do we pray properly in the name of Jesus.
Scripture abounds in examples of answered prayer, but there are also examples of what we would sometimes be tempted to call unanswered prayers. A Gentile Samaritan woman prayed to Jesus for her daughter. Jesus said it wasn’t fit to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs. Her prayer’s answer came later to that conquering, humble faith that clutched Jesus’ words and cried, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27). Mary begged Jesus to do something for the embarrassed host when the wine gave out at Cana’s wedding. Jesus replied that He had His own good time. “When Lazarus lay dying, his distressed sisters sent to their best friend for help. Jesus tarried and Lazarus died. St. Paul was afflicted with a thorn in the flesh and prayed three times to be cured of it. God did not take away that thorn, but He built Paul up to bear it. Monica prayed forty years for her son gone to the dogs. Ambrose comforted her that a son of so many prayers could not be lost. And her son was finally gripped by Christ and became the great man of God, Augustine.
If God seems to tarry, let faith cling fast. We are given the example of the widow who kept troubling the godless judge until he gave her justice just to get rid of her pestering. Jesus says we can surely expect better treatment than that from our Father in heaven.
“Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)
Today we have only considered prayer as asking, but it is infinitely more. Prayer is, first, an act of worship. We open ourselves to God. Guided by His Word, we point ourselves in His direction. Prayer is an answer to God’s word of saving, life-giving love in Christ. In prayer we make reply to Him, giving Him back our love, our adoration, our praise, our loyalty, our lives. As we pray we are in contact with God our Father through Christ, and therein we are made strong as His children. The more we pray, the stronger we are. We can only breathe out as often as we breathe in. Prayer is the heartbeat of the Christian life. As we are alive in Christ, we pray. AMEN.
Adapted from a sermon by Dr. Norman Nagel preached in London in 1957.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church