2021-09-26 18th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Two Lutherans were talking together as they walked home from Bible Study. The first challenged the other, “If you are so religious, let’s hear you quote the Lord’s Prayer from the heart. I bet you $20 bucks you can’t do it.” The second responded “Now I lay my down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. I pray this prayer for Jesus’ sake. Amen.” The first pulled out his wallet, fished out a 20 dollar bill, and muttered in amazement “Dangnabbit! I didn’t think you could do it!”
Generally speaking, prayer has not been emphasized as much as it should be amongst our brand of Lutherans. I’m imagining that most of us pray before meals – everyone knows “Come Lord Jesus,” right? But for many of us, that might be it. Some of you may even say some prayers before you go to bed, or when you first wake up. But I’ll bet most of us could improve in our prayer lives. In fact, I’m certain that we all fall far short of the scriptural view of prayer which is to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). Many of us, too, pray when calamity or tragedy strike. When our comfortable, upwardly mobile lives experience an uncomfortable hiccup, we race to our knees! But then, when the hard time has passed, we quickly forget about prayer, stand up and continue as we were. Or if we want something, a house, a new car, a spouse, a new set of golf clubs, a better government, etc., we pray in earnest. Then once we receive what we want, we quickly hang up our prayer hat.
If you see yourself in these images of the “non-pray-er,” or the “hard-times-only-pray-er,” then I have some good news for you! Christ Jesus our suffering Savior went to the Cross for you, to suffer and die for you AND He prays for you too. Even now “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). I think our problem is that as Lutherans, prayer hasn’t been valued in our tradition because we don’t understand it. Immediately, when we think of prayer, we first think of “asking God for stuff.” We treat prayer like a trip to Costco. I need this, this, this and that. But to be clear, asking for things from our Heavenly Father as His children is part of our faith. The Lord’s Prayer devotes one whole line to it when it says “give us this day our daily bread.” This one line really sums ups all we need from God to sustain our earthly life. But it is only 1 of 7 petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. In other words, we should only spend 1/7th of our prayer time asking for stuff we need to support our earthly lives! That means that the other 6/7ths worth of prayer time should be spent on spiritual matters. Now that’s some perspective!
Martin Luther was seated at the supper table one day when his dog walked over and sat beside him, looking for a morsel from his master. The dog watched Luther intently with puckered mouth and motionless eyes, transfixed on Luther’s supper. Soon a great pool of drool was descending from the dog’s mouth to the floor. Luther watched his beloved hund and said “Oh, if only I could pray the way that this dog watches this meat! All of his thoughts are concentrated on this food. Otherwise, he has no thought, wish or hope!”
That level of concentration and focus that Luther’s dog had is a skill that many of us could only hope to gain! Often when we try to pray, even shutting off distraction all around us, we are distracted by our thoughts. We can begin to pray, but soon our mind is wandering down the garden path, worrying about what to make for breakfast or all the things we have to get done before winter. We aren’t unique in this. It has been experienced by many Christians before us.
At a Christian monastery in the mountains, some monks asked Abba Agathon: “Amongst all our different activities, father, which is the the virtue that requires the greatest effort?” He answered: “Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than praying to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies the demons try to prevent him; for they know that nothing obstructs them so much as prayer to God. In everything else that a man undertakes, if he perseveres, he will attain rest. But in order to pray a man must struggle to his last breath.” (The Sayings of The Desert Fathers)
The sinful mind says “ah, why struggle!?” It’s easier just to give in. Why go through this kind of difficult experience. God already knows what you need before you even begin to pray, so what’s the point? God is merciful. He is going to give you what you need, regardless if you pray for it or not. His Kingdom will come whether we pray for it or not, so why bother?! Again, our understanding of prayer is equated with Wal-mart: consumeristic and concerned with getting. The Holy Spirit enlightens us to view prayer differently though.
“In these days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray, and all night He continued in prayer to God” (LK 6:12). Somehow I doubt that our Lord Jesus, while up on this mountain, praying all night, was asking the Father for gold plated golf clubs and a trip to Acapulco! How could Jesus pray all night long? How can we “pray without ceasing?” It requires that we understand prayer as communion with God through words of praise, thanksgiving, repentance, supplication, and intercession. St. John of Damascus, another Church Father, said that prayer is “raising up the heart and mind to God.” In many ways we can understand prayer in a relationship like being married. Sometimes there is talking and lots of verbal communication. Other times there is quietness, as we simply enjoy being in the presence of our husband or wife.
And another key aspect of prayer that we aren’t aware of much as Lutherans is the idea of waiting. Waiting in our day and age might as well be a 4 letter word! For me it’s the ridiculously terrible street lights on 9th Avenue on South Hill. My kids constantly harass me about it because I lose it every time I have to sit there for what seems like 10 billion years waiting for the lights to change! Impatience. Waiting. It’s not my strong suit in our instantaneous digital age. This also folds into prayer though too. Prayer itself is waiting. We are waiting for Christ to return. Even our meal prayer “Come Lord Jesus” reflects this. We are waiting for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We are waiting for the Lord to deliver us from this present age and bring us into His glorious kingdom. And sometimes, this kind of waiting forces us to slow down. The pandemic gongshow has forced this upon us. We are tired of waiting for life to get back to normal. It’s 2 steps forward towards freedom, 10 steps back into masks and government restrictions. But this waiting makes us slow down, almost to a complete stillness. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Waiting for the Lord becomes our prayer, just like the parable of the 10 virgins who were waiting for the Bridegroom to arrive (MT 25). It becomes a heavenly shift in perspective. We pray and wait for our Lord to come. It doesn’t matter if we are on a beach someplace warm and nice or if we are stuck at home in Moose Jaw or, even like St. Paul, locked away in prison for the Gospel. We are still waiting and watching for Christ. This becomes our prayer. And this prayer redeems time as we know it. For we focus our hearts and minds on our Lord and His Kingdom, not earthly things and circumstances. Never forget who you are as God’s people. Never forget or lose this focus of prayer that watches and waits. St. James writes “You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (5:8-9).
St. James also tell us that “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16). Prayer has great power because it is connected to the grace and love of our Heavenly Father. It’s amazing to know that God Almighty hears our prayers. The maker of the universe is listening to us. Always accessible. Our prayers are always answered. Sometimes they are answered the ways that we think they should be. Other times, they aren’t. But keep on praying, keep on waiting. Be thankful that God’s answers are always wiser than your prayers! Amen!