2022-10-02 Pentecost 17
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
I’m old enough to remember Country Music when it was good. … Waaay back in the 90s! Clint Black. Alan Jackson. Sawyer Brown. Diamond Rio. Brooks and Dunn! They were all incredible singers and bands that brought “New Country” music to the height of its game! Then, along came Shania Twain and she single-handedly wrecked it by turning it all into pop music! Now it’s all a bunch of pop-singer turned honky tonk wannabes. It’s an abysmal state of affairs, believe you me! I remember listening to Garth Brooks and all of his hits were incredible. Not only were they catchy but they were also filled with meaning beyond fried chicken and pickup trucks. One such song that come to mind was “Unanswered Prayers.” Anybody remember that one?? In that song he thanks God for what didn’t happen. Normally it’s the opposite. We pray and we get mad when God doesn’t do what we want or just give up altogether. But in the song, the guy realizes that oh, some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
But we really like it when our prayers are answered, on our terms and in our time frames. Moses standing in front of the Red Sea praying for Israel to cross over on dry land. Hannah praying for a son and Samuel is born. Elijah praying for God’s power to reign down from Heaven and it does, burning up the sacrifice in the face of scoffers. However, we forget that there were tons of prayers that weren’t answered on demand. There are numerous times when people’s prayers didn’t seem to get past the ceiling. Moses begging God to let him lead the people into the promised land. Moses died before hand, his prayer refused. St. Paul prayed 3 times that his “thorn in the flesh” be removed but to no avail. Even Jesus Christ our Lord, in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed that this cup be of suffering leave Him. Yet He endured the cross instead. The Bible is chock full of “unanswered prayers” - or at least, prayers not answered in the way people want, when they want them.
Welcome to the world of Habakkuk. He was one of the little prophets. I don’t mean he was a dwarf, I mean the letter he wrote was short. There are 11 other such minor prophets in the bible. 12 in all. When we read the opening verses of Habakkuk, we find a guy struggling over unanswered prayer. In fact, he says “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and You will not hear?” Things had become a cesspool of iniquity in Habakkuk’s day. It was all the usual stuff. God’s people had abandoned Him and gone after idols. The Babylonians were smashing the place into oblivion as God’s just condemnation on His faithless people. It is hard to imagine things being worse than they are in our time with the rampant immorality we see every day in our culture. But things had become down right downright nasty. Habakkuk had been praying but it seemed that God wasn’t listening - or at the very least, not answering.
And we’ve all been there, right? We’ve prayed for stuff and it hasn’t turned out as we prayed. How do we deal with this? How can we answer the question of why God appears to be silent? Well, the main reason is often because we treat God as if He were a drive-thru restaurant. I ordered a Big Mac, I should get my Big Mac! Where the heck is my burger!? I cannot settle for chicken nuggies! But when we approach prayer like a fast food restaurant drive-thru, we tend to miss the point. The book of James says “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:3). Here, James is giving a corrective to the motives behind our prayers. The real point of prayer is the relationship and conversation with God. It’s not just asking for stuff all the time. If we treat God like He’s a drive-thru window or a genie in a magic lamp there to do our bidding, then we are going to be disappointed. A theologian once said “Our prayers often reduce God to nothing more than a Cosmic Bellboy, who is neither very bright or very reliable.” It’s a stark reminder that God is not pay-per-view TV or a subscription service.
Another reason prayer may seem to fall on deaf ears is unbelief. Prayer may have been reduced to an empty ritual. It may be nothing more than a superstition. It might be in the same camp as someone with a lucky rabbit’s foot. Or reading horoscopes in the paper back when we had a newspaper. Even people who don’t do superstitious things normally might do them thinking “what can it hurt, might as well do it.” It was like during WWII, General Patton needed to rescue some soldiers from behind enemy lines. The weather was terrible and nobody could drive the tanks or fly the planes over enemy lines to do the mission. So the General called the chaplain to ask if there was a prayer for good weather. The chaplain combed through his prayer books but couldn’t find one.
He composed his own prayer instead and wrote it beautifully. The general had 250,000 copies made and circulated them to everyone in the army. Two days after his copied prayer had been distributed, the weather broke and the army was able to carry on with the mission. One of the soldiers who had been in the charge always kept a copy of that prayer with him. He said it whenever he was in trouble. He said the prayer at his mother’s death bed too, but it didn’t heal his mother. He said the prayer when he was diagnosed with cancer but it didn’t heal him. He concluded that prayer didn’t work at all and was a waste of time. But prayer to this soldier was superstition. It was no better than a lucky rabbit’s foot – that wasn’t lucky for him … or for the rabbit! Just as it says in James chapter 1:6 “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” Faith and belief and trust are key to prayer.
And another thing that could be happening with unanswered prayer is simply that God’s response is just being a bit delayed. We’re on our time but God is in His time. In Jeremiah 42, the people ask the prophet to talk with God so that they can have direction for their lives. “Let our plea for mercy come before you, and pray to the Lord your God for us, for all this remnant—because we are left with but a few, as your eyes see us–that the Lord your God may show us the way we should go, and the thing that we should do” (2-3). So Jeremiah prays for the people. But it’s not until 10 days later that the word of God comes to him with an answer. Sometimes God’s answers take longer than 10 days. Sometimes it can be more like years! Of course, we don’t like this. We’re the fast-food, google generation. We want results immediately. And when they don’t come when we want them as we want them, we simply give up.
We often struggle with this. We feel that unanswered prayer is God’s failure to us. I know I’ve felt this exact way on more than one occasion! Many of us feel that God should hear our prayers and do our bidding. We never stop to think that maybe, just maybe, God sees the bigger picture. He sees things we don’t and operates accordingly. Often in life we have enough light to see the step we’re standing on, but God sees the whole staircase. This should make us think that the Almighty God and creator of the Universe might have something better in mind for us right now. And this is the key thing to keep in mind. We, as God’s Baptized people, know that God truly is love and mercy. Jesus our Lord showed this by His death on the cross for us. He always has what is best in mind for us. No matter what. Whether God answers our prayers right now how we had hoped or, as He seems to do with Habakkuk, to seemingly be silent and distant. We have God’s Word of promise to assure us that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). This becomes the difference between a Christian and a consumer. God isn’t Costco! He’s not a Burger King drive thru. A disciple knows and trusts that God will not abandon us and simply refuse to hear us outright. His answers to our prayers might be “Yes!” They might be “No!” or they might be “Wait!”
This is how the book of Habakkuk ends: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 God, the Lord, is my strength; He makes my feet like the deer’s; He makes me tread on my high places” (3:17-19). Despite everything going south all around us, God is and will always be our help and strength. Thanks be to God now and forever more! Amen.