Responding to Prayer

Fifth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was a senior in high school getting ready to go off to college, someone told me this joke: God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” sometimes the answer is “no,” sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” That last answer, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” by the way, is the answer you’ll probably get if you decide not to study for a test and just pray that the answers will magically appear, as I found out once or twice in college.

Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” And in another place, Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” These are words Christians quote a lot, when talking about prayer. If you just ask God, God will give it to you.

It’s an interesting lesson to be paired up with the martyrdom of Stephen, which was our first lesson. Stephen, you see, was one of the first Greek converts to Christianity. He was a deacon; he preached and he did social ministry work, giving food to the poor and making sure the widows and orphans were taken care of. But the authorities in Jerusalem were not happy. They had thought that when they had Jesus killed that they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. They thought that Jesus’ death would mean that things would go back to normal. And here the Christians are, telling everyone they meet that Jesus was raised from the dead and helping people in Jesus’ name, bringing more people to the faith. The authorities tried to stamp this “Jesus movement” out again by arresting Stephen and putting him on trial. But they couldn’t get him to deny Jesus; in fact, he used the trial to try and spread the Gospel even to his accusers. And so they killed him. They took him out and threw rocks at him until he was dead.

“If in my name you ask me for anything,” Jesus says, “I will do it.” Then what about Stephen? If I were in his shoes, I certainly would have prayed to be set free. And what about the other Christians, the ones who worshipped with Stephen and worked with him and studied God’s word with him? What about all of the poor people whose lives had been touched by Stephen’s gifts? What about all the widows and orphans who needed Stephen’s help? Surely they must have prayed for him! Prayed to the God he worshipped to save him! And yet Stephen was killed in a brutal execution.

Our prayer list has several people on it who have been on it for quite some time. One of them is Grace, who is related to Julie from Birka. Grace is only a little girl, I think she’s about three, but she’s spent most of her life in the hospital. She has cancer in her brain. She’s had many surgeries, and although sometimes things seem to be going well inevitably there is some new problem, some new challenge, some new heart-wrenching procedure for her to endure. Her whole family are devoted Christians, and they have been praying her entire life. We have been praying for her for a long time. Jesus says that he will do whatever we ask in his name. And yet Grace still suffers.

When I pray with someone who is seriously ill, I always include this petition: “Lord Jesus Christ, we know that you are a healer. We know that you heal every ill, whether in this life or in the life to come. We pray that healing will come in this life, and soon. But we trust in the healing that will come in your kingdom.” Sometimes, when I’m praying with someone who is old and frail and at the end of their life, that is a comfort. Yes, things won’t get better in this life; but this life is not the end. But when I pray for someone like Grace, who would have her whole life ahead of her—her life in this world—if only she could be healed now, it is cold comfort. We know that God has a place for little Grace all ready, a place where she can play and laugh and run. But her parents would much rather be able to see her play and laugh and run now, here, in this world.

So how do we deal with times like this? Times when we pray and pray and pray and bad things happen anyway? How do we reconcile it with Jesus’ words? I’m not talking about when people pray for stupid things, things that they think they want but will only hurt themselves or others in the long run. I’m not talking about when people pray selfishly or only out of habit. I’m talking about heartfelt prayers that stream from deep needs. What happens when we ask Jesus for something, and it doesn’t happen?

There’s two responses that people generally fall into. One is to lose faith. “Nothing happened, so God must not care. Or maybe God doesn’t exist.” The other is almost worse: it’s to blame the one who prays. “Well, Jesus says he answers prayer, so if their prayer wasn’t answered, they must not have prayed the right way. Or maybe they just didn’t have enough faith. If they’d been better Christians, God would have listened.” What a horrible, hurtful thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one!

I am reminded of Stephen. He prayed. And I am certain he prayed to be set free; I am certain he prayed that he would not be killed for his faith. Stephen’s faith was as deep as it is possible to be: he would literally rather die than keep silent about it. And we know God heard his prayers; Stephen saw Jesus with him. He did not die alone. But he did die. It wasn’t because God didn’t care, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t a good enough Christian. So what do we make of that?

I notice a lot that when we talk about answers to prayer, we talk about specific things. We don’t tend to talk about prayer as a conversation with God; it’s a laundry list of things we want and things we want to apologize for. Yet when Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to start with the relationship: “Our father in heaven.” But even that is too distant a relationship: we say “father,” but what Jesus actually said was something closer to “Dad” or “Papa.” This is a close and loving relationship. That’s where we start from, with prayer. God is not a vending machine in the sky. God is the one who made us, the one who loves us, the one we can call at three in the morning when we hit rock bottom.

Then, Jesus’ prayer goes on: Pray for God’s kingdom to come. Pray for God’s Will to be done here on Earth, just like God’s Will is done in heaven. God’s Will—Jesus has told us what God’s will is. God’s will is for wholeness, and healing. God’s will is for all the things that have been broken by sin and death, by injury and illness, by malice and carelessness, to be healed. God’s will is for the entire cosmos to be saved. God’s will is for love to win. Bad things happen, in the here-and-now: good people die. Children get sick. People say and do things that hurt one another. People go hungry and can’t find work. But this is not God’s plan for the world, and this is not the end of the story. God’s kingdom will come. God’s Will will be done here on Earth as it is in heaven. We don’t know the timeline for that; we don’t know when. But it will happen, and we pray for it.

Jesus’ prayer continues. Pray for your daily bread. Not for steak dinners and caviar, not for a year’s supply, just what you need to get through the day. Don’t worry about the future; let God take care of it. Pray for the courage and strength to get through today. And while you’re at it, pray for forgiveness, for yourself and for others. Pray for the grace you need to get through the day, along with the strength. Grace given by God, and grace shared with the world around you. Pray that you won’t have to go through dark places in your life, and pray that God will lead you safely through those dark places you can’t avoid. But always remember that the dark places are temporary. The kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to God, now and forever. The dark places don’t win, in the end; the evils of this world don’t last forever. God’s kingdom is real, and God’s kingdom is coming, and thanks be to God for that.

God answers all prayers. But the answers aren’t always the ones we expect, or the ones we hope for. Sometimes the answer is yes, and then we rejoice. But sometimes God acts in ways we didn’t expect, to do things we didn’t even know to pray for. Sometimes the answer is no—sometimes we pray for things we shouldn’t be praying for. Sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” But sometimes, sometimes the answer is, “Wait.” Sometimes the answer is, “My dear, precious child, what you ask can’t be done in this world as it is now. But my Father’s house is large, and there’s room for all. I’ve prepared a special place just for you. It will be waiting for you, no matter how long it takes to get here. But in the meantime, let me help. Let me support you and guide you and comfort you. You are not alone; I love you.”

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