Monday, February 03, 2014

Prayer (Part 4: Unanswered Prayer?)

[This was prepared to be shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio on February 2, 2014.]

Luke 11:9-10
Mark 14:34-36
As followers of Jesus Christ, we Christians confess faith in a God of promises.

The Bible, the book we hold to be the perfect Word of God, uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit, is filled with God’s promises, many already fulfilled, many yet to be.

Some of the promises God makes are wonderful.

Some aren’t pleasant.

And some can cause us confusion, even challenging our faith in God.

One promise that may sometimes comfort us, but other times confuse us, an be found in Luke 11:9-10. Jesus makes this promise about prayer: "So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

These words of promise seem to come by way of amplifying what Jesus teaches us to pray in the seventh petition of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. In the sixth, you'll remember from last Sunday, Jesus says to pray: “...lead us not into temptation.” And while the New International Version which makes up our pew Bibles, omits it, many of the most reputable translations have decided that the ancient manuscripts are right when they quote Jesus as teaching us the seventh petition: “...but deliver us from the evil one.”

In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes: “We pray in this petition...that our heavenly Father would deliver us from every type of evil--whether it affects our bodies or souls, property or reputation...”

But, this is where it gets confusing.

Generations of faithful believers in Jesus have prayed this prayer, yet evils of all kinds have befallen them and the people for whom they’ve prayed.

In the Name of Jesus, people beg for blessings, but loved ones die, jobs are lost, reputations are subjected to destructive gossip, wars rage.

In telling us to “,” has God made a promise He cannot keep or is unwilling to keep?

What are we to think and believe when the things for which we devoutly pray don’t come to pass?

I’ve called this sermon “the mystery of unanswered prayer.” But, in a way, this is a misnomer. Before I preached on this same topic in one of my previous parishes, a man asked me, “Is this the Sunday you’re going to talk about unanswered prayer?” I said it was. He smiled and asked, “Is there such a thing?”

It was a rhetorical question because, of course, for the believer in Jesus who brings her or his petitions to Jesus, there are no unanswered prayers.

But there are answers to prayers we don’t like, that bring pain to us or to those we care about. There are many things that I hope God will make clear to us when we stand before Him after those of us who have believed in Jesus are resurrected from the dead. In the meantime, we have our questions.

One thing that should comfort us when we confront prayers not being answered as we hope they will be is the experience of Jesus Himself. Look please, at Mark 14:34 (page 711 in the pew Bibles). Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane, where He’s gone to pray. He tells the disciples: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death...”

Jesus, in a sense, always stood in two worlds. As a human being, Jesus voluntarily experienced all the difficulties that we human beings experience--physical pain, relational rejection, death.

Isaiah 53:3, written at least six centuries before Jesus’ birth had foretold of Jesus that He would be, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” It was essential for our salvation for Jesus to be acquainted with the grief that comes to every human being. It was essential because only the death of a perfect unblemished Savior could be a sacrifice pure enough to free us from the death sentence you and I deserve.

So, one of the worlds in which Jesus lived was this world, the one in which you and I live, the world in which every baby who has ever been born has eventually, died. That’s why, as He faced suffering and death, Jesus was “exceedingly sorrowful.”

After asking His disciples to wait and watch while He went to pray, verse 35 says that Jesus “fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him.” “Father,” Jesus is begging, “deliver Me from evil. Deliver me from the cruel intentions of Satan, the evil one.”

Jesus, truly God, truly human, had led a sinless life. He had done everything God the Father had asked Him to do. Certainly, if anyone deserved to have their prayer request to be delivered from evil answered with a Yes, it was Jesus.

But look at what Jesus prays next, in verse 36: "Abba", Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."

You see, Jesus lived in another world as well as in this one. He lived also in the kingdom of God.

It’s the kingdom in which, if Jesus would be faithful to His call to die for us, He would rise into and live in for all eternity.

It’s the kingdom He came to bring to all who will turn from sin, submitting daily to the crucifixion of their old sinful selves, and placing themselves in the hands of Jesus--believing in Him--as trustingly as Jesus placed Himself in the hands of God the Father on the night He prayed in the garden.

And so, in the garden, from the perspective of this world, Jesus prayed, “Deliver us from evil.” But at the same time, as a citizen of the kingdom of God, He prayed, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

You and I are people of this world who live in the kingdom of God by faith in Christ. But we only vaguely understand the grand purposes of God, especially God’s purposes for our own lives. We see, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror.” Other translations say "in a mirror dimly" or "through a glass darkly."

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prayed that friends and family be delivered from the evils accosting them--marital discord, cancer, job loss, bullying, whatever it might have been--only to see their suffering continue.

It’s only after own resurrections, beyond the gates of death, safely removed from the stranglehold that sin and death have over this world, that we will know God and God’s purposes completely, just as God already knows us completely.

It turns out that God the Father had an answer for Jesus’ prayer for deliverance from the immediate evils He faced that night in the garden. The answer was, “No.”

The reason for this NO is apparent now. Had Jesus been delivered from the threats of the Romans, Herod, Pilate, and the other conspirators that night, the moment God had long ago planned as the precise moment when the Savior would die and rise to give new and everlasting to those who repent for sin and believe in Jesus might have passed.

And having been allowed to cave into His understandable fears of suffering, rejection, and death and moved out of the will of God, Jesus Himself and all of us who depend on His death and resurrection to give us life, would have been delivered not from, but into, the hands of the evil one for all eternity.

In other words, the Father said, "No" to Jesus' prayer for protection from the immediate evils Jesus faced in order to say, "YES!" to protecting Jesus and us from the ultimate evil of eternal separation from God, literally from the fragmentation of God as God the Son separated from the God the Father and God the Spirit.

The people who were around Jesus at the time of His suffering and execution never would have guessed that God would bring good from His suffering and death. And I believe that God often says no to our prayers for protection from the immediate evils we perceive in order to say to yes to giving us protection from eternal evil.

I can’t pretend to know God’s will for our individual lives.

I don’t know why some people seem to suffer more than others.

Or why faithful people die at young ages.

Or others go through undeserved horrors in their personal lives.

But I do take great comfort and encouragement from the God of promise.

I’m strengthened by the promise of the risen Jesus when He says in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”

So, even now, as I try to live in this world and in eternity, too, I know that God is by my side, empowering my choices and decisions, affirming me when I take the hard and narrow path rather than the easy, wide path, helping me to love God and love others, giving me strength and hope!

And I look forward with great anticipation to that moment in eternity when Revelation 21:4 tells us that God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

By the way, earlier I didn’t share all of what Martin Luther said about the seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer, "but deliver us from evil."

He says that we’re to ask in this prayer not only for deliverance from the effects of evil on our bodies, souls, property, and reputations in this life, but also pray that “at last, when our hour of death comes, [our heavenly Father] would grant us a blessed end to our earthly lives, and graciously take us from this world of sorrow to Himself in heaven.” Luther is pointing to the ultimate deliverance from evil we all should crave.

And knowing that, through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, our residence in that world is guaranteed can give us a new passion for fearless living in this world. Unafraid about our ultimate destination, we can be generous in loving and giving and spreading the good news of Jesus and fighting for justice the poor and despised.

After all, death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian!

But knowing about our ultimate deliverance--resurrection life with God--can also give us a new sense of understanding when our prayers aren’t answered as we want them to be. We know that God has a plan, even though we’re not in on its details.*

This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 8:18: “I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us.”

This side of the resurrection, God’s answers to our prayers will often baffle us.

They may even make us angry. And that's okay because you don't get angry with a God in Who you don't believe. Even our anger with God is, in a real sense, an expression of faith in God. And God is big enough to take our anger.

But we know that on whatever path God may call us to take in this life, He will be beside us always and that, as the cross and empty tomb of Jesus attest, He is committed to loving us into His kingdom, where, finally...the questions will be answered, the suffering will be ended, the tears will be no more, and we will be delivered from all evil. Amen

*By the way,  I have learned that this fact is a lot easier said than lived. But I pray one day, I will trust God enough to truly and daily submit to His will to such an extent that I really do accept that He has a plan and that I don't need to know the details. As a Christian, I confess, that I'm only a recovering control freak. And my addiction to control--the impulse, the Bible tells us, to "be like God"--rears its ugly head all the time. God help me!

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