Sermon on St. John 16:23-30
May 21, 2006
Rev. Paul L. Beisel
Dearly beloved children of our heavenly Father:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Why is it that many Christians do not pray? Let me offer a few suggestions: laziness is certainly one barrier to prayer. Weariness might be another reason that we do not pray as we ought. Forgetfulness is common. Perhaps we have good intentions to say our prayers in the evening, but one thing leads to another and before we know it it’s already time for bed, and by that time it’s just, well, too late. I’m speaking from personal experience here, so don’t feel like I’m pointing any fingers at anyone.
Another reason that people do not pray is because they simply don’t know how. Perhaps their parents never taught them how to pray. Maybe they feel like their prayers have to be well worded in order for them to be received by God, and they just don’t feel up to the task. Maybe it is because they don’t know any good resources for prayer. If that is the case, you can always ask your pastor and he can find all sorts of resources for you to use. Start with the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe read the words of a Psalm each day. What better way to learn how to pray than to learn from King David in the Psalms, or from Jesus in the Gospels!
I’m sure we can all think of many reasons why we often fail to pray, even though Jesus invites us to make requests of His Father in His name, and promises that He will give them to us. The ones I have mentioned so far are mainly connected to personal weakness and lack of discipline. But there are also other more spiritual reasons that people do not pray. Here are a few: we simply do not trust in God. Perhaps we don’t think we have the right to ask God for something. Some people do not recognize God as the giver of all things and are therefore not moved to give Him thanks for anything, even the food that is on their table.
One of the main reasons even faithful Christians do not pray or cannot pray is that they think that God is angry at them for some sin they have committed and therefore will not want to hear their prayers. This is very dangerous territory for a Christian, because it means that his faith in God’s forgiveness in Christ is weak and it is possible for him to completely fall away from God’s grace. If you find yourself in this predicament, the best thing to do is not worry about whether or not God is angry with you about your sin, and immediately fall upon your knees and begin calling upon His name for help.
You can say to God: “Heavenly Father, I know that I have sinned against you and deserve nothing but your temporal and eternal punishment. I ask your forgiveness and especially ask in this hour of temptation to doubt your mercy that you would strengthen my faith in your Son, so that I may offer acceptable prayers to you all the days of my life. Do not reject me on account of my sins, for Christ my Lord has paid the penalty of my sins on the cross, and I have become your dear child in Holy Baptism. Save me, Lord.” Sins can be forgiven and forgotten, but God forbid that we should lose faith in Him and become lost in darkness. Where there is faith in God’s forgiveness there will be eager prayer and thanksgiving. Where faith is lacking, so also prayer.
In our Old Testament lesson today, the people of Israel found themselves in a similar predicament. They were afraid to ask God for help because they knew that they had sinned against Him and now they were suffering the consequences. He had afflicted them with poisonous snakes because of their disobedience and, for lack of a better term, “whining.” When this happened they were cut to the heart and confessed: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you.”
But see how they look to Moses to pray on their behalf. “Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” Why did not they not just pray directly to God? Why did they ask Moses to do this for them? Well, for one thing, their consciences were accusing them before God because of their sins and they did not believe or trust in His mercy to hear them favorably. Would God not have heard their prayer had they called upon Him in faith? Had He not just before this proven His love for them by delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians? Why then did they feel they could not ask God themselves?
Another reason was that Moses, like Jesus, was the One that God had appointed as mediator between Him and the people. Moses spoke to God on their behalf, and interceded for them just as Christ our Lord would do and does for His disciples and for us to His Father. So it was appropriate that they ask Moses to intercede for them. It would be like us saying today, “Lord Jesus, you are the One Mediator and Intercessor between God and Man and you sit at the right hand of your heavenly Father. Let our prayers ascend to God the Father through You, and intercede for us to your heavenly Father.”
Some Christians ask the departed saints to intercede for them and to pray for them, but doesn’t it make more sense from a biblical standpoint to ask Christ to intercede for us and to pray on our behalf? But even this is unnecessary, according to the words of Christ in our Gospel today, for He says: “I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you.” Christ is our Mediator and we know that He prays for His Holy Church and indeed for each and every Christian. Our prayers are acceptable to God the Father only through Christ and in His Name. But here we learn that we do not need to ask someone else, even Christ to pray for us, for we can ask God ourselves, since the Father loves us.
Lest we forget that we are loved by the Father, and begin thinking that our own works and worthiness have something to do with our acceptance by God, the cross of our Lord Jesus stands for us as a constant reminder that we are accepted by our heavenly Father and loved by Him. Just as the serpent on the pole provided the Israelites a cure for their poisonous bites, so also does the death of Christ provide for us a remedy against doubt and despair. Like those who looked to the serpent on the pole, all who look to Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, and believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.
This is why the churches of old were adorned with several crosses, and not just empty crosses but crosses with the body of Jesus on them—so that everywhere they looked, Christian people could be reminded of the loving sacrifice that Jesus made for them in order to make them acceptable to His heavenly Father. Like the picture you see on your bulletins this morning, the crucifix provides a way for Christians to pray to the Father without doubting, but confidently trusting in the forgiveness of their sins won by Jesus on the cross.
So Jesus says: “Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full.” He does not put all kinds of conditions on this promise, like, “If you use just the right words, then you will receive,” or, “If you have the right attitude or motives, then ask and you will receive.” He simply says: “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, He will give it to you.” He is our heavenly Father, and we all know how much it pleases earthly fathers to give things to their children. How much more, then, does our heavenly Father who is perfect take pleasure in hearing and answering the prayers of His beloved children?
This is especially true when it comes to spiritual blessings. How often do we think to ask God to give us His Holy Spirit, or to increase our faith, or to teach us godly virtues? Perhaps we don’t always think about it, but whenever you pray the Lord’s Prayer, all that we need both for our bodies and our souls is prayed for. Hallowed be Thy name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven: these petitions all deal with God’s spiritual blessings. All our earthly needs are covered in the fourth petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” From Luther’s explanation we learn that included in this petition is everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body such as clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and home, wife and children, fields and cattle, but also things like good weather, good government, pious and faithful neighbors, good friends, etc.
In the fifth petition we ask God that He would forgive our sins, even as we forgive those who sin against us. Quite an important prayer, is it not? And of course the answer to this prayer was in the suffering and death of Christ, where the Lamb of God took away the sins of the world. And the answer is also in the Word of God and His holy Supper, where that forgiveness is given out to us in abundance. Then we say: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One.” Both of these petitions remind us (and God) that we are in a very dangerous predicament in life, bombarded on every side by temptation from the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. We ask God that He would deliver us from this, and not let us fall away from Him because of temptation or any evil that would happen to body or soul.
The prayer closes with that word of absolute confidence that God has heard my prayer and will answer it: Amen. When we add our “Amen” to a prayer it means that we believe wholeheartedly that whatever we prayed for will be done for us by our heavenly Father. It is the congregation’s word in the church service. When the pastor prays the Collect or gives a blessing, like the dismissal during Holy Communion: “Depart in Peace,” it is the congregation who is to respond: “Amen.” Christians do not need to be timid about saying this word in church or in their private prayers, because it is a word that means “Truly, truly it shall be so.”
May God grant you all a firm trust in His goodness and mercy, so that you may be moved to call upon His name in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks. Amen.