Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 24, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayer is a real struggle for many Christians. Some Christians struggle with what to say, what words to use in prayer. This seems to be especially difficult for many Lutheran Christians. Just ask a typical Lutheran to pray in public, and nine times out of ten they will be visibly stricken with fear. They’ll suddenly look like a deer in the headlights. Panic ensues as they worry about finding the right words.
If it isn’t the words that are hard to find when it comes to prayer, it is our lack of persistence in prayer. We neglect it. People get so busy in their hectic, overscheduled lives that it can be hard to find the time for a meaningful prayer life. Prayer sometimes gets relegated solely to something that is rattled off at the dinner table, or perhaps muttered to oneself at the end of the day just as you’re drifting off to sleep.
But sometimes the struggle with prayer goes well beyond finding the words or the time and goes right to the heart of prayer itself. Sometimes the struggle is with doubts about its efficacy – doubts that God hears us, doubts that God answers us, doubts that our prayers make a lick of difference in our world or in our lives.
In our gospel reading for today, we hear Jesus teaching the disciples about prayer. And what he teaches in these verses speaks to all of the concerns we still find so pressing today.
As we struggle with words, we hear Jesus tell us what to say! In teaching what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer, he puts the words in our mouths. We have the shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer here in Luke’s gospel. The fuller, more familiar version is found in Matthew’s gospel, and the fullest version – the one with the doxology at the end – is found in the Didache, an early Christian text. But even here in this short version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus puts words in our heads and our hearts for us to use in prayer.
As he gives us these words, Jesus teaches us to address God as Father. This is how Jesus himself addressed the Lord God. He is, after all, the Son of God. What is remarkable here is that Jesus teaches us to address God in the same way! Through Christ, we have that same relationship, that same closeness, that same love. As Martin Luther puts it in the catechism, “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that he is our true Father and that we are his true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask him as dear children ask their dear father.”
Of course it is tragically true that not all earthly fathers have a close and loving relationship with their children. It is sadly the case that not all earthly fathers can be approached with boldness and confidence. But that is how Jesus approached his Father, and so that is how we can approach our Father in heaven. We can approach God as our Father because we are indeed dear to him and he is dear to us.
Jesus goes on to teach us what to pray for. Rather than asking God to build up our own personal kingdoms with selfish requests, Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s kingdom would come. Rather than trying to bend God to our will, Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s will would be done – in our lives and in our world. Rather than praying only for our own needs, Jesus teaches us to include others in our prayers. He doesn’t teach us to say, “Give ME each day MY daily bread,” but “Give US each day OUR daily bread.” Rather than coming before God with our virtue signals blazing, with our supposed moral or spiritual credentials on display, Jesus teaches us to come before God in humility and repentance, asking for forgiveness for our sins. Rather than candy-coating what life in this world is like with platitudes and flowery language, Jesus teaches us to bring our deepest fears and our deepest temptations to God as we pray: “Save us from the time of trial.”
In teaching us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus has given us the words we so often lack. He has given us words to memorize and hold dear and recite often both in worship and in our personal life. He has given us words to help us avoid a narrow and self-centered prayer life, so that we might learn to ask for the things God wants to give us.
Jesus also addresses our lack of persistence in prayer. He tells a parable about someone who needed to borrow three loaves of bread from a friend in the middle of the night. He was persistent, asking again and again and again – and it paid off!
Now, we should not take from this that God will only act on our behalf when we have pestered him enough. We sometimes think this way. We treat God like we treat the button at the crosswalk, thinking the more times we push it, the more likely it will be for the light to change quickly. (I’m not the only one who does this, right?) The point here is to not give up, to keep at it, to not neglect prayer. He is encouraging us to make prayer a habit and a priority, to be persistent in it.
Finally, Jesus addresses the most difficult problem we have with prayer – its efficacy. Does prayer “work”? Why does it so often seem that our prayers are not answered?
Rather than giving an answer or an explanation to this question, Jesus gives a promise. He assures us that God will respond. “Ask,” Jesus says, “and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Jesus points to how even earthly fathers in an evil, fallen world know how to give good gifts to their children. How much more, then, will God respond by giving good things to his beloved children!
This doesn’t mean God will give us everything we want, when we want it, as we want it. And thanks be to God for that, because we don’t always know what is best for us! Sometimes the most loving thing a father can do is to tell his child no, or not yet, or not in that way.
God is not a genie in a bottle, there to grant self-centered and sometimes foolish wishes. God is more like a wise, loving father who knows what is best for us, who must sometimes say no in order to protect us from ourselves, or in order to say yes to something better. We don’t try to prove that prayer works because something we prayed for “came true.” Instead, we trust God’s promise to hear us, even when God’s answer is confusing or slow in coming. We trust God’s promise to give us what we need.
There is a lot of instruction on prayer packed into our gospel reading for today, and I hope it is important and helpful for you in your prayer life. I hope it fine tunes your theological framework for prayer. But there is something here that I find not only instructional but inspirational when it comes to prayer.
As Jesus teaches us about prayer he first teaches us to address God as our Father, and then he goes on to use an analogy from parenting, telling us that even fallen human parents want to give good gifts to their children.
This got me thinking about my own relationship with my children. I am a fallen human being, to be sure. I am not a perfect father. I get cranky and impatient. When my children approach me about something I sometimes say the dumb and selfish thing before I sheepishly backtrack and say what a better father would have said the first time. But even with all my many flaws, I desperately want to hear from my children. Even with my turned-in-on-self human nature, nothing makes me happier than when they turn to me, when they confide in me. I take delight in hearing from them and want to know what they are thinking, what they’re worrying about, what their needs are. This has become especially true as they have become young adults and are away at college for most of the year and are working long hours when they are home for the summer. When I don’t hear much from them, I miss them. And so even a brief check-in over dinner fills my heart with joy.
My oldest was at Air Force field training for two weeks this summer. All the cadets had to turn in their phones at check-in, so we had no contact at all for two weeks. It was the longest period of time with no contact since he was born more than 20 years ago. I ached to hear from my kid! When he finally got his phone back and texted me from the airport, my world was right again.
Again, earthly parents are at best a pale comparison to the love of our heavenly Father, but I think part of the reason Jesus uses this parental language so often when teaching us how to pray is to help us understand just how much God longs to be in touch with us, how much God loves it when we turn to him, when we confide in him, when we share our worries and our needs, even when we just check in with him.
Prayer is a spiritual discipline, to be sure. We need training in the practice of prayer. It is our duty and our obligation as Christians. But when we think of God as longing for a word from us, when we think of God missing us when we’re not in touch, when we think of God as a loving parent who delights in hearing from us, then prayer becomes something more than an obligation or a practice or a discipline. When we think of God in these intimate personal terms, as Jesus teaches us to do, it becomes less of a struggle and more of a joy. It becomes a gift. It becomes a way to unburden ourselves. It becomes an ongoing conversation. When we believe and trust that the Lord God is our true Father and that we are his true children, we freely and joyfully turn to him with all boldness and confidence as dear children turn to their dear father.
When it comes to prayer, our Lord Jesus has given us more than an instructional how. He has also given us a tremendously inspirational why. We pray because God loves us dearly and delights in hearing from us.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church