Well it is berry season in the Lower Mainland and several berry farms have opened up their U-pick enterprises. Strawberry season is on the wane and raspberry season is underway. And here at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church we are having a U-pick season of our own during the months of June, July and August. You have been given the opportunity to pick the themes and topics for the sermons for the summer months and you have picked them and we are berry excited about that.
We began on the first Sunday of June with “How to Pray for Mormons” and then “How to Pray for Muslims.” And last Sunday, Pastor Karl talked about Father’s Day and how that relationship with our earthly father is so important and how it seems that our understandings of God are formed in that relationship with our earthly father and how our heavenly Father can overcome all of the shortcomings of our earthly father.
And I would like to introduce today’s topic by reading to you the question that we received: “I have a question about prayer. The Bible tells us not to use many words like the heathen, but to persist in prayer, as in the parable of the widow and the judge. Is it not somehow more faith-based just accepting that a Sovereign God will do His will regardless?” This is a good question and it is an important question and many other people have thought about this same question. A few centuries ago, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought about this question and explained why he didn’t pray in this way: “Why should I ask of him that he would change for me the course of things?—I who ought to love, above all, the order established by his wisdom and maintained by his Providence, shall I wish that order to be dissolved on my account?”
Philip Yancey, in his book Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? Says that his only answer to a question like this is to point out that Jesus prayed. If anyone didn’t need to pray it was Jesus. The connection that Jesus had with God the Father was closer and far more intimate than any connection any other human being would ever have. Jesus knew his heavenly Father better than any other human being ever would. And Jesus knew what his Father’s will was better than any of us ever will. Jesus tells us in John 5:19, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
Yet not all of his prayers were given what we would consider a positive answer. Once Jesus went off by himself to pray and then he chose his 12 disciples. We can assume that he was praying about the disciples he would choose. And yet the group that was chosen was a motley crew who seem, at the very least, unqualified, and perhaps even unfit to be a disciple of Jesus. Among them are some rough-hewn fisherman, a thief, a tax collector. And this group of 12, even after 3 years with Jesus, often still did not understand what he was trying to teach them. All of them abandoned him in his time of greatest need, one even denied him, and another betrayed him. And so it seems that the answer to that prayer wasn’t affirmative.
Jesus prayed in the Upper Room for the unity of the church and with the thousands upon thousands of denominations that now exist in the world, it seems like that prayer wasn’t answered. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that his impending suffering would be taken away from him, and it wasn’t. Jesus went to the cross.
And yet, Jesus not only prayed. He encouraged us to do the same. Luke describes one such time of encouragement in 18:1-8 of his Gospel account:
1Jesus told his disciples a story about how they should keep on praying and never give up:
2In a town there was once a judge who didn’t fear God or care about people. 3In that same town there was a widow who kept going to the judge and saying, “Make sure that I get fair treatment in court.”
4For a while the judge refused to do anything. Finally, he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about people, 5I will help this widow because she keeps on bothering me. If I don’t help her, she will wear me out.”
6The Lord said:
Think about what that crooked judge said. 7Won’t God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won’t he be concerned for them? 8He will surely hurry and help them. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find on this earth anyone with faith? (Luke 18:1-8 CEV)
Jesus is giving what is called a negative example: If a crooked judge finally delivers justice because he is badgered into it, how much generous will a good, loving and gracious God be towards us when he is already orientated towards giving us what is absolutely best for us?
A friend of mine once told me a story about an American who met a fellow from Saudi Arabia at a conference and they became friends during their time there. At the end of the conference, the fellow from Saudi Arabia said to his American friend, “I would like to give you a gift. It is very important in our culture. What would you like?” The American said, “Oh, I have everything I need. I am fine. Thank you very much, but it’s okay. You don’t need to give me a gift.” His Saudi friend replied, “It is no trouble for me. This is something that I would be very glad to do. Could I get you a golf club? Do you golf?”
“Sure, I golf. I love to golf. But you don’t need to get me a golf club.”
“I am happy to do this!” his friend replied.
A few months later, the American receives a phone call from his friend in Saudi Arabia. “Say can you come over so I can give you your golf cliub?”
“Oh,” the American responded, you can just mail it to me.”
“it will be better if you come over.”
So the American flies over to Saudi Arabia and his friends says, “Here is your golf club!” And there was an 18 hole golf course with a beautiful clubhouse in the middle.
That’s how it with us and God. God is already there and ready to give us more than we even ask for. But sometimes we don’t have the rich abundant life that God offers to us because we don’t ask for it. Sometimes we don’t have God’s best because we don’t ask for God’s best.
So how do we put these two things together? God is ready to give us more than we can even ask or imagine and yet, sometimes our prayers are not answered. Jesus, who is God’s Son, prays faithfully and fervently to a Father that he knows better than anyone else, and some of his prayers are not answered positively, and yet he encourages us to pray persistently and boldly? This only makes sense if prayer is something more than simply asking for what we desire.
In his book on prayer, Philip Yancey outlines what he describes as three stages of prayer. These are not stages in terms of levels of importance. All of these stages of prayer are important. These are stages in the sense that early in our walk with God most of our prayer time is stage 1 kind of prayer. But as we grow in faith and maturity, more of our prayer time is stage 2 and 3 kind of prayer.
Stage 1 prayer is a simple child-like request for what I desire. And as mentioned earlier, though this is called stage 1, it is a very important kind of prayer. All of us are broken and each of us struggles with our own personal set of problems in our own way. Some people prefer to deal with their challenges privately, and I honour and respect that. But I and others have noticed that those individuals and families who bring their challenges to the church and allow others to pray for them are doing better than those who don’t. And it is not because there has been some miraculous improvement in their situation. In some cases, their situation has actually gotten worse from a human perspective. And yet there are joyful, confident and looking forward to the future with anticipation. And in their families there is peace, hope, happiness and joy. And I attribute that to God working through the prayers of others.
Stage 2 prayer is meditative prayer or keeping company with God. Our Director of Youth and Family, Lynn Gergens, sometimes speaks of prayer as sitting with God, and I think that that is an excellent description of this stage of prayer. For me meditative prayer looks like this: I find a quiet time and place. Sometimes I go down on my hands and knees and prostrate myself before God but other times I don’t. I begin by praying whatever things come to my mind and then I listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to my spirit and I reflect on those things. And as we engage in meditative prayer, we are open and malleable to God and something happens in us. God begins the process of changing us so that we start to want what he wants. Our desires begin to align with God’s so that, if God doesn’t want something for us, then we don’t want it either.
Philip Yancey describes the impact of meditative prayer in his own life in this way:
“I have discovered that God wisely answers prayer in a different way than I envision. I pray that my book will win a prize and instead find I need to improve my writing. I pray to get rich and instead find that money would be a curse distracting me from more important things. After enough of these lessons, I adjust my immature prayers in the light of what I have learned from knowing God through meditation.” Søren Kierkgaard described prayer by saying, “the true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God wills.”
The third stage of prayer is perhaps best illustrated by a story from the Old Testament of the Bible. Nearly 2600 years ago, when the people of God were in exile in Babylon, the king of Babylon set up a 90 foot tall gold idol and commanded all of his officials to bow down to it. Anyone who failed to do so would be burned alive in a fiery furnace. Three young men from Judah by the name of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down before the idol. Here’s what happened next:
13King Nebuchadnezzar was furious. So he sent for the three young men and said, 14” I hear that you refuse to worship my gods and the gold statue I have set up. 15Now I am going to give you one more chance. If you bow down and worship the statue when you hear the music, everything will be all right. But if you don’t, you will at once be thrown into a flaming furnace. No god can save you from me.”
16The three men replied, ” Your Majesty, we don’t need to defend ourselves. 17The God we worship can save us from you and your flaming furnace. 18But even if he doesn’t, we still won’t worship your gods and the gold statue you have set up.” (Daniel 3:13-18 CEV) (emphasis is mine)
And so we can describe the third stage of prayer as submission. It is the stage that Jesus reached in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed “Not my will but your will be done.” Yancey writes of this stage:
“In the end, I learn that God has ordained prayer as a means of getting God’s will done on earth, not ours. Yes, God hears and responds to my requests. Yes, God somehow incorporates those requests into a plan of action on earth. But as many martyrs have learned, including God’s own Son as well as Christians in the persecuted church today, we do not always get what we earnestly desire.”
You see, prayer is not only us asking God to change his mind, it is also God changing us. Jesus not only invites us to pray, even now he is praying for us. And for reasons and in ways that we do not fully understand, God involves us in his plans for the salvation of the world. We are broken, hurting people and yet we are the body of Christ in the world, and the Spirit of God is at work in us and through us to share God’s love with a broken and hurting world. What is God’s will? Jesus said, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40 NIV). God is carrying out his will through you and me, and one of the ways that he does that is through prayer. So as Paul writes, Let us always be joyful and never stop praying. Whatever happens, we will keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ. This is what God wants us to do. (cf. 1 Thess. 5:16-18 CEV) Amen.
(shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 27 June 2010.)
 Footnote in PhilipYancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?(Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 2006), 81.
 Yancey, 106-109.
 Yancey, 108.
 Footnote, Yancey, 108.
 Yancey, 109.