Today we are speaking about prayer, and as we look at prayer I want to hear this text from the perspective of the disciples who knew the Hebrew text and who were witness to Jesus’ prayer life. Who watched him wander off alone into the hills, like Moses before him. Who watched him sink to his knees in the garden of Gethsemane. Who watched him pray over the sick and injured. Who wanted some of that for themselves. Hungry for the presence of God, willing to walk away from everything they knew if only, if only God would draw near, would touch them too, would be present to them too. Or who had had their lives changed forever by being the subject of one of Jesus’ prayers. I don’t think we can really hear this text apart from the whole of Jesus’ prayer life, one which his disciples witnessed every day.
I know that I pray best when I’m on my knees. When desperation has driven me there, when my heart is breaking, and I can no longer deny my need. It’s then that my reliance on God is most evident, most visceral and real to me. When everything is great, the sun is shining, the children are playing and all are well, it’s so easy to get distracted. It’s easy to take credit and say I earned this or I did this, I cooked this meal, threw this party, curated this art, etc, and as I congratulate myself on things going well gratitude takes a back seat. It becomes harder to notice the depth of God’s love and providence when I am taking credit for it. In fact, when I take credit I get anxious because if I’m responsible then I had better keep it up.
The conversation between Jesus and his disciples about prayer was driven by the way they saw Jesus being impacted and changed by his prayer. I imagine that the disciples could see that something was different, was powerful about his relationship with God and that they might have said something like:
Teach me to pray, Rabbi, because I see you speaking to God and God always seems to hear you. Teach me, because so often when I pray it feels like no one is listening and I don’t know what to ask for and, well, I’m afraid to ask about that stuff that scares me, that leaves me feeling like, if God doesn’t answer now, then I must be forsaken, I must be forgotten, I must be outside of God’s grace, of God’s love, and if that were true, if it were true, I couldn’t bear it.
So teach me to pray so some of that love will rub off on me and then I can believe. Just give me the right words, the right motions, do I put my hands like this, or like this? Do I have to kneel? Is it okay to ask for anything? Even that stuff which breaks my heart?
I imagine Jesus being a little tired and frustrated with having to explain again that you might just have to be vulnerable, that you might just have to acknowledge how deeply you need God and how dependent one is on God’s grace. So Jesus’ response begins with relationship. Do you know who God is to you? That God is like a father to you, loves you more than any earthly father could? And that it was important that God be a father and not a mother because inheritance came through fathers in that time, so to have an important wealthy father was to have a blessing coming in the future. This is not an abstract question, not rhetorical. This is not an abstract idea but one we can take refuge in and one that is repeated frequently throughout scripture.
Still, it’s just too amazing isn’t it? That God, very God, holy and mighty, looks upon us with the tenderness of a loving parent and that because of this we can ask for anything, lay any problem on God’s broad shoulders, and be fully who we are as we ask because God loves us just as we are. No improvement project needed.
But still, Jesus’ disciples, having already heard this repeatedly as they grew up, ask again. Jesus, how should we speak to God so God will hear us like God hears you?
And Jesus gives them a threefold prayer, pray for the present-give me enough to make it through today, pray for the past-forgive me what has been, just as I forgive those who have hurt me, and pray for the future, Thy kingdom come, not my idea of what should be or could be but yours. Jesus tells them they can pray for any time, any need. Ask for what you want, he says, God, very God, who knows you are made of dust and who loves you beyond anything you can understand, will answer you. Trust in that. And don’t stop asking for what you need! Ask and ask and ask, some would call that nagging but go ahead and nag, ask and ask and ask. Bang on that door when you have need and ask again. But know that God doesn’t just give stuff or cures or answers, God gives God’s very own self.
Because this wouldn’t be a very honest sermon if we didn’t talk about those prayers that go unanswered even when we’ve banging on God’s door with a great deal of fervor. There are too many prayers that go unanswered. Prayers in the midst of genocide and murder, prayers in the halls of the hospital, prayers whispered in the dark.
As a child I used to pray every night for a golden dress like Cinderella’s and with all the childlike trust of a five year old I would go to the closet every morning looking for it and undeterred would do it again the next day. I had this magical thinking going on, that if I prayed the right words at the right time in the right way, God would give me this dress and make me a beautiful princess. And I wanted to be that beautiful princess so badly. It wasn’t as frivolous as it sounds, not to a child. I was a true believer, like all of those who pray for lottery tickets and parking spaces. If I asked just right, maybe, just maybe I would get my wish.
But then I have to go back to the Garden of Gethsemane. Maybe prayer isn’t about wish fulfillment but something else. Something deeper. Maybe God doesn’t give stuff because stuff isn’t what it’s about. God gives God’s very own self to us.
And the hospital prayers? The ones raised in the midst of genocide, war and horror? The ones that are about so much more than stuff? For that we have to go to Jesus’ crying out on the cross. A prayer of anguish and loss, a prayer of recrimination, where are you God? Why have you abandoned me? We love it when God gives answers. When we can look back and say, I see where God saved me, but this isn’t how it always is.
We must sit with Job in the ashes and stubbornly persist in our faithfulness when everything around us is falling apart. When the evidence of God’s love seems sparse and we don’t have our mountain top experiences. And when God says to us, “well, where you when I created the earth, we have to join Job in trembling before a mystery we will never quite understand, a mystery we are in awe of. The bravest words in our text today are, “Let thy will be done and not mine,” because we are always so full of ideas and expectations. Trusting in God’s providence when our best ideas fail and our expectations are not met is an act of courage and faith. God gives God’s very self to us, but not in the way we always hope.
Prayer is transformative in nature, it breaks down our fear, fills our loss, drains our grief and anger, leaves us emptied out. It confronts us with God’s claim on our lives, calls us into action even if that action is only further prayer and contemplation.
Prayer comforts us and remind us that we are to be Kingdom people in a world where the kingdom of God seems very distant. We are to hold onto the hope and the promise even when things seem to be falling apart and know that God is with us in even the darkest moments. We must be willing to bring our whole selves before God, frightened or joyful, angry or rejoicing, broken or celebrating, just bring it all, because God can take it and God is with us. Enter into prayer knowing that it may not take away the cup that is before us, and it may not bring us the stuff we have prayed for, but it will change us, it will remake and transform us and our relationship to God, and trust that this is enough.
We are kingdom people. We are not alone, we are the sons and daughters of the King and as such we may have great heroes journeys ahead of us, but we will enter them bravely as children of the King,
Maren Tirabassi writes:
And the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. And he replied, “keep it light…”
one small brush of the grand and lifting wing,
holy are all the names of God.
Your kindness come
and your kiss be felt warm
on every lump of soil,
gust of wind,
lapping of salt sea and fresh water.
Give us today
and let us recognize it
as a gift —
the bread and beauty of it —
and that it is like no other.
Forgive us all the love
we owed but hoarded,
and our careless or angry trespassing
on the lives of your children,
even as, with unbearable effort,
the taking and the trampling
of what is precious to us.
Draw your hush across our lips,
and pull us back
from what we would regret.
Find us an escape or stay with us
when there is none,
for yours is the place our hands are held,
yours is the courage of the sequoia
and the broken atom,
yours are galaxies of starlight,
and the hum of bees —
Now … and when we come to sing
all our todays
into your tomorrow.
Lean in to God’s love, you will find that Love has been there all along, leaning toward you. Prayer brings us into God’s presence in a particular way, one which changes us and changes the world. It reminds us that we have enough, and we are enough, and that even when things fall apart, God is with us, and we will never walk alone. amen