The 16 Centuries Prayer
"The Six Million Dollar Man" was a 70's TV show about a test pilot badly injured in a crash. The intro contained the memorable lines: "We can rebuild him.better than he was." What's that have to do with our text? Plenty, but by way of the Collect. Originally, Collects were short prayers where the petitions of several members of a congregation were collected (ODCC, 313). Over centuries these became formal prayers passed down from generation to generation and incorporated into the liturgy. American Lutheran hymnals till the 2006 Lutheran Service Book had one Collect for each Sunday of the Church Year. The Collect, along with the Introit and Gradual, were the unchanging framework of the Church's worship for 14 centuries. LSB during Pentecost has 3 different Collect thus compromising the structure of the non-festival half of the Church Year. "The Collects are, for the most part, very old, predating the Lutheran Church by in some cases almost a thousand years. The sands of time have rubbed off all the excess words and phrases leaving short, terse almost, prayers" (Advent Devotions, 2).
The Collect we prayed today dates to the 400s, in the early 700s fearful consciences were addressed so that we not come before the Lord like orphaned Oliver Twists timidly saying, "More please." So for about 300 years the phrase "forgiving us the things of which our conscience is afraid" was not prayed (Reed, 532). Then about the year 700 some bishop, monk, pastor, or for all I know layman added it. Did you catch the attending nature of these words? We don't specifically ask to be forgiven of the things of which are consciences are afraid but pray based on the knowledge that God does that. We say in our Catechism that Jesus invites us to call God our Father so that we might know He's our true Father and we His true children so that with all boldness and confidence we might ask Him as dear children ask their dear father. So how did you ask your father? How do you want your kids to ask you? With or without fearful consciences?
And let me tell you, there's plenty, if you're paying attention, to give you a fearful conscience. First, where's your treasure? You know how to find out? See where your heart is? That's where your treasure is. If what's first in your heart is kids, spouse, happiness, health, money, sex, food, drink, drugs: there's your treasure. Second, does Jesus come as Savior or as thief? If you have a fearful conscience, he's creeping around your backstairs not coming through the front door. With all our technology we secure our homes, our cars, our person, our stuff. We can have cameras literally everywhere, and yet Jesus says He's coming at an hour when we don't expect Him, and He's not ringing the doorbell or sending you a text.
Imagine being able to say like St. Paul did my conscience doesn't bother me? That drip, drip of your conscience for this or that sin is fixed. Since the 700s the Collect assumes that it has been by the forgiveness of whatever it is your conscience is afraid of. To forgiveness is where Jesus went in 30 AD. In the verse before our text, Jesus commands, "Seek His kingdom, and all your earthly needs will be added to you." That sends you into a fearful tailspin: have you sought, are you seeking, the kingdom enough? Who knows? Who can ever know, and then Jesus says, "Stop being afraid little flock." What tender words! He uses both the word little "mikron" (micro) and the diminutive for flock' which shows Jesus' great love and tenderness. And who but a shepherd speaks to a flock, and who but the Shepherd does the flock listen to when He says, "You can stop being afraid."
The Collect wasn't wrecked as test pilot Steve Austin was, but the Church continued to make it better. About 900 more years go by and to the readiness of the Almighty and everlasting God was added the phrase "who art always more ready to hear than we to pray" by the Anglicans (Ibid.). The words "always ready to give more than we either desire or deserve" were there already, but that wasn't enough for the Church. May it not be enough for you either. Jesus agrees.
When He seeks to comfort fearful, timid consciences, He doesn't just call us a precious, little flock, but reminds us that we have a heavenly Father. He says that if you're His little flock then you have God as Father. That's how family relations work you know. If you have a brother, that means you share a parent. Jesus is your brother that makes His Father your Father. What's one of the first things Jesus does after having carried the sins of the world all the way to the cross and nailing them there in His own body? What message does the risen Jesus send by Mary Magdalene to His disciples locked in the upper room for fear of the Jews? "'I am returning to My Father and your Father'" (John 20:17).
So in the risen Jesus we have a heavenly Father, but there's more. Our heavenly Father's good pleasure is to give us the kingdom. Well if that doesn't prove He's always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than we desire or deserve, I don't know what does. If you're in Luke Bible class, you know we're within shouting distance of Jesus commands, "ask, seek, knock" and His promises "to answer, you'll find, and be opened to", but look here. Without our asking, who is depicted as knocking? Not us but Jesus. And look what He is giving? The whole kingdom, not some, part, but all, and not an earthly reign or rule that wears out, can be destroyed, or stolen by a thief but an eternal kingdom. And it's the Father's good pleasure to give this. When you can't wait to give someone a gift, do you think that person should worry that he might not get it? Fearful that she doesn't deserve it? Doubtful because you might Lucy-like pull the gift away? Are you kidding me? It's your pleasure, you're tickled pink, you're more than happy to give the gift.
And do you see how Jesus styles His return? In this picture He's not a king returning to a city that doesn't want Him to rule over them. He's not a ruler whose people have snubbed His invitation to a banquet. He's not coming from quaking, thundering Sinai. The mountain and hills are not depicted as fleeing from Him. He's coming from a wedding banquet! Of course, it's possible to come from a wedding banquet fried, angry, judgmental, but I never have. I expect that anyone coming from a wedding banquet is coming home happy, well-pleased, smiling.
You would think that now the Church would be finished with this Collect; that by the 17th century She was done tinkering with the over 1,200 year-old prayer, but you'd be wrong. In 1662, another Anglican bishop removed a dare. Funny thing to have in a prayer, but fearful consciences timid about what they can pray for are familiar with this dare. The bishop removed "giving unto us that which our prayer dare not ask" and changed it to "giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask" (Reed, 532). I think the dare should've been kept because when we use that word it almost always connects to a concept that's over the moon. From childhood on we know the force of "dare you", and only a fool says to a 10-year-old, "I double-dog dare you." So, when we speak of the Almighty and everlasting God "giving unto us that which our prayer dare not ask", we're in the rarified air of God doing, as Paul says, more than we ask, think, or for that matter dare.
Whether you keep the dare or use the idea of our unworthiness, the giving takes place "through the merits and mediation of Jesus." That means we don't expect to be answered, find, or opened to because we deserve to be but because Jesus deserves to be. We on our own merit judgement, pain, and death now and forever. Jesus deserves all things, but He got what we deserve both in time and eternity, so that we might get what He deserves. The Father is so pleased with us He give us not up to half of His kingdom but all of it for Jesus' sake. And Jesus is on our side. We aren't taking His name and using it without His permission. No, He commanded us to ask in His name and promises that He ever lives to intercede for us. The early church used the graphic picture of Jesus in heaven holding up His nail-pierced hands saying, "Remember Father I died for these sinners." If that doesn't embolden us, empower us, dare us to ask for anything and everything from forgiveness to the kingdom, nothing will!
Dare you believe this? Dare you believe what Jesus promises in this parable? We dare believe that when the Lord returns for us, far from us calling on the mountains and hills to hide us from the wrath of the Lamb, we will see the Son dressing Himself to serve, reclining us at table, and waiting on us. Don't you dare jump up as Peter did in the upper room and say, "Lord you'll never wash my feet." Don't you dare miss that to the upper room is exactly where Jesus takes us post-Easter Christians. Don't you dare miss that this in turn takes us to this Altar and the Body and Blood of Jesus here for your forgiving, living, and saving. Don't you dare miss that in this Meal is the answer to everyone of your prayers because Paul says all the promises of God are yes' and amen' in Christ Jesus. So, when you eat His body and drink His blood, you eat God's yes', God's amen.'
Our text begins and ends with a thief. A thief can get to whatever treasure you have on earth. He can't touch your heavenly treasure. And if a homeowner knew when the thief was coming he wouldn't let his house be broken into. But you're not waiting for a thief to steal from you; you're waiting for the Son of Man. The only thing He takes from you is your sins, your guilt, your fearful conscience, and He gives to you a heavenly Father, His readiness to hear your prayer, and His good pleasure to give you much, more than you even dare ask for.
"The Six Million Dollar Man" was built to do more than any man ever could for his fellow man, and so the Man Jesus did and does for sinful men. "The Sixteen Centuries Collect" which literally billions of Christians have prayed was "built" to tap into Him. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (20190901); Luke 12: 32-40