Prayer For Dummies
Remember that series of books For Dummies? I think it began in the 90s. I remember because someone gave me the book Windows 95 for Dummies. Our text could be called Prayer For Dummies.
Rule #1: Don't ask God for a blank check. That's what James and John did. They said, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask." They give Jesus no indication what they're going to pray for, but they expect Jesus to say He’ll give it. Has your child tried this on you? Did you consent? Of course not, but asking God for a blank check so you can fill in whatever you desire is not just childish it's pagan. It turns God into a genie; our wish is His command; our prayers are His marching orders.
O but we don't treat God this way. We only ask for good things. We ask for healing, for help, for family problems, for financial problems to be solved. That’s fine. We can and should ask God for anything, but we should never ask God for a blank check. But I do. Otherwise, I wouldn't be upset when my prayers are not answered the way I expect. God should do what I want as long as the request seems good to me. The problem is that whatever I pray for seems good to me. Do you think James and John thought their request selfish, ignorant, and arrogant? Do you think they thought what they asked for wasn't good? Don't think your prayers are any different. Our prayers, ones that we think are crystal pure, are just as wrongheaded as James and John's. Prayer For Dummies Rule #1: Don't ask for a blank check.
Rule Two: Know what you're really asking. But I always think I know. The fact of the matter is we don't. James and John thought they knew because their request was plain. "Let one of us sit at Your right and the other at Your left in Your glory." Imagine their surprise when Jesus replies, "You do not know what you’re asking." What? Was there any simpler request? When Jesus reigns in glory they would like to be next to Him. But just when does Jesus come into His glory? When Judas leaves the upper room to betray Him, Jesus says, "Now the Son of Man is glorified." Jesus is in His glory on earth when He hangs on a cross covered by the sins of the world, suffering the torments of hell. God's glory is to die for sinners so they might live; God's glory is to suffer for ungodly sinners to satisfy His eternal wrath against us.
In His glory, who do we find on Jesus’ left and on His right? Crucified thieves. Is that what James and John think they’re asking? Let us die on either side of you suffering the horrors of crucifixion? No, not at all. They don’t know what they’re asking for, and neither do we. But I think I do. I think I’m asking for a better life; for someone to be healed, a child to be kept out of danger or trouble. I have no doubt in my mind that I know what I’m praying for, but neither did James and John. Imagine if the Lord had said, “Okay” and immediately James and John were nailed to crosses either side of Him. How surprised they would’ve been!
This is the stuff of horror stories. In the short story titled "The Monkey's Paw", a mummified monkey’s paw has the power to grant whatever you ask. A husband and wife think they know exactly what they are asking for when they rub the paw and request 200 pounds to pay off their mortgage. The next day at work their son falling into the machinery is mangled to death. The factory won’t take responsibility but will give them 200 pounds. The couple is beside themselves with grief for weeks. Once more they think they know exactly what they’re asking for when they ask that their son be alive again. They wait expecting him to pop into the room alive, whole, healthy. But it takes awhile to walk the 2 miles from his grave. Finally, they are awakened by heavy knocking. They realize their son is alive again but not healthy or even whole.
But our God is a loving God. He wouldn't answer prayers so fiendishly. Of course He wouldn't. The point is we don't know what we’re asking for. We think it’s always an unqualified good thing to solve our family problems, to heal our loved one. We don't know what tremendous spiritual harm might happen if a physical evil is avoided, but like James and John we think we do. We’re like the 5-year-old who asks his mom for a knife to peel his apple. To the boy this is only a good request, but mom knows better, and so instead of providing a knife to peel the apple and probably his fingers, the mom gives the boy an already peeled apple.
We don't know what we're asking for but God does. That's why our Lord taught us to pray, "Thy will be done." This says to God, “You know better than I do what will come about if I get what I am praying for, so don't give me anything that is not according to Thy fatherly will. Don't give me the knife if I will peel my fingers. Don't give me what I want but what Thou will.” And He does. There are probably hundreds of things you’ve wanted but He hasn't given. Positions you prayed to get and didn't. People you prayed to live and died. Problems you prayed to be solved that weren’t. All these go under the heading: "You Don't Know What You Are Asking". I thought I did, but I couldn't have. God knew what I was really asking and in love He didn't do it. He did what would serve the salvation of sinners and glorify His name. And this is always what the Christian is really asking for.
Rule 1 in Prayer For Dummies is: Don't ask God for a blank check. Rule 2 is: Know What you're really asking for. And Rule 3 is: Don't look past what is already given to you. James and John did. Jesus didn’t ask them, "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with," but, "Are you able to?" Jesus isn’t asking, “Do you have the strength,” but do you have the privilege? He is bringing to their minds what they’ve been given already.
James and John admit they’ve been given the privilege, but I'm not sure they know what that means. They don't know yet that the cup Jesus will hand them is His blood shed for the forgiveness of their sins, but they do know that the Baptism of Jesus forgives sins and gives the Holy Spirit. But they want more. Rather than dwelling on the cup, on baptism, on being served by the God-Man, they are concerned with power, position, and place in glory. Their prayer assumes that Jesus hasn’t done enough for them. "Look Jesus we haven't asked you for much before, so now we want you to do for us whatever we ask." What Jesus has done for them is no different than what He has done for the other disciples. The cup and baptism are given to all of His disciples, but these two want more.
When I put it this way, you cringe because James and John now seem profane, materially minded, and ungrateful, but isn't this us? We skip right over the gifts of God. We've been baptized into the Triune God, rescued from death and the devil, forgiven and given heaven. We drink His cup and find nothing but forgiveness, life, and salvation in it from top to bottom. But these things are not worthy to be compared to our loved one being healed, our family being better, our life being rosier. Sure, Jesus came to serve and comes in the Communion to serve us still. And yes, He did give His life in place of mine. But what has He done for me lately? Isn't that blasphemous? Maybe you don’t think this way, but I have. I think, “Yeah, Jesus serves my spiritual needs but I have pressing physical needs that He should address. And while He gave His life as a payment for mine, I still have bills to pay.” My creditors don't take Jesus, do yours?
Can you see that we, or at least me, myself, and I, are no better, no different than James and John? Throw in the other disciples too since they want what James and John do as soon as they hear about it. We're all in that great glob of sinful humanity who wants material things over spiritual things, who value the earthly over the heavenly, who discount the eternal and magnify the temporal.
This is why we have weekly Divine Service. Here our God comes to us and reorients us toward spiritual, heavenly, eternal things. Sure we bring to Him our material, earthly, temporary wants, needs, and requests, but they are quickly put on the back burner. We begin the service with the invocation reminding us that we’re baptized into the Triune God. Then we move into the confession where we don't admit to having this material or that earthly problem but to being poor, damned sinners. After confession we’re absolved being given not health or wealth but forgiveness. And the service climaxes when God gives to us not healthier bodies and good blood tests but His own body and blood. These are the real answers to not only all our sins but all our prayers too.
The whole Divine Service is designed to take you above this world of material, temporary problems, to the world without end. “Glory be to God on high” we sing focusing on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. From the sermon, we seek to have restored to us the joy of our salvation. The invitation, “Lift up your hearts” has been answered by the people of God, “We lift them up unto the Lord” for over 17 centuries. Here’s how Cyril of Jerusalem explained it c. 350. “In effect therefore the priest bids all in that hour to dismiss all cares of this life, or household anxieties, and to have their heart in heaven with the merciful God” ( NPNF, VII, 153-54). Then in the Sanctus we’re with Isaiah in God’s throne room seeing how nothing in our realm disturbs the holiness and praise there. Then in The Agnus Dei we see the Lamb of God that takes way the sin of the world on our altar and with Simeon having seen Him we can depart in peace. Finally, the 3-fold Name of the Lord is put on us giving blessing, keeping, and peace.
Even a dummy in prayer like me, realizes the Lord here gives me far more than I asked for or even imagined. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (20211024); Mark 10:35-45