During this penitential season of Lent we are looking at prayer. Prayer is revelatory. Prayer reveals. It reveals something about us and about God.
For us, prayer reveals our great sin. It's a fit topic for Ash Wednesday when traditionally people have felt bad enough about their sins to be marked publicly for them. We usually get such a sense of our sinfulness from sins against the Second Table of the Law: grudges or bitterness, lust or immorality, greed or steeling, gossip or lying, To be sure, these are great sins against our fellow man and worthy of not only ashes on our foreheads but scarlet letters on our hearts. But there are bigger more serious sins under the First Table of the Law. Prayer reveals these sins against God.
To begin with, we sin against God when we don't pray. I can't tell you how many times people have told me almost casually, 'O I don't pray," Or "I don't pray that often." Such people can't regard not praying as a serious, damnable sin. Imagine saying casually, "O I don't tell the truth." Or, "I'm not faithful to my spouse that often." Not praying, is a more serious sin than these, yet people seem proud of the fact that they don't pray! Yet, prayer is as strictly and solemnly commanded as all the other commandments says the Large Catechism. In another place Luther says, "[Prayer] is what God demands of you and it is not a matter of choice whether you do it or not."
Ah, but you do think it's a matter of choice; don't you friend? Prayer is like the dessert of the Christian life. You may have it or not. How wrong you are. How un-Lutheran you are. You're just not a Lutheran unless you set a great value on prayer. For Luther lack of prayer indicated Satan was winning in the Christian's life. Just as everyone ought to be concerned about any trouble they might have breathing, so a Christian ought to be concerned about any trouble they might have praying. As difficulty or lack of breathing indicates a medical problem or emergency, so difficulty or lack of praying indicates a spiritual problem or emergency. Think that's too strong? Luther said that if he were to stop praying for just one day he would lose a great deal of his desire and faith. In another place, Luther says that where prayer is neglected no one will resist the devil.
Prayer in general reveals our great sin; the Lord's Prayer in particular does this. We look down on the Lord's Prayer. Because we can't keep our minds from wandering after 4 or 5 syllables when saying it, we blame this holy prayer. In our amazing and immense spiritual ignorance, we think our own prayers are better than that of the Lord's even though St. Paul tells us in Romans that we don't know how to pray as we ought.
Again, I must tell you such an attitude is hardly Christian and certainly not Lutheran. Luther said, 'I am convinced that when a Christian rightly prayers the Lord's Prayer at any time or uses any portion of it as he may desire, his praying is more than adequate." Luther believed the Lord's Prayer should be prayed 8 times a day: at rising, at bedtime and before and after each of the 3 meals of the day. Luther had such high regard for the Lord's Prayer that he never included any other prayer other than it in his prayer books.
Don't think this is just a personal peccadillo of Luther's. The Didache, a second century manual for churches, says the Lord's Prayer is to be prayed 3 times a day. The early church viewed the prayer as so sacred it could not be taught to anyone before they had been baptized. You can see this special regard for the Lord's Prayer in the liturgy too. The early Christian posture for prayer was the elbows at the sides, yet away from the body, palms turned upward. This is how the pastor prayed all the prayers in the liturgy. But when he got to the Lord's Prayer he extended his hands higher.
What wicked sinners we are for thinking more of our feeble prayers than we do of our Lord's! I think I know why we discount the Lord's Prayer. It has 7 petitions or requests. 6 of the 7 are for spiritual things. One of them is for physical. In the simple petition, "Give us this day our daily bread," we ask for everything that we need for this body and life. Yet, what is the emphasis in our prayer life? Don't we pray mainly for physical things rather than spiritual? Let a physical crises come into our lives and we're praying, but the spiritual crises that stalk us daily, don't seem significant enough for us to pray.
I'm embarrassed, ashamed. What Jesus prays for in one short sentence, I beg, plead, and focus on as if God didn't really want to give me my daily bread, didn't really want to give me everything that I need for this body and life. Here too I'm confronted with yet more of my sinfulness. I think that God is moved by the number of times I pray, or the emotion I pray with.
Friend, I am really no different than Norman Vincent Peale or all the TV evangelist that have followed in his wake. Peale said, "Just as there exists scientific techniques for the release of atomic energy, so there are scientific procedures for a release of spiritual energy through the mechanism of prayer." This is what I'm believing when I think I will be heard if I beg or plead enough or if I ask a certain number of times. This is a false way of praying. So says Luther, "Whenever our prayer is founded on itself or something else [other than the unwavering truth of the divine promise], it is false and deceptive, even though it wrings your heart with its intense devoutness or weeps sheer drops of blood."
God answering prayer is not a matter of the number of times I pray or the emotion I pray with, nor is it a matter of my worthiness. The trouble is that when I'm thinking I'm not worthy to pray I feel pious and humble rather than wicked and unbelieving. However, when I think I'm not worthy to pray, I'm really denying the worthiness of Jesus who has commanded me to pray. It's no different than if a child being commanded by a parent should reason that he or she is not worthy to do what the parent has commanded. What nonsense! Would you be pleased if your child said, "I won't clean up my room because I'm not worthy?" No, you would know the child is really denying your worthiness to give the command to them.
Prayer reveals our great sin. It reveals that marking our foreheads with some ashes isn't enough; we ought to have our whole faces smeared with them so we look like Al Jolson. Rather than having the ashes on our bodies, we should have this symbol of our sin in our mouths even as Moses ground up the golden calf, spread it on water, and made the people drink it. Thankfully, though, prayer reveals not only our great sin but our even greater Savior.
Do you think Jesus is surprised by our sinfulness? Do you think He is surprised at the fact that we can even turn prayer into sin? Do you think He is surprised to find us focused on ourselves when we pray, our prayers caught in a loop where they go up from our mouth only to return back to our hearts as if prayer is no more than talking to ourselves? Could the God who came into the world to die for us while we were yet sinners be surprised to find us sinful? Could the God who came into the world to die for ungodly sinners be put off to find out that's what we are? Christ's mission was to come into the world to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. His mission was to go to the cross laden by the guilt of all humans. His mission was to tear open the heavens that had been shut to us sinners.
Tonight Christ begins the final steps to the cross, and what does He find? He is surrounded by sinners. Though He tells them one will betray Him, no one believes Him. Though He tells them of giving and shedding His blood for them, they break into a fight over which of them is the greatest. And what does Jesus do? He still gives them His Body and Blood. He still forgives their sins. He still opens heaven to them and their prayers.
How different the command to pray looks once you see you're a guilty sinner with no right to ask anything. How beautiful to hear that the Lord wants you to, literally, keep on asking, keep on seeking , keep on knocking. Imagine how you would feel if President Bush gave such carte blanche to you. Would you feel burdened by such a command? Would you not use such a command? Would you not know that President Bush genuinely wished to help you? When you command your child to bring all of his or hers troubles, needs, fears, and desires to you, are you trying to burden them with such a command? Of course not.
Jesus went to the cross with your sins and your sinfulness, so that He could open heaven to your prayers and answer them. Yes, the Lord just doesn't command us to pray, He promises to hear. He doesn't just say keep on asking, but you'll be answered. Not just keep on seeking but you'll find. Not just keep on knocking but it will be opened to you. Consider the Lord's Prayer. When we pray it, the Father doesn't answer with a "no" or "maybe," but always with a "yes!" Yes, He will hallow His name in our life. Yes, the kingdom will come in our life. Yes, His saving will, will be done in our life. Yes, He will give us our daily bread. Yes, He will freely forgive our sins, lead us away from temptation, and deliver us from evil.
Imagine again if President Bush gave you a list of things you could always ask for and he would always give. Wouldn't you use that list? Here is the good thing about, "What a Friend we Have in Jesus." Yes, it's true it can make it seem that the only reason we have trouble in life is because we don't bring things to God in prayer, but that's not why people like to sing it. They like to sing it because it pictures Jesus as a trusted, true friend dying to hear our prayers. And isn't that the truth? If He really didn't want to hear from us, all He had to do is not go to the cross and die. Heaven would've remained closed to our prayers. But He shed His blood, He sweat His blood to cover us with His blood in Baptism, dip us in it in Absolution, and give it to us to drink in Communion, all so heaven would be open to our prayers.
And dear friends, Jesus, God in flesh and blood, is well able to answer our prayers. I don't just mean He has the power and love to do it; He has the wisdom too. I don't know whom should get better and whom should not. I don't know whom should be delivered from affliction or whom should be given grace to endure. I don't know how thorny family, work, or Church problems should work out. I pray, but thankfully the Lord has the veto power. O what a mess I would be in if everything I prayed for happened. The Lord knows when to heal sickness and when to not. He knows where to deliver and where to not. He is the Father; we are the children. Just as parents often answer better than their kids ask giving the 5 year-old a peeled apple rather than a knife to peal it, so our Father answers better than we pray. Sure, I might not see that now, but neither does the 5 year old.
Today we repent in dust and ashes of our prayer life whether we have ashes on our head or not. We've seen how prayer reveals our sin, but it's more important that it reveal our Savior. He's the focus in Lent. If Jesus in the very midst of the agony of the cross heard and gloriously answered the prayer of the thief; if hanging in such hellish pain, your Lord Jesus heard and answered a prayer even from a low-life thief who just then was converted, you can rest assured He has and will hear and answer your prayers. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (2-13-02)