Goal, Malady, Means
“Goal, Malady, Means” isn’t just the title of this sermon, it is how I was taught to sermonize. It avoids ending in the 3rd use of the Law i.e. on ‘how to” or ‘now get out there and do better now that you’re forgiven.’ The text is approached asking what is the goal of it? What is the malady in the way of that goal? And what are the means for overcoming that malady?
Pretty obvious what the goal of this text is, isn’t it? Duh! That you would pray. Notice: I didn’t say pray ‘more’. That could be a legitimate goal as could that your prayers be more like the Lord’s Prayer. But I’m going back to basics. It’s true the text assumes that disciples do pray because they ask Jesus to teach them. But look at the illustrations Jesus uses: a frantic friend and our own evilness. Look also at what comes in between those 2 bizarre illustrations. The Lord's command to pray and the promise to hear. The commands and promises of God are like buoys that mark a ship channel. The Lord in this text wants to move us into the channel of prayer.
Ah! Maybe you’re like Tom T. Hall in 1972. “Me and Jesus got it all worked out,” he sang. Apart from preaching, singing, or going to church, just between him and Jesus they got it all worked out. He doesn’t say how, just that they do, and that’s how most people think. Though they don’t hear Jesus speak in His Word and Sacraments, though they don’t speak to Him in prayer, they’re sure it will work out. They reflect the attitude I find in movies, TV, and non-fiction books of “I just know everything is going to work out.” Do you now?
“Talk to Me,” Jesus says. Jesus wants you to pray. He says, “Whenever you pray” assuming you pray in lots of places and lots of times. Then Jesus gives the present imperative commands: ask, seek, and knock. Present imperatives are policy commands. Make it your policy to do these. And you don’t need a Greek grammar to tell you there is an ascending scale of earnestness and exhortation here (Trench, 335). To seek is more than to ask and to knock is more than to seek. But James condemns every single one of us. Go home read James 4: 2-3. Here it is without some of the tougher stuff: “You want something but do not get it, … You desire something but cannot obtain it,… You do not have because you do not ask. You ask, and yet do not receive, because you ask wrongly,...” A father finds his son in dire straights because of a problem. He asks him if he has used everything at his disposal to address the problem. The son assures him he has. The father says he has not because he has yet to call upon him for help. Have we?
The goal is that we pray; the malady is we don’t, and we don’t see not praying for the spiritual emergency it is. We sung, “Prayer is the Christian's vital breath, the Christian's native air” (TLH, 454), yet we go days or even weeks without praying. Try doing that with breathing. As lack of respiration is a medical emergency, so lack of prayer is a spiritual one. But we don’t see that. The here and now crowds out the hereafter. The fading visible obscures the permanent eternal. The mirage of temporal life is taken for reality, and the real eternal life is taken as illusion We’re praying to be preserved from this in our Collect: “may we so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.” If the monkey would only let go of the shiny object in the bottom of the vase he could free his hand and not be captured by the hunter. But he won’t and we won’t. We’re afraid to let go of the visible in order to grasp the invisible. Sources quote Luther saying, “I have so much to do today that I shall have to spend the first three hours in prayer.” I’m not sure Luther actually said that, but he was of the mindset that he had so much to do temporally he didn’t have time not to pray eternally.
Or our lack of prayer could be like another Tom T. Hall song. Who me, pray? What have I ever done to deserve that? This can also be called the Beggar’s Broth defense or the King Ahaz excuse for not praying. The Lord invites the wicked Ahaz to pray a sign be given. “Who me? No, I couldn’t,” he replies. Hear that in a Homer Simpson voice. The Lord, as we say in the Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, tenderly invites us to pray. To turn Him down, even in a show of piety, is to test His patience. The Beggar’s Broth defense is from our Large Catechism: “Imagine a rich and mighty emperor who bade a poor beggar to ask for whatever he might desire and was prepared to give great and princely gifts, and the fool asked only for a dish of beggar’s broth. He would rightly be considered a rogue and a scoundrel who had made a mockery of his imperial majesty’s command..” (LC, III, 57).
The malady not just interfering with praying but totally stopping it in some cases is too big for us. What are the means then of going from not praying to prayer? This is what is called a watermelon question. A 2nd year confirmand can knock this out of the park. You ask concerning “means” in theology and Confessional Lutherans say. “The Means of Grace: Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion.” Okay, but by what means does this specific text of the Word of God, also a Means of Grace, bring forth prayer? 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “We see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. Mirrors show you an opposite image. The backward letters of ECNALUBMA are meaningless without a mirror, but pop into focus in your rear-view mirror, AMBULANCE.
The friend in this text is not the Friend you have in Jesus. The Jesus who said it’s pagans who think they will be heard for their much speaking (Mt. 6:7) is not telling you that God answers prayers if you wear Him out with words. The text says his friend won’t answer his ‘prayer’ because of his friendship but because of the man’s ‘shamelessness’ or ‘boldness’ as the insert has it. In either case, it’s something in the man that causes his prayer to be answered. The can’t be how it is with us and the Friend we have in Jesus. What do we say in our confession of faith about answered prayer? “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment” (Lord’s Prayer, Explanation, 5th Petition).
God is not a friend who can be or needs to be pestered by us and He’s certainly not an actively wicked father, like you and I. He is the Father who put His only beloved Son under the Laws given to man and then punished Him for breaking them all when He never broke one. God did this so He could hear and answer your prayers. We say in our Catechism that He is our true and dear Father. He not an evil genie who looks for a way to grant your wish so that it harms you. Prayer is not the “The Monkey’s Paw” that can backfire. That old adage be careful what you pray for; you might get it, has no place for those who ask in Jesus’ name. The God who gives the wide open commands ask, seek, and knock, and unlimited promises of you’ll be answered, find, and opened to isn’t looking to harm you. The only limit Jesus puts on prayer is His saving name. When we pray in Jesus’ name we’re saying: I only want what will glorify who You are and what You do. Did anyone of us with a loving, though fallen, father for one second expect to be given snakes for fish or a balled up scorpion for an egg?
The means of overcoming the malady that stands between God’s good goal and us is always the Means of Grace: Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. These are the Means by which the Holy Spirit takes the Redemption, the Forgiveness, the Grace that Jesus paid for with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death on the cross, and delivers them to you now. So what then is this, about asking for the Holy Spirit? In my 10-year preparation for the next time the Charismatic movement invades, I’ve warned you about praying for the Holy Spirit apart from the Means of Grace. That is a mark of Pentecostals and Charismatics. So what gives with “how much more will your Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”?
Jesus here summarizes all the good gifts that Children of the Heavenly Father could ask for with the promise that He will give the Holy Spirit. Check the parallel account in Matthew. There Jesus says, “ If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him” (Mt. 7:11)! What’s the good Gift, the Power, the Inheritance, that Jesus tells His apostles to wait for? The Holy Spirit, the forgiving, winning, pure Spirit that Jesus won for dirty, loser, sinners like us. Listen to what Scripture says about the Spirit you have from Baptism, from being absolved, from eating and drinking the Body and Blood of your Savior: “You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by Him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’" (Rom. 8:15). Again Galatians 4, “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Gal. 4:6).
This Spirit prays without ceasing. Does that surprise you? The evil spirit of sadness is always sad. The evil spirit of worry is always worried. The evil spirit of pride, of lust, of greed never fails to be prideful, lustful, greedy. The Holy Spirit never fails to be holy, and He never fails to call out the Aramaic equivalent of “Daddy”. In the multitude of maladies that confront us we’re moved and enabled to pray by the Spirit in Word and Sacrament and in these we’re also given the Spirit who always prays.
The Spirit of the Gospel is the means to get past the maladies of the Devil, the World, and our Flesh to the goal of taking a deep breath of the Spirit of forgiveness which in turns leads to a grateful, thankful, continual exhaling of prayer. The Spirit of the Means of Grace gets you to the goal of realizing that in Jesus “Prayer is not conquering God’s reluctance, but taking hold of God’s willingness.” Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (20220814); Luke 11:1-13