Word on the street is we have a special guest after worship today. His reputation precedes him. He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you are awake, he knows when you are bad or good, and he might give you a little extra if you root for the Kentucky Wildcats this basketball season. It is that time of year again. It’s Christmas time. A time for good tidings and cheer. A time when we ask for stuff and are excited about the magic of getting it. We may not like the NSA monitoring our phone calls, but it is okay if Santa watches us when we sleep, as long as he leaves us something nice under the tree.
As you might guess. I was really big into Santa Claus as a kid. I remember trying to stay awake in my bed at my grandmother’s house and listening for the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof. Every kid has the toy they want the most. Mine was dinosaurs for a while. Then I graduated to spaceships. The spaceships never fought the dinosaurs because that just wouldn’t make any sense, let’s be realistic here. My favorite toy was and still is micro-machines. I used to lay out all my Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 micro-machines and have epic space battles on the table. I will neither confirm nor deny if I still have such space battles with micro-machines. There is nothing like the feeling of getting what you asked for on Christmas morning. Nothing like tearing through the wrapping paper and finding what you hoped for. There is also nothing like tearing through all the wrapping paper and not finding what you hoped for. There is nothing like the disappointment of asking and not getting what you hoped for.
“Give us this day our daily bread.”
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
We are talking about asking today. Theologians call it petitionary prayer when we ask for ourselves and intercessory prayer when we ask for someone else. As a child, we know how to ask our parents for things. We, in fact, have no other choice but to ask them, because we are helpless to get even our bare necessities met when we are children. And as we grow up and leave our parents, we stop asking Santa Claus for things and start asking God for things. We know God is not Santa Claus. But we are not sure who He is or what we should ask for. We read verses like this “ask” verse in Matthew and we think that sounds simple enough. But inevitably, we ask and don’t receive. And we are faced with the question of why? Did we lack faith? Did we not pray enough? Did we not shed enough tears?
As we grow older, we stop toying around by asking for toys and we ask for bigger things. We read about miracles in the Bible and we ask for them. And when they don’t come, people tell us that God is trying to teach us something, that prayer is more about changing us than it is about changing God. You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it, we are told. God didn’t genuinely mean that if we ask, He is willing to answer, that He genuinely responds to our prayers. Because obviously that doesn’t happen. God’s not Santa Claus, we should know that by now. God is the Creator. The Alpha and the Omega. He is so big and we are so small. He has better things to do than to be concerned to change His plans based on our prayers. He already knows what I am going to say anyway.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am all for Spiritual Formation. I believe we can know the will of God and often His will is not our will. I believe in being shaped by prayer. That’s what we were talking about last week. But let’s be honest. It is true that God is not Santa Claus. But if He rarely answers our prayers, then we are just not going to pray as much. If God has already decided the answer, if we cannot change God’s mind, if we can’t change the course of events, then prayer is important, but there are other more useful things we could spend our time doing than prayer. Today, I want us to understand three things.
- How we should ask God for things.
- What we should ask for.
- What this means for us here in Pierceton.
The Scriptures are clear that we should ask God for things with confidence and in faith. The particular belief we are to have faith in is, as Jesus says in Matthew 19:5, that “all things are possible with God.” As our verse from Matthew today points out, God really does care about our needs, and even about the desires of our hearts. God is not Santa Claus, nor is he an unjust judge as Luke 18 points out. A judge who must be worn down into hearing our prayers. He desires to give us good gifts. And all things are possible with God. However, as the theologian David Crump points out in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door, “All things are possible, but all things are not permissible. Nothing is beyond God’s ability, but some things are outside God’s purposes” (Crump, 59). God is willing to hear our prayers, and the Bible says faith helps with that, but God is under no obligation to answer yes.
Often, people are worried about offending God with their prayers. What happens if they pray to God when they are angry? What happens if they ask for something that is not God’s will? Is it okay to question what God is doing? Well, if we look at the Psalms, we see some very honest prayers. Prayers from the heights of faith and prayers from the depths of the dark places of life that we find ourselves in. What counts is that we pray as if God hears us and is willing to answer us, no matter how absurd the request may sound to our own ears. How do we know if our prayers match God’s particular will for a particular situation? We ask, we pray with boldness, we struggle, and we let God teach us in that struggle what His will is.
Some of you may have noticed that often when I pray for the sick – or for anything – I don’t add “if” statements. I don’t say, “If it be Thy will heal this person.” There is a place for us to ask what God’s will is. But I believe the Scriptures tell us to ask honestly and without hesitation for what we want. And if our will doesn’t match God’s will in a particular case, then saying “if” isn’t going to change that. We act as if we are protecting God’s reputation. I don’t want God to look stupid if I ask for this sick person to get better and they don’t. But God can defend His own reputation. He doesn’t need us to cover for Him. Often what we are worried about when we say “if it be Thy will” is our own reputation. God is not a slot machine – get the right combination of prayers, persistence, and faith, then you don’t automatically get a jackpot.
I will never say that a particular prayer wasn’t answered for a particular reason. That is between you and God. I will say that for a long time, I prayed not actually believing that God would do anything. This protected me from disappointment. But a genuine ask entails some risk of disappointment, some risk of sorrow, some risk of a no. Maybe it is not the right time for what you ask for. Maybe what you are asking for is actually bad for you. Our Scripture today says that the Lord will give us bread or fish. But sometimes we think something is bread when it is actually a stone. Sometimes we think something is a fish when it is actually a scorpion, and in hindsight, we will confess that God was protecting us. There are many mysterious reasons for why prayers are answered and why they are not. God’s not Santa Claus, we know. But through all the pain and suffering, sometimes we secretly wonder if God is powerless at the very least and a sadist at the worst. Saying that His ways are higher than our ways can affirm our trust in God, but it can also cover up our doubts in His goodness. It is true His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. But it is also true He is our loving Father who will give us good gifts if we ask. Often it is easy to believe the first statement, that His ways are higher than our ways, because a lot of stuff happens in this world that we don’t understand. Often, it is hard to believe the second statement for the very same reason. Still, the Scriptures call us to ask honestly and boldly to our Father, in Jesus’ name, praying in the Spirit at all times. And as we pray, the Lord will teach us how and what to pray in a particular circumstance.
Secondly, what are we to ask for? The Lord’s Prayer tells us to ask for “our daily bread.” We have prayed this prayer all our lives, so one would think we know what it means. Ask for enough to get through the day. Ask for God to fulfill your daily material needs. This goes along with Jesus’ command not to worry about tomorrow and not to store up treasures on Earth but to store up treasures in heaven. But there is some scholarly debate around what the Greek word “daily” actually means. Some scholars think the tense of the verb might actually be better translated, “Give us today some of the bread of the coming Kingdom” (Werline, 92) or “give us tomorrow’s bread today.” I know you probably haven’t heard this translation before, but I assure you it is a valid translation. Now you may be thinking, “Well, preacher, that doesn’t make any sense. How am I going to get tomorrow’s bread today?” Last week, we talked about praying for God’s Kingdom to come on Earth as it is in heaven. When we do that, we are asking that one day, God’s will, the rule of God, would be on Earth as it is in heaven. That everything we hear about how heaven is, that would be how Earth would be. And we are promised that God’s Kingdom is currently inside of us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and will one day be fully established when Jesus comes back. So when we pray for God’s Kingdom, we are not just praying for wars to end, peace on Earth, and good will towards all men; we are praying for Jesus to come back in glory. So when we say, “Give us some of tomorrow’s bread today,” we are asking for Jesus to give us some bread of the Kingdom, to give us some of heaven, in the here and now. We are basically asking God to do the impossible, which God said He could do.
So which is it? Gives us what we need to get through this day or give us a taste of heaven today? Is Jesus asking us to wait till after Thanksgiving to break out the Christmas music and decorations or is He saying, you know what, let’s have Christmas in July!!!! Because that would be super awesome!!!! Perhaps there is no reason to choose. Because the fact is, there are days we need help just to get through the day. But we also need hope that the tears we shed are not in vain. We need to learn the secret to contentment in all circumstances, as Paul says in Philippians, but we also need to, as Romans 8 tells us, allow the Holy Spirit to groan within us, with sighs too deep for words, as we long for the redemption of not just our bodies but all creation, as we cry out for Jesus to come soon! As we cry out for the swords to be beat into plowshares, as we hunger for the glory of the Lord to cover the Earth as the waters cover the sea. We must be content with our circumstances without losing hope. For if we lose hope, that is not contentment; that is, in fact, cynicism, fatalism, and bitterness.
It has been my honor to pray for you all this year. As I noted last Sunday, I have been really blessed that many of the prayers we have prayed for healing have been answered. Maybe because I am articulate, I give off the impression that I am always confident in my prayers. That I have more faith than the average Christian. And that is not so. I remember shortly after I arrived here, Joyce went in for open heart surgery. As many of you remember, that was a trying time for the Kregers and for our congregation. When I went to visit Joyce in Fort Wayne after the surgery, I didn’t know what to expect. But I certainly didn’t expect what I found. We all know Joyce is one of the true workers of this church. So full of energy and life. But when I walked into her room, I could barely recognize her. She was so frail, a shadow of her former self. I was shocked. Joyce’s daughter was also there when I visited. She is a nurse like Joyce. But even she was distraught. I didn’t know what to say. I know as a preacher I am supposed to know what to say, but I did not. I prayed with all the faith I had, which really wasn’t much, that she would get better. And then I walked into the lobby, sat down, and wept. I had no certainty that she would recover. And by the grace of God she did. As some of you know, I write free verse poetry that I share in the pulpit on occasion. The day after I prayed for Joyce, I wrote this poem. I think it is the most honest prayer I have ever prayed. It did not come easily. But even if the Lord hadn’t answered my prayers, our prayers, I would still pray this prayer today for anyone who asks. Because He asks us to ask.
For all those who are suffering today. For all the poor and powerless. For all the meek and mild. For all those groaning in the depths of despair, may this be a prayer for you as well.
Today I awake
knowing that I am a frail man.
Today I reach into the abyss
for an invisible hand.
Not to guide markets,
But to guide my heart.
Not to show me the end,
but to show me where to start.
Today I remember her
frail form once full of energy and life.
Today I feel the pain of uncertainty
cutting like the surgeon’s knife.
Today I pray Lord Jesus you would make a way
From sickness to health.
From my poverty of Spirit
to your Kingdom’s wealth.
I don’t know what tomorrow brings.
But I pray you would hear
our prayers today.