May 10, 2015
“Prayer and Joy”
St. John 16:23-25
“Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” St. John 16:23-25
What do you want? You see what others have. You don’t have it. They have a nicer house, a new car, a better job, and better connections. You want what they have. Or, maybe it’s not so much what you want to get as it is what you want to get rid of: the chronic pain that never goes away; the weakness that holds you back; the bad habit that controls your life and keeps you from being free.
What do you want? Being satisfied in life is an endless quest. The Psalmist reveals the wisdom of God when he writes,
We must distinguish between carnal joy and spiritual joy. Carnal joy is getting things that please the flesh and avoiding things that bring us bodily pain. Spiritual joy is taking pleasure in God. People confuse the carnal with the spiritual. Many people have a view of heaven, for example, where you get to do all of the pleasurable things that were denied to you here in this life.
Spiritual joy comes from knowing God. It is the true joy of life. It is the joy of being at peace with God. God is not angry with you and you are not angry with him. It is the joy of resting with God. You don’t worry about your relationship with him. You have his favor. There is nothing you must do to gain it. You already have it. God’s favor resting upon you colors everything you think, say, and do. It is a joy that remains even when the life you live in your body endures sorrow, pain, and disappointment.
God gives this joy. He gives it in Jesus’ name. That is, he gives it for Christ’s sake. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray relying on Christ’s vicarious satisfaction. Now that’s a term we should know. Vicarious means he did it for us, as our representative or substitute. Satisfaction means he has satisfied God. He has met all of God’s demands upon us. Sometimes we refer to the vicarious satisfaction as the vicarious atonement because when Jesus satisfied God he also made peace with God. This is what atonement means. God is at one with us for Christ’s sake. Praying in Jesus’ name is praying to the Father in reliance upon Christ our Redeemer and Savior. It is claiming a status with God that only Christ can give to us.
Praying in Jesus’ name doesn’t necessarily mean that we say “in Jesus’ name” at the end of our prayer. The Lord’s Prayer – named after the Lord Jesus who taught us to pray it – never mentions Jesus by name. Still, we pray the Lord’s Prayer in Jesus’ name and by his invitation.
Some prayers end with the familiar words, “through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” We address the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no other god than the Holy Trinity. This doesn’t mean that we must specifically identify the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit by name in every prayer. It does mean that we pray only to the Triune God. There is no other god.
To pray is to ask. Prayer is calling on God, making our requests known to him. He knows what we want and need before we ask, but Jesus commands us to pray. The faithful pray. The reason people don’t pray is because they don’t believe. It’s quite simple. Children ask their heavenly Father for his help, his grace, his comfort, his wisdom, his guidance, his forgiveness, his protection, and every other blessing he has to give. Children of our Father in heaven are his children only through faith in Christ. St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:26-27,
Only when we are covered by Christ’s righteousness are we acceptable to God. Prayer is not the means by which we are made acceptable to God. Christ has won this status for us by his holy obedience and vicarious suffering and death. We receive it through faith alone. Prayer doesn’t gain it. We pray because we already have it. If we were not God’s children we couldn’t pray as if we were.
Jesus tells us to pray – to ask the Father in his name – so that our joy may be full. What should we pray for? Jesus says, “Whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.” What should we ask him for? What do you want? What would bring you the fullness of joy if you had it?
The character Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister in the cartoon strip, Peanuts, was wishing on a star. She said, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.” Then she said, “I wish I had a pony.” She looked around, saw no pony, and shook her fist up in the air and yelled, “Stupid star!”
That cartoon strip illustrates how people look at prayer. They want something very specific. They want God to get it for them. When he doesn’t, they get mad and say that God doesn’t answer prayer. You’ve heard the complaint: “I tried prayer. It didn’t work.”
Back in 1952 a preacher by the name of Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book that became a best seller, selling millions of copies and influencing many other popular preachers. The name of the book was The Power of Positive Thinking. I read it. Peale had prayer down to a science. In order to get God to give you what you want, you need to follow a formula for successful praying. If you follow the correct formula, God will give you what you want. The book represented a brazen attempt to manipulate God. Do it this way and God will deliver the goods. God becomes the heavenly vending machine. You just have to learn how to insert the right coins.
Is this what Jesus means when he invites us to pray with the words, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you”? No. Peale had matters precisely backwards. Prayer does not put us in a position of getting God to do something. God has already done something. It is in receiving what he has already achieved for us that our joy is full.
What does a Christian want from God? God! We want him. He is our true joy. Consider what Jesus taught us to pray for. We pray that God’s name be hallowed among us, that he rule over us by his grace, that his good and gracious will be done among us and for us, that we receive from him what we need to live day to day in this world, that he forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, that he keep temptation from leading us into sin, and that he deliver us from every evil of body and soul and receive us to himself in heaven. What does all of this amount to? It is to know him and be known by him. It is to enjoy his love.
St. Augustine prayed a prayer that has been prayed countless times since. He prayed:
The joy of prayer is finding our rest in our Creator. The great Danish hymnist, Thomas Kingo, wrote of Christ’s incarnation so beautifully with the words:
It is as God the Son becomes our brother and suffers and dies for us that his Father becomes our Father. We ask in Jesus’ name because in Jesus’ name the creation is reconciled to the Creator. God joins his creation to bring us back to where he is. He is holy. He is separated from sin, from pain, from death, from all misery of human existence. He is so far above it that it cannot touch him. After all, he is God.
Now look and see what God is doing. He who cannot suffer suffers the penalty of sin. He, whose holiness cannot tolerate evil, bears the evil of all humanity. He experiences the pain. He suffers the death. He endures the misery. He, who lives in that unapproachable light into which no sin can enter, becomes sin for us, absorbing as a sponge all the wrongs we committed against each other. This is what the eternal Son of God did.
And he is ours. We claim his name. Because he is ours we are God’s. And we claim everything that belongs to God. It is ours. Having fellowship with our Creator the whole creation serves us. We own the world. No sin can burden our conscience. No sickness can deprive us of our peace. No loss can make us poor. We know God and are known by him. That is true joy that nobody can take away from us.
The Holy Spirit confirms us in our joy. He works through the word of God that is planted within us. He doesn’t work on us directly. He works through the gospel and sacraments of Christ. He sprinkles water on us and washes away our sin by the blood of Jesus that is joined to that water. The word of God is always the almighty word of the Spirit. Prayer is joined to God’s word. Jesus said earlier in his sermon from which our text is taken:
Christ’s words bring with them the Holy Spirit. He takes out our hearts of stone and replaces them with trusting hearts that find true joy in knowing God. God’s word to us and our prayer to God are joined together. This is what brings us true joy. It is the joy of hearing God’s word, believing it, and receiving what God promises in it. Ask and you will receive, Jesus says, that your joy may be full.
Rolf D. Preus