May 29, 2011
The Power of Prayer
St. John 16:23‑24
“And in that day you will ask Me nothing. 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 16:23‑24
Today is Rogate Sunday. Rogate comes from the Latin for ask. We ask the Father. We ask the Father in Jesus’ name. Whatever we ask him in Jesus’ name we will receive. We ask so that our joy may be full.
The invitation is clear. Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.” Again he says, “Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Again he says, “In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.” To pray is to ask. To ask is to pray. Jesus invites us to pray. He invites us to ask his Father for whatever we need. He invites us to pray in his name.
There are two reasons for us to pray: God’s command and promise. God commands us to pray. God promises to answer our prayers.
The command to pray is joined to the First Table of God’s law. The first three commandments deal with prayer. The First Commandment tells us that we are to have no other gods before the true God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This means that we pray to no one but the Holy Trinity. The Second Commandment tells us not to take God’s name in vain. This means that we are to call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. The Third Commandment tells us to sanctify the holy day. We do that by the word of God and prayer. We listen to God’s word and we pray to God. The command to pray is the command to honor God as God.
Ah, but will it do any good? Some say it works. Others deny that prayer has any power. Believers point to how God has blessed them through prayer. They needed something and they prayed for it and God provided it. Unbelievers respond by saying that they’ve tried prayer and it didn’t work. They point out that there are perfectly natural explanations for the claims of believers to the power of prayer. Prayer becomes a battle ground between those who say it works and those who say it doesn’t.
There is an implicit assumption in this argument, never quite stated, but assumed by both sides. That assumption is that prayer is something that works or doesn’t work. Prayer has power or doesn’t. Prayer accomplishes something or doesn’t accomplish anything.
It appears that neither side of this argument understands what prayer is and why we pray. We don’t pray because prayer works. We pray because God tells us to. God does the work. It is true that prayer is work. Prayer is hard work. But prayer doesn’t accomplish what prayer asks. God does. Prayer has no power in itself. God is almighty. We are weak. We don’t pray from a position of strength. We pray from a position of weakness. This is why we pray in Jesus’ name.
It is as Jesus is heading to the cross that he invites us to pray in his name. It is as he is earning our right to pray that he invites us to pray in his name. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray laying claim to Jesus, his obedience, his righteousness, and his suffering for us. Apart from Jesus coming from the Father and returning to the Father we have no right to pray. The Son had to become our brother. He had to come into this world to be conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. He had to obey. He had to suffer. He had to return to his Father by way of obedience and suffering. All this he had to do in order for us to have the right to pray. He certainly did not obey and suffer and die for his own sake. He did it for our sakes, so that by his merits and mediation we would have the rights of God’s children.
Children of God become children of God through faith in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. This is why children of God pray in Jesus’ name, that is, through faith in him. We don’t necessarily verbalize Jesus’ name in every prayer. His name is not in the Lord’s Prayer. But the Lord’s Prayer and every other prayer a Christian prays are prayed in the name of Jesus. He is the one who gives us the right to pray.
We pray for whatever we need. Jesus says, “Whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.” We pray, not because there is power in prayer, but because through faith in Jesus we know God and belong to him and have access to him. The gospel is the power of God to save everyone who believes. It is the power of the gospel – the word of forgiveness freely given to us by God for the sake of the obedience and suffering of Jesus – that brings our prayers from our lips into God’s ears. There is no power in prayer as prayer. But there is almighty power in the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for us, for the remission of sins.
This is why God’s word and our prayer go together. They are bound inextricably each to the other. God’s word is the source of our faith. Our prayer is the exercise of our faith. Jesus spoke to his disciples in figurative language. He spoke to them in plain language. He told them parables, preached sermons, and taught them everything he wanted them to know. He taught them the law that exposed their sin. He taught them the gospel that forgave their sin. Through his teaching they were brought to faith. Without God’s teaching there is no faith.
To sever prayer from the word of God is to turn prayer into a self-centered activity that has nothing to do with God. Hence, all the foolish arguments about whether or not prayer works. What’s to work? To get more and more stuff to satisfy whatever cravings come along? To gain power over those we are called to serve? To avoid the necessary consequences of our irresponsible folly? To receive without paying? To win without working? To acquire more and more things that will perish with the world? What’s prayer supposed to get us, anyway?
Prayer is grounded in faith. There is no true faith, no saving faith, except the faith that God works in our hearts through his gospel and sacraments. Faith is born where we are sinful and weak and humbled before God. It is born from God’s word as God speaks his pardon. God tells us what the suffering of Jesus means for us. He forgives us our sins for Jesus’ sake. From forgiveness faith finds God.
Then faith speaks. Prayer is faith talking. Faith comes from God’s word and flows into prayer. Prayer is repeating back to God the words he first spoke to us. That’s the way our babies learn to speak. That’s the way we learn to pray.
Paul is our third son. He didn’t learn to talk as quickly as his older brothers, Daniel and David. We figured that the reason was he didn’t have to. Daniel and David did his talking for him. If Paul wanted something, he’d point and grunt. Daniel interpreted the grunt and told us what Paul wanted. Eventually, Paul learned to talk for himself. And so it is with our prayers. We start out without knowing how to say the words. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t praying. It means that prayer – like talking – takes practice.
Jesus gives us the right to pray. He says:
In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.
Jesus isn’t saying he won’t pray for us. Of course, he will. He’ll never stop praying for us. He’s saying that we can pray for ourselves. We can talk to God directly. We don’t need to go through a priest or a pastor or a parent or anyone else but Jesus Christ. Through Jesus we have direct access to God. As we sing in the hymn:
Jesus in thy cross are centered
All the marvels of thy grace
Thou, my Savior, once hast entered
Through thy blood the holy place
Thy sacrifice holy there wrought my redemption
From Satan’s dominion I now have exemption
The way is now free to the Father’s high throne
Where I may approach him in thy name alone.
Not only does Jesus give us the right to pray; he even gives us the prayer to pray. The Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful gift from the Lord to his Church. We know that our Father in heaven will answer us when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. How can he not when his Son has told us to pray it? The Lord’s Prayer includes everything for which a Christian needs to pray.
When we pray “Hallowed by thy name” we are praying that God’s word be proclaimed in its truth and purity and that we live holy lives according to it as God’s dear children.
When we pray “Thy kingdom come” we are praying that God will uproot from our hearts all of Satan’s influence, replace his lies with the saving truth, and bring the Church to heaven.
When we pray “Thy will be done” we are praying that God will keep us steadfast in his word and in the true faith all our lives.
When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are praying that God will lead us to accept with thanksgiving everything he does to provide us with a comfortable, peaceful, and happy life in this world.
When we pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” we are asking God not to deny us our prayers on account of our sins but to give us what we ask purely by grace and we promise to show that same grace to those who do us wrong.
When we pray “Lead us not into temptation” we are asking God to protect us from the traps that our sinful nature, the devil, and the world set for our faith and to give us victory over them.
When we pray “But deliver us from evil” we ask God to take us to heaven when we die.
At times it appears that God doesn’t answer our prayers. We think he doesn’t hear us. So we search for ways to get his attention. Or perhaps we quit trying and assume that prayer doesn’t work.
But the work of prayer is praying. That’s all we can do. And we can do it! We keep on asking. He keeps on denying. We don’t give up. He ignores us. We keep on praying. He turns his back. No. He’s not denying us. He’s not ignoring us. He’s not turning his back on us. He is doing the doing that needs to be done. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean he’s not doing it. In time the Christian’s patience and trust will be rewarded and God will show us that he never denied us the prayers we prayed in Jesus’ name.
Prayer is the exercise of our faith. Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, teaches us to pray. We listen to him. We don’t consult shallow and materialistic people whose world centers on themselves and their selfish wants. We consult him who came to us from the Father and returned to the Father by taking away all of our sins on the cross. We pray in obedience to his command, trusting in his promise, and in his name. For his sake all our prayers are answered. Amen