Sunday, May 10, 2015
Rogate - The Sixth Sunday of Easter (Easter 6)
John 16:23-33; James 1:22-27; Numbers 21:4-9
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
There is power in prayer, but from whence does that power come? Is there power in the one who prays; is there power in you? Is there power in the words that you pray? Is there power in your faith as you pray? Or, is there power in the One to whom you pray, power in the Name in which you pray? Surely, it is the latter. Indeed, there is power in prayer, just as there is power in absolution. And, as the power of absolution does not lie in you – in the words of your confession, or in your faith, or in your piety – but, the power of absolution lies in the One to whom you confess, so too does the power of prayer lie in the Words, the promise, the faithfulness, and the righteousness of your LORD, to whom you pray, who alone is righteous, and who has promised both to hear and to answer your prayers in Jesus’ Name.
St. James has written, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Unfortunately, St. James has commonly been misunderstood to mean that it is your righteousness and the fervency of your faith that makes your prayers to be efficacious and powerful. This creates at least two serious problems. First, if the efficacy of your prayer depends upon your righteousness, then there is no hope that your prayers will ever be heard, let alone that they will be effective. Second, if the efficacy of your prayers depends upon the fervency of your faith, then you will either despair that you have not believed fervently enough, or, perhaps worse, you will come to believe that your faith is indeed fervent and strong, so that your faith will be in your faith and not in Christ who alone is righteous. But, the efficacy of your prayer does not depend upon your righteousness – except that you are declared to be righteous by the LORD because of your faith in Jesus Christ His Son. And, likewise, the efficacy of your prayer does not depend upon your faith – except that you have the gift of faith created in you by the Holy Spirit of God.
Moses was a righteous man. Well, he was not righteous in himself, but the LORD declared Him to be righteous because he trusted in Him, his faith and his trust were a work and gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, when the people were bitten by poisonous serpents, they cried out to righteous Moses to pray to the LORD on their behalf, that He would remove the snakes. And so, Moses prayed, and his prayer was effective – it was heard and it was answered. Moses’ prayer was heard and answered by the LORD because the LORD counted Moses as righteous. And, perhaps, so that the people, and even Moses himself, did not get the idea that it was their righteousness or their faith that made their prayers efficacious, the LORD did not give them what they prayed for – the LORD did not take the snakes away. In fact, people continued to get bit and to die from the poisonous serpents! However, the LORD did answer Moses’ prayer, though in a different way. The LORD instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and to raise it up on a pole. Then, whoever had been bitten by a poisonous serpent, when they looked upon the bronze serpent raised up on the pole, would not die from the snakebite.
You see, the LORD did not give them what they wanted, but He gave them what they needed. The people wanted physical safety and relief from suffering, but the LORD knew that they needed faith and trust in Him and in His Word. The reason the LORD sent the serpents in the first place was because the people did not trust in the LORD to care for them. They even accused the LORD of intentionally leading them out of slavery in Egypt to starve to death in the wilderness! Remember what they said, “There is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” They grumbled against the LORD. They did not fear, love, and trust in the LORD above all things. They even despised His providence and accused the LORD of evil. Therefore, it was out of mercy that the LORD sent the fiery serpents to bite them. It was loving and merciful discipline so that the people would see their sin and repent. And, they did! But, still, all they cared about was a release from the poisonous serpents. Though they repented, they did not understand that what they lacked was faith and trust in the LORD and in His Word. That is why the LORD did not take the serpents away, but He did give them a way out so that, though they might still be bitten and suffer, they would live if they trusted in the LORD and in His Word and looked upon the bronze serpent raised up on the pole.
The LORD fixed His Word of promise to a physical object, even the emblem of their suffering, a bronze serpent, with the promise that, if they looked upon the bronze serpent, they would live. Similarly, you and I have been bitten by the poisonous serpent Satan. We each have been conceived and born with the corruption of original sin – sin that is real sin and personal sin, sin that leads only and always to death. However, the LORD has provided for you and for me, and for all the people who will ever live, a way that we can, despite our sin, live and never die. No, He did not take our sin away – that is to say, we still sin, daily, and much, in thought, word, and in deed – but, the LORD has given us a way to escape the penalty of sin, which is death. This time, the LORD did not command a bronze serpent to be raised up on a pole, but, instead, the LORD gave His only-begotten Son, Jesus, to be crucified and hanged upon the cross for our sins and for the sins of the entire world, that anyone and everyone who looks to Him in faith and trust may live, even though they die, and have their sins forgiven.
Thus, Jesus, before His crucifixion and death, taught His disciples, His Church, you and me, about prayer. Jesus said, “In that day,” that is, the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, “you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my Name, He will give it to you. […] Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” “In Jesus’ Name” is not some magical incantation that manipulates the LORD to answer your prayer; beware that you never think or believe such a thing! But “in Jesus’ Name” means that you should pray for all and only those things that Jesus would pray for and would have you pray for, all things that are in accord with the LORD’s Word and will. Thus, it should be obvious that this precludes prayers for new Cadillacs and winning lottery tickets, right? Additionally, however, all material and worldly things must take a lesser status in your prayers, for Jesus drew His sustenance, not from bread alone, but from every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and Jesus had no home or place to lay His head, knowing that His true home was with His Father in heaven. This is what Jesus means when He says that you should ask that your “joy may be full.” What is the source of true joy? Is it worldly, material possessions? Is it comforts and pleasures of the flesh? Is it reputation and esteem among men? Is it health and well-being? No. Even if you are blessed to have these things, you know that they are fleeting. To strive and struggle to obtain, keep, and maintain them is a losing battle that only brings suffering for you and for others. Rather, you should receive them as gifts from the LORD and give thanks for them. But, beware not to make these things idols and false gods. For, true joy is the forgiveness of sins, the washing away of the guilt of your sin, reconciliation with the Father, and life that never ends. That is what Jesus would have you pray for, that your joy may be full – that you may be full of true joy, not all manner of cheap, imitation, false, and fleeting joy.
Therefore, St. James also wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before, God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Truly, St. James says quite a lot here. First, though it is popular today to say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” St. James suggests that there is a religion that is “pure and undefiled before God,” and that is a religion of selflessness and service, visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and remaining unstained from the world. Second, the practitioner of this “pure and undefiled” religion will bridle their tongues. Clearly, this is wise counsel of the highest degree. It is St. James, after all who speaks at length of the evils of the tongue. However, this counsel has a relation to the topic of prayer today as well. The prayers of the righteous man will not consist of “meaningless repetition” and “many words,” but they will consist of the righteous Words of our righteous Lord and God. Therefore, the best possible prayer is the prayer that our Lord Jesus has taught us. First, learn this prayer and all that it encompasses, and then, learn from it how, and for what, to pray.
Yes, there is power in prayer, for there is power in the One who has commanded you to pray and has promised to hear and to answer your prayers. And, yes, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” For, Jesus is the righteous man, and His Words are effective, His faith is fervent. These He shares with you who are baptized into Him, and who trust in Him for forgiveness, life, and salvation. Look to Jesus in your time of trouble and distress, and give Him thanks and praise for His providence, goodness, grace, and mercy. Let your prayer be like that of the tax collector in the temple, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” For, that man, and not the Pharisee, went down to his home righteous and justified. In this way, you are the righteous man, when you trust not in your own providence, faith, and righteousness, but in the LORD and His Word alone. Then will you be a practitioner of the “pure and undefiled” religion, and your joy will be full. Even now, He who was lifted up for you is present with His Words and with His Wounds to fill you to overflowing. Come, eat and live. Come, drink and be forgiven. Be fulfilled. Be joyful in the Lord who has done all things well, who has made all things new, even you.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.