Sunday, May 1, 2016
Homily for 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.
That you pray is not a suggestion, but it is a commandment. While there is a sense in which you are invited to pray, it is in the same sense in which you are invited to drive at the posted speed limit. To put it quite bluntly, to pray is to keep and to obey the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” For, when you pray, you “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”
Now, to be sure, your heavenly Father has attached some pretty spectacular promises to your prayer. In fact, your Lord Jesus promises you, “Whatever you ask of the Father in my Name, He will give it to you.” And this is key: Your heavenly Father will not give you what you ask because you pray, because of the words of your prayer, because of the eloquence of how you pray, because of your great sincerity in prayer, or even because of your faith, but He will give you those things that you ask in Jesus’ Name. Do not think that this means that you should simply end your prayer with the words “In the Name of Jesus.” That is indeed a salutary thing to do, but those words are a confession of your faith. They are worship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are not magical incantation that will cause God to give you what you want, as if He were some divine vending machine in the sky. No! Perish the thought!
But, the command to ask in Jesus’ Name means to ask for those things that Jesus has revealed in His life and ministry, in His suffering, death, and resurrection, in His Word, which is the Word of God. In other words, you are not to ask for Cadillacs and winning lottery tickets, but you are to ask for those things that God has already promised to give you: faith, the Holy Spirit, humility, patience, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." As your earthly fathers, who are corrupted by sin and evil, desire to give you things that are good for you, how much more will Your heavenly Father give you, not harmful and evil things, but the things that He knows are truly good for you His dear and beloved child? Moreover, He already gives you these things. So, why does He command you to pray? Your heavenly Father commands you to pray because He loves for you to call upon Him, to put your fear, your love, and your trust in Him, to keep the First Commandment, and because this is all extremely good, absolving, and life-giving to you. Your heavenly Father wants you to pray to Him, to ask Him in Jesus’ Name, because He is love and because He loves you.
Still, there is a great deal more in Jesus’ command to ask in His Name. To ask in Jesus’ Name is not merely to mutter the words “In Jesus’ Name,” nor is it merely to ask for those things that are in Jesus’ Name, that is, those things that are in accord with the holy will and Word of God. But, to ask in Jesus’ Name is, quite literally, to ask in Jesus, to ask as Jesus, as one who has been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, as a member of Jesus’ body, the Church. Quite obviously, if you ask in Jesus, as Jesus, you cannot possibly ask for something that is not in accord with the holy will and Word of God. Moreover, your heavenly Father has promised to hear and to answer your prayer, even to give you precisely what you ask for. In this case, the tired saying that God always answers prayer with either “Yes,” “No,” or “Later,” is nonsense. Jesus says quite plainly and literally and truthfully, “Whatever you ask of the Father in my Name, He will give it to you.” So, if you ask and you do not receive, it is not that God did not hear your prayer, or that He doesn’t wish to give you what you ask at this time, or that you didn’t ask rightly, believe that He would answer, or anything else, but all that it means is that you did not truly ask in Jesus’ Name.
Now, I understand that this may come as a surprise to many of you. After all, you’ve heard countless preachers and teachers, you’ve read devotions and have attended Bible classes in which you have been taught that you’re simply supposed to ask God for whatever you want, that if only you “name it,” and truly believe, that you can “claim it” and it will be so. And, if you don’t get what you want, you have probably felt that you didn’t ask rightly, that you didn’t believe strongly enough, that God said “No,” or, maybe, just maybe, you even began to doubt if God was truly there at all. I say to you, that teaching is from the devil who desires only to lead you away from fear, love, and trust in God and into fear, love, and trust in yourself, and who seeks to rob you of comfort and peace. Your Lord Jesus suffered and died to release you from this bondage. Your Lord Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of His Father in heaven to intercede and to advocate for you there. As St. James writes, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” This is most certainly true, for that “righteous man” is Jesus, not you. Any doctrine of prayer that shifts your focus from Jesus to yourself, or to your works, or to your faith, or to your words, or to anything else, is from the devil who seeks only to deceive you, and to destroy you, and to rob you of Christ’s peace.
That is the complete opposite purpose for which Jesus commands you to pray. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace,” says Jesus. “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Notice how Jesus doesn’t sidestep tribulation. He doesn’t say that you might have tribulation, but Jesus actually promises you that you will have tribulation. Therefore, do not be surprised when things don’t go your way, when the world mocks and ridicules your faith, when everything you believe and hold precious and true seems to be at odds with the world and the culture around you, when you don’t fit in, when your faith and church appear to be irrelevant to the world, when no human wisdom seems to avail, when you don’t know how you’re going to make it much longer, when… etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Your Lord Jesus told you beforehand that this would happen so that when it does you might remember and take comfort in His Words, “I have overcome the world.” It is Satan that wants you to worry and to be anxious, to fret and to despair. He will use these fears and dark emotions against you either to separate you from God and His Church through hopelessness and despair because you believe that you have failed, that it is your fault, or he will harden your heart against God and fill you full of pride and self-righteousness that you rail against God, claiming that He is loveless, merciless, a pitiless and harsh judge and master, or doesn’t exist at all.
Yes, you need to pray. You need to ask Him in Jesus’ Name. His command is good for you just as the First Commandment is good for you. He is God and you are not. To remember this, to believe this, to confess this, and to return to this, is good for you. God doesn’t need your prayers, but He loves it when you pray to Him and ask Him for good things, just as a child asks his loving father, trusting that he wants only good for his dear child. When you turn to Him in repentance, when you cry to Him for help and for strength and for the Holy Spirit and for faith, when you lift up your eyes to Him as the object of your faith, life, and salvation, you will be comforted, you will be healed, you will be forgiven, even though you are a victim of that serpent Satan’s poisonous and deadly bite. “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
And, “Be doers of the word, and not hears only, deceiving yourselves.” You see, Satan and your own wicked flesh wish to separate these two things. Some will claim that all they need is to hear the Word of God and that, despite their works, despite the fruit they do not bear, they may be confident in their salvation. While, others will claim that works are most important, even all that is necessary, and justify their laxity in hearing the Word of the Lord and receiving His Blessed Sacraments. This, too, is of the lies and deceptions of your enemy, the devil. Thus, St. James rightly connects the two, faith and works, and show them to be two sides of the same coin. It is most certainly true that you are saved by grace through faith alone apart from works, but it is also true that true and living faith is never alone but is always fruitful. And, this too is a reason for your Lord’s command to pray and to ask. You are to ask for those things that are in Jesus that you might bear the fruits of Jesus for others, that they may have His peace also and that God the Father may be glorified.
And, take note of the emphasis here on hearing as opposed to speaking. This may seem odd as you likely consider prayer to be more about speaking than listening. What you need to learn here is that true and God-pleasing prayer originates in hearing, not speaking, that is, in hearing God’s Word. And, this takes us right back to where we began: When you pray, you must pray in Jesus’ Name. That is, you must pray in Jesus and ask for those things that are in Jesus and not for those things that are not in Jesus. How do you know what those things are? You hear, mark, read, learn, and inwardly digest the Word of God. The Word must be your sustenance, the very food for your soul. Therefore, regular hearing of the Word in this fellowship is central and crucial, along with regular reception of the Word made flesh, the Word made visible and tangible and edible, the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, and for life both now and forevermore. This too is a necessary fruit, a doing, which corresponds to and flows out of your hearing.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, beloved children of our heavenly Father, your Father and God commands you to pray that you might return to Him in repentance and receive from Him all that He desires to give to you in His Son, your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He would have you fear, love, and trust in Him above all else and, thus, it is the greatest good for you to pray, to ask Him in Jesus’ Name, and to receive from Him the things that give you life. And, when you have received, then you have also to give, for “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction,” that is, to is to humbly serve others as you have been served, “and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This gift and promise of His Word He has left with you, and His Holy Spirit as counselor, comforter, helper, and guide, until He comes, that you may persevere.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.