Jesus tells the disciples, “whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” “Whatever you ask…” sounds good. Health for loved ones, better job, bigger bank account, troublesome neighbor moved away… there’s all sorts of things we could pray for under that system. And this verse has led some false teachers to claim that, if you pray for something and don’t get it, then your faith wasn’t strong enough. That’s what happens when you take verses out of context. Yes, Jesus says “ask in my name and he will give it to you…” But just a few verses later he says, “you will be scattered, each to his own home… in the world you will have tribulation…” No one would pray, “Lord, give me trouble in the world”. So which is it? Do we get everything we pray for? Or do we get trouble? Well, yes.
To understand how prayer fits into the life of the Christian, we need to know what prayer is.
First, it’s commanded by God. He commands that Christians are to pray. The church is a church at prayer. To pray faithfully is to call on God in every trouble, to praise him, and to give thanks to him. But to what end? Why do we pray? Is it just because God commands it? If he had commanded that we whistle all hymns while standing on our head, instead of singing them right side up, that would certainly be enough reason to do it. And yet, God is not a God of disorder, but of order. And he does not give commands solely so that we can carry them out mindlessly. As Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. God gives his Law for our good. It is actually good for us to Love the Lord God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And so, when God commands that we pray, he does not just want us to pray out of compulsion. He wants us to pray out of love for him. He wants us to come to him in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks because of his love for us. He wants us to come to him with our petitions in time of trouble, our thanksgiving in good times.
Do our prayers make a difference? Well, on their own, our prayers are not powerful. They are just words we speak. But that doesn’t mean that, if we get a lot of people together, they somehow become more powerful on their own. Prayer isn’t a democracy. We don’t get bonus points for more prayers. In scripture, Elijah summons fire from heaven with a single short prayer. He even raises someone from the dead – and again, it is with a single, simple prayer. Scripture says that the prayer of the righteous man is effective. Prayer is us, coming to the seat of mercy of our great king. We may not be powerful. But we pray to one who is powerful. Who promises to hear and answer our prayers. Who has promised to give us every good thing.
This does not mean the answer to our prayers is always yes. Sometimes, in his mercy, the answer is no. But we see in Scripture on several occasions that God changes course because of the faithful prayers of his people.
Luther says about prayer, “In a good government it is not only necessary that there be those who build and govern well, but also those who make defense, afford protection and maintain it firmly.” That is what prayer is. We confess the faith, we teach it. But we must also be defending in our doctrine and our life from the attacks of Satan and the world. And of course, we must always keep watch over our own weak flesh. Your sinful nature does not want the things of God, and would lead you astray from that word into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. We pray that God would grant us faith, and that he would keep us faithful. That he would keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Jesus is the one who has overcome the world. By his death he has destroyed death, and by his rising again, he has restored to us everlasting life. We pray that he would keep us in that true faith.
Today is also the commemoration of Saint Constantine. He was the Roman Emperor in about 300 AD. The church had been illegal from the time of the apostles until that time. Various persecutions would break out, and Christians would be arrested, tortured, and even put to death for the crime of confessing Christ.
In 314 AD, Constantine declared that Christianity was no longer illegal. The tradition says that Constantine was about to go into battle and had a vision of the Cross, with the words, “In this sign, you will conquer…” He won the battle, and became a Christian. After hundreds of years of persecution, the prayers of the faithful were answered, the prayers of the emperor were answered as well. And in the sign of the cross, he found not only victory on the battlefield, but victory over death as well. As our nation and culture now return to a secular and non-Christian status, we are returning for the first time in 1700 years to that pre-Constantinian world. To a world that is largely unchristian, unconcerned with the things of God. To a world that does not know even the basic facts of Jesus life.
We know that the saints stand as examples of faith toward God and love to fellow man. But learning the history of the church can also serve to encourage us to be faithful, to strengthen us in times of trouble, and to warn us against false teachers. The time of Constantine serves all of those. The church never fought a battle. It was persecuted, and persecuted, and persecuted, it was driven underground, those who were Christian often suffered greatly. And then, after centuries of The Roman Empire killing, torturing, and punishing those who were faithful, the Empire yielded to the church. So it always is. The world persecutes, the world tries to crush the things of God – his holy church for example. The world wins, and wins, and wins, and then, it has lost. This is the pattern we see in the death of Christ himself. One of the twelve betray Jesus. He is condemned to die. He is put to death on the cross. And then, that very act of defeat becomes his victory, and the devil is crushed. The church is driven underground until the very moment is conquers Rome – not by strength, but by weakness.
So, we can take comfort in knowing that God continues to watch over and bless his church – even in times of trouble. In times of persecution. In times when the world rejects the word of God, and would try to force us to do the same. In just those times, when it seems from the perspective of the world that God has abandoned us, we see the hand of God working most clearly. Not always right away – not even always in our own lifetime. But God is working – he continues to work through his holy word and his Blessed sacraments. His Word continues to bring forth the fruit that he decrees. The sign of the cross is our sign of victory.
And so, whether in times of praise, or thanksgiving, whether in times of plenty or times of want, in times of strength and in times of weakness, in times of great blessing, and in times of trouble, we pray, giving thanks to God for his many gifts – especially for the victory which is ours through Jesus Christ, for the gift of the church to bring us the salvation He won for us by his death on the cross. We pray for the church and for ourselves, that we would be strengthened and preserved in the true faith, unto life everlasting. And that we would depart this world in the peace of the Lord, and so receive the crown of victory.