The three traditional Lenten Disciplines (Prayer, Fasting Almsgiving) were the focus of the first three midweek sermons this year. Sermon one was on prayer. Here it is:
Why the forty days of Lent? Well, for one thing, if it was good enough for our Lord, who fasted for forty days after his baptism, then it is certainly good enough for us. For another, we have the reading from Genesis. We see how our first parents gave into the temptation, ate the forbidden fruit, and were cast out of the garden of Eden. But more than just not being in the garden anymore, they were cursed to return to the dust from which they were taken. And that curse falls on all the children of Adam. All the children of Adam are sinners. All the children of Adam have earned the wages for their sin. As we hear on ash Wednesday as the sign of the cross is traced on the forehead, from dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return. The judgment of God over sin.
And that is why we have this season of repentance. That is why we set aside time for extra prayer. It is why Lent is historically called the Fast. And it is why we have extra offerings, and why we collect food for the poor of our community. Because it is meet right and salutary that we do these things. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three historic Lenten disciplines. And, properly understood, they help us as we go through this world. They help us as we struggle against the flesh as we look in faith toward God, and love toward our fellow man.
The first of the Lenten disciplines is prayer. Our Lord commands that we pray, which is certainly reason enough to do so. But he also promises to hear and answer our prayer. When we speak of prayer, it does not just mean praying quietly at home – although it means that too. The church is a church at prayer. When we come together, whatever the purpose, whether meetings, or soup and pie, evening worship, or the Sunday morning divine service, we join together in prayer as the church. Not just because God commanded it, but because we are in great need. The danger is so great that often you do not even recognize it. The devil fights against you, the world attacks and entices you to abandon God’s word, and your own sinful flesh is sympathetic to the message of the devil and the world. The reformers put it this way:
God’s Word testifies that the intellect, heart, and will of the natural, unregenerate man in divine things are not only turned entirely away from God, but also turned and perverted against God to every evil; that he is not only weak, incapable, unfit, and dead to good, but also is so lamentably perverted, infected, and corrupted by original sin that he is entirely evil, perverse, and hostile to God by his disposition and nature, and that he is exceedingly strong, alive, and active with respect to everything that is displeasing and contrary to God
That’s what the phrase “Your sinful flesh” means. But it gets worse: As St. Paul says in Romans 7:
“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
Even among the regenerate – those who have been called and enlightened by the Holy Spirit – the old flesh rages against the will and word of God. Prayer is your only real defense. When you pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” you are asking God to restrain your old flesh, to – by his grace – help you beat down those fleshly desires so that you would remain in the faith.
It is not enough simply to build a city, the city must be protected and preserved. In the old days this meant a city wall to protect from invaders. Today we need workmen to repair the things that have been built and keep them running. So with the gift of your faith. It is not enough to at once believe and then walk away and never give it a thought again. You must constantly fight against the devil, world and your own flesh so that you are not led away into false belief, despair or some other great shameful sin that would destroy your faith. It is a constant battle through your entire life. That is what you face. And so prayer is the means by which you ask God for help. It is the defense against Satan and his forces.
It is an immensely powerful weapon, not because of the prayer itself, not because of your earnest heart in praying, but because of the strength, power and faithfulness of the one you pray to. Your Father in heaven is powerful, and he is faithful, even in your faithlessness. To him belong the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. He is the one who can do the things he promises to do. And so the prayer of the faithful is always a humble prayer that God would keep you in the faith, and that he would not let you get in the way of his saving work in your life.
The prayer of the faithful is always accompanied by the word of God. That is why, when we gather, we hear the word, and we respond in prayer. We hear God’s promise, and then we come before him to speak.
And when you come before him on your own, as Jesus says, shut in your closet so that no one can see your faithful prayer, then do not come to him in any old way, but again, surrounded by the Word. The prayer of the faithful may use other words than the prayer he taught us, you may use pre-planned prayers or spontaneous prayers, or in times of great trouble you may use groanings that words can not express, while the Spirit himself intercedes for you, but those prayers never go beyond the things that Jesus has given you to pray in the Lord’s Prayer.
And the prayer of the faithful is grounded in the word and promise of God, to hear your prayer, and answer that prayer, for Jesus sake. For he is the one who makes you worthy to even approach the throne of Glory to bring your requests and petitions to Him. And in these Lenten services we hear again of the passion and death of our Lord, because it is his suffering, his death that have torn open the curtain that separated you from the Holy of Holies where God dwells, it is the death of your Lord have made it possible for you to come into the presence of God and bring your requests to him, whether in the church or the home, whether here or traveling, whether in good times or bad. That is why our prayers are to our heavenly Father, and offered in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, who gives you faith to believe the promise of God.
Enough for now on the topic of prayer. We will continue next week to discuss the disciplines of Lent, as we come ever closer to Good Friday, to hearing again the death of our Lord, who saved you.