Here is today’s sermon, for those who can not make it to church.
The Old Testament reading happens near the end of Israel’s 40 years in the desert. They are finally on their way to enter the promised land. Then there is yet another delay – they have to walk around the land of Edom, they can’t go through it. They start complaining. The food – they are tired of it. They haven’t worked for it. It just shows up every day – a gift from God. But it is the same day after day. When we don’t work for something, when we have no skin in the game, we tend to not really appreciate what we have been given. We begin to despise the gift, because it comes so easily. “There is nothing to eat, and we loathe this worthless food.” A complaint that by their own words is not legitimate. There is food. It has kept them alive for 40 years, so it is not worthless. But they are thankless. The punishment: Snakes come to bite the people. Stranded in the desert, they have no real options. They are dying, and they have no where to run. They repent of their sin and cry out to God. Suddenly the food they were complaining about doesn’t seem to bad. Certainly better than the alternative. But the snakes remain. And so they ask Moses – have God take the snakes away. God does not take the snakes away. He gives them a way to survive the snakes. But he doesn’t take them away. The nation still suffers from snakes everywhere. They still suffer from painful bites. But the death that comes from the snakes has been taken away.
Jesus will use this account as direct analogy to his own death. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up that everyone who believes in him would have everlasting life.” In our sin we cry out to God for mercy. But he does not suddenly take us out of this world, he does not suddenly take away our sinful nature. Even the best most Spirit filled Christian is still weak and still stumbles. But what does God do instead? He gives us a way to survive the sting of sin. Jesus dies on the cross – he is raised up, and all those who look to him have forgiveness of sins. And even though they die, they never die. Just as all those who looked to the bronze serpent were saved from the serpents venom.
This reading is a wonderful reminder of the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But today, we are also looking at what scripture teaches us about prayer. The hymn of the day is Luther’s great Lord’s Prayer hymn – although we shortened it a bit this year. The Gospel is Jesus giving instructions for prayer – we can pray directly to our Father in heaven, we don’t need super-heroes of the faith to bring our requests before God. By virtue of Jesus death for us – because of what he has done, and because God has claimed you as his own in your Baptism, you can pray directly to the Father. That is why we don’t pray to saints as many Christians mistakenly do.
But the Old Testament reading shows us another important part of our prayer life – God promises to hear our prayers. He promises to answer our prayers. But his answers are not always in the way we would expect. First – when he gives what we pray for, it often looks very different than we expect or want. So, if we pray for an increase in patience, we can expect that God will make us wait for things. If we pray for an increase in faith, we are praying for God to take things away that would distract us from him – things that might come between us and God. Things that are precious to us in this world, but which really do not matter in eternity. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t hard to have them taken away though. If we pray for an increase of love, we are asking that God send us people who are less loveable so that we can improve our ability to love others. And when we pray that God would take away death from us – he does it by the death of His own dear Son, and by the promise of the resurrection, not by sending a fiery chariot to whisk us away to heaven directly. Our prayers do not always result in happy-go-lucky moments. We pray that God would end the suffering of a loved one. And so he gathers them into his loving arms and carries them out of this world. We pray that God would end our suffering, and instead he gives us strength to endure. Just barely enough strength to endure. No more than we absolutely need. Which is to say, we spend our time just barely keeping our head above water. But, like that food in the desert – it is enough.
What is going on? Why doesn’t he answer our prayers the way we mean them? Because he gives us even better than we deserve. And in Christ Jesus our prayers are always yes. Let’s look at some examples.
A small child asks a parent for a cookie. The parent says no. Dinner is only five minutes away. A cookie now means no nutrition in five minutes. But a child of about 2 or 3 doesn’t understand five minutes. Doesn’t understand vitamins and minerals and protein. Doesn’t understand how yucky broccoli is better than yummy cookies. A tantrum ensues. But the loving parent does not back down. Only a parent devoid of love would allow a child to eat nothing but sweet food all the time, and never offer nutrition of any sort. The child might claim to be happy. But he would also be unhealthy. The results are not pretty.
The loving parent must say no, even though the child does not understand the love behind that no.
So, sometimes the response of God is no to our prayers. Or is it? Jesus prays “Lord if it is possible let this cup pass from me. Yet not my will, but thine be done.” When our prayers are prayed according to God’s will, then the answer is always yes. What was the Father’s answer to Jesus prayer? It wasn’t no, because Jesus entrusted himself totally to the father’s will. And in that trust, the answer was no to the first part – let the cup pass. But it was yes to the second. The father’s will was done. Jesus was sacrificed for the sins of the world. He earned redemption for all mankind.
So also our prayers are prayed according to the will of the Father. As we pray in the Lord’s prayer “They will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are praying that the will of God would be done among us also. And so, we are praying that the answer to our prayers be Yes – which it will be according to the will of God.
But we are praying that he would give us grace to accept that yes. Because sometimes that yes is, “Yes you may have food. But not a cookie. Here is something better for you.” And we place ourselves humbly under the mighty hand of God. And he cares for us as his own dear children.
Our prayers are important – because God has given them importance, and the one we pray to is able to give us all things. Our prayers do not have power for their own sake. We pray to one who is powerful and is able to give us all things.
So our prayers for health, and for the good of our neighbor are always prayed “according to your will, O heavenly Father.” Because we may pray for healing from sickness, or deliverance from some difficulty. But our Father in heaven knows how best to answer. And when we pray “Thy will be done” the answer is always yes. Even if it means a loved one taken to be with him. Even if it means a disease is not healed in this world, but must be endured. Even if it means that what we most desire in this world can not be given to us. But if we pray that God’s will be done, and if we pray in faith and with sincerity for that, then the thing we most desire – the will of God – is done, and the answer to that prayer is yes.
We pray that God may deliver us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation. And that we may be delivered from this veil of tears to himself in heaven. That we would be kept in the faith until this life ends, and the new life – the life in Christ and his death – begins.
Grant this Lord unto us all.