Satan has been working overtime in the last year to keep the church from gathering to pray. Don’t fall for it. The church is the church at prayer. Here is my sermon on the topic:
James tells us “We are to be doers of the word – not hearers only.” And what is it that God commands? What are we to do? We look to Jesus for the answer. He tells us to ask the Father in His name for anything of which we have need. We are commanded to pray. Prayer is part of our duty to have no others gods, to fear, love and trust in God above all things. It is also part of our duty to love and serve our neighbor.
We are commanded to worship only the true God. Ultimately, worship isn’t our action. It is God promising to save us, and we hear and believe the promise, and so receive salvation. But prayer is the response of the faithful. We hear the promises of God, we respond in prayer, and so live out our faith in God who saves. When we come before God with our praises and thanksgivings, our requests, petitions, and supplications, we pray.
Today is Rogate Sunday – the 6th Sunday of Easter – a day of prayer. Today we focus on the command from God that we pray, and the great promise that he gives about our prayers : He will hear and answer them.
We are tempted to think that prayer is some small thing. But it is not. It is a mighty defense against Satan. That’s why he always attacks it. And it’s why the church is always in prayer. It is what we do whenever we come together. It is what we do when we go home on our own. Luther says in the Third Petition that it isn’t enough to build a city, we must also defend it. Prayer is our defense against Satan and his attacks. He wants to corrupt everything God has made. He twists the word of God. He corrupts things God has given for our good – he turns first article gifts such as food or drink into gluttony and drunkenness. He turns a gift like family into conflict and anger. He twists love into lust. He tries to turn us away from trust in God to our own false gods. Trusting in the false promises of this world instead of the promise of eternal life and salvation in Jesus Christ.
Until recently, the church had a long run as the default organization everyone belonged to. Not all the same church. But you could assume most people belonged to some church. The church was given a preferred status in the world. It was easy to get used to things being easy for the church. To get used to prayers for the church not really being a big deal. After all, God had blessed the church with a great deal of influence. We didn’t really need to be fervent in our prayers, did we? We didn’t need to be regular in our prayers? We got a bit lazy about things.
The last year has been a wake up call to the church. Satan is around the corner trying to corrupt all that God has made. He is trying to kill and destroy. And if allowed even a little bit of freedom to do so – well we saw how disruptive it can be.
And, like a middle aged superhero, we were a bit out of shape ourselves. The call went out that there was a problem, and the church stumbled a bit getting ready for the fight. Instead of gathering for prayer – our default thing to do – the church was told we would be better off not gathering for prayer. And we listened. Some services were canceled even here. Farther away, there was no gathering as the church until just a couple of months ago. Almost a year of no church services where the people of God gather to hear and receive the word and sacraments and respond in prayer. In Canada, the command is still “do not gather to pray”.
The reasons sounded so… reasonable. You could harm your neighbor. In love you must not gather as the church. But with the benefit of hindsight, we can see this was always a lie. The fifth commandment does not override the first and second commandments.
To be clear, there are times where it is impossible to gather. Services were cancelled a few weeks ago because of a blizzard. We call it an act of God – because it is. There are reasons why the church may miss the occasional service. But that is different from ruling authorities commanding the church not to gather and pray. The rulers and governing authorities overstep their bounds when they say such things. The church gathers hear the word and pray because we have need of that word, and because prayer is a powerful defense against exactly the kind of disaster we feared this last year.
And so we may have stumbled out of the gate, but God is gracious. He is patient with us. We have now seen this past year the importance of prayer, the importance of gathering to pray not only for the church, but for our neighbor.
The world discounts it entirely. But we must recognize how important this is. The world mocks and says what good are “Thoughts and prayers” as if the two are the same thing. It’s sort of like saying “sling shots and nuclear weapons.” Both are useful in their way, but one is many orders of magnitude greater than the other. Certainly thoughts may lead to prayer. But prayer is a powerful defensive weapon against all manner of wickedness. And only the Church and her members wield it. Because prayer is not powerful in itself. It is the one you pray to that matters. Prayer to false gods doesn’t work because there is no one to hear or answer the prayer. We pray to God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, the one who created the seas and all that is in them, the nations and powers and principalities – he created them all and preserves them all. So we pray for all these things. Because the prayer of the righteous is effective.
Peter calls us a royal priesthood because we are priests of God. Priests are born, not made. We are born into this office of royal priest of God by virtue of our baptism. And we are given the holy priestly task of praying. That’s what priests do. Jesus tells us we are to pray. So we come before God in prayer in the morning and evening, at meals and at other times. But we especially come before God in prayer as we gather together as the church, praying first for the church of God and for all those who believe, then for those in need both in the church and our communities. We pray for kings and all those in authority. We pray for all people in the world. We ask God to guard and protect them, to strengthen our faith, and to bring to faith those who do not believe in our dear Lord Jesus. For those who already believe, we pray God would keep them even if they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. That he would not let fear of death drive them away from the consolation of the Gospel. That we would be given a blessed end in this world, and be taken to our Father in heaven.
Satan wants to ruin all of this. That’s why we continue to pray. The last year has given us the chance to see how important it is, and how great our need of it. God, in his mercy, has awakened us to a great truth: We pray, and in times of need, we pray more. There is no more loving act we can do than to pray for our neighbor. So there is no greater sacrifice we can offer than to risk our lives to pray for him. That’s why Satan and his forces tried to stop our prayers. And if we stumbled, it was only so we could get back up again more determined than ever not to let anything come between us and the prayers of the people of God. If there is danger in coming to pray, we gladly risk the danger. The prayers of the faithful for those in need are worth the risk. We will risk even our lives if necessary in order to offer our neighbor this great loving act of sacrifice. Loving not because of who we are, but because of our Lord who commands us to pray.
If you think all of this is overstating it, there was an editorial in a major newspaper that complained about “the pernicious power of prayer.” Satan wants us to stop praying. How much more evidence do we need of it’s great power than that?
So how do we pray? Our Lord has told us – he has given us the pattern of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer. And no prayer of ours can ever add to what we pray for in that prayer.
Beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, we also have the catechism to help us understand all that God has given us. We should return to it often. Reviewing and re-hearing those words of simple confession about the six chief parts of our faith. The things we confess in the catechism – fulfilling the commandments, believing the creed, prayer, loving, cherishing and rightly receiving the sacraments – these are all wonderful things to pray for, and the catechism helps us. It teaches us what they are and how we should do it.
We have the Psalms. One pastor, when anyone was in trouble and asked for help, would ask them, “Are you praying the psalms each day”. And if they said no, he would say, “Well, your problems aren’t that bad yet. Let me know when you have been driven to praying the psalms each day.”
The psalms were the first prayer and hymn book for God’s people. That brings us to another resource – the hymnal. We have prayers and hymns in their for just about every occasion. It is a wonderful tool as well.
And of course, the holy scriptures themselves. We have James with his good words about prayer. We have Jesus encouraging us to pray. We have the prayers of the faithful throughout scripture. The bible, the catechism, the hymnal, the psalms. There is enough in these for us to learn our entire lives.
In addition to our private prayers, we also have the church’s prayer, as we gather and join our prayers together to pray for the church and the world, using psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, with gratitude in our hearts toward God.
Let us pray that God would keep us steadfast in prayer, that, no matter what the world does, no matter how it may persecute or mock us, we would be constant in our prayers, we would not give up, but become ever more fervent, ever more faithful in praying to God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who is enthroned and now sends his Holy Spirit so that we might pray in humility and faith.