"The Privilege of Prayer"
(With thanks to Dr. Norman Nagel, whose 1957 sermon on this text has here been "creatively appropriated" and reworked a bit.)
It was just a matter of hours before Jesus would leave His disciples. Soon they would not see Him. What sadness and despair they felt, especially after the crucifixion. They had given up their businesses to follow Him. Their lives revolved around Him. Where Jesus went, they followed. But when Jesus was gone, it seemed the bottom had fallen out of their lives. We also know that feeling. We get close to people around us. Our lives get intertwined. When one leaves, we feel the emptiness, the sadness.
Jesus knows this feeling too. He is human, just like you and I. And He knew just how little the disciples could rely on their own strength. So during those forty days between Easter and Ascension, Jesus prepared them for His departure. Before Calvary the disciples had leaned heavily on Him. Like a parent carrying a child, He had carried them. But now He wanted them to stand upright and go into all the world. Now He wanted them to be brave and proclaim the crucified and risen Savior. Soon His visible presence would be withdrawn. And yet He still promised, “I am with you.” They would have to graduate from the wobbly steps of a toddler to the steady walking of a grown-up. He wanted them to walk by faith, not by sight.
Jesus’ knew the disciples’ weaknesses, and so He promised to send them His comfort—the Comforter called the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit the disciples would be comforted and strengthened. Though they could no longer see or touch Jesus, they would have a deeper, more intimate contact with God. They would have the privilege of prayer. Sure, they had prayed before, but now prayer would become their mighty, strengthening contact with God. Before, they had prayed with sight, but now they would pray with faith alone. Jesus gives this same privilege to all His followers who walk not by sight, but by faith. That includes us.
Many people ridicule prayer. They wonder how you, a tiny speck in the vast universe, can change the laws of the universe. How can you possibly expect to change the course of the world or interrupt the flow of world events? Others scoff and say, “If there is a God, what makes you think He’ll pay any attention to you?” And sometimes, in the face of such scorn, we Christians get weak-kneed and back down. In our little faith, we qualify and weaken the Lord’s promise to hear us and answer us. We do not realize that we do not have, because we do not ask (James 4:2).
We end up standing all alone in our puny weakness. In us, there’s no hope. And if there’s no God in heaven, then there’s no Father, and then we certainly cannot pray. But our Gospel reading speaks not only of God; it also speaks of the Father. And that makes all the difference in the world—all the difference between life and death.
We can pray, because God has come to be our Father. We can pray, because Jesus has taken our sins and our weaknesses on Himself and wiped them out by His victorious death and resurrection. By Jesus’ victory over the world and over our sin and death, we stand before God—forgiven, cleansed, made whole, made His children in Christ. Only when we are bound to Christ can we come before our dear Father as His dear children. He sees us in Christ, wearing the garment of Jesus’ righteousness. That’s why we pray in the name of Jesus. All of our prayer must be in Christ, that is, with faith in Him.
Prayer can only come from faith in Jesus. You cannot have God as your Father without having and trusting Jesus and His saving, atoning work. Those without Jesus do not and cannot call on God as their Father, because those without Jesus are not His children by faith. But those who are with Jesus—that is, Jesus is with them—can and do call on their Father. And calling on our Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, means admitting that we have nothing to offer. “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to Thy cross I cling” (LSB 761:3). We come as beggars before God; we have no right to ask anything. “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment” (Small Catechism, Fifth Petition).
The tax collector in the temple is our perfect example for humble, selfless prayer. He could not even lift up his eyes, but instead beat his breast and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13). His empty heart had plenty of room for God. The Pharisee, on the other hand, had no room for God. He had no lack. He had his life in order and on the right track. His prayer was for God to admire him. But the tax collector—he’s the one who “went down to his house justified” (Lk. 18:14). So Jesus declares. And so Jesus declares to you in the Absolution that you hear from the pastor’s mouth, forgiving your sins in Jesus’ name.
So praying “in Jesus’ name” means praying in the spirit and manner of Jesus—with His voice, we might say. Just as He creates faith in us by His Word and Spirit, our Lord also gives guidance and example for prayer by His Word and Spirit. With the disciples we learn to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 11:1), and He gives us the words and the way to pray. As He draws us closer to Himself, our prayers take on more of His way of praying—more of His voice. Praying “in Jesus’ name” means being drawn more and more into His purpose for our life—His saving purpose, that is. We pray for those things that benefit us and are “in sync” with His forgiveness, life, and salvation. Whatever might harm us or draw us away from our Savior: that’s not praying in Jesus’ name.
Do we always know what is good, right and salutary for our salvation and life with God in Christ? Of course not. We do admit that “Father knows best” when it comes to Him answering our prayers. And none of us would ever claim to be wiser than God, I’m sure. And yet, when we pray, we often do speak to God as though we know better than He does. We get impatient. We wonder if He even hears us. We grumble when God does not snap to attention and carry out our feeble orders and wishes. And we object, tossing Jesus’ words back in His face: “Come on, Lord, didn’t you say “whatever you ask of the Father…, He will give you”?
Yes, Jesus did say, “Whatever you ask.” But He also said, “in My name.” And, no, that’s not a “loophole” or a “legal fine print” for God. You see, God loves us too much to give us everything we want. We know that it’s a poor parent who gives his/her children everything they want. God does draw a boundary around the things that He promises to give us when He answers our prayers. That boundary is His love. Because the Father loves us in Christ, He restricts His own promise to those things that are for our good, those things that draw us close to our Savior. So praying “in Jesus’ name” means bringing our wishes, our requests, more and more in line with our Father’s wishes. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we learn to pray, “Not as I will, but as You will” (Mt. 26:39).
Does this mean that we should not ask for particular things? Not at all. We should not be ashamed to bring any and every need, any and every desire, to our Father. He is pleased when His children call upon Him as dear children ask their dear father—even if it’s about new shoes or the tomato plant in the garden. But let’s always pray with this confession: “Lord, You know all too well how foolish I can be, and how I can ask for things that may harm me. This seems good to me and for my neighbor, but I leave it all up to you.” “Not as I will, but as You will” Instead of asking, “Lord, give me more money,” we really do better to ask, “Lord, teach me to serve You with everything You have given me.” It always helps to remember that in the perfect prayer that Jesus taught us, only one petition covers all of our earthly needs. The other six petitions cover our greater needs—those needs of being drawn closer to our Savior and basking in His forgiving love.
Just as our Lord prepared His disciples to walk, not by sight, but by faith, He also prepares us as He gives us the privilege of prayer. In this act of worship called “prayer,” we open ourselves up to God because He has made us His children. We are guided by His Word. We are attentive to His love and His will. First, He loves us in Christ Jesus, and then we reply back to Him, returning our love, our adoration, our praise, our loyalty, and our very lives. We breathe in His Word, His love, His salvation, and we breathe out as we “call upon [Him] in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks” (Small Catechism, Second Commandment). Amen.