Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"Did You Really Mean Anything" Sermon for April 24

Text: John 14:1-14

Once there was a little old lady, who would step onto her front porch every morning, raise her arms to the sky and shout, “Praise the Lord!” One day an atheist moved into the house next door. He n became irritated at the little old lady, so every morning, he started stepping onto his front porch after her and yelled “There is no Lord!” Time passed with the two of them carrying on this like this every day. Then one morning, in the middle of the winter, the little old lady stepped onto her front porch and shouted, “Praise the Lord! Please Lord, I have no food and I am starving, provide for me, oh Lord!” The next morning she stepped onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there. “Praise the Lord!” she cried out. “God has provided groceries for me!” As she prayed, the neighbor jumped out of the hedges and shouted, “Ha, there is no Lord, I bought these groceries!” The little old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted, “Praise the Lord! God has provided me with groceries and He made the devil pay for them!”

Chris and I know an old praying couple – Doris and Jim. God and Doris and Jim chat regularly, and God gives Doris everything she asks for. I remember when Doris and Jim’s old Grand Marquis gave out after 150,000 miles of wear and tear. Doris prayed for a buyer. The next day, while Jim and Doris were going about their daily routine, someone knocked on the door, asked if the car was for sale, and paid with cash. Now that their wheels were gone, Doris began praying for a new car. Not just for any car. She wanted another Grand Marquis. And it had to be red so she could find it in parking lots. Two days later, out of nowhere, someone offered them another newer Grand Marquis. Low mileage, and for the same amount they received from the old car . . .and it was red.

Prayer doesn’t seem to work like that for me. My prayers involve struggle. Sometimes when I pray, it doesn’t seem like God is listening or doing anything. Why doesn’t God answer all of my prayers?

The question is enough to make some people lose their faith. Ted Turner once received an award by the American Humanist Association for his work on behalf of the environment and world peace. At the banquet, Turner said he had a strict Christian upbringing and at one time considered becoming a missionary. Turner said he was saved seven or eight times, but he became let down with Christianity after his sister died, despite his prayers. Turner said the more he strayed from his faith, the better he felt.[i]

My prayers aren’t always answered, either. When I was 9 years old, my hero was Spiderman. I wanted to Spiderman I grew up. I wanted to swing on webs that shot out of my wrists, and climb on walls, and fight bad guys. I would have settled for Batman. But I really, really wanted to be Spiderman. I would pray at night, “God, I want to be Spiderman. Please make me Spiderman.” To this day, I have received no radioactive super spider bites.

When I was in high school and preparing for college, wouldn’t it have been weird if my mother said, “College?!? What are you talking about? When you were 9, you said you wanted to be a Spiderman! I spent all of our family’s money to buy that fancy red and blue spider suit, and the web-shooting contraption with the special web fluid refills, and the videos on how to engage in wisecracking repartee with evil geniuses. We don’t have money for college.” I would have answered, “Mother, why did you do that? I was just a little kid when I said those things! You didn't really take me seriously, did you?” The good news is that my parents didn’t give me what I thought I wanted when I was 9 years old. They knew they could give me what I really wanted — and needed — when I got older.

Jesus says something amazing in John 14. It’s downright unbelievable. He says, “You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Do you mean that, Jesus? Do you really mean anything? Are you saying if I ask for anything, and ask for it in your name, I’ll get it? If that’s correct, then why don’t my dreams become true? Why am I not a playboy, jet-setting billionaire by day and a web-slinging superhero by night? God, do you really mean anything? If you answer prayers, why didn’t you heal my loved ones when they were suffering with cancer? Why didn’t my grandmother make it through her open-heart surgery? I prayed for her.

I like how Tony Campolo sees it. He writes that, in comparison with God, we’re all immature. We’re all 9-year-olds who want to be superheroes. And God is too wise and loving to grant prayer requests from people who aren’t spiritually ‘grown-up’ enough to know what’s really best. We think of what we want for any one particular moment. Sometimes God acts the same way my parents did. Sometimes it might seem like God isn’t answering our prayers, but God is really just refusing to give us what we think we want so later we can be given what we really need.[ii]

Have you listened to a child pray recently? Most kids repeat what they are taught at church or at home — the Lord’s Prayer, or “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .” , or “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Children learn by repeating what they hear. A woman invited some people to dinner. At the table she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, “Would you like to say the blessing?” “I wouldn’t know what to say,” the little girl replied. “Just say what you hear Mommy say,” the mother replied. The little girl bowed her head and said, “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?”

Most childhood prayers are filled with thanks and blessings for all those in our families, and of course our many requests of God. They are simple, honest, and full of our trust in God. How many of you would bless everyone you could think of just to be able to stay up a little later each night? God bless mommy and daddy, grandma, the sun, my pet goldfish . . . I would go on and on!

In youth, our prayers changed to one-sided monologues. They expressed our needs, our desires, our demands! Give me this O God! Please make me more skinny, popular, faster, smarter - O God, make him call today -God, convince mom and dad to buy me that car! You know the prayers -- we all prayed them. But most youth pray because they want reassurance that they are not alone. The prayer of my youth was a one-way street, a way of letting God know how I felt and what I wanted. God was someone I went to with my needs and fears, my hopes and hopelessness. The problem is that most of us stay in the stages of childhood or youth in our praying and never move into adult prayer, prayer that becomes not just something we do, but something we engage in, a two-way form of communication with God.[iii]

Scripture expresses this relationship by encouraging us to pray in "Jesus’ name.” In Bible times, a person’s name was an expression of what that person was all about. A person’s name also described what one did for a living. For instance, Shirley Baker made donuts. Phil Carpenter built doghouses. Charles Farmer milked cows. When Jesus says to pray in his name, he doesn’t just mean we should mention the word “Jesus” here and there. He means that our prayers should fit in with what Jesus was all about — salvation, love and justice. In prayer, we should try to think like Jesus and to feel his emotions, to want the things he wants.

I guess that’s why God won’t turn me into Spiderman, or let my teams win sport events, or instantly shed 30 pounds from my body. God is not a genie in lamp. Faith isn’t about wishing really hard for unrealistic dreams. We can't expect our prayers to be answered if they aren’t in harmony with what God wants to do in us and through us. If we want God to answer our prayers, we begin by aligning ourselves with what we know about God’s will and character.

Praying in the name of Jesus means prayer in alignment with God’s desires. It implies union with Christ. Just as Jesus is one with the Father, so the Christian is in union with Christ. Praying in Jesus’ name assumes that we aren’t making requests about the petty things of life, will bring glory to God when they are answered.[iv]

There are some prayers that God always answers – requests that are in line with the work of Jesus Christ. Try it. Try to pray one of these and see what happens:
· God, bring me into contact with someone who needs to know your love
· God, let me cross paths with someone who does not know Jesus Christ so I can share my faith.
· God, give me a desire to spend time with someone who is different than me.
· God, use me to make life better for someone who is poor, or hungry, or naked, or thirsty, or sick, or in prison, or an enemy.
· God, give us the ability to see human inequality and justice, and make us bold to do something about it.

Prayer is not a Christmas list. It is not a one-way register of gimmes. Prayer is not a religious activity for perfect pious people. Prayer is a relationship. We pray because as we do it we learn what God wants to do in our lives. Praying connects us with the heart of Christ – and his love for the least and the lowest. God has far more to give you than you would even dare to ask.

[i] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/prayer_unanswered.htm
[ii] Tony Camplo, http://www.christianitytoday.com/holidays/syatp/features/why.html
[iii] “A Faith Worth Believing” - Why Pray?” A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Joan Withers Priest, First Presbyterian Church, New Canaan, CT. http://fpcnc.org/08_15_04.html
[iv] Raymond Brown, “The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI,” AB, 636.

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