Be Careful What You Pray
I've never liked the expression be careful what you pray for because God might give it to you." That casts God in the light of a conniving genie that is looking to find a way to give you evil when you're asking for good. But I do think you should be careful what you pray at least know what it is.
Take our Collect for today. Do you really think God sent His Son to be incarnated in the womb of the Virgin Mary and to humiliate Himself by dying on a cross to give you an example? That's what we pray, isn't it? "Almighty and everlasting God the Father, who sent Your Son to take our nature upon Him and to suffer death on the cross that all mankind should follow the example of His great humility." The Collect that dates at least to the 700's and probably much earlier does have the part about God incarnating and humiliating His Son as an example. That's where our 1941 Lutheran Hymnal and the 1982 Lutheran Worship got it from.
So how are you doing following the example of "His great humility?" If the fast-food worker takes the order of someone who came in after me, I'm not very humble. The same goes when people take my parking place. Even on Palm Sunday I don't like how humiliating it feels to walk into church waving a palm leaf. And it's not just us that we say the example of His great humility is for but "all mankind." Hmmm. doesn't seem to be working, does it? From Donald Trump to President Putin to Kim Jong-un, humility of any kind let alone great seems greatly lacking.
But "that all mankind should follow the example of His great humility" is what the church has been praying for 1,800 years. However, just because something is old doesn't mean it's right. Already in 1549, the Anglicans tried to put a gracious spin on it saying "'who of they tender love toward mankind sent your Son to take our nature" (Reed, 498). The example part was still retained but the emphasis was more on God acting rather than our following.
Our 2006 Lutheran Service Book took out entirely the idea that the incarnation and humiliation of Jesus were for an example. It says, "Almighty and everlasting God, You sent Your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to take upon Himself our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross" but it still retains the second use of "example." They removed the part about "all mankind should follow the example of His great humility," but retained the part that says we, the church, should follow His humility and patience.
So there are still problems with this Collect, but ours can be understood in a positive way. Others can't. The Latin original prayed that we may follow the example of our Savior's humility "'that we may deserve to have" our portion in His resurrection (Ibid.). Could you pray that? Would you? Should you? What about "Just as I am without One Plea?" What about "good works could not avert our doom?" What about without "any merit or worthiness in me?" To avoid that idea that we could deserve anything, Lutherans substituted the second use of the word example: "that we may follow the example of our Saviorin His patience."
I even think Roman Catholicism had problems with the blatant mention of deserving salvation. The Old Roman Catholic missal prayed "by following His example of sufferingmake us worthy to share His resurrection" (liturgy.com.nz). Still though sharing Jesus' resurrection is tied to how well, how much you follow His example of suffering. I don't do any better with following Jesus' suffering than I do His humility. He wouldn't come down from His cross; I moan and complain and refuse the common crosses of fallen mankind from people problems to dental problems.
The new Roman Catholic Missal took a step back towards deserving: "graciously grant that we may heed his lesson of patient suffering and so merit a share in his Resurrection" (Ibid.). This is worse for me than their old one. The old missal bade me to follow His example of suffering to make me worthy. The new missal bids me to "heed his lesson of patient suffering" to be meritorious. It's not enough to suffer like Jesus. I have to do it patiently.
Pilate and Herod marveled at how Jesus didn't answer His accusers. The leaders, the people, and perhaps His own followers marveled that He who had saved so many refused to save Himself. Is that you? It's not me. So I can merit no share in His resurrection. What sort of celebration will Easter be next Sunday if we start the week speaking of our worthiness, merit, or of following His example of great humility and patience?
But we have been praying this prayer for centuries. I'm a big fan of the ancient Collects, but sometimes their language is not as precise as we would like; sometimes it's just plain wrong; and sometimes it can be understood differently, and perhaps was originally, than we do. So be careful what you pray. Hear it with ears that have been saved not with ears looking for a way to be saved.
So do "follow the example of our Savior Jesus Christ in His patience." See how patient He is with sinners this week. After He washes the disciples' feet, after He has given them a Meal of His Body and Blood, a dispute arose among them about which was the greatest. Really? Why that would be like going home from the Lord's Supper only to have a prideful fight with your wife? Jesus chides them for thinking of greatness in worldly terms, but He ends promising them they will sit on thrones in His kingdom. How patient!
May God answer your prayer and cause you to follow your Savior's patience. After Peter stubbornly refuses to believe that he will deny Jesus, after he promises that he will die if need be, after Jesus assures him that before the night is through Peter will deny Him 3 times, what does Jesus say? "Let not your hearts be troubled?" If Jesus is that patient with Peter who had been personally taught by Him for 3 years, had seen the dead raised, the blind healed, water walked on and turned into wine, how much more patient is He with us who are taught by proxy and whose miracles are hidden in Water, Bread, and Wine?
Talk about patience! See how patient Jesus was with Judas. He warned him a year in advance not to be a devil and betray him. He patiently told Judas it would better not to be born than to betray Him. Jesus patiently gave him two last minute opportunities to turn away from selling his soul to Satan. He said only the man who takes this piece of bread would do that, and in the midst of the betrayal, Jesus still calls Judas friend'. So if you think you're too far gone, you're wrong. If you think you've exhausted the patience of Jesus, I can assure you that you've not. He came into this world to redeem sinners; He's not surprised when He finds out we are sinners. He who was patient with Judas till the end is overflowing with patience for you today.
By all means pray "that all mankind should follow the example of His great humility" and God will hear your prayer. Follow Jesus' great humility. He is God of all creation. He literally tells the owners of the colt, "The Lord of it has need." Jesus is claiming to be the real owner, but surely the God of all creation could have placed His hands on a war horse, a bejeweled chariot, or 8 men to carry Him on a litter. But no, Jesus comes in on a colt, feet dragging the ground. God in flesh and blood is going to go on to humble Himself to arrest, to kangaroo courts, to mock trials, to spitting, beating, whipping, and crucifying. In the words of Paul: He will humble Himself even to the point of dying on a cross!
If those words don't shock us, it's because we really haven't followed the example of His great humility. We've forgotten where Jesus started out. Reigning in heaven, hymned by angels, served by demons, and all creation too. We've forgotten that Jesus rides into Jerusalem today not only asserting His Divine Right to rule but in our place. He rides in bearing the heavy weight of a world gone mad with sin, death, and devil. He rides in under the wrath, the rage, the judgment of Almighty God against every sinner that ever lived or will live.
If this doesn't move you, it's because you're not following how He humiliated Himself for you and your salvation. If your parents ever humbled themselves for you, that moved you. They do that for you when you are young pretending they are a horse, a bear, a monster and you take no notice. You take no notice of them chasing you around the house screaming like a fool. It's all a game, but it's humbling to them, and they don't mind because they love you. But if they ever humbled themselves for you when you were big enough to know it and old enough to appreciate it that moved you. That's what this is. Jesus humbles Himself in order to reach down as far as you are no matter how far down you are.
We pray for "our portion in the resurrection," but Paul promises God answers better than we pray. We don't get our portion' we get the whole thing. When we come out the other end of this Holy Week, we won't have a finger, a toe, a hair of the resurrected Jesus. We'll have all of Him. As many as have been baptized have put on Christ promises Paul, not a part of Christ. At the Communion altar Jesus says, "Take eat My Body; take drink My Blood." While one cell of His Body and one drop of His Blood would be more than enough to forgive all the sins you ever did, He gives you all of Him. Even the Absolution is all of Him. He breathed on the Apostles saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit." The Spirit of Jesus, all of Him, lives and breathes in Absolution. Inhale deeply at the words, "I forgive you," and exhale Amen!'
You know there are two definitions of the word careful." One is the idea of avoiding danger. That's the sense of "be careful what you pray for" as if God is like an evil genie. The second sense of careful' is showing thought and attention. That's the sense I mean be careful what you pray in this week's Collect. There's a whole lot more going on there than meets the eye. There's more than enough to get you through this week to Easter; there's more than enough to get you through this life. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (20160320); Collect for the Day