A Prayer for Everyday
Today we begin a 12 part sermon series on prayer. We'll look at prayer in general by looking at the Lord's Prayer in particular. There is a crisis of prayer in the Church today. People turn to prayer as a last resort. "Who knows it might do some good?" "It couldn't hurt." Contrast this view of prayer with the hymn which says, "Prayer is the Christian's vital breath,/ The Christian's native air." Contrast our low view of prayer with Luther's high view of the Lord's Prayer in particular. In the Preface of the Large Catechism he directs a pastor to pray the Lord's Prayer for himself and for his parishioners morning, noon, and night. And I can barely do it once without my mind wandering or worrying.
As your pastor I'm very concerned about our problem with prayer. If prayer is a Christian's vital breath, then as a difficulty breathing indicates a physical problem, so a difficulty praying indicates a spiritual problem. I think I know where some of the problem stems from. Lutherans don't count prayer as means of grace. God doesn't give you strength, forgiveness, or any other gifts by you praying. God gives you His good gifts and Spirit only through Baptism, Word, and Communion.
However, this truth doesn't make prayer second rate. While God doesn't speak to us in prayer or give to us in prayer, we certainly do speak and give to Him. Where else but prayer can we cast our cares upon Him, call upon Him, or come boldly before His throne of grace? I'll tell you what not praying is most like. It's like when there is a problem between you and your spouse and you don't talk about it. It doesn't matter that she already knows about it without you speaking of it. If it's a problem, it will remain between you until you speak of it, and it will get worse.
Communication is a key to any relationship: husband/ wife; parent/child; Creator/ creature; Savior/ saved. Yet, you don't seem bothered by your faltering or even nonexistent prayer life. What you don't see is that this is part of the devil's plan to destroy you. Luther said that if the devil cannot hinder the Word, he hinders faith. If he cannot hinder faith, he hinders prayer by hurling the person into so many activities that he is unable to find time to pray. And so we come to this present season we call Advent and the world calls Christmas.
How busy we are in this season. Although we make the time to come to these special services, we come here feeling rushed, pushed, and bothered by a half dozen other things we could be doing now. Our mind is far away from prayer. In fact, we think just about anything else in our life is more of a problem than our prayer life. We should think again. Faith comes from hearing the Word of God, and faith always prays. It always calls out to God, "Abba Father," "Lord have mercy," "Come Lord Jesus." When faith doesn't pray, it's not there. Where faith is not, the Word isn't really being heard.
Not praying with any sort of regularity is a sign of serious spiritual illness. Prayer isn't optional; it's a command of God. He commands literally, "Keep asking, keep knocking, keep seeking." You can't ignore or deny a command of God without grave consequences. Many of you think prayer originates with you and your pious little heart, so you think God wants you to wait till you feel like praying. Not so. Prayer originates with God. He does everything necessary for you to pray. He creates the faith to pray and sends His Spirit into your heart praying, "Abba Father" by means of His Word. And just so there is no confusion about you needing to feel a certain way, He commands prayer without regard to your feelings.
But praying is not just a matter of commanding, it's a matter of promising. God doesn't just say, "Ask, seek, knock," but He promises He'll answer, you'll find, and it'll be opened to you. God's promise to answer our prayers makes us all the guiltier for not praying. Luther said that it was as if a rich king commanded a poor peasant to ask him whatever he wanted and promised to do it for him, but the peasant only asked for a dish of oatmeal. He would be considered a scoundrel for taking both the command and the promise of his king so lightly. And this gets back to Advent, a king named Ahaz, and God's command and promise that he refused.
You know our text as the prophesy of the Virgin Birth, but what you don't know is that it came in the midst of desperate times for Judah. She was surrounded by enemies. We're told that the king's heart and the hearts of the people "shook as trees of the forest shake with the wind." God sends this frightened king His Word by the prophet Isaiah saying his enemies are no more significant than smoldering logs soon to go out. But King Ahaz can find no comfort, so God commands him to ask for a sign and promises He will give it. Ahaz refuses to act according to God's command and promise, and he hides his disobedience behind piety. "I will not test the Lord." And that's what you're doing when you don't pray because you don't think you're good enough or your problems large enough. You think you're being pious but you're really disobeying a command of the Lord and despising His promise.
But how should I pray? That's not a bad thing to ask. Paul tells us in Romans 8 that we, that includes him, don't know how to pray as we should. The apostles had to ask Jesus to teach them to pray, and He answered them with, "Say this..." and gave them the Lord's Prayer. But under the influence of the Baptists and others, we think the prayers we make up in our hearts are better than the Prayer Jesus gave us.
The truth of the matter is that any prayer that is not in agreement with the Lord's Prayer is not a fitting prayer at all. No matter how pious your words or deep your feelings, if you ask for what doesn't hallow God's name, serve His kingdom coming, or is contrary to His will, you've prayed wrongly. And if you don't pray asking for daily bread, forgiveness, rescue from temptation or deliverance from evil, you haven't prayed adequately. Do you ever find yourself correcting your prayers? "I didn't mean that"; or, "I really mean." That happens to me all the time in my own prayers, but when I pray the Lord's Prayer I pray it with "all boldness and confidence" because I can have no doubt the Lord wants me to ask these things.
So what are you asking for this Christmas? Everyone knows Christmas is a time for prayer. Scourge prays. Jimmy Stewart prays. All the world has a sense that God can be approached in this season of Christmas. Well, we Christians know that in Advent God approaches us. We celebrate His first coming, recognize He's about to come again, and rejoice that He comes everyday in Water, Words, Bread, and Wine. God first coming near to us is what calls us to come near to Him. This is the sign that Ahaz wanted no part of. A virgin giving birth to Immanuel which means "God with us." God can't get any more near us than being in our flesh and blood, can He?
God takes on flesh and blood in the Virgin's womb. God puts Himself under all God's commandments including the one to pray without ceasing. And Jesus does that. His prayer life never faltered. He never prayed in doubt like we have. He never fell asleep in the midst of His prayers. His mind didn't wander or worry during His prayers. But Jesus was marched to the cross as if He had despised the command and promise of God regarding prayer. You know how mad you get when your child flagrantly ignores your commands or refuses to believe your promises. Well, God was madder than that at Jesus because Jesus bore a whole world full of such sins.
God sent Jesus into this world to keep His holy laws and to pay for our gross sinning against them. Now, for Jesus' sake we are tenderly invited to call God Father, not Judge, not Almighty, not Your Majesty, but Father, Dad, Daddy even. Do you remember what your child crying out in the middle of the night, "Daddy, Daddy, "got from you? You couldn't ignore it; you didn't let it go without answering speedily, and yet you are a miserable sinner. If your child calling out to you in the middle of the night in terror, pain, fear, or need could bring that sort of response from your sinful heart, think what comes from the holy, perfect, heart of God as we call Him Father as Jesus invites us to?
Don't think He doesn't hear us. Don't think He can ignore us. Don't think that He doesn't fly to our aid. But you're not calling out from bad dreams, sudden noises, or high fevers. You're calling to God from the actual rocky waters of marriage; you're not falling off a cliff in a dream; you're plummeting towards a real grave; you don't have a fever induced fear; you have a real, fearful medical condition. But fear, need, and panic in a child call forth the same response from a loving parent regardless of where they come from.
Your child called forth in raw terror, and you didn't hesitate to come, to speak, to hold, to sooth. Your God in Christ does no less. Your words in the dark night called your child back to trust. From that state of trust, your child told you further what was wrong. So in this present darkness where nightmares live, the devil prowls, and the noonday wastes, Jesus' promise that God is with us in Him and commands us to pray the Lord's Prayer. Jesus calls us back to trusting that the simple Lord's Prayer is the right one for any situation, need, fear, or pain.
The Lord promises that "Before we call He answers and while we are yet speaking He hears." We say the Lord's Prayer, and while praying God answers the prayer He gave us where He commanded us to go to meet Him and promised to be. His name is hallowed in Baptism; His kingdom comes in Holy Communion; His will is done in Absolution. Your daily bread is provided in Communion; your sins are forgiven in Absolution, you are led out of temptation and delivered from evil by Holy Baptism. God hears and answers your Lord's Prayer above all the frightful protests the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh make. So, keep on asking it; keep on seeking your Father with it; keep on knocking on heaven's door with it because our Father who is in heaven answers it, is found by it, and opens to it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Advent I (20051130) The Lord's Prayer