“Relying on God AND Prayer” – Numbers 21:4-9
Lent 4 – March 11, 2018
Today’s sermon topic was suggested by a couple of people. One asked the question: “How can we pray with confidence for something when we know we don’t get everything we want?” The second person wrote a whole bunch of phrases, but the essence is captured best in these ones: “Relying on God: we have a problem, need help, we pray to Him for help; how much is too much to expect? He doesn’t always help us… so it’s hard to rely on God and risk disappointment.”
So, today, we’ll talk about relying on God AND prayer. And yes, there is some theological tension in those questions. How much is too much to ask of God? How much is too much to expect? How little demonstrates no faith? How little asking betrays little reliance on God?
Let me start with a couple of real-life stories which involved prayers relating to different situations:
The first one is about a woman. Because some of you may well know her, I’ll call her Rae to protect her identity. Rae was young, beautiful, and married to the love of her life – we’ll call him Jake. More than anything, Rae wanted to be a mother. She knew that she and Jake had enough love in their relationship to share with children. She was a woman of God, and she took God’s words in Genesis 1 – “be fruitful and multiply” – both seriously and personally. She was looking forward to expanding their family. But it wasn’t happening. And that grieved her. Why? Her prayer is reasonable. There would be lots of love in the home. Her child or children would be treasured. Yet God said “Wait,” or maybe even “No.” She prayed to God for children… in vain. It was especially vexing because her sister already had four children. She felt a disgrace, she considered herself a failure at not having conceived a child. She believed that all her prayers had been useless and that she had been forgotten by God. The years were passing, and in desperation for offspring, she convinced Jake to have one child, and then another with a surrogate mother. Finally she was a mother, but not a biological mother. After more time passed, God finally answered the long ago prayers of Rae’s sobbing heart, and she had two sons of her own. We’ll come back to this story.
The second story is about a man. Again, because some of you may well know him, I’ll call him Pablo to protect his identity. Pablo was also a man of God, but he was a convert to Christianity as an adult. He was enthusiastic about the religious group he was part of growing up, so when Jesus got a hold of him, it was natural for him to pour his heart and soul into involvement in this new faith and church. First, he spent time learning the teachings of the Christian faith, but he quite quickly moved to the point of sharing his faith freely with people in various spheres of his life. But one thing bothered him – a nagging health issue that had been with him for years. He kind of thought that the God of his new faith would resolve that and heal him. He prayed for it… consistently, insistently, persistently. But no matter how passionately he prayed, the healing wouldn’t and didn’t come.
So, what are your real-life heart-felt prayers to God? Maybe like Rae, it’s the deep longing for a child, for you, or a friend, or family member. Maybe like Pablo, it’s a nagging health issue for you or a loved one – cancer, crohn’s disease, parkinson’s, alzheimer’s, chronic headaches – and you just want to have a year of normal life, or a month of relief, even a week of relief would be welcome!! If God is a God of love, and grace, why… why wouldn’t He bring relief to someone whom He loves, to someone who loves Him. Maybe it’s a prayer for meaningful work, a career that you can really sink your teeth into and enjoy. Maybe it’s a prayer for a life partner to dispel some deep feelings of loneliness. Maybe it’s release from a temptation that seems to capture you too often. Maybe it’s a humble prayer to get you out of the financial pickle you are in. Are those among the “too much to expect” prayers? Is God really out there? Is he listening? Can we rely on Him to help us out of a tight situation and to give us the solution that we need?
That question is especially relevant given some Bible verses about prayer and its answers:
James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” I’m sure righteous women are no prayer slouches either!
In John 9, the man born blind affirmed a common first-century Jewish perception: “We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the Godly man who does His will.”
In John 14 and 15, Jesus says these things: “I will do whatever you ask in my name… You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it,” and “Ask whatever you wish and it will be given you.” WOW – that sounds pretty plain, pretty carte blanche, pretty blank cheque to me.
Even in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
There are some limitations to Jesus’ words that we need to consider and balance with a “get what you want” approach to prayer. We’ll get to those in a moment, but first let’s get back to the stories of Rae and Pablo.
I did want to protect the identity of Rae because, like I said, some of you probably know her. Her name is Rae-chel, and her husband is Jake-ob. Their story is found in Genesis 30 in the Bible. It’s even more complex that I let on, because Rachel’s sister’s 4 children were also fathered by Jacob. He was husband to both sisters. There was some sibling rivalry playing out in this story. And the surrogate mother… was Rachel’s servant girl. But still, Rachel’s prayer and desire was honest, sincere, God-pleasing. Martin Luther writes about her prayer. He suggests that God let her prayer grow and increase over time, pretending not to hear her immediately. “For if he were to answer at the first outcry or petition, prayer would not increase but would become cold… The sobbing of [Rachel’s] heart also becomes deeper and more ardent… If [God] heard immediately, prayer would not be so strong, so alive, and so ardent.” Luther proposes that “the only feeling Rachel had was that all her prayers and tears had been in vain and useless, and that she had been utterly obliterated and deleted from the heart and the memory of God.” Until… we read these 4 words in the middle of Genesis 30: “Then God remembered Rachel.” The truth is, God had never forgotten Rachel. Finally, when the fullness of God’s timing had come, God listened to Rachel and opened her womb. If we had to describe God’s answer to Rachel’s prayer in one word, it would be “Wait!”
What about Pablo? Pablo is the Spanish equivalent of Paul, and that story was about the New Testament apostle Paul. He called his nagging health issue a “thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” If it tormented him, you can be sure that it wasn’t something insignificant. He writes that 3 times he pleaded – PLEADED – with the Lord to take it away. Paul was arguably the world’s greatest missionary, and we might wonder why God wouldn’t honour Paul’s reasonable request for health and strength to do God’s work. God’s answer was “No,” but He added “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in [your] weakness.” Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was to keep him from becoming conceited and from taking all the credit for success in his missionary endeavors.
One thing that we can learn from the story of Pablo / Paul is that our assessment of our wants or our needs is not the same as God’s assessment of what is best for us. 99 out of 100 of us might have sided with Paul, thinking that for all the gospel proclamation Paul was doing, God should have relieved some of his suffering. Isaiah 55 features God saying, “my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” We may not comprehend God’s ways, and thoughts, and actions, and will, but we can rely on Him that He is wise and trust Him that He is good, and gracious – even when we don’t get what we want and what seems reasonable to ask.
A long time ago, I heard or read that there are 3 answers to prayers for a suffering loved one (or for yourself). The first answer, and the one that we would almost always choose is for God to heal our loved one – even miraculously. That’s what we want for more time with mom or dad, grandma or grandpa, brother or sister. But God doesn’t always answer that way. The world is broken and the Ash Wednesday Genesis 3 refrain reminds us that “dust you are and to dust you will return.” So the second answer to prayer for a suffering loved one is for our loved one to die, to return to dust, to be taken out of this vale of tears. We have to admit that that is not the worst thing in the world. In fact, that is actually the best thing in the world, for as Peter writes, “you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” As Christians, we live for that day when God will fulfill for us personally His promise of an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for you. That promise comes, Peter writes, from the new birth, from the living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. A third answer to prayers for healing would be for God to give your loved one strength needed to endure the suffering of each day. This is like the answer that God gave to Paul, regarding his ‘thorn in the flesh.’ God said, “No, I’m not going to heal you or take away your thorn in the flesh, but I will give you grace enough for each day. I will give you my power, my stamina, my strength.”
That is to say, God’s answers generally come in one of three forms: no, yes, wait; no, slow, grow. We don’t know what those answers are or will be. But we pray, faithfully, and faith-fully!
Jesus actually told a story about that in Luke 18. It is introduced by this comment: “Jesus told His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” He went on to recount how a widow – one who was particularly vulnerable because she had no family to uphold her cause – how a widow persistently appealed to the town judge – who didn’t fear God – to rule in her favour and give her justice against a wrongdoer. For a while the judge refused, but finally admitted that, since the widow continually bothered him about this case, he would give her justice so that she didn’t wear him out. Notice… he says that he will give her justice… implying that he hadn’t ruled justly in the first place. But the parable was to teach us to keep praying to God, for if an unrighteous judge finally doles out justice, won’t a righteous God also dispense justice and mercy and grace for those who pray to him?
Let’s go back to Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Still in the context of Rachel’s story, Luther writes, “As soon as we have begun to pray, our heart is troubled and complains that it is accomplishing nothing… One must learn that if you accomplish nothing by asking, you should add searching, that is, you should seek; if that, too, seems to be useless, and God conceals and hides Himself even more, add knocking, and do not cease until you storm the door by which He has been confined.” Luther concludes that God wants to be asked, and sought and taken by storm in our prayers. Don’t stop asking. Don’t stop seeking. Don’t stop knocking.
OK… then there is the other part of the sermon topic suggestion. Is God reliable? In a word… “Yes! God is reliable, God is faithful!” Here are some Bible passages that affirm that:
Deuteronomy 7:9 – “He is the faithful God, keeping His covenant of love.”
1 Corinthians 1:9 – “God, who has called you… is faithful.”
1 Thessalonians 5:24 – “The one who calls you is faithful and He will do it.”
Hebrews 10:23 – “He who promised is faithful.”
1 Corinthians 10:13 – “God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”
2 Timothy 2:13 – “If we are faithless, He will remain faithful, for He cannot disown Himself.”
But there is still the stark fact that we don’t get everything we want / ask for. How do we deal with that? James 4 speaks to that question. We read: “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your [selfish] pleasures.” When Jesus’ prayed in Gethsemane, He asked that the Father would take the cup of suffering away from Him… but he concluded his plea with “THY will be done.” The prayers Jesus invites us to pray are prayers “in His name” (that was in John 14) and “according to His will” (that’s at the end of James 4). So, if we’re concerned about not getting what we want, we need to ask ourselves if our prayers have been “in His name” and “according to His will” – that is, are they God-pleasing requests? Hillary Scott sings the song “Thy Will Be Done” on the Christian radio station. The song was written in the context of her having just had a miscarriage. She still understood and could pray for God’s will to be done in the context of such a personal and emotional disappointment.
The reality of our prayer life is that we don’t get everything we want. But we do get everything that God wants for us. What God wants for us is really captured in 1 Peter 1: new birth, living hope, an inheritance in heaven, the goal of our faith, the salvation of our souls… ALL in Jesus! Amen.