Note: I preached a version of this sermon on April 28-29, 2012 (the Fourth Sunday of Easter) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda. It was our confirmation service and part of a longer sermon series on the Small Catechism.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’m going to start today with a question. When people pray–you, or just people in general–do you think people ask for too much from God? Or do they not ask for enough? Or do they ask for the wrong things?
Praying can be a dangerous business. And I think this is why: a lot of times, when we pray, we are praying to ourselves. Not literally, of course. But it’s easy enough for prayer to turn into an exercise in saying out loud the things we would grant if we had God’s power to grant them. So for example, I tend to be a little bit on the pessimistic side. I don’t pray for miracles. I don’t even pray for unlikely things. When I pray, I tend to keep my prayers vague: protect so and so, watch over so and so, give peace and comfort to the other. Other people are bolder and more optimistic. Some television preachers will tell you to pray for your dream house or a promotion. One of the first things that prayer does, when you really try to do it, is pull you into yourself more deeply. And the longer you pray, the more deeply you may end up going.
Now I know that some of you are real prayer athletes. But for those of you who wish you prayed more than you do, for those of you who are too busy or too distracted to pray regularly or at any length, here’s a thought: Some time today or tomorrow, spend five minutes in prayer. Do what Jesus says and go into your room and close the door so no one can see you. And set a timer. See what happens if you give yourself over to the experience of prayer for five uninterrupted minutes. I won’t promise that you’ll learn anything in these five minutes about God. But I expect that you’ll learn something about yourself. Five minutes is not that long, but when you’re quiet and alone, it’s long enough to get beyond some of your hang-ups. I don’t think you’ll end up spending the whole five minutes praying for the house of your dreams. And I don’t think you’ll spend five whole minutes praying like I usually pray, for some abstract blessing. If you give this a try–and I think everyone here can–you will probably learn what it is that your heart has been yearning to set before God. You will come face to face with the desires–good ones and bad ones–that you’ve been carrying around with you. They might surprise you.
This can be a challenging experience. So after your five minutes are up–and you can go longer, in fact you should if you can–I would encourage you to end with the Lord’s Prayer, and to meditate especially on what we call the second and third petitions: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Because these words should both encourage us to pray and comfort us in our prayers. Like the whole Lord’s Prayer, these simple verses are a model of how to pray to a God who has already adopted us as children and planted the seeds of the kingdom in our hearts. They call us to pray with boldness–that’s the one I’m not so good at–and with humility–that’s the one the prosperity preachers aren’t so good at.
Here’s what Martin Luther says in his explanation of the Second and Third Petitions:
“Thy kingdom come.” What does this mean? In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” What does this mean? In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.
Now for Luther, the big problem was that people didn’t pray boldly enough. They didn’t expect good things from God, because they were afraid of God. He compares the person who asks for too little from God to a beggar. A rich and mighty emperor invites the beggar to ask for whatever he might desire, prepared to give him “great and princely gifts.” And if the beggar asks only for a dish of beggar’s broth, he would be “considered a rogue and a scoundrel who had made a mockery of his imperial majesty’s command and was unworthy to come into his presence.”
It’s the same thing with God: God offers us his own kingdom. That is, God promises us the forgiveness of all our sins, the wiping away of all tears, the righting of every wrong, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, and then bids us to ask that we may receive this kingdom. And yet we are tempted to ask for so little: not for the end of sin, but for a little help in holding off this or that excess. Not for every tear to be wiped away, but for a little comfort and consolation. Not for the resurrection of the dead, but for a little better health. Not for the life of the world to come, but for a more bearable journey through this world.
And why wouldn’t we? We know that life is hard, we don’t want to give God the chance to let us down. We need to learn to pray with boldness and confidence, because God’s promises may come mysteriously, but they always come.
But at the same time, when we pray for the unspeakable blessings of God’s coming kingdom and God’s good will, we are praying that these great blessings come to us, in us, and among us, in accordance with God’s will and not with our own desires. This is what I mean when I say that we are to pray with humility. If you watch enough television preaching, you can get the sense that people think of God as a sort of cosmic gofer, somebody who is just eager and waiting to bring you the house or the car or the job of your dreams, if only you’ll ask for it. But God is already working on us, even before we pray. God is seeking to shape our desires so that they conform with God’s will and with the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus gives us no indication that God is just sitting around waiting to dump a $500,000 mortgage and a $1,000-a-month energy bill on anyone. Jesus gives us no indication that God wants to help us keep up with the Joneses. When we pray for the coming of the Kingdom, we are asking not just that we may have enough of life’s necessities, but that God would make us grateful for what we have and generous with all who are in need. When we pray for God’s will to be done, we are not just praying that God’s goodness would be poured out on us, but that we would become instruments of God’s will in the world–that God’s will be done in us and among us.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about himself as the Good Shepherd. It’s an image that people rightly love. It’s not a picture of Jesus as the distracted professor with no time for your dumb questions. And it’s not a picture of Jesus as your divine concierge, waiting to give you whatever your heart desires. It’s a picture of Jesus as the one who protects and cares for us, the one who knows what we need better than we know it ourselves, the one who both feeds us and guides us to safety, the one who calls us by his own voice. And it seems that he meant to echo the famous passage of the Old Testament by saying this–the passage most of us know so well. The Lord is my shepherd, King David sang. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He gives my life back to me. He leads me in right paths for the sake of his own Holy Name. Even though I walk through the valley of death’s shadow, I fear no harm; for you are with me; your rod and your staff–they comfort me. You prepare a table before me, you anoint my head with oil, you make my cup overflow. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me as long as I live, and I will dwell in God’s house evermore. Truly, we pray for nothing less. Amen.