“The Privilege of Prayer”
Pentecost 10 (Proper 12), July 24, 2016
The Privilege of Prayer
Text: Genesis 18:(17–19) 20–33
The nerve. Intestinal fortitude. Guts. We’d be inclined to say Abraham had a lot of these in our Old Testament Reading today. He stands there before the Judge of all the earth, the Lord, and bargains. “Lord, how about this deal? Okay, you like that? Let me ask for a little more. Good. But, then, how about . . . ? Settled, except, maybe, you could throw in . . . And, as long as we’re talkin’, how about . . . ? Oh, and one more thing . . .” Now that takes some courage.
Except that doesn’t really describe Abraham’s attitude at all. He says, “I’m nothing but dust and ashes.” So, then, where does he come off talking to the Lord like that? Well, Abraham understood—and believed—what God would have us understand and believe today, that The Lord Has Given Us a Great Thing with Prayer, that it’s not about us at all, about our guts or courage. It’s about the Lord and His mercy and the gift He’s given us in prayer.
Prayer is something that God has given to us, but it is a gift that we often misuse and abuse. I will argue here that Abraham was not being obnoxious in his discussion with the Lord in our text today, but we can be. Maybe we sometimes approach the Lord in prayer as if it’s all about “having some nerve.” Sometimes, maybe even often, we shamelessly ask for whatever we want, not considering whether it’s in keeping with what He’s taught us in Scripture or whether it would only help us and not anyone else.
Some examples: We pray for an A on the exam (though we didn’t study for it), we pray for permission to go out (though our parents say it’s not safe), we pray for a date with ____? (though the person they are dating right now won’t like that at all). We pray for that new job (though the wife is afraid it’ll mean too much time away from family). We pray for the kids to move back closer to home (though that’s really all about what we want).
The Lord is often treated like a soda machine as we make our demands—as if we’re the ones calling the shots. Often our “pleading” is a mask for ultimatums, that God better do as we want, or we’re through with Him. We talked about that last week, right? If we do something for God, that does not mean He owes us. We don’t make deals with God, and we surely do not threaten Him!
So that is not how we should pray. But it’s just as much an abuse of God’s gift of prayer if we don’t approach God at all. If we ignore praying altogether? Sin. Too busy to pray? Sin. Too confident, we can handle it on our own? Sin.
It is also wrong to withhold our prayers, if we don’t pray because we don’t believe God cares to hear from us. We may think, “Ah, He’s got too much going on to think about little old me.” “I don’t deserve God’s help. Look at the mess I’ve made of my life.” None of these is the way Abraham understood the Lord’s invitation to pray (vv 20–21, 23–24). We should not think this way, either.
I mean look at Abraham. He knows he’s got no claim on God (v 27). He’s just dust and ashes. He’s not dictating. He’s not saying, “God you better give me…” He’s not saying, “Save those people down there so I can get rich off of them.” He’s begging, pleading. He’s worried about his nephew Lot and his family (who do not seem to have the faith that Abraham has), and Abraham figures in these two big towns, and they were two bigger towns for that era, that there would be ten believers in there. (There weren’t.) But he does ask. He’s not afraid to pray and to ask for more, more, more. Why? How can dust and ashes ask, even pester, almighty God? And not be reprimanded by God for doing it? It’s because Abraham knew this:
The prayer line is open to us because of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. Abraham’s prayer didn’t begin with Abraham presuming to approach God; the Lord initiated it with His invitation (vv 17–18). God wanted Abraham, wants us, to come to Him. In the verses before our text the Lord said He would not hide what He was going to do, He invited Abraham to join Him in this conversation. The Lord starts the conversation, and those verses tell why. Also in the verses before our text, the Lord says “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in” Abraham, which is a promise of the Messiah; all people will be blessed because one of Abraham’s great-great-great descendants would be the Christ, the Savior. Jesus would bless all nations by fixing the separation of the world from God, bringing us back into a relationship with the heavenly Father.
And get this: The Lord as He stood speaking to Abraham was none other than this Jesus Christ, long before He would become incarnate (born of Mary in Bethlehem), a true human being, as Jesus of Nazareth. This Lord Himself invited Abraham to pray to Him because of the Messiah He would be. Now does that make your head spin a little? I think that’s pretty cool.
When it comes to us, God invites us to pray to Him because of Jesus. In confirmation classes, I will ask, “Does God always answer prayer?” I have gotten all kinds of answers to that question, but the answer is when we as Christians pray, God answers every prayer. Sometimes the answer is “Yes.” Sometimes the answer is “No.” And sometimes the answer is “Not yet.”
Proper prayer, Christian prayer (which includes prayers of the Old Testament faithful people such as Abraham), is always through Jesus, the Christ. We should always pray, “Your will be done.” And we should always pray, “In Jesus’ Name.” We are privileged to go to the Father through the Son. That’s because Jesus’ death on the cross took away the sin that separated us from God, that would have kept God from answering any of our prayers (Col 2:12–14). Paul mentioned that in our Epistle reading again today. Now, because those sins have been nailed to Jesus’ cross, and because Jesus rose again (Easter! Hello!), we’re back together with God. He’s our dear Father; we’re His dear children. And the Father answers the requests of His children. We plead for mercy “in Jesus’ name” because our merciful Jesus makes not only us acceptable to the Father but our prayers as well.
See how great the mercy of God is in answering prayer! This is where Abraham’s story in our text gets really amazing (vv 23–33). Why did Abraham care about Sodom? The people in that city were so wicked! If you think things are getting bad out there these days, and I agree with you that they are, Sodom and Gomorrah were worse. I don’t have time to go through it all here, so if you do not remember what happen after this text, go home and read Genesis 19. You might be able to read it on your phone during the offering, but NOT NOW!
Anyway, as I said, Abraham was concerned because his nephew Lot was now living there. Abraham wanted to save him. Just as we all have special, personal, family concerns. We may not think they’re a big deal to God, but look how the Lord answers. Six straight times—count ’em—God says yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
This is our promise as well: the Lord says yes in showering His mercy and peace and forgiveness and love on us. He allows us to address Him in the faith He has given us in Baptism and which He continues to strengthen through the Word and His Table. We plead our case to Him, trusting in His mercy for us fragile, fallen folks, knowing His mercy is new each morning and His grace sufficient for us in all times and places. And that faith He creates and strengthens trusts firmly that His mercy always gives the best.
Let’s finish with this: Do you know the difference between a ship and a boat? I used to think it was just a matter of size—a ship was bigger, a boat was smaller. But it’s actually more specific than that: a ship is a vessel that has its own boat. That’s right; a ship always has a smaller vessel, a boat, that it carries until it’s needed—for example, when the ship is sinking, a lifeboat. Now, a lifeboat is a very good thing, but the fact is that most ships never need their boat that way. Most ships go their entire sailing life without ever using the lifeboat.
The question I then ask is this: Is prayer a lifeboat, or is it a ship?
“Pastor, would you pray for me? The doctor says I have a tumor.” Absolutely, yes, and the Pastor does. Even when it may appear all hope is lost, the ship is sinking, God answers prayer, and it may be his will to work a miracle, to spare one’s life. Prayer can be a lifeboat.
But God’s intent in giving us the gift of prayer isn’t that we wait to pray until all seems lost. God intends that prayer be an everyday, every moment part of the Christian life, including when life seems to be clear sailing, a pleasure cruise. The saints on earth and in heaven are constantly praying, and God is constantly answering—with good weather, good crops, good health, and all sorts of things we might take for granted. God invites us to pray about everything every day, not just as a last resort.
It’s not guts or intestinal fortitude that lets us come before the all-knowing, all-powerful Lord. Prayer is a blessed privilege, a gift, given us from our merciful Father for the sake of His Son. And that means we can pray with the same forward, “you’ve got some nerve,” boldness Abraham showed. We turn to the Lord in prayer, leaning on His mercy, knowing He always hears and He always answers.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
(Outline of this Sermon courtesy of Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 26, Part 3.)