Welcome to this morning's Worship service.
Worship today is led by Lew Greaves ( available via Zoom this week)
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Rev Christine Fox: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Below you can find this weeks Message. Click here to find the whole worship sheet.
Okay, so when Martin first got in touch with me about today, he asked me to talk about the potential of prayer. And I thought ‘Well, I could do something about the potential of prayer to do amazing things, the potential of God to answer our prayers, of the miracles achieved through prayer.’ Let’s face it – most of us have sat through that sermon already at some point in our lives, so I’m not going to dwell on that stuff, although I will say this: if God knows everything about me – my secrets; my shame; my flaws; my sins past, present and future; the wrongs that I’m not even aware of – if He knows all of that and still loves me, then for me that’s the personal proof that God not only answers prayer, but really is able to do anything.
What I am going to talk about is a few of the other aspects of the potential of prayer, and tie some of those in with our reading and with the work of Christian Aid. I’m going to start with a bit of a serious one, but will hopefully lighten a bit from there.
So, let’s talk about the potential of prayer to go unanswered (I told you it was a serious one). Like I said, most of us have sat through that stock sermon about prayer – that God is good; that He’s capable of anything; that He always answers prayer; that anything is possible if you have enough faith; that if it looks like God hasn’t answered, it’s just that you can’t perceive how He’s answered. It’s very easy to say those things from a pulpit, but you know what? They’ve done a lot of damage in people’s lives, those ideas. Think about the person who prays and prays and prays for their poorly loved one to get better, and they still die. I don’t work in a church: I work in a hospital, and whilst I’m not going to go into the horrific situations that I have been called to at different times (there’s no point and I don’t want to upset anybody either), if I were to go into those situations with that kind of theology, it would sound glib, even insulting. I mean thing about saying ‘God will answer your prayer if you have enough faith.’ Well, that just insults the person because it suggests that their faith wasn’t enough to achieve whatever it was they were praying for. To say that we can’t always perceive how God answers prayer insults their intelligence – it suggests that they’re too dense to work out how God’s working in that situation.
If I can’t use that theology in those situations then I shouldn’t be using it anywhere and, I contend, neither should you. Because despite meaning well, despite it being built on the best of intentions, it can really be harmful, that idea about our approach to prayer.
Sometimes God doesn’t answer prayer. You want an example of that from scripture? You want some scriptural proof? Look at our reading from John – I mean you would think that God would answer Jesus’ prayers, right?! And yet, what does Jesus pray for? He prays for his followers to be one. Now I’m sorry, but I can think of at least four different denominations of Church within Wollaton alone. Or think about the work of Christian Aid and other aid charities: if God answered our prayers in full, then those groups would no longer need to exist, neither would food banks or anything else like that, because they would already have been fixed.
Sometimes God only partially answers prayer, and sometimes he doesn’t answer. And you know what? I’m okay with that, and Jesus is the reason why. Because the fact that God chose to step into the mess of our lives; to put the hard miles in with us; to submit himself to humiliation and death at our hands – if He loves us enough to do all that for us, then it follows that He must want to answer our prayers. So if He doesn’t, it must mean that there’s a reason for that. Now I might not know the reason – I might have to wait until I’m face-to-face with the Almighty to ask why He didn’t answer that prayer of mine – but my belief that there is a reason for God’s silences helps me to live with the silences. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to start walking into tragic situations and say ‘everything happens for a reason’ because that’s just as glib as our first approach, but at least it doesn’t blame the victim, and in the meantime it gives us a God who loves and wants to help us: a God weeping on His cross as we weep on ours.
Okay, I told you that was pretty serious, so let’s lighten the mood a bit: let’s talk about the potential of prayer to be answered by you. Think of it like this: if I pray and pray and pray with great faith for an absolutely shredded six-pack but I don’t do any sit-ups, am I going to get it? My faith probably isn’t that strong I’m afraid! Let me give you a different example: a friend of our family went for a walk with Carly a while back, and on this walk, this friend talked and talked about how she hated her body, how she needed to lose loads of weight, and no-one was ever going to love her etc., and when the walk went past a branch of Bird’s they went in and this friend said (and I’m pretty much quoting word-for-word here), ‘I’ll take the biggest cream cake you’ve got.’
The risk of prayer is that we use it to get ourselves of the hook - to wash our hands of responsibility in a particular situation; we can turn it over to God and then we don’t have to worry about it. But you know what? That’s not how it works. In that reading from John, Jesus – as well as praying for the Church to be one – prays that His disciples will keep the faith, that they will spread the word and be blessed. And what happens next? Well, after Jesus dies and is resurrected, we get this (this is from John chapter 20):
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
Jesus Himself gives the Holy Spirit, and He does it before Pentecost. He prays for all of those different things for His followers and then He, in His actions, answers the prayer Himself. That’s massive, and it has big implications for us as well. We might pray for worthy causes including Christian Aid (and that’s commendable) but are we fundraising? Are we promoting, raising awareness, putting our hand in our own pocket? We might pray for the healing of the environment, but when we start meeting back in church I bet there will be a couple of fairly thirsty cars in the car park.
A friend of mine a while back sent me a picture of somebody sitting on a park bench with Jesus, and he said, ‘Lord, I’ve got to ask, why do you allow poverty and war and the suffering of other people?’ And Jesus says, ‘You know, it’s funny – I was about to ask you the same question.’
The first step in prayer is faith: to trust in the power of God. But the second step is to realise and use the power God has put in our hands. As they say in the world of music tuition, ‘practice and hope, but don’t hope more than you practice.’
Lastly, I want to talk about something that’s a little bit slippery: the potential of prayer to be its own answer. I suppose, in a way, it kind of the other side of what I’ve just said, and it’s a bit tricky to explain but I’ll try my best.
When you pray for somebody, chances are that their needs will fall into one of two categories: you’ve got the practical, pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts issues (and remember what I’ve just said: that’s the point where you think ‘what can I do to answer that prayer?’), and then the other part is often about emotional needs, and almost always it’s a different expression of a person needing to feel loved. When we pray for someone who is doubting, bereaved, angry, who’s got a job interview coming up – aren’t we praying for God to show His love to them? To comfort the bereaved? To reassure the doubting? To help the angry find peace? To help the person with the job interview feel that they’re not doing it alone?
How does God show that love then? Well, often, through people – through you and me. When we pray for someone, we do two things: we re-tell their situation in our own words, which shows that we’ve listened and that we’re empathising with them; and we’re showing that they matter enough to us that we take the time and the mental effort to bring them before the Lord. Now, when you’re in a state of emotional need and somebody listens, empathises, and takes time and effort over you – don’t those things make you feel loved?
It’s a crazy paradox that praying for somebody – that they might feel the touch of God’s love – in the very act of saying the prayer, God’s love is given to that person through our action. God is answering the prayer as we say it. The act of praying is the answer to the need we’re praying about!
I told you it was a bit of a tricky one! Let’s look at another example – let’s go back to that reading from John. Now John’s Gospel, we think, was written later than the other Gospels, at a time when persecution of the early Church was really starting to gather steam, so John’s Gospel is written mostly as an encouragement to keep the faith. This is the Gospel that starts off by portraying Jesus as this cosmic saviour of the universe; it’s the Gospel that gives us ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’; it is the Gospel that give us ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’ All of it is about keeping the faith, about staying strong. Now the reading that we had today is part of a much bigger farewell discourse where Jesus says ‘goodbye’ to His followers. It’s five chapters long – it’s huge – and it’s very much in style of a lot of ancient Greek writing where heroes and teaches would say this long ‘goodbye’, pass on their final teaching and encouragement to their followers. A good example of that is the philosopher Socrates: Plato writes his farewell discourse down, and it’s an entire book.
Now, if you were one of John’s original readers; if you were facing persecution – potentially facing death – for your faith in Jesus Christ, and you read that no matter how bad things are, you matter enough in the eyes of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world, that He asked God to support and encourage you even though He might never have met you in person, would you feel supported? Wouldn’t you feel encouraged? The prayer itself is the answer to the need that’s being prayed about.
So let’s bring all that together: prayer has the potential to go unanswered; it has the potential to be answered by you; it has the potential to be its own answer. Why have I told you all this stuff? Well hopefully to re-encourage to get into prayer, particularly praying for other people – it’s a massive part of Christian discipleship, and a really important ministry. If nothing else, that Gospel reading embodies all the different potential of prayer, and it’s our job to emulate that. Now that’s a big ask, but you know what? I’m not asking you to pray like Jesus; I’m not expecting you to pray like Martin; I’m not expecting you to pray like Christine. Even if your prayers are lumpy and ugly and unsophisticated, it doesn’t matter – it’s about the love that they reveal.
My prayer for you is this: that you will feel God’s love even when he doesn’t give you what you pray for; that you will find new ways to answer the prayers of others and yourself; and that in hearing this prayer, you may know that I love you, and God loves you even more. Amen.