God’s Praying People
2nd Sunday in Lent (Reminiscere)
February 21st/22nd, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Lent is a time of repentance. For many Christians throughout the history of the Church, that repentance has taken specific forms in the season of Lent. The most widely known of these is fasting, or giving something up. Christians historically have fasted during the 40 days of Lent to remember the 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness, or the 40 years wandering of the Israelites. As we heard from last week’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, that’s where our heart will be too. Lenten fasting is one way Christians repent of how attached we grow to the things of this world, a reminder of where we tend to think our treasures are, and where they actually are. Similar, but maybe less widely practiced today, is the practice of giving alms, or charity. Christians historically have given more money to the poor and destitute during Lent, a reminder of all that our Lord has given to us. Here at St. John we designate a special mission to support during the Lenten season. Again, this practice is not as common as it once was, and it’s not as common as fasting, however, it does have roots in the history of the Christian Church.
The third discipline of Lent is the one I want to focus on today – the discipline of prayer. You see, Lenten fasting isn’t just about not eating something or about giving something up, it’s also about adding in time for prayer and the study of God’s Word. Rather than just not eating lunch, instead you spend your lunch hour in God’s Word and in prayer. Prayer is so basic to the Christian life, and yet we so often find it difficult to pray. We so often find ourselves failing to have a regular prayer life. We so often fall victim to the temptations not to pray.
C.S. Lewis shed some light on the struggle Christians have when it comes to prayer. In his book The Screwtape Letters, Lewis gives us a glimpse into the other side of the battle we face. The book is written as a series of letters from an older, wiser demon to his young nephew demon. The older Demon is mentoring his nephew in the art of temptation. He guides the young demon into the path of greatest success, a path which results in the greatest destruction for the child of God. When it comes to prayer, the older demon encourages his young apprentice to do the following to his assigned Christian. First, he is to make sure that the Christian always struggles with the idea that prayer is absurd and couldn’t possibly work. It’s a struggle that I think every Christian deals with on some level at some point in their life. Second, the demon is to tempt his mark to only think of prayer in a heads or tails fashion. That way, if what he’s praying for doesn’t happen, then it must be because prayer doesn’t work. And if what he’s praying for does happen, then the demon should tempt the Christian to see the cause of the answer in other means, planting the idea that “It would have happened anyway, even if I hadn’t prayed.” Or better yet, lead the Christian to believe that an answered prayer for healing ought to be attributed to the doctors and medications, that an answered prayer for daily bread should be chalked up to the hours he himself put in at the office, that an answered prayer for companionship is really the result of the friend who set you up on your blind date, or that an answer to a prayer for peace is really the result of the politician who brokered the cease fire. In that case, even a “yes answer” can help undermine the Christian’s belief in the power of prayer. All of these temptations will work together to drive people away from prayer, and nothing gives a demon a greater sense of accomplishment than tempting God’s children away from their Heavenly Father.
The reason this discussion on the temptations we face when it comes to prayer is so compelling is that prayer is truly a struggle for Christians, especially when Satan tempts us to believe that the ongoing nature of prayer is a sign of rejection. And prayer is ongoing; it has to be. Once one prayer is answered, there’s another one waiting in the wings. If a prayer hasn’t brought about the result we are praying for, we keep on praying. The truth of the matter is that as long as we are the children of God in this life, we will be in prayer, and those prayers are seldom answered immediately. That is not a sign of rejection, that is simply the reality of life this side of heaven. But as we consider our own personal struggles with prayer, the example of the Canaanite woman from today’s Gospel offers some helpful insights.
First, when the Canaanite woman cried out for mercy, the Lord seemed to ignore her. There are times when the same is true for us. There are times when we pour our soul out to God above and ask him to take away a disease, to spare a dying loved one, to give us peace in a tumultuous relationship, to take away the shame or guilt of sins committed, to deliver us from temptation to the sins that beckon us down the path to destruction. And for all our fervent pleas for mercy, there are still sick and disease ridden loved ones in families all throughout the world; there are funerals on a daily basis; there are sleepless nights and sobs of grief over the anger and fighting in our homes; there are the skeletons in our closet that whisper to us in the shadows of the night, the pounding of the telltale heart that we have foolishly tried to bury under the floor; there are the moments of shame when we have scratched that sinful itch one more time, the one we promised never to indulge again. There are times when, like the Canaanite woman, our cries for mercy seem to go unanswered.
Second, when the Canaanite woman confronted Jesus on why he was ignoring her, he told her it was because she was unworthy. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, not to little Canaanite dogs like you.” How could Jesus say something so harsh? It’s hard to fit these words and this interaction into the nice little picture of Jesus we picture on the front of a religious card. But how ready are we to admit that, of ourselves, we deserve nothing better? What right do we have to ask our Lord for anything? Are we really worthy that our Lord would listen to us? Aren’t we the ones who profane his holy name every time we side with the culture around us when it’s at odds with God’s Word? Aren’t we the ones who profane his holy name by the words that come out of our mouths, words dripping with the vinegar of self-righteousness and bitterness and blame far more often than with the sweet nectar of forgiveness. Aren’t we the ones who have blinded so much of the world to the love of our Lord by the lack of love we ourselves show in our lives? Are we worthy to ask the Lord for anything?
In a word, yes. But not of ourselves, for of ourselves we are indeed unworthy of anything but judgment and condemnation for the way we have treated our Lord and his Word. But it is not our worthiness that matters here – it is the worthiness of Christ. Worthy is the Lamb who is slain. His blood, not mine, sets us free to be people of God, and that’s exactly what we are: the people of God. That’s the third thing we learn from the Canaanite woman. When Jesus told her she was unworthy to receive anything from him, she did not tell him to go jump off a cliff. She did not say, “Only God can judge me.” After all, she was talking to God, and his judgment is blameless. No, she agreed with Jesus’ assessment. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “I am unworthy. I am a dog. And yet, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall to the floor. Just give me scraps, Lord. Just give me crumbs. Just give me something, anything at all from your table. For even though I am unworthy, I know you alone can give what I need. I am unworthy, so have mercy on me, and at least let me have the scraps.”
Such is the attitude that faith works in our hearts. Yes, we are unworthy to ask anything of God, and we deserve only judgment from him. Yet faith opens our eyes to this reality so that we can stop hiding from it. Rather, we confess the truth of our unworthiness, begging the Lord for his mercy, recognizing that he will answer our prayer not because we deserve it, but because he is merciful. And because he alone is worthy, because he alone is God, he will answer our prayer in his own way and at his own time, according to his calendar, not mine, according to his plan for my life, not mine. He knows what is best for us, even when we don’t. We are unworthy, so we trust his answer.
And so from the Canaanite woman we learn to pray in patience and humility. This woman was rejected by Jesus twice before he finally gave her what she desired. We too must be patient in our prayer, not a mere two times, but as long as it takes, even if that means we go the rest of our earthly lives never seeing the answer we were looking for. We are patient in prayer, trusting God’s timeline. We are patient in prayer, and this patience is brought about by humbly acknowledging our unworthiness to even ask anything in the first place. Of ourselves, we can ask nothing. Yet because Christ became our brother, we are now the sons and daughters of God through faith. And because we are fellow saints and members of the household of God, we approach his throne confidently according to the worthiness of his Son. We don’t demand that God bend himself to the whims and desires of our hearts, but we humbly present our requests to him, always praying, “Thy will be done.”
We also learn from this woman to be fervent and unceasing in our prayers. The Canaanite woman did not give up when she did not immediately get the answer she wanted. We too must be fervent in prayer, not throwing in the towel if we don’t see an immediate response. We continue to pray for healing, even when our loved one shows no signs of improvement; we pray for peace even while the battles rage; we pray and pray and pray, not growing anxious about anything, but presenting our requests to God, confident that he will hear and answer us in his own time. Such waiting teaches us humility. It teaches us that we are not the ones in control. It teaches us to rely on our Lord to provide for all our needs of body and soul. We don’t take our ball and go home when we don’t get our way; we continue steadfast in prayer.
And finally, we learn to trust and cling to the promises of God’s Word above the feelings and experiences of our hearts. As C.S. Lewis so hauntingly portrayed it in The Screwtape Letters, Satan would have us trust the nagging sense of doubt and despair that clings to our sinful hearts. He would have us grow despondent. He would have us lose hope. He would have us give up. When our heart wants to give up, to question God’s judgment, to wallow in the idea that God’s not being fair to me or that I don’t deserve this, we learn to trust the promise of God’s Word more than those sinking feelings. For God’s Word is clear. God will work all things out for the good of his baptized children – and that’s you. God has told us to call upon him in the day of trouble, for he will answer us. He has told us not to be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, to make our requests known to him. For he is our loving Father, and he has promised to hear and answer us.
Take heart in the realization that if God did not want our prayers, he would not have commanded us to pray. When the disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he would have said, “Don’t bother. It doesn’t do anything anyway. God’s not really even listening.” But that’s not what he said. Rather, he said that when we pray, we call out to our Father, knowing that he is truly our Father through our brother Jesus Christ, so that with all boldness and confidence, we can ask him as dear children ask their dear father. Such was the boldness and confidence of the Canaanite woman; such boldness and confidence is yours through our Lord Jesus Christ.
May the Spirit of God fill us with such confidence in our prayers, that we might be as unceasing, patient, and humble as the Canaanite woman, trusting fully in the merciful God to hear and answer us.