Prayer is deepening in relationship with the Triune God, getting to know God’s heart truly, so we bear it faithfully into the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 17 C
Texts: Luke 11:1-13; Genesis 18:20-32
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It takes time to get to know someone.
Our first impressions might sometimes prove accurate, but often we’ve assumed things about people and had our assumptions profoundly changed the more we got to know them. That’s the key: the only way we understand anyone is to spend time with them.
This means being in direct contact. It’s frustrating when someone misunderstands us but talks to others about it. “Why didn’t you ask me?” we think. “I could have told you the truth.” We hope people will take the time to directly get to know us rather than assume about us. It turns out that’s what God wants, too.
Today we consider what prayer really is. We see Abraham courageously talking with God, calling God to be whom Abraham knows God is. The Son of God teaches us a model for prayer, and a parable about being persistent, and encourages us to seek God, knock, ask of God.
Nowhere is the question “does prayer work?” Instead, God’s Word today reveals prayer is all about relationship with God. Prayer is talking with God, not about God. Prayer is listening to God to learn God’s true heart. Prayer is being drawn deeper into relationship with God, closer to the heart of God for us and the world.
Abraham has spent years in relationship with God, has learned truths about God’s nature. In this encounter, where Abraham questions God’s response to human evil, we see that relationship has taught Abraham something about God many do not know. This is the prayer life we seek: that we might also have such a relationship with God, so we, too, might know God’s heart so well.
In the Hebrew Bible we see this people learn to know God better over time, and through their relationship have their understanding of God profoundly change.
Most of the archaeological evidence suggests that the arrival of the Israelites in Canaan was gradual. However, in the book of Joshua it’s described as a great conquest, whole cities burned to the ground in God’s name, every living thing killed. Believing this about their God made the Hebrews like everyone else. If your god was worth anything, it would destroy your enemies.
But as Abraham talks to God today, we see a crack appear in the Hebrew understanding of God. In the end, they interpret the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as before, as most people did: God destroyed the cities for their wickedness. Except this: they have this memory of their ancestor arguing that God’s true nature, God’s true justice, was different. There’s a hint that perhaps it is not God’s justice to destroy, that God’s justice is to offer mercy.
Later, in the story of Jonah, that crack is opened wide. Once again there is an evil city, but now God claims the right to mercy. Jonah wishes God would be a proper god and wipe these people out. But now, over centuries, Israel has learned that is not God’s true nature. Now they see God’s way is mercy and love, not vengeance.
By the prophet Hosea this revelation is complete. God cries out over the wickedness of the people, their betrayal, and announces their destruction. God’s anger is righteous, because all God has done is show love. I nursed them, God says, I taught them to walk, I loved them, and they turned against me. But then, astonishingly, God changes tack. God says, “How could I destroy my children?” And this breathtaking word: “I am God, not human.” Meaning, I don’t have to be like you. Now Israel has learned God’s true nature, mercy and restoration, not destruction. They’ve learned God is love.
And now God’s people are ready for a deeper, closer relationship with God. In person.
In Christ, the Son of God, God’s Word made flesh, we meet God face-to-face.
Prepared by centuries of deepening relationship with God, many Jews first saw in Jesus what we have come to know: in him God became one of us, and through him we are given the clearest revelation into the heart of God we have.
And in our relationship with Christ Jesus he continues to teach the true heart of God. A month ago in worship we heard Luke tell us that as Jesus and the disciples traveled, they weren’t welcomed in a Samaritan village because Jesus was a Jew. James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven on that poor little town. Jesus rebuked them. Hosea’s vision is reality: this is not God’s way.
Our path with the Incarnate One inevitably leads us to Gethsemane. Here what Abraham started to understand becomes truly clear to us. God’s response to wickedness and evil is to take it on and bear it. God’s final answer to Abraham’s plea is revealed: I will not destroy, I will forgive by taking on death myself. In this, I will bring life.
At the cross the full truth of God is revealed to us: God is a just God who shows mercy, not vengeance. A loving God who offers forgiveness, not destruction.
But each of us needs to spend time with God ourselves to learn this, to have it fully change our heart and our understanding of God’s heart. It matters so much to how we bear God in the world. That’s the ultimate goal of prayer as Jesus teaches us, as Abraham models it. Heart-to-heart life with God so we know God ever more fully, and show God’s truth in the world.
The disciples want to learn to pray for this reason, too. And Jesus first invites them into this relationship.
The prayer Jesus teaches begins with a prayer that is all about getting to know God. First, the Son of God invites us to pray to the Creator, whom we know as the first person of the Trinity, in intimate terms. “Daddy,” Father. But also to claim God’s holiness, God’s otherness from us. A relationship of intimacy, even though God is not like us.
Then, the key to all our prayer: your kingdom come. Your will be done. We are invited to pray for God’s rule to come into our lives and in the world, which will only happen when God’s will is done.
This is prayer: that we take all our lives to get to know the Triune God, so that we learn to know God’s will. Prayer begins with listening to God, Jesus teaches, getting to know God, so that then we might do God’s will. Prayer is not all speaking, Jesus says. It is also contemplation, listening for God. Listening in God’s Word. Listening in our hearts. Listening for God in others. Only then can we do God’s will in the world.
This is the beginning and ongoing heart of all prayer. Only in this life of listening are we then invited to speak, to ask, to knock.
What Jesus tells us to ask for, strangely enough, is the two requests we heard today.
We’re told to pray for daily bread, just as in Jesus’ parable, knocking on God’s door and asking for food. Luther teaches us this is not just food, but all we need for life, all we need to be satisfied and whole. Luther also teaches us we pray not just for our daily bread but for all people’s bread, that God would provide for all. Since we’ve already prayed that God’s will be done by us, we’ve also committed ourselves to making sure all receive their daily bread.
The rest of Jesus’ prayer mirrors Abraham’s prayer, praying to the Judge of all the earth for forgiveness and mercy for us and for others. Praying for salvation in times of trial. Praying for deliverance from evil. In these three things we stand with Abraham and call God to account for the mercy we have learned is God’s heart. Since we’ve already prayed that God’s will be done by us, we’ve also committed ourselves to the same mercy and forgiveness for others we ask for ourselves. We’ve committed to being with others in their time of trial, standing with others in the face of evil.
Jesus teaches us the heart of prayer is deepening into the relationship with the Triune God he has made possible for us.
And perhaps, like the Hebrew people, we are learning to know God better in such a way that we can go even further than Jesus’ invitation in this prayer. Many have found great help in praying to the One Jesus called Father, and that name shapes their prayer constantly. Many others find the face of Jesus more accessible, and their prayer becomes centered first on the Son of God.
But the same Son who taught us to pray “Father” today, also today promises us the gift of the Holy Spirit when we pray. This is the One whom the Son taught us to consider as our Mother, the One who gives us birth. In this Spirit we find many of the ways of God we’d normally call feminine that are named in Scripture. As we learn to know the Triune God better, perhaps we might consider if the Spirit is a more helpful entrée for some into the life of God. If Father and Son seem daunting for some, perhaps the motherly grace of the Spirit is a better way for them or for us to be drawn deeper into the fullness of God.
It is a deep grace, in fact, that in Christ we have come to know God in these three Persons, even as we trust that God is One. As we prayed in our Prayer of the Day, God is ever more willing to hear than we are to pray, and the gift of God to come to us in different ways shows that hope. A hope that our life of prayer would be the way God would draw us deeper into the truth of God’s heart. So we can live with confidence and hope. So we can be faithful in our service and life. But mostly so we can know the inexpressible joy of the love the Triune God has for us and for the world, and speak it with Abraham’s confidence, in our words and in our actions.
In the name of Jesus. Amen