SERMON FOR SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Sermon for 7th Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor Michael Jarick
DARING TO ASK
For each of us there are turning points in our lives, occasions when the path of our life changes to go in a different direction. Some matters we may have planned for years, such as the career we pursued. Others may have been surprises – a chance meeting that developed into a friendship, then marriage; a positive test result after months of strange symptoms and many tests.
For the reformer Martin Luther, a pivotal moment for him took place when he was a young man in 1505. He was a happy go-lucky law student, as his father had decided. He had visited his family in Eisleben in Saxony-Anhalt, present day Germany, and was on his way back to uni at Erfurt. Along the way he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm.
When there was a flash and a bang as lightning struck very close by, he was thrown to the ground, convinced he was going to die. In desperation he cried out to St Anne. If she saved him from the storm, he promised to become a monk.
Luther was not the first or the last person to attempt to bargain with God, was he?
- God, if you’ll do this one thing for me, I promise I’ll be a better person
- God, if you forgive me, I promise I’ll never do it again
- God, I promise I’ll go to church if you save me.
Have you ever tried to make a bargain with God? Is it a bad thing to do? What happens when you try to make a bargain and you don’t get the help you want? Other questions we might ask include: “Does God change his mind? If he does, in what circumstances? If he doesn’t change his mind, then why bother praying?
In our Old Testament reading we have a fascinating story in which Abraham bargains with God over the future of Sodom and Gomorrah. God has seen the wickedness of both cities and decided to destroy them.
Abraham’s sense of justice has been piqued. It offends his sense of right and wrong that good people will be destroyed along with the wicked, so he challenges God: “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?
It is significant that God accepts Abraham’s challenge. Why? God’s willingness to bargain shows he is not a tyrant who has unlimited power and will use it any way he wants. That’s a view of God sometimes held by people who haven’t come to know God.
God responds: "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." I don’t know what Abraham felt after this gracious response from God. I think I would have heaved a sigh of relief that God didn’t denounce me for my impertinence. I certainly wouldn’t have pushed my luck any further.
Abraham is bold. God is not a nasty tyrant without mercy. “What about 45? What about 40? What about 30? What about 20?... How low will God go? It’s like some weird cosmic version of a TV game show… What about 10? God answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."
Let’s take a quick look now at another instance in the Old Testament when God has seen the great evil of a city. The city is Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. This time God calls Jonah to go to the city and warn the inhabitants of their impending destruction.
But what does Jonah do? He goes down to the harbour and gets on a ship going the opposite direction to Nineveh. Later, after he has reluctantly gone to Nineveh and warned the people, he becomes very unhappy and angry that the people did in fact repent and were spared. The literal translation is “it became evil to Jonah as a great evil.”
In his utter rage he explains that he didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew that they wouldn’t get what they deserved. His sense of justice is piqued alright, like Abraham’s was, except that Jonah’s is in the opposite direction. He explains in
chapter 4: 2 “…for I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” He is so disgusted with God’s compassion that he asks God to kill him, because he would rather die than see the wicked Ninevites saved. Wow!
So, we have the contrast of Abraham challenging God to spare the few righteous inhabitants of Sodom, and Jonah challenging God to kill him because the sinners in Nineveh might repent and be saved.
What both stories show is that even though sin brings God’s judgement, God is always seeking to save and not destroy. They show us that no one is beyond saving.
The stories of Abraham and Jonah are therefore an encouragement for us to intercede for those who cannot or will not pray, so that they do not miss out on God’s mercy. We do this often as a congregation in the Prayer of the Church towards the end of the service.
When I was young, I thought that the General Prayer, as it was called then, lasted forever. However, I came to understand that prayer is much more than asking God for what I want. Christian prayer intercedes for everyone, even those who are opposed to God and enemies of the church.
Many modern liturgies have abandoned the Prayer of the Church, and instead pray a short, thematic prayer on the topic for the day, and thus tend to neglect intercessory prayer.
Now to the Gospel for today. How many of us are like the disciples? We need help in learning to pray. Sometimes prayer is very difficult. The reading starts with one of Jesus’ disciples coming to him and asking Jesus to teach them to pray.
Teach them what? Teach them how to fold their hands? Teach them how to close their eyes and bow their heads? Obviously, there was something deeper they wanted. Jesus responds not with a teaching lesson, but with a gift:
He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive those who have sinned against us. And lead us not into temptation."
How often do you pray the Lord’s Prayer, apart from during a worship service? Sometimes I come across the idea that a spontaneous prayer that you make up yourself is more real and authentic than the Lord’s Prayer, which we can rattle off by memory. Isn’t it odd, though, for a Christian to underrate or neglect the prayer that Jesus himself taught us?
Although we can recite the prayer without giving it much thought, it should never become mundane. In the Lord’s Prayer we are entering into the holiest place. We dare to come into God’s presence and to call him our Father.
Jesus uses a parable to explain our boldness in praying the Lord’s Prayer, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.'
The Lord’s Prayer boldly knocks on the very door of heaven. Without Jesus’ invitation God would have every right to respond, “Do not bother me – the door has already been locked”. Without Jesus’ invitation we are sinners banging on a door that has been locked because of our sin. What makes us think that God would listen to us?
But Jesus has given to us the keys to heaven. He invites us to ask, and it will be given to us; to seek and we will find; to knock and the door will be opened. Like Abraham we can have the boldness and audacity to knock on the door of heaven and bring our prayer petitions to God.
So, the next time you are praying the Lord’s Prayer, don’t rush through it. Savour every petition as you speak with God in the heavenly realms. Pray with confidence as you ask, seek and knock, trusting that God will open the door and hear your prayer.
Pray with humility, not taking for granted that you’re “praying this prayer yet again”. Jesus himself has invited you to pray his own intimate prayer to his Father.
And remember that your prayer can change the very mind of God, as Abraham showed when he was bold enough to bargain with God. God is merciful, and desires to save, rather than destroy, as he showed with the people of Nineveh.
We can pray for those who cannot or do not pray. We can be confident that when we ask, it will be given to us; when we seek, we will find; and when we knock the very door of heaven will be opened to us. Amen.
Note: Last year I got half-way though my sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer before I went on sick leave. I’ll complete the series over the coming weeks.
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