Sunday, August 21, 2016

Prayer (John 14-16)

“Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”  John 14:13-14 

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” John 15:7 

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” John 15:16 

“In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” John 16:23,24
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Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples on prayer is pretty eye-catching: five times he says,  “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” I see three question begging to be answered: What does it mean to ask in God’s name; do Christians get anything and everything they ask for; and ultimately, how should we pray?

I am going to address this by walking us through what’s commonly referred to as The Lord’s Prayer. After my dad died, I really struggled with the concept of prayer. Lots of people had prayed – and felt really confident that God’s plan was healing – and yet he died. I spent years reading about prayer, talking with others, and regaining my footing in this area. The Lord’s Prayer was huge to me during this time. I didn’t know what I was supposed to pray or how prayer worked, but I knew Jesus said, “Pray like this.” So I did.

Jesus offered this prayer to his disciples as sort of a model. There’s nothing magical in the recitation of it, but in it we see foundational principles in how to pray, and why. Some have claimed we see the whole of the gospel message revealed in this prayer. Perhaps that is so. At the very least, this prayer offers some answers to the questions I raised earlier.

Our Father, Who Is In Heaven…[1]

“Our Father” starts us off with good theology. God is not a deistic God, aloof and uncaring. God is not a pantheistic God that is just part of nature. God is not the Force. God is person[2] who is relational, immediate, accessible God.[3]

“Our Father” reminds us that he’s our father. Not mine; ours. We cannot forget when we pray this that we are raised from death into new life in a family, a Christian community. In this, we are recognizing that while God is for us, He is for all of us. I cannot be content to simply think of God in terms of “me and God.” It must be “us and God.”

“Our Father” reminds us of our status as Christians. We are meant to  approach God as a child approaches his father. “Abba” is often described as ‘daddy,’ but it’s more than that. It’s conveys the idea of a nickname, the word that children say before they can fully pronounce the word.[4] It’s the best, unquenchable expression of a deep, gut-level, unrestrained cry of joy when daddy walks into the room; it’s the instinctive wail of his title when a child in pain believes only daddy will make it better. It’s a word that is used only in a relationship of safety, trust, and love.

“Our Father” reminds us that God cares for us. God will guide and discipline us for our growth into maturity, but he does so because of His love. Charles Spurgeon wrote,

“A father who is a father indeed, is very dear! Do we not remember how we climbed his knee? Do we not recollect the kisses we imprinted on his cheeks? Do we not recall today with gratitude the chidings of his wisdom and the gentle encouragements of his affection? Who shall tell how much we owe to our fathers according to the flesh, and when they are taken from us we lament their loss, and feel that a great gap is made in our family circle. Listen, then, to these words, "Our Father, Who is in heaven." Consider the grace contained in the Lord's deigning to take us into the relationship of children, and giving us with the relationship the nature and the spirit of children, so that we say, "Abba, Father."

So just in this opening, we establish a theology of God, our status with Him, and our place within the Christian community.

Hallowed be Thy Name

In the Bible, God’s name has to do with his character, nature and reputation. Doing something “in his name’ meant acting as a representative on his behalf, trusting in the character and nature of God while doing one’s best to faithfully represent him in thoughts, words and deeds.[5] Praying in God’s name is not a magical incantation of the name of Jesus. The Bible clearly models over and over that we pray and invoke the literal name of Jesus, but the power is not in the syllables (Acts 19 records what happens when some Jews tried to cast out demons by invoking the name of Jesus). They broke one of the commandments and “took God’s name in vain” – that is, they took  him lightly or casually.

The power of the name of Jesus comes from 1) the character and nature of the one who is being called, and 2) the submission and allegiance of the one who is calling. So when Jesus says, “Whosever prays in my name” he is not saying anyone can grab the name of Jesus and wait for fireworks. He is saying, “If you are my disciples – if you have taken my name seriously enough to endure persecution and even death for me – and you pray, I will answer.”

“Hallowed be thy name” is a plea, not a statement of fact. It’s saying, “Please, make your name revered or holy.” It’s asking for God to start the process in a world full of people – including the one praying – who takes the name of Jesus too casually. It’s asking that God’s character and nature be recognized as great by all who dismiss, insult or ignore it. This should humble us, because that includes us.[6]

It’s also a plea of both humility and hope. “Help me not to take your name lightly or casually. Help me to appreciate the majesty of God. I want the entirety of my life reflect that great weight and value I give to you; with your help, all I think, say and do will offer an accurate representation of you. ”

 May Your Kingdom Come And Your Will be Done, On Earth As It Is In Heaven.

This is once again a statement both hopeful and humbling.

It’s hopeful in that we are reminded that one day, all the kingdoms of the earth will come under the Lordship of Christ. This reflects a longing for future reality of heaven – and the hope that here, in this life, we will catch glimpses of the glory that awaits us. Robert Law writes , "Prayer is a mighty instrument, not for getting man’s will done in heaven, but for getting God’s will done.” Whenever we pray for justice, mercy, hope, and love, truth, and holiness, we are praying with hope that these heavenly realities will actually manifest here and let us see in part now what we will see fully in the life to come.

It’s humbling in that we are asking God to reign in our lives in ways He does not now - emotions, desires, thoughts and commitments. We want His desire to be our desires; His will to be our will; His loves to be our loves; His holiness to be ours. It’s also a reminder that, at the end of the day, we want God’s will to be done, not ours.

It’s not always easy to tell if what we are praying is within God’s will, or if it is selfishly motivated. It’s not possible for us to see all that God sees, so in many situations our best prayer is one where we ask God for life to unfold in a way that makes complete sense to us – but it might not be in the will of a God who has faultless wisdom, live and power.

This is another part of praying in God’s name, and brings us back to the question of whether or not we get everything we pray for. Praying in his name means praying in tune with and in trust of God’s nature and character, and therefore praying for something to happen as God would have it happen.
The phrase “in my name” is not a talisman for the command of supernatural energy. He did not wish it to be used as a magical charm like an Aladdin’s lamp. It was both a guarantee, like the endorsement on a check, and a limitation on the petition; for he would grant only such petitions as could be presented consistently with his character and purpose. In prayer we call on him to work out his purpose, not simply to gratify our whims. (Tenney, M. C. (1981). John. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 9: John and Acts (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (146). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.)[7]



Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread…

Literally, “that which is sufficient for our life.”  This word is only found in the Bible in ancient literature and is used only twice, so there is a lot of uncertainty about how to translate it correctly. It can convey everything from  bread today, to bread tomorrow, to the bread of heaven that will sustain us for eternity.[8] I’m leaving in the ‘daily’  for now because, well, #KingJames.

The main idea is this: trusting God to provide what we need.[9] We can take for granted that we can take care of ourselves. If that fails, our family, church or government will provide. This part of the prayer a reminder that everything happens under the sovereignty of God; all our blessings find their source in him. For that reason, we thank God ultimately for supplying for our needs. It’s a constant reminder that life is saturated with the presence and work of God, and even in our greatest accomplishments or in the most generous deeds of others it is God who sustains and provides. There is a future hope here as well. We are trusting that God will sustain us into and through eternity, which will require the true “bread of life,” Jesus Christ.
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Forgive Our Transgressions As We Have Forgiven Those Who Transgress Against Us.

Apollonius of Tyana was a Greek philosopher, a contemporary of Jesus whom a number of scholars have compared with Jesus. They shouldn’t. He once prayed,  “Give me that which is my due—pay me, ye gods, the debts ye owe to me.”   This is not the prayer of one who understands Jesus or the Christian faith.

Here is the first acknowledgment: We have all sinned against God, broken His law and harmed others, and we are in desperate need of forgiveness of an unpayable debt we owe. This is a plea for God, in HIs mercy, to cover the cost of our sins.

The second acknowledgment is that we must forgive those who sin against us. This is much tougher than praying that God forgives us of our sins. We must forgive those who have sinned against us: our spouse, our parents, cruel people at work or school. This list includes users and abusers, manipulators and liars. We all have sinned; we all are in desperate needs of God’s forgiveness. We want God to forgive us; as representatives bearing His name, we must offer forgiveness as well.
This portion of the prayer is what Augustine called “a terrible petition.” If we pray these words this while harboring unforgiveness, we are actually asking God not to forgive us. Ponder that for a moment. We would be saying, “I haven’t forgiven my friend/spouse/neighbor yet, so please don’t forgive me.”  John and Charles Wesley wrote of this passage that, if we pray this while harboring unforgiveness, it is as if we were saying, “Do not forgive us at all…We pray that you will keep our sins in remembrance, and that your wrath may abide upon us.”

We know that God forgives even when we don’t deserve it (Psalm 103:12Micah7:18, 19, Isaiah 38:17, 43:25). This is not about the repentance and forgiveness of sins that initially brings us into the family of God. This is about a crucial spiritual marker that says something about the sincerity of our ongoing surrender and discipleship. John Piper says it this way:[10]


“If the forgiveness that we received at the cost of the blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is so ineffective in our hearts that we are bent on holding unforgiving grudges and bitterness against someone… we are not saved. We don’t cherish this forgiveness. We don’t trust in this forgiveness. We don’t embrace and treasure this forgiveness. We are hypocrites. We are just mouthing… Struggling to forgive is not what destroys us. As long as we are in the flesh, we will do our good deeds imperfectly, including forgiving and loving others. Jesus died to cover those imperfections. What destroys us is the settled position that we are not going to forgive and we have no intention to forgive.”

There does not seem to be any wiggle room here: if we claim to love God and hate our brother, we are liars (1 John 4:20). If we claim to love God and have a settled position of intentional unforgiveness, we are liars then as well.

“After what has been said… it will not be thought that our Lord here teaches that our exercise of forgiveness towards our offending fellow men absolutely precedes and is the proper ground of God's forgiveness of us. His whole teaching, indeed—as of all Scripture—is the reverse of this. But no one can reasonably imagine himself to be the object of divine forgiveness who is deliberately and habitually unforgiving towards his fellow men.… God sees His own image reflected in His forgiving children; but to ask God for what we ourselves refuse to men, is to insult Him.” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary)

If we want to be forgiven, we must be committed to being deliberately and habitually forgiving.[11]

 Lead Us Not into Trials, And Deliver Us From The Temptations Of The Evil One.

Last week, I noted that persecution is not the same as trials and temptations. A trial is “trouble sent by God and serving to test or prove one's faith, holiness, character.”  Temptation is “an enticement to sin, arising from  outward circumstances, within, or from Satan” (Luke 8:13; 1 Corinthians 10:13; James 1:12; 1 Timothy 6:9; Luke 4:13). Both these words use the same root word; translations will differ on the usage at times.  In this case, the commentaries I have been reading are noting that “lead us not into temptation” is better understood as “lead us not into trials”; the second part of the phrase focuses on temptation. Once again, #KingJames. Wuest’s Translation says: “Do not bring us into the place of testing where the circumstances in which we are tested lead us on to the place where we are solicited to do evil.”

So this is once again humbling and hopeful. It’s humbling in that we acknowledge we are a proud and rebellious people whom God in his love will need to send trials to refine us. This prayer does not ask God to stop transforming us into the image of Christ this way; it asks that God keeps us from giving into the temptation from the Evil One (Luke 4:13; James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8) or from the lusts within ourselves that undermine us (James 1:14; 4:1-4). It’s a prayer to save us from moral failure within and the ravages of moral evil all around.[12]

But there is the hopeful part of the request: we don’t have to be broken by trials. With God’s help, we can grow from them. Jesus said, “Ask God for this kind of help.” So we do, and He does.

For Thine Is The Kingdom, And The Power, And The Glory Forever, Amen.[13]

This phrase is not in the earliest manuscripts, but it was written in the margins beside this prayer so often that the early church added  it relatively quickly – think of it as a doxology, a short closing song. After focusing on our needs, our troubles, our frailty, we return to the glory of God. All kingdoms answer to God. All power comes from God. All glory belongs to God.  In a world where kingdoms rise and fall, and power corrupts, and glory is tarnished and fleeting, it’s a reminder that God is uncorrupted, lasting, powerful and good, and true glory is found only in him.[14]

* * * * * * * * * *

What does it mean to ask in God’s name? It means we petition God in alignment with His character, nature and purpose. We want our desires to mirror his will. It means we have taken His name seriously – our commitment and His Spirit are forming and transforming our lives. It means that as we pray, we are actually praying that His will and not ours be done. This requires a lot of trust, especially when life unfolds in a ways that are painful or baffling. This is when we cry out to God like a child: “Abba: hear my prayer.”

Do Christians get anything and everything they ask for? No. God is in the business of giving us what we need, not just what we want. That distinction is not always clear to us, but it is to Him. The more our heart, soul, mind and strength are transformed into the image of Christ, the more our wants reflect God’s will, and the “prayers of the righteous will be powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Perhaps that effectiveness is seen in how a circumstance changes; perhaps it is seen in what God does in our hearts in spite of our circumstances.

How should we pray? With hope and humility, trusting that a Father who loves His children will give us what we need for life and godliness.

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RECOMMENDED RESOURCES (that also helped to form this sermon)
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FOOTNOTES

[1] Galatians 4:6, “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father!’ ” Romans 8:15, 16: “You received the spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

[2] http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/god-is-a-person-but-what-does-this-mean

[3] “In the word Father — that you are my Father — is the gospel in miniature. If God is my boss or my employer, then even though he might be a good boss or a good employer; nevertheless, in the end, he is not unconditionally committed to me. If I act up, he may give me a break or two, but eventually my boss will terminate me…to say that God is my Father and I can always know that he will hear me and I can rest and I can adore him, that doesn’t mean I can sin away. And the reason is, of course, that if you break your boss’s rules, that doesn’t hurt your boss as much as if you break your father’s rules, because that is trampling on your father’s heart.” – Tim Keller

[4] I first heard this point made by Tim Keller in a sermon. 

[5] “Whoever receives one such child in my name (because you belong to me) receives me.” (Matthew 18:5)  “For where two or three are gathered in my name (under the mantle of my authority), there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)  “Many will come in my name (as a representative), saying, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray.” (Mark 13:6) http://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/18-5.htm

[6] I pulled some ideas about the radical nature of the Lord’s Prayer from this excellent article: “The Lord’s Prayer Advert Has Been Banned For Being Offensive - Which It Is.”

[7] “The prayer of Gethsemane—“If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me: nevertheless, not My will, but Thine be done,” should teach what prayer in the name and spirit of Christ means. We commonly attach to our prayers, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We do not always bear in mind that this implies an absolute self-sacrifice, and is a prayer that our very prayers may not be answered except in so far as they are in accordance with the divine will.” Elliot’s Commentary

“Anything that can rightly be asked in His name will be granted; there is no other limit. By ‘in My name’ is not of course meant the mere using the formula ‘through Jesus Christ.’ Rather, it means praying and working as Christ’s representatives in the same spirit in which Christ prayed and worked,—‘Not My will, but Thine be done.” Cambridge Bible For Schools and Colleges

“These are not “blank checks”—promises to supply everything anyone requests. “In My name” corresponds to “according to My character” and thus is parallel to other texts that require us to leave room for God’s will to overrule ours.” (e.g., Mt 6:10; Jms 4:15). (Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (1601). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.)

[8] From Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers: “The word translated “daily” is found nowhere else, with the one exception of the parallel passage in Luke 11:3, and so far as we can judge must have been coined for the purpose, as the best equivalent for the unknown Aramaic word which our Lord actually used… The form of the word (see Note in Excursus) admits of the meanings, (1) bread sufficient for the day now coming; (2) sufficient for the morrow; (3) sufficient for existence; (4) over and above material substance… I find myself constrained to say that the last meaning seems to me the truest. Let us remember (1) the words with which our Lord had answered the Tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4); (2) His application of those words in “I have meat to eat that ye know not of” (John 4:32); (3) His own use of bread as the symbol of that which sustains the spiritual life (John 6:27-58); (4) the warnings in Matthew 6:25-31 not only against anxiety about what we shall eat and drink, but against seeking these things instead of seeking simply the kingdom of God and His righteousness—and we can scarcely fail, I think, to see that He meant His disciples, in this pattern Prayer, to seek for the nourishment of the higher and not the lower life... So when we ask for “daily bread,” we mean not common food, but the “Bread from heaven, which giveth life unto the world.”

[9] Tim Keller suggest that it’s also a prayer for justice. If one does not have bread, particularly in Jesus’ day, it wasn’t because of a lack of resources. There was either oppression from the Romans or disdain from the Jews, whom the Law required to take care of the poor. It’s a plea for justice to be done to yourself; it’s a prayer for society; it’s a reminder to the one praying that he or she can, as a representative of God, fulfill this prayer request for those around them. It’s not just that I need bread; so does my neighbor. And the manna that God gave his people supernaturally He now gives to His children through the hands of His people.

[10] http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/if-i-fail-to-forgive-others-will-god-not-forgive-me

[11] “Yet not as though human forgiveness can be supposed to merit the divine pardon, but the former is the necessary moral “requisitum subjecti” (Calovius) in him who seeks forgiveness from God.” – Meyers NT Commentary

“The parables of the Two Debtors (Luke 7:41) and of the Unforgiving Creditor whose own debt had been forgiven (Matthew 18:23-35) were but expansions of the thought which we find in its germ in this clause of the Lord’s Prayer. In striking contrast with that clause is the claim of merit which insinuates itself so readily into the hearts of those who worship without the consciousness that they need forgiveness, and which uttered itself in the daring prayer attributed to Apollonius of Tyana, “Give me that which is my due—pay me, ye gods, the debts ye owe to me.”  - Elliot’s Commentary For English Readers

[12] How does God  answer this prayer and deliver us?  His Word. (Psalm 119:11; Proverbs 6:20-24); Prayer (Matthew 26:41; Luke 22:40); The Armor of God (Ephesians 6) Salvation, Faith, Truth, The Holy Spirit, the Gospel message – in other words, dedicated discipleship in which our heart, soul, mind and strength are surrendered to God as His Holy Spirit works within us.; Wise Boundaries ( 1 Corinthians 7:5; Proverbs 5-7); Resistance and flight (1 Timothy 6; James 4:7; Matthew 18:8-9; Proverbs 1:10-15; Genesis 39:7-10; Daniel 1:8)

[13] http://www.pinevillefumc.org/clientimages/45029/forthineisthekingdom.pdf

[14] N.T. Wright says, “If the church isn't prepared to subvert the kingdoms of the world with the kingdom of God, the only honest thing would be to give up praying this prayer altogether, especially its final doxology.”

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