The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
I – and some of you, I’d guess – are compiling a list of questions we are hoping to put to God some day: Why did you allow so much evil? Why did you let those two mosquitos board Noah’s Ark? Why did you permit the invention of elevator music?
Many of us have one specific category of questions that is quite full: Why didn’t you make certain scriptures clearer and less susceptible to misinterpretation?
If there is one scripture that has invited a lot of misinterpretation, it is today’s: the last promise Jesus made before His death about prayer. It has occasioned many a false expectation, the disappointment of which has led some to lose their faith.
Jesus here promises, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” Some have taken those words to mean that they can get whatever they want by praying in a particular way. They have asked “in Jesus’ name” that God give them wealth, the affection of someone they like, healing from some disease, or their hair back. The problem is that they often don’t get what they’ve prayed for, and they feel God has let them down.
Some of them don’t fault God, however, for breaking a promise, but themselves for not believing in it enough. Whichever way they go, the real problem is that they’ve misunderstood the promise.
Does anyone really think Jesus will do whatever we ask of Him just because we have recited a magical formula “in your name”? Will He answer my request that all the other job candidates get a sudden case of diarrhea so that I get the position?
In truth, the Bible never promises that we will get what we want just because we pray for it, even if we use all the right words. In fact, it promises just the opposite. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” Obviously, our agenda in praying affects the likelihood of our receiving what we’re requesting. The promise here, as open-ended as it is in one respect, is qualified and restricted in another. It is only those requests we make in the name of the One who loves everyone, and thus the requests we make for more than ourselves, that have much of a chance. Selfish requests or requests harmful to others won’t get a positive response from Jesus. On the other hand, requests that are broadly inclusive and that seek to advance God’s agenda of justice and compassion for everyone are likely to get a very positive response.
In the parlance of the time, to ask “in the name” of someone is to ask in the spirit of that person, to ask in line with that person’s agenda and goals. So to pray in the name of Jesus, is not to recite an incantation, but to ask God the Father for what, given His character and His purposes, we have every reason to think Jesus Himself is praying for and working for. To pray in His name is to want what He wants – while watching out for our propensity to think we know what He wants at a particular time and place.
Let us not forget the purpose to which Jesus’ promise about prayer here is attached: He will do whatever we ask “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” Jesus the Son of God was all about giving God the Father a good name, and He is making this amazing promise in the context of His own imminent and certain torture, execution and descent into hell for the sake of the Father and those He loves. This first Maundy Thursday, when Jesus made this amazing promise about prayer, He did not pray to be spared from the pain before Him, but to gain the strength to endure it for the glory of the Father and the good of sinners. Over and over that night, He prayed about bringing God honor through the horror ahead of Him. The only time He prayed about escaping all that suffering was in the Garden of Gethsemane, and He only asked if it was at all “possible” and each time He tempered the question with the strong reiteration of His commitment to serve God, saying, “Yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
Whatever the promise about prayer means, it does not mean we’ll get what we want for ourselves in our selfishness. It does not even mean we will get what we think God wants. For God doesn’t always get what He wants. For He has committed Himself to respect human self-sovereignty and freedom of choice, so that some of God’s wishes are fulfilled only if some people make certain choices. God cannot make someone a follower of His Son unless they decide to trust Him, and God cannot feed all the hungry people unless some of us choose to share our food.
Beyond all this, there are many things which I have to think God wants to see happen and for which His people pray that in the mystery of this world still don’t happen. I cannot explain this. I can only acknowledge my agnosticism about what’s going on in the big picture, and trust in the one thing about which I am certain: God’s faithfulness in love.
So far, I have been cautioning us about our use of this promise about prayer because I want to protect us from setting ourselves up for needless disappointment. But is there not here a tremendous promise about prayer that dares us to pray big? While believing such a promise as this leaves us with many inexplicable occurrences – why does this person get healed but not that person? – the promise still encourages us to believe that nothing is impossible for God and to expect the occurrence of prayer-for miracles.
Back in Illinois I got to know a prayerful man of great faith who often saw miracles of healing take place. He was an Episcopal priest named Gary Dalmasso. I swear I saw ill people over whom Father Gary prayed get healthy and strong in ways for which doctors could find no explanation. Yet, sometimes too, Gary prayed and there was no improvement. You know what Father Gary used to say about that? “I don’t know why God doesn’t bring about a supernatural healing every time I pray, but I do know He never brings about one when I don’t pray. So I’d rather deal with the crisis of faith that comes when nothing happens than miss out on the joy that comes when a miracle happens. I’d rather struggle with its being inexplicable that God doesn’t always work a wonder than struggle with its being inexplicable that God never works wonders.”
God wants us to pray big “in the name of Jesus”. How can we know we are really praying in His name? The easiest way is to pray what He in the Bible tells us to pray for! For God to have His way in this sin-sick world! For God’s will to be done, and His kingdom to come! For each of us to have our basic necessities met! For our showing others as much grace as Jesus has shown us! For our being delivered from the influence of evil and selfishness! For our each becoming the God-like person we are meant to be! For our bringing God glory! For our doing justice and extending kindness to those in need! For our knowing Jesus and making Him known!
Believing and applying this promise can rock our world and bless those around us (especially when we bear in mind that we are usually at least some part of God’s answer to our prayer). So let’s go to it. Let us ask for wild, outlandish things in the name of Jesus, so that God the Father might be glorified and people might be uplifted!