The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 19, 2022
At the start of his novel based on the apocryphal book of Tobit, Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors and a fellow Presbyterian, imagines Raphael the archangel declaring: “I am Raphael, one of the seven archangels who pass in and out of the presence of the Holy One, blessed be he. I bring him the prayers of all who pray and of those who don’t even know that they’re praying. Some prayers I hold out as far from me as my arm will reach, the way a woman holds a dead mouse by the tail when she removes it from the kitchen. Some, like flowers, are almost too beautiful to touch, and others so aflame that I’d be afraid of their setting me on fire if I weren’t already more like fire than anything else. There are other prayers of such power that you might almost say they carry me rather than the other way round – the way a bird with outstretched wings is carried higher and higher on the back of the wind. And there are prayers so … halfhearted they all but melt in my grasp like sad little flakes of snow.”
In His kind, tender-hearted grace, God welcomes every kind of prayer; because prayer is conversation with God and such engagement with God can greatly bless a person. But not all prayers are created equal. Some insult and demean God.
A bumper sticker once made a lasting impression on me. It read: “Everyone wants to serve God, usually in an advisory capacity.” How many of our prayers are telling God how to do His business! We arrogantly presume to instruct the Almighty as to what to do and how to do it.
The humble but faith-filled prayer of the centurion in today’s scripture is very different. He does ask Jesus for a big favor; but he doesn’t treat the Lord as if He were an inferior at his beck and call who’d snap to it upon hearing his wishes, and he doesn’t insist on any particular means by which Jesus might do what he hopes. The centurion is so free of any delusion of entitlement that he deems himself unworthy to directly approach Jesus – whom he’s never met but in whom he believes on the basis of the stories he’s heard. So this officer in the army of the superpower of the day asks his Jewish friends to put before Jesus his urgent but non-demanding request for a healing of a near-to-death member of his household staff about whom he deeply cares.
Later, when the centurion hears that Jesus is heading to his home, he’s so encouraged in his faith that he sends out another delegation of friends to tell Jesus that He does not have to take the trouble to come all way to his place; but that, if Jesus only issues a command from afar, he’ll rest assured that Jesus’ word will save his beloved servant.
What a model of praying – one that impresses Jesus and we’d do well to follow.
For we sometimes impertinently assume we know what God should do and how He should go about doing it. We forget that God always already knows what’s best and doesn’t need us to tell Him how to do His business. The best praying is not to give God a grocery list of what we want and expect Him to run the errands we’ve assigned Him. It’s to respect His exalted status and defer to His superior sense of what’s needed.
Jill Briscoe once observed, “Our need for changed attitudes, a new acceptance of someone we’ve rejected, our need to be ‘cut down to size’ – these are not things we pray for readily. On the other hand, we are more than happy to pray for such things for other people!”
We come to pray right only as God puts right our orientation in prayer!
In the movie Bruce Almighty, Jim Carry plays a disgruntled and disappointed news reporter named Bruce Nolan. Bruce complains to his girlfriend Grace (played by Jennifer Aniston) that God does a poor job of running the world, and he Bruce could do better. To his surprise, God (played by Morgan Freeman) gives him the chance.
Bruce louses everything up when he takes charge of the world. After ruining his relationship with Grace, he sees who he is and becomes open to God’s changing him.
A turning point comes when God manages at last to cut through Bruce’ pretense and presumption and invites him to pray humbly and authentically. Bruce squints his face in the effort and stutters out: “Um…Lord, feed the hungry and bring peace to…um…all humanity. How’s that?” “Great,” God replies, “if you want to be Miss America. Come on, Bruce. What do you really care about?” “Grace,” Bruce blurts out, without thought, still broken in heart over having driven Grace away and only now see the treasure she is. “Grace,” God nods, “You want her back?” “No,” Bruce answers, shocked by what he’s saying. “No, I want her to be happy, no matter what that means.” Bruce closes his eyes in pain and continues, “I want her to find someone who will treat her with all the love she deserved from me. I want her to meet someone who will see her always as I now do…through your eyes, God.” “Now, that’s a prayer,” God exclaims. “And I’ll get right on it.”
And God does get right on it – by remaking Bruce into the kind of person who can treat Grace with all the love she deserves.
We are fools to tell God how to do His business. We do better to humbly surrender to His superior wisdom and better plans. Let us now pray in that attitude!