The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 14, 2019
Praying takes many different forms. For example, in praying we might just listen, give thanks, or offer ourselves into God’s service. In this two-part series on prayer, we reflect on just one form of praying: making requests of God on behalf of others (what is sometimes called intercessory prayer). We focus on what the Bible urges us to do when, in Ephesians 6:18, it says, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this, be alert and always keep praying for all the Lord’s people.”
Of course, this and every other form of prayer must be understood in light of the fundamental purpose of prayer, which is to put us in relational, interactive contact with a loving, personal God who seeks to be in constant communication with us. All praying is meant to make us aware of God in all His greatness and goodness and to align our hearts and wills with His agenda.
Intercessory prayer can, the Bible tells us, change the objective world and how things go for others; but it does not always change things in line with how we think they should be changed. It does, however, always change us who pray – albeit in line with how God thinks we should be changed.
Four decades ago, I was introduced to a piece of wisdom attributed to a soldier who, in praying for himself, came to see this truth. He said, “I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might gain the humility to obey. I asked for health, that I might do great things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might have the praise of [people]; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am, among all people, most richly blessed.”
Just as God does when we, like that soldier, pray for ourselves, so God when we pray for others gives what they need and not necessarily what we or they want.
This scripture from James encourages us to believe that God might do great things – even miraculous, supernatural things if only we ask Him in faith and in faithfulness to His will. God might heal a sick person, turn around the life of a strong-willed sinner, or change the natural course of things as He did for Elijah.
Yet, is it not clear that God refuses to do what we think is best that He might do what He knows is best?
The purpose of praying is not to give us opportunity to tell God how to do His job. It is to give us opportunity to remember who God is in all His wisdom, grace and power; to develop in us the appreciation that He is always near and actively working in all things for good; and to admit our ignorance about what should happen, even while we bear in mind that, with this God, anything might happen – even the most astoundingly good things.
I used to work with an Episcopal priest named Gary Delmasso, to whom I believe God has given the gift of healing. Gary can tell many a story about how he gathered church leaders around a sick person, anointed the person with oil, prayed for their healing, and saw them become well in a way for which the doctors could provide no scientific explanation.
Gary always hopes that will happen, but he never has absolute certainty it will. Gary knows his share of disappointments in prayer. Yet, with a twinkle in his eye, he quips, in an echo of William Temple, “I am not saying for sure God does supernatural things in response to our prayers; but I have noticed that, when we pray, wonderful, inexplicable things take place; and when we don’t, they almost never do. What I know for sure is that prayerlessness closes doors in God’s face, doors that He will not normally break down; and that prayerfulness opens doors, doors through which He might pass to bring about a miracle.”
To put into practice today’s scripture is to keep praying, if not with certainty about God’s response, then still with high hope; for, if prayer does nothing else, it opens up paths of interaction between heaven and earth, and who know what will come of that? Thus, we do well to pray continually in the confidence that, if we do, we definitely will be changed for the better and hopefully the lives of others will as well.
We can pray continually because we can pray at any time and in any place, in community or in solitude.
Let us note, however, that the Bible gives special promises about prayers made in concert with other believers. One wonders whether James, when he spoke of gathering the elders for prayer, was thinking of what Jesus said in Matthew 18:20 – “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
I don’t know how to make sense of this saying except by remembering that God is love; and thus, where folks join forces in the purposes of love, the Son of God is particularly welcomed. At any rate, however this saying is to be explained, it is important to bear in mind that we don’t need to understand the why behind something the Lord says in order to do what He says. And the Lord says to pray continually and to pray with other believers.
We can pray in concert with others by sharing prayer lists and each of us praying on our own about those concerns. We can pray, in real time, with others by a phone conference call or by an online Google or Apple group. We can physically gather with others in a one-on-one prayer partnership or in a prayer group such as the one in which Covenant folks meet every Thursday.
However we pray, we who pray are like logs in a fire pit. We burn better when we stay in close contact with others in prayer and reignite by catching the sparks of faith each shoots off; and we risk having the embers within us die out when we lose contact with others aflame with a passion for praying.
So let us join forces in prayer, and dare to believe in the possibility of happy surprises just because we prayed. After all, today’s text says, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Let us then do it even now!