S. Pentecost 7.19 “The Power of Prayer” Gen. 18, Luke 11:1-13
The power of prayer is something modern Christendom is much impressed by and talks about ceaselessly. Jesus’ promise “ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” is seen by most as a great boon. Joel Osteen has built an empire of wealth upon the notion. “Name it and claim it!” theology has captured most of the Global South with a Gospel of Prosperity dancing in their heads like sugar plum fairies. But, I wonder… have we really grasped all the implications of our Lord’s word here?
Most of us go, “Wow! God will give me whatever I ask, if I just tack on ‘in the Name of Jesus, Amen’ at the end? Cool! I gotta golden ticket…!” Most see this as an unqualifiedly good thing.
But I know people who see a dark side to getting whatever we ask. For example…
It was summer 2000. I was interviewing for the pastor position here at OSLC. Bonnie, back home, had a couple (odd) questions about it: “What does the church look like?” she asked on the phone, “does it sit at an odd intersection, side street paralleling a busier street, a small, brick chapel, hidden by big oaks, with a playground in front (which we had then) and an A-frame sanctuary invisible from the main street?” I went, “Uh, yeah, that’s it. How did you know?”
“Oh,” she said (with that same tone you get when the doctor tells you he’s never seen anything like this before). I wondered “why so somber all of a sudden?” She said: “Well, I might have prayed, a while back, that we’d get called to that church.” “Huh?” I said. She explained: “my brother was living in Raleigh in the late 80’s. I was visiting, and we drove by a Lutheran Church near downtown Raleigh—sounds like that very one. And I thought it looked nice and I think I prayed Jesus would send us there, someday…”
“So,” I said, “what’s the problem with that?” “Well…” Bonnie said, her voice trailing off; “God says He’ll give you whatever you ask.” I’m like, “And? Why should that worry you?” She replied, serious tone: “Well, ‘cause I also prayed once for a husband exactly like you.” She’s good. That’s how I achieved humility. Now, I’m happy to report she says this church has been far easier to live with than me. But, you see the worry.
Donna Tartt sees it. At the end of “The Goldfinch”, her “hero”, Theo, wonders: “What if you have a heart that can’t be trusted?”—one leading you to “a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?” Should you “follow your heart” then? Do you, (like every Disney princess—and Boris, Theo’s friend) “throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?” (Goldfinch, pg. 761) Or do you seek another Way?
Consider Abraham, in our Old Testament reading. Most people see a wonderful story: Abraham whittling down the number of righteous, so God will spare the city, so Lot and family will be safe. The power of prayer! Such a great and mighty thing! Abraham got his heart’s desire! Praise God from Whom all blessings flow, right?
Well… not so fast.
I see darkness in this story all but the keenest eyed observers miss. Remember: Jesus and two angels appeared to Abraham (who alone recognized Jesus as Yahweh, the True God and the angels as helpers). They had a nice meal. God promised Abraham a son by Sarah, so they’d be parents to God Himself. And as the LORD is leaving He wonders: “Should I hide from Abraham what I’m doing?” Now, what He’s doing is stopping by on the way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their great wickedness! You will recall that Lot, Abraham’s favorite nephew, lives in Sodom (or Gomorrah?)—because Abraham let Lot pick the land his heart desired while Abraham was fine with whatever God gives.
And the two angels turned for Sodom, but Abraham stopped right there, stunned. The LORD keeps walking, and Abraham catches up and goes: “Would you destroy the righteous with the wicked? That’s not cool! Suppose there were fifty righteous found there? You wouldn’t destroy it then would You, slaying the righteous with the wicked?” It’s like incense. Let’s say, hypothetically, you introduced incense into a congregation. 50/200 love it. Reminds them of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Sodom and Gomorrah burning. But it chokes some choir members so they can hardly sing. That’s not good! What do you do? How many righteous required? We see how hard it is to do righteousness by numbers.
Now, my picture is the two angels have gone ahead, out of sight. And Abraham figures 50 is a safe number. Surely there are 50 Lutherans in Sodom!? Surely Lot has found an LCMS church, ’41 hymnal, attends regularly, right? But, while the Lord agrees to the 50, yet He keeps heading down the road to Sodom and Gomorrah!!! Roh-oh, Scoob! Goodness! There aren’t 50 Lutherans in that town? Dang!
Abraham again scrambles to catch up (Jesus is a fast walker). “What if there were 40?” Jesus agrees He’d spare it for the sake of 40. But He keeps walking toward Sodom! We get down to 10—surely there are 10 righteous, right? And God stops and says “I won’t do it if there are 10” and kind of fakes out Abraham here, because “The LORD turned and went His Way”, apparently away from Sodom and Gomorrah, so Abraham figures Lot is safe.
Next day, Abraham’ll go out and see the smoke of the twin cities ascending like an offering, like incense at evening prayer. And he’s like “Seriously? Not even 10!?” But we learn the angels literally drug Lot, wife, and two daughters out of the city and spared them for Abraham’s sake. And that’s good, right? An answer to prayer! Well, Lot committed incest with those two daughters and that was the origin of the tribe of Moab. And the Moabites were a thorn in Israel’s side—raiding, harassing, killing, seducing Israel into cult prostitution and Baal worship. 14,000 Israelites died of idolatry one day, alone. If Abraham had never pleaded for mercy for Sodom, Gomorrah, for Lot his nephew—if Lot had died, there never would have been Moabites and the hundreds of thousands of Israelites who were irretrievably lost because of the Moabites would’ve been saved.
See: Abraham has a dark heart because even he’s fully sinner while being fully saint by faith alone. Even Abraham’s heart can’t be trusted, ought not to be followed.
Lot lived because Abraham asked and God gives whatever we ask!!! So, Bonnie got me for a husband; you get me for a pastor…
Now, you see the difficulty. Why does God give us our heart’s desire? Well, He doesn’t explain. As Lewis says, He’s not a tame lion. But maybe it’s so we’d all become like David—chasing ever after God’s heart, not our own…
The Chase is joined in the Lord’s Prayer—which begs not for what our hearts desire, but only for what God is pleased to give in Jesus: crying out for forgiveness of sin rather than recognition for our righteousness; for mercy more than justice; for Christ’s Heaven to come (not one of our own devising)—until that heart you don’t want, that can’t be trusted, that is so deep-down dark, gets broken into a million tiny pieces by that bone-chilling cry: “It is finished!”…
There’s only one Good Prayer—this one Jesus teaches, here; one Story that fulfills them all—the one about Jesus. Only one heart you should follow—that One that stopped at 3 pm on a stormy, dark, Friday, 30 A.D., Jerusalem. So get after IT already. Take up the Cross, by Faith alone; it’s a stake through your old heart, but the Way to Peace, surpassing all understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’s. Amen.