prayer_hands Sermon 24 July 2017
Pastor John Gibson preached this sermon Sunday July 24, 2016 on Luke 12:13 - 21.

Years ago when I served at the Prince of Peace a woman became very sick and ended up ICU. This woman had gotten her life back on track after serving time in prison. I visited her in Wake Med Cary and prayed fervently with her friends for her recovery. I had read a book not long before which had said that you can get whatever you pray for if you pray with enough conviction and in the right way. After a few days, it became clear that she was not going to improve. I was disappointed that my prayer had not been answered the way I wanted. I did not understand why since the woman had begun to have a productive life again. What had I done wrong? I finally had to pray that God would gently take her into the next life. She passed away a day or two later.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9).  If this is the case, why do prayers go unanswered, or at least, not answered the way we would like? C.S. Lewis writes in his book Letters to Malcolm, “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted. At this very moment thousands of people … are facing … the very thing against which they have prayed night and day, pouring out their whole soul in prayer, and, as they thought with faith. They have sought and not found. They have knocked and the door has not been opened to them” (58).

While I have not done an exhaustive survey, in preparing for this sermon I have found three basic reasons given for unanswered prayers. The first is it’s your fault or my fault. If you do a web search, you’ll find no shortage here. One example comes from the Victorious Network. Dale Robbins offers eleven different reasons, all of which put the blame squarely on the person praying. Some of the ones he gives include,
1. Unconfessed sin.
2. Lack of faith.
3. Improper motives.
4. Lack of perseverance.
5. Failure to pray in the name of Jesus.

There is some justification for this. Sin, for example, cuts us off from God and others. I think a violent criminal might pray fervently to avoid capture after committing a crime, but it is doubtful that God will help him escape justice. It is important to remember that Jesus himself had an unanswered prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. We certainly can’t believe that was because of his fault.

The second reason given is God. God has reasons that we cannot understand for not answering our prayers the way we want, either because it would not be in our best interest, or to strengthen our faith or due to the unintended consequences of answering our prayer. My favorite illustration of this point comes from the movie Bruce Almighty, when Bruce, who has been given God’s powers, out of frustration at the incredible number of prayer requests he is receiving every second, grants all of them. A riot later breaks out when everyone wins the lottery only to receive a few dollars each.

The third reason given for unanswered prayers is that there are other forces and factors at work in the world. New Testament scholar Elisabeth Johnson writes, “God is all-powerful, yet God is not the only power in the world. There are other powers at work, the powers of Satan and his demons, the powers of evil and death, often manifested in human sin. Although God has won the ultimate victory over these powers through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the battle still rages on. Consequently, God’s will can be -- and often is – thwarted.” Of course, it doesn’t have to be evil forces that thwart God’s will. Since God has given each of us free will, people may unintentionally and unknowingly thwart God’s will through their own decisions and actions.

You might now be wondering which of these three is right. As a good Episcopalian, I think there is truth in all three of these. At times, we might have acted in such a way to distance ourselves from God. At other times, God might have reasons that go beyond our understanding for not answering our prayers the way we want. And at other times, various forces and people may be at work intentionally or unintentionally that thwart our prayers.

Actually, I think, we can find all of these in our human relationships. Like the first reason for unanswered prayer, when we have committed a sin that distances ourselves from God, I have done something to upset my wife Cindy, I know it’s a waste of time to ask her for anything until we have worked through the issue.

And the second reason, when God doesn’t see it the way we see it, sometimes Cindy pitches me an idea that I don’t like not because it’s a bad idea but because I have a different point of view. Okay, this is illustration is not a good one, because by definition in all instances the wife is always right, but that’s another sermon.

The third reason, when other forces and other factors are at work, there are times in our relationship when one or the other of us is stressed out because of work or grumpy due to a bad night’s sleep and it doesn’t matter what the subject is, it doesn’t matter who approaches whom, we can’t talk about it productively. Again, it doesn’t have anything to do with the person, or how it was pitched or the subject. These other factors have been at work. It’s due to the stress at work or the lack of sleep.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been there. We have all been there in our relationships with our spouses, parents, brothers, sisters and friends. We know these things from our own experience.

Ancient pagans believed that if they followed an exact formula, the gods would answer their prayers the way they wanted them. Christianity rejected this idea. Christianity rejected the idea that God is a great vending machine in the sky. Jesus invites us into a life changing and life giving relationship with a God who cares for us as a loving and good Father. Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus’ father becomes “our father.” Our relationship with God is much more than a mechanistic quid pro quo.

God gives us the gift of Godself. God gives us the incomparable gift of this life changing and life giving relationship in and through Jesus. Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" When Jesus says to search and to knock, in the same breath he tells us that the answer to our prayers is not hitting the $400M Power Ball but winning a far greater prize - the prize of the Holy Spirit.

Material things pass away, but God the Father endures forever. Friends come and go, but Jesus sticks with us. Life throws each one of us many ups and downs, but the Holy Spirit steadfastly rides with us on life’s roller coaster, rejoicing with us in our triumphs, mourning with us in our sorrows, and guiding us through our trials. When we accept Jesus, he freely gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, the power and the presence of God in our lives, a gift without price, and in so doing answers all our prayers.

Johnson, Elisabeth. “Commentary on Luke 11:1 – 13.” Preach this Week. Working Preacher.

Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.

Robbins, Dale A. “Why some prayers go unanswered.” Victorious Network. Accessed July 23, 2016.