Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Nowhere is the devastation of sin seen more clearly than in our difficulty with prayer. Do you have a sense for how much you leave un-prayed for – regarding the church and your fellow members here – and your family and your friends – regarding God’s Name and God’s kingdom and God’s will – regarding your neighbors need and your daily bread – regarding our country and its leaders and other nations and peoples – regarding the unborn and the aged – regarding yourself, your faith and your response to the Gospel – regarding the cheerfulness you should have in giving – regarding the hatred you should have for evil – regarding the enemies of our nation and society – regarding the poor – regarding the wealthy and how difficult it is for them to enter the kingdom of God – regarding our seminaries and our church body – regarding giving thanks in all circumstances – regarding Christ’s return and the holy city heavenly Jerusalem and the Lamb’s Book of Life – even so, “Come quickly Lord Jesus”. If you don’t think you are a spiritual giant in this matter of prayer, if you believe that your prayer-life needs forgiveness and not looking for applause then praise be to God. Nowhere is the devastation of sin seen more clearly than in our difficulty and failure with prayer.
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
It was Maundy Thursday and first Jesus gave them something they didn’t ask for – the gift of His holy body to eat and His holy blood to drink – for the forgiveness of their sins. Then He gave them more of what they didn’t ask for and even said they didn’t want, and washed their feet and served them. And now He who would soon go out to the Garden of Gethsemane and pray for them and for you – also speaks of another gift: His gift of prayer. And note that is that the Father may be glorified in the Son, that you may receive the gifts of the Son.
Nowhere is God’s answer to our difficulty with prayer seen more clearly than in Jesus’ words here. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, this I will do.” These three words (in my name) are not a magic formula to be tagged onto our wishes. Their presence does not make a bad and sinful attempt at prayer good. Their absence does not make a good and faithful request of God bad.
To pray “in Jesus name” means to pray trusting in Jesus (His person, His work, His presence). We ask God not because we are worthy but because Jesus shed His blood so that we can draw near to God with a true heart. A true heart is one that says, “Lord have mercy” – not because of my goodness – but because of the grace You pour upon me a sinner in Your Son.
It is important to note that Jesus does not give this astounding promise of answered prayer in the name of one of the saints – St. Paul or St. Mary or any departed Christian. This is one of the errors the Reformation identified so clearly. Jesus does not command us to pray in the names of other sinners whom He died to forgive. Rather, His word is crystal clear and chock-full of comfort…whatever you ask of the Father in my name he will give it to you.
So many neglect the Word and promise of God and treat prayer like a vending machine in times of difficulty or need. “Dear God, whoever you are, I give no thanks to you for the gift of Your Son – I see no need for someone who takes away the sin of the world – for the foolishness of some cross – but here is what I would like for myself and for others…” Or “God, this is how I think things ought to be or how you should do things…”
Another mesmerizing mistake concerning prayer in our day is the errant belief that God will give you whatever you want – as long as you have enough faith. This is prayer not in Jesus’ name, but in our estimation of our faith. This is prayer not in Jesus’ name, but using Jesus’ name to elevate ourselves and our name. You can “Name it and claim it” if you work hard enough at believing in Jesus. If your faith is strong – you can count on God. If your faith is weak – you can’t count on God. How evil and wrong to tell someone who prays for stronger faith that God won’t answer their prayer because their faith is too weak! Evil in denying the power of God in Christ even in a faith the size of the mustard seed.
To pray in Jesus’ Name does not mean that you can expect Him to give you whatever your sinful heart desires. Often what you and I want is not what is best for us or Christ’s Church. To pray in Jesus’ Name is to trust that He knows what is best for you – even when it is painful – In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world, our Lord tells us.
To pray in Jesus’ Name is to pray “Thy will be done.” We are tempted to pray for deliverance on our terms – “heal me now!” – “Get that good thing for me” – “Save this life” – “Change this matter for my loved one – it can’t possibly be right”. We have this inclination to pray and ask but then we get angry and blame God when things do not go our way or as we think they should. We accuse God of not hearing or answering our prayer when the answer is simply something different than the answer we want. When God does not provide our request, we blame Him for not answering. Whether we recognize it or not, we call God a liar. When the One who has promised to hear and answer our prayer is told that He does not hear or answer, He is told He is a liar. We have trouble with answers we do not like, or actually believing that His will is always best and He often works through hardship and loss for our eternal good. In the world you will have tribulation.
In describing the life of the Christian, Luther emphasized all these things. First there is oratio, hearing of the Word. You have heard over and over again and continue to hear it anew daily and weekly. Then there is meditatio, meditation, which is prayer. Where these are is sure to follow tentatio, temptation of the heart or in the German, anfechtung, all of which more literally means an assault or tribulation. You can count on it. The effects of sin and death bring all manner of pressure and distress and narrow places of suffering. The great tribulation has already begun. Do not let your hearts be troubled, but take heart; Christ has overcome the world. Believe in God and believe in Him.
The barriers to praying in Jesus Name in this way are numerous – both from the inside and from the outside. We so easily become discouraged in our praying and grow fainthearted. We are constantly tempted to be inattentive and even indifferent in our praying. We can convince ourselves that our calendar is so full of high priorities that we don’t even have time to voice the Lord’s Prayer during the day. That we can’t receive in prayer or worship the gifts of Him who gives Himself for us in death and gives us life in the resurrection. Then we are easily robbed of a clean and a good conscience and feel God won’t hear us who have been so lacking in prayer.
At the time of the Reformation a chief barrier to prayer was fear of an angry God. While that barrier may still be present, a greater barrier to prayer in our generation may also be simple apathy, a lack of care toward God. The question of sinners today may often not be “How can I please a holy God?” but rather, “How can God please me?” and what can He do for me in my own demands.
The greatest temptation in all this is for you to pray in your own name, to pray as if God must somehow please us and serve our whims and desires. It has been said from the 4th century and throughout the church, the way in which one prays in worship is the way in which one believes. If you pray based on your efforts, if your prayers and worship are “Lord, I this and I that… and we do this and we do that” or if your prayers are of the French salad variety full of “let us” and “may we” then it may be reflection of belief in yourself rather than what He has done and is doing. Repent of praying in your own name – based on your own efforts – calculating your own level of worthiness – and pray in Jesus’ name – relying totally and only on His love for you.
To pray in Jesus’ name is not a magical formula, but we pray what’s in the name: Jesus, the name He was given which means “the Lord saves.” He Himself if the treasure chest full of the goods that you need, forgiveness and salvation. The basis for His gift of prayer reaches back before the creation of the world. As Jesus said, “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” He goes to prepare a place for you. The Son, One with the Father and the Holy Spirit came in the flesh. The very next day he would fulfill all the promises of God made through all the ages of man. He would fulfill His name, the Lord saves, shed His blood that gives to us sinners access to the Father. To pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in faith that God is now truly reconciled to us through the blood of His cross, to pray not doubting but firmly believing that by the death and resurrection of Jesus your sins are forgiven. To pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in faith that God hears us unworthy ones through the worthiness of His Son, who alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Our hearts by nature want to provide their own way, the declare our own truth, the provide for our own life. It is a heart whose default setting is to trust in itself and not to trust God’s Word. It is a heart constantly accused by Satan, seeking to dirty your conscience. But among you this morning stands the Son of God who has written your name in His book – the Lamb’s book of life, people for whom our Lord prepares and receives to join in the rooms prepared in His glory. Nothing unclean clings to Him and He covers you! So it is for Saul, who chief of sinners though he be, standing and participating in the horrid death of Stephen who hears and receives this Gospel. Even from the likes of Saul comes the power of the Word of God who forgives sin and creates a clean heart, repents, a new life turned around. Saul turned Paul would receive the same gift of the Gospel that Stephen received and proclaimed and that is the same as you have received and proclaim, the deliverance and forgiveness of sin by the grace of God in Christ, a new heart.
Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you…Ask, and He will do it, He will save you and provide for your life and for your good. He is the expert at prayer – not you! Since He has swapped places with you the Father hears your prayer as He hears Jesus’ prayer. When you pray – you never pray alone! In fact, in the New Testament, all the commands to pray are plural. When you pray “Our Father who art in heaven” Jesus prays along with you and you pray along with the whole people of God. He promises to continue in every good work in you, Him doing it.
It is a precious gift! Jesus ushers you into the Father’s presence! He forgives your sin and makes you worthy and prepared to be present before the Father. We do not know how to pray as we ought but Christ’s power in prayer is made perfect in our weakness (II Cor. 12:9).
So, if you don’t think you are a spiritual giant in this matter of prayer, if you believe that your prayer-life leaves you in need of forgiveness rather than applause – if you long to pray more faithfully, then take heart. Only those who recognize their helplessness can truly pray! Only in helplessness can we confess our sin to receive absolution, only in helplessness can receive body and blood as desperate beggars in need of forgiveness and life that He brings. If your facing trouble or tribulation then let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God in Christ that for you Jesus has overcome the world and prepares your place in paradise. So take a holy rest, a Sabbath, on this Lord’s Day from your own activity and your own strivings and ask the Father in Jesus’ name, trusting in the worthiness that is yours, given in death and resurrection of the Son of God. Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God in Christ, that where He is, risen and ascended in glory at the right hand of the Father, you may be also.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!
And the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life ever lasting. Amen.