Sermon: Giving Up OUR Prayers For Lent: Unanswerable Prayers
Scripture: Jeremiah 33:3
Date: March 18, 2018
Last week I talked about prayer that is never ceasing and about prayers without the “amen”. Because in common usage, “Amen” has become the ritualized ending to prayer. But if prayer is never ceasing then there is no end. However it’s hard to imagine a prayer without the Amen.
I’m sure that many of you remember that in the old Methodist Hymnal most of the hymns ended with an Amen added. But when the new hymnal came out in 1989, the Amens were dropped and controversy raged. Many were outraged that the editors of the new hymnal had altered some of the hymns to reflect more inclusive language and dropped the amens from all the hymns except the doxology. For awhile, churches continued the practice of closing each hymn with Amen but there are few if any who continue that today. Here’s the thing that people came to realize was that it was not the dropping of the Amens that altered the original hymns but rather it was the addition of Amens down through the years that had altered the original hymn texts. Because the word had become a ritual, signaling the end.
But what we need to understand is that the use of Amen in that way is a bit of a perversion of the Biblical meaning of the term. In Old Testament usage the term became a word of authority. It was used after proclamations that were attributed to God meaning in essence “this is the will of God. So be it.” Jesus continued to use it as a claim to His authority. Frequently, when Jesus was teaching, He would begin with the statement, “you have heard it said.” And then He would say “amen lego humin” which translates as “but I say to you.” It is Jesus’ claim to deity as the authority by which He prays. It was the beginning to his teaching rather than the conclusion. But as the church developed, the Amen became the statement of authority that concluded the teaching. And so it became the ending of prayers and hymns and other statements of faith. But when we use it in that way at the conclusion of our prayers we are referring more to our authority as the basis of prayer. We are saying, here is what I want and need God. So be it. Amen. These are prayers that are offered along with an expectation of the way God needs to answer. In essence we’re cutting off our conversation with God. But if our prayers are an ongoing conversation between a Father and a child, truly prayer without ceasing, the only answer we should expect then is continuing prayer. And answers that come out of a loving relationship. That come from God’s expectations and authority. Prayers with the only expectation that we place on God is that His will be done no matter what the circumstance we find ourselves in. You see, prayers that come out of our wants and desires, that seek to impose our will on God, and that presuppose the right way for God to answer, are essentially prayers that have no good answer. And so when we talk about prayers that God doesn’t answer we are really saying that God did not answer according to our presuppositions, did not give the answer that we were expecting Him to give in that situation. Look again at what God says to Jeremiah: Call to Me and I will answer you. You see the key phrase here is not “I will answer you” but rather it is the phrase “call to me.” And more specifically the understanding that in true prayer we call “to” God rather than what many of us do, and that is to call “on” God. Now you may be thinking what’s the difference between calling TO God in our prayers and calling ON God in our prayers. Well, please listen carefully here because in the difference I think lies the difference between unanswerable prayers and prayers that we think God chooses not to answer I think it’s the difference between seeking God’s presence – calling to God to come into our lives and that His will be done – but when we call “on” God in our prayers we are seeking God’s action rather than His presence. These are unanswerable prayers because they are prayers that God can not answer to our satisfaction because they are offered as a reflection of our will rather than trusting in God’s will. Prayers in which we are trying to exercise control over God rather than seeking His will are false prayers because they are prayers that God cannot really answer, at least not in ways that we expect or can understand. And so we pray prayers in which we call on God to essentially intervene in our lives and when He doesn’t do so, at least not in accordance with our desires and expectations, then we say we prayed but God did not answer. The greatest example of this are prayers we offer for things like healing for those who are sick and dying but when there is no earthly healing, we lose faith in God. We say He did not answer our prayers. But though we struggle to comprehend this truth, there will come that point in each of our lives when earthly death is the answer to our prayers. Because when we pray from a worldly perspective we call on God to intervene on earth but when in our prayers we call to God, we are opening our earthly lives to God’s Kingdom perspective. Our prayers that call on God to prolong our lives on this earth are often unanswerable when they are placed in the light of eternity where God’s answers to our prayers are completed but in ways that are sometimes beyond our immediate comprehension. You see, when we call to God we are essentially acknowledging that the answers to our prayers are beyond our control, and often beyond our comprehension, but God answers just the same, in accordance with His will and good plan for our life. Unanswerable prayers are prayers that take us into places that are beyond our human comprehension and that seek to get God to conform to our finite understanding of God’s Kingdom. They are prayers that seek to shape God into our image, rather than claim our created place in the image of God. They are prayers which seek to limit our lives to this world, rather than give our lives and every thing that comes our way, that happens to us, over to life that is without limits, eternal life. And so when we say that God did not answer our prayers it is because we are seeking answers in light of our worldly existence rather than our eternal, forever, life with God. We are praying unanswerable prayers.
And so a couple of things we need to understand about unanswerable prayers. First, they are prayers that fail to recognize that God acts out of a much larger perspective then we have. The writer of Hebrews says this: God knows about everyone everywhere. Everything about us is bare and wide open to the all-seeing eyes of our living God; nothing can be hidden from Him.
When it comes to our prayers God sees the complete picture of our lives. God knows that every prayer answered in the present moment starts a reaction that will have consequences, sometimes for generations, sometimes for eternity. He sees all of that – but we don’t. Rick Warren writes about our prayers: God sees it all. You don’t see it all. I don’t see it all, and sometimes God doesn’t answer prayer the way you want because he sees what you don’t see. The fact is when I ask God for something, I can’t imagine the implications, the consequences, the results.
This was certainly true in the Prayers of Daniel. When the King told him that he was going to be thrown into the Lion’s den which was the death penalty in 6th Century BC, Daniel prayed that he would be spared from such a fate. But God had a bigger perspective and so He chose to answer Daniel’s prayer by allowing Daniel to be placed in the Lion’s den and then scripture says He shut the lion’s mouth so it could not harm Daniel. The same was true of the Hebrew men who the king sentenced to be thrown into the fiery furnace and though Daniel prayed that they be spared from that fate, God chose to answer that prayer not by keeping them from the furnace, but rather joining them in the furnace and protecting them. God had a much bigger perspective then did Daniel and his friends. Daniel wanted his friends to be saved but God’s desire was that everyone be saved. And so when they emerged from the furnace everyone saw they were untouched by the flames – only the ropes that held them captive had been burned away. And look how the writer concludes the story: Then Nebuchadnezzar (the King) said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”
Or consider Paul, His greatest desire late in his ministry was to be able to go to Rome and minister to the people in the heart of the Roman world. He prayed and prayed that his journeys would take him there. And he did eventually get to Rome but rather than walk into the city in victory, he was taken there in chains. His view of Rome was not preaching to great throngs of people, but chained to a Roman centurion in a Roman prison. But it was from that prison that Paul wrote many of the letters of the New Testament so that His witness was not confined to the moment but rather was preserved for all time. Paul’s witness from that prison not only saved the Romans and the Ephesians and the Philippians and young Timothy but also you and I. God has a much greater perspective when we pray.
Even Jesus struggled with praying unanswerable prayers out of a limited view of the world. Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed that God would intervene in what was about to happen and spare Him. “Take away this cup from Me” but then realizing that it was not possible for God to answer that prayer He says “not My will but your will be done.”
The point is that if we could see the whole picture of our life, our prayers might be very different because what seems so important today, even matters of life and death on this earth, really have little significance when placed in the perspective of eternal life. We need to give up prayers that focus only on our place in this world today and instead pray with an eye on our place in the Kingdom of God forever. Because those prayer answers that may seem to be a “no” or even “no answer” today are a divine yes when they are placed in our eternal relationship with God. Unanswerable prayers are those which seek to impose our earthly limitations on God.
And then unanswerable prayers are those that emerge from the plans that we have for our lives rather than the plans that God has for us. John says it this way: This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. We need to give up our prayers that imply that we know better when it comes to our life, then God does. Unanswerable prayers are those that seek to tell God not just what we want but how we want it to happen. Daniel prayed to be spared from the horrible death that he had been condemned to experience by being kept from the Lion’s den. And of course God could have done that just as Daniel had requested and he and the King and few others would have known what happened. But it wouldn’t have had much impact on eternity. You see, God had so much more planned for Daniel. His plan was for Daniel’s fate to become a witness for all the people especially those who were facing persecution because of their relationship and all who would face death because of our relationship with Him for all eternity. And so the story of Daniel was told over and over again. As Alexander’s army swept through Israel. Under the oppression of Rome. And in the bunk houses of Auschwitz. Because rather than spare Him from the Lion’s den, God was present with Him in the lion’s den and so not only Daniel was saved, but the King and all the people were saved too. We need to pray with the understanding that God’s plan for our life is so much greater then anything we could ever plan or imagine. In one of the episodes of the old television show M.A.S.H, the company priest, Father Mulcahey is talking with Hawkeye, the chief doctor, and he is obviously distraught because he has been reflecting on what he sees as the disparities between his role in comparison to the role of the doctors. He says to Hawkeye, “When you operate and save a life it is immediately evident. But when I pray for a soul, I rarely see any tangible results. I just don’t know that I am making a difference here.” To which Hawkeye replies, “I had a professor in medical school that would always tell us that “God cures the patient, but the doctor takes the fee.” And Father Mulcahey asks him, “Do you think that’s true, Hawkeye?” And he replies, “I don’t know but I know I’m able to do a lot of things in surgery that I’m not really good enough to do on my own.” You see, when we pray based upon our plan for our life, we place limits on the unlimited plan that God has for us. God says to Isaiah, “The plan I have for you is not what you would plan for your life. My thoughts are not the same as yours. Because my ways are so much higher than your ways.” So many of the prayers of scripture call To God to lead us through the circumstances we find ourselves in in this world, but too often our prayers call ON God to keep us from them in the first place. To keep us from the lion’s Den and the Fiery furnace, rather than have faith in God’s presence to lead us through. Because you see God’s presence turns instruments of death and defeat, like Lions dens and fiery furnaces and even crosses, into victory and life. Unanswerable prayers seek to draw God into our plans, rather than place our lives into His plan. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is often called the faith chapter because it focuses on the patriarchs like Abraham and Moses, people revered for their faithful actions, which the writer recounts. But then, towards the end of the litany of faithful people, the writer says a most peculiar thing, which we often tend to overlook. It says this, “All of these were commended for their faithful deeds, yet none of them received all that they had planned.” And why was that. It was because, according to the writer, “God had planned something better for them.” You see, God’s plan for our lives is so much bigger than our plans for our life. And so, in the end even the patriarchs prayed unanswerable prayers because they spoke to their plans, rather than through prayer, place their lives completely in God’s plan. I don’t know about you, but that is a lesson that I have to learn almost daily. When I start to wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering my prayers, at least not the way I want Him to, I need to pause and ask myself am I praying based on the plan I have for my life and through prayer then, trying to bring God into my plans or am I seeking to place my life in His eternal plans for me. Because the way we pray makes all the difference in the way God answers. And unanswerable prayers are those prayers in which we try to withhold a portion of ourselves from God. Substitute our will for His.
When I went off to college, I was pretty convinced that I had heard God calling me into ministry, that that was His plan for my life on this earth. But that was not my plan. My plan was college and then law school and ultimately a career in politics. I truly believed that with God’s help I could rise to places of great leadership. And so I spent the next five years essentially praying that God would get on board. And as every step of my plan unfolded, I prayed not that God would guide me, but rather that He would bless me. And when I succeeded I attributed it to answered prayer but when the road blocks came, I attributed those to unanswered prayer. And I would pray keep me from failing. Spare me from the lions den and the fiery furnaces and like Paul, help me live my life according to my plan. But with each step along the way there was this growing awareness that I was not living according to God’s plan, but still I prayed that God would get on board with my plan. And I attributed my unhappiness and frustrations to unanswered prayer. But yet there was this growing awareness that I was praying unanswerable prayers and I became more and more uncomfortable with my life, with the path I had chosen. By the time I entered law school, I knew that I was headed in the wrong direction, feeling farther and farther away from God’s will, His plan for my life. And that I would never really be happy until I stopped praying those unanswerable prayers that sought God’s submission to my will rather than my submission to His. And so finally I stopped calling ON God, and started calling TO Him. “Lord,” I prayed, “I have been running from your plan for my life for 5 years, and I am so tired of running. I can’t run any more. Take my life and make it your own. Lead me in the perfect plan you have for me.” And He did. Because He had so much more planned for me then I could have ever imagined for my life. And friends that’s true for you also. Perhaps it’s time for you to stop running. Stop praying those unanswerable prayers and instead, through prayer, submit your life to His perfect will for you. And you can do that right now. This very moment. Because the truth is that no matter how far you have run, God is always just a prayer away. Call TO Him right now, and He will always answer.