You should pray for what you sincerely want God to give you. That is, prayer should come from your heart. Otherwise prayer is a sham, a religious exercise totally disconnected from your actual life and thoughts and wants and cares. When Jesus commands us to pray – and he does, “Ask and you will receive” is a command – he’s not laying some religious burden on us. We often turn prayer into this. OK, it’s time to eat, we have to pray first, as if the mealtime prayer is now the sole thing keeping us from doing what we actually want, and that is to eat. Or treating our nighttime prayers as a chore we have to get through before going to bed. This has to stop. This shabby treatment of prayer. It’s simply not what prayer is. Prayer comes from the heart. Jesus commands us to pray because he knows our hearts will be burdened with many things, that we will want to ask our Father in heaven for what we need. That’s how Jesus ends our Gospel lesson and in fact his entire long sermon to his disciples on the night he was betrayed: “These things I have spoken to you so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble. But take courage. I have conquered the world.” So it is especially in this context that Jesus commands us to prayer, as a great relief, so that in all the troubles of the world we can pray to God and find peace in Jesus.
So pray for what you sincerely want God to give you. Pray from your heart. And here you will quickly see that your heart obsesses over quite the wrong things. What do you want from God? Is it long life? Is it long life for those you love? Is it more money, financial security, a bigger house, a happy marriage, healthy children, good reputation, a better job, a job period, enjoyment and happiness in this world? Good. Those are wonderful things to pray for. Pray for them from your heart. Jesus commands you to pray for them. It’s the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread, which includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body. The problem comes when these are the only things you can really pray for from the heart, because they’re the things that you really obsess over throughout the day. Then you need to hear what Jesus said to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled over many things, but only one thing is needful.” Why haven’t you been obsessed instead with Jesus, with his honor, his kingdom, his will, with the forgiveness of your sins, with you and the people you love knowing their Savior from all sin and death and the devil? And ironically, it’s precisely because we obsess over the earthly things that we find our problems so troublesome. If we would seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, we would quickly feel and know the relief that all these other things will be added to us, our Father will take care of them, and He knows how to do it better than we do.
So this is the second lesson for this morning. The first Is to pray only for what you desire from you heart. The second is to learn to desire what is truly precious, to do as Jesus urges, “Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in a steal. Treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy and no thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus sums this up by saying, Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be full. The word joy here is Christian joy. This is the goal, the purpose of praying. It’s not simply that we would be happy on this earth. We have to realize this. Jesus specifically says we will have trouble in this world, but that even in that trouble, we have true joy in Him. Joy and happiness are not the same thing. Happiness is to have good things happen to you on earth. That happiness can easily be taken from you, and your heavenly Father will allow it, even for His Christians, especially for His Christians, to teach you to trust in Him. Look at the disciples. Jesus tells them they’ll be kicked out of the synagogues, that the day is coming when those who kill you will think they are doing God a service, and this is exactly what happens – they all led hard lives, were exiled, persecuted, slandered, most of them killed, they were robbed of happiness, of having good things happen to them on earth, but they had joy through it all. And that’s what they prayed for above all else.
This joy is to be reconciled to God through His Son. It’s to know God as He really is. To know that He is not some distant Creator who cares nothing for you but your Father who loves you and cares for you and listens to your prayers. That’s what Jesus says. “I do not say I will ask the Father for you. For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved Me and believed that I have come from God.” This is complete access to God. Jesus speaks in this beautiful hyperbole, says, I do not say I will ask the Father for you. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t ask the Father for us. He does. Constantly. He pleads before His Father in heaven constantly for us. He pleads by His wounds, by the blood He poured out for us, by His suffering and His death, by His bearing our sins and burying them in the grave, by His triumph over death on Easter morning, by the Spirit who preaches forgiveness and peace, and His Father listens and hears His Son with joy and complete satisfaction and approval. But Jesus stresses here that so intimately has He bound us to Himself, so thoroughly has He washed our sins away, so fully has He given us His Spirit, that we can pray to His Father as our Father, and know for certain that God looks at us with pure love, with undying and everlasting affection. There can be no greater encouragement to pray than Jesus’ so unexpected words here: The Father himself loves you. He is not angry with you. He is devoted to you, because you belong to His beloved Son.
So pray. And pray for everything your heart desires. Make sure your heart desires heavenly things. Repent when it doesn’t. Repent of your constant worrying over things that will pass away, including this sinful life, and instead train yourself to look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Pray that you remain a Christian. Pray that Jesus keep your loved ones in the faith. Pray that He turn the hearts of those who have left the church. Pray that God defend His church. Pray for your pastors and for the pure preaching of God’s word. Pray that God keep you from sin, from pride and lust and hate and jealousy and meanness, that He forgive you your trespasses and deliver you from evil. Pray the Lord’s Prayer and mean it from the heart.
And pray for your daily bread. Don’t be afraid to be specific. You want God to take away the cancer or give more years to your loved one, pray for it. You want to be a better wife or husband, or for your spouse to be a better spouse, pray for it. You want to be delivered from some pain in your body, pray for it. You want your children to grow up healthy, well-educated, well-behaved, pray for it. You want a faithful spouse, pray for it. You want a good job, pray for it. And know that it is your Father who hears, who listens as a dear father listens to his dear children, that He has promised that He will deny no good thing to those who fear Him. But know this. He knows better than you do.
When it comes to heavenly things, He has told us exactly what to pray for and exactly what He will give and how He will give it. So we know exactly what to pray for when it comes to heavenly things. He promises salvation, forgiveness, everlasting life, communion with God, peace and joy. And He promises to give it through His Word which you hear and read, through your Baptism, where He poured His Spirit on you, through the body and blood of His Son, which was once pierced for you and flowed from His sacred veins, and is now place into your mouth. And the end of it all you know – everlasting life, beholding the glorious face of your Savior, the beatific vision, to know as we have been known.
But when it comes to earthly things, there is uncertainty. We don’t know what to pray for as we ought, and the Holy Spirit assists us with groanings that cannot be uttered. You pray for the cancer to go away, and God may give something different. You can be specific, you should be specific, about what you want God to give, but you can’t be specific on the solution God will provide. What you can be certain of is that God will do more and better than you asked, because He loves you and knows what’s in your best interest – He works all things for good for those who love him.
Look at our Old Testament lesson. God sends snakes to bite the grumblers, and they are dying. They repent, they admit their sin, they cry out to God for very specific help for a very earthly thing – take away the snakes so that we don’t die. That’s the prayer and they pray it from their heart. And God answers in His mercy. But notice He doesn’t give them exactly what they asked for. He answers in His own way. They pray for God to take the snakes away. He leaves the snakes. They keep biting. But He provides a better salvation, a more wonderful cure from death, by raising up a bronze snake on a pole for all to look at and be healed of the poison in their bodies. It’s beautiful. He keeps the trouble with them, keep the pain with them, at least for a while, but He still answers their prayer. And he does it better than they asked for: not only does He heal them, but He teaches them to expect something greater, as Jesus says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”
This is the way of our God. When you pray for earthly things, He hears. He loves you and wants your good. But He will answer your prayer with your true joy in mind, not simply your fleeting happiness. Because He knows what the spirit of His Christians wants above all else.
There is no greater gift Jesus gives us than prayer. We can talk to the Almighty, the Creator of all things, the eternal and all-knowing God, who has certainly seen our sins, even the secret ones, for which we deserve His anger, and yet we can come to Him without a shred of fear, with total confidence that He loves us and will hear us for Jesus’ sake, because our sins are removed from us as far as the east is from the west. We can actually talk to God. So let’s pray. Let’s devote ourselves to it constantly. And our Father will answer us. Our joy will be full. And though the world rage around us, we will have peace in our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray:
“Amen, that is, So shall it be.
Make strong our faith in You, that we
May doubt not but with trust believe
That what we ask we shall receive.
Thus in Your name and at Your word
We say: Amen. Oh, hear us, Lord!”
Alleluia. Christ is risen.