May 9, 2010
Text: John 16:23-33
Have you ever heard of the Holy Stairs? The Holy Stairs are a literal set of 28 white marble steps in Rome that were reputedly brought there from Jerusalem in the fourth century by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Originally, so it is said, they were the steps in front of the residence of Pontius Pilate and upon which the trial of Jesus Christ took place.
When Martin Luther was a young man, before the Great Reformation got underway, his monastic order sent him to visit Rome to attend to some church business and while he was there, he spent a lot of time seeing the sights. And one of the things Luther went to see was the Sancta Scala, or the Holy Stairs.
The idea was being taught at the time that if you climbed up these 28 marble steps on your knees saying prayers on each step, you could knock off several years from your time in Purgatory. So Luther himself describes the episode where he, along with hundreds of religious pilgrims every day, ascended the stairs in the hopes of earning God’s favor.
The kicker of the story is that when Luther reached the top of the stairs, he stood up and instead of feeling a sense of relief or peace or joy at knocking off all that time in Purgatory, he felt . . . uncertain. And he said to himself, “Who knows if it is so?”
It seems to me that many times, this is how we feel about prayer. We labor to climb up to God on our knees and instead of finding comfort, we are left wondering, “Who knows if it so?” We say “Amen” with our lips, but what we really mean in our hearts is: “did this do any good?”
Jesus makes one of the most wonderful promises of all time in today’s Gospel lesson. He invites us to pray to God, in His Name, with the promise that God will give us our requests. This isn’t like having a magic genie in a bottle ready to grant you three wishes. This is having a relationship with the living God who wants to bless you as a Father loves and gives gifts to His children.
There is nothing greater in this world than the love which parents have for their children. To be sure, all parents are sinful and have flaws and there are far too many cases of people doing wicked things to helpless children. But most of us, most of the time, truly do our best to give our children the best lives we can possibly manage.
As you may know by now, I have kind of a soft spot for cats and dogs. Well, a few years ago, I saw a news report about a house that caught on fire. The owners were not home, so they were not harmed. However, the family cat was in the house at the time. The cat’s name was Scarlet and she’d just had a litter of kittens. When the fireman found Scarlet, all of her fur was gone, her eyeballs were scorched and her ears were burned off, but all of her babies were safe in the grass. This mamma cat had one by one gone into the fire to rescue all her babies. That is the power of a parent’s love for their children. If even the animals can exemplify this kind of self-sacrificial love for their babies, then imagine how much more we human beings love and care for the little treasures God has given us. And if we sinful human beings are capable of great love for those little ones in our care, then imagine – if your imagination can even grasp it – how much greater God in Heaven loves you.
One of the trickiest aspects of this passage is when Jesus says, “whatever you ask of the Father in my name, He will give it to you.”
We have to ask the question: what does it mean to pray in the name of Jesus? Many of us conclude our prayers with the phrase, “in Jesus’ name, Amen.” That’s a good practice, but praying in the name of Jesus is not about tacking on a few magic words at the end of your prayer. It’s not the special code that, if you get it right, you hit the divine jackpot, but if you get it wrong, nothing happens. When we pray, we are not witches casting spells.
Praying in the name of Jesus. I was reading about a man who was being given a tour of the White House by a close friend who happened to have worked on the president’s campaign. They both had on special security badges. In these days of heightened security awareness, people can’t just go into any rooms they want. But since the man was with a friend of the president, he was given access to places the general public would never be permitted to see. He was given the V.I.P. treatment, not because of anything he had done, but because of whom he was with.
Praying in the name of Jesus means having access to the Father, not because we are worthy, but because of whom we are with. We are with Jesus. His blood is our badge, if you will, which gives us special access. Jesus Christ broke down the barrier that separated us from the Father. He has reconciled us by His blood. Your sins are forgiven. You are clean. By dying on the cross, Jesus has made it possible for us to approach God, not terrified of His wrath, but confident of His love. No matter what words you use to conclude your prayers, you pray in the name of Jesus when you approach the Father with faith in Christ.
So remember that God is not the holy vending machine in the sky and that if we just enter the correct change and punch the right buttons, we can get whatever we want.
If you’re asking for things from a selfish motive, forget it. James chapter 4 makes that clear. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we’re basically saying that we believe the request is something Jesus would endorse. So I don’t think the Father’s going to give you the Powerball numbers or cause some rich relative to leave you a fortune just because you prayed for it.
However, what about those times when you pray for something like a sick or injured loved one, and that loved one doesn’t make it? Was God reneging on the guarantee? That’s an honest question. And here’s what I can offer. As I just mentioned, this verse is not a guarantee that God will give us everything we ask for. Scripture tells us that God always has our best interests at heart. He won’t grant requests that He knows are not the best thing for us.
In the case of a loved one who passes, it may be that while we think it may be the best thing for us or for that person, it could be that taking that person is the best thing for them, so that’s what God does. It’s possible that remaining on earth would cause even more pain and suffering for all involved, and God, in His gracious and loving knowledge of all things past, present, and future, took merciful action by denying your request. That’s my opinion. I don’t know if that’s the whole deal, but I do know that God loves and cares for us, and that He takes our prayers seriously.
The Scripture also says that God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. There are many things about the ways and will of God that we will probably never fully understand. This is called God’s hidden will. And there are times when we simply have to trust Him.
This is Mother’s Day, so think of it this way. When your child is very young, she might want something that is bad for her. Imagine you child wants to play with his toys out in the middle of the street. It seems like a perfectly good place to him and he can’t understand why you insist that he come over to the sidewalk. Why can’t he play where he wants to play? It’s not fair. You don’t understand. Why do you have to be so mean?
When the reality is that you, as an older wiser person, have knowledge about the world which your little child does not have – for instance, that any minute now a car could be barreling down the road and run over the child, which would a bad thing. So it’s because you love your child that you make him do something he doesn’t want to do, for reasons he doesn’t understand. Maybe someday he’ll come to understand and appreciate what you did. And maybe not. But either way, he’ll still be breathing because you cared enough to be unpopular and saved his life.
That’s how it is with us and God, only we are the children and he is the parent. And you don’t have to climb the stairs to heaven on your knees only to wonder, “who knows if it is so.” God came down the stairs to the earth in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ to show us the love of God.
When you pray in the name of Jesus, you should expect something to happen. Your prayers are effective. They make a difference in the world. God acts because of them. When Elijah prayed fervently that it should not rain, it did not rain for three and half years. And when he prayed again that it should rain, it did rain. You have not because you ask not. Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.