For what do you pray?

Luke 11:1-13

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel, went back to school one August, and of course they came home complaining about the work load. Adam, being the sensible father that he was, reminded his sons that he had survived school when he was a boy and surely they would, too.

“But Dad,” said one of the boys. “School was so much easier when you were growing up. You didn’t even have all of the subjects we are studying today.”

“Really?” replied Adam. “What subject could you possibly be studying that we didn’t?”

The boy replied, “History.”

It’s that time of year again, my friends. Back to school means a lot of things to a lot of people. It means shopping for backpacks, sneakers, school supplies, and that one box of Kleenex every student is required to bring in. It means you need to watch out on the roads for those school buses that seem to stop at every other corner. It means that children are grumpy, and parents are elated.

Most importantly, back to school means a changing of the seasons. Oh, sure, I enjoy the change from summer to fall. But that’s not what I’m speaking of. I’m talking about the change from baseball to football season. Back to school means back to football.

Based entirely on my own personal observations—which I admit may be wrong—football players seem to be the most religious athletes. It isn’t unusual to see a player take a knee in the end zone or point up to the sky when they score a touchdown. One player did this so frequently that we soon called offering a solitary prayer on the field after athletic success “Tebow-ing.” Even more so, before every game, it is common to see the entire team stop, take off their helmets, and pray together. It seems like every team, form high school through the professionals, take a moment before the game to pray to God for victory.

Seems just a little silly to me.

I’m not saying that football players should not pray. But if both teams are praying for a victory, which one is going to win? Is it the team with the most Christians on it? The team with the most pious coach? It is okay to pray for a victory, but remember that someone has to lose. I think it would be better to pray for safety for both teams, for good sportsmanship, and that the players could grow together as a team.

We have been working for three weeks on Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, looking at “To Whom Do We Pray,” “How Do We Pray,” leaving us today to ask the question, “For What Do We Pray?” You can pray for whatever you want. You are absolutely welcome to pray for a victory in a football game, or if you want to pull a Janice Joplin and pray for a Mercedes Benz, that’s fine. There’s a good chance you won’t get it, but you are hurting anyone in asking.

Let’s start today by looking at the first line of this prayer. Jesus starts off by telling his disciples that when they pray, they are to say, “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread.”

If you are familiar with Matthew’s version, you know that it flows a little more smoothly. But in Luke’s choppy version I notice something that I hadn’t notice before. Look at how quickly Jesus goes from “your kingdom come” to “give us each day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches them to pray for something really big, God’s kingdom to come to earth as it is in heaven! This is a prayer for God to set this world right. This is a prayer for an end to poverty, hatred, sickness, and destruction. This is a prayer for the end of terrorism, mass shootings, and war.

I’m just going to come right out and say it, that’s no small task! God, make this fallen world right again.

The very next thing that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for is bread. This contrasts all the more with the previous request in our world because most of us aren’t worried about where our next meal will be coming from. Either Wendy’s, Burger King, Food Lion, or Martins for us, I’m sure. So for those of us who really don’t need to worry about where our food comes from, this seems really insignificant. Especially when compared to ending world poverty, violence, and sickness!

I think that is the point. God cares about the really big things. But God also cares about the little things.

I had a friend, whom I loved and appreciated dearly, that used to pray for something that I thought was absolutely silly. When we would be going somewhere, he would somewhat jokingly talk about his “parking angel.” God would give him a good parking spot, amen, hallelujah!

But here is where it started getting weird. He would pray for a good parking spot when we would go to the hospital to visit a sick member of the church. This didn’t sit right with me. Shouldn’t he save his prayers for the big stuff? We are going to see someone that just had an emergency appendectomy, and you are wasting God’s time with a prayer for a good parking spot? I’ll walk the extra 100 steps on my own if God will heal the person in the hospital!

Is it wrong to pray for a good parking spot? I don’t think so. God cares about the big things and the small things. I just hope that if you are the kind of person who prays for parking spots that you also pray for the big things! Don’t allow a prayer for a parking spot to take the place of a prayer for someone who is sick or starving. Jesus prayed first for the kingdom, and then for his daily bread.

But all of that is pretty basic, and I promised you that we were going to get a little nerdy today. So without further ado, let’s get down and nerdy.

How one understands prayer often depends on their view of God’s sovereignty or providence. Providence isn’t just the capital of Rhode Island. Sovereignty and providence are fancy words that we often use interchangeably to describe how much control God has over all of creation. As if sovereignty and providence are enough, we often add a few more big words to the equation as well by talking about the omnipotence and omniscience of God. Omni is simply a prefix that means “all.” So to say that God is omnipotent is to say that God is all potent, or all powerful. To say that God is omniscience is to say that God is all knowing. So when we talk about God’s sovereignty or providence, we are discussing how God’s all-powerful and all-knowing attributes are employed in the world.

Some Christians have a view of God’s sovereignty that says that nothing happens unless God wills it to happen. You live in Staunton, Virginia because God willed you to live here. You got a good grade on your report because God willed you to get a good grade on that report. There are surprisingly a lot of people who believe this in one way or another, often at different levels or to different degrees.

We especially see this in times of trauma. When someone passes away, well-meaning people will often say things like, “I guess God needed another angel,” or “I guess it was just his/her time.” Some will even go all out and say, “God’s ways are not like our ways; His thoughts are not like our thoughts.”

So you can see how at various levels people believe that God causes all things to happen. I don’t. The low hanging fruit in this argument is to talk about slavery, the murder of a child, or the Holocaust. If God causes all things to happen then God caused the Holocaust.

I know that you can make an argument from the Bible for God causing all things that happen to happen, but this is not the only way to understand those passages of scripture. Praise God! Because I don’t know how to worship a God that causes the death of innocent men, women, and children.

That’s the easy argument to make, but I promised you nerdy, and we are just getting started. And we are talking about prayer this morning, so let’s try to get a better understanding of God’s sovereignty based on prayer.

My question is if God has already figured everything out and nothing happens unless God causes it to happen, why even pray? Yes, you could pray to thank God, but what about intercessory prayer? Why would you pray that God heal someone or that God give us this day our daily bread if God had already decided what to do and things only happen when God wills them to happen? And think about the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Matthew’s Gospel when he said to pray, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

If nothing happened without God first willing it to happen, isn’t praying for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven an unnecessary prayer?

This is why those who have a hyper-sovereignty view of God will say that they pray so that God will change them. There are aspects of this approach to prayer that I like, but there are aspects that I don’t like. We will come back to that in a minute.

Let me first return to those big “omni” words that I gave to you a few minutes, especially the word “omnipotent.” Is God omnipotent; is God all-powerful? I want to say both yes and no. Yes, God who created the heavens and the earth is all powerful. God can move mountains; he put them there to start with! But we also say things like God is love.

And therein lies a problem that should bother every Christian: if God is loving and God is all powerful, why do bad things happen? And if God wants us to pray for things and people, why do these prayers often not get answered in the ways that we want them to be answered?

This is where my “no” comes into play in the question of God’s omnipotence. I believe that God is not all powerful because God has given some of his power away in the gift of freewill. It isn’t as if God can’t take that power back, but because of God’s commitment to allow us to choose to follow him or not, God does not use the power that he has to force us to do anything.

Much of my understanding about prayer, and theology in general, is based upon my understanding of free will. In the very beginning God created us as human beings with the ability to choose one way or the other. Eat the fruit or don’t. We often have made the wrong decision, that is true. But for a loving God to be loved in return God had to create us with free will. Because we have been given free will God will not force us to acting one way or another. I for one am thankful for that. But the problem I see is that God also created others with free will. Life would be so much easier for me if everyone else didn’t have free will.

So what does this have to do with prayer? One of the challenges that we run into then is that our prayers may actually be asking God to inhibit the free will of others. Take for instance a teenage boy praying that a girl falls in love with him. That girl may have no interest in the boy whatsoever. For God to answer the prayer of the boy by making the girl like him would be a violation of her free will.

Let’s take it to another level. What if you have a family member that is participating in a destructive activity. Let’s say for the sake of argument that they are abusing prescription drugs. You can pray for that family member to stop abusing drugs, and I think that it is absolutely fine to pray for them to stop using drugs. You should pray that they stop using drugs. But they still have the free will to continue their abuse. Your prayers do not override the gift of free will that God has given to every person to ever live.

It is my observation that most of the time, God moves in small increments. Steps that are often smaller than we would like them to be. I believe that God does answer our prayers, but often that answer comes a lot slower than we would like, in part because God has decided that He will not violate our fee will.

So how do we pray? The first thing that I would suggest is that we invite God into our lives. It isn’t a violation of free will if you ask God to do something. Again, in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is inviting God to change you and your world to make it more like God had envisioned it to be. This is about aligning your will to God’s will. This is about prayer changing you and the world around you through your partnership with God.

Because God has given us free will, we are now giving some of that power back to God through our prayers and through an invitation to God to lead our lives.

And we pray for others by asking God to influence their decisions so that their lives are more in line with God’s will. Not that God will force them, but we pray that God will draw them to himself, so that they can use their gift of free will to follow Jesus.

In 1980, the rock band Rush released the song “Freewill.” This song was a critique of those who understood the world as a system of predetermined occurrences. There is also a line that critiques anyone that doesn’t have an opinion of free will or determinism: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Life is a series of choices that we have to make. It is my prayer that God will help me make the right choices in my life. May that be your prayer as well.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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