May 13, 2007

Rogate Sermon: John 16.23-33

There has been a paucity of posts recently, as I was gone much of last week at the Paul Gerhardt Symposium in St. Catharines, Ontario. More on that to come! Regarding the last paragraph of this sermon: I think I must have stolen it from Johann Gerhard (or someone else?); I took it from the conclusion of one of my sermons on this text from several years back. I really like it, which makes me think I must not have written it myself. Or else I was on a big Gerhard kick at the time... Anyway, here's the sermon:

This past week I went to a symposium on the life and work of Paul Gerhardt, one of the greatest Christian poets the Church has known. His life was full of sorrow: both of his parents died while he was young, as well as an older brother; he lost his beloved wife to tuberculosis, and four of their five children preceded him in death. He lived through the horror of the Thirty Years War. The Elector removed Gerhardt from office as a pastor at St. Nikolai Kirche in Berlin because of his steadfast adherence to the Lutheran Confessions. His life was one sorrow after another, and yet Gerhardt wrote Christian hymns saturated with profound joy.

How is that possible? Our age abounds with false teachers, who tell you that you can have “Your Best Life Now,” simply through the power of positive thinking, by not giving in to mediocrity. Pray hard enough, and you will have success. How different, though, are the words of Jesus! “In this world you will have tribulation.”

And sometimes that tribulation runs so deep that we want to cry out with the Psalmist, “Why do you stand afar off, O LORD? Why do you hide in times of tribulation?” [Ps. 10.1]. What do you do when God seems to be hiding? What can you do when your daily bread is only sorrow and disappointment?

The teaching that praying hard enough will turn your life around is a delusion that damages faith. But when we are faced with tribulation, this is the Lord’s invitation to pray, in order to put our lives and troubles in light of His Words and promises.

So when we pray, we begin always with the truth that we are sinners not worthy of the things for which we ask. Our Lutheran Confessions quote St. Cyprian, who said, “Lest anyone should flatter himself that he is innocent and by extolling himself would perish even more, he is instructed and taught that he sins daily, since he is commanded to pray daily for his sins” [Ap IV]. Today is called Rogate—which means, simply, “pray”—and prayer begins by acknowledging that we are beggars before God.

The devil wants to turn you away from this kind of prayer and instead get you to bargain with God, or better, make you bored with prayer, or convinced that you need to use your time more productively. Luther said, “The devil is a scoundrel who furtively sneaks up behind us to see if he can somehow divert us from prayer.… When he prompts you to think, there’s something else I must do first, then you must say, No, not so; as soon as the need arises, I shall pray…”.

You know it’s true and you agree with me now; but even Peter, James, and John were more interested in sleeping when Jesus specifically asked them to stay awake and pray. Are you any better? Repent, repent for not praying as you have been commanded.

You are not too busy. You are too selfish. You don’t believe—at least not rightly—because if you did, you would do it.

But if we look at prayer in the way that God wants us to, then we won’t think of it as a chore we have to do, but as the highest privilege. And this is how we can have joy even in the midst of tribulation.

Not because prayer is a means of grace. It isn’t. Yet when we are praying aright, we are working with the Word of God, speaking God’s Words back to Him, dinning into God’s ears His own promises, and recalling with trust how our Lord Jesus Christ endured every kind of tribulation we can know – temptation, abandonment, lies, torture, mockery, deprivation, death. And most amazing, God used that very tribulation as the means of demonstrating His mercy; for while we were yet sinners, Christ endured the abandonment, lies, torture, mockery, deprivation, and death, all for us. Christ died for us; Christ died for you; and therein lies all of God’s mercy for you.

That is what your prayers rely upon: the mercy of God. The prayers of the Christian do nothing else than take hold of God’s mercy. This Thursday is the Ascension; Jesus said before He ascended, “I ascend to My Father and your Father.” What tremendous consolation there is in that! We, the prodigals who deserve only to be cast out, are given a Father who absolves our sins, forgets our foolishness, and welcomes us home. Christ makes us His Brother, and does not despise us who return after squandering our inheritance.

This then is why we are urged to pray: so that when we ask Him to be merciful to us, we are reminded that He has already had mercy on us and will give us every good and perfect gift. That is Christian joy: it does not ignore or deny the tribulation of this life, but sees all of it within the framework of the holy cross.

This is why your prayers are always to be said “in the name of Jesus.” These are not magical words that suddenly make the prayer effective by their mere sound. Prayer in the name of Jesus means that what we ask is completely dependent upon Him, what He has done for us, His merits, His righteousness, His death and resurrection.

“In the world you will have tribulation,” said Jesus. This is true. But just as true is His promise: “In Me you have peace.” So I urge you to pray. Not because you have to. But because you have God’s promise that He will hear you, and answer in the way He knows is best.

So, for what shall we ask? Because He says, “Ask anything.” For what shall we ask? We ask for what His Word says. Our prayer then is this: “Do not turn away Your mercy from me. I offend You daily, and deserve nothing but punishment. You have been patient and forbearing with me, and have given me again a season of repentance. I praise You for making me. I praise You for redeeming me by the blood of Jesus. I am not worthy to ask You for anything; and yet You say, ‘Ask,’ so I ask for what You say to ask: Take away my selfish heart, that I may be kind to my neighbor; bridle my tongue; keep me unspotted from the world’s pollutions. Give me patience to endure my afflictions. Remove my sins from Your sight, and give me the fullness of Your joy. Give me the body of Your Son, and the cup of His blood, one drop of which shall quench all my thirst. Bring me to the resurrection, and life with You, gathered around Your throne. There, Lord, alone is my joy; and in You, my joy is full.” +inj+

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