“Is any one of you in trouble?” That was the question that James asked in our second lesson this morning. “Is any one of you in trouble…” Before you answer that question, we need to understand that trouble is a rather broad word. I have a paper cut on my hand, that might be trouble. I am nervous for school to start, more trouble. I may be in a spat with my wife or a friend. Trouble. My health is deteriorating. Still trouble. My check engine light comes on, oh, oh trouble. Trouble can be physical, spiritual, and emotional. So, are you in trouble, James asks.
Okay, James you have our attention, but now what is your big solution? We have troubles in this life, what do you want us to do about them? He tells us exactly what he wants us to do. “Is anyone of you in trouble? He should pray.” Pray. That’s it, James? That’s your grand solution to all our troubles on this earth? That’s your answer, prayer!?
We might scoff at that just a little bit, and many in this world do. It’s becoming more and more frequent that we hear talking heads on TV bemoaning the fact that in the face of so many troubles, so many tragedies in this world, that this idea of offering prayers is somehow a solution. But James doesn’t back down from his solution. He goes on to add “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Think of that word ‘powerful’ for just a moment.
The trouble you face in life can seem quite powerful, overwhelming even. You turn on the TV and you hear of the most recent shooting, you see those images, you hear the cries of pain and suffering, that’s powerful. The very real troubles you deal with in your own personal life, things that weigh you down and make each day a struggle, that too is powerful. Yet, James says here is something far more powerful, that heart of a Christian that holds up all those troubles and says, “Here Lord, I need you to deal with this.” That is prayer.
And yet, the question that weighs on my heart and on my mind each day is “How do I do this?” Was it not a similar thought that moved the disciples in our gospel lesson to ask Jesus to “teach them how to pray?” Those disciples had a deeply felt need. They knew their Lord as a man of fervent prayer. If the sinless Jesus himself was so keenly aware of the need to pray, how much greater was their need? So frequent and different were Jesus’ prayers from theirs that they could not help but feel inadequate in comparison, hence the petition, the plea, “Lord, teach us…”
I wonder if we often feel like those disciples, that is inadequate. It begs the question, how is your prayer life? If you’re like me, you might often feel that your prayers are a little one-sided. You’re always asking, perhaps, instead of thanking and praising. And those prayers, those same prayers, we can all say by memory. We say them, sure. How about when we hear someone else praying? How easy it is to stand politely head bowed, hands folded…mind wandering. Then there are the personal barriers that we set up. The guilt of sin that drives us away from prayer ashamed. The thoughts that this isn’t something to bother God with – it’s not important enough; I will handle it. It’s true then what Luther says that “praying comes close to being the most difficult of all works.” Lord…teach us…
And that is how we come to Abraham walking with God toward the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Those two cities were in a word, wicked. Their sin was well known, and God is just. He does not turn a blind eye to sin – he will punish it. Yet, up to this moment he had been patient. God could have wiped those cities out right away, but he wants all to be saved and so he was patient with these cities (x3) until, as we read, “the outcry against those cities had become too great, their sin too grievous.”
That brings us back to our focus of prayer. Is any one of you in trouble? Those two cities were and God could have simply sent his punishment, fire and brimstone, and wiped them out without telling anyone of this plan. And people like Abraham could turn on the news and be shocked – what happened to Sodom, what happened to Gomorrah? Instead, look what God did. He gave Abraham the opportunity to speak. He made himself accessible to Abraham that he could freely comment on what God planned to do. If there is one thing this then teaches us about prayer, it is that our God wants to hear from us, and more than that, he is listening.
If you have ever popped up the radio streaming service called Pandora on your web browser, it will after a period of time stop playing music and ask you if you are still listening, and then you have to click the “I’m still listening button” before it will play again. That’s not God. We do not have to gain his attention. We do not have to come to him with our act together. I do not need to feel right with God to speak with him. Why? Because he made me right with him. The only reason you and I can talk to the holy of holies, to the Lord of the earth and the King of the heavens, is because that King cast aside his crown to be with you.
And so, we see that crownless-king Jesus again in our gospel lesson, and we remember our plea, “Lord, teach us…” and we hear his many prayers on this earth, but one in particular stands out today, one short, brief heart wrenching prayer. It happened on the cross. Here it is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Jesus prayed this prayer as his Father in heaven disowned him and left him to suffer and die in our place, so that you and I, by his sacrifice for our sin, could have an open line to that same Father. Now you can speak to God. Now you can pray. Sin no longer separates us from him.
That invitation to speak came to you by his Spirit as he made you his child through the once forsaken Christ. Now God pauses. Now he listens. Dr. Herbert Lockyer once said this about prayer: It is “heaven’s telephone, free to all, never out of order.” God waits, he wants to hear from you. So, how will you talk to him and what will you say?
We look again at Abraham. As he stood there next to God – that itself is just a mind-blowing concept. – he did not wait for God to motion him to speak, no, “He approached God.” Listen to what he said, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked…will you really…far be it from you to do such a thing…far be it from you! Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”
I brought something today. It’s a pacifier. In my house though we’re too lazy to use it’ full name so it goes by the name “Passy.” My son, at night, must have one of these in his mouth and one in his hand to fall asleep. So, naturally, at night, while he walks around his crib not falling asleep, he tosses his passy out of the crib and then do you know what he says? “Oh, oh, passy! Daddy! Mommy!” And then we have to come in, find his passy in the dark, and give it to him. He often does this a couple of times at night. He has no fear in asking us to help him with his problem, one he caused, always confident that we will answer his cry.
That boldness, that confidence is how Abraham approached God. Here was his God who promised to help him, who promised to save him, but not just him, others too. Abraham saw trouble that day. He had family living in the city of Sodom, his nephew Lot and, as he looked down on that city with God, might he not have wondered if God would spare and save them just as he, Abraham, had been spared? So he prayed. “Lord, you are right and just and therefore must be just in your actions, but what if Lord, what if…50…God…40…30…Lord don’t be angry…20…10. It was a bold prayer, but also humble. “I am nothing but dust and ashes” Abraham said as he spoke to God.
“I am nothing” what a way to approach God. God you don’t owe me anything – I am dirt! – yet in Christ you have promised me everything. And I will ask. I will speak, and you, Lord, you will listen. You will answer…and he does. For Abraham, the answer wasn’t what was expected. Lot and his family were spared, but those cities were still destroyed. So, it is with all our prayers. Finally, God’s will is done. Still, we pray. We pray boldly knowing we are invited to do just that. And it is through this language of faith that we speak to our God, the same God who answered our greatest need, our greatest prayer, as he sent his Son, Jesus to take away our sin.
This is how our Lord has taught us to pray. To first know that he’s listening; He’s waiting, and then to approach boldly, confidently. This is my Father and I will speak with him and he will not turn me away. Though I was once nothing – dust and ashes – in his sight, now I am everything, his child. He loves me. And, in Christ, he will one day bring me home where there will be no more troubles. That is powerful. We pray that day comes soon. Until then, are you in trouble? Pray. Are you stressed? Pray. Are you overwhelmed? Pray. Are you worried? Pray. Do you know someone who is going through a difficult time? Pray. Are you burdened? Pray. Do you know someone who is facing health difficulties? Pray. Are you doing just fine? Pray. Pray boldly, your God is listening. Amen.