(Originally published Jun 7, 2009 by Rev. Jedediah Maschke)
Here’s my sermon from today:
Last Thursday Anna and I were eating lunch together before she picked up Ali from preschool. As we folded our hands, we looked over and Josiah had his hands clasped together like he was praying. In that moment, I was so proud of my boy, folding hands at the appropriate time. He’s so smart, and so observant, and so pious, and not even 8 months old…what a great kid. In retrospect, I think my enthusiasm was a little bit premature, because I haven’t seen him do it since then. But it got me wondering how it is that we learn to pray. And how do we pray to a Trinitarian God we can’t comprehend? I mean, is it even possible to pray to someone or something we just don’t get?
I’m willing to bet that if I would ask you how your prayer life is, and you’d answer honestly, most of you would admit that it needs some improvement. Maybe you don’t pray enough, or you’re ashamed of how little you pray, or you’re embarrassed to pray out loud. Most of the time, we don’t pray until the last minute.
So for these next several weeks, through the summer, I want to take a look at prayer because it is one of the most important activities we do as Christians. This week we’re going to take an initial look at prayer and the God we pray to, and then next week, we’ll look at all sorts of ways NOT to pray. Then we’ll spend the remainder of the summer taking a closer look at the Lord’s Prayer. In addition, I’m also including some outlines for the sermons and study guides for you to take home. Today they’re on the blue sheet in your bulletin. I wanted to do this so that you can take a closer look at home with your family, or on your own, or if you have a Bible Study group that’s looking for something to do you can use this.
My goal in all of this is that we can take a closer look at our God and see what He does for us in prayer, and dig a little deeper into scriptures and find out what this means for our lives. I don’t want to do this to make you feel guilty about prayer. What I want to do is show you how great our God is. I want you to leave here brimming with confidence that God enjoys hearing from you, that he takes pleasure in knowing the longings of your heart and providing you with everything that you need.
In my sermon today, I want to answer two questions for you. First of all, Who do we pray to (or for you English teachers, To Whom do we pray?) The second question, which we will start to look at today but which will take a few weeks to really answer, is How do we pray? Both of these questions can be answered when we look at the Trinity, our One God in Three Persons.
We talk about God as being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Christians and Lutherans, we believe, teach, and confess that they are one God, but three persons. That’s not something we can completely understand in this world. I don’t get how God can be a Trinity because what I understand is limited to what I can comprehend as a human, and God’s true nature is spiritual, supernatural, otherworldly. I can only “get” so much with my human understanding. So what I’m telling you today is what God wants us to know about Himself from studying the scriptures.
One of the things that the Bible tells us is that within that Trinitarian unity, there is perfect relationship. The three persons of the Trinity love, honor, respect and communicate with each other in perfect prayer as They work together in the world that They created together.
We see bits of their relationship and conversation early in the Bible, starting in Genesis 1. Even in the first three verses of Genesis, we read about God the Father creating the heavens and the earth, with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, already present in creation. Then God speaks, and we get our first glimpse of the Word of God who would become flesh. Even that early, we learn that when God speaks, things happen. The universe is created by God speaking. So we see that with God, words are very powerful, and I think that this is why God wants us to pray. When we speak, the words of our prayers do things! Our prayers are powerful: they make things happen.
Later in Genesis 1:26, we read Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” God is speaking as a Trinity, using plurals like “us” and “our.” And as God speaks as the Trinity, what is spoken becomes reality.
Later, when Jesus becomes flesh, he spends a lot of his time talking to the Father in prayer. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell about different times where Jesus goes away to pray, sometimes well into the night. Throughout His ministry, when Jesus has all the human restraints and limitations that we have, and even when he is hanging on the cross, Jesus keeps in close contact with His Father. Also, especially as we have just celebrated Ascension and Pentecost, we remember that God has sent His Holy Spirit to be with us, to live in our hearts and to lead us in a life of prayer.
Now when we talk about prayer, we’re really just talking about conversing with God. Defining it really is that easy. Prayer is “The conversation of the heart with God.” Now when you have a conversation with God this can mean talking out loud, or it can also be silent prayer, the prayers of your heart and your thoughts. I think these two types of prayer are what the Psalmist is talking about (in Psalm 19:14) when He says, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer.” And prayer is even something that goes on when you aren’t aware of it, which we’ll explain in a minute. Before we get to that, I want to explain how the whole trinity is involved and reflected in our prayers.
First of all, We pray to the Father. That is how we are taught in scripture, and that is how Jesus himself prays both in the Lord’s Prayer, which he taught the disciples, and in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (in Mark 14:36), where he begins his prayer by saying “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you.” So we learn that we are to come to God as a child comes to a loving Father, and we’ll be explaining this more in a few weeks when we talk about the Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer and the words “Our Father.”
The second thing is that we pray through the Son. When we come to God, we pray in the name of the Son because it is through Him that we are made His children. Jesus tells us to do this in John 14:13-14 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it And then repeats it two chapters later (in John 16:23) Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. When we approach God in the name of Jesus, it’s as if God sees us as His favorite child. He loves US with a perfect, fatherly, divine love, and He will graciously provide all things for US, including our daily bread and everything we need for this life. Paul talks about how we are adopted in Galatians 4, concluding in v. 6, And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
That brings us to our third point: we pray by the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer happens in the hearts of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. At its most bare and raw, prayer is a continuous longing of the heart for God. When the Holy Spirit comes to live in us at our conversion, it gives our hearts new life and awakens us to a new way of living. Martin Luther compared prayer with a heartbeat … as long as a Christian is alive, there is always prayer. Even when we do not move our lips, the heart of prayer is beating and pulsing, unceasingly sighing, praising the Father and hallowing his name, calling for His kingdom and will to be done. And when our life becomes even more filled with troubles, when we are attacked by temptation and the devil and the world, the sighing and groaning and begging becomes more urgent. This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 8 where He says, 26… the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. Sometimes, when it becomes too great, our prayer breaks forth through our voice, crying out “Abba, Daddy! Father! Hear my voice! Let my cry come to you.”
We pray to the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, but it really doesn’t matter to whom we address our prayers. It’s not like Jesus is going to get offended if you keep on praying to the Holy Spirit and forget to mention Him. Even though God works as three persons in our prayer, our prayers aren’t any less effective if we neglect to mention each person individually. We can pray with confidence to each person or all, and know that we are praying to the one true God.
In our prayers, we deal with God in two main ways, called thanksgiving and supplication. They are both alike, in that we praise God for His gifts and graces in both. The difference is that in thanksgiving, we praise God for the gifts and graces we have already received, whereas in supplication, we praise God for the gifts and graces we desire. So thanksgiving is looking back on the gifts and graces God has given us in faith, and supplication is looking forward in faith to the gifts and graces we trust God will supply for us.
The most important aspect of prayer that we will cover today is knowing to whom we are praying. As we pray, we reveal and reinforce what we know about God. That’s why there are so many bad prayers. Prayer is such an innate desire in humanity that people who don’t know any god tend to make one up when they think they need to pray. Knowing God and knowing how to pray go hand in hand. That’s why it’s good to be informed in our prayers by the time-tested prayers of the church that has gone on before us. When we pray the “prayer of the day,” in our liturgy, we’re praying prayers that in some cases have been used for a thousand, even 1500 years. We learn how to pray from the saints who have trod before us in faith, and we also learn from them about our God.
We pray these prayers to the one true God, a God who has revealed himself as a Trinity, three persons in one God. Each person in the trinity plays in important part in our prayer, as we pray to the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The whole concept of the trinity is something that’s pretty hard to grasp, though. Honestly, if I think about it too much, my head starts to hurt. We know that God is one God, one divine substance, but three persons. We can say that much, because that’s revealed to us in the Bible, but we’ll never really “get it” as long as we’re on this side of heaven. And that’s probably a good thing for us. It reminds me that God is much bigger than anything I could ever imagine. God created everything, from single-celled organisms in all of their complexity to the workings of solar systems and galaxies. And yet God loved this world, in all of our flaws, even to the point of sending His own Son to die for us and rise from the dead for us, and then sending His Spirit to live in us to keep us in constant communication with Him.
It’s this incredible paradox that makes me want to talk to Him. He wants to hear from you and me. He wants us to share our heart’s desires with Him so that He can take care of us like a gracious Father. He wants to provide us with everything we need. And so I want to share my thoughts and cares with Him because I know that He listens and that He continues to guide me through His Word.
One of the ways God guides us to know Him is through the use of the creeds, like the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Each creed is more than a statement of faith, it is a prayer strengthening our own faith and reminding us of the Biblical beliefs we cling to and the Trinitarian God we trust in for our salvation. We state our belief along with the rest of the catholic church, that’s catholic with a small “c,” meaning universal, because we believe that we share this common confession of faith with the universal church throughout many centuries and around the world. So as we continue our worship on this Trinity Sunday by speaking and praying the words of the Athanasian Creed, let those words sink in and shape you. We may not “get” the Trinity, but our God gets us and speaks in us through our prayers. Amen.