Advent 3C: A Lesson in Prayer

Readings:

Sermon

I’ve been thinking about prayer a lot this week. Partly, I suppose, because I was teaching the confirmation class about prayer this week. Partly because of the repetition of the words: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of…” whatever horrible human event has most recently made it to the global news platform. But also because of the growing dissatisfaction with those very words. The growing displeasure at how the word prayer and the actions of prayer are used to show a level of deep sympathy with the victims, but still keeps the speaker at a safe distance, removed from the realities of the event that inspired the sympathy in the first place. The anger in numerous communities as a real argument against prayer as a platitude grows stronger and stronger.

I think that prayer is both a solace and a burden. A responsibility and a gift. Prayer is both personal and corporate. And according to both the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther, prayer is the key to our faith, and our faith is the only guard from the anxieties of the world. Luther says in a 1521 sermon: “When faith is lacking, man is filled with fear and gloom and is disposed to flee at the very mention, the mere thought, of God. Indeed, the unbelieving heart is filled with enmity and hatred against God. Conscious of its own guilt, it has no confidence in his [sic] gracious mercy; it knows God is an enemy to sin and will terribly punish the same.”[1] Prayer is a means of fighting against the fear and gloom, and naturally puts us in front of a God who loves and forgives us.

I was trying to remember when it was that I was first conscious of what prayer was and what it looked like. I can’t pin point any one thing, but there are a few kinds of prayer moments that pop up in my mind. Remembrances of a child, if you will:

  • Sitting in church and looking at people’s hands after the Reverend said the word ‘prayer’. I can remember being fascinated with how everyone’s hands reacted, and so differently, to the word ‘prayer’.
  • These words: “For this food and for thy blessings, O Lord, we give you thanks. Amen.” I still hear them in my grandfather’s voice in my head.
  • My mother sitting in a chair in the living room, ankles crossed and eyes closed, with her bible open on her lap – sometimes she held her glasses by one of the arms in her hand, while her elbow rested on the arm of the chair.
  • My grandparents’ table during summer vacation after breakfast. After the bible lesson and devotional, came the prayer, read from the little book that was normally stuffed into the bible as a bookmarker.

As I grew up, I found all sorts of expressions of prayer: journaling, praying by myself, praying at youth group, singing, dancing, painting, sitting on a park bench breathing in the cool air and listening to the sounds of nature, meditation, walking a labyrinth… well, I think you get the idea.

And then this week, the confirmation class and I made an interesting discovery while talking about the kinds of prayer that we are most familiar with in church. I invite you to follow along in your bulletins which outline our worship service. We started with the Lord’s Prayer; then there’s the Prayer of the Day, the Prayers of the People or of Intercession, and the Offertory Prayer. The Confession & Forgiveness is a prayer. The Kyrie is a prayer. The Great Thanksgiving is a prayer. The Benediction is a prayer. The hymns are prayers, and the Psalms are songs so they can be called prayers too. And we prayed at the beginning of the sermon and we’ll pray, as we do, after this sermon is over. Heck, some people are praying in the middle of this sermon – I know I am. At the end of it all, our coming together and worshipping together seems to be one great big prayer.

When you think of it that way, prayer seems to lead to a great amount of joy in our lives. It seems that everyone should be rejoicing on their way with words of prayer we share here every week, and wouldn’t need someone like Paul to come along and encourage everyone about the importance of prayer. Or of joy.

So what is Paul on about? Why the emphasis on rejoicing?

Do you remember what Martin Luther said earlier: when there’s no faith, the space gets filled with fear and gloom, and we begin to perceive that God is angry with humanity? And Luther encourages us that we must tell sinners, or all people really, about this lack of faith problem so that we can all be liberated from that fear and gloom and see that God is loving and merciful – which releases us from “the power of an evil conscience”, and joy can then move back in.[2] The joy of God.

This variety of joy, Luther says, is what Paul is speaking of when he says: rejoice always. “A rejoicing where is no sin, no fear of death or hell, but rather a glad and all-powerful confidence in God and his [sic] kindness. Hence the expression, “Rejoice in the Lord.””[3]

So, prayer is both a joy and a means of keeping fear and gloom and the evil of the world away so that we can be happy and joy-filled. In fact, when we consider what Luther is telling us, a summary of this reading from Philippians might go something along these lines: Rejoice in the Lord such that we focus on God and keep the fears and gloom at bay, which in turn enables us to be glad. From that happiness we live out our lives of gentleness. Again, we are encouraged to not be anxious. In all of this, the key is prayer.

Easier said than done, I’m certain. Don’t worry, be happy? Remember that? Paul is not giving us some charge to take on a naïve or stoic indifference to the pain of the world, or to pray away the harsh realities of life through false joy. But you can see why I might be excited to think of prayer as a way of fighting against the worrier in me.

Because, here’s the thing: Paul is writing to the people of Philippi from a prison in Rome! Not exactly a place of happiness. I’m sure that the fear and gloom was so heavy that you were absorbing into every pore of your being simply placed in a cell in a dungeon. He’s not making his pastoral visit rounds from cell to cell as the community pastor. Paul is a prisoner. Paul is facing almost certain death through execution in Rome – and the people of Philippi are staring out into a world filled with persecution and execution and send someone to Rome to check on Paul. It’s in that conversation Paul learns about how the people are faring in these dangerous times, and Paul writes.

Paul says to this great group of worriers: rejoice and pray. I’ll teach you.

Luther invites us to: “Note the beautiful logic and order of Paul’s teaching. The Christian is first to rejoice in God through faith and then show forbearance or kindness, to men. Should he ask, “How can I?” Paul answers, “The Lord is at hand.” “But how if I be persecuted and robbed?.” Paul’s reply is, “In nothing be anxious. Pray to God. Let him [sic] care.” “But meanwhile I shall become weary and desolate.” “Not so; the peace of God shall keep you.””[4] It is both incredible to think that it works in this way and it seems so amazingly simple. It is in this letter that Paul is presenting a short guide to the life of the Christian: Faith and Love.

And from a prison cell, out of faith and love, Paul teaches an entire community about different kinds of prayer. In three short verses, Paul teaches how to pray:

“He makes a fourfold division of prayer: prayer, supplication, thanksgiving and petition. By “prayer” we understand simply formal words or expressions–as, for instance, the Lord’s Prayer and the psalms–which sometimes express more than our request. In “supplication” we strengthen prayer and make it effective by a certain form of persuasion; for instance, we may entreat one to grant a request for the sake of a father, or of something dearly loved or highly prized… “Petitioning” is stating what we have at heart, naming the desire we express in prayer and supplication… In “thanksgiving” we recount blessings received and thus strengthen our confidence and enable ourselves to wait trustingly for what we pray.”[5]

At the end of the prayer lesson, Paul encourages all to use prayer to make themselves known to God. And I especially liked how Luther addressed this:

“I answer, Paul uses this expression by way of teaching us how to really and truly pray–not to pray vainly or at a venture as do they who are indifferent whether God hears them or not, who are ever uncertain of being heard, yes, are inclined to think they will not be heard. That is not praying; it is not petitioning. It is tempting and mocking God… True prayer is the “making known” of our desires to God. In other words, we must not doubt that God hears us; that our prayer reaches him [sic]; that our requests assuredly shall be granted. If we do not believe we are heard, that our prayer reaches God, undoubtedly it will not reach him [sic]. As we believe, so will it be.”[6]

We must not doubt that God hears us, that our prayers reach God, that our requests will never be granted.

And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)

We live in a world full of fear and gloom and anxiety and worry. This Advent has been a trying one for many people around the world for a variety of reasons. Through Paul and Martin Luther we are reminded that life is not stress-free, life is not without dangers and harm. We are bold to pray for the people of the world who are victims of terrible things. We are bolder still to rejoice in God and to share that joy with those around us. And we can rely on our faith and love in prayer to repeat that God is merciful, God is loving, and God was with us, God is with us, and God will be with us again. With much rejoicing we can say: Come Emmanuel – and speak God’s peace into us once more.


Let us pray,

Holy Trinity, there is so much pain and suffering in the world as we know it lately. As we approach Christmas, anxiety climbs for a number of those around us and we know that our however well intentioned words can ring hollow in sympathy of those who suffer at this time of year. Help us to remember that you love us all, you came for us all, and you share in our sorrows and fears. Make us bold to make our desires known to you in prayer; and make us bolder still to shine and act as beacons of faith, love, and joy through the varieties of darkness around us. May your peace be known to us always. Amen.


[1]Martin Luther, Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Advent, Philippians 4:4-7, 1521, (2). http://www.lectionarycentral.com/advent4/LutherEpistle.html
[2] Martin Luther, Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Advent, Philippians 4:4-7, 1521, (3).
[3] Martin Luther, Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Advent, Philippians 4:4-7, 1521, (6).
[4] Martin Luther, Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Advent, Philippians 4:4-7, 1521, (38).
[5] Martin Luther, Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Advent, Philippians 4:4-7, 1521, (31).
[6] Martin Luther, Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Advent, Philippians 4:4-7, 1521, (36).


Today’s image is “Praying Hands” by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1600.  Used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.  (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARubens_Praying_Hands.jpg)

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