SCRIPTURES – Genesis 18:20-33; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13
Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes... Will you put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18)
Can an old man teach you anything? I am not referring to myself. I have in mind two really old men. The first is Abraham, a man who lived about 4,000 years ago and whose conversation with God was the focus of today’s Old Testament reading. The second is Johann Sebastian Bach, the famous composer who died on this date in 1750. Both men have much to teach us, and especially about prayer.
Consider Bach. He was an amazing composer, considered by many to be the greatest in history. You have heard his music, for it has been used:
- In many films, including: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; Fantasia; The Godfather; several James Bond movies; Men In Black 3; The Hangover.
- In TV shows, such as: M*A*S*H; The Office; Downton Abbey.
- In video games, such as Donkey Kong.
Now, I doubt Bach had such uses in mind, for he said of music: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” The last 27 years of his life, years of incredible productivity, reflected this belief. From 1723 – 1750 Bach was responsible for all of the music in the four Lutheran churches in Leipzig, Germany. Every week he composed and wrote by hand a major cantata (a Biblical story or teaching that was sung by a choir and accompanied by an orchestra). The first thing he did as he began a new composition was write at the top of the page J.J., which was shorthand for Jesus Juva (Latin), which means, Jesus help!
Jesus help! With this prayer Bach began every one of his musical works, and he ended them with S.D.G.: Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone. Prayer began and ended Bach’s work; and in this he is a good teacher for us all. Take it – everything! – to the Lord in prayer! With prayer begin and end your every work; your days; your weeks; and your life. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
And yet, this is easier said than done. I’ll bet you’ve said many times, “I’ll pray for you!” Do you? Or, do you forget? And, if you’re going to pray for someone, why not do it right away and with that person? Ohh… praying before other people: that’s not easy! “What do I say? What if I sound foolish?” Don’t such thoughts run through our minds?
Such thoughts reveal a bigger problem, the biggest problem, really, when it comes to prayer: we’re focused on ourselves! We wouldn’t be nervous about praying if we weren’t. Our prayers are often focused upon self because that is the focus of our hearts. Instead of S.D.G., our hearts are stamped with S.S.G.: to the glory of self alone!
Listen to old man Abraham as he speaks to God: “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” He is saying far more than simply that he is mortal; although, just acknowledging this in your prayers to the eternal God would be saying a lot. We only live a few years, really. We often forget what happened yesterday, and have little idea of or control over what will happen tomorrow. Who are we to tell God what He should do, or to get angry if He does not do what we ask? We are but dust and ashes. Confess this! Be humble before God in your prayers! This is hard to learn.
Jesus is even more blunt: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” Do you hear? He calls every one of us evil! He sees clearly what the sin of our self-focus does to us. We’re not just a little wrong at times. We are evil!! Jesus knows this very well, for He bore the evil of our sins in His very flesh and soul and felt God’s hatred of them. Evil! Will God listen to people who are evil?
Now you must listen even more carefully to Jesus and hang onto what He says. Yes, we are evil. But, even so, Jesus says that God is our heavenly Father. God showed His love for us by giving His only-begotten Son into our sin and death, and by His death saves us from our sins and changes us from being evil people to being His children! When you pray, then, do not focus upon yourself: your sins, your mortality, or your desires. If you focus upon yourself your prayers will never be certain or confident or pleasing! Focus upon Jesus, and upon God as your good Father in Him! Bach, in his Cantata, “I Have to God's Heart and Mind Surrendered Myself” (BWV 92), wrote:
Though I now have Thee forsaken, I will once again return;
For Thy Son hath reconciled us through His agony and death.
I do not deny my guilt; But thy mercy and thy grace
Are much greater than the failings which I ever find within me.
Look upon your heavenly Father, and upon His Son! In Jesus God’s love for us is greater than our sins. Focus on Christ and you’ll be able to pray, and to do so with confidence, with the certainty that God will hear and answer and do what is good and right. Abraham did this when he said:
“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
Abraham expected mercy because he knew that God was good and merciful. We must believe this, also. Your prayers, even though they come from a sinner, are pleasing to God because of Christ! What a Friend we have in Jesus! In Him we, too, are God’s friends. God will listen to His friends. Our Father in heaven rejoices to hear His children!
And He will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. In other words, you can trust Him to do what is best and give you what you need, to bless you in your faith above everything else. He will, for He is your Father who loves you forever! The things of this life, which are so often the focus of our prayers, are temporary. Even if you have an abundance of them, they will pass away and be no more. God’s love in Christ, however, and the blessings of His Holy Spirit are eternal! Seek them and pray for them. Ask God to do His will, and not what you want. He wants what is eternally best for you, and for others.
With this in mind, we close by praying again the prayer we prayed earlier, the Collect of the Day:
O Lord, let Your merciful ears be attentive to the prayers of Your servants, and by Your Word and Spirit teach us how to pray that our petitions may be pleasing before You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.