Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 19)

Text: Matthew 7:10-11
Would any of you give your hungry child a stone, if the child asked for some bread?  Would you give your child a snake if the child asked for a fish?  As bad as you are, you still know how to give good gifts to your children. But your heavenly Father is even more ready to give good things to people who ask.

Understanding God's answer

Jim and Doris and their only son, Nathan, were heart broken. Doris gave birth to a daughter whom they called Becky. She was only three days old when she died. To help himself come to terms with this loss, Jim wrote a letter to Becky expressing his feelings. Here is a part of that letter. (Sorry I can’t recall the origin of this but it is a true story). He wrote:

Dear Becky,

I wonder if you know just how much your mother and father and brother, Nathan, prayed for you.

It started a long time ago when we wanted another child and couldn't have one for a long time. And then our prayers continued when we knew you were coming. Nathan prayed, too. He even prayed that you would be a girl, because he wanted a sister. The praying part was especially good, Becky. We knew there was a physical risk for you and Mummy. We knew it was a world of trouble and problems and heartache as well as a world of joy and happiness that we were bringing you into. But we knew that our heavenly Father who loves all of us more than we can imagine has promised to hear our prayers and to 'work all things together for our good'. We believed that when we prayed, Becky.

But as much as I believe that, I still had an awful struggle the night you were born and the three days and nights that followed.

My first prayer was one of thanksgiving. I was so happy. My next prayer was for your health. I knew Mummy had had a difficult time and things weren't so well for you, but I just couldn't believe that anything was seriously wrong. Next day I knew differently. Something was very seriously wrong. The doctors and nurses were doing all they could. There were specialists and the best equipment. But still you got worse.

Human effort had gone as far as it could go. There was nothing left to do but pray.

And pray we did. Sometimes I prayed aloud. Sometimes I groaned silently within. Always it was with an ache in my heart. But I knew God heard the ache just as much as he heard my words.

One of the things that kept my spirit up was the reading I was doing in the Bible. I remember reading about the blind man whom Jesus healed and the man glorified God. I remember how I promised God again and again that if he healed you I would never stop glorifying his name.

But on Friday morning you died. You were gone. You weren't coming home with us to be our little daughter, and Nathan's sister.

All those prayers - for days, months and years - were now unanswered. God hadn't answered our prayers - at least, Becky, that is how it seemed in that moment. I felt betrayed, confused and very, very sad.

I want to stop here for just a moment. I would expect that there would be many here this morning who have had similar feelings to Jim. The circumstances may not have been the same, but in the end the feelings are very similar. You have prayed and prayed about something, and nothing seems to happen and you wonder -
why hasn't God done something,
why hasn't he heard your prayers,
what was he thinking when he has allowed this tragedy or that crisis to happen,
or that cancer to take such a hold so contrary to everything you had prayed about so hard and so long.

Each one of us can fill in the details of situations where it seems that our prayers have fallen on deaf ears. I have joined family members in hospitals and pounded on the doors of heaven calling on God for healing, for wounds to be healed, and cancers to disappear, but in the end many times this wasn’t God's plan.

Remember the parable Jesus told about the man who knocked on his neighbour’s door at midnight. He went to his friend's house to borrow three loaves of bread, and at first that friend wouldn't get up and help him because he and his family were all tucked in for the night. But the neighbour kept on knocking until he got an answer to his request.

Jesus concludes, "So how much more will the loving heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him". But is that always the case? Take Jim and Doris and Nathan as an example. They pounded on heaven’s door and look what happened.

Let's go back to Jim's letter. He had just said he felt betrayed, confused and very, very sad. It seemed all his prayers had gone unanswered.

Jim says: But there was another voice speaking to me too - it was saying, 'When God answers "No" that is still an answer. Your prayers are not unanswered. God heard and answered, but his answer was 'No'.

But why? Why should his answer be 'No'? I remembered how many times Jesus had healed people; he had saved them out of the very jaws of death; - why should he say 'No' this time?

Jim then talks about how God said 'No' to his own Son when he was facing the excruciating death that followed a crucifixion. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus had prayed so hard that he wouldn't have to go through with it. He prayed so hard that his sweat came as drops of sweat, we are told. This wasn't a half-hearted prayer, Jesus was in deep anguish as he looked ahead to his suffering and cruel death. If ever there was a genuine, heart-felt prayer this was it.

But the answer that God gives to Jesus was 'No'. It wasn't because he didn't love his Son. God didn't save him from death because God could see the bigger picture. God could see more than Jesus’ suffering and death. He could see the blessings it would bring.

Let's read the last part of Jim's letter. He concludes: God said 'No' to Jesus in love and, Becky, I can only believe that it was in love that his answer to us was 'No'.

And now, Becky, all I can do is ask God to lead me to accept his answer of 'No' and with Jesus also say, 'Your will be done'. When his will is done we don't have to know all the reasons why. All I have to know is that he still loves me - even when he says 'No'. We'll probably never understand the 'why' of it all - his ways are above our ways and his thoughts above our thoughts'. But there is one thing that I'm glad I do know - and that is that he loves us, and that this answer of 'No' will somehow work together for good.

God bless you, Becky.

Love, Dad.

Before I say anything else it needs to be pointed out that there are many times we can rejoice in the positive answers that God gives to our prayers. I don't want to give the impression that God only says 'No'. I dare say far more often God says ‘Yes’, answering in a way that satisfies our need. But it's those times when God gives a straight out 'No' that often bothers us and sets us thinking.
We question our own faith – did God answer the way he did because my faith was weak?
We question our righteousness – is God refusing my request because I have done something bad and he is punishing me?
We question our praying – am I saying the wrong things or not praying hard enough and fervent enough.

We know from the Bible how some of the most faith-filled, righteous and fervent prayers receive an answer of ‘no’ from God. The apostle Paul received a ‘no’ when he prayed for relief from what was troubling him (most likely a health related matter).

Jesus’ words in the gospel reading provides us with an insight into the way God answers our prayers as Jim has already discovered and related to us in his letter to Becky. Jesus points out that earthly parents, even though they are far from perfect, give only good things to their children. He points to examples like - no normal, loving parent would give a son or daughter a scorpion when they ask for an egg, or a snake instead of a fish. Even though parents are sinful they still know how to give good things to their children. Their love for their children will not let them do otherwise.

If sinful parents know how to give what is good because of their love for their children, then how much more will the heavenly Father give what is good because of his never-ending, perfect love for us. And as any loving parent knows, occasionally 'no' is an answer that is given to a child's requests. The child may not understand why the request was knocked back at the time. It was something he/she urgently and badly needed, but in the wisdom of his parents and more importantly because they love their child, they answered 'no'. If sinful parents are like that it follows that God’s 'No' to us is spoken out his love for us.

An important prayer request that the heavenly Father says 'yes' to is the prayer for the Holy Spirit. You might say that is what happened to Jim as he struggled with the death of his little daughter. The 'no' of God could have made him bitter and resentful toward God, instead the Holy Spirit led him to see the love of his heavenly Father in action here. The Holy Spirit led him to see with the eyes of faith the bigger picture and realise that even though Becky was with them such a short time she was now with her heavenly Father. That's not to say he didn't feel a deep sadness, but the Holy Spirit guided him through it, comforted him with the promises of Jesus, and later Jim was able to use his experience to help others who were going through similar experiences.

While journeying on horseback one day, St Benedict met a peasant walking along the road.
'You've got an easy job,' said the peasant, 'Why don't I become a man of prayer? Then I too would be travelling on horseback.'
'You think praying is easy,' replied the Saint. 'If you can say the 'Lord's Prayer' once without any distraction, you can have this horse.'
'It's a bargain,' said the surprised peasant.
Closing his eyes and folding his hands he began to say the Lord's Prayer out loud: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come...'
Suddenly he stopped and looked up.
‘Will I get the saddle and the bridle too?’

Prayer is hard work. There is no point in pretending otherwise. It doesn’t come naturally. It takes constant effort, time and practice. There are a thousand and one things that get in the way and prevent us from spending time with God in prayer. There are millions of excuses we give for why we don't pray. And when we don’t pray we are not taking God's love for us seriously. That's what Jesus is urging us to consider today. Ask, seek and knock we are told, because who knows better how to answer your prayers than your loving heavenly Father. He knows just what you need, all you need to do is ask. Luther says in the Small Catechism, "We can pray to God with complete confidence just as children speak to their loving parents".

Sometimes we may doubt, we may be angry, we may be upset, we may question ‘why’ but God is always ready to listen and to answer with love.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
17th September, 2006

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