Our text is taken from today’s Gospel and exhorts us to pray in Jesus’ Name: 23 [Jesus said:] “In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (ESV)
If you were to make a list of the sins that trouble you the most, which sins would be at the top of the list? Worry? Greed? Lust? Gossip? How about your slowness to love and forgive others, and your doubting of God’s Word? But one sin which we often do not often think of as a sin is our neglect of prayer. We pray so sporadically and with such hesitation, like a patient who does not think that the medicine prescribed by the doctor actually works!
We have grown so accustomed to not praying that we no longer consider our prayerlessness to be a sin. But it is, and deep down inside we know it. The real problem behind our prayerlessness is the problem of our relationship with God, that we do not honour God as our merciful Father. At the root of our prayerlessness is the problem of faith, that we do not believe God will provide for us. You see, prayer arises out of a relationship of trusting God as our heavenly Father. Prayerlessness, then, is a sure sign one has forgotten that God is a loving Father who cares for His dear children.
Out in the wilderness, the Israelites had forgotten. Instead of trusting God to provide for them, they became impatient and spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Rather than calling upon God to take care of them, they complained.
The Israelites are a lesson to us all. And the lesson is this: there is no hardship so severe that we can justify our complaining. There is no adversity so great that we have grounds for not trusting God to take care of us. No matter what trials come our way, we, as God’s children, are to trust and to pray. In fact, God commands us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
The necessity of prayer is a hard lesson to learn. Who among us has mastered the subject of prayer? We are poor pupils, each and every one of us. This morning, then, let us go back to school—the school of prayer. Serving as our teacher is our own dear Martin Luther, himself an apt and eager student of prayer (the Luther quotes are taken from volume III:167-175 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House).
Luther tells us that five things are necessary for true prayer. The first is God’s promise, which is the chief thing and is the foundation and power of all prayers (Luther). God promises that if we ask, it shall be given. Our Lord Jesus Himself confirms this promise with an oath: Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Here, our Lord assures us that our prayers will indeed be heard and answered by our gracious Father. Luther writes: God is ready to give more quickly, and to give more than you ask; yea, he offers His treasures if we only take them.
But we do not deserve God’s treasures. For we are God’s unworthy servants, who do not deserve to have answered even the smallest prayer. But thanks be to God, the divine promise to answer our prayer is not based on our worthiness but on God’s grace, His undeserved favour, which He gives us in Jesus, who has removed all our sin and guilt through His death on the cross. Jesus died and rose for you; therefore, God has promised to hear your prayers and to give you whatever you ask in Jesus’ Name. This great promise of God should encourage us all to pray. Our teacher Luther says, [For] if it were not for this promise, who would have the courage to pray?…Take the promise [then] and lay hold of God with it. Then your courage and desire to pray will soon grow.
The second necessity of prayer, Luther says, is faith—that we believe the promise is true, and do not doubt that God will give what He promises. Faith is a firm, undoubting confidence in God’s promise that it is true. True faith is rooted in Jesus and in the salvation which He freely gives sinners apart from human works. Having died and rose for you, Jesus now gives you His salvation through His Holy Word and in Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. Do you believe that Jesus has saved you? Yes? Then, you may certainly also believe God’s promise to hear and answer your prayers. True prayer is asking God with the full expectation that we will receive whatever we ask in Jesus’ Name. Trust in God’s promise of salvation in Jesus! Trust God’s promise to hear and answer your prayers! Trust, and do not doubt!
St. James writes that we are to ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord (1:6-7). To pray with doubts is to question whether God is truly gracious to us in Jesus. God will not answer the prayer lacking faith in Jesus. Thus, as Luther says, the doubter’s prayer is nothing and he gropes after God like the blind for the wall. How tragic it is to offer up to God prayers filled with doubts of receiving what we ask in Jesus’ Name.
Thanks be to God that through the Holy Spirit you have faith in Christ! And in Christ, you may pray with great confidence. People can let us down; our confidence in them can be shaken. But God is ever faithful, and so we can pray with complete confidence, for we know that God always keeps His promises. And of course, our confidence is rooted in Jesus, who on the cross embraced a whole world of lost sinners. Only through faith in Jesus can we pray for all things with courage and consolation of heart! It matters not how great and high the petitions may be. For when we trust in our Saviour Jesus, we may be certain that our Father delights in hearing our prayers every bit as much as He delights in the prayers of His beloved Son!
The third necessity of prayer is that you must pray specific petitions. Luther writes, one must name definitely something that he brings to God or for which he prays; as for strong faith, for love, for peace, and for the comfort of his neighbour. One must actually set forth the petitions. That is why our Lord says, whatever you ask of the Father. “Whatever” means whatever you are in need of. What are your needs? And have you prayed for your needs? Of course, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for all that we need. But it is also beneficial for us to bring to the Lord our own specific needs and the specific needs of our neighbour. Our Lord gives us a great reason for praying specific petitions. Pray, He says, that your joy may be full. That is, pray for all that you need; pray and keep on praying until you have received all your petitions and your joy is made full. Of course, your joy will be truly full only when you are received into heaven, for only then will your prayer to be delivered from evil be fully answered!
The fourth necessity of prayer is that we really want that for which we are praying. Luther writes: we must desire, or wish that the petition be granted, which is nothing but asking; as Christ says, “Ask.” Prayer always involves asking something of God and asking for something that we really want with all our heart, so much so that words are not always sufficient. Thus, prayer often goes deeper than words, much deeper. Prayer includes the sighing and yearnings of the heart, what St. Paul calls the intercession of the Spirit that cannot be uttered (Romans 8:26). Luther tells us that so often a Christian’s yearning is greater that any words and thoughts[, so that he] does not feel how deep his sighing or desire is.
The fifth necessity of prayer is that we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Teacher Luther tells us that this is nothing more than that we come before God in the faith of Christ and comfort ourselves with the sure confidence that He is our Mediator, through whom all things are given to us, without whom we merit nothing but wrath and disgrace. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus has given us peace with God. Through Jesus, our heavenly Father declares us righteous in His sight. This salvation is a gift we receive only through Jesus. And that is why we pray in Jesus’ Name. Only when we pray in Jesus’ Name can we pray aright.
Praying aright in Jesus’ Name happens only when we trust that He is our Saviour and that we will be received and heard by our heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake, and not for our own. Praying aright in Jesus’ Name means we trust our Father will give us all things which are for our good and which will draw us close to our Saviour Jesus. There may be things we want that we will never receive. But God will most certainly give us all things that agree with His holy will and which draw us close to Jesus. That means, of course, that to pray aright—to pray in the Name of Jesus—we must belong to Jesus. To pray in Jesus‘ Name, you must have Jesus‘ Name engraved upon you.
In Holy Baptism, the Name of Jesus was engraved upon us and we were made God’s children. We now belong to Jesus. With great confidence, then, we bring our petitions to our Father in Jesus’ Name. When we pray in Jesus’ Name, we are claiming to be His own possession through Holy Baptism. We are also claiming the rights of sonship. It is as if we were saying to our heavenly Father, “Father, I am baptized; I belong to Your Son Jesus and in Him I have become Your own dear child, and so I know that You will hear and answer me with the same great love that You have for Your own dear Son.”
In the Name of Jesus, we come before our Father boldly asking for the things that pertain to our salvation and for the things that pertain to this world. We ask to be forgiven and to be strengthened in faith toward God and love for our neighbour. And we pray for our earthly needs—our need for physical and emotional healing, for financial security, for family harmony, for guidance and direction. We do not grow discouraged by life’s afflictions; rather, in Christ, with great confidence, we ask for whatever we need. Yes, we hold on to this great promise, that whatever [we] ask of the Father in [Jesus’] name, He will give it to [us]. And so, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, ask, [and keep on asking] and you will receive, that your joy may be full. Amen.