Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 119:137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
This is the last of my sermons on prayer. I’ve been asking the scripture lessons what they might have to tell us about prayer. In our lessons this morning I count five different kinds of prayer. Two from Habakkuk, two from 2 Thessalonians, and one from the Gospel of Luke.
The first one from Habakkuk is the cry for help. "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help." It is a most basic kind of prayer—it is known to all religions. I talked about this a few weeks ago.
The second one from Habakkuk is "keeping watch." Prayer can be like keeping watch. Like just patiently paying attention to God. It takes patience and it takes faith. We want help now, we feel our situation now, but God’s time is not our time. There’s a gap between God’s eternal perspective and our immediate perspective which we can only bridge by keeping watch, by waiting on God. We get this kind of prayer from Judaism, where it is particularly strong. In other religions you can get the gods to help you by certain rituals and spiritual techniques. But not the God of Abraham. You can’t get God to do anything. Israel learned that. You have to trust God’s promises and God’s faithfulness. And that means watching and waiting.
The Lubavitchers seem not to get this. They are the Jews who ask you on the street if you are Jewish. They believe that if they can get enough Jews to perform certain Jewish actions all at the same time, they can get the Messiah to come. It’s a formula thing. It’s a sliding back into a pagan view of God. Many Christians also share this pagan view of God, that if you just pray the right things in the right ways, you can get the help from God you’re asking for. And, if you aren’t getting what you ask for, you aren’t praying right. That is a pagan view of prayer.
Prayer means watching God. You start in your certainty of your need and leap the gap onto the certainty of God, and to make that leap you have to keep your eyes on God. That’s the sense of prayer you get in the Psalm today. The Psalm gives words to your review of God, to your vision of God: "Oh yes, God, I recognize you, I behold your character and your temperament, I will keep waiting on you in this long gap between my experience and your fulfillment." You can’t keep waiting without praying. Prayer is the only way to keep waiting without losing heart.
The third kind of prayer is in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, and it’s the prayer of thanksgiving. I talked about thanksgiving a couple weeks ago. You need to pray thanksgiving, always. You have to practice it, and even learn it as a discipline for the times when you don’t feel it. One reason we practice holy communion every week is because it is the great thanksgiving of the community.
And it’s not just being thankful for creation, for food and drink and lovely sunset and the colors of the fall, but also being thankful for other people. You can pray for other people even when they don’t need help. You pray for them by giving thanks for them. Why don’t you try that this week. Take home the bulletin, and every name on the prayer list, and anywhere else in the bulletin, thank God for them—even if you don’t know them, even if you don’t like them. You can even pray for dead people in this way. Especially on All Saints Day. Mention them name by name to God, giving thanks for them.
The fourth kind of prayer is intercession, praying for other people in their need. We do it frequently. It’s part of what e mean by "the communion of saints" in the Apostles Creed. It’s how we watch out for each other across the boundaries of time and space. You can intercede for people far away as easily as close by. And I believe you can intercede for people in the past and in the future. Because God’s time is not our time. You always have to remember that when you pray. And learning to pray is learning to not be confined or confounded by the length of time.
The fifth kind of prayer is what Zacchaeus does in the Gospel of Luke, the prayer that is vow or a pledge of a commitment. It’s when you say, "This is what I want to do, O God." There are times you need to do this. Don’t do it too often, or else you’ll get discouraged by your failures. Don’t make any more vows than you have to, because you’re going to fall short. It’s best to not vow too much, it’s best to rest in the work that God is doing in you, but there are times when you do need to make your commitments and your vows to God.
The conversation between Zacchaeus and Jesus reminds us that prayer is a conversation between yourself and God. It is a two-way thing. In order for you to keep talking to God, you need to have the talking of God to you, which you get by listening to scripture. You cannot keep this life of prayer alive unless you feed it with the words of scripture. Scripture needs prayer, and prayer needs scripture. It’s the only way that both of them can be the conversation that you want.
Let me end this series with an image of prayer as a tree. The roots of the tree are your simple prayers for mercy, as I said last week. "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." The trunk of the tree is your prayer for yourself, your prayers for help. Where it breaks out of the ground is your prayer of confession, confessing your sins, and asking for the help of forgiveness. The rising of the trunk is your petitions for the other kinds of help you are in need of every day. The branches of the tree are you intercessions for other people. They carry you out from yourself, out into the larger world. The leaves of the tree are your prayers of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is not optional, it does the photosynthesis of prayer. Your thanksgivings catch the light of God and breathe the Spirit of God, and they give life back to all your prayer. The blossoms on the tree are your prayers of praise—the glory of the tree, its color and its beauty, the praise of God.
It’s from this tree that you can see Jesus. It’s from this tree that you can come down to meet him. That’s the interpretation of Zacchaeus that one of our elders gave to me this week. When you are in the tree of prayer, then God calls to you in the name of Jesus. God says, I want to be with you. I want you to be with me. And you can come to him. You might be afraid to, you might feel guilty, it may take some courage on your part, so as you slide down the trunk of petition you can pray for faith and hope. But when you stand on your ground before him you can be rooted in your prayers for mercy, and you can believe that God not only accepts you but wants to sit and eat with you.
And like Zacchaeus you can offer yourself back to God. You can call it accepting Jesus as your Lord, you can think of it as your commitment to help the poor or to recompense to people what you might owe to them, you can think of it simply as committing again and again to love your neighbor as yourself and love God most of all, there are different ways to describe whatever it is you want to say when you get down from that tree.
It is a very pushy invitation Jesus makes. He doesn’t invite you to his house, he invites himself to your house. Accept his backwards invitation. That is the most important commitment you can make. Nothing you can do, but accepting what he does. That is what we do here every week. That is why you came here, and just by being here today you are doing it. You have him in your life. All you are doing is coming down from your sycamore and standing with all the other sinners and enjoying the presence of God in your life. All of us, every week.
Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.