The Power of Prayer

West Side Moravian Church
July 21, 2013

A Conversation With God

Several decades ago — It used to be that I started my stories by saying recently or a little while ago. Then I started telling stories from years ago and now that I'm over 60 the stories come from decades ago.

Well, decades ago I was thinking about my future role in God's kingdom and it occurred to me to mention to God that I might become a Wise Old Man in the church. As you may know, the power of prayer is quite impressive. My idea about being a Wise Old Man wasn't a plan or even a petition, but only a suggestion. And yet … very soon I found myself coming back to God saying, Not yet! Not yet! Maybe when I get to be 61 or 62 …

A few weeks ago, as I was preparing for this sermon, I suggested to God that I would like to preach on the assigned passage from Colossians: Christ is exactly like God … the first-born son, superior to all of creation! But after a while, God said to me, You know, I think you should preach on the power of prayer. That was a bit of a surprise, because I hadn't thought, until then, that today's scripture passages were about the power of prayer.

One of the good things about being the preacher is the conversation with God which precedes the preaching. I always hope that you hear God's message in the sermon. I know it isn't quite the same experience without the entire conversation. But some of you have told me that God sometimes has separate conversations with the listeners as well as with the speaker.

The Conversation With Abraham

Genesis 17

Several millenia ago Abraham was thinking about the future. Abraham was even older than me; he was 99 at the time. He was no longer thinking about his own future role so much as he was thinking about the next generation. Abraham thought, I'm nearly a hundred years old. How can I become a father? And even if that were possible, my wife Sarah is 90. How could she have a child? So Abraham prayed that Ishmael, who was his son and Hagar's son, might live to be Abraham's heir.

The power of prayer is quite impressive, but it is not a magical power. The power of prayer is a conversation. God listened to Abraham's idea, but God disagreed. No, said God, you are settling for too little. God had made a promise to Sarah as much as to Abraham. Ishmael would become the ancestor of a great people, but the covenant had been promised to Sarah's son.

But Sarah had no son. And she was 90 years old.

Genesis 18: 1-10

And this is where our story opens. Abraham, the nomad, is sitting at the door of his tent on a hot summer day when he spotted three travellers passing by. Abraham jumped up and ran over to them. Apparently Abraham was quite spry for a 99 year old. He said, Please don't just walk by in the heat. My camp is right here; have a seat in the shade, enjoy a bit of food and some conversation. After that you can go your way. So they sat down in the shade and Abraham stood by to serve them.

It is quite easy for us to recognize God in the strangers who visited Abraham that day; we have the benefit of centuries of hindsight and a narrator who starts the story by telling us the Lord appeared to Abraham. We have more trouble recognizing God in the strangers we ourselves meet, when there is no helpful narrator. Abraham assumed these were just three travellers on the desert road to whom he offered hospitality.

And then the men asked an astonishing question: Where is your wife Sarah? Our best understanding of the nomadic culture is that women were to be silent and invisible. She's there in the tent, Abraham replied. For where else would the woman be when there are guests? But the promise of God had been made to Sarah as much as to Abraham, and God repeats it now. God says, I'll be back in about a year, and by then Sarah will have her son.

We know it was God because the narrator tells us, but also because the stranger asked about Sarah. Who else but God inquires about the barren woman in a patriarchal culture? Who else but God offers a place of honor to a childless old wife?

Abraham had said that he would be satisfied with Ishmael as his son and heir. But God said, Let's remember Sarah. There is power in that prayer.

Luke 10: 38-42

The Conversation With Martha

A couple millenia ago, give or take a few decades, Jesus was the traveller walking by. The nomad's tent was now a house in a village. It was a woman's house, Luke says; Martha's house. It was Martha who invited Jesus to stop and eat; it was Martha who provided hospitality.

Matthew 10:42

Don't let a superficial preacher ever diminish what Martha has done. The church has many Marthas and we need them all. It is Martha who prepares the meals and welcomes the guests and offers clean water and provides hospitality in all of its many forms and guises. Jesus himself says that anyone who offers even a cup of cold water to a disciple will be rewarded. It is good to give to the Lord.

Colossians 1: 15-17
John 16: 15
Luke 10: 22

But what can Martha give to Jesus that he does not already possess? Jesus is superior to all creation. Everything was created by him … and everything was made for him … and by him everything is held together. Jesus says, All that the Father has is mine. Jesus says, My Father has given me everything.

It is good to give to the Lord, but it is not necessary. Jesus doesn't need anything that we have to give him. It is good to give to the Lord, but the power of prayer does not lie in anything we can bring to the conversation. The power of prayer is in hearing the other side of the conversation.

It is good to prepare the meal, to offer fresh water, and to welcome the traveller. It is good to give to the Lord. But it is necessary to be at the Lord's side and to accept what God gives to you. Abraham stood beside his guests while they ate; he was ready to serve them, but he was also ready to listen to what they had to say. At Martha's house, her sister Mary sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying.

Only one thing is necessary, Jesus told Martha, and that one thing is what Mary had chosen. Only one thing is necessary, Jesus told Martha, as she poured herself out for him. Mary listened to what he was saying as Jesus poured himself out for them.

Does this mean that Martha was wrong? Not at all! Martha came to Jesus with a request. Jesus listened to her and replied. In that conversation there was power! From that conversation, we can learn how we ought to pray. Like Abraham, Martha would have been satisfied with only a little more than what she already had. Like Abraham, Martha was told not to settle for so little.

The power of prayer is seen when God draws us away from what is good to what is best.

The Power of Prayer

The power of prayer is a conversation. In prayer, we bring to God our praises, our requests, our thanks, our wishes, our hopes — we bring them all to God. And God listens to us. And then we shut up. And listen. Because the power of prayer is in the sharing back and forth.

The power of prayer lies in welcoming God to our lives while God welcomes us into God's life. The power of prayer lies in offering our food, our time, our thoughts, our selves to God. But it is also in eating God's food, hearing God's thoughts, and receiving God's self.

When God says, Why not try a different approach? that's the power of prayer. When God says, Let's remember Sarah, that's the power of prayer. When God says, You're doing good, but there is an even better way, that's the power of prayer.