Misanswered Prayers

Inspired by Luke 11:1-13

This is a sermon I preached at another church in a nearby town with whom we engaged in a pulpit swap.

The Lord’s Prayer has become a staple of the Christian faith since the earliest days of our existence. I highly doubt that Jesus meant for us to recite it word for word but that’s just how important and meaningful it has become for us. Those first Christians just couldn’t help themselves and so here we are two thousand years later reciting this beloved prayer. And for good reason, Jesus knew what he was talking about when it came to teaching about prayer.

As one of three members of the Holy Trinity, Jesus knew intimately what it meant to be in communication with God, better than anyone! And that’s what prayer is really, right, communication with God? We know that it’s not an endless supply of wishes. We know that God is not a Genie in a bottle. We know that God doesn’t have a giant bucket in the sky to hold all of our bucket lists.

Communication is what prayer is all about. It’s about having someone to talk to wherever you are, whenever you need someone, whatever the need or circumstance may be. God never tires of listening, God never tires of guiding…God never tires of correcting us either but that’s for another sermon. Point is, God is always available to us, period. But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about today. That’s just the foundation of what I want to talk about. I’m also not going to talk about the Lord’s Prayer line by line. I’m sure you’ve heard a gazillion sermons like that already anyway. What I want to talk about is how God responds to our prayers, to our communications, because that’s what seemed to be on Jesus mind.

Right after Jesus finishes teaching them the prayer that we recite every Sunday, he doesn’t end there. He goes on to talk about answered prayers and misanswered prayers. Notice I didn’t say unanswered prayers, but misanswered prayers. And I don’t think misanswered is even a word, I’m probably just making that up but just go with me on this. If you take a look at everything that Jesus taught about prayer in all of the Gospels, the idea of an unanswered prayer doesn’t seem to exist for Jesus, it’s just not a thing in Jesus’ mind.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you might be scratching your head after hearing that. I’ve been a Lutheran Christian my whole life, and have said a lot of prayers over my forty-four years of existence, and have asked God for a lot of specific things, and yet, have not received all that I have asked for.

So, how can I stand up here and with a straight face, tell all you fine people, that there’s no such thing as an unanswered prayer? To answer that, let’s return to our Gospel reading. As I said before, Jesus didn’t stop after teaching them the prayer that we now recite. It’s important to keep reading after that because he goes on to talk about a friend in need who doesn’t get his need filled in a timely manner. He then urges us to “ask…search and…knock”, assuring us that God will indeed respond. From there he does something very interesting and you kinda have to read between the lines to catch this. It’s one of those moments when it’s just as important to note what Jesus did not say as what he did say.

Jesus gives us this not-so-real-world example of a child asking for a fish or an egg, and a parent knowing not to give a snake or a scorpion to the kid. Seems like common sense right, when a child is in need the response should never be to put the kid in danger. But what I want you to take note of here is what Jesus did not say. Jesus did not say that the child was going to get that fish that she asked for. Jesus did not say that the child would get that egg that she asked for. All Jesus said was that parents know how to give good gifts and not harm their children and so how much more does God know how to do the same? So, raise your hand if you’re a parent. Keep your hands raised if you gave your kids everything they ever asked for. As expected, not a single hand raised. Wow, what a bunch of terrible parents we are, aren’t we?

Why don’t we give our children everything they ever ask for? Well, because we know better than they do, most of the time. And so, when they ask for their first bb gun at age six we say, “Mmmmm, maybe someday, but not today.” When they ask for dessert before dinner we say, “Maybe on your birthday but not today.” When they ask to go to their boyfriend’s house while his parents are not at home we say, “Maybe never, and not today!” Point is, if we know how to do these things, if we know how to not only give good gifts but give them wisely, how much more does God know how to. And Jesus makes the connection between this and prayer. Why? Because Jesus knows God doesn’t give us everything we want, when we want it, or how we want it.

And so, it was important for Jesus to remind them of this right after he just told them to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for their daily bread, for forgiveness of sins, for protection from trials. It seems like common sense to say of course God doesn’t give us everything we want, when we want it or how we want it. Our knee jerk reaction to that is to agree. But then we walk out those doors and reality hits us in the face like a ton of bricks when we pray for healing from cancer for someone only to find ourselves at their funeral months later, when we pray for our children to attend church as adults only to see them one by one drift away, when we pray for our church to grow only to find ourselves debating on where else we can cut the budget next year. Any of that sound familiar? I can tell you it does to Bethlehem.

Jesus knew, Jesus knows the world that our prayers walk out into. And so, wanted his followers to be prepared, and he did that by being real with us, by being truthful with us, by not sugar-coating his teaching. Jesus assures us that God will indeed answer our prayers but it may not be exactly what we wanted, when we wanted it, or how we wanted it. And that simple concept has been told in Bible story after Bible story since the beginning of our faith. The Israelites prayed for deliverance from Egypt only to find themselves wandering the desert for years on end. Job was one of the most prayerful people in the Bible, yet he still lost everything he held dear. Esther prayed for God to help her people only for God to ask her to do the same. Jesus prayed to be saved from the cross only to find himself hanging from it the next day.

The Bible is full of these kinds of stories and never do we say that God abandoned any of these people, although, as many of us know, it can certainly feel that way sometimes. But we believe that God never leaves our side, and not only hears our prayers but responds to each and every one of them. Maybe just not the way we thought God would, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow. Bethlehem has had to swallow many of those bitter pills. One example of that is our prayer for children and families. Every church wants more children and families right? And so, that’s what we prayed for. Did they come? You bet, but not the way we thought they would! We were expecting those children and families to come in the form of new members but God said, “I’ve got something else in mind.”

It started five years ago when Bethlehem began hosting Mt. Cross’s summer day camps. And each year for a week in the summer we have a thriving ministry for children and their families who cannot wait til next year when they get to do it all over again! Then, two years ago, Growing Peace Camp, which is a week-long camp for young people that inspires them to bring peace and justice into the world, lost their hosting site and were desperately looking for a new place to hold their annual camp.

They showed up at our door and we now have well over a hundred kids and their families on our campus for a week each year. But it doesn’t end there, this year, a tutoring and education center that caters to local homeschooled children lost their home. They showed up on Bethlehem’s doorstep and beginning this Fall we will have around 150 children and teens and their families on our campus every week.

We prayed for children and families. God delivered. Just not the way we wanted God to. Now, could we whine and complain about not getting our prayer answered the way we wanted it to? Sure. And sometimes we do, just like the Israelites whined and complained in the wilderness. That’s ok, God can take it! But at the end of the day, we have to acknowledge two things, God heard us, and God answered. To do anything else, would truly be sinful.

I know you here at New Hope have prayed many prayers for yourselves, for your church, for your community. Believe me when I say, I wish I could stand up here and say that God will answer each and every one of your prayers exactly the way you want them answered. I really do. What I can say with confidence is this. God is by your side, God hears you, and God will respond. And for that, I am so very grateful for. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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