Texts: Gen 18.20-32; Col 2.6-19; Lk 11.1-13
Rabbis like John the Baptist and Jesus would have taught their students different rote prayers that they would be expected to memorize and use, much like we teach our community the Lord’s Prayer or “Come, Lord Jesus” or “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” The disciples’ question may simply have been a request for Jesus to teach them a prayer that they could memorize and use, but as I read our texts for today, this question takes on new meaning for me. It takes on a sort of urgency and maybe even an edge of fear, because what we learn today is that prayer is powerful.
“Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
God is about to judge Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil deeds, and is unsure whether to tell Abraham about what God is about to do; but in the end, God decides to share this information with Abraham because of their covenant relationship—a relationship, remember, that God initiated by coming to Abraham. Abraham is not inserting himself into God’s affairs here, God is the one getting Abraham involved. The fact that the LORD remains behind specifically to talk with Abraham about this indicates that the LORD actually wants Abraham’s opinion.
God has chosen Abraham and his descendants to “do righteousness and justice;” and so God gives him the opportunity to do just that in the case of the People v. Sodom and Gomorrah. And because God wants his opinion, Abraham can trust that God will listen to it. This is not the story of a God who already knows what God will do but who tests Abraham to see whether he will measure up; this is a story of God taking advice from a friend, somebody whose opinion God values.
In the exchange that follows, Abraham actually changes God’s mind about what God intends to do. God has sought Abraham’s advice, and God then decides to follow it. But this is not the whole story. The true power of prayer is not just that it can change God but that it can also change us. Whether he was thinking of his relative Lot or simply the plight of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham lobbies God for mercy. He sees injustice in “sweeping away the righteous with the wicked,” and he says so. Throughout the conversation, Abraham shows how he himself is committed to the justice and righteousness with which God has charged him. Not only is he moving God towards mercy, he is himself learning what it is to act with justice while also being merciful. Justice must be done, the outcries that have come to God must be answered, but how, and at what cost? God and Abraham work this out together, and when they have finished consulting, God goes and does according to what they have agreed.
Jesus seems to give us the same impression. Through his parables, he illustrates how the persistence of prayer can be as important as the content. The best prayer, prayed once, does little or nothing; but the weakest and smallest prayer prayed over and over becomes a part of us until it drives us to become a part of its own answer. Through persistent prayer, we enter into conversation with God again and again and learn together with God how our prayers might be affected.
Prayer has great power and potential to change both God and ourselves; and with this great power comes great responsibility. Prayer that is made selfishly or in opposition to God’s will has the same power to shape and form us; but to what end? These prayers might reinforce in us prejudice or hatred, they may incite us to division and violence. We see this in the religious zealot and extremists that carry out terrible deeds in the name of their faiths. We even see it within our own Christian Church.
When Pastor Mark Burns gave the benediction at the Republican National Convention last week, he prayed for unity. Unity is good, we need unity more now than ever in our country and our world. However, in the same breath as he prayed for unity, he prayed using words of division, words that were meant to tear apart rather than unite. He prayed using words that cast other patriotic, deeply devoted Americans—people like himself—as the enemy. Prayer can be dangerous because if we pray to our opinions or ideologies or whatever idols we might have, we can pray ourselves away from the reign of God.
We pray to our Father, reminding us that all people are one family under God, and that God loves and cares for us as a parent. We pray that God’s name might be hallowed, that all who profess to follow that name might keep it holy above all the things that can distract or divide us. We pray for God to rule on earth and God’s will to be done among us as it is done among the angels. We pray that God will provide for us and help us to share what we have so that all may be fed, that God will forgive us and so teach us to forgive each other. We pray that God protect us from the evil at work in the world, in others and in ourselves and that God will see us through the trials of faith.
We pray for many other things—for healing, for wholeness, for justice and peace, and for mercy—but no matter what our prayer, Jesus’ model focuses us on the way of the LORD—the way of righteousness and justice—and reminds us to whom we are praying.
At its simplest, prayer is just talking to God; but in its fullest expression, prayer is talking with God. This is where it gets its power; we not only talk to God, we also listen as God talks to us. God listens to us, and God also responds. We pray rightly when our prayer brings us into conversation with the God we have come to know in the words of scripture, in the breaking of the bread, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, in the love of our community. If prayer becomes an echo chamber where we hear only our own opinions reflected back to us or a forum for us to speak to others, then perhaps we are doing it wrong.
Prayer does have great power. It has the potential to change us, and it even has the potential to change God. God gives us the gift of prayer not so that we might wield it like a weapon or with the danger that we might destroy ourselves with it, but because God wants us to be a part of what God is doing in this world of ours. We do need not to fear the power of prayer, but neither should we dismiss it.
In the end, prayer is conversation; whether we do it well or poorly, God is still God, and God’s will is still done. Martin Luther writes: “God’s good and gracious will is indeed done without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and through us.”