Texts: Genesis 18:16-32; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13
We already know from last week that the three visitors are—somehow—God. As two of them go on to Sodom and Gomorrah, one stays behind and lets Abraham in on the LORD’s plan. “Should I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” God asks Godself. “No, for I have chosen him… to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice…” the people of the region have raised a “great outcry” against the Cities of the Plain for their sins, and God is headed there to execute justice the way all of Israel’s neighbors understood justice: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Evil behavior must have retribution, and evil people must be destroyed.
Abraham is successful in his bargaining not because he is shrewd or eloquent or because God likes him better than anyone else; he is successful because he knows who God is. That’s the entire reason this story is in the bible: it reveals something to us about who God is.
This is a story that never happened. It is not a historical fact. It is a theological examination of a much older story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities were wiped out by something a very, very long time ago, and the common wisdom was that they must have been destroyed by the judgment of the gods for their wickedness. When Israel included this legend in their own history, it didn’t sit any easier with them than it does with us, because it doesn’t fit with who they knew God to be. And so, to complete the story, they included this narrative in which Abraham—Israel’s ancestor—questions the common wisdom about divine justice. The story concludes that God is not capricious or vengeful in God’s justice, but merciful. That story fits better with the God they knew.
So how did Israel—or Abraham—know who God was? Remember the first part of this story of the three visitors. At Mamre, they delivered to Abraham and Sarah a message of good news, a message of promise: that in due season, the LORD would return and the couple—even in their old age—would bear a son.
The whole story of Abraham throughout Genesis is one of God’s continual faithfulness. God chooses Abraham seemingly at random to be the father of many nations. God continues to keep that promise through doubt and hardship, and even through Abraham’s and Sarah’s unfaithfulness to that covenant. To Abraham—and to Israel—this kind of love and fidelity didn’t fit with the kind of God who would wantonly destroy the innocent along with the guilty. They knew from generations of experience who God was, and who God was not.
We get a similar message about prayer in St. Luke’s gospel. When the disciples ask Jesus, “Teach us to pray,” they may be asking, “Teach us how to make God listen to us,” or, “Teach us to be pleasing to God so God will favor us.” What Jesus offers instead is a reminder of who this God is. He reminds them that prayer is not an attempt to persuade or to manipulate God. Instead, prayer is asking God to be God: “Hallowed by your name. Your will be done. Forgive as you have taught us to forgive. Deliver us from evil, as you already have.”
Jesus’ parables teach the same lesson. You already know that persistence pays off, so why would the same not be true of prayer? God is persistent in the sense that God is faithful: God is persistent in doing mercy. If God is like that, maybe we should also strive to be like that. We imperfect people know how to give good gifts, so why would we think that God, who is perfect, gives gifts that are any less good? The parables teach us about who God is, which is to say that they remind us about who God has already shown Godself to be.
And who is this God to whom we pray? What has this God already promised us? How has this God already faithfully kept those promises? Whenever we pray, we do so in the context of this relationship that God has with us and our parents and grandparents, all the way back to Abraham and Noah and Adam & Eve. Whatever thanksgivings or praises or petitions we lift up, we lift them up to the One who has already written us into this story of faithfulness that stretches back to the very beginning, traces its way through exile and return, winds its way up the hill of Calvary and back down out of the sealed tomb, ever continuing on toward the promise of the healing of all creation.
When we pray, we are finding our place in that story of faithfulness. Prayer not only reminds us who God is, it also helps us figure out who we are. Our relationship with this faithful God informs our identities. When we voice prayers—whether to ask for healing or guidance, or to give thanks in the good times and lament in the bad—we are voicing our deepest feelings and our greatest desires. By naming those things, we allow them to become real, to admit to them. We reveal ourselves not only to God, but to our own selves. And, just as in the haggling prayer of Abraham, we may be changed by the experience. While Abraham may have begun his negotiation with the Almighty in an attempt to save his nephew Lot, who lived in Sodom, by the end we might imagine that he had begun to feel a connection to all the people of the Cities of the Plain. Prayer is a journey of discovery, both of who God is and of who we are.
The foundation for Abraham’s boldness before God and for the prayer Jesus teaches us is the loving, intimate, faithful relationship that God has with us. That relationship changes and evolves over time; we go through hard times as well as good ones. We may not ever really know what to expect from prayer; whether God can or will do what we ask. Perhaps one lesson we can learn from these stories is that regardless of what we ask for, God does listen—and perhaps the listening is as important as the answers.
The greatest gift God can give, according to Jesus’ parable, is the Holy Spirit—the mysterious presence of God that dwells within and among us, connecting us to God and to all the other people God loves. When we pray, we strengthen this connection to God and to our fellow people: carrying one another’s burdens, rejoicing in each other’s celebrations, and mourning each other’s losses. Because of this gift of God, our prayers become something beyond mere spoken words or tangled thoughts: they become what binds us together as community.
This is not because of what we pray, or who we are, or about us at all; instead, it is because of who God is. Because God is fundamentally a God of relationship—a Triune God even in relationship with Godself—through our prayers, God creates relationship and community among us, as well. Prayer—any prayer—reminds us of this simple truth.
I can think of no better way to summarize and conclude this thought than with this quote from Martin Luther. He was writing to his barber, who had asked him how to pray:
“Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly. Never doubt that God in God’s mercy will surely hear you and say ‘yes’ to your prayers. Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.’ That is what Amen means.”
(Martin Luther, A Practical Way to Pray, 1533)