First Mennonite Church
May 8, 2016
Prayer and a Life of Faith
Text: Hebrews 11:13-16
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Today, I want to conclude the series on faith. And let me tell you it is not because I have exhausted the topic; there is much more we could cover. Our Sunday school is entering its third month studying the various aspects of faith; in fact the whole Spring Quarter was dedicated to the study of faith.
There is a general feeling that any talk about a life of faith seems to imply a deep sense of certainty amid uncertainty, of answered prayers, and of God’s power visibly present in the lives of those who have faith. Hebrews chapter eleven has a compendium of who we call “Heroes of Faith.” These heroes of faith are men and women who exemplify what is possible when God and humans work together. In that list of heroes we find Abel offering an acceptable sacrifice; Abraham and Sarah having a child in old age. We find Daniel not only surviving a night in the lions’ den, but being completely unharmed by the lions. There were women who received back their dead loved ones by resurrection. We find men who achieve humanly impossible victories. These men and women did all that through faith. This list of heroes affirms the saying that “faith moves the hand of God.” In the second part of my sermon today I will talk a little more about praying with faith.
But for now, let me turn to the difficult reality of unanswered prayers. Where is faith when our prayers go unanswered? Does it mean we do not have enough faith when God does not answer our prayers? We know very well there are many scripture references which seem to tell us faith in God can bring about even the impossible. We quote passages such as:
- If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22).
- “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done (Matthew 21:21).
- “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23).
- And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven (James 5:15).
If we are to take these passages literally, there should not be any unanswered prayers. We pray for healing. We pray for a new or a better job. We pray for church growth and renewal. We pray for the neighbors’ baby, or sick husband, or even for their dying parent. We join others to pray for the sick, needs, and salvation of a loved one. Yet, how many of those prayers go unanswered? Many!
Once a woman approached her pastor and said she was profoundly angry at God. This woman was severely depressed because as she put it, “God did not keep his promises.” Since young she was taught that if parents raise their children in the right way, they will never depart from the ways of the Lord even when they became adults. This is exactly what Proverbs 22, verse six promises: Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. (NIV) This woman and her husband did everything to raise their son in the right path. But once the son turned 18, he rebelled against his parents and everything he had been taught as a child. He moved out and soon became a meth addict. And in order to keep his addiction this young man began to sell drugs. After a series of run-ins with the law the young man was killed in a drug-related gang war. The couple could not stand their disappointment with God and the pain of their loss. Finally they got divorced.
Here is another situation. Rita was diagnosed with stage 4 of liver cancer which had already metastasized. Carol, who is the leader of a prayer group, called everyone in the group and told them if they all rallied in prayer on behalf of Rita, God would heal Rita. The promise is, “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19). The group gathered and prayed and prayed. Rita died shortly after her diagnosis.
Is God moved by the number of praying individuals on behalf of someone or something? Can faith be amassed to a certain size or quantity to make God answer a prayer? What about those passages that if taken literally God seems obliged to do things that are supernatural—a mountain cast into the sea, or God granting everything and anything we pray for? Or are we taking some of Jesus’ statements too literally when they were meant only to emphasize an issue of importance, like being diligent in teaching our children the ways of the Lord or to never giving up on our trust that God cares for our needs?
You see, when we take passages such as Proverbs 22, verse 6 to be literally true, it would mean that our children will not be affected by their surroundings when they grow up. It would mean that our children somehow will not have free will to choose for themselves, either good or bad. When we take some statements in the Bible literally where there seems to be a simple condition in order to bring a sweeping result we run the danger of making these statements into something close to a magic formula. A good example is Proverbs 22:6. If we as parents raise our children by teaching them the way of the Lord, Proverbs says they will never depart from it when they grow up. However, how many good parents are out there who did a marvelous job of raising their children in the way of the Lord just to see them go astray once their children got to be on their own. And regarding the issue of prayer, it seems that the only condition to get just anything is for two to agree on something. Matthew 18:19 says if two only agree on something, God in heaven will answer that prayer. If those promises were literally what they mean, then why did Rita die when a large group of people were intensely praying for her healing? For us here, why do we still have lots of empty pews after constantly praying for spiritual growth and renewal? Why haven’t we had all the rain we have prayed for? Why don’t the sick always get healed when we have prayed for them, even when we were all in agreement when we prayed? Why haven’t so many other things not materialized according to our prayer? This then leads to the second part of my sermon: how then should we pray? And how is faith actually reflected when we pray? I have to confess to you, I have prayed for sick people to get healed and yet some died!
Every so often, we only pay attention to those familiar examples of faith when we read Hebrews eleven. We like to hear the story of Abel and his offering. We marvel at the faith of Abraham and Sarah for becoming happy parents in their old age. We admire the faith of Daniel who was not deterred by the threat of the fiery furnace. We wish we had the faith of Moses in leading the people of Israel and through whom Yahweh opened a dry path in the middle of the Red Sea, and provided manna and water in the desert.
The passage for today is one we seldom take time to read or look at closely. There were many more who along with those familiar figures also lived lives of faith. But these are those who according to our passage: were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised, yet they were longing and welcoming the promise although in the distance. That verse almost sounds defeating. Doesn’t faith always conquer, get the promise, and make God work the impossible? The author of Hebrews presents the view of faith not as the human capacity to make God act in a certain way according to the person’s need, but faith as the commitment to live according to the promise of God. Abraham obeyed God and God fulfilled his promise. Moses trusted God and God sustained his people even in the desert. Daniel remained loyal to serve Yahweh only and therefore the fiery furnace did not deter his commitment to Yahweh. Now, did Daniel know he was going to come out alive from the furnace? No, he did not know. Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar, “17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Another possible translation would read: If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us, he will deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
According to the author of Hebrews there were many more men and women of faith who died and did not experience deliverance from God as Daniel did. Further down in Hebrews 11 we read: Others were tortured . . . . 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These are those who were still living in faith when they died and who did not receive the deliverance, protection, and security God promised to those who keep the faith. Yet, the author of Hebrews is confident to affirm: God is not ashamed to be called their God. That is, despite the fact that many did not experience God’s powerful deliverance and protection, God is not ashamed to identify himself as their God. There are a couple of implied truths in this statement:
- Faith in God does not necessarily mean God is obliged to deliver us from harm, difficulty, or even death.
- God does not have to defend himself when the believer’s prayer is not answered; God is sovereign.
- We do not have to try to justify God by blaming ourselves of the possibility of not having enough faith, or not being in full agreement among ourselves when we pray.
Therefore the question: How should we pray in faith? Jesus says something very interesting when it comes to praying in faith. In Mark chapter eleven verse 24, says: Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. First we need to realize that this is a hyperbolic statement. The Lord Jesus wanted to emphasize the importance of trust when praying. As I have mentioned before, experience has taught us that we do not get “whatever we ask for in prayer.” But that does not mean we should stop praying. Just the opposite; it encourages us to pray with added determination while at the same time we align our vision with the will of God. Jesus says, “Believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” In this way of praying we envision the new reality God will bring about as the result of our prayers. This is the same idea I talked about when I explained Hebrews 11, verse 1: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. When I explained this verse, I said that the Greek word for “confidence” means “the living reality” and the word “assurance” can mean “conviction” or “motivational force.” This means that when we pray in faith we begin to envision, represent, and actualize what we hope God will bring about when he answers our prayers. It means that we begin to live a new reality in anticipation of what God will do when he answers our prayers. Again Jesus says, “Believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
I want to ask you, why do we pray for the sick to be healed? Is it not because we love that person and want him or her to be well to continue sharing our lives with the person? Is it not because we want the sick person to enjoy the love of his or her family? Now think for a moment. Have you taken time out to share your with those you have prayed for? In the words of Hebrews, have you begun to live the reality of seeing the sick being healed? Or do we just say some words in prayer and forget the person we prayed for?
Likewise, how would it look when we pray for the church to grow and to experience spiritual renewal? If the church were to grow it would mean that we would have to interact with more people. There would be more differences than we already have with the few people here today. Are we, in anticipation of God bringing to us new people, extending grace and acceptance to those we already have with their differences? Or are we already becoming impatient and tired with the differences of those who sit in our pews?
When we pray for God to provide for our needs, do we give thanks to God for the things he has already given to us? Do we manage carefully the things and resources God has placed in our hands? Or will we continue to be anxious and dissatisfied no matter how much we get even if God were to answer our prayers?
When the author of Hebrews tells us that many were “still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised. And that God is not ashamed to be their God,” means that these people lived committed to God, loved God, were grateful to God, and lived in longing and welcoming the promises of God; thus their death was not a sign of unfaithfulness nor a failure on the side of God. Therefore, praying in faith means that we begin to live in anticipation of what God will do when he answers our prayers. We need to align our lives and vision with the will of God. And in this alignment of our lives with the will of God, what matters is not that God should act according to our prayers, but that we remain committed to the will of God. That means our faith is not measured by whether or not God answers our prayer but that we act according to what we anticipate even if what we asked for did not materialize. Praying in faith means remaining faithful and committed to God. Amen!