December 13, 2017

The Homily

elishaOne day the seminary students came to Elisha and told him, “As you can see, our dormitory is too small. Tell us, as our president, whether we can build a new one down beside the Jordan River, where there are plenty of logs.”

“All right,” he told them, “go ahead.”

“Please, sir, come with us,” someone suggested.

“I will,” he said.

When they arrived at the Jordan, they began cutting down trees; but as one of them was chopping, his axhead fell into the river.

“Oh, sir,” he cried, “it was borrowed!”

“Where did it fall?” the prophet asked. The youth showed him the place, and Elisha cut a stick and threw it into the water; and the axhead rose to the surface and floated!  “Grab it,” Elisha said to him; and he did. (2 Kings 6: 1-7, Living Bible)

“In solemn truth I tell you, anyone believing in me shall do the same miracles I have done, and even greater ones, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask him for anything, using my name, and I will do it, for this will bring praise to the Father because of what I, the Son, will do for you. Yes, ask anything, using my name, and I will do it!” (John 14: 12-14, Living Bible)

For our Scripture readings today, I have chosen the passages from the Living Bible. Why? Because of its utter lack of religiosity. I don’t want there to be any trace of religious feeling in what we are looking at. God wants to meet us in these words today in the reality of life, not in some put-up job of dressed-up churchiness. For either Jesus means what he says in a real way, or … or all we have is another Sunday sermon that has nothing to do with our lives the rest of the week.

First, we have a story featuring the former farmer-turned-prophet Elisha. It’s a story common to teachers everywhere. A student breaks or loses something that doesn’t belong to him. I taught both high school and college for fifteen years, and I can attest to this being an everyday happening. In this story, a group of seminary students goes down by the river to chop down trees. In doing so, one of the students lets his axe fly from his hand and—splash!—into the river it goes. “Oh, no,” the student cries, “that wasn’t my axe.” Elisha walks to the water’s edge. “Is this where it went in?” he asks. He takes a stick, just a regular stick, throws it into the river, and the iron axe floats to the surface.

No group prayer was prayed. No theological lesson was taught. We don’t hear an exhortation to have more faith. Not even a moral lesson—“be careful with that which is borrowed”—was preached. Instead, we simply see a man of God do something usual with a very unusual result. Somehow Elisha knew if he would throw a branch into the river, the axehead would float. Did he pray? We don’t know. He simply believed—believed, we can assume, that God would do the impossible.

Then we have Jesus speaking to his disciples. This is near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. His students have seen him do many miracles. Water into wine. Blind men see. The deaf hear. Even dead people raised to life. Jesus, knowing he is about to return to his Father, tells them, “The things I have done you can do, and even greater things.” Then he says something that is shocking in its simplicity and audacity. “Anything you ask my Father, he will do it so that his name will be praised.”

Anything.

Not any religious thing.

Not anything that meets a bunch of theological criteria.

Just … anything.

Even if it is to retrieve an axe we lost due to our carelessness.

It seems to be a dangerously reckless thing for Jesus to say. Anything? Does he really mean anything?

What if we get it wrong? What if we ask for something that has unintended consequences? What if we ask out of selfishness or ignorance? What if we, in our humanness, ask for something that is not in the best interest of anyone?

Yes, ask anything, using my name, and I will do it!”

Don’t attach baggage to “using my name” that Jesus did not intend. He was telling his disciples to use his name when they came to make their requests before God. Think of the phrase “mention my name” when you read this. Jesus is not saying “ask anything” and then taking that back by saying “in my name.” He is giving his followers permission to use his name to enter where they otherwise would not be allowed to go. By saying “anything,” Jesus is handing over his American Express Black Card and saying, “Go for it.”

Dangerous, yes. Reckless even. No religious requirements. No limits on what we can ask.

So I have two questions for you this morning.

Why do we put limits on what we (or, more likely, on what others) can ask of God?

And if you were really to believe Jesus means what he says, what would you ask?

Let us pray.

Comments

  1. 1) We put limits on what we or others should ask, and what we and others should expect, of God because experience leads us to believe that this promise Jesus made is not true if taken in the plain sense. When at age 8 my pet dog died and I earnestly asked God to bring her back to life, and God didn’t do that in any plain sense, well, I started putting limitations on both what I should ask of God and what I should expect of him, because I didn’t want to be crushed again and again, as I had been, by unrealistic expectations.

    2) I would ask that God would plunge me into deep, unconscious oblivion forever and ever, and that I would cease to know that I existed, or just cease to exist, because life is just too painful and I’ve made such a mess of it and I’m afraid and the game doesn’t seem to be worth the candle. And I have asked him to do so in the past. So far, he hasn’t.

    • Robert, I have no words, but do wish I could find you for a serious hug and long cry. My heart aches for and with you, although I know you did not post this looking for these reactions from me or anyone. Lord, please send mercy and grace into Robert’s life…..please!

      • Thank you, Pattie.

        The Lord has sent me mercy and grace many times, by not granting my self-destructive requests, and by teaching me slowly and patiently and lovingly, and with many times of regression on my part, to surrender my will and wishes to his.

        I’m a slow learner, and rebellious, but he is greater than my disabilities and my rebellion. And I give thanks for the God who has said “No” to my “No,” and who continues to offer me a “Yes.”

    • Robert, what you say in (1) is so true. When I first really believed in God (late teens-early 20s), I was so happy, because I knew that all I had to do now was ask and God would heal my father from his terrible illness. Ofviously, He didn’t. He doesn’t. Most prayers for healing are not answered; I should know because I am head of our church’s prayer chain. We pray for people who are very ill, and then they die. That’s just how it is. I fight cynicism and bitterness, and most of the time, with God’s help, I win. But I would never tell anyone that all they have to do is pray and God will do what is asked. Prayer is good, but it’s not magic.

      As for (2), I am so sorry. Depression is a horrible, gruesome condition that I have battled all my life. It completely warps ones ability to judge or see anything realistically, so that even if you had discovered a cure for cancer and simultaneously been awarded Hero fo the Year by a grateful nation, it would mean nothing to you and you would still believe you had fallen far short of the mark. I will keep you in my prayers (unless my remarks in the previous paragraph make my prayers sound as welcome as the Black Death.) 🙂 I pray for God’s comfort for you.

      • H. Lee, I think it’s wrong to isolate this statement by Jesus in the gospel of John from all the other things said, and shown, about prayer in the Bible, and especially the New Testament. I think the deepest truth about prayer, a truth that puts all other Biblical statements about Christian prayer in context, is in the Epistle to the Romans 8:26, where Paul writes that even when we don’t know what to pray for or how to pray, (which, speaking for myself, is much of the time), the Spirit intercedes for us, translating our halting, and even meaningless, prayers into the language of God interceding with God on our behalf.

        I think this truth can be applied widely to our praying as Christians, so that even the most wrong-headed prayer, even prayer which, if answered on its own terms, would lead to destructive results, is taken up into the the Trinity by the Spirit, and there answered and fulfilled as may be best for us. In this sense, everything that we ask for in Jesus’ name is given, but given in the truth of the Spirit’s intercession for us, which knows our needs and desires, knows our petitions, better than we know them ourselves.

        Such an understanding of Christian prayer as co-praying with the Spirit is completely in line with the deep pneumatic dimension of the gospel of John, and complements its pneumatic theology, although it requires us to be less than woodenly literal when hearing this word about prayer from Jesus in the gospel of John. It also makes us bold to pray, knowing that no matter what we request, God will no more give us a serpent when we ask for a serpent than he will give us a serpent when we ask for a fish. He knows our needs, and he even knows what we truly want, better than we do ourselves.

        Thank you for your prayers. I will pray for you as well, that you would not be overwhelmed by cynicism and bitterness, or overthrown by depression. And we can both thank God that we pray in the midst of the communion of saints.

        • Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Robert. I certainly agree that prayer is worthwhile to the individual and to the community. Otherwise I wouldn’t be head of the church’s prayer chain! But I will admit that my prayers for myself are very vague and non-directional, and this is not because I piously trust God to provide what is best for me, but because I am afraid to weaken my already feeble faith by asking for something (no, not a Mercedes-Benz!) and then not getting it. I have about decided that God is good, but He does not generally interfere in material reality. Dying people still die, good people suffer, rotten people prosper (as noted in Psalm 73). I ask Him for guidance for the day, but not for health or continued life or even for healing from depression. (For the last I rely on medicine and psychotherapy, and am very glad that I happen to have the material resources to pay for them, as many do not.)

          Quite an interesting subject, and I appreciate your comments and others here. I’ve probably said more than I should have, but I’ll just post it. Thank you for your prayers, and I’ll keep you in mine. And you’re certainly right about the comfort of the communion of saints.

          • Yes, God’s ways remain a mystery, as does prayer. If we start from where we are, and pray as we can, I suppose that must suffice. One thing for sure: no matter how we pray, the way remains a difficult, painful and ambiguous one, rife with contradictions and seeming absurdity.

            Peace, H. Lee.

      • H. Lee and others…

        I find it ironic that I don’t understand prayer one iota, yet I’m active in two prayer groups. God does indeed have a sense of humor, and I love Him for that.

        I think a reason for me diving into these prayer groups is the hope I’ll gain just the slightest understanding amidst the mystery. One question I find myself asking over and over and over again is, “Why isn’t God a magic-wand kind of god?” For instance, why, when we ask for GOOD things (the healing of saints), are they not granted in a way that can be immediately seen and be presented as God-glorified?

        • God glorified is Jesus on the cross. The resurrection itself refracts its light to us only through the prism of Jesus’ cross, and the cross is a sign of contradiction. Christian prayer takes place under the sign of the cross, and is permeated with the contradiction through which the light of resurrection, and all its colors, comes to us.

  2. I agree with Robert F in that we have prayed for things in Jesus’ name that did NOT happen, so we learn not to take these words totally seriously. We think, “Well, he meant that for people who were in a total state of grace, not people like me.” Or, “Maybe praying in his name means that we need to pray in a way that is in concert with his will, so this must not have been his will.”

    Robert, I am sorry for the pain that you are experiencing. I pray that the pain lifts and that the joy and peace of God’s presence will fill your heart in a total way.

    What would I ask if I totally believed it would happen? I guess it would be that love would reign in my heart and soul and in the hearts and souls of all people everywhere. That would take care of all other problems that exist, so the prayer would cover EVERYTHING!

  3. I seem to live life by a couple of prime axioms;

    1. It never hurts to ask for something.

    2. It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.

    So, I rarely have compunction asking for something, and, if it turns out not so great then I can always ask for pardon.

  4. Jesus didn’t promise to give you anything if you just use His heavenly American Express card to buy it. The Father makes a highly frequent habit of not giving us what we ask for, even when we invoke the magical spell with “in Jesus’ name”. For example, my sister-in-law was recently very ill. There were literally thousands of believers invoking (and believing in) that spell. And yet she passed away. It turns out, God is actually sovereign. And He hasn’t turned over the tiniest portion of His sovereignty to any of us, not even for a moment.

  5. David Cornwell says:

    When I think of praying in the name of Jesus, first of all it does give me a sense of freedom and joy. It shows the trust that He places in his children. Yet I also think we must consider the entire context of what it means to pray in His name. Paul’s teaching comes to mind, and in it we learn of being “in Christ” and having the mind of Christ. The closer we grow to Him, and the more we have His mind, the more mature our praying will be.

    My father always had complete trust in me– at a certain age that is. At age 12 I certainly was not given the car keys. Later when I did start driving, I marvel at the trust he then had. He seldom set limits. He had taught me to drive. He totally trusted me.

    So these disciples had been with Him. It would be them who would become the nuclei of the Church. They were given power and authority. And in them would reside the mind of Christ. And from them the Body of Christ would come into being on earth. They were to be trusted with an almost complete abandon. Today we are still learning from them.

    One of the things I would pray is that we catch a glimpse of what it would mean for the will of God to be done on earth, as it is in Heaven, and then to continue to pray that prayer. And the other is that the Church again become truly one in more complete ways than it is now.