Prayer Changes Things?



“Sermon Title”Prayer Changes Things?” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden

Good morning!  Did you hear about the agnostic dyslexic insomniac?  He laid awake at night wondering if there really is a DOG.  But seriously, what keeps you awake at night?  Until very recently, my answer would have been “Nothing.”  It’s unusual for me to be up in the middle of the night for any reason.  Of course, when my kids were babies, I was up at night for the better part of two years, times three.  And then after a break, they became teenagers, and then I was up at night picking them up after marching band or winter percussion, or waiting for them to get home by midnight.  But I’m more interested in the internal things which have us sitting up wide-eyed at 2:00 a.m. and unable to fall back asleep until 3:45.

For the past few weeks I have had a cough that has woken me up in the middle of the night.  I have resented this — a lot — because I’m tired of coughing, but also because all kinds of things come crawling out of my brain in the middle of the night — worries about everything from high cholesterol to global warming.  There is nothing productive in any way about these worries: I have no insight, no plan when I wake up the next morning, I just hope I don’t have to wrestle with them again the next night.  I don’t know what you worry about — finances, your health or other people’s health, the 2020 election, the 2024 election, the stock market, the future of Twitter.  I could go on and on. If this behavior is something you have never experienced, God bless you.  I think you still might be able to find something worthwhile in this sermon.  For the rest of us, the questions I want to ask this morning is Does prayer change things?  Real things?  The things I worry about in the middle of the night?

Here’s a spoiler alert: the answer is YES.  Prayer does change things.  I have experienced how prayer changes things in my life and seen it happen for others.  But before we get too deep into the Why and How of prayer, I want to recall the words of 1 Thessalonians which John read for us.  Here is Chapter 5 verse 16-19: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, do not quench the Spirit.”  I left out a clause, but those are the four direct commands from the Apostle Paul: Rejoice, pray, give thanks, do not quench the Spirit.  Prayer has always been a bit tricky to pin down a definition for, let alone to actually do.  I so appreciated Gene Hollenberg’s message last week when he said prayer is simple, prayer is hard, prayer is necessary.  I think our tendency is to reduce prayer to asking God for what we want.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking God for what we want.  I assume God knows this already, but it’s important for us to be able to articulate what it is we want, and to be clear in our own minds about who has the power to grant the things we ask for — and it isn’t us, it’s God.

But even if what we want is selfless and noble: I want world peace and a night when I don’t wake up coughing — or even if what we want is on someone else’s behalf: I want everyone who has cancer to be cured — that prayer is about what we want God to do.  If that is our only kind of prayer, we don’t have a very balanced prayer life.  Verse 17 says, “Pray without ceasing.”  If we are spending all of our prayer time — not to mention all of our time, if we’re praying constantly — working on the list of things we want God to do, there is not much room left over for rejoicing or gratitude.  In fact, focusing on the things we want which we don’t have is the quickest way to quench the spirit of gratitude.

I believe that one of the most important things prayer can do is to keep us in the creative tension of the way the world is and the way we want it to be.  This tension is present throughout the New Testament. We hear this in some of the prayers of the best pray-er in the New Testament, Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the cause of this creative tension: the Messiah has come to earth, but God’s kingdom has not fully arrived.  This is the space we have been living in for nearly 2,000 years. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, the same pray which se said this morning and Christians have been saying for millenia, part of that prayer is “Your kingdom come, Your will be done (that is, God’s kingdom and God’s will) on earth as it is in heaven.”  This acknowledges the tension which is always a part of the kingdom of God on earth.  That is, it is here, now in our midst, where we are living, and there is something better to happen which has not yet been accomplished.  If it is God’s will, we pray that the work of the kingdom might be accomplished.  But when we pray that prayer, we have to be willing to be part of that solution.  It may be God’s will that we actually do something about the things we worry about.  Imagine that, and pray with caution the next time you ask for the homeless to be fed.

When we express gratitude, we are thanking God for what is. Gratitude is acknowledging the goodness of what God has already done. There is nothing wrong with gratitude, of course.  Being content is a wonderful thing.  Accepting injustice and unrighteousness as just the way things are — not so much.  When we balance our prayers for wishing things would change with our prayers of gratitude for what God has already done, we keep ourselves from tipping into fatalism on one hand: “Whatever is good — it must be God’s will and there’s nothing anyone can do about it” and hopelessness on the other “I keep praying that God will change things but nothing ever goes my way.”  Here, I believe is where prayer changes things: it has the power to transform our sense of where we belong in the world and where we belong in relationship to God.  These are fundamental questions for Christians to wrestle with: do we think life just happens to us and there’s nothing we can do about it?  Or do we think we are in control of our lives and we can dictate what happens?  Do we have the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can? True prayer — prayer which includes rejoicing and gratitude and the activity of the Holy Spirit — true prayer keeps us on a middle path. It will allow us neither the resignation that we can’t change or lives nor the arrogance that we are in control of our lives.  Either of those false beliefs turns us away from God, rather than toward God’s activity and God’s kingdom.

Another prayer which we have in Jesus’ words is the one which he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the day before his death: If it be your will, Father, let this cup pass from me.  But not my will, but yours.”  That is a model for prayer which asks for what I want, but acknowledges that I am willing to do what God wants, whatever that is.  Jesus knew what he was facing, and he knew that he would need his Father to get through it.   Jesus may be the only person who was actually able to pray without ceasing — that is, to be aware of his own needs, but to never lose his focus on God’s will for him.  Being a person who is shaped by prayer is possible for anyone, even if we fall short of doing it constantly.  Being shaped by prayer is unavoidable if we take prayer seriously. Here are some modest suggestions:

*Rejoice!  Prayer is an invitation to be in the presence of God and in relationship with God.  Prayer is a privilege, not a last resort when we are t the end of our rope.  Even if you can’t think of anything good to say to God, it’s better than not having God’s presence with you.  If you think you’re miserable with God, imagine how hopeless and abandoned you would be without God.

*Give thanks!  If you cannot think of anything to be grateful for, maybe you need to shift your focus.  We can be grateful for big things: the sun came up again today, we have a Lord and Savior who has redeems us even when we’re ungrateful . . . or maybe we need to focus on the little things: each breath we take (this is not a big deal until you can’t do it, and then it is suddenly very important), an act of kindness — given or received — someone who loves us when we don’t deserve it.  It’s difficult to be grateful if you think you are the center of the universe–things never revolve around you the way they ought to.  Be grateful that you are not the center of the universe; you are terrible at being God. Our Creator figured that out a long time ago. Rejoice and be glad.

*Do not quench the Spirit — and don’t be afraid to get fired up yourself.  God can use our passion: apathy is a much greater challenge.  One of the ways prayer can change us is to make us aware of ways we can make a positive difference in people or situations around us.  Every single one of the agencies our Outreach Team is supporting this Advent — you heard about one this morning, but there are four more — is because someone on the Outreach Team cares about that ministry and felt like it was a place where Creekside could make a difference.  A place where, together, we could change things. Maybe you are not on the Outreach Team, and you want to make a difference somewhere else: God bless you; there are plenty of needs to keep us all busy.  Help wherever you feel that God is calling you.  Where the Spirit moves us is where we can share that fire with others. That is when, with God’s help, our prayers begin to become realities and we become part of the work of the kingdom of God.  That is a wonderful, because often the first things which prayer changes is the people who is praying. Will any of this help you when you wake up in the middle of the night?  I believe that it will.  Because at the end of the day, the goal of prayer is not to have God get through our list of requests.  The goal of prayer is not even to give us peace of mind so we can get some sleep.  The goal of prayer is to shape us into people who want what God wants: righteousness, justice, an end to war, comfort for the poor, the homeless, the widows and orphans, the redemption of the world, God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  And when I wake up at night longing for those things, I will rejoice, because it means I have a heart like God’s heart.  I have a heart like God’s Son, Jesus Christ.