Preached at Alger First UMC on 8/21/2016
Online-only readers: This is part 2 of a series based on Adam Hamilton’s Book called Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. You can buy the book here. Quotes in this sermon are from that book unless otherwise marked.
Early in the morning as Jesus was returning to the city, he was hungry. He saw a fig tree along the road, but when he came to it, he found nothing except leaves. Then he said to it, “You’ll never again bear fruit!”The fig tree dried up at once.
When the disciples saw it, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree dry up so fast?” they asked.
Jesus responded, “I assure you that if you have faith and don’t doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree. You will even say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the lake.’ And it will happen. If you have faith, you will receive whatever you pray for.” (Matthew 21:18-22, CEB)
We’re on the second week of our series called “Why? Asking the Hard Questions of Faith.” We’re spending four weeks wrestling with tough questions about God and our faith that everybody asks, but it seems like no one really knows the answers. If you weren’t here last week, we began this series by asking the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This week, we’ll be asking “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” Next week, we’ll be asking “Why can’t I see God’s will for my life?” And on the week after that, we’ll finish the series by looking at why God’s love wins out in the end.
So the question that is before us today is this: “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” I’m sure we’ve all struggled with this question. I’ve struggled with it myself. When I was in 5th or 6th grade, my grandpa on my dad’s side died. He’d had a stroke and was dealing with heart problems. It was one of those situations where everything escalates very fast, and it seems like everything changes before you really know what’s happening. At least that’s how I remember it, it might have been different.
But I do remember going up to the Cleveland Clinic with my family to visit him there. He was non-responsive, breathing through a tube, and everyone’s good-bye’s on our last day there seemed very final. But as my immediate family drove away from the hospital, starting our drive home, I remember thinking that if I would just pray hard enough, God would heal my grandpa, and everything would be ok. I knew enough of the Gospels to remember all the stories of Jesus healing people, he’d even brought people back from the dead. Surely God could heal grandpa from this. So I started praying for that, and I think I prayed the whole several-hour drive home. I truly believed that God could heal my grandpa, I had faith like only a child can have that I would speak to grandpa again.
But then the next day, my Dad told all of us that grandpa had died last night. Despite all of my prayers that God would heal grandpa, despite my absolute faith that God could do that, it didn’t happen. Grandpa died anyway. Why didn’t God answer my prayer?
And that’s the question we’re struggling with today, isn’t it? Why didn’t God answer my prayer? A lot of people struggle with their faith because they cry out to God when they really, desperately need God…but it seems like God doesn’t answer. And that makes you feel awful.
So today, we’re going to wrestle with that question: Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?
I’d like to remind you of the Scripture you heard earlier. In it, Jesus told us “I assure you that if you have faith and don’t doubt…you will even say to this mountain, ‘be lifted up and thrown into the lake.’ And it will happen. If you have faith, you will receive whatever you pray for.” But what about when we don’t receive what we prayed for in faith?
When faced with that question, many Christians try to place the failure prayers on you, the individual pray-er. Let me read you some popular answers as to why God doesn’t answer your prayer. A lot of people hold to these, so let me see what you think.
God doesn’t answer your prayer because: you are not seeking to please the Lord; you have unconfessed sin in your life; you pray with improper motives; or, simply, you lack faith.
Now maybe that list seems true and makes sense to you. I personally think it’s obscene and a bit offensive. Does this mean that God would have answered my prayer for Grandpa not to die if I had just confessed those last two sins in my life? Does this mean that God would have answered prayers for a sick child or a sick spouse if you just had more faith, or if your motives hadn’t been selfish?
You see, Jesus healed people all over the place without waiting for them to confess their sins, have better motives, or put more trust in God. He just healed them. And last I checked, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by anything we do or earn. So saying that we have to confess our sins, or have enough faith, or better motives before God answers our prayer sounds a lot like we have to earn God’s answer and God’s favor. And that’s not the God I worship or the God I pray to.
So maybe we ourselves are not the reason for unanswered prayer. Maybe we misunderstood what Jesus meant when he said in our Scripture for today “If you have faith and don’t doubt, you can ask for a mountain to be thrown into a lake, and it’ll happen.” You see, Jesus often speaks in hyperbole. English lesson: Do we know what ‘hyperbole’ means? A hyperbole is an intentional overstatement or exaggeration to make a point. When I say “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse,” do I mean that I could literally eat a horse? No (although there have been times…) I just mean that I’m very hungry, right? Jesus uses hyperbole throughout the Gospels to make a point.
Now most of us already know this is true, even if we’ve never thought this way. For example, in another part of the Gospel story, Jesus is talking about sin and says that if your hand causes you to sin, you gotta cut it off; and if your eye causes you to sin, you gotta gouge it out. Now, I see that, unless I’m mistaken, everyone here has both hands and both eyes. And I know I’m not the only sinner here. So did Jesus really mean for us to cut off our hands or gouge out our eyes? No! He meant that sin is serious business, and we should do everything possible to avoid it.
So let’s return to Jesus’ words in our Scripture for today: Jesus says “If you have faith, you will receive whatever you pray for.” Now I think that Jesus is using hyperbole here. He wasn’t telling his disciples that they could pray for wealth or world peace and it would happen immediately if they had real faith. Instead, he’s saying “Be bold when you pray! Bring your real burdens to God! Trust that God hears your prayers! And somehow God will see you through this predicament, this illness, this tragedy, this confusion in a way that you can’t see yet.”
Now that’s a good thought. But let’s be honest: it’s a bit of a disappointment. Because we don’t want Jesus’ words to be an exaggeration, we want to take them at face value. Why can’t we ask God for something in faith in Jesus’ name and have it be done just as we asked? Why is there a problem with that?
Well, you see, this prayer thing is complex.
When two countries are at war, and people on both sides are praying to the same God for victory, who does God listen to?
When farmers in one area pray for rain, without realizing that for them to receive rain would mean a shift in weather patterns that would send another area, whose farmers are also praying for rain, into drought, who does God listen to?
Now that’s just frustrating.
How in the world does God answer prayer?
That’s a huge question. Books upon books have been written on it. And it’s a good question. How does God answer our prayer?
When I think about that question, I’m really just left with this answer: God wants YOU to be an answer to prayer.
Last week, we talked about how human beings have been put in charge of the world; so that means that when God wants something done, God sends humans to do it.
That’s related to this week as well. When God wants something in this world done, God usually sends humans to do it. That includes answering prayer – when God wants to answer prayer, God usually, not always but usually, sends humans to do it. God wants YOU to be an answer to someone’s prayer.
Let that sink in for a moment. Because that’s a big deal.
And it puts a good deal of responsibility on us. If God wants you to be an answer to someone’s prayer, then part of your task as a Christian is to live into that. If God wants you to be an answer to someone’s prayer, then part of your task as a Christian is to live your life looking for how you can be an answer to prayer – paying attention, listening to the promptings of God’s spirit and the prickling of your own conscience and intuition, and then acting to bless someone, to care for someone, to stand up for someone.
As a whole church, you’re already an answer to prayer. Commodities, our monthly food pantry – you as a church, and especially those of you who work at Commodities, are an answer to the prayer of a family who wonders how they’re going to get food. You answered that prayer by giving them food. Our Backpack Blessings event, where we passed out school supplies to the USV students – I read a card last week from an appreciative family that said that the ministry of this church in passing out school supplies was an answer to their prayers as money got tight toward the beginning of the school year. You answered their prayers by giving them school supplies. When you give toward your Faith Promise goal, you are an answer to the prayers of a missionary or the prayers of an organization for funding. When you as a church finished the Community Outreach Center, you became an answer to the prayers of the people in this church who saw that God was calling us to do more in this community, be more of a presence in this community.
As a congregation, you are already the answer to many people’s prayers. But now as individuals and families, how are you called to be an answer to prayer? The prayers of your neighbors, prayers of your coworkers, the prayers of other students or teachers, the prayers of other family members – how is God calling you to answer them? God wants YOU to be an answer to someone’s prayer. So live your life looking for how that can happen.
So to close, let’s return to the original question: why does it seem like God doesn’t answer my prayers? That’s a complex question. Sometimes, God just doesn’t answer prayers. But whether or not God answers our prayer, God does not abandon us, and God will work through the situations from which we have not been delivered as we asked. But when God does answer prayer, often God works through people just like you and me. So how is God calling us to be an answer to prayer?