The Privilege of Prayer—Fifth Sunday in Lent

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Grace and peace to you from God our source and our brother Jesus Chirst. Amen.

As I’m sure you’ve all already seen on cable news, or on your smartphones, there was a disgraceful slaying of 7 women and 1 man down in the Atlanta-area. A “Christian” man said he wanted to rid himself of sexual temptation, so he shot and killed 6 women of Korean and Chinese descent, who were employed in massage parlors he had visited.

Where to start in this tragic stew of ignorance, hatred and intolerance towards women, Asian women, and the complexities of sexuality in our culture? What do we do in response? Shocked and maybe feeling powerless, what do we do in response as Christians?

We can start by loudly condemning racially motivated murder as perhaps the most misguided and un-Christ-like of behaviors. We can then reach out to our friends and community members who are Asain American or Pacific Islanders and tell them we love and support them, especially as followers of Christ.

But what we can also do is pray. We pray for all those involved, for the dead, the families of the dead, for the gunman, for an end to violence and death like this, for a stop to the kind of white supremacy that sees non-white lives as expendible and forever to blame.

And often you will hear, in response to our prayers, you will hear folks get angry. They will say our prayers mean nothing, they do nothing. That only actions matter to stop violence and disloyalty to God like this. That is a fair point. But… it’s not totally true. Prayer is a very big deal. Prayer, as you will hopefully see today, is an act of incredible faith. And as an act of faith it, by its nature, prayer condemns all other acts of incredible faithlessness like we saw in Atlanta, and all across the country since the beginning of COVID.

[So we turn to Scripture.] “Very truly,” Jesus says to us this morning: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Now among all the intricate webs of metaphors, and the interconnected chains of images, we have heard from Scripture this morning, here is another! It’s something we might even take for granted as knowledge we have. That Jesus is the single grain. Which means, in code, that Jesus died on the cross. And in his death he bore much fruit—the revelation of God’s true identity and the forgiveness of our sins. But what a complex thing, right? How do we reach that conclusion anyway?

Well, we have this compact and complicated sermon called Hebrews in the New Testament to thank for in part that explanation. Among other things of course, Hebrews does some heavy lifting as it interprets the Old Testament in light of Jesus’ death and the faith in his resurrection. But this is all so technical, so wordy, so hard to follow. So here is the point, I’ll tell you the conclusion first. Never take for granted that you can pray. One of the fruits that sprouted from the seed of Jesus’ death—is our invitation to pray, unmediated, to God.

Prayer is such a basic thing! As believers, as worshippers, as disciples of Jesus we pray. We pray in worship here at church; we pray at home at meal times, at bed times. We pray at work, in the car. We pray for the sick; we pray for the dead. We pray to say thank you, God; to say help me, God. We pray. It’s just a thing we do, right? But praying is a privilege. It is a gift bestowed upon us.

In the worldview of many ancient human cultures, the ancient Greeks, maybe, or an ancient Hebrew, most importantly, they might ask us: “What gives you the tenacity to pray without mediation to God?” They might say: “What makes you think you are holy and righteous enough that you could approach the very untouchable holiness of God with your puny requests and childish problems?” And they would be right, in their own way. If you remember the lessons from last week and Pastor Krey’s sermon, we heard this from the book of Numbers about fiery-snakes. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. Except for some very special people, for the most part, the people asked others to communicate with God for them.

And that’s exactly what priests in the temple did! They were mediators, they were the go-between, from chosen families, the descendents of Aaron and Levi. They made the sacrifices, they sprinkled the blood that kept the covenant between God and God’s people alive. Year after year, they followed the prescriptions in the laws given to Moses (maybe the most famous mediator) and made atonement for their sins and indeed the sins of all the people.

The book called Hebrews explains this. And the cliff notes are this: the earliest Christians, not even yet called Christians, believed Jesus had changed the whole scheme. That’s where we get this talk about some guy named Melchizedek. Jesus is like this ancient priest-king, because Jesus is our priest and king. Jesus is the sacrifice of atonement, but forever. Jesus is the gateway into the temple, not once, but forever. We have unfettered access to God not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

We are united to Christ in our baptism, and therefore we are united with God. As Jesus says, cryptically yes, in John: “Whoever serves me must follow me and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” The cosmic wheels are set in motion. The links of the chain between “Us, The Created” and “God, The Creator” are revealed. Revealed not only in Jesus, the man, but in Christ, the son of God.

Now, I really do invite you to go and read the book of Hebrews. Fantastic, complex, weird reading. If anything, it shows how the earliest Christians read their bible, which was only the Old Testament of course. They read it as being drenched in Christ. Everything from Melchizedek in Genesis, to the Psalms, to the Prophets—they are all a Holy Spirit conversation between God and Christ. For sure, as we heard in Jeremiah today, we interpret the words of the prophet to be about all the things God will accomplish for us in Jesus, “…they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” This is what both John’s Gospel and Hebrew’s wants to communicate; Jesus opens a direct pathway to God for all the universe.

Hebrews really is a beautifully complex book, we should maybe consider doing a Bible study about it. It’s definitely more than one little pastor can explain in one little sermon. Let this be the paraphrase: in Jesus, God took on the “curtain” of flesh, to remove any “curtain” that would separate us from God. And the most familiar way we express that in church is the forgiveness, the washing away, of our sins.

As Jeremiah writes, “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Anything we have done, or has been done to us, that we think could make us unworthy of God’s presence, of God’s love, is removed by Jesus. That is what Jesus in John means when he says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Lifted up on the cross, to suffer and die, in the crucifixion. Lifted up out of the tomb in the resurrection. Lifted up to be in all things, all places and times, at the “right hand of God” in the ascension.

So what? Don’t take for granted that we can speak to God. Don’t take for granted that God hears us when we speak! This a powerful, earth-shattering gift given to us. Prayer is more than a gumball machine, where we put in our request, say some magic words, turn the cranky and poof! you’ve got a puppy. Prayer is an act of faith that we are truly connected, in communion, with our God.

Christ is the torn curtain, the door, the high priest, the sacrifice. Christ crucified and risen reveals that this is true. That is our faith. And that we embody in our prayers.