10 April 2012

On Prayer

There is nothing more basic to the Christian faith and life than prayer. For prayer is the very voice of faith itself and the primary good work of the Christian life, an act of love for both God and the neighbor. It is of first importance, St. Paul writes, that “prayer, intercession, supplication and thanksgiving be made on behalf of all men” (1 Tim 2:1), in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ, who died for all and desires that all men be saved. Christians are therefore to pray at all times, “without ceasing,” and not to lose heart (1 Thess 5:17; St. Luke 18:1).

How, then, shall we pray? The Lord Himself must teach us, by His Word and with His Holy Spirit, because we do not know how to pray as we should (St. Luke 11:1-4; Rom 8:14-27). Not only has He commanded us to pray and promised to hear us, but He has given us the Words with which to pray in His Name (St. John 15:16; 16:26-27; St. Matt 6:6-13; 18:19-20). He not only teaches but exemplifies the life of prayer: from the waters of the Jordan (St. Luke 3:21) to the Garden of Gethsemane (St. Luke 22:39-46); from His Transfiguration (St. Luke 9:29) to His Crucifixion (St. Luke 23:33-34, 46; Heb 5:7). What is more, having sacrificed Himself for us upon the Cross, as our great High Priest, He has also risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, where He ever lives to make intercession for us (Heb 7:25).

This is our sure and certain confidence in prayer, that Christ and His Spirit pray with us and for us (St. John 17; Heb 7:25; Rom 8:14-27). We pray to “our Father in heaven,” as those who are baptized into Christ Jesus, the beloved and well-pleasing Son (St. Luke 3:21-22). His God and Father is our God and Father (St. John 20:17; Gal 4:4-7), and His prayer is our prayer. It is for this reason that we “ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach,” and that we do so “in faith without any doubting” (James 1:5-6).

That voice of faith which approaches the throne of grace with all boldness and confidence (Heb 10:19-23), like that of little children asking of their dear Father, arises in our hearts and from our mouths by the hearing of the Word of Christ (Rom 10:17). Christian prayer necessarily begins, therefore, not with our speaking, but with that hearing of Christ Jesus, our Savior. For He is merciful to all who call upon Him in truth, but how shall we call upon Him whom we have not heard (Rom 10:11-14)?

Prayer goes hand-in-hand with the Word of God, and we cannot pray without it. The prayer of the Church belongs inseparably to the teaching and fellowship of the Apostles, who devoted themselves to prayer and the Ministry of the Word (Acts 2:42; 6:4). So it is that all things are sanctified to our use by the Word of God and prayer (1 Tim 4:4-5). We do not have the one without the other. It is the Word of the Lord that opens our lips to pray, praise and give thanks (Ps 51:15). Before it is ever a petition or request, prayer is first of all the confession of what God has spoken; and already in asking for what He has promised, we give thanks, for we know that His answer in Christ Jesus is always “Yes, and Amen” (2 Cor 1:20).

Every good and perfect gift is from the Lord, our God and Father in Christ Jesus, including all that we need for both body and soul, for this life and the life everlasting. All that He has created and given to us is to be “received with thanksgiving,” and again, “sanctified by means of the Word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5). In this way His Name is kept holy among us, the very first thing for which He has taught us to pray. So, too, we sanctify each day as a Sabbath rest in Christ; not simply Saturday or Sunday, but all our days and nights, evening and morning. His Name is holy in itself, and every day is holy to the Lord, but these sacred things are made holy for us by the speaking and hearing of His Word in faith.

The rhythm of daily prayer is really a daily catechesis in the Word of God. As we hear and confess His Word, as we are instructed in the way of faith and love by the Law and the Gospel, and as we are thus taught to pray, His Holy Spirit is actively present and at work to bring us daily to repentance. He calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies us in the faith, and keeps us united with Christ our Lord. All of this the Spirit does by the Word, which puts the old Adam in us to death and raises us to newness of life with our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. That is the rhythm of life for every baptized believer in Christ, but it never is by our own reason and strength. In the weakness of our faith we simply cry out, “Lord, have mercy and help us!” We avail ourselves of His Word and Spirit, and we pray. We rely upon the Ministry of His Gospel in His Church, and no less so do we give attention to His Word and prayer all week long. Indeed, the stronger and more mature a Christian is, the more he or she will gladly hear and learn the Word of God; and, in doing so, the more frequently and fervently he or she will pray.

There is no time of the day or night when a Christian does not cry out from the heart unto the Lord in repentant faith. Faith itself is already the inward groaning of the Holy Spirit within us for Christ our Lord (Rom 8:26-27). But as we believe with the heart, so do we confess with the mouth that Jesus is our Lord and God (Rom 10:8-10). As we have heard, so do we believe, and so do we speak in confession and prayer (2 Cor 4:13).

To call upon the Name of the Lord is the Christian’s daily sacrifice of thanksgiving, in the morning and at the close of day (Ps 88:1-2, 13; 116:17; 119:147-148; 139:11-12; 141:1-2). With such prayer, whereby we look unto the Lord for all that we need, we worship and adore Him as our true and only God. Not only that, but in our love for Him we also pray and intercede for His entire Church and for the whole world, which He so loves, and for which He has given His only-begotten Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose dear Name we pray. In our prayer and intercession for the world — for our neighbors near and far, known and unknown, both friend and foe — we are united to Christ our Head, our great High Priest, as a royal priesthood of the baptized. Praying for our neighbor in this way, as Christ Jesus prays for us and for all, is the most distinctive and definitive duty of our priestly vocation as Christians.

As often as we pray the Our Father, and as often as we pray at all in the Name of Jesus, we are praying for His entire Church in heaven and on earth, and for as many as He will call to Himself to be His own dear children from all the nations (Acts 2:39). In that same light, it is comforting to realize that His entire Church is always praying day and night for each and all of us, from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets (Malachi 1:11; Ps 113:2-3). So do we Christians have all things in common, and with our prayers we love and serve one another (Acts 2:42-47).

As fundamental as all of this is to the Christian faith and life — as significant and necessary as the Word of God and prayer are to our spiritual health and strength — the actual practice of daily prayer does not come so easily or naturally to any of us poor sinners. How often have we tried, perhaps, to establish some routine, some discipline of prayer and devotion, whether on our own or with our families, only to find that it becomes harder and harder to keep up with it? We are so easily distracted by “the worries of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things” (St. Mark 4:19), and we so readily give away our time, attentions and energies to “every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us” (Heb 12:1). It seems burdensome to devote ourselves, our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls, to the Word of the Lord. Yet, His Word alone endures forever, while all of those temporal things that we chase after will wither and fade like the grass and the flower of the field (1 Pet 1:24-25). The more we are enticed by the idols of this world, the more desperately we need the Word of the one true God in Christ!

Thankfully, He does not leave us tossed about and helpless, but in His compassion shepherds us. By His grace and tender mercy, He encourages us and assists us in the discipline of daily prayer, first of all by His commands and promises. “For He Himself has commanded us to pray and has promised to hear us” (Small Catechism). Again, along with His exhortation and admonition, He has also given us the very Words with which we are to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” He has taught us how to pray, not only by His Holy Scriptures, but even before we could read He put His prayer upon our lips, and thereby into our hearts and minds, by the teaching and example of our parents and pastors. The Second and Third Commandments, too, not only expose our sin, but serve as a curb and a guide, as a rule of faith and prayer. The Second Table of the Law helps to protect our neighbor from the harm that we would do him, but the First Table of the Law is for our own protection, that we should not neglect to hear the Word of God and call upon His Name. Our earthly parents require us to eat our vegetables, even before we have learned to enjoy them. So does our Father in heaven command us to listen and to pray, even when we would rather not. Then, by His living and active Word, He brings our hearts and minds along in repentance.

The Lord Jesus continues teaching us to pray, and His Holy Spirit daily continues to help us in our weakness. He does so by the ways and the means of His Word, by the agency of His Church on earth and the Ministry of His Gospel. As we thus hear and receive His gracious Word, in which He and His Spirit are actively present and at work to give us faith and life, so does He gather us up in Himself and bring us, like sweet incense (Ps 141:1–2), into the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens (Heb 9:11; 2 Cor 5:1), to be well received by Our Father. Amen.

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