11 March 2015

Pray Without Ceasing

The Lord has commanded you to pray, and has taught you to pray at all times, without ceasing.  Day by day, and night by night, you are to call upon His Name.  Indeed, your whole life is to be a constant prayer of faith, even as you offer up yourself, your body and soul and all that you are and have, as a living sacrifice to the praise and glory of the Lord your God.  But so also, take the time to pray: as you get up to begin your day, and as you lay yourself down to sleep at night; as you sit down to eat the food the Lord has provided, and as you return thanks to Him for what you have received; and as you are gathered together with your family and His to hear and learn His Word.

Evening and morning, in all your going out and coming in, pray to the Lord and call upon His Holy Name, because He alone is your Life and your Salvation.  He is your only hope, and you need Him at all times and in all places, not only in the day of trouble, but in every situation, without ceasing.

It is for you as it was for that poor widow in the Lord’s Parable.  Her husband has died, and she is evidently without father, brothers, or sons to represent her interests and defend her.  It is likely that others are attempting to seize the estate that would sustain her life and provide for her needs.  So she seeks help from the only place it can be found, that is, from the local judge, who ought to protect her and give her justice.  He’s not a good or pleasant man, but she has nowhere else to turn.  Therefore, she persists and perseveres in coming and asking for his help; not because it’s easy or enjoyable, but because she has no choice.  Her life depends upon it.  And that is how it is for you.

Your need for the Lord is no less urgent, but all the more so does your life in both body and soul, now and forever, depend entirely upon Him.  If He does not justify and save you, if He does not protect you and provide for you, then you shall be lost, both here in time and hereafter in eternity.

It’s not as though you actually deserve any of those things you need from God, for which you pray.  You don’t.  Nothing else but punishment is all that you have earned.  So what?  That only increases your desperate need for rescue and deliverance.  You have no choice but to rely upon God’s grace and mercy, His forgiveness and utter charity.  You are a beggar before Him, that is true.  Own it.

It is a fearful thing, though, isn’t it?  You are threatened by the Law, and by God’s wrath against your sin.  He is a righteous Judge, and justice would demand that your request be denied, or that you be delivered to the debtors’ prison, or put to death and damned.  Satan also accuses you and argues against you with the condemnation of the Law, and with his lying and murdering all day long and every night.

So you may be scared to seek the Lord or call on Him for help.  It may seem hopeless at best, and dangerous in any case, more likely to make things worse than to gain any benefit or advantage.  But ask Him anyway.  Keep on praying, and don’t give up.  Because you won’t survive without the Lord your God.  You need Him.  There’s no one else in heaven or earth who can save you.

The unrighteous judge in the Parable, who neither fears God nor cares for man, finally gives the poor widow the justice that she needs.  Not because he wants to help her, but only because he is wearied and worn down by her constant asking.  Her nagging, I suppose he would say.  She beats him up with her demands for justice, until he relents of his resistance and rescues her from evil.

Now, by the greatest contrast, the Lord is not reluctant or unwilling to hear and answer the prayers of His people, but He will certainly help and save His elect, because He loves them and desires to give them Life with Himself.  Even before they have known Him or called on Him, He has known them and chosen them in love, and called them by His Word, and reconciled them to Himself in Christ Jesus, in order to give them justice, not of the Law but of the Gospel, and to glorify them.

He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for you and for us all, will He not also, with Him, freely give you all good things?  Surely, yes, He will!  All the more reason to fear, love, and trust in Him, to call upon His Name in hope, and to pray to Him for all that you need.

But why, oh, why, does He delay in responding?  Or so it surely seems, although He has said that He will not delay.  As though He were ignoring and avoiding you, and not even listening to you.  As though He did not want to help you.  As though He were slow about keeping His promises.

Why does He sometimes seem to be your opponent, your accuser, and your enemy, instead of the defender and protector that you need Him to be?  To be sure, His holy and righteous Law, and His righteous wrath and anger against your sin, that is your greatest and most serious problem.  And you are to fear the Lord your God.  But, in light of the Gospel, why does He still resist your plea?

Or, to be more precise and to the point, why is it that He answers your prayer with the Cross?

This, too, belongs to His care for you.  It is fundamental to His catechesis and teaching, unto faith and life in Him.  In love for you, because He has made you His own dear child, and by His grace He has become your true Father in heaven, He disciplines and trains you in the way of Wisdom.  And, as we have heard from St. Paul this past Sunday, the genuine power and wisdom of God is found in the foolishness and weakness of the Cross.  It is by and with the Cross that He serves you.

The Lord is not slow about keeping His promises, but He is patient and persistent in calling you to repentance and faith.  As He would have you pray at all times, so does care for you at all times and in all places, calling you daily back to the significance of your Baptism — or to be baptized, if you are not — to die and rise with Christ the Crucified, and to find your life in Him.  For not only do you sin every day in your thoughts, words, and deeds, but you often don’t even realize — nor would you be able to realize on your own — that your thinking is so wrongheaded and false.

To give you what you need, to answer your prayer, and to help you, He lays the Cross upon you, that you would learn to live by faith alone in His Word and promises.  Your Father calls you, then, not only to better behavior, but to a strong and steadfast faith, to believe in Him and pray to Him, in, with, and under the Cross; that you would be conformed to the Image of Christ, the Son of God.

So, it is in love for you that He comes to meet you on the way, and challenges you, as it were, and wrestles with you through the long dark night, and lays the Cross upon your body and your soul.

Your confrontation with God in prayer is not only like that of the poor widow, but also like that of Jacob when he comes face to face with God on his way back home to face the brother and the father he had deceived.  His story is instructive, because Jacob is like you, on the one hand, but also a type of Christ on the other hand.  In his wrestling match with the Lord, in the way it all went down, you find your reconciliation with God and the working out of your relationship with Him.

Notwithstanding his treachery and deception, Jacob does have the birthright and blessing of his father.  The promised Seed of Abraham and Isaac will be the Seed of Jacob, also.  What is more, the Lord has promised to be with him and to bless him, and to bring him safely home again to the Land that He has sworn to give to this family.  Jacob clings to this promise, and, in doing so, he clings to the Lord and refuses to let go of Him.  He perseveres in the faith and hope of the promise, and he prevails upon the Lord, calling on His Name and requiring the blessing of His Name.

The Lord also perseveres and prevails upon Jacob, asking his name, and then changing his name, and putting his hip out of joint, out of its socket.  In this case, Jacob does not lie or deceive, as he had done with his father when he claimed to be his brother.  He confesses that he is “Jacob,” the deceiver.  But still he won’t let go, because he hangs on to the promise.  Therefore the Lord gives him the new name of “Israel,” because he strives with God.  It is both a struggle and faithfulness, and it does involve the bearing of the Cross, but so also the Name and the blessing of the Lord.

The Lord likewise fights with you and strives with you, as He did with Jacob, in order to break the old Adam in you, to put him to death and bury him, day by day, and night by night, as often as he keeps rearing his treacherous head within your heart and mind and in your flesh.  But not only that.  The Lord also strives with you, that you would learn to strive with Him; He prevails upon you, that you would learn to prevail upon Him, to press Him according to His Word and promises to you.

He would have you learn to pray to Him, not in fear or desperation, but in the hope of His mercy. Not as though you were stronger than God, but in the confidence of His steadfast love for you.

So, too, does the Lord Jesus Christ take your place in this wrestling match with God, in order to strive and wrestle for you, on your behalf.  As the true and perfect Man, the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He lives by faith in His Father, and He prays.  He practices what He preaches.  He sets the example of the life to which He calls you, and He establishes that life for you in His own Body of flesh and blood, crucified and risen from the dead.

He takes all your sin and death upon Himself; He suffers the assaults and accusations of the devil against you; and He lays down His life for you, persevering in faith and love unto the Cross.  Not relying on Himself, nor as though any of this were easy for Him, but clinging to the Word of God, His Father, and to the promise and blessing of His own Baptism in the Jordan River: that He is the beloved and well-pleasing Son, and that His Father will raise Him up, even from death, unto life.

He sends you, His Bride the Church, and the children of God, and all that is His across the stream to safety, while He alone contends with God on your behalf through the long dark hours of the night, from Maundy Thursday through Good Friday.  Consider, for example, how He wrestles with His God and Father in the Garden of Gethsemane on that night when He is handed over to death.

He strives and wrestles, not to break away from God, but to fulfill His Father’s good and gracious Will: to take up the Cup of wrath and drink it to the dregs for your salvation; to atone for your sin with His own blood; to conquer death in His own flesh; and to reconcile you with God the Father.

His bones are put out of joint, His hip out of its socket in His Crucifixion, as the sacrificial Lamb who is put to death for your transgressions.  And so it is, that in His bodily Resurrection from the dead is your justification, your righteousness, and God’s resounding “Yes” and “Amen” to all of your needs, the answer to all of your prayers and intercessions.

As the same Lord Jesus Christ ever lives to intercede for you before His Father in heaven — who, for the sake of His beloved Son, and in His Body crucified and risen, freely gives you all good things — so does the Holy Spirit also help you in your weakness and pray for you.

The Spirit intercedes for you with groans of repentance and faith, too deep for words, as deep calls unto deep in the Body of Christ Jesus.  But so does He also teach you how to pray by and with the Word of Christ, and to call upon God as your own dear “Abba, Father!”  He teaches you to pray, and He gives you the words with which to pray, not as a slave, but as a beloved and well-pleasing son of God the Father in Christ Jesus.  For you are baptized in His Name; you are His very own.

Therefore, do not lose heart or give up hope, but pray both day and night in the confidence of faith.  At all times and in all places, pray, praise, and give thanks to the Father through Jesus Christ your Lord, by His Word and Spirit.  For the Testimony of the Lord is pure, making wise the simple.  And, as you are instructed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, the words of your mouth and the meditations of your heart are acceptable and pleasing to your Father in heaven.

In the Spirit, by faith in the Gospel, by virtue of your Holy Baptism, you are no longer a poor and helpless widow, but a beloved Bride of Christ and a very dear child of God.

The Lord who comes to be your Judge has redeemed you with His own holy and precious Blood.  So does He also hear your prayer and help you.  He gives to you the justice of His own perfect Righteousness.  He gives to you and shares with you the inheritance of His Father’s Kingdom.  He blesses you with His own Name, the Name above all names with which He has named you.

He is the One who has commanded you and taught you to pray, and He has promised that your prayer will be heard and answered.  In Him, the Word-made-Flesh, there is no petition, no cry for mercy, and no intercession whose voice is not heard.  For He has gone to the Father by His Cross and Resurrection, and in His Ascension He brings you and your prayer to the Father in His own Body, with His own flesh and blood, so that you are pleasantly received as sweet-smelling incense.  In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: