The Rev. David Minnick

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Text: Hebrews:11:29-40

Sermon Text

I can remember with almost evangelical like enthusiasm the moment I became a Garth Brooks fan.  I had heard of Brooks for many years, but I’m an old rock and roller, and so it took some doing to get me to listen to country music.  But one of the songs of Garth Brooks which won me over and which spoke with special power and meaning is entitled “Unanswered Prayers.”  It’s a song that tells a familiar story for many of us and in the telling of that story, Brooks reveals a growing spiritual edge worth noting and learning from.

“Unanswered Prayers” is a striking song.  Hear it once, and you’ll want to hear it again.  It tells a simple and familiar story to many of us who have known heartaches amid a deep appreciation for life.  The song begins with the singer taking his wife to a high school football game, where he meets for the first time in many years, the love of his adolescent years.  After the appropriate introductions, he remembers his teenage prayers.  “Each night I’d spend praying that God would make her mine.  And if He’d only grant me this wish I wished back then, I’d never ask for anything again.”  They have both changed in ways no one could expect, and in reflecting on his current life and the blessings within, he wonders aloud.

“Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.  Remember when you’re talking to the man upstairs.  Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.  Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” 

Brooks’ song does indeed affirm one of life’s lessons.  Namely this, that over the course of a lifetime, our needs and wants take on different perspectives.  What is our heart’s greatest desire at one time in life’s journey can become pretty minimal at another time.  Brooks see that as a consequence of God not answering his prayer.  And that is the starting point from which I would like to take over for today.

Certainly no act shakes the developing faith of a young person or the established faith of a pilgrim who has been on the journey for a time, like that concept of “unanswered prayers.”  I believe we all know folks who have known, and perhaps have also known ourselves, times of deep doubt and unbelief, when our desperate prayers were not answered as we wanted.

The reasons why it would be impossible, illogical and unreasonable for God to answer every prayer, as they are offered, are many.  Some are quite obvious.  God is not likely to answer frivolous or unnecessary prayers.  If I had a nickel for every time I was asked to pray for good weather for the weekend, I’d be a very wealthy man.  It’s not even a prayer I’m willing to offer, but time and again, people ask me to arrange for good weather for their weekend activity. 

Students who don’t bother to study, pray that with God’s help, they’ll get an A on the upcoming exam.  A person who has abused or neglected their health and body for decades prays that their upcoming tests will show them to be in excellent health.  And needless to say, God is not apt to intervene or even care who wins today’s baseball game.

Another reason prayers often go unanswered or unresponded to has to do with what we pray for.  Certainly everyone in my generation remembers Janis Joplin wailing out, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”  Inappropriate prayers so often focus on wants rather than needs, or on things rather than people or relationships. 

Yet another reason why it may seem to us that our prayers go unanswered is because they are contradictory of the prayers of others.  During the Civil War in this nation, President Abraham Lincoln, understood the dilemma that competing prayers put upon God.  Lincoln once wrote, “Both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.  Each invokes God’s aid against the other…..The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither of them have been answered fully.  The Almighty has his own purpose.” 

To those who claimed with true vigor that God was supportive of their cause and their cause alone, Lincoln had the wisdom to suggest the question ought always to be not on whose side God is, but if any of us are truly on the side of God.  (Yancey, Prayer, pp 226-227)

Yet another reason why not every prayer is answered is that if indeed that would be the case, God would in effect, give us the keys to the car and encourage us to drive off, at whatever speed we wanted.  Trust me, you don’t want God giving up on us and giving the world over to any or all of us.  A peek at the front page of any newspaper published in the world today, a review of any history book ever written, a careful reading of Adam and Eve’s adventures in Eden--all these serve to show more reasons than anyone needs why it is good that God remains the center of creation and not us.  You don’t want to live in a world where humanity has the final word.

An amusing and unlikely source of wisdom in this was the popular movie of several years ago entitled Bruce Almighty Bruce Almighty told the story of what happens when one person gets to fill in for God for one week.  It’s an entertaining movie with many lessons for us today, but the one that stands out here is that when everyone prays to win the lottery, Bruce Almighty agrees to that and that night, 400, 000 people win the lottery; a grand total of five dollars each.  ( Prayer , op cit. p. 229)

As we wrestle with the questions of unanswered prayer, we join a long line of seekers and believers, who struggle and sweat and eventually continue to say Yes to God despite their wonder and disappointment, even heartache.   In our lesson from Hebrews today, the writer testifies to the depth of faith and commitment of our spiritual ancestors.  After acknowledging the wonders that the faithful witnessed taking place in God’s name, he speaks of those who suffered for their faith, of those willing to take on the role of martyr.  In the end, he declares with admiration, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”  (Hebrews 11: 39--40)  They kept their faith in response to unanswered prayers.

Perhaps the best, and maybe even the easiest way, for those of us who struggle with the idea of unanswered prayer to find our way through our struggle is to read the lessons of faith found in the Bible and in history.  Time and again, we see among the most faithful followers of God, those whose faith was not broken or even bent by unanswered prayers, but whose faith grew stronger.  The Bible tells over and over again the stories of those whose dedication to God continued even as their hearts cried out, “why hast thou forsaken me?” 

A pastor by the name of George Ross noted that it was his experience that the faithful were likely part of one of two possible groups.  “Having served in ministry almost thirty-one years, I have come to understand that there are two kinds of faith.  One says if and the other says though.  One says, ‘If everything goes well, if my life is prosperous, if I’m happy, if no one I love dies, if I’m successful, then I will believe in God and say my prayers and go to church and give what I can afford.  The other says though: though the cause of evil prosper, though I sweat blood in Gethsamane, though I must drink my cup at Calvary, nevertheless, precisely then, I will trust the Lord who made me.’”  (Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God, pp. 52-53)

One of my favorite writers, Philip Yancey, piggybacks on this noting, “On my travels overseas, I have noticed a striking difference in the wording of prayers.  Christians in affluent countries tend to pray, ‘Lord, take this trial away from us.’  I have heard others, poor, persecuted, even those in prison, pray instead, ‘Lord, give us the strength to bear this trial.’”  (Yancey, op cit. p. 53)

We would all be wise to give thought to what we pray for.  Too many of us turn to God as if God is some sort of cosmic Santa Claus, eager to answers the prayers of the faithful.  Too many of us have been raised to think that we are the center of the universe, a worldview that leads us to frustration when that perception is challenged by the world and others.  Too many of us pray for wants rather than needs, for things rather than people or relationships.

And then there are those days……Those days that seem to come all too frequently and with a horror that stuns us--the Petit family, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine, Blacksburg, Charleston in America; those times and places where innocent folks find their world smashed by the forces of evil that are still about us.  I shudder when I think of what prayers were offered by those in places and times of such utter desperation and fear, as these innocent souls were tortured, beaten, abused and left to suffer and die in ways that sicken us.  We’ve a right to cry out, “Where was God?”  And when we do, we join the cloud of witnesses, first referred to in Hebrews 11.  We join with those whose faith is rocked, maybe even understandably shattered, by the power of evil. 

We will not get good or satisfactory answers to these questions.  Certainly not today, most likely not in this lifetime.  There exists within this fallen world, powers and pockets of chaos, which from time to time, rear up and remind us of the depth of evil.  But hear again, the last line of today’s lesson.  “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”   

Faith calls us in these times of challenge to trust that the day and time is coming when all will be right, when the glory of God will be made manifest in ways that will bring peace to every troubled soul.   I’ve always found comfort in the Philip Yancey’s classic definition of faith that affirms that “faith is believing in advance that which only makes sense in reverse.”   (Yancey)

Hard as it is to accept right now, our choice is to either reject God or to continue to trust God, trust that in mysteries beyond our knowing today, God will find a way to redeem this suffering just as God found the way to redeem the suffering of Christ on the cross. 

Today as we wrestle with the questions of unanswered prayers, we join the long life of believers and seekers referred to in Hebrews 11.  We join the long line which begins with Mary and those who raced to and from the tomb of Jesus, who have come to believe in the redemptive power of God’s love evidenced in the resurrection. 

And we draw strength and hope, in that long line of those who find in the writings and teachings of the apostle Paul, inspiration for these times and the days that lay ahead.  Seeking to explain how a person of faith lives with the challenging  mysteries of life, and for Paul they were many, he writes to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” 

I began this message today remarking that Garth Brooks’ song revealed a growing spiritual edge.  As he spells out his adolescent love, the heartache of his desperate prayer not being answered, and of his life today, the singer is left to make sense of his life and faith today.

A wise mystic, I believe it was Meister Eckhardt, once remarked that if we could only utter one prayer our entire lifetime, it should be a prayer of thanks.  Brooks has come to that same conclusion.

For the ballad ends, “And as she (the old love) walked away and I looked at my wife, and then and there, I thanked the good Lord for the gifts in my life.  Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.”

We may never, in the course of our days on this earth, get to the place where we can thank God for unanswered prayers, but given the choice of giving up on God or taking the risk and continuing to trust God’s love and mystery, I hope we will always take the latter.  May the inspiration of the faith of our ancestors and the witness of the faith of those who surround us, lead us all in the course of our days to move from being people who start their prayers “If” to being those who start their prayers “though”, for in making that leap of faith, I believe we move closer to understanding the mystery, seeing through the dark glass more clearly, and growing in faith and love.  Thanks be to God. Amen.