Sermon audio here.
The greatest, most loving thing you could do for another person is to pray for them. When you pray, you are doing far more for the well-being of humanity than all the doctors with their medicine and world leaders with their politics combined. As wonderful as the work of man can be, it pales by comparison to the work of God.
By your baptism into the suffering and death of Christ on the cross, you have been given a place in God’s family. You get to call Him “Father”, and He regards you as His own child. When you pray, you are using your privileged status with God for the benefit of others. In this way, you work with Christ and share in His reign even now.
St. Paul describes the baptized as those whom God has raised up and seated with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6). The whole company of heaven sings about the work of Christ, saying that He has made the baptized to be a kingdom and priests to God, those who reign with Him on earth (Revelation 5:9).
As those who reign with Christ, you are friends of the King. As members of His royal cabinet, you share in God’s decisions. God never breaks His promises in Christ, but nowhere does the Bible teach that God has planned out everything that will ever happen and it’s all set in stone. A fine satanic lie! Scripture is filled with examples of God changing His mind on the basis of His people’s prayers.
Remember how the people built a golden calf and started worshipping it while Moses was on the mountain? After that, God was ready to send Israel to the glue factory.
And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you,” (Exodus 32:9–10).
This had to have been a tempting offer for Moses. God offered to make him the patriarch of a great nation, and the people weren’t exactly the most cooperative (cf. Exodus 16 & 17). But instead of seek glory for himself and let Israel get what they had coming to them, Moses interceded on their behalf and said,
“O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.'” (Exodus 32:11–13).
Notice how Moses appealed to God’s Word and promises. All He was asking God to do was to remain faithful to His promises, to that which he swore by His own self. And the Lord relented from the disaster He had spoken of bringing on His people. God changed His mind in response to Moses’ prayer.
God promised Jeremiah that if Judah would turn from their evil, He would relent of the disaster that He intended to bring upon them (18:8; 26:3). In this case, God promises to change His course of action in response to His people’s behavior; specifically, their repentance.
On one occasion when King Hezekiah became ill, God told him to set his house in order because he was going to die (Isa 38:1). Now this wasn’t exactly ideal timing. Hezekiah was only 39 years old and still had no successor to his throne. His kingdom was a mess politically, too. Hezekiah wasn’t on the best terms with the powerful Assyrian army, and now they were threatening to come in and destroy Judah. So what did Hezekiah do? He turned his face to the wall and prayed to God. He said,
“Please, O LORD, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly (Isa 38:3).
And just like He did in the time of Moses, God once again changed His mind in response to the prayers of His people. He sent the prophet Isaiah to the king with this message:
“Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city,” (Isaiah 38:5–6).
Examples of God changing His mind in response to the prayers of His people could be multiplied. Jonah didn’t want to go and preach repentance to Nineveh because he knew if they repented, God would relent from destroying the city (Jonah 3:10–4:2). They called out to God, turned from their evil way, and God spared Nineveh.
After reviewing a litany of Israel’s sins, Psalm 106 says,
“Nevertheless, [God] looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love,” (Psa 106:44-45).
Again and again we see in Scripture that the outcome of present events will be different if you pray according to God’s Word. Prayer has changed the course of human history, and it continues to do so.
God teaches us to pray through suffering. He did the same thing with Jonah, who, when we first meet him, kept on running from God. But that all changed after three days and nights in the belly of the great fish. Now Jonah was no longer running from God, but running to Him in prayer.
Prayer isn’t about becoming more powerful. It’s about relying on Christ in our weakness. The attitude we should have toward prayer is the attitude John the Baptist had toward his ministry: Christ must increase, and we must decrease.
Prayer is powerful not because of us, but because of Christ. Luther said,
“Our prayers as our own work would not amount to anything or accomplish anything; but what makes it amount to something is the fact that it proceeds on the basis of [Christ’s] command and promise. For that reason [prayer] may well be regarded as a sacrament and as a divine work rather than a work of our own,” (AE 21:150–151).
Prayer is powerful because it’s the work of Christ. The reason Jesus lives, Hebrews says, is to make intercession for us (7:25). As our advocate, Christ stands with us and brings us before the Father, joining our prayers with His. This is why we always pray, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Our prayers are always joined with Christ’s.
The liturgy often introduces prayers with the words “the Lord be with you.” This announces the presence of Christ as our intercessor and leader in prayer, who offers assistance to us in our praying. You can approach God boldly and confidently when you pray, because you do so with Jesus, who is interceding on your behalf.
And here we see that prayer isn’t about manipulating God. As His work, prayer is governed and guided by His Word. This goes a long way to helping us understand our Lord’s remarkable promise, “If you abide in Me, and My Words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you,” (John 15:7).
Here our Lord connects the promise to do “whatever you wish” to abiding in Him and His Word. The more you are steeped in His Word, the more the Holy Spirit works to transform your wishes and desires so that they are in tune with the will of God the Father and the intercession of His Son (1 John 5:14). When you desire what Christ wants to give you, you can be certain that God will not only hear you when you pray, but give you exactly what you ask for.