Asking for Anything

Asking for Anything

mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior,
Jesus Christ. Amen.

human beings, we spend a great deal of our lives interacting with others.
God created us to be in relationships; not only with Him, but also with
our fellow creatures. Some of these relationships are individual
connections like marriage, parenting, or friendships. Other relationships
connect us to groups or organizations which are more complex, such as
classes or companies, teams or clubs, churches or governments.

two or more individuals are somehow connected, the dynamics of these
relationships mean that those involved are going to have some sort of
influence on one another.

some situations, the influence is somewhat passive; a person sees or
hears what the other is doing, and responds in some way, without the
doer consciously intending to generate that influence. In other
cases, there’s a deliberate attempt on the part of one individual
to cause the other individual or the group to respond in some way.
Sciences such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology are based in
part upon such principles and realities.

Christians in contemporary America—particularly those of church bodies
who don’t have a good grasp of the doctrine of the two kingdoms—often
lament the fact that the Church as an institution, and biblically-based
Christian values, no longer seem to carry the influence upon our society
they once did. To be sure, our lives as Christians would be far
easier if the majority shared our values instead of rejecting them,
and if we influenced them more than we find ourselves
and our children influenced by them.

influence is a funny thing, isn’t it? Even when we attempt to
exercise influence toward biblically-sound, God-pleasing ends, there
are risks to our own spiritual health. Some adopt the morally-indefensible
stance that “the end justifies the means,” and find themselves
grossly violating God’s Law and their Spirit-formed consciences to
pursue an otherwise-noble objective. Even if we don’t go that
far, exercising influence can lead us to using worldly, sinful techniques
that call for pressure, deceit, and manipulation.

remember that during my twenty years in a different career, I’d often
come across offers for various self-improvement books or audio training
tools or seminars. Perhaps you’ve seen them, too. Many
of these promise to give the reader or hearer some secret advantage
over others in achieving success. Usually these supposed advantages
are techniques of presenting one’s self or one’s ideas in such a
way as to influence others to accept, like, hire, promote, or buy.

even go so far as to claim that the ideas and techniques they suggest
are Christian in nature, or at least that the author or instructor is
a Christians.

most cases, we should distance ourselves as fast and as far as possible
from these sorts of methods and approaches toward influencing others.
Many are based upon the same sort of logic and reasoning as the suggestions
our ancestors once heard following the question: “Did
God really say?”
They recommend flattery of others,
only telling them the positive aspects of the outcome, minimizing or
ignoring the negative, using words that evoke a positive emotional response.

such techniques have made their way from the secular world into the
church. When they do, the church’s reliance on the Holy Spirit’s
sure and certain promise to work through Word and Sacrament to grant
faith, sustain faith, and guide the Christian life often shrinks or
even disappears.

have to be aware of these dangers, and careful not to let them creep
unchallenged into our midst, too.

example, it is not without a great deal of prayer and care that I, and
Pastor Nuckols, and the elders, and the other leaders at St. Paul bring
before you matters such as worship attendance, participation in congregational
life and service, and financial support. We ask one another to
review our words and to give us feedback. We want to be sure that
what we communicate about the needs of the congregation and about your
needs to be here in God’s house—to be blessed, and to give, and
to serve—are founded upon Law and Gospel. We want you to be
Spirit-led to seek to receive His gifts and to bless others with them,
not to be guilt-driven or manipulated. The Lord will judge how
well we have met these hopes. May He have mercy on us all.

it is only with the greatest caution and trembling that Christians ought
to seek to constructively influence and not to manipulate the will of
fellow Christians and the actions of the world around them, then how
much more fearful ought we be about any attempts to manipulate almighty

the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells His disciples,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my
name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my
name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

verses cause a variety of reactions in believer and unbeliever alike.
For the unbeliever who is a staunch atheist, they are complete foolishness.
“Asking some imaginary being for anything is ridiculous,”
thinks. “If you want something, you ask the person who has
it, or you work to get it with your own efforts and resources.”

an unbeliever who is at least open to the idea of a divine being, such
words can make Christianity seem somewhat attractive, even though his
motives in considering it are wrong. “That’s pretty cool,”
this sort of unbeliever thinks.
“You mean if I become a Christian, I’ll get everything I want?
I can ask for riches, or health, or intelligence, or the sort of relationships
that I want, and this Jesus guy is the way to fulfill my every wish
and wildest dreams? Where do I sign up?”

the believer who has an undeveloped or underdeveloped sort of faith,
with limited understanding of the nature and workings of God, this statement
can have similar effect. This sort of believer trusts in God for
his salvation through the forgiveness of his sins for the sake of Christ’s
suffering on the cross. He believes in the resurrection of the
dead and the life of the world to come. Yet he really hasn’t
fully surrendered his life into God’s hands.

sort of believer doesn’t fully trust that God works through creation
and through the vocations of himself and others to provide everything
he needs for this body and life—as well as what others need, and what
his church needs. He doesn’t buy into Jesus’ words elsewhere
about not worrying about food or clothing or other things of this life,
and forgets the Savior’s gentle chiding about, “O you of little
And so, when he prays, this sort of believer
forgets that his heavenly Father knows all his needs, and forgets that
God’s will is done even without our prayers. This immature believer
becomes convinced by his own weakness and through the temptations of
the devil and the world that it’s his own responsibility to figure
out everything he needs and wants, and that he must ask it of God in
just the right words, at the right times and places.

danger of this approach to prayer, of course, is that while we know
what we want—or at least we think we do—only God knows what
we truly need. When this Christian’s desires and expectations
aren’t met in a timely fashion, it can lead to frustration, fear,
anger, and despair.

God listening? Is He angry with me over something? Did I
ask Him in the right way, often enough, long enough, sincerely enough?
I’ve been asking in Jesus’ name; why isn’t He giving it to me?
This prayer stuff isn’t working! What’s wrong with my prayers?
What’s wrong with God?

Bible is, after all, full of directives to pray. There are many
examples of faithful believers praying to God and receiving not only
what they’ve asked for, but blessings far above and beyond them.
So, when our prayers don’t seem to generate similar outcomes, there’s
a sinful tendency for us to begin to question prayer’s value and effectiveness.
And in doing that, we undermine the very basis of prayer: Faith!

see, Jesus knows that we will often ask for the wrong things.
He knows that we will sometimes ask for good things, but with the wrong
motives. He knows that we will frequently ask for the right things,
with the right motives, but that sometimes we don’t really trust that
God would or could provide or satisfy them. He therefore gave
His disciples instructions to pray “in my name.”

in Jesus’ name is a lot more than simply mouthing those words,
“in Jesus’ name we pray,”
at the end of the prayer, though.
Properly speaking, to do something in another’s name is to take on
an identity and a responsibility to represent them truly and faithfully.
It’s to assume a status of not looking out for your own desires, but
to surrender yourself and your wishes to the interests of another—like
an attorney or an accountant or a diplomat is to do when representing

even as Christ’s own through baptism and faith, we cannot do this
fully and consistently. Our prayers, influenced as they are by
our sinful flesh, may be asked with mouths that voice Christ’s name,
but not with hearts that fully know and fully trust Him.

this reason, we must realize that we cannot rightly pray on our own,
and that we ought not expect or insist that God will give us what we
think we are asking for in our conscious thoughts. But we can
be confident that God does give us what He knows is right for us, and
what our innermost being truly desires in Him. It’s just that
our minds and bodies seek other things, because they are weak.

thankful we can be that God does not abandon us in this weakness, but
gives us aid in overcoming it!

Paul wrote in Romans 8, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our
weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit
himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he
who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the
Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

difficult to comprehend the profoundness of that explanation, and how
beautifully it meshes with Jesus’ statement in the Gospel lesson today.
Jesus is going to leave the disciples to return to the Father, but He
will send them the Spirit. Jesus tells them to pray and ask anything
in His name, but knows we cannot know what to pray for as we ought.
Jesus knows that in the emptiness of the world’s attractions, we won’t
always ask for the right things or use the right words, but He fills
us with the Holy Spirit who expresses the will of God in groanings too
deep for words.

into Christ’s death and resurrection, it is our Gospel privilege as
His brothers and sisters to pray to our heavenly Father, asking Him
to fulfill all our prayers in Jesus’ name. Yet even when the
prayers of our minds and our mouths are as scattered far from Jesus
as were the disciples when they abandoned Him to the world, the Spirit
prays within us. The Spirit sustains us and gives us the faith
to trust in God’s perfect will even when we aren’t getting what
we want or expect, when and how we want it. The Spirit guides
us to recognize that our prayers don’t manipulate God to see and do
things our way. Rather, the Spirit moves and shapes us to be conformed
to God’s will, so that what we ask for—consciously or not—is
more fully compliant with the path He has chosen for us.

privilege and your ability to pray to the Father in a God-pleasing way
is all part of a great exchange, an inexplicable redemption. For
you to be able to pray to the Father in Jesus’ name is completely
wrapped up in the reality of everything Jesus has already accomplished
for you in your name: Resisting all the temptations of
the devil and the world. Perfectly pleasing the Father by living
a sinless life in human flesh. Obediently suffering rejection,
torture, and an undeserved death at the hands of sinners like us.

be sure, Jesus did these things as God made flesh, according to the
will of God, and in the name of God. But in putting Himself in
your place, He did these things in your name, too—doing those
tasks that were rightfully expected of you; suffering all those things
that justly should have had your name written all over them. The
sign on the cross read, “Jesus of Nazareth,” but it could’ve been—should’ve
been—your name there instead.

this He did, and all this He has told you, so that in Him you may have
peace. In this world you will indeed have trouble, He said, including
trouble praying and trouble trusting that your prayers are heard and
answered. But by His death and resurrection, He has overcome the
world once and for all—including all the worldliness in you that would
lead to unworthy prayers. For that great gift of sacrifice we
bless and praise Him, offering prayers to the Father through the Holy
Spirit, in Jesus’ name. Amen.