Sunday, November 25, 2012
Supplications, Prayers, Intercessions, and Thanksgivings for All People
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Prayer’s importance should not be underestimated. The same God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved, desires our prayers on behalf of all people, particularly in the context of public worship. The four synonymous but nuanced terms for prayer in our text indicate that the prayers we offer together run the whole gamut of conversing with God. Supplications ask God for specific benefits or needs. Prayers are respectful devotion. Intercessions are earnest appeals made on behalf of others. Thanksgivings are expressions of gratitude for mercies received. Though especially fitting for this day, prayers of thanksgiving are always appropriate even when earthly circumstances are difficult, because we are never separated from God’s love and mercy in Christ.
Dr. John W. Kleinig tells this story illustrating the importance of such prayers. “As a chaplain some years ago, I was involved in a discussion with a senior high school Scripture class on the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12: ‘Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.’
“As a lead into the discussion, I posed the question, ‘What’s the very best thing that you as a Christian could ever do for another person?’ Lots of different answers were given. You could defend, befriend, or help that person in trouble; you could even show your love by dying for him. Yet all agreed that you would not have to be a Christian to do these things. Then someone suggested you could share your faith by telling others about Jesus. The class was uneasy about this answer because the person who said that was a rather heavy-handed Bible basher.
“Then a rather reserved girl came up with a different suggestion. She reckoned that you would do something even greater if you simply prayed for that person. When pressed to justify her claim, she maintained that by praying for people in need we give them God’s help rather than human help. We give God’s grace and nothing but His grace. Everything else we do is tainted by the evil in us, but not prayer. Any help, no matter how generous, puts down those who are helped and leaves them in debt to the one who has helped them. But not prayer! When we pray for others, we can do nothing evil but only good for them. We simply place them in God’s hands and then withdraw. When we do that, they don’t even know that we have prayed for them unless we happen to tell them” (Grace Upon Grace, p. 199-200).
Wondering if Scripture backed up the girl’s hunch, Dr. Kleinig studied Matthew 7:1-12, noting the context. Verses 1-5 warn against the condemnation of a sinning neighbor. Verse 6 prohibits the desecration of a holy thing by giving to an unclean person. And verses 7-11, encourages prayer, ending with the words: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” Then, at verse 12, comes a “so,” a “therefore,” which links the Golden Rule to the words of Jesus about prayer: “So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
The Golden Rule wasn’t given as a general ethical principle for all people, but as wise direction for God’s children who have access to their heavenly Father through faith in Christ. The best thing I could ever hope to receive from fellow Christians is their prayers. And the reverse is also true: By praying for God to forgive them when they sin, I show my love for them and for God, thereby fulfilling the Law and Prophets.
When it comes to the shortcomings of others, two approaches are common. On the one hand, there is the legalistic way. We can use God’s Law to judge and condemn sinners. Jesus warns us that when this happens, we pass judgment on ourselves. On the other hand, there is the permissive way. We can be lenient and overlook the fault in the hope that the Gospel will change that person. Jesus warns us that where this is done something holy is desecrated and defiled. He therefore advocates a third way—the way of intercession. The sins of our fellow Christians, the conflicts and tensions in a Christian community, are all opportunities and occasions for our supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings.
Let me bring this closer to home: when I fail as a pastor, I don’t need your condemnation or your indulgence. What I need is your support, and you can give it best through your prayers. The same is true for all Christians. As a fellowship of justified and forgiven sinners, the Church is created and sustained by intercession. There is, therefore, an inverse ratio between criticism and intercession in a Christian community. Where people no longer pray for one another, troubles arise, criticism increases, compassion decreases. Satan, therefore, stimulates criticism and condemnation of others (for the best possible moral and theological reasons, of course) in order to diminish compassion and intercession. That’s how he is most able to sabotage the life and work of the Church.
But God, in His mercy and grace, has not left us to fend for ourselves. He shares His grace and power with us so we can intercede on behalf of others. The vicarious nature of intercession comes out clearly in the incident with the golden calf. God seeks the permission of Moses to destroy the people and make a new nation out of Moses, but Moses intercedes. Having favor with God, Moses seeks to include his people in that favor, even as he refuses to separate from his people and join God in His condemnation. Thus Moses stands both in solidarity with God in His grace and with his people in their sin.
Moses bases his intercession on two things. First, he rests his case on God’s character. In the face of God’s wrath, Moses appeals to His goodness and faithfulness, for unless God is consistently gracious and reliable, intercession is a pointless activity. Second, he recalls the promises that God gave to the patriarchs. In his intercession, Moses expects God to honor His promises.
As Christians, we are even more certain of our standing with God than Moses ever was. We are united with Christ. Unlike Moses, we do not stand alone before God; we stand in the shoes of Jesus, our Mediator. He has turned away God’s wrath and condemnation from us and the whole world by His sacrificial death on the cross. We are justified before Him and have access to His grace for ourselves and others. Like Moses, we can be bold in claiming God’s grace for them because we know Him and His promises to all His people.
Such intercession presupposes a sense of solidarity with others. That’s why the biggest obstacle to its practice is the type of modern individualism that minds its own business because it regards each person as an isolated, autonomous unit. The more we acknowledge our ties with others, the better we will be able to understand, appreciate, and practice intercession.
As Christians, we stand within two large international communities. On the one hand, we are part of the human race, all descendants of Adam and Eve, sharing in the prosperity and adversity of each other. Having a common origin, existence, and destiny, we are inextricably connected with one another on planet earth. On the other hand, as Christians, we are members of the communion of saints. As members of the same Body, we share in the sins and blessings and prayers of one another across all boundaries of time and space.
As Christians, we are carried along by the prayers of others. Long before I could pray, my parents, relatives, and fellow Christians began to pray for me. Their prayers brought me to Christ in Baptism. Their prayers surrounded me as my faith was nurtured and grew. Their prayers ministered to me at confirmation, marriage, and ordination. Their prayers support me in my faith and work as a pastor. When I forget to pray, or am unable to pray, I rely on their intercession.
Since I am a Christian, I can also carry others along by my intercession for them. My prayers are therefore always made for the benefit of others. They always receive something from my prayers no matter how feeble and inadequate my efforts may be. When I pray for someone else, I use my faith for his benefit. I also show love for them. In John 15:12-17, Jesus connects the love that is ready to lay down its life for others with prayer for them. We therefore love others and lay down our lives for them spiritually when we pray for them.
It is remarkable how far we are called to go in showing love by praying for others. When fellow Christians have sinned, we may pray confidently for their forgiveness since we have the promise that God will give them life. We show our love for them by covering over their sins rather than passing judgment on them. What’s more, we also show love to our enemies by praying for them. It seems that God gives us our enemies just for this purpose. He allows them to attack us so that He can use us to pray for them and secure His blessings for them.
The critics of the Church were astonished that Christians prayed for people who were unrelated to them, foreigners, and even their enemies, rather than just for their own families, community, and the adherents of their own religion. This was, and still is, a countercultural feature of Christian piety. In the Divine Service, we pray together with Jesus and the whole Church on earth for the whole world.
Jesus sacrificed His life as a ransom on behalf of every human being. He is now at work in the Church as the one and only mediator between God the Father and all men. Since God wants all people to be saved, Jesus intercedes for all people and prays for their salvation. So we, too, join with Jesus in His ministry of intercession for the world, for all people.
We should also pray specifically for “kings and all who are in high positions.” Whether they are good or bad rulers, Christians or non-Christians, they need our prayers because they are meant to work for God in ruling His world. They can’t do that without God’s help and the prayers of the Church.
In our supplications, we, like Jesus, identify ourselves with others and stand together with them in their need. We are to act as if their needs are, in fact, our needs. We plead for them, whatever their need. This presupposes an awareness of the misery of the people around us and a sense of compassion for them. So as we go about our daily routine, we take note of their need and/or troubles and add them in our daily and weekly prayers. If those around us aren’t in trouble, we still stand in for them with Christ by our prayers to God the Father for their prosperity. We act as if their lives are ours and pray for them as if their welfare is ours. Even if they are not Christians, we may ask Him to give them His good gifts, such as health or success at work or at home. The assumption behind this is that God puts us in touch with them so that He can use us to bless them.
We also stand in for others with Christ by our intercessions on their behalf when they have sinned. Rather than condemn them, we act as if their sins are ours. We ask God to have mercy on them and give them the opportunity to come to repentance. That’s the love that covers a multitude of sins.
When we experience evildoing in the Church and corruption of the world, it is easy for Christians to become indignant and judgmental about the whole messy business, as if evil has nothing to do with us. All too often the discovery of evil in others reinforces our own self-righteousness. How much better if instead of gossiping about them and their misdeeds, we, like Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, treat their sin as our own sin and plead their forgiveness. I have decided that whenever I feel upset about the state of the world and problems in the Church, I will curb my self-righteous indignation and pray for the people involved.
We also stand in for others with Christ through our thanksgivings for the blessings that they have received from God. If they prosper and things go well for them, we do not envy them and begrudge them their happiness. Instead, we act as if their blessings are ours. We use our access to God to thank Him for His loving kindness and generosity to them because they are not yet in the position to do so themselves. This is especially fitting on a day like to day where we bring our prayers of thanksgiving to the heavenly Father on behalf of everyone in our nation!
This is an aspect of intercession that has received scant attention in recent times, but it was prominent in the Early Church. They believed that the Church was appointed to serve, together with the angels, as a choir that voices thanks and praise to God on behalf of the whole human race. When others prosper, we, too, can identify with them and thank God for their blessings. In this we follow Jesus, who leads us in the praise of His heavenly Father.
As we learn to pray, we discover a rather unexpected bonus: joy. That is the promise of Jesus in John 16:23-24: “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, so that your joy may be full.” Here, Jesus surprises us by connecting joy with prayer. Whatever joy His disciples may have had is incomplete until they pray to the Father in His name. Full joy comes from praying together with Jesus and receiving the Father’s gifts through Him.
In Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17:13, He adds a further dimension to this promise of enjoyment. Jesus speaks His prayer out aloud for them to hear on the night before His death so that they may have His joy made complete in them. He has given us the Father’s name and words so that we can join and pray together with Him. There is nothing that gives Him or us greater joy than that. Prayer in the name of Jesus is the pinnacle of His and our joy at His union and communion with the Father and with us.
Joy is the by-product of prayer in the name of Jesus. It comes from the exercise of our faith in Him. It comes from praying together with Jesus and speaking to the Father as those who share in His Sonship. It comes from receiving the blessings that Jesus has won for us by His death and resurrection. The joy of prayer is the joy of receiving grace after grace, one blessing after another, from God the Father. That is most certainly a reason for giving thanks. Amen.
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