Whatever You Ask in Jesus' Name

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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 16, particularly verse 23, in which we continue to listen in on Jesus’ Last Supper discourse: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Up to now, His disciples hadn’t had to ask for anything in Jesus’ name.  He had been right there with them, so they would just ask Him directly.  But, as we heard last week, things were about to change.  In a little while, a few short hours, He would leave them and go to the cross.  After a little while, three days, He would rise from the dead.  After His resurrection, Jesus would leave them and ascend into heaven.  In a little while, they would see Him no more.
So note two things that Jesus did for His disciples that night.  For one, He gave them Holy Communion.  In that Sacrament, He gave them His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  Although they would not be able to see Him face to face, He would still be with them to the end of the age in His Word and Sacrament.  As we speak of often, this is how Jesus is present with His people even today.  This is how He comes to us with forgiveness, life, and salvation.
But here, in our text, Jesus reinforces another gift: the gift of prayer.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.”  Until He returns in glory, this is how we speak to our Lord.  He comes to us in Word and Sacraments.  We go to Him in prayer, and He promises to answer our prayer.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  But, it’s much more difficult in practice.
I remember thinking in my younger days that prayer wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.  I read the words of our text and decided to give them a whirl.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.”  So I tried it.
You know, I don’t even remember any more the things I asked for.  I do remember praying, though, for a number of things and always dutifully adding the words “in Jesus’ name I pray” and closing with a firm “Amen!”  Do you know what?  I didn’t get what I asked for.  And even though I can’t remember all I asked for, I do remember the disappointment.  And I didn’t understand why.  Jesus made this task of praying sound so incredibly simple.  Where did I mess up? 
Proverbs 15:29 says, “The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous.”  Perhaps God did not answer my prayer because of my sin—I was not righteous enough.  But in Romans 3, we hear: “None is righteous, no, not one… no one does good, not even one… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  If answer to prayer depends on personal righteousness, on our own keeping of the Law, God is never going to give anything to any of us. 
Fortunately, St. Paul goes on: “For now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…”  God declares us righteous by faith for Jesus’ sake. 
Then another Scripture confused me.  As James speaks about the power of prayer in his epistle, he warns, “Let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.  For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (1:6-7).  That really led me to wonder whether or not there was something wrong with my faith.  I asked and I didn’t receive.  Maybe it was because I didn’t believe hard enough?
Fortunately, Luther’s Small Catechism helped set me straight on that.  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.”  Faith is a gift of God, and it’s all done by the Holy Spirit.  He wouldn’t give me just a partial faith.  Little faith is still faith.  Enough to move mountains!
As the years went on, I sort of set the problem of prayer on the back burner.  I knew that I believed in God and that Jesus is His Son and that He had saved me from my sins.  I delighted in being in church and singing His praises and receiving Holy Communion.  But my prayer life was lacking.  Prayer just didn’t seem to work for me and so I didn’t spend a lot of time on it.  I believed that God loved me and wanted the best for me.  I’d just have to trust that whatever happened was what He wanted for me.  And all the while I puzzled over this passage: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.” 
It wasn’t until the last couple of years, especially from the teaching of Dr. John Kleinig and the school of hard knocks, that I’ve really begun to understand and put into practice this command, promise, and privilege of prayer.  In his book aptly titled Grace upon Grace, Dr. Kleinig emphasizes prayer as a gift, a wonderful gift of the Father’s grace for the sake of Jesus and His name.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you,” Jesus says.  That’s an astonishing promise—hard to believe, but it’s what Jesus promises.  The Father will give whatever you ask for in Jesus’ name.  Jesus doesn’t just give you three wishes.  There are no limits.  You can’t bother the heavenly Father in prayer enough.  He delights to hear and answer every prayer prayed in Jesus’ name.
“In Jesus’ name.”  That’s the key phrase we keep coming back to.  That is what the promise and gift of prayer rely on.  So, what does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name?  Well, first of all, it means to pray according to the will of God.  Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to ask that God’s will be done as it is in heaven.  While God’s good and gracious will is done even without our prayer, we pray that it may be done among us also… that God’s will be done not ours… that our will would be aligned with God’s. 
And we know what the will of God is, don’t we?  It’s that you turn from your sins and are saved.  Repent and believe.  “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die.  This is His good and gracious will.”
And so we pray in Jesus’ name.  We go before the Lord in prayer by saying, “We are poor, miserable sinners, who justly deserve your temporal and eternal punishment, but we pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to us.”  We pray like the spiritual beggars we are: “Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!”  That is what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. 
Therefore, the Law for us sinners is quite straightforward today: we sin whenever we fail to pray in Jesus’ name.  Now, let me be clear: I do not mean that every prayer is good as long as we attach the three words, “in Jesus’ name,” at the end before the “amen.”  Nor do I mean that an otherwise good prayer goes unheard because we fail to end it with those three words.  This is not some sort of magic formula.  Again, to pray in Jesus’ name is to confess that God answers prayers for Jesus’ sake, not because we or any other sinner has earned God’s help.
The classic example for Luther was, naturally, praying in the names of saints.  In Luther’s time, the Roman Church declared that Jesus was quite the angry Son of God, and encouraged Christians to pray for God’s help in the name of one of the saints who had gone before—perhaps St. Paul or St. Lawrence or certainly St. Mary, Mother of God.  But Jesus is not angry with us.  And He certainly never commanded us to pray in the names of other sinners—not even those heroes of the faith who have gone on to be with the Lord.  He tells us, “Whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.”  We pray only in Jesus’ name.
A widespread error in our day is that God honors all prayers, even those prayed by unbelievers.  But why should God hear such a prayer?  The prayer of an unbeliever says, “Even though I don’t believe that Jesus died for me, and even though I give Him no thanks or honor for the cross, I still expect you to help me anyway.”  Such a prayer is exactly against praying in the name of Jesus.
Now, since you’re here today, I take it that you’re already a believer and already confess that it is incorrect to pray in the name of saints.  However, you still face many temptations, which would mislead you away from praying in Jesus’ name.  Perhaps the greatest temptation is for you to pray in your own name.  I don’t mean that you’d be so crass as to end your prayers with the words: “In my name” or “for my sake.”  No, your sinful flesh is much more subtle than that.  I’m talking about the times when you approach God on the basis of your own merits. 
It is so seductive to think that God hears your prayers when you’ve behaved better, when you’ve been trying harder.  But if that is how you approach prayer, you are, in effect, saying: “Dear Lord, hear my prayer because I’m trying hard to be a little less sinful than I was before.”  But a “little less sinful” is still terribly sinful, and God makes no promise to hear such prayers.  No, do not pray in your own name.  Repent; and instead rejoice in the certainty that God hears your prayers for the sake of Jesus who died for you.  That’s why you pray in Jesus’ name.
Another error is the one made famous by televangelists.  It is the error that God will give you whatever you ask, as long as you have enough faith in Jesus.  As long as you believe in Jesus enough, then God will give you whatever you want.
There are two problems with this.  One is that this says that God answers prayer not because of Jesus’ work, but because of how hard you work at believing in Him.  If your faith is strong, you can count on Him.  If your faith is weak, then you can’t.  How terrible this is?  Just when you need the Lord the most, you have to count on yourself!  That’s a recipe for disaster and despair! 
The other problem is this: it uses Jesus for personal gain.  To pray “in Jesus’ name” does not mean that you can expect Him to give you whatever your little old sinful heart desires.  Often, what you want to ask for is not what is righteous or best for you.  Plagued by the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh, you will be tempted to pray for deliverance on your terms: “Heal me now!”  “That job is perfect for me, so get it for me!”  “Save this relationship!”  “Save this life!” 
But remember: God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts.  His will is always best, and He often works to do us good through hardships and heartaches that we would certainly not intentionally choose for ourselves. 
If you fall into these errors, repent.  And rejoice: the Lord doesn’t only hear you when your faith feels strong.  He always hears you for Jesus’ sake.  And while you may not see His answer in the short-term, you have His promise that He hears your prayers, and answers them in the way that is eternally best for you.
Here is another error that we want to approach gently: it is the idea that God is more likely to hear prayers when more people are praying them.  Please don’t misunderstand.  It is good and proper for us to pray for each other and ask others to pray for us.  And it is comforting to know that many people are praying for us.  I don’t want to take anything away from that.  At the same time, however, it is good for us to remember: whether the prayer comes from one or many Christians, God promises to hear it.  Why?  Because it doesn’t depend on the one or the many!  It depends on Jesus, who died for the one and the many.  We pray in Jesus’ name.
Should you trust in many voices rather than one Jesus, repent.  And then rejoice: it is indeed a great comfort to know that even if you are the only one to pray in Jesus’ name God promises to hear you and answer you.
Here is one more error: it is tempting to think that God will answer your prayer as long as you choose the right words.  As long as you articulate your need clearly, then God will answer. 
If that is true, then the prayer does not depend on Jesus; rather, it depends upon your communication skills.  But it is not true.  In fact, the Bible declares that we do not know how to pray, but the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  If you place your trust in your eloquence, repent.  And rejoice.  Rejoice that even if the longest prayer you can string together is “Lord, have mercy,” that prayer in Jesus’ name is heard.
Repent and rejoice!  The power of prayer is not found within us.  The power of prayer is found in Jesus’ name.  The source of prayer’s power is what makes anything what it is in the Church—the powerful Word of God!
What makes baptism a baptism?  The Word of God.  Without the Word of God, baptism is no baptism, but boring and plain water… straight out of the tap.  But with the Word of God, it is what God says it is: a life-giving water and a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
What makes the Lord’s Supper the Lord’s Supper?  The Word of God.  Without the Word of God, the Lord’s Supper is some cheap, drunkard’s wine and some strange looking, flat tasting bread.  But with the Word of God, the Lord’s Supper is Christ’s body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
What makes the absolution Christ’s absolution?  The Word of God.  Without the Word of God, the absolution is just some pious wishes from the mumbling lips of a fellow sinner.  But with the Word of God, it is God’s forgiveness.  Christ’s absolution, spoken in His stead and by His command through His called and ordained servant, is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.
So also, it is the Word and promise of God that makes prayer a prayer.  Your faith doesn’t make water a baptism.  Your faith doesn’t make the wine and bread the Lord’s Supper.  Your faith doesn’t make prayer what it is.  The Lord’s Word, His promise, His love and mercy do.
When prayer becomes more about what you pray for and how fervently you pray for it, than to whom you pray, then that prayer is not true prayer.  When prayer implodes into itself and becomes what we want and not what God wants for us, then that prayer is not true prayer.  When prayer becomes only about this life—then that prayer is not a true prayer.  Such prayer is but anxieties, worries, and complaints couched in wants and wishes.  It might serve some cathartic benefit psychologically, but it will not be answered by God.
Such prayers are not prayers in Jesus’ name, but prayers in your own name.  And that is idolatry—a most dangerous sin!  Repent; and rejoice that you have a loving heavenly Father who forgives you your sins, and who longs to give you the good things you need for Jesus’ sake—even when you ask for the wrong things! 
As you can see, prayer is something so simple that a very young child can do it… and so difficult, a lifetime is not enough to get it all right.  But don’t be discouraged.  Remember that God promises to forgive your sins for Jesus’ sake.  Therefore, when you are tempted to these sins, or when you have prayed prayers blemished by these sinful temptations, pray again.  Confess to God that you are indeed, sinful, but that Christ has died for your sins.  And trust that the Lord hears your prayer and forgives you.
Dear friends, there are few better gifts than the gift of prayer; and the fact the devil does so much to discourage prayer should only prove this further.  Hear Jesus’ words.  Pray in His name, for then your prayers are certain to be heard—and you can be certain that God the Father will answer. 
You can be certain in Jesus’ name: because for Jesus’ sake—His suffering, death, and resurrection—you are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen


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