You've Got a Friend in Me [Jesus]
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The text for today is James 2:23: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Toy Story movies are among my favorites. Which is a good thing, because with Abbott around, this Papa has seen each one at least 100 times. Much like my own children, I’ve watched Andy grow up from an imaginative little boy to a young man headed off to college. I’ve enjoyed the antics of Woody, Buzz, and the supporting characters. And I’ve heard the same theme song: “You’ve Got a Friend In Me.” That’s very fitting, because in the end the predominant theme of Toy Story is friendship. And that is our theme for today as well.
We begin with Abraham, the patriarch of the Hebrew people. Called by God’s grace out of idolatry and unbelief, Abraham left his home in Haran at the age of seventy-five and headed for the Promised Land. Through many trials and errors Abraham was sustained by God’s promises. Abraham became a friend of God. More importantly, God was his Friend. God loved Abraham first.
We see how far this friendship has developed in today’s Old Testament Lesson. It takes up from last Sunday where we heard of Abraham’s hosting three visitors, one of whom was the Lord Himself. The Lord gave Abraham specific assurance that within a year, Sarah, in her old age, would give birth to the promised son through whom the world would be blessed.
But there was a second reason why the three heavenly visitors have come to Abraham’s home: God wants to inform Abraham in advance about His plans to send judgment on Sodom. God does not want to proceed with His plans before getting Abraham’s reaction. Abraham is His “friend,” and here God shares a confidence with His friend. Isn’t that an amazing thought?
God has chosen Abraham not only to continue the messianic bloodline, but to teach through him two particular truths about God’s judgment. The first is quite simple—whenever God enters human history to pronounce judgment on a person or a group of people, He does so to show that He hates idolatry and unbelief and must punish it. The second truth is more difficult to see—God’s judgments are always carried out in such a way that they serve the deliverance of His elect. In mercy God delayed the flood so that Noah could preach repentance. Here, God withholds His judgment to give Abraham an opportunity to plead for the righteous.
When the two angels leave, Abraham detains the Lord and intercedes on behalf of Sodom. Some think of Abraham as haggling with God, but really he is praying. Abraham uses his status as friend of God to plead with Him to spare the city for the sake of the righteous, the believers.
There are some characteristics of Abraham’s prayer that are worth noting:
First, his prayer is based upon mercy, not merit—Abraham knows that he doesn’t deserve God’s mercy any more than the inhabitants of Sodom and it’s only God’s grace that keeps him safe from God’s righteous anger.
Second, it is an unselfish prayer—Outside of Lot and his family, Abraham has no personal stake in the fate of the citizens of Sodom, but he wants others to experience the same mercy he has.
Third, it is bold. There is a holy shamelessness to Abraham’s prayer. Six times he dares to plead the cause of God’s mercy against God’s justice.
Fourth, Abraham believes God listens to his prayers. Think about that: God actually condescends to take our prayers into consideration as He rules the world.
More than anything else, I would like to be good at praying. That’s what I have been called to do as a disciple of Christ. That’s my basic task as a pastor. I truly believe that much more is accomplished by prayer than anything else I do. Yet I must admit that I have often been anything but a man of prayer.
And I suspect that most of you feel the same way. A sense of spiritual frustration, coupled with the longing for spiritual fulfillment, is common among Christians. Our disappointment is magnified by the difficulties that we experience in prayer and in our personal devotional life. Our sense of failure is worsened by much of the current teaching on prayer that implies that if only we were more disciplined and more methodical and more spiritual we would succeed.
Yet, no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to meet our spiritual goals. Again and again we set out to improve and develop a disciplined practice of daily prayer. We succeed for a while, but it doesn’t seem to last. Disappointment sets in. Worse yet, we feel guilty about our failure. The guiltier we feel, the harder it is to pray. Satan uses our guilt to undermine our faith so that we give up.
Be honest. Wouldn’t you like to pray like Abraham? Wouldn’t you like to see God answer your prayers soon in concrete ways? Wouldn’t you like to pray boldly and selflessly on behalf of others?
It’s not really so difficult. But most of us need to change our course 180 degrees. We need to approach God as beggars with nothing in our hand, trusting that the Lord will answer our request not for our sake, but for His sake. God did not grant Abraham’s prayer for Abraham’s sake; He granted Abraham’s prayer for His own sake. God called Abraham to be His friend. Abraham believed the Lord’s promises, and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness.
That basis for our Christian life somehow gets lost too often when it comes to prayer. We believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose for the forgiveness of our sins that we might have eternal life. We believe in justification by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, in practice, we all too often fail to live by grace and faith. In our spirituality, in our devotions and praying, we, all too easily slip back into justification by works and reliance on our own performance.
The basic assumption of pop spirituality is that prayer is something that we do by ourselves. So success in prayer depends on our willpower and capacity for spiritual self-improvement, our persistence, and our performance. These teachings disconnect prayer from Jesus and His atonement. They seldom teach that prayer is God’s doing, something that God produces in us. That is the secret that Abraham learned, having failed so many times when he had taken matters into his own hand.
And that is the way that Jesus teaches His disciples to pray. The one thing that Jesus emphasizes about prayer, repeatedly and forcefully, is the importance of faith in Him, His saving work, and His holy Word rather than self-confidence and the presumption of spiritual expertise. Jesus teaches that God-pleasing prayer depends entirely on Him rather than the person at prayer.
Our Gospel lesson shows this clearly. Stimulated by Jesus’ example, one of His disciples asks Jesus to teach them how to pray. He is right in asking Jesus for help. That’s the starting point for all of us. Like His disciples, we are all inept and inexperienced when it comes to praying. Left to ourselves and to our own resources, we can’t teach ourselves to pray, we need to be taught by Jesus. He is the only expert in prayer. Without His coaching, we are unable to pray.
Rather than teach method and content of prayer, Jesus instead gives us His prayer. He alone has the right to address God as Father. And so the fact that He urges us to use this prayer is quite remarkable. Jesus gives us His own status as God’s Son and allows us to act as if we were Him. Still, it gets even better than that. Notice, Jesus does not just address God as His own Father, but as “our” Father. He goes so far as to pray for our daily bread, our forgiveness, and our protection in temptation, even though He Himself needs none of those things. Jesus identifies Himself with us and our needs, sins, and temptations. He joins Himself to us so that we can join Him in prayer and borrow everything from Him. He swaps places with us so that we can be where He is before God the Father.
Our Gospel reveals another unexpected way Jesus teaches us to pray: He sends needy people to make demands on us. In the parable of the unexpected visitor, Jesus compares God the Father with a grumpy next-door neighbor. Like the person in the parable, we are often confronted by people who require something from us, physically or spiritually, that we are unable to provide for them ourselves. For example, what help can we give to a person who is sick with cancer or who has lost faith in God? Like the person in the parable we have nothing to set before them. But we do have access to a Friend next door to us: God the Father, who has all we lack. We may shamelessly borrow what is needed from Him.
We may, indeed, have nothing to give to anyone, let alone to God. Jesus therefore gives us His own prayer, so that we can use it, quite boldly, to borrow whatever people need. By using it to pray for others, we borrow what they need from our heavenly Father. Like Abraham, we use our status as God’s friend, to ask Him for the help that is needed, trusting that He will answer in a way that is best.
We don’t need to use prayer to wear God down, like demanding children pestering their reluctant parents; nor do we need to inform Him about what we need as if He were ignorant of our plight. We come to Him as our Friend expecting to receive all good gifts from Him. He is not reluctant to give. The problem lies with us; we are reluctant to ask for what He wants to give us. So Jesus helps us by commanding us to ask for what we need and promising that God the Father will give us what we ask for.
Jesus explains this by comparing prayer to knocking at the door of His Father’s house. When we knock at the door of our parents’ house, they don’t ask us what we want; they invite us in. Like our parents, God the Father opens the door for us when we come to ask Him for something and He lets us in. Therefore, we don’t just get something from God when we pray; we receive God the Father, His company, and life with Him. That is the unexpected bonus of prayer!
But that’s not all! Jesus also speaks about the Father’s giving of His Holy Spirit to those who ask. On the surface, this promise seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the request for teaching on the practice of prayer. Yet, at a deeper theological level, it has everything to do with the practice of prayer.
Jesus recognizes that the basic problem for us is our inability to pray as we would like and as God requires. His solution to that problem is to provide the Holy Spirit as our helper, who prompts and empowers us to pray. Even though we do not know how to pray, or what to pray for, the Holy Spirit helps us to pray. Since we don’t know how to pray, He takes over from us and intercedes within us by getting us to pour out our hearts to God. When we pray, we can follow His urging, even if it is evident only in sighing and groaning and deep distress.
All this has a very practical application. When we are at the end of the rope, we can cry out to Jesus, like a beggar, with the words “Lord, have mercy!” When we feel that we can’t pray at all, we can cry out to Him for help, like a speechless infant to its mother who knows what the child needs far better than the baby itself. We can hand ourselves over to Him and let the Holy Spirit take over for us.
Prayer, then, is a gift of the triune God. When we pray, we engage with the three persons of the Holy Trinity. We pray to the Father; we pray together with the Son; and we pray by the power of the Holy Spirit. What we do when we pray depends entirely on what the Son gives us in His Word and on what the Spirit does with us through our faith in Christ. Our ability to pray does not come from us, but from faith in Jesus Christ and His Word. Faith that receives the gift of prayer. Faith that receives eternal life and salvation. Faith that makes you a friend of Jesus. Faith that believes God and is counted as righteousness. Faith that trusts all of His promises, including this one: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.