When there is a tragedy you often hear people respond to the victim saying our thoughts and prayers are with you. While there’s nothing wrong with that and I’m sure people appreciate the sentiment it’s concerning if that is all that we see prayer as – a sentiment reduced to something like our positive thoughts. In fact you may even hear a person say – I’m sending you positive energy. That’s NOT prayer.
Prayer is entering into the presence of God to seek his help and counsel. So many underestimate the power of prayer with a sort of defeatist attitude believing that if fate has decided something how can we possibly change it. But just look at our Old Testament reading today. God had decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. Could Abraham really have changed God’s mind? If God has decided something then who are we to change his mind. Some believe in what is known as predestination. That the future is written by God and we cannot change it. In fact it would be blasphemous to think that we, mere mortals, could change God’s mind. But the people of Nineveh did it. God told them that in 40 days he would destroy them. But when they heard about that from Jonah the people and animals of Nineveh all repented and it says that God repented from his anger to destroy them and forgave them.
And, so too, here in our Old Testament reading Abraham has entered into God’s counsel to plead on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. And so Abraham bargains with God. Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” So Abraham continues, Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And God again said: “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” And so Adam, like being at an auction, goes down and down in increments. What about forty – what about thirty – what about twenty. And finally, suppose ten are found there. And God answered, For the sake of ten I will not destroy it. Sadly, God couldn’t even find 10 righteous people there. But if he could, because of Abraham’s prayer, God was prepared to change his mind.
So we need to be bold with our prayers. But, you might ask, has prayer actually ever achieved anything. Each week we pray to God, but has it worked? We still see catastrophic events in the world. We see fire, flood, earthquakes, wars. Didn’t we pray for God to cease them? Well, yes we did. But what we don’t know is what has been averted because of our prayers. We don’t know if World War 3 was averted because we prayed for peace. We don’t know if more devastating floods were averted because we prayed about it. So we are called to pray faithfully trusting God that he hears our prayers and answers them according to his grace and mercy. But we have to match that with living in a fallen world with a free will where things happen because of the sinful circumstances our world lives in.
Prayer is often misunderstood as wishing for something. So when something that we pray for doesn’t happen we presume that God has not heard our prayer or has declined our prayer. Prayer is often a realignment of our lives with God’s. Like when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prepared to go to the cross to die for our sins. Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Earlier Jesus had told his disciples that “with God all things are possible”. So, yes, it was possible to take the cup of suffering from Jesus but what was God’s will?
So often, after exhausting times, Jesus would retreat to a solitary place where he would pray to his Father in Heaven.
So quite often the answer to our prayer is not so much our will being done but a realigning of our life with God’s. But, having said that, sometimes God does intervene, like he did with Nineveh, but other times it is trusting in God’s knowledge of a situation which we cannot understand at times. As the Book of Hebrews, chapter 11 says – faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. And just because we don’t see a change when we’ve prayed about a situation doesn’t mean it is wrong to pray again about the same situation, like Abraham did – several times pushing God to save Sodom and Gomorrah – and in the end Abraham having to trust God’s judgement.
But on the contrary we have Jesus example of prayer to show persistence in prayer: Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
We saw that persistence in the Canaanite woman: Initially Jesus rejected her request to heal her daughter. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But she didn’t give up: The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. Again, Jesus refused: He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” And, yet again, she persisted
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
So prayer has several parts: First of all, ASK. Don’t presume God will say no. Don’t be afraid to ask God for help. Not as a last resort but speaking to him as your Heavenly Father as you would speak to your earthly parent. That’s why the Lord’s Prayer begins – Our Father in Heaven. It’s very personal.
Secondly, we are asked to trust. Just as Jesus trusted – not my will be done but yours. Sometimes we don’t understand why God allows things to happen or doesn’t prevent things from happening. And that’s what trust is all about. God is our heavenly Father. He created us in his own image. He loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. Why would he not continue to act in a loving way towards us. Remember that our perfect life is waiting for us in Heaven. Until then we live in an imperfect, fallen world with free-will.
What prayer helps us with in that time is to know that our Heavenly Father is with us. And that he strengthens us to cope with those situations. But there will be times when God will intervene, like the persistent widow in our Gospel reading – like the persistent Canaanite mother, like Nineveh. But there will be times like Sodom and Gomorrah where we have to trust in God. But the important thing is that we keep praying. And when we just don’t know what to pray then Jesus has given us his own prayer to pray. When you just don’t have the strength to pray then God himself, though the Holy Spirit will pray for us, as Paul says in Romans: The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.
We don’t always understand God’s will or ways but St Paul encourages us, in his letter to the Philippians – to not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.