This weekend marks a mile stone for me. I went to Kentucky to attend the graduation of the youngest kids who were in my youth group when I left for Chattanooga back in 2003. I can't believe it is already time for them to graduate. I can still remember announcing to the youth that I was leaving after four great years of youth ministry. I remember Kelsi, who graduated this year, telling me that I would not get to see her graduate and I remember making the promise that I would be there. Leaving is never easy. Dennis Flaugher will be leaving First-Centenary after six years of being our discipleship pastor and Clair will be leaving after two years of being our student minister. I am sure they are just as sad as I was six years ago.
Throughout the Farewell Discourses, Jesus has been announcing that he will only be with them for a little will. Now, in the final section of the discourse or the final sermon, whichever way you view this material, Jesus again tells them that he is leaving. The text reads,
"A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me." 17 Then some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying to us, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'; and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" 18 They said, "What does he mean by this 'a little while'? We do not know what he is talking about." 19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, "Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'? 20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. 25 "I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father." 29 His disciples said, "Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God." 31 Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (NRSV John 16:16-33)
Jesus makes the statement that in a little while they will no longer see him, but then in a little while they will see him again
The whole text can be divided into two parts based on the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. They ask one question and give one comment. First, in verses 17 and 18 they ask, "What does Jesus mean my saying this and what is a little while. Jesus answers the question by giving them that in a little while he will leave them, the world will be happy, and the disciples will weep and morn, but that after a "little while" their weeping will turn to joy when Jesus comes back.
There have been two lines of thought regarding how to understand this passage. Some folks have thought that this refers to the time between Jesus' death and his second coming. This would mean that we are living in the midst of the period of weeping and suffering, but we are to wait for the day of Jesus' return where our weeping will turn to joy.
I think a better understanding of this passage would be to say that the "little while" refers to the time between Jesus' death and resurrection. At Jesus' death the disciples would weep, but at his resurrection their sorrow would turn to joy. If this is the case, which I think it is, this would mean that we are living in the time of joy. It also means, as Jesus continues on that we are at the time when we can ask anything is Jesus' name and it will be given. Jesus says during the time we are in now, if we ask, he will tell us plainly.
The second peace of this discourse is when the disciples make the comment that Jesus is finally speaking to them plainly and they now believe the things Jesus is telling them. Jesus tells them that their will be a time of persecution, but it is telling them these things so that they will have peace.
The Problem with Petitioner Prayer
I want to turn our attention to a small piece of this passage that has troubled many people. When Jesus is explaining what things will be like when he returns, he says, "On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete." This is not the first time in the Farewell discourses that Jesus has mentioned this fact. In chapter 14, you may recall that Jesus tells the disciples that because he is going to the father, they will do even greater things than he has done. He then tells the disciples, "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." (NRSV John 14:13-14) The again in chapter 15, Jesus says, "You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name." (NRSV John 15:16)
I think CS Lewis sums the problem up nicely in his only book on prayer, Letters to Malcolm when he suggests that the issue is not that God does not grant every request we make of him. We know that we oftentimes ask prayers that are not in our best interest. We also realize that some of our prayers, if they were granted would mean that someone else's prayers were not granted. For instance, in this tough economy, many people are applying for jobs and praying sincerely that they get the job. Knowing that it is God's will for people to work if they can, this seems like a prayer that God would grant. However, when God answers yes to one person, it means keep looking for someone else.
Lewis goes on to say that intellectually we can understand why God does not grant every prayer request, but what is more troubling is that he promises to grant anything that is asked in Jesus name. So, why would Jesus promise us something so huge and yet not be able to follow through on it.
The Three Not so Right Answers
It seems that this question is often answered in two different ways that I believe are unhelpful. First, it is said that God already has his mind made up before we pray, so that when we pray we are really just praying to discover God's will. The purpose of prayer is not to petition God for things, but to change our own hearts to accept God's will.
I do want to say that this answer is not totally wrong. I do firmly believe that part of what God does in prayer is to help us understand his will better and to deepen our relationship with him more. The problem with this view is that it is not what Jesus tells us in these passages. He does not say pray in my name so that you will have a deeper understanding of what my will is. He does say that if we ask in his name he will give us a more clear understanding of things.
On the other side, people often say that the reason God does not answer our prayers is because the person does not pray with enough faith. To me this is even more troubling than the first answer. While I do think that there are some things that God wants to do for us, but waits until we ask him, there are many things that faithful Christians ask in prayer that are not granted.
The third "not so right answers" is what I call the Garth Brooks Solution." You may remember his song, "Unanswered Prayers." which takes place when he and his current wife run into his old high school girlfriend, whom Garth had asked God to make it so that she would marry him. This is what he says,
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you're talking to the man upstairs
Just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers
Again, part of this song is helpful. Sometimes we do not get the response to our prayers we wanted and we do find that God somehow takes our lives and makes something great out of it. Oftentimes we are thankful for the way our lives turned out and we are glad God did not say yes to our prayer. The reason this is not completely the solution though, is twofold. (1) I believe God response to all of our prayers so that none of those prayers go answered. (2) What happens when our unanswered prayers do not turn out so well. I guess under the "Garth Brooks Solution" some of God greatest practical jokes would be unanswered prayers. The way our life turns out does not determine the effectiveness of our prayer and whether God answers them.
What does it mean to Pray in Jesus' name?
It seems to me that to understand why Jesus would make such a claim to his disciples that he did mean that they could really ask in his name and it would be granted means two things for sure:
- God calls Christians to participate in the work that God is doing with our prayers. When we read the context around the John 14 passage quoted earlier, we will notice that the context is about Jesus; followers being able to do greater things than what Jesus did. Part of the way they would be able to do this was that Jesus would send someone to come along beside them, namely the Holy Spirit, but the other explanation for how this is possible is that they will be able to draw on Jesus through prayer.
For some reason, God finds it best not to just determine everything to be the way that it is, but God wants to use his followers to accomplish his purposes in the world. Prayer in one of the key ways God wants us to do this. By praying in Jesus' name, God will give us the power to do God's will.
- Secondly, God has called us so that we will bear fruit in our lives. Praying in Jesus' name in John 15 is for the purposes of bearing fruit. What does it mean to "bear fruit?" It means that will love one another. Praying in Jesus' name is important because by doing so it should allow us to form the character of a person who loves others.
Practically speaking, praying in Jesus' name may mean that we get the opposite of what we ask for. If God wants to grant us fruit in our lives so that we love one another, then when we pray those selfish prayers, God could use those moments as a teaching moment to help us grow into the mature person God wants us to be.
- Finally, in the passage we read this morning, the subject matter turns to the disciples having understanding into what Jesus is telling them. Notice that they do not understand the meaning of Jesus' teaching. Jesus then tells the disciples that one day their sorrow will be turned to joy and on that day they can ask for anything in his name. He then tells them that one day they will understand him plainly and when that happens, they can ask for anything in his name.
Ask for Permission and Forgiveness
We often hear the expression, "It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission." Of course we say this when we want to do something that we want to do, but we know that those responsible will not think it is a good idea. We then act on our idea and hope it works out. When it does, we look good, but when it fails we then have to ask forgiveness. I am sure all of us have been in this type of situations.
When it comes to prayer, I think it is important to ask for both permission and forgiveness. Here is what I mean. The more I think about Jesus' comments about asking in my name, the more I think about why Jesus would have said these words. As we have already said, it is not because all our requests are granted. We have suggested that it has something to do with us helping in God's work in the world and our developing the character God wants us to have.
The more I think about it, the more I think praying in Jesus' name is not about getting the thing we ask for, but getting the power necessary to be God's ambassador in the world. The details we ask for are secondary to the purpose that God wants to achieve. As Lewis suggests, it isn't about getting our request granted, it is about knowing that Jesus is listening to us where we are and responding in such a way so we can truly do the work of God in the world.
If that is true, then it is important to ask permission of God. God wants us to reveal our heart to him. God also wants to change our hearts, which may mean we have to ask for forgiveness.