Baptism of our Lord
Heavenly Father, who creates in us the longing to be reunited with you in relationship through prayer, help us to seek your will, listen to your answers, and walk in your ways, through your Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
It is a compelling scene, Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River. There are hundreds of paintings and drawings, icons and statues of this scene. Jesus standing next to John the Baptist with all those people milling about on the banks of the river. With the dove over his head and a voice that comes out of nowhere. But the way Luke tells the story, its only after Jesus starts praying that the voice and the dove appear, showing the full Trinity. Wouldn't we all love such an immediate answer to our prayers?! If only every time I prayed, I heard an audible answer!
Throughout Luke's gospel, prayer plays an integral part of the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus wanders off by himself to pray, Jesus asks the disciples to pray with him, Jesus spends those hours in the garden praying before he is betrayed. Its only through prayer that God's voice is heard and the heavens are opened. But what is prayer? We don't know how or what Jesus was doing when he was praying in this instance. Was he speaking out loud with the people around him? Was he standing by himself, or kneeling, or sitting? Were there even words involved? And what did Jesus pray about that God's answer was to have the Holy Spirit descend upon him and to tell him that he is the beloved, God's son, and that God is truly pleased with him?
We don't know. There is a lot about prayer that we don't know. There are many misconceptions about prayer in this world. Some people believe that all prayer needs to be in the form of words, sometimes even in very specific words. Another misconception about prayer is the "ask and you shall receive" idea. The thought is that if you ask with enough faith, you will get what you asked for. Lets talk about these two ideas, before we talk about what prayer is.
As Episcopalians, we have many beautiful traditional prayers. We have a whole prayer book full of prayers that have been handed down to us over the years by many gifted writers and poets. Even before our Book of Common Prayer, there were the lord's Prayer and the Jesus Prayer, and the rosary prayers that grounded people in their relationship with Christ and allowed them to be in the presence of God. However, these prayers are not magic spells or incantations. These prayers are prayers to broaden our own time with God, to help the community give voice to some common issues and problems that we keep coming up against, and to help us pray when we don't know what to say. And sometimes it is perfectly good prayer practice to tell God that you have no words to say, just to share with God your feelings and pain as an act of relationship.
And then we have the "ask and you shall receive" idea. Where prayer is the mystical ability to ask God for anything in good faith and you will get it. This is based in part on the verse from the Sermon on the Mount, found in various words in all the gospels. There are many who base their whole faith on this kind of understanding and we see this in many who proclaim what we call a prosperity gospel. That if you are good, you will prosper, partly because whatever you ask for, you shall receive.
I found this poem written about this "ask and you shall receive" understanding of prayer, and I found the last line of it rather amusing.
Ask and you shall receive
but receive what?
Couldn't He have been more specific
will I receive for which I ask
or something different in return
and all those questions shouted out
without answer, without hope
what gift shall be made of them
when only silence
(what kind of answer is silence?)
when only silence
silence is all that's given to receive
emptiness - yet in overwhelmed states
what I would do for some empty silence rest
yes, ask, I wonder,
for I shall always ask
and for every asking shall receive
but He did not promise the two would correlate.
I wonder in some ways if this is what happened to Jesus when he was baptized and was praying. Knowing the ministry that he was about to begin, my head overflows with the number of thing he could have been praying for in that moment. That perhaps he didn't have to go through with it, for strength, or guidance. But what we hear is God voicing his love and confidence in Jesus. And I am sure that was enough for Jesus. When I think about the ask and you shall receive idea of prayer, I am grateful that I do not always get what I ask for. I rely instead on Gods understanding to give me what God thinks is best. Sometimes we learn as we pray that what we have prayed for wouldn't be the best thing for us. Sometimes when we get an answer that is different or exactly what we wanted, we realize it wasn't the best idea.
So what is prayer?
Prayer is the communication between you and God that forms the working relationship between you. Just as our relationships with people involve so much more than just the words we say or write to them, our relationship with God is so much more than just the words we say in prayer.
Prayer is God at work in us, some of the ancient fathers said that we could not manage to pray without the Holy Spirit already at work within us. We believe that every act of prayer involves the full Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A theologian I once read wrote that prayer is the voice of God within us that is longing for reunion with God outside of us.
Like our relationships with other people which go deeper than words, into time spent living with them, helping them, working besides them, laughing with them, giving them looks across the room, and sharing moments of pain with them, our relationship with God can include all of that, and all of that is prayer. When we acknowledge that the work we do is done with God, when we share our pain and joy with God without words. When we rest in silence, and when we try to listen to what God is saying to us.
I hope you will take some time this evening in this lovely setting to share with God beyond the words that we say together, to open yourself up to hear what God is saying to you.