July 5, 2009
Today is supposed to be sermon number three about King David, one of the most fascinating characters in biblical literature. But I’m not going to preach about David this morning. I have another sermon topic that I have been thinking about for a few months. It is unanswered prayer. And the reason I wanted to preach about unanswered prayer is because I have been praying the same prayer every day for six months and it has essentially gone unanswered.
In Psalm 13 the author asks God four times—“Why do you ignore me?” Has God forgotten him? Has God abandoned him? Almost half of the psalms are focused on God’s apparent absence and the author’s cries for help. Three times Paul asks God to remove the thorn from his flesh. And what is God’s answer to the greatest missionary and evangelist of the early church? No. Does God just not answer some of our prayers?
What about the parents who pray that their child will be cured of cancer and the child dies anyway? What about the husband who asks for just a little bit more time with his wife of 50 years but she dies in his arms within the hour? What about the person who has been in chronic pain for 10 months and prays for relief and it does not come? What about the unemployed who pray for a job opportunity and month after month goes by without a new job? Where is God in our pain and suffering? If God can do anything, why do these prayers go unanswered?
And look at the example of Jesus, who just before he was to suffer and die on the cross, prays to God and says, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible.” (Mark 14:36) Jesus knows that God can do anything, so he asks for God to remove this cup from him, to not let him have to suffer and die. God could have done something, but he didn’t. God was silent. God said no. I too have felt that no, and it’s not what I want to hear.
I don’t believe that God gives us suffering just for the sake of suffering or just to provide an opportunity to teach us a lesson. I think life happens, we all have struggles, and as people of faith we know that God never promised us a perfect life. But I know there are people in this congregation today who are suffering. And in their suffering they feel like God has abandoned them and not answered their prayers. Some are suffering physical pain. Some are suffering the pain of broken relationships. And the pain I have talked to many of you about is the pain of unemployment. There is a woman here today who worked for 14 years for the same company and then they came to her on a Friday and said she needed to be out of the office by 4:00 o’clock that afternoon. There is a man here today who uprooted his family to move to Indianapolis three years ago and was laid off last month. There is a recent college graduate here today who worked hard in school and graduated Phi Beta Kappa—and who sends out resume after resume but gets no response. There is a person here today who was in management and who took a job at half his former salary so his family can continue to have health insurance. These are hard working people, many of whom have families to support, but who can not find employment with our economy still in such a deep recession. These members of our faith family feel rejected, they feel like failures even though they’re not, and they are worried and scared. Sometimes they feel rejected and abandoned by God.
So my prayer each and every day for the last six months has been for those who are unemployed or underemployed. In our ChristCare staff group meetings each Wednesday we go around the table and share out loud the prayers of our hearts. Our Director of Christian Education, Debbie Bulloff, prays for the children and the families of the Sunday School each week. Our Parish Nurse, Liz Neterval, prays for our troops and their families. And I pray for the unemployed and the underemployed with a special prayer for a special young man.
God doesn’t always give us what we ask, does he? But I do think God provides us with what we need. (I think there’s a Rolling Stones song about that, isn’t there?) Maybe we have some lessons to learn first—patience or humility or perseverance. Maybe we need help from counselors or doctors or medications. Maybe we just need a break from someone who can give us a lead on a job, or a treatment, or the recommendation of a good counselor. Maybe we need to move from self-reliance to God-reliance.
Paul asked God to remove a thorn from his side, to remove something from his life that was giving him great pain. But instead God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The thorn is not removed. But Paul’s circumstances do change because he comes to recognize the presence and the strength of God within his situation. In our weakness, in our suffering, in our unanswered prayers, God reveals the hope and the power of grace in Jesus Christ. There can now be some meaning in suffering—it makes us depend on God’s strength rather than just our own.
I also think that sometimes we just need to embrace God’s silence. It may seem like God has abandoned us. I have certainly felt that way at times. Maybe you have too. But God is there in the silence. And although it is painful sometimes we have to embrace the suffering. We have to embrace that God is not answering our prayers, knowing that God is still with us. Because when we are in pain, when we are weak or vulnerable, when the economy, or our friends, or our loved ones let us down, God does not let us down. God has always been faithful. God will always be faithful. God will be with us in the valleys. We do not suffer alone.
Madeleine L’Engel—who wrote my favorite book of 4th grade (A Wrinkle in Time)—said, “I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.” (1)
Whenever Paul is weak, he says that he is strong. Whenever Paul is weak, he remembers that the greatest of all powers belongs to God, not to human beings. The power to heal, the power to forgive, the power to renew, the power to create, the power to love—all of these things come from God. They don’t come from us.
Paul concludes this part of his letter to the Corinthians by saying, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” In our suffering, in our unanswered prayers, in the thorns in our sides, we can no longer rely on the pretense of our own personal strength. And that is when we can let in Christ’s power—the hope and power of grace.
So I encourage you to keep praying, even if you do not feel like your prayers are being answered or even if the answer is no. I encourage you to let the church know if you are looking for a job or have positions that need to be filled. We have an employment page on our web site where you can post resumes and position descriptions. And I am going to keep praying my prayer every day. Even in the silence I know God is listening. In some way and at some time I will know God’s answer to my supplications. And while I am waiting, I am learning to make room for the power of God’s grace. I am learning to need the light and the love and the power of God. Thanks be to God. Amen
e-sermons.com—Grace in the Midst of Unanswered Prayer (used for quote #2 and general ideas)
Feasting on the Word—Year B, Volume 3 – Proper 9
Homileticsonline —The People v. God, June 29, 2008 (used for quote #1)
Homileticsonline —T3, July 6, 2003