A Sermon by Dr. Michael A. Milton, Senior Minister
The First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, TN
Originally Preached on: Sunday, March 18th, 2007
Introduction to the Reading
“I wondered if when we take Christian theology out of the context of it’s narrative, when we ignore the poetry in which it is presented, when we turn it into formulas to help us achieve the American Dream, we lose its meaning entirely, and the ideas become fodder for the head but have no impact on the way we live our lives or think about God.”
We can do that with Scriptures about prayer. This morning, we want to hear Jesus’ teaching about how our union in Christ produces answerded prayer. But we want to study it in the context of its narrative and received the full blessing of its impact.
Listen to the inerrant and infallible Word of God.
Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” – John 15.7-8 ESV
1 John 5:14, “This is the confidence which we have before him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us.”
“The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (from 1Peter 1.24-25 ESV).
Today I want to bring you a Bible message that I am calling: “The Open Invitation.”
But first let us pray.
Prayer for Illumination
Lord, with your disciples, we plea, ‘Teach us to pray.’ But we lay hold of Your promise that ‘in thy light, we shall see light.’ And so we pray with expectation in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Introduction to the Sermon
Once upon a time there was a little six-year-old boy who knelt beside his bed to say his prayers. He began a typical six-year-old prayer when all of a sudden he stopped, looked up in frustration at this parents and declared:
“I am tired of praying for Aunt Greta to get married, Uncle Virgil to get a job, Momma to lose weight and Daddy to get some hair! Can’t we get some results for this family sometime?”
I read this week about Larry Crabb, the noted Christian counselor, who said that when he was a boy and heard, in church, that if you believed, you could ask whatever you wished and get it, that he tried it. He went outside and prayed to fly like Superman and ran and jumped four times and each time landed a second later and half a foot farther down the driveway. Well, I went one better than Larry Crabb. I heard this also, prayed to be a super hero (not superman, but my own super hero), got on the roof of an outhouse, put on a cape, jumped what must have been ten feet off of the edge and broke my arm! Aunt Eva wanted to know what possessed me to try such a trick. I told her. I think she told me to repent. Larry Crabb said after his incident, “Thus began my 50 year journey of confusion about prayer.”
There are many of us confused when we hear about desires of our hearts being met, and whatever we wish being done for us. Faithful followers of Jesus lie today in the hospital with cancer and prayers for healing are unmet. Infertile couples sob softly at night in each other’s arms and wonder why God denies them a child. A child lies awake at night and wonders why God took away his daddy.
For them the passage today, untaught, or taught unfaithfully, becomes theological cruelty. But these things must not be so. I do not claim today to answer all of your questions. But I do think, that this passage may be taught so as to see it, not as a confusing promise, but an open invitation.
What this passage is not saying
The passage is not saying that God gives us whatever we want without any other criteria for the prayer. I know the text says, “whatsoever you wish,” but the text has a context and has a condition. We will examine those in a moment.
The passage is not saying that you have the power to dictate to God what He must do. This is the polar opposite of the errant theological view that says that if God knows why pray. The answer to that is that God ordains the end but God also demands and ordains the means to that end. But we must be careful, God does not exist to move at the whim of His children, any more than a good father who loves His children, exists to be made into a money machine by his children, dispensing whatever they desire whenever they want it.
Arthur W. Pink put it like this:
“The prevailing idea seems to be, that I come to God and ask Him for something that I want, and that I expect Him to give me that which I have asked. But this is a most dishonoring and degrading conception. The popular belief reduces God to a servant, our servant: doing our bidding, performing our pleasure, granting our desires. No, prayer is a coming to God, telling Him my need, committing my way unto the Lord, and leaving Him to deal with it as seemeth Him best.”
As C.S. Lewis put it, prayer is a lesser creature pleading with a greater creature—in this case, a loving Heavenly Father—for some blessing. This passage is not denying that. But it is saying something definitive and important about prayer and it is an open invitation for everyone here.
What this passage is saying
Through the context noted, the condition cited, and the clarity that is thus found, we can come to three powerful affirmations about the open invitation of Jesus to prayer.
We have to first see the context of the passage
Without context, the text is isolated, alone, and can produce extraordinary expectations that do not accord with the rest of Scripture or with experience. And we are left with a Christianity that others say does not work. We are left disappointed with God. We are left to ask if we are faithful enough, if we have had enough people praying, or any number of other factors that depend on us.
The context is bearing fruit in the Christian life by being connected to the source of true life, our Lord Jesus Christ. The context is seen by the passage before:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15.5
If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. John 15.6
The one who is in Christ will see answered prayer for more spiritual growth in Christ, whereas the one who is not truly connected will not only wither but will be judged.
The passage is understood by what is next:
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. John 15.8
The passages taken as a whole show that God desires more fruit from our lives as believers, and when we pray to possess that, and we are granted that answer, then we bring glory to God and become proven witnesses for God in the world, which makes more disciples, which means more people worshipping God, which means more whole people redeemed from the fall and ready to live eternal lives of joy, which is God’s purpose.
Quite simply, this passage means this:
Affirmation Number One: When we seek more of Jesus for our lives, we bring more honor for God in the world.
Next we need to take note of the condition in the passage
The condition that is given in the first clause of the sentence is that we must abide in Jesus and His Word abides in us. What does this mean? It means that the channels between branch and vine must be open to receive the life giving sap of Christ. It means that we ought to be receptive to the Word of Jesus into our lives. It means more than memorizing a passage, it means desiring it. It means craving the words of Jesus, desiring His presence in our lives. He promises that whoever asks will receive. He says that whoever knocks will have the door answered and He will come in and commune with us. So this is a passage that says if we are abiding in Jesus there will be life.
I am going to be going on a pastoral vision trip, on behalf of our church, to Albania. I have been there before. It is the only real Third World country in Europe. When I went last time, out of about 10 people on the preaching trip, I, the preacher, was the only one not to get sick. And my secret? Massive doses of antibiotics! They were alive in my system and all of the germs that attacked others and made them sick, attacked me and were repelled. And I hope to do this again! Now, I also made sure that in the weeks prior to my trip I ate plenty of yogurt with all of those active cultures! With anti biotic and live cultures flowing through me I probably will set off some kind of airport security, but I will be clean and protected!
This is what God’s Word does in a believer. Now my medical knowledge may be a bit off in that illustration, but the truth I am trying to get over is absolutely certain. God’s Word protects and cleanses. And it is in this state, close to Jesus, abiding in Him, His Word in us, that something happens.
John Piper put it like this in a rhyme:
“More saturated by the word
More surely will our prayers be heard.”
Affirmation Number Two: When we have more of the Word of Christ in our minds we will have more of the power of God in our prayers.
Finally, we can receive the clarity of the passage
If we know the context and the condition we can move on to clarity. This passage is saying that as we are being called to bear fruit, if we abide in Jesus and pray for whatever we wish—and the Greek word is thelete (present tense and thus anytime)—it shall be done for us. As the Lutheran Bible scholar, Lenski, put is: “No limits exists for the vine… ” The promise is related to an earlier word that Jesus gave to the disciples in John 14.13,14:
And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. John 14.13
You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. John 14.14
The name of Jesus is more than just a mantra using the word, “Jesus” at the end of our prayers. It means that we are praying according to His nature, His Lordship, His kingdom, His purposes, and His glory. Thus, again, the promise is not a sort of divine blank check in which we write out whatever we wish apart from Jesus’ wishes.
Thus, Paul, who most certainly was abiding in the Spirit of Jesus, and seeking the glory of His name, sought the Lord three times for healing. But the answer was no. Instead, Jesus answered prayer by giving the Apostle who preached grace, the grace that became practical, to overcome the pain.
So we must not press the promise to a health and wealth position that says that whatever we want God must give.
But this also helps us in another way. Most of us here agree that it is not right to pray for a new care in the driveway and to live pain free for the rest of our lives. But we do pray for our husband who is suffering from depression—and is that wrong? We do pray for a very sick little child to recover? And is that wrong?
Of course not. And of course we are called to pray. And the prayers of a righteous man availeth much. But we do not control God, we make our plea to Him and we leave our request with a wise, sovereign and good heavenly Father who sees what we cannot see and knows what we cannot know. And sometimes the answer comes, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
And all of this is saying:
Affirmation Number Three: The more clearly I see His will; the more nearly will I pray His will.
If you are abiding in Jesus, and He is you, you desire what He desires. You do not know, of course, whether He will answer a prayer that you survive your heart ailments. But you know that He desires that you grow stronger in your faith in Him as you suffer. Will you now come to Him and surrender to Him and will you not ask Him for a new found faith to face this problem? Will you ask to produce the fruit of faith to bring glory to Jesus? I do not know if God will answer your prayer and allow Harvard to accept your application for a full ride scholarship? I cannot say whether he will answer your prayers—and I assure you your parents’ prayers— that you will go to school for free, but if you abide in Jesus and His Word abide in your, you may be moved to see the desire of Jesus to produce the fruit of patience in your life? Will you trust Him for that? I cannot say whether you will get the new job that you just know is right for you. It may be that God will answer that prayer in that way. But I know that if you abide in the Lord and His Word abides in you, you can ask for a new spirit of gratitude for the job you have and He will give you that. This is His promise. That by bearing much fruit you will bring the Father glory and you will prove to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I quote A.W. Pink again:
“Real prayer is communion with God, so that there will be common thoughts between His mind and ours. What is needed is for Him to fill our hearts with His thoughts, and then His desires will become our desires flowing back to Him.”
I share the real life testimonies of people just like you and me because I want you to see that truly this faith is a faith for living. I want you to know that God’s Word is as alive today as when Jesus spoke these words. We are not that different from those to whom He spoke. And God is the same yesterday, today and forever.
I know of a young lady who is so filled with Jesus that you cannot be in her presence without coming away thinking that you have been with Christ. But this dear daughter of the Lord developed a disease. It was hoped that one operation would clear it all up. I sat with the family. We were hopeful. And we prayed to God for His help and for His healing. There was a time of waiting. And then this young woman learned that she was not completely healed. There would be more treatments. Did God not answer this godly young woman’s prayers? I will let you hear her testimony:
“God is so good as He has shown [my husband] and me His love, mercy and provision as we journey through this. We continue to pray that He will be glorified and that Satan will not get a foothold. Thank you for your prayers- we know that it makes all the difference! [We are in His hands].
“In His hands.” Her words sound so familiar.
“Abide in me and my Word in you and ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and prove to be my disciples.”
What do you think? Is God answering her prayers to bear more fruit? Is He glorified?
And do you want that kind of faith in your life? It is not through religion but through relationship. It is not through duty it is through grace. It is not through the flesh but through the Spirit. It is not just for then but it is for now.
It is not just for others. It is for you.
Prayer of Commitment
Lord Jesus, I want Your Word of grace in my life, because I am tired of trying to be good in my religion. I want your righteousness in my soul, for I have none of my own. I want your salvation, because I have only shame. I want your closeness, for I often feel distant. I want to face life with hope, because I have lived my past with pain. I receive you by faith, for I have heard your Word and I accept your open invitation. In Jesus; name. Amen.
Lenski, R.C.H. The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998. Reprint, 1st.
Pink, Arthur W. The Sovereignty of God (4th) [Internet]. Sovereign-grace.com, 1918 [cited March 17 2007]. Available from http://www.sovereign-grace.com/pink/chapter09.htm.