The sermon by Reverend Victor Shepherd begins with an interesting question. What would expose our faith in God as a fantasy or delusion. The answer is “If prayer is not heard”. Most prayers are intercessory prayers asking God for things on behalf of others. As Christians, we pray to a living God with the expectation that our prayers are heard and will be answered. Even when it appears our prayers are not answered as we would wish them to be answered, in faith we believe they are answered according to God’s will often in mysterious ways. The sermon concludes with reference to the anguish and heartache suffered by Paul, who learned from his suffering that even when words fail “… The spirit helps us in our weakness… For the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words”. When we are overcome by anxiety, guilt, grief, bodily pain, or mental anguish, God hears our inarticulate expressions and receives even these utterances as intercessional prayer. The sermon is rich in thought and worth reading several times to mine its deep meaning and relevance to our prayer life.
A Note on Intercessory Prayer
Psalm 55:1-3;16-19 1st Thessalonians 5:12-22 Luke 11:1-13
Prior to his death in 2003 my friend, Emil Fackenheim, was a world-class philosopher; in fact he was the luminary in the philosophy department, University of Toronto. He was my professor when I was in fourth year philosophy, U of T, and again when I was a graduate student. He was also a rabbi, a humble believer in the Holy One of Israel, and a former inmate of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp—where 6,000 men were reduced to 300. (His brother, Wolfgang, unable to flee Berlin, suicided in 1941.) Fackenheim has asked the question, “What would undermine the Jewish faith?” Plainly it’s a question whose answer Christians should be listening for too. “What would expose faith as mere fantasy, devotion to God as mere delusion?” Fackenheim’s answer is simple and blunt: “If prayer is not ‘heard’”. If prayer is not ‘heard’ then what we are about today, at worship, is an exercise in self-deception.
Fackenheim’s answer moves me, and moves me again because of the answer he didn’t give. He was, let us remember, one of Jewry’s profoundest thinkers on the Holocaust, the Shoah. He was tormented by the recollection of children separated from their parents and thrown alive into the ovens, their captors not wanting to waste gas on children. He was tormented by the recollection of boxcar after boxcar of his people degraded, then exploited, then tortured, then finally gassed and burned up – six million of them.
Yet we must note one thing: this horrific development doesn’t undermine the faith of someone who stands in the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; doesn’t expose worship as mere wishful thinking. Yet if prayer isn’t ‘heard’, the entire enterprise of faith is rendered fraudulent. According to Fackenheim believing people can cry with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” But we can’t cry, “Though he hear me not, yet will I believe in him.” We can contend with the God who slays us, says my old friend; we can’t do anything with the God who ignores us.
Prophet and apostle exhort us to pray at all times and in all places. Paul reminds us tersely, “Pray constantly.”
I: — Yet as soon as we attempt to “pray constantly”, reservations about the enterprise may flood us. We suspect prayer of being a childish attempt at magic, all the more embarrassing because it is now an adult attempt at magic. How many adults have ceased to pray, having concluded that intercessory prayer is the modern disguise that cloaks primitive attempts at magic?
Then it’s all the more important that we understand something crucial about this topic; namely, the people who were most eager to uphold the necessity and efficacy of prayer (Israel) were simultaneously the people most eager to repudiate magic. The torah scorns magic. The prophets denounce it. Magic is the attempt at using power for selfish ends. Magic is the attempt at manipulating whatever power-concentrations there might be, at however many levels of the universe there might be. Magic is disdaining our vocation as servants of God at the same time that we think we can harness God to be the servant of us. The torah prescribes the severest penalty for magic. The prophets denounce magic-traffickers as “liars and deceivers”. Isaiah calls them “the offspring of the adulterer and the harlot”. Jeremiah comes upon some people who think there is magical potency in their incantation, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” People mumble the incantation relentlessly and mindlessly, thinking that their mumbo-jumbo mantra, multiplied indefinitely, will spare them the judgement of God that has come upon their nation. “Only if you truly amend your ways”, corrects Jeremiah, “only if you truly execute justice and do not oppress the stranger or shed innocent blood”; that is, “only if you truly repent, turn around, will you be spared. But as long as you rely on the incantation you haven’t repented; as long as you rely on the incantation you remain self-deluded.”
Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that there was a sleazy fellow named Simon (not to be confused with the apostle Peter) who impressed many, telling them that he was “somebody great”. Simon saw the power at work in the apostles who were engaged in the work of the kingdom, and decided that he would be “somebody even greater” if he could get hold of such power for himself. He offered the apostles money. Peter, enraged, shouted at him, “You and your money be damned, for you think you can buy the gift of God.” The Israelite mind, always eager to commend prayer, is equally eager to condemn magic.
And yet it’s easy to confuse prayer and magic.
(i) We confuse prayer and magic whenever we invoke God’s blessing on what is not of his kingdom. We do this most pointedly in war. George Orwell (an agnostic who never pretended to be anything else) knew better. Orwell wrote, “War has never been right; war has never been sane; but sometimes war has been necessary.” Exactly. Sometimes necessary, but never right; never a sign of God’s kingdom, never an anticipation of the Messianic Age, shalom, when swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
In the ancient world Israel was surrounded by nations that believed in temple-prostitution. These nations maintained that sexual union with a priestess united the worshipper with the deity she represented. Israel’s prophets denounced this practice as magic, since temple-prostitution invoked the blessing of God on what contradicted the nature and purpose of God.
(ii) We confuse prayer with magic whenever prayer isn’t linked to obedience. It’s easy for me to intercede with God for the spiritual quickening of the congregation. But if I’m cavalier about exemplifying myself what I want for the congregation then I am relying on magic.
(iii) We confuse prayer with magic whenever we pray and yet are unwilling to be used of God in his answering our prayer. We read of shocking injustice or evil in our society and then rail at God, “How can you allow this?” — when all the while that’s precisely the question God is putting to us. We teach our children to intercede for the afflicted of the world. But if we have already made up our mind that the afflicted are never, simply never, going to claim anything of our time or money or energy then we are schooling our children in magic.
(iv) We confuse prayer with magic whenever prayer becomes a substitute for work. When our foreparents maintained that we are to work as though everything depended on us and pray as though everything depended on God, our foreparents weren’t being clever to the point of being smart-alecks. Our foreparents were profound.
Then when does prayer differ from magic? Prayer is non-magical when we pray “in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” Now by that I don’t mean that we add these eight words to anything we have asked for; after all, we all know by now that incantations are one more attempt at magic. “Name”, in Hebrew, means nature, purpose, reputation, reputation vindicated. To pray in the name of Jesus Christ is to pray in conformity to the nature and purpose of God as God has vindicated himself in that Son whom he has raised from the dead. To pray in the name of Jesus Christ is to pray for anything and everything that is in accord with his rule and will and purpose.
In the written gospels some people come to Jesus and ask him childishly, naively, almost superstitiously for this or that or something else – like the mother of James and John when she wants privileged recognition for her two sons. Yet our Lord never ridicules or dismisses such people. On the contrary, in his company they learn to ask for more than they asked for at first; they learn to ask differently; they learn that the kingdom of God isn’t national prominence or frivolous luxury or privileged recognition. And so they learn to plead with God not from the perspective of their shallow “gimmees” but from the perspective of the kingdom, from the perspective of God’s vindication of himself in a world which thinks it has humiliated him and marginalized him. In short, we learn to pray on behalf of those concerns of ours that are first concerns of God’s.
II: — What are we to say about intercessory prayer itself?
In the first place we must admit that most prayer is intercessory; we are pleading with God on behalf of ourselves and others. Yes, there is the prayer of adoration, the prayer of thanksgiving, the prayer of confession. At the same time, prayer is chiefly intercession. Martin Luther was correct when he said, on his deathbed, “Wir sind Bettler; das ist Wahr”: “We are beggars; this is true.” Before God we are beggars — and always shall be. You must have noticed that once we are past the salutation of the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father who art in heaven”) the remainder of the Lord’s Prayer is all intercession. We are asking God for forgiveness, for daily necessities, for protection against trials too severe for us to withstand, for the spread of his effectual rule among men and women. Paul tells the Christians in Philippi, “…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know unto God.” Prayer is intercession, finally.
In the second place we must admit that God commands us to pray. The act of prayer isn’t rooted ultimately in our need (i.e., we pray because we need help – although of course we do need help). The act of prayer isn’t rooted ultimately in our aspiration (i.e., we pray because we long for God — although I trust we do long for God). The act of prayer is rooted ultimately in our obedience: we pray because God insists that we pray.
This lattermost point is important. Because God insists that we pray we must never think that our praying makes no difference. It is inconceivable that God requires of us, and requires of us relentlessly (“pray constantly”) something that is finally pointless. The fact that God commands us to pray can only mean that God has rendered us agents (under-agents) in his governance of the world. We haven’t been created mere spectators of God’s governance of the world, as if we were spectators at a play, merely watching the real actors on the stage. We are never to be mere spectators; we are part of the play itself, and — this is the breathtaking aspect — we even have a part in directing the play. To be sure, God alone is sovereign. He governs the world and all that occurs in it. But God’s governance isn’t akin to that of a dictator coercing a state; God’s governance is much more like an artist creating a work of art, bringing into it every contribution from every person, including the prayers we offer. Our prayers are part of the “stuff” that God takes up and uses in his furthering his own will in us and others. In short, God wills to have our wills affect his will. Since God wills to have our wills affect his will, we must will in that special form of willing that is prayer.
Does this mean that apart from our praying, the work of God is inhibited? Does it mean that if we neglect to pray, the work of God is restricted? It’s a sobering notion. Then we must look at Mark’s comment (6:5,6) concerning our Lord’s frustration in one particular town, where people were spiritually inert. “And Jesus could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief.”
In a way that remains mysterious to us God has made us under-agents in his governance of the world. Precisely how our intercession is gathered up in his sovereignty we can’t plumb. But that our intercession is a factor — by his ordination — in his weaving together myriad other factors; concerning this I have no doubt at all. Then pray we must, even as we must pray unceasingly.
In the third place we must admit that Jesus makes the most astounding promises to intercession. “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 18:19) What a stark promise! “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matt. 21:22) “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24) The promises made to intercession appear utterly unqualified; the promises are astounding — and for this reason, the shattering disappointment that so many people undergo is heartbreaking; it is devastating; it is heartbreaking. The matter of (apparently) unanswered intercession may be an intellectual puzzle when we are musing in our armchair; but it’s something else when our child is dying.
Then what are we to do? Are we to stop praying, stop interceding, on the grounds that our experience exposes our Lord’s affirmation as fraudulent? I haven’t stopped praying, for I continue to believe that God adopts, takes up, our intercession and uses it somehow, in ways we can’t penetrate, in blessing men and women in ways that we often can’t see now but shall surely see on the day when faith gives way to sight.
A woman in my first congregation had a recurring problem with mental illness. She had had electro-convulsive treatments and psychoactive drugs; in addition she had been institutionalised several times. Following one of her downturns I added her name to the list of people for whom I prayed every day. She was institutionalised once more, and I visited her in the provincial psychiatric hospital. A few weeks later she disappeared from the hospital. The authorities contacted her husband. “Where might she be?” they asked with much anxiety and much more embarrassment. He told them to drag the river in front of the hospital, since she had attempted to drown herself once before; he told them as well they would find her remains in the river for sure. He was right. She had drowned herself, as her husband had known she would once she fled the hospital.
In the few days between suicide and funeral the talk of the village (which I couldn’t help overhearing) was, “What is Shepherd going to say? Will he tell us that by her act she has bought herself a one-way ticket to perdition?” I said something wholly different at the funeral.
At the graveside, after the committal, when most of the people had dispersed, a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother approached me. Very hesitantly the middle-aged woman said, “I too was a patient in the provincial hospital. In fact I was Jane’s roommate. Jane was a good woman, a devout woman, a godly woman. I knew I had to attend her funeral. But I have just been discharged myself and I am very fragile. For several days I have been in torment wondering what interpretation you were going to place on her death and how I was going to endure it. You will never know what comfort and encouragement I have received through what you said today.” Then had I prayed in vain?
When Jesus was in Gethsemane he pleaded, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” The cup didn’t pass. His specific request wasn’t granted; we can’t pretend anything else. But was he ignored? To be sure, his request wasn’t granted in the manner he had requested. Nevertheless he himself was resurrected; his sacrifice on behalf of the world was sealed; his lordship over the cosmos was established. His prayer was in fact taken up into the purposes of his Father as the Father honoured the Son’s plea.
When Jesus tells us, his followers, to ask, seek, knock, he doesn’t promise that we shall receive precisely what we ask for when or as we ask for it. But he does promise that we shall never ask, seek, knock in vain. God will never taunt or tease his people; he will never insist that we plead, only to smirk and say that our pleas are finally futile.
“Why do we have to ask at all?” someone queries, “Do we have to tell God what he doesn’t know?” Of course not. “Does he need to be reminded?” No. “Do we have to badger him, in order to pry something out of him? No. “Then why do we have to ask?” Because our asking reaffirms our dependence upon him at all times; because our asking on behalf of others is a measure of how much we care for others; because our asking is necessary in view of his having created us not mere spectators in his governance of the world but rather under-agents whose wills affect his will.
No doubt you will want to tell me that there are days when anxiety, or grief, guilt, bodily pain or mental anguish has so overtaken you that you can’t find words to pray with. On those days you are in good company. The apostle Paul has been there, and therefore can write, “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:23) When we are terribly distracted we can’t think or speak. We can only sigh or groan or cry or scream. In those moments God takes up whatever inarticulate expression we utter and renders it effectual intercession with him.
In the course of my pastoral work I was visiting in hospital a young woman who was about to undergo major surgery. A few weeks earlier her eight year old son had been at the Sunday School picnic, held on the front lawn of the church. The children ate their lunch of hotdogs (and overstuffed themselves), then ate their dessert of cake and ice-cream, then started a game of tag. With his over-full tummy the eight year old fellow vomited, choked, and died on the spot. As I spoke with his mother, now ill herself and awaiting surgery, she told me that ever since the incident, whenever she tried to pray all she could do was weep. We talked together at length about this verse of Paul’s that had arisen from his own anguish and heartache: “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness…for the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” On those days, perchance terrible days, when you and I have no words, God is going to honour our tears.
I intend to go on praying. Rev. Victor Shepherd Sept. 2023