The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
“God works in mysterious ways.” We know the saying well. Hopefully we believe it too. And yet…I’ll guarantee that we’ll never truly understand or comprehend just how mysterious the ways of God truly are. Just look to the events in our Old Testament lesson. After seeing the ten plagues; after being set free from Egyptian bondage; after witnessing God’s mighty works in the Red Sea and the pillars of fire and cloud and life-giving water from the rock and quail and manna from heaven, the ever-contemptible, petulant, and self-centered Israelites dare to complain: “We have no food and we hate the food we have!” How does the Lord respond to such “thankfulness”? He sends fiery serpents. There’s nothing mysterious about that, is there?
Not so fast! On the surface, this seems like God is simply cutting these thankless jerks down in vengeful wrath (like we would do). “I’ll show you!” However, we know that God desires the death of no man. He desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth. Through the mysterious working of God, the sending of the serpents serves to wake the people up in repentance in a hurry! “Moses, we’ve sinned! Pray for us! Pray to God that He takes the serpents away!” They do turn back to God. Moses prays. And how does God answer the prayer? In a very strange and mysterious way! Not only does He not take the serpents away, but the relief (salvation) He gives to His beloved children is a bronze statue of the very thing that’s killing them. He doesn’t give them the snake-free, pain-free existence they so earnestly desire, but instead gives them healing and life in the midst of their snake-filled, pain-filled tribulation. He doesn’t answer their prayers the way they want/expect, but He answers their prayers with the deliverance/salvation that they need; deliverance/healing/salvation that will only be apprehended by faith.
Other examples: What about St. Paul? Paul prayed three times that the thorn in his side (whatever it was—sickness, persecution, failure) be taken from him. It wasn’t. Was Paul praying for the wrong thing? What about the apostles? They witness their Lord’s brutal arrest and crucifixion, and it terrifies them. Do you think they prayed that Jesus would be delivered from such a horrendous death? How many of them prayed, just like the Pharisees taunted, that Jesus would come down off that cross and save Himself? How many of them prayed (just like they were taught), “Thy will be done,” never realizing the mystery of God’s good and gracious will playing out before their very eyes? They didn’t get what they wanted, but they got exactly what they needed: peace; the peace that surpasses all understanding; God’s peace with us because of the all-atoning death of Christ.
What about you? Jesus says “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Who here struggles with these words? We’ve all been there, right? This is especially true when life isn’t going as planned; when the crosses we bear are crushing down and all seems dark and we feel scared, alone, maybe even angry. We’ve called out to God. We’ve asked and asked again and asked some more. And still…we don’t receive. We don’t receive what we ask for. Does this mean that we’re praying for the wrong thing? While this is easily understood in things like praying to win the lottery instead of simply praying for daily bread, it becomes a bit more difficult when we consider it in terms of praying for loved ones who are sick, suffering, and dying. We pray and ask and pray and ask, and still we don’t receive what we so earnestly desire. Does this mean that we’re praying for the wrong things? Maybe it’s not that we’re praying for the wrong things, but that we’re focused on the wrong things. There is a difference. Hear me out.
“I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” That’s really what these lessons are all about—the peace of God. Folks: You have that peace, even in the midst of your trials, tribulations, and sufferings, although it’s easy to miss, isn’t it? You don’t have to look too hard to see that this world is full of dark sinfulness and death. Our culture nowadays even goes so far as to elevate it, celebrate it, and promote it. One example: only the rankest pagans and war criminals in history have practiced infanticide, and yet it’s now something we celebrate as a “reproductive right.” God clearly calls it “murder.” No caveats or riders, as if only some life created in His image and likeness is worthy of life, but not all life. God clearly says, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. You are NOT your own, for you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). And yet…even many “Christians” arrogantly declare their love for God even as they turn their backs on Him in open rebellion, angrily protesting any and all efforts to curb such barbaric and horrendous behavior against the littlest and lowliest of their neighbors; the lowliest who cannot protect/defend themselves in any way, shape, or form. Other examples abound. Politicians run on a platform of covetousness, promising to give us everything we feel we “deserve,” everything we feel entitled to. And we eat it up. “That’s who I’m voting for!” Promiscuity and perversion is the lay of the land. “Everyone does it. Love is love. Kids are kids. We’re two consenting adults. What’s the big deal? I still love Jesus.” By all counts and metrics, it looks like evil is winning. Are you honestly at peace with all this?!
“I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Look to this cross. Look to Him who was lifted up and put to death so that you may have the free and unmerited gift of life. Look and listen. “It is finished!” Look to the font, where Christ Himself brings the victory of His death and resurrection to you, putting His name upon your head and your heart. Look to the altar/rail, where Christ Himself comes to you to nourish you with His victorious Body and Blood; the very Body and Blood that has already overcome all sin, death, and the devil. Look, listen, and receive these good gifts of life as He places His Body and Blood upon your lips and gives you His peace. Listen as you depart and make your way out into this serpent-filled valley of shadowy death and despair. “Depart in peace.” That’s not a suggestion. That’s reality! Christ gives you His peace; a peace the world does not know and does not have outside of Christ; a peace that surpasses all understanding; a peace that is only apprehended in the confidence of saving faith. Think about it: If your health fails or you don’t get the healing you so desire, do you still have God’s peace? If your Social Security or retirement runs out and you go broke, do you still have God’s peace? Do you still belong to Christ? If your whole world falls apart and all the corruption and perversion and murderous ways of this world absolutely overpower you and crush you, do you still belong to Jesus? We have our Lord’s promise that the very gates of hell will not prevail, so neither will anything that this fallen and sinful world can throw at you. You belong to Christ! Be at peace!
“Ask IN MY NAME….” So often we leave that part off: “ASK IN MY NAME.” You already bear this holy name of God in/through Holy Baptism. In baptismal faith ask in His name for all the particulars your heart desires, just like a little child asks their dear father. By all means, ask that we turn from our sinful ways. Ask for healing. Ask for daily bread. Ask for favorable weather, good government, good family, good friends, good neighbors, and the like. Ask in His name, and ask in the full confidence of His blood-bought peace that has already overcome the world. Ask in the full trust and confidence in Him and His power and wisdom and mercy, grace, and love.
I say this only as a pastoral corrective for the bad theology that so pervades our culture today. Contrary to popular opinion, your prayers don’t have “power.” There’s no such thing as “the power of prayer.” Your Lord has all the power. Your prayers are powerful only in the sense that they cry out to and hold fast to Him and His gracious and merciful wisdom and power. Hold fast to Him and His all-powerful mercy, grace, and love; love that cared so much for you and for the entire world that He willingly took on flesh and then took that flesh to the cross for you so that you may have His gifts of life and peace to the fullest.
And now may this same blood-bought peace of Christ guard and keep your hearts and minds ever held fast to Him. Whether you live or die, you belong to Him. May this cruciform mystery of God’s love for you, on full display for all to see, give you peace now and into all eternity.
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