I JOHN 3:19-24; 5:14-15

SEPTEMBER 19, 2010

Sermon Audio


            Shortly after Dallas Theological Seminary opened its doors, the fledgling school stood on the brink of bankruptcy.  So serious was the problem that all its creditors were going to foreclose on the institution on a particular day at noon.

            Responding to the crisis, the school’s founders met in the seminary president’s office to pray that God would provide the resources they so desperately needed.  In the prayer meeting was Harry Ironside, the pastor of a large downtown Chicago church.

            When it was Ironside’s turn to pray, he began by quoting Psalm 50, verse 10, “Lord, we know that the cattle on a thousand hills are yours.  Please sell some of them and send us the money.”

            As they prayed, a tall Texas rancher walked into the seminary office and said to the receptionist, “I just sold two carloads of cattle in Fort Worth.  I’ve been trying to make a business deal go through, but it won’t work.  I feel that God is compelling me to give this money to the seminary.  I don’t know if you need it or not, but here’s the check.”

            The receptionist took the check, and knowing about the prayer meeting, she went to the door and timidly knocked.  When someone finally came to the door, she handed the president of the seminary the check.  It was for the exact amount of the debt.  He turned to Ironside and said, “Harry, God sold his cattle.” 

            Listen to John’s words once again.  First from I John 3:21-22.


            Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 


            Now listen to what he has to say in I John 5:14-15.


            And this boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.


            I want us to note three things from these two passages from John.  I want us to note the promise, the problem and finally, the fine print.

            We’ll begin with the problem.  The problem can be stated clearly: we pray and it doesn’t work.  Cattle ranchers don’t show up at our offices or homes with the exact amount of money we need.  Our request gets denied.  We don’t receive whatever we ask.

            I think of Huckleberry Finn.  We had to read that book in middle school.  Anyway, Huck heard about prayer and tried an experiment.  Huck put an empty shoe box under his bed and then prayed to God to fill it by morning.  When he awoke he found the box still empty.  Huck said that was it for him and prayer.

            There are a lot of Huck Finn’s out there, maybe some here this morning.  Why waste our breath?  If heaven doesn’t listen, if God doesn’t care, if God lacks the power to change things, why pray?  Let’s all stop kidding ourselves about this stuff.  It just doesn’t work.

            So that’s the problem.  We ask and we don’t receive.  Our son and daughter-in-law do not reconcile.  The cancer comes back and with a vengeance.  Our business folds.  We did not get the job. 

            Given the problem, we better underscore the promise once again: we receive from him whatever we ask.

            What do you think of that promise?  Is it a true, take-it-to-the-bank promise or a false promise?  Is it a reliable promise or an empty promise?  Before we answer, let’s make sure we understand the core of the promise.

            The author and Methodist pastor, William Willimon, tells of a woman he knows who works for the phone company’s complaint department.  She has a tough job.  She must represent both the interests of the company and the complaints of the customer.  She has to be both open and caring.

            She told Willimon about a customer who called her, complaining about some serious problems with her phone service.  Willimon’s friend listened to her complaint, agreed it was a serious problem, but it wasn’t the kind of problem that fell to the company to remedy, as the problem was on her end, not on the company’s end.

            The customer, a widow on a fixed income, persisted and said something which got through to Willimon’s friend.  The customer said, “I’ve always loved and respected the phone company.  Since I was a young child coming home alone, my mother always told me, ‘If you have a problem, call the operator and she will help.’  I trust the company to do what is right.”

            The employee realized that this was not merely a dispute over money and service, but it was a discussion about the character of the phone company.  Was this a phone company that cared, a phone company that valued its relationship with a long-term customer, a company that could be trusted to do the right thing?  Even though the complaint did not meet the guidelines, the employee took care of the woman’s problem.

            Here’s the point.  The promise John makes here has less to do with getting what we want and more to do with the character of God.  What John states here is a statement about the character of God.  God listens to us.  God hears us, and God wants to make things right.  God wants to take care of our needs and our problems.

            Remember what Bill Cosby said about parents and children?  Cosby said when children come to parents, asking them to resolve a dispute like, “Johnny took my doll, make him give it back,”  the child erroneously assumes that their parents are interested in justice.  Cosby says parents don’t care a thing about justice.  All they want is peace and quiet!

            That is not, however, how God operates.  For example, in Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells a story about a disgusting, sleazy judge.  A woman comes before the judge seeking justice against an adversary.  Jesus highlights the challenge:  What hope does this widow with no wealth and no political clout have before this poor excuse for a judge?

            Well, Jesus says she has one thing.  She has persistent perseverance.  She has the ability to pester the judge.  She leaves messages in his voice mail.  She writes him twenty emails a day.  When he goes to his mailbox to pick up snail mail, it’s bulging with cards and letter all in her handwriting. 

            Finally, the judge says to himself, “I’m going to give this woman what she wants to get her off my back!”

            Jesus ends the story by saying, if this sleaze bucket of a judge will give this woman what she wants, how much more will you loving father in heaven give you? 

            See the point?  It’s not about getting.  It’s about the character of God.

            That leads us to the final thing I want to point out.  We’ve looked at the problem and promise.  Now let’s turn our attention to the fine print.  The fine print reads as follows:  we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

            Watching your own children parent is a lot of fun, at least it is most of the time.  One of the things I’ve heard my daughter say to her son, our grandson, Edison, is something like this:  “If you are good today, we will go to Target later, or swimming, or whatever the inducement for good behavior happens to be that particular day.”  And throughout that day, Eddie asks for an update, a progress report.  “How am I doing?  So far are we still going to Target?  Are we still going to the pool?”  And sometimes Eddie will do something during the day and my daughter will say, “Well, swimming is in jeopardy if you keep doing that.” 

            The point is my seven year old grandson knows that his behavior contributes to getting or not getting something he wants.  He understands the rules, the consequences of good behavior and poor behavior.  Sometimes we adults forget that.  Let me offer a rough paraphrase of Malachi 1:9.  In Malachi 1:9 God confronts the Israelites for sinning, and God says to them, and again this is a paraphrase, “After you blatantly sin against me, you have the gall to entreat me for favors?  You still want to go to the pool?  You still want to drop by Target?  You pray and you expect me to come through like I usually do?  You shake your fist at me, and then you expect me not to be affected by your disobedience?”

            In other words, no rewards for poor behavior.  So sometimes we don’t receive because of our disobedience.  That’s the first line of the fine print.  The second line reads:  And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask him anything according to his will, he hears us.

            In this sentence John gives us the secret for effective prayer.  For our prayers to be effective we have to be on God’s wavelength, not ours.  For our prayers to be effective we need to know God’s will.  How do we do that?  By listening to God.  We listen to what God tells us in this book, and we spend more time listening to God in prayer than we spend talking to God in prayer.

            Lloyd Ogilvie, the former chaplain of the United States Senate, relates the following about a friend.  He said,


            A friend of mine analyzed a conversation with a mutual friend who was facing a grave problem.  “What did you advise?”  I queried. 

            “Well, he never asked for my opinion.  We spent hours together.  He talked on and on.  When I was about to share my insight, he ended the conversation.


            Ogilvie observed, “How like our prayers with God.”  We talk, and talk, and talk and God cannot get a word in edgewise.

            You see, prayer is not about getting God to do our will, but a means by which our praying can be directed to the will of God.  The question is:  What does God want to happen in our lives?  And when we know what God wants to happen in our lives we can pray with boldness.

            In this regard, I like what Oliver Holmes said.  He said he trouble with our minds is that they are like overdrawn checking accounts, and the reason they are overdrawn is that we haven’t allowed God to make regular deposits in them!

            Let me close with with this.  A five year old boy said grace at the dinner table one night.  “Dear God,” he prayed, “thank you for these pancakes.”

            When he concluded praying, his mother asked him why he thanked God for pancakes when they were having chicken, not pancakes.

            The five year old smiled and said, “I thought I’d see if God was paying attention.”

            The question is not whether God is paying attention.  The question is whether or not we are paying attention to God.

            And this boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.