An exerpt from my most recent sermon (Mark 11):
In the last section, Jesus starts saying all these crazy things about faith and prayer (vv. 22-24). They are all standing on the mountain next to the Dead Sea. So he says that if anyone tells the mountain to throw itself into the sea, and doubtlessly believes that it will happen, the mountain will pick itself up and skinny dip in the Dead Sea. Outrageous! And if the example wasn’t clear enough, he says it as plainly as can be said: “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
I want to spend some time mulling over this last section, because it reeks of scandal. How can Jesus make such an outrageous promise? Well, sure, he is God, but that still does not seem possible. It doesn’t even seem Christian. Sounds more like magic to me. If I say “abracadabra” and am deluded enough to believe that a rabbit will appear out of my hat, then it will happen! That’s ridiculous!
What about those who are so mentally disturbed that their sense of reality is completely out of whack? What if ninety year old Mrs. Wang, who is going senile, approaches me and thinks that I am her son Ben? Does that mean I turn into her son Ben? Why not? She has absolutely no doubt that I am Ben.
Or what if I am holding an outdoor evangelistic meeting tomorrow and I pray that it won’t rain? Meanwhile, my neighbor, who is a farmer, prays with tears that it will rain tomorrow, because if he has another dry day, the bank will take away his farm and his livelihood. Both of us pray with all our hearts and in full faith…no doubt. God cannot answer BOTH requests, can he? Answering one means that he must deny the other. The only solution would be like the Truman Show where it rains on only one spot, but that does not seem reasonable. That is about as reasonable as telling Mission Peak to go take a dive into Lake Elizabeth.
When I first read this passage, I was outraged. How could Jesus say something so definitive like this? If he left a little room for fuzziness, I could accept this. But it seems that Jesus is flat out making a promise that his simply can’t and won’t keep. Immediately, I began thinking about countless mothers who prayed so faithfully and earnestly for their dying sons at the hospital bed. The sons are only teenagers, if even that, but they catch a bullet in the wrong spot and they wind up in a coma in the hospital, and they die. What am I supposed to say to that mother? “You didn’t have enough faith”? Despicable! She had more faith that I could possibly muster. Yet Jesus didn’t answer her prayer.
This is why I became so upset. It tore at my insides that Jesus could be so cruel as to make such a promise. I almost wanted to forget about this passage. Just gloss over and maybe you guys wouldn’t notice. But, I decided that if the Bible is true, it must be able to speak for itself.
After some struggling, I realized that we must read vv. 22-24 within context of the rest of the Bible. Otherwise, it would be like watching one minute of a movie, or one paragraph of a book and expecting to understand what is being said and what is going on.
In 1 John 5:14-15 it reads: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him.” The Apostle John states equally clearly that only when we pray in accordance with God’s will does he hear us. And if he hears us, he will answer. Basically, only when we pray in accordance with God’s will does this bold statement apply. We must read it this way in order to be faithful to the face value of Jesus’ statement while still being fair to Apostle John’s. So what does this mean?
First of all, it means we need to get in tune with God’s will. If we are going to pray with such boldness, we want to make sure that we are praying according to His will. After all, that is the only time when he will answer us. The tricky thing is that we don’t know what his will is. But look at Romans 12:1-2. It says, “in view of God’s mercy…offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” As we live out what we already know to be his will, namely offering our bodies as living sacrifices and renewing our minds in prayer and the Word, he will continue to reveal his will before us. As we do God’s will, he will reveal more of it to us.
The second thing this means is that failure and disappointment is inevitable. This is hard for us to accept. We know that sometimes, even many times, God does not answer our prayers. We can accept that. But it is almost impossible for us to accept the fact that even prayers that God knows he will not answer, he wants us to believe that he will anyways, at least until it is clear that he won’t. In prayer, disappointment is almost guaranteed. God has built into the system of prayer the battering of our faith. In prayer, we realize that God has designed a seemingly cruel plan. It is one thing to have a prayer hindered because of our sin, the devil, or even that God simply said no. But to know that for ALL our prayers, God wants us to believe…meaning to risk our faith…in every prayer…is almost too much. It hurts enough to know that God doesn’t answer all our prayers…it is nearly unbearable to realize that he willingly taunts us in the midst of our feeble trust and weakening courage. Why does God do this?
We finally arrive at the answer to our original question: If Jesus could only ask one thing of us, what would that be? Jesus makes such an outrageous promise because when he returns, he will not be looking for fruit, or even prayer, really. He will be looking for faith. In Luke, Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Jesus hardly rebuked his disciples, but when he did, it was almost always because they lacked faith. Even after all the crazy things that Jesus experienced, even after seeing Moses and Elijah on the mountain, the only thing that ever amazed Jesus was when the centurion had faith.
Faith is being SURE of what we hope for (c.f. Heb. 11:1). If we weren’t sure, it would simply be HOPE, because we hope for things that we would like to happen and look forward to happening, but we don’t know for sure if it will happen. But Jesus is not looking for HOPE, he is looking for FAITH, no matter how battered it becomes. If after living through the harsh realities of life, seeing your heartfelt prayers denied before your eyes, hearing and feeling the hateful persecution, you still have your faith, then you will be saved. Jesus is looking for lasting faith. Bruises are welcome, for bruises only come to those who are living.
In the end, our faith will be like the victorious flag, though damaged by bullets and shrapnel, it remains until the end. If the flag were pristine and undamaged, it was hiding in its case…a useless flag indeed. But if a flag becomes assaulted and ugly, it was because it hung its rightful place. And when Jesus returns, he will look for our flags of faith and be especially pleased to see that we have had the courage to hang it amidst the dangers of being human.