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A sermon on Prayer for Rogation Sunday –           John 15: 9-17

What does Jesus mean when he says we can ask anything we want in his name and it will be given to us?

Preached at St Nicholas Arne, Sunday 6th May 2018 by Canon Simon Everett

Today’s gospel reading carries on from where last week’s left off.  It is part of the teaching where Jesus likens himself to the vine and his Father as the gardener who cares for the branches to make them fruitful.  The branches are all those who claim to be followers of Christ.  The fruitful branches are true believers who by their living union with Christ produce much fruit, whilst those who become unproductive – those who turn back from following Christ after making a superficial commitment – will be separated from the vine and wither.

Living in Union with our Lord Jesus Christ is what the Christian faith is primarily about.  Stay close to Jesus and we will not only know the love of God, but we will be able to share that love with those around, even those who would do us harm.  By loving God and obeying his commands, says Jesus, we will know the fullness of joy, both in times of prosperity and times of adversity, and more than that we will be considered Jesus’ friends.  How wonderful is that!

But perhaps what is even more wonderful is the way this particular passage ends.  If we produce the kind of fruit that will last, we are told that: ‘..the Father will give you whatever you ask in (Jesus’ name).’

Today is Rogation Sunday.  Rogation comes from the Latin verb Rogare – to ask.  Traditionally this Sunday was a time when the Church asked God’s blessing on the crops and livestock of the farms around.  It was often a time for beating the bounds of the parish, to drive out all that was evil and undesirable, whilst asking for a fruitful harvest.

In John’s gospel there are a number of places where Jesus, says that his followers can ask whatever they like in his name and it will be given to them.  At first sight this seems to grant us licence to ask whatever we want and it will be given to us.  And if this is the case you would think that the Christian faith would have people queuing up to join.  But it doesn’t.  And I don’t know about you but my prayers certainly don’t always get answered as I would like, or hope for.

So what does Jesus mean when he says ask anything you want in his name and it will be given you?  To start with, whenever, trying to interpret a passage that puzzles you the first thing to do is to read it in its context.  In today’s gospel it said,  ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: love each other.’ (John15:16,17)

And a little earlier (from the words that preceded this week’s reading) Jesus said,  ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (John 15:7,8)

But probably what caps all of these are what is said in John 14 verses 12-14

‘Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.’

Isn’t that amazing, anyone who has faith in Jesus will do even greater things than he did because he has gone to his Father.  In other words what Jesus has begun must be continued.  And when you think of the incredible things that Jesus did in his ministry, the mind boggles at what subsequent disciples would be able to do in his name.

“You may ask anything in my name, and I will do it.”  These are either the greatest words ever spoken or the greatest deception of all time.  And if it is the latter we might as well pack up our things and go home and admit that we have been duped.  But if they are true, then we have to ask ourselves, why are we not seeing the amazing things that those first century followers saw?

Well, I suggested there could be a number of reasons, and here are just a few:

First. there are many Christians who do not actually ask for anything in their prayers. There are some who pray in such a bland way that it doesn’t really ask anything of God.  “We pray for the sick of the world” or “God bless America”.  Exactly what are we asking for by praying for the sick of the world?  That they will get better? That they will get worse, or that we’d rather not hear about them!? And God bless America with what exactly?  There’s an unwritten beatitude that say, ‘Blessed are they that ask for nothing, they shall not be disappointed.’   We need to elucidate what we ask for and make our prayers more specific.  E.g. “We ask God’s healing hand on Esme who is suffering at the moment, please take her pain away,” or “We ask wisdom for those treating Joe at the moment that they would make the right diagnosis and give the right treatment.” 

A second reason prayers go unanswered is because many people do not expect answers.  There are some who pray out of habit or duty, but really they are going through the motions rather than communicating with the living God.  Maybe they say the same prayers day in and day out, which can be helpful but these prayers will need supplementing with personal praise, confession and intercession.  When you lift your needs to God, pray expectantly because God wants to hear your prayers and even more wants to answer them.

A third reason prayers can often go unanswered is that people do not actually want their prayer answered. I was once in a church that was constantly asking God to increase their numbers, but nothing happened.  Then on a parish W/E away it transpired that a large number of the congregation did not actually want any change.  They were perfectly happy with things as they were, nevertheless they thought they ought to be praying for more people in their church. Be honest and open in your prayers. 

Another variation of this is when people pray for something but are not prepared to do anything to bring it about.  In another church, the was a band of ladies who met faithfully every week to pray for revival in the local church.  For years they prayed, and yet if they were ever asked to do anything for the church they would always refuse, giving one sort of excuse or another.  We need to be prepared to be the answer to our own prayers (or at least, be part of it).  Faith means being active in God’s service, Jesus said he could not do very much in his hometown because of their lack of faith. (Mark 6:5f)

A fifth reason prayers go unanswered, is that maybe we ask for the wrong things, or we come to God with our own agendas, simply wanting him to endorse what we do or want.  Instead we should come to pray with open hearts and minds, ready to see what it is God wants of us.  This is not always easy, but if we believe that God is great and almighty then we should be prepared to entrust our lives to him, and trust his ways.   But, as I say, it is not always easy – there’s a passage in Isaiah where God says to the prophet, ‘My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts.’  (Isaiah 55:8)  It is our task in praying to make God’s thoughts our thoughts and his ways our ways.

A sixth reason for prayers not being answered  (and this is perhaps the most common) is that we are not prepared to make the time or the effort praying requires.  If we want to be good at anything we need to be committed and disciplined and that goes for praying too.  But in our day and age, in the western world, there is a big problem with people wanting to commit to anything.  Many organisations, clubs and institutions are crying out for people willing to commit themselves to serving as leaders or committee members.  Many will give the odd day or two, but will not make a regular on-going commitment, and it can be the same with prayer.  They will pray when there is a need, but not at other times.  Prayer is about building up a relationship (that always takes time and energy).

So to pray effectively, be specific, expect answers and be prepared to be part of the answer.  Be honest with God sharing your hopes and fears; also pray with an open heart and mind so that you can let God guide you in your praying.  And, above all, be disciplined, make time for prayer each day, and perhaps attend local prayer meetings (e.g. Thy Kingdom Come).

There will be ups and downs, times of excitement and quiet times when nothing much seems to happen, but stick with it and you will grow ever closer to God.  And it is as you grow closer to God that you will find that your love for God will increase and correspondingly so will your love for those around you.  Jesus commands us to live out our faith in the world around us.  ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’ Jesus said, then ‘go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: love each other.’

In closing, the closer we get to Jesus in prayer the more confidence we will have and the greater our expectations will be.  Prayer is a powerful resource for the Church; it is the means of drawing close to God, that we may bear much fruit, fruit that will last.   It is my prayer that we may be a fruitful parish, to the greater glory of God.  Amen.

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