May 21, 2017 A+D
St. John 16:23-33; Isaiah 55:6-11
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God works all things together for good. He is actively involved in His creation. His ways, however, are not our ways. We know what He is doing. He is working out our salvation, bringing all things into the service of His Church. But even as it was hard for Israel to see how God was blessing them and working for their good when they were dragged off to Babylon or for the believers in Palestine to see how that was also true for them when Alexander came sweeping through, so also it is hard for us to see how God is working and keeping His promises for us.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, unequivocally, that whatever we ask of the Father in His Name, the Father will give to us. Yet we have all asked for things that we thought would make our joy full that have not been given.
There is a mystery in this. It is not a mystery of “what” That is clear. It is a mystery of “how.” The “what” is undeniable. God loves us in Christ Jesus. He is eager for us to repent and return to Him so that He might pardon us. He wants to hear our prayers and is ready to give us whatever we ask in His Name. He will make our joy abundant and full and He gives us what it takes for that to be true. He has overcome the world on our behalf.
How it is that our joy is full, that He gives us whatever we ask in His Name, is not so clear. It is not as easy to count your blessings as it is to count your toes. Thus, the beatitudes, at the least, would teach us that what men count as being blessed is different than what God counts. For we do not read that Blessed is he that has a nice singing voice or whose children are healthy. We read instead that the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, and the persecuted are blessed. He does not say that you are blessed because you have a good job and have never been beaten up. He says “blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The Lord’s ways are not like our ways. There are things in how He saves us and who He is that are inscrutable to our reason – not just to our fallen reason, but even to our redeemed reason. We know, for example, that God is Triune. We know that His Threefold Personality within the Unity of the Godhead is an expression of perfect love and that somehow it is to our benefit that He is Triune, but we cannot fully explain the Trinity in a way that satisfies our intellect. We know the “what” not the “how.” The same is true for a number of realities which are simply and clearly revealed in Holy Scripture, such as the fact that Christ is true God and true Man at the same time, that He chooses some for salvation but does not thereby choose anyone for damnation but wills that all be saved. We know that He has died on the cross for the sins of the whole world and reconciled Himself to all people. By the Resurrection we know that the Father has accepted the Sacrifice on our behalf. But, again, exactly how that is a ransom and payment to the Father or to the Law, why it was necessary, how it is that the Divine economy works and how it is that the Son was forsaken by the Father even though the Trinity stayed intact, all that is unknown to our reason. We know “what.” That is clear. It has been revealed to us. But we do not always, maybe not even mostly, know the “how.”
There are several temptations here. We might become frustrated because God doesn’t seem to be doing what He promised or because He isn’t acting the way we want Him to. We might use the ambiguity of how He does things to excuse our own impatience and grabs for power. Repent. We are called to live by faith and to wait upon the Lord.
The Lord does, for the time being, uses figure of speech. These figures are not ambiguous or cloudy. They tell us what is real and what to believe. They do not tell us how these things will be or are being done because we cannot bear it now. The statement the Lord makes in today’s Gospel: “Whatever you ask of the Father in My Name, He will give it to you” is clear. He promises to hear and answer our prayers. He promises not only to give us what we need to sustain this life and faith but to make our joy full. How He does this is not so clear. All of us have asked for things and not gotten them.
There are several solutions to this. The most obvious is that we don’t know what we are asking. We might ask for the war in the Middle East to end because it seems pointless to us and peace is an obvious good. The Lord knows, however, things that we don’t. Whether the war serves a legitimate political good or not, whether it was necessary to stop some evil or not, we trust and believe that the Lord will use it for His good and for the good of the Church. For He uses all things, foolish and wise, good and evil, for good. Perhaps, like the conquest of Alexander, the Lord is using it to get His Gospel into those lands through American soldiers and chaplains. That is not to say that the men who plotted it or caused it meant it for good. It is simply that we trust the Word of God and we wait for Him to reveal how it is so. So we ask that the war would end and we trust that He hears and answers that prayer. Since we can’t see how it is that He gives us what we ask, we simply trust His Word. We take it on faith. He says: “Whatever you ask of the Father in My Name, He will give it to you,” so He must. He cannot lie. We take that on faith. That faith is based upon the clear word and promise that He has made to us in the Scriptures where the Spirit has promised to speak and guide us into all truth. We ask and we believe and we wait for the time when He will tell and show us plainly how it is that He did so.
In some ways, this is clearer in the text from Isaiah 55 then it is in today’s Gospel. For there He says that the wicked person should forsake his ways and the unrighteous man his thoughts. That person, which is all of us, should return to the Lord so that the Lord would have compassion on him and pardon him. Then, in that context, the context of repentance and absolution, He says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways.”
His ways are mysterious in the sense that they baffle our reason, but not in the sense that we don’t know what He is doing. We know what He is doing. He is forgiving sinners in His compassion. While we don’t know what He has in store for us in the short term, or all the good that He might bring out of current sorrow and evil, we know the end. We know the good that God will bring. He will bring us to Himself in our risen and perfected bodies for the sake of Christ. We know this because He says it plainly in many places without figures of speech. When He declares that His ways and thoughts are distinct from ours is that our thoughts and ways are infected with selfishness and sin whereas His way is the way of perfect generosity and extravagant love. He is gracious and merciful.
He is the God who sends His Son to the cross and answers our prayers. He is the vineyard owner who pays workers for work that was not done, the King who invites peasants to His banquet, the Shepherd who goes seeking and dying for His sheep. He is unlike us and He is working all things together for the good of those who love Him, not just because He is smarter than us, but also because He actually loves us even more than we love ourselves. In days of old, He put to use tyrants like Alexander and Herod and Cyrus. He used the prayers of the pious like Abraham and Hannah and Simeon.
And what He did then, He does still and always, and He does with and for you.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.