Whatever You Ask
Text: John 16:23-33
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If there’s anything that everyone can agree on, no matter where they come from or their views on politics, economics, or anything, it’s that things in the world are not OK. Gas prices, supply chain disruptions, concerns over medical care, overworked employees, race relations, isolation, loneliness, education and miseducation, information and disinformation, life, death, and taxes—everyone recognizes that things are swirling around in turbulent times. And this is compounded for those of us in the faith. For as we see the entire world sliding out of the era in which Christianity has been dominant there’s more than a little anxiety as we realize that we’re becoming cultural outsiders. It used to be the societal expectation that people would at least outwardly look and sound like Christians. But now we’re the odd ones out in most circumstances. The world is becoming a place that more and more seems hostile to those things we believe and confess.
It can be a frightening prospect, when we look at all these woes side by side by side. Some choose to worry. Some choose to believe that somehow it will all turn around. Some think that if only the right people were put in authority that it would all be fixed, or if we found just the right magic bullet that things would go back to nostalgic glory days. Others prepare for worse things yet to come.
The disciples must have been in a situation similar to this present uncertainty. On the night He was betrayed, Jesus told them that the time was coming that He wouldn’t be with them anymore. Of course, that time was coming, beginning that very night, when He would taken out of their sight for His trial, torture, and crucifixion. But another time was coming after that, when He would be removed from their sight for the rest of their lives, after His ascension, which we in the Church are preparing for now in these last days of the Easter season.
Jesus knows. He knows our fears better than any. He knows the worries and problems we face. He sees the events of this world. He’s seen every troubling and stressful event in the world since its foundation. But He also sees the tribulation in each of our hearts. He knows the secret battles we face, the fear, the anxieties. He knows the things that send us into that black hole of fear and doubt, distress and personal crisis. He knows, for He Himself has faced them all. He faced temptation from the evil one in the wilderness. He faced the anticipation of pain and suffering as He prayed that the cup might be taken from Him if at all possible. He faced the hurt and sorrow of having those closest to Him scatter, each to his own home, leaving Him to face the cross alone. He faced all those things. Not only did He face them; He overcame them.
And so it’s from His own deep personal experience and firsthand knowledge that Jesus tells His followers, us included, to take heart when we’re assaulted by all those fears and worries. “I have said these things to you, not to give you things to worry about,” He says, “but that you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, for I have overcome the world.”
When Jesus wins His Easter victory, it’s not just a victory in the abstract, like a fun thought experiment or philosophical point. It’s not just pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking either. When He overcomes the world and all that’s in it—sin, death, and hell—it’s a real, concrete victory that has real world consequences. Death really is defeated. The world and all its pomp, the seal of Pilate and the parties of Herod, are shown to be the cheap and hollow things that they really are. Sin really is forgiven and taken away from us so that we’re actually pure before God. His Easter victory is real and its effects are enormous—enormous enough that He shares that victory with us.
Because it’s a real victory and it’s really shared with us, that means real things for our lives. Hearts are remade and renewed. Hope burns bright, even in the darkness. Faith has something solid to hold onto, even when our eyes can’t see it. And when we start to doubt that realness, when we start to worry, when we’re low on confidence in our victory, when the struggles and difficulties and trials of being in this broken world feel like too much, when we fear that we’re losing—as individuals, as Christ’s Church on earth—then Jesus gives us a secret weapon, a wellspring of power and hope to draw from. This well is prayer.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” At first glance, this promise seems too good to be true. Anything? Just ask, and God the Father will grant it? It seems a little grandiose. But then again, Jesus’ promises have always been bigger than our mortal minds can fathom. He’s promised eternal life, never-ending bliss in Paradise, full and free forgiveness for our sins, daily bread—and He’s delivered on every one of those. So here too, He gives us a promise that we hesitate to touch and hold on to, simply because it’s great and beautiful. “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, He will give it to you.” And so we learn to ask great things from God, putting all of our requests before Him in prayer, asking boldly and confidently, as dear children ask their beloved Father. We ask for great and wonderful things; we ask for simple and mundane things.
But it’s at this point that our old doubting Adam jumps in. If Jesus has said that we can ask God for anything in His name, why haven’t we gotten everything we’ve asked for? After all, I know I’ve asked for things that God didn’t drop down from heaven. I’m sure you have too. So does this mean that Jesus was exaggerating?
Of course not. When it comes to His promises, Jesus doesn’t exaggerate, and He certainly doesn’t lie. So why don’t we have every single thing we might have prayed for? James provides a helpful answer in his letter: “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Sometimes God does not give us what we ask for in exactly the way we ask for it because it’s not the best thing for us. We would spend it on our passions, our old sinful flesh, which we are supposed to be fighting and keeping restrained. So if we ask for a million dollars, God may recognize that it’s not best for us to just have that handed to us. Rather, He may grant it to us over time, as we learn to work and serve our neighbors around us, to live in the world as He desires us to, for the benefit of those we share our lives with, rather than instant gratification of the old sinful self in us. As much as it pains us to admit, our heavenly Father, who knows everything, knows that some things aren’t good for us. No parent would give their child poison, so neither will our Father in heaven give us something that may be poisonous to our bodies or souls.
So we continue to pray in Jesus’ name. Jesus tells us what that means. It means that we have loved Jesus and believe that He came from God. We pray, realizing that our prayers reach God’s ears because Jesus has opened the door to heaven with His sacrifice and resurrection. And when we pray in this way, with faith in Jesus and what He has done for us in His life and death, the Father will give us whatever we ask. He does this in three ways.
The first way is to say yes immediately. This happens from time to time. It really does make our joy full at that moment. I’d venture to say that we’ve all had this happen at some point and it’s one of those things that really does cement our faith. But sometimes He answers in the second way, saying yes, but not yet. This is when we learn to wait, to trust that He hears and will grant it, in His time and not ours. This is good for us because it reminds us that God is God and we are not. It also teaches us patience and hope. The third way He answers is that He has something even better than what we’ve asked for. These are those wonderful surprises that we wouldn’t have even thought to pray for. It’s also the even greater answer He gives us when our scope is a little too small. For instance, if we pray for a disease to be healed, God’s answer may be that He will heal it later, when Christ returns and we’re resurrected to live in perfect bodies and souls forever. We’re thinking only about here and now; He’s taking all of eternity into account.
That doesn’t always make it easier in the moment. But what it does is help us to do exactly what Jesus says here and take heart. It helps us face the tribulations in this world with confidence that there’s always something greater waiting for us with God and that He can’t help Himself—He loves giving us His gifts. “For the Father Himself loves you,” Jesus tells us, and He wants our joy to be full and for us to have peace. So take heart, ask your Father in heaven for anything and everything, even something you’re afraid is too outlandish and impossible. He has more to give you than you could ever think to ask. Take heart. He has overcome the world and He shares that victory with you. In the name of Jesus, who opens heaven to us, Amen.