Fifth Sunday of Easter
The Disney movie “Aladdin” came out when I was in second grade. As a typical seven year old, I was immediately enchanted by the big, blue, magic genie. Leaving the theater, my mind began to race: “if I had a magic lamp with a genie in it, what would be my three wishes?”
The first wish was easy – a Super Nintendo, duh! What else could I possibly want? But wait! I have two more wishes! Hmmmm, I would like to be the best baseball player on my Little League team. Yeah, that’s right, I want to hit homeruns. Okay, so that’s settled. A Super Nintendo, be a great baseball player. Now for my third wish? Well, I may as well throw a whole bunch of money on top of that. So there they were, my three wishes: a Super Nintendo, be a great baseball player, and a beaucoup of money. The only problem, of course, is that magic genies are awfully hard to come by.
Regardless of our age or maturity, we all harbor a latent desire for our dreams and wishes to come true. “I wish that I could find a husband. I wish that I was skinny. I wish that I had more money to pay off my mortgage.” Though our fantasies about magic genies have long been dispelled, deep down, we still wish that we could find somebody, something to wave a magic wand and make it all come true.
Then we come across this passage from John, and we think we’ve found it! Of course, here, here is the answer. We had been just been looking in all the wrong places for somebody to grant our wishes. For Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (15:7). Aha! So all we have to do is rub the magic lamp of prayer in the name of Jesus, and poof! We’ll get exactly what we wish for.
Then, disastrously, we find ourselves the subject of that classic joke: “I prayed that God would give me a bicycle. God didn’t give me a bicycle, so then I stole one and asked for forgiveness.”
But in all seriousness, when God does not answer our prayers and grant our wishes, we’re faced with a dilemma; a dilemma that begs the question, “does God answer prayers?” First, we may think that we didn’t pray hard enough, or that we didn’t have enough faith when we prayed. So we get back to it; we pray really, really hard for a promotion, for a mountain of money, for ourselves. Still, our wishes go unfulfilled.
We are faced with the specter of the other half of the dilemma; perhaps God isn’t living up to the promise. Perhaps God doesn’t care about me. Or, lurking somewhere between fear and doubt, perhaps God doesn’t even exist.
Caught between this Scylla and Charybdis, our prayer lives plunge into the depths of despair. Either we aren’t praying hard enough or we are praying to the wrong god, so what’s the point? I’m still without a husband, I’m still paying off this mortgage, and I’m still overweight. This dilemma only proves the depravity of our prayers.
It is time, then, for us to bear the full glory of Jesus’ words, and to test our prayer life by tasting the fruits of our Christian life. So what are the fruits of your prayers? In those quiet moments you have with God – in the shower, driving to work, on your knees – what is taking place? Are you bearing the fruit of the Kingdom of God or the fruit of the Kingdom of You?
When our prayers focus on us, then our hope is surely lost. When we replace “thy will be done” with “my will be done,” we are set up for trouble. Spurred on by our prayers, we want more and more, so we’re willing to fight, claw, and gouge our way to more and more. We start bearing bad fruits. We are branches gone bad. On our own, we bear bad fruit. Fruit of cynicism, skepticism, anger, isolation, and dented pride.
When prayers are honest and true, not self-centered or conceited, then you cannot help but produce the fruits of God’s Kingdom. As part of the true vine, the vine that grows and flourishes from God the vinegrower, we bear good fruit, abundant fruit. We bear the fruit of service, humility, grace, and obedience. We don’t fight, but humbly submit. We don’t serve ourselves, but serve others. A vibrant and active life of prayer, saying and meaning “thy will be done,” will inspire us to acts of love and faithfulness.
A prayer life and an outward life are just two sides of the same coin. If God’s loving activity is working through us, then our prayer life is probably pretty good. And if our prayer life is good, then we are most likely accomplishing God’s will in our lives.
Remember, this is the not the magic genie god, this is God the vinegrower and we are the branches. We have life and growth only because our life and growth comes from God. No vine can tell the vinegrower how the whole operation should work.
And here we come upon the truly scary part about prayer. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and God has the pruning shears. When we start producing wild grapes or bad fruit, God will come along and snip off those bad bits. God the vinegrower will come by and lop off our addictions, our malice, our pride, our envy. With the shears of love, God will snip, lop, and chop us down so that we can begin producing fruits of righteousness.
God, like all vinegrowers, clips and points us, the vines. A vinegrower will direct the branches so that they grow along paths that will provide them with nutrition and water. With God, the direction is always toward the cross. God will snip, lop, and chop us back until we are pointed in the direction of sacrifice and love. This will be a painful process. We have to trade our pride and arrogance for the gifts of God’s Kingdom. Our prayers and thoughts will not be about us, but about God and others.
When given a magic lamp and a genie, nobody in their right mind would wish to be sacrificed and crucified. Yet that is exactly where we stand. True prayer is not about what we want, but about what God wants for us.
This is a long way of answering the short question, “does God answer prayers?” The answer is, of course, yes. The harder question is, “what are we praying for?” If we’re praying out of our pride, conceit, and ego, then our prayers are lovingly unanswered.
We do not have any magic lamps lying around. But God has churches full of magic lamps. You. Me. Us. We only have to settle into a rhythm of prayer. Then God can begin to work on us. And God’s dreams and hopes and wishes for the world are accomplished through us. These won’t be three of God’s basest wishes. What God accomplishes through us is nothing other than the fruit of the Kingdom of Christ.