At the Ascension Day service today, I spoke about prayer to start the nine days of prayer which we are joining in with. Here is my talk.
During Lent, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued us with a call to prayer and spoke of their longing ‘to see a great wave of prayer across our land’ during the period between Ascension and Pentecost. They expressed their hope ‘for all Christians to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ; for all of us to have confidence to share the Gospel; and for all to respond to the call of Jesus Christ to follow him as disciples, to live out the Gospel and to seek God’s kingdom from day to day’.
Today, we, like countless other churches across our deanery, diocese, and country meet to celebrate Ascension Day and to begin this nine days of prayer for others and ourselves. As the Archbishops have suggested, ‘at the heart of our prayers will be the words that Jesus Christ himself taught us: ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
If we are honest, most of us find prayer difficult either all of the time or at least some of the time. We know that we should pray and on good days we want to pray we but struggle to find the words, struggle to find the time, struggle to concentrate or just stay awake, struggle to believe that God hears us. However, I want to encourage us this Ascension Day to persevere in prayer and to join in this great wave of prayer. I want to remind us why we can pray with confidence.
At its heart, prayer is a conversation with our heavenly Father… Jesus taught us to pray ‘Our Father who is in heaven’. We are not praying to some distant God but speaking with our Father who loves us and cares for us and delights to spend time with us. We can be confident as we pray because God wants what is good for us: ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, [says Jesus] how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ (Matthew 7.11) When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we are praying for a good thing, we are praying for ourselves and others to recognise that Jesus is Lord; we are praying for love to rule in place of selfishness, for peace to reign instead of conflict, for healing to triumph over sin and sickness and death. This is the what the kingdom looks like in heaven; this is what happens when his will is done. Our heavenly Father delights to answer this prayer that his kingdom would come. We can pray it with confidence because we are not only praying to Our Father who wants to give us good things but to Our Father in heaven. We are praying to the Creator of all things, to Almighty God who has the power to do more than we can ask or imagine.
How can we draw near to this Almighty God in prayer? We can approach him because of Jesus who now sits at his right hand and intercedes for us. We know from the Gospels that Jesus prayed for his disciples during his earthly life. When Jesus left his disciples and returned to heaven, he continued to do so, praying continually to God for us. Jesus’ prayer is unceasing…there is no endpoint to his prayers…there is no pause in the prayerful communication between the Father and the Son. And what is Jesus praying for? He is praying for us…he is praying for you and for me and for all his creation. He is praying for us because he loves us and because he cares for us. He is praying that his kingdom would come on earth in all its fullness, just as it is in heaven. Before Jesus ascends to heaven, he has shown his disciples his hands and his feet, those hands and feet which bore the hideous wounds of crucifixion. It is these nail-scarred hands which Jesus lifts to bless his disciples and ‘while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.’ (Luke 24.51) As Jesus prays for us he bears the marks of human suffering. These marks are the guarantors that the one who is praying for us understands us, bearing our experience on his body and in his heart. The risen Lord is praying for us and encourages us to join in with his prayers for us and for others and for his world.
So this Ascension Day we can pray to Our Father in heaven, confident in the knowledge that Jesus prays for us unceasingly, with heart-felt and hard-won compassion. We can pray confident in the knowledge that by praying for God’s kingdom to come we are praying for something that God longs for and Jesus died for. Thy kingdom come is the prayer of the Risen Christ himself and we are invited to join in with him.
In a moment, we are going to turn to prayer and our prayers will be centred around the prayer which Jesus taught us. In the letter which the Archbishops wrote to all clergy, they said this: ‘It is impossible to overstate the life-transforming power of the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer that is reassuring enough to be on the lips of the dying and yet dangerous enough to be banned in cinemas. It is famous enough to be spoken each day by billions in hundreds of languages and yet intimate enough to draw us ever closer into relationship with Jesus. It is simple enough to be memorised by small children and yet profound enough to sustain a whole lifetime of prayer. When we pray it with sincerity and with joy, there is no imagining the new ways in which God can use us to his glory.’