Final Sermon preached as Vicar at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Thirty Years War was a terrible time for Europe. From 1618 to 1648, Europe was wracked by violence, famine, and plague— Protestant and Catholic mercenary armies scoured the landscape, especially in Germany. By the end of the war, one third of the German population had been wiped out in what would be the largest known war for three hundred years until the outbreak of World War One. It would also be known as a war that was as hard on civilians as it was on soldiers. In the midst of it all was a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Rinckart (1586-1649), the archdeacon of the walled town of Eilenburg, Saxony.
Rinckart’s war was, by most accounts, a terrible one. Troops were forcibly billeted in his home (they didn’t have the 3rd Amendment then), and the contents of his pantry and barn were frequently requisitioned by foraging soldiers, leaving him and his family with few resources. In 1637, nineteen years into the conflict, plague brought by refugees fleeing the Swedish army swept through Eilenburg, killing 8,000 people, including Rinckart’s first wife. Among those killed by the plague where all but three members of the town council, many children, and the pastors serving in the neighboring parish. As a result, Rinckart had to do the work of three men, visiting the sick and dying, and overseeing over 4,000 burials. 1637 was an unimaginably awful year.
Hot on the heels of the plague came famine, and so Rinckart shared what little he and his family had with those starving in his community. When the Swedish army showed up in Eilenburg in 1639, they levied a 30,000 Thaler tribute on the town, a sum that beleaguered Eilenburg could not pay. (It is roughly equivalent to $460,500 in today’s money.) Rinckart went into the Swedish camp to parlay with their general for mercy on Eilenburg, but the general would not budge. He wanted his 30,000 Thalers, and so Rinckart turned to those who came into the camp with him and said, “Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.” With this, he fell to his knees, and began to pray.
Prayer comes to the forefront in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus, sitting with his disciples, is approached by one of them who asks him to teach them how to pray properly. After all, John’s disciples had a certain mode of prayer So did the people in the Dead Sea communities. Fixed prayers were a standard part of the spiritual life of your average first century Jew. “Does Jesus have one that he promotes, too? Does he know a better way?” they may have wondered. So Jesus begins: “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.[b]
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.[c]
And lead us not into temptation[d]’” (Luke 11:2-4 NIV).
And after he has said this, Jesus illustrates the importance of such a prayer. He poses them a hypothetical situation: suppose one of them has a friend who shows up outside the house at midnight and raps on the window. “Hey, buddy, can you lend me three loaves of bread? I have a friend passing through on a journey who stopped at my place, and I’ve got nothing to give him.” And the one in the house replies, “Don’t bother me! The door is locked, we’re all in bed, and I’m not getting up!” Some parents here this morning might sympathize with that sentiment— doubtless you’ve all heard the midnight water call. And yet, the disciple in bed will get up, if not on account of his friendship, then on account of the brazenness of his friend in coming to bother him at that hour—if only to make him go away. (This reminds me of many a night in college, though instead of bread, it was pizza money our nocturnal visitors were after.) Jesus encourages the disciples to approach God the Father with the same boldness in this prayer, continuing: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10 NIV).
When Jesus teaches the disciples to pray in Luke 11, his prayer does several things for them. First, it orients the disciples to acknowledge God as their Father. Not some distant thunderer, not some cosmic horror, but as a God who has a relationship with his creation that is so close that he views them as his children and they view him as their father. Second, it orients the disciples to ask God to “be” God (“let thy name be made holy,” “let thy kingdom come”)— it orients them to rely upon God to do his will in the world and fulfill his promises. And third, it forces them to reckon just how totally reliant they are upon God and how helpless they are without him. Daily bread— everything that one needs to live both now and in eternity—, forgiveness, and protection from the assaults of sin, death, and the Devil, all come from him and him alone. When the disciples pray as Jesus has taught them, they talk to him in such a way that indicates their full reliance on God and his promises for their lives and their utter helplessness without him. Altogether it is, as Dr. Peter Nafzger, our professor at the Seminary, says in his recent notes on this text, a prayer focused on asking God to do what he promises to do–it is “an expanded version of the recurring prayer throughout the Gospels, ‘Lord, have mercy.’”
And we need his mercy, because without it, we’d be lost! In a weird and twisted way, our sinful selves desire to be free from God’s provision and mercy, seeking after evils and illicit pleasures that separate us from him and go against his will for us. Left to our own devices, we seek self-aggrandizement and see ourselves as our own sustainers, believing that everything we are and have and do depends on us. But in our sin-warped vision, we seek the things that destroy us, focusing on temporal pleasures that are fleeting, and misallocating the gifts we receive. We fail to acknowledge our creator and his gifts for us. In our unthinking arrogance or ignorance, we go our own way.
Invariably, left to our own devices, we go so far down the rabbit hole of self-gratification and self-reliance that we get in trouble. We might find ourselves caught in a particular sin that, though at one time it felt “okay” to engage in and not wrong— even healthy— now suddenly becomes all-consuming. Or we might find ourselves caught in activities that are unethical, and though we know what we’ve done is wrong, we’re in so deep that we cannot get out of the web of lies and deceit we’ve created to maintain ourselves in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed. Or maybe we’ve placed so much dependence on ourselves that we find ourselves juggling too many responsibilities at once, thinking that everything depends on us and telling ourselves that we can handle it all, hurting ourselves and others due to our foolish pride. Or if things do seem to go well, we perhaps think that we deserve all the credit, even when we do not because we’ve needed other people for our success. And when we hit rock-bottom, failing to conduct ourselves properly or to carry out our vocations in a way that helps our neighbors, we can find ourselves in a hopeless position, one full of despair, fear, and self-loathing because we could not carry ourselves and the rest of the world on our shoulders like some sort of Atlas. When that happens, we seek some kind of relief, some kind of mercy. But how do we know to ask for it and where to find it?
This is why Jesus teaches the disciples his prayer because he gives us the words to speak and know that God the Father is the one on whom all depend for their life, well-being, and all they have. When one is being crushed by sin and adversity, the words of Jesus’ prayer remind him that God is the Lord and also the loving Father of all; that he will keep his promises and be God to the one praying; and that he is the source of all that is needed for this body and life, of all love, and of all forgiveness. As Luther writes in the Large Catechism:
82] Behold, thus God wishes to indicate to us how He cares for us in all our need, and faithfully provides also for our temporal support. 83] And although He abundantly grants and preserves these things even to the wicked and knaves, yet He wishes that we pray for them, in order that we may recognize that we receive them from His hand, and may feel His paternal goodness toward us therein. For when He withdraws His hand, nothing can prosper nor be maintained in the end, as, indeed, we daily see and experience.
“Behold, thus God wishes to indicate to us how He cares for us in all our need.” Luther is talking more about the petition “give us this day our daily bread” here, but it goes for the whole prayer. Jesus, in teaching his disciples (and us, by extension) to pray in this manner shows them and us that all the good we have comes from God, not just those things that satisfy our daily needs (and for which we ought to give thanks to God), but also the gift of forgiveness of sins, protection from the powers of hell, and everlasting life. It is all his mercy, and he gave us his ultimate gift of mercy to sustain us in every need when he sent Jesus to win salvation and life for us through his death on the cross and resurrection. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us of this gift and our reliance upon God for it— we could not gain that act of mercy and love for ourselves. But God teaches us to remember it. He teaches us to pray, to boldly ask him to remember us in his mercy, and indeed to know that we have already received it from him. Indeed, as Jesus says to his disciples in our Gospel lesson, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13 NIV).
That mercy has been given for you, my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is yours, and you can go before your Father in Heaven, asking him to be God for you with all the boldness and unmitigated temerity of a guy knocking on your door at midnight asking for bread for a guest and more. When you are weighed down by guilt, shame, fear, and stress, and you don’t know how to pray for the mercy you need but don’t know where to find, let the words of Christ’s prayer point you back to him who takes those sins and buries them in the tomb, clothing you in his mercy, and giving you eternal life and everything you have. His mercy is for you, and he will sustain you by it, fully reliant on the Father.
And now…the rest of the story. Remember Martin Rinckart? When he got down on his knees with his parishioners to pray to God for a solution to their suffering and the harsh tribute that the Swedes planned to inflict on their town, the Swedish commander was so moved by their display of faith— it may be fair to say that God softened his heart toward them— that he cut the tribute from 30,000 Thalers to 2,000. You and I might not see that kind of answer to prayer in every circumstance; indeed, it seems miraculous. But we know that, “though [we] are evil, [and] know how to give good gifts to [our] children, how much more will [our] Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God the Father is your good Father and mine, and he will always be merciful to us and give us what we need, we who are fully reliant on him, when we ask him as dear children do their father. This is his promise to us through Jesus Christ our Lord, and we can thank him just as Rinckart thanked him when the Thirty Year’s War ended with our prayers and songs, perhaps with words like these of Rinckart’s:
Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices
Who wondrous things has done
In whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mother’s arms
Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.
And now may the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 LC V.82-83