Text: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Another week, another mass shooting. This time with two wrinkles: 1) the reported difficulty in identifying a motive and 2) the response which, in this case, included a very strong condemnation of prayer. Now, before I go further, let me emphasize that I’m NOT taking one side or the other on the issue of gun control. I think there are persuasive arguments on both sides that you, as Christian citizens, need to carefully consider as you make up your mind about where you stand. What I see the need to address are the supporters of gun control who suddenly felt the need to attack the people who offered prayers in response to the shooting.
It was certainly shocking to see how many were so openly antagonistic toward prayer. As our culture has become more and more secular, that was an area that seemed unchallenged, aside from questions of whether it is appropriate for teachers in public schools, for example, to lead their students in prayer. It has been something that even the most secular among us seemed to look at as relatively harmless. At best, it accomplished something. At worst, it was harmless. Either way, it was a nice expression of support for people who are suffering. It was certainly shocking to suddenly see even prayer attacked.
At the same time, it was encouraging to see such a strong response in defense of prayer. The newspaper that published the headline: “God isn’t fixing this” fairly quickly had to explain that it wasn’t attacking prayer, that their point was that other, concrete, steps need to be taken. At least for now prayer seems to be pretty resilient in our society. And if I had to guess, my guess is that it will be for some time because people, as a whole, want to believe in prayer. No matter what you think about God, there are always those times when you need to turn to something larger than yourself, times when there’s nothing we can do, humanly speaking. As long as we continue to experience those moments I suspect that we’ll continue to see most people supporting prayer.
I hope that, whether you’ve spoken out about the power of prayer in some way or not, that we do more than simply defend the power of prayer. As Paul puts it: “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” There are many who are defending prayer, but without any real knowledge or discernment. In the end, they’re not doing anyone any good, not even themselves.
Here’s the thing: for many of those people who are supporting prayer and insisting that it works, they’re completely wrong. No, I didn’t misspeak. Yes, you heard me right. For many people who are supporting the power of prayer, they’re completely wrong. Without faith in Christ, it is impossible for our prayers to be heard by God. If you’re not sure about that, look at what Jesus has to say about prayer in Matthew 6 when he describes the Pharisee and the tax collector. 1 Timothy 2:5 also explains why: “5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…” (1 Timothy 2:5 ESV). There are many who are defending prayer, but without any real knowledge or discernment. In the end, they’re not doing anyone any good, not even themselves. Because, ultimately, prayer isn’t really the issue. The issue is where, exactly, your faith lies.
The full headline mocking prayer said, “God isn’t fixing this. As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” Those words were surrounded by copies of the Tweets from several presidential candidates and other political leaders all saying some version of “Our prayers are with the victims” and, in each case, the word ‘prayer’ is highlighted. There is no question what they were referring to as a “meaningless platitude.” One website said it this way: “Public officials are the people society trusts to solve society's ills. Like, say, gun violence. But every time multiple people have been gunned down in a mass shooting, all these officials can seemingly do is rush to offer their useless thoughts and prayers. And so they did after news broke about multiple casualties in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday.”
As another writer named Mollie Hemingway pointed out, “The [website’s] piece began, “Public officials are the people society trusts to solve society’s ills.” In fact, the Psalmist put it well a long time ago as “Put not your trust in princes.”” That really captures the heart of the issue. In fact, she points out that the gun control advocates themselves are praying, as she puts it, to their god: the government. “[Just] as some religious groups might blame a weather event on insufficient fealty to the relevant god, [these particular supporters of gun control who feel the need to mock the prayers offered by public officials] explain that the god of good government would have been able to take care of us if only we’d given it sufficient power to do so. In this case, that power is gun control. [These advocates of gun control who are mocking prayer] tend to believe that government — if made to have… proper management over the affairs of man — will fix or at least seriously mitigate the problem of evil in the world." That last sentence is the most important. They believe that government can “fix, or at least seriously mitigate, the problem of evil in the world.
Again, that’s why it would be wrong to take what I’ve said as taking sides on the issue of gun control. God has, in fact, established earthly government for the purpose of mitigating, as much as possible, the effects of evil. What we saw this week—and the reason why it needs to be discussed from the pulpit—is one particular group in the debate who felt the need to mock the prayers offered in response because they look to earthly means to fix the problem of evil. We can and should expect the government to respond by doing what it can to mitigate the effects of evil in this world, but always with the understanding that the government will never be able to “fix or at least seriously mitigate the problem of evil in the world.” The answer to that—our hope—lies in Jesus Christ.
That’s not just hairsplitting. We’re not splitting hairs to emphasize a difference between dealing with the effects of evil and the problem of evil. In a recent discussion on Facebook I attempted to answer the question: As Christians, what can we do to stop mass shootings? I think it's an important of a question to answer here, as well. Here's what I said: “The first thing we must do, though, as Christians, is make sure the injured and the grieving are cared for. A close second for us, as Christians, is to continue to share Jesus Christ, who came and suffered, and died, and rose again to deal with the evil in every human heart that shows itself in ways both subtle and, as we were reminded again in San Bernardino, gross. We're also reminded of Jesus words: “Unless you repent you, too, will likewise perish.” It is a very dangerous thing to refuse to call sin ‘sin’. Our sin, too, has made this a world of such evil. The cross is the only solution for the problem we see expressed in this act. That’s what we, as Christians, are called to do. As for what we can do as citizens, [we should have an honest and realistic discussion about what will-- and what will not-- curb this type of evil].” And yes, woven throughout all of that should be prayer.
And isn’t that the message of John the Baptist? Part of the reason I’m willing to spend so much time on this today is that this is very much what he came to do. This is the sort of thing it means that he came to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
Think about how Luke describes John’s message: “You brood of vipers!” he said to one group, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.… Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
When asked if he was the Christ, he said “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
And then my favorite part of the reading: “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” He preached the “good news”? “The axe is at the root of the tree”? “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”? This is good news? Yes. The Gospel—which literally means “Good News”—is that the Savior who John was sent to prepare the way for came to suffer, and die, and rise again to deal with the evil in every human heart—the evil in the hearts of the shooters on Wednesday and yours. Repent. The Kingdom of Heaven is here.
Think about it this way for a moment: It’s easy to say—or to Tweet, or to post on your Facebook status—that you’re praying for the people impacted by the shooting. But what should we pray for? That those who are suffering/grieving would be comforted? Certainly. But what is even better is to pray, for example, as you’ve been taught to pray, “Deliver us from evil.” Pray that this will end! “Deliver us from evil, Lord,” by preventing future shootings—and, yes, that means, in part, intervening through the earthly government He has put in place. “Deliver us from evil, Lord,” by helping us find ways to curtail violence like this. More importantly, “Deliver us from evil, Lord” by defeating the evil we saw on Wednesday by changing hearts, by Your grace, and bringing all people to faith in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, “Deliver us from evil, Lord” by giving us the final deliverance by taking us from this valley of sorrow to Yourself in heaven.
Absolutely, continue to defend the power of prayer. In so many ways, the need now, as we wait and prepare for our Lord’s return on the Last Day, is the same as the need for which John the Baptist was sent: to prepare the way of the Lord. Defend the power of prayer because it points us to the only final solution to evil: the “Good News” of the coming of Christ—now coming for the final judgment of the evil in every human heart in order to also proclaim the hope that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”