March 22, 2015

Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?

Exodus 32:1-14 (NRSV)

32When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!  9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

 

 

Does prayer change God’s mind? This is our question for this morning. So far we have had three really interesting and challenging questions. What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Who receives forgiveness? What’s the difference between the Methodists and the Mennonites? These three questions have allowed us to learn something new and be challenged to understand God and ourselves a little differently. While each question has presented unique challenges, I have felt like I could at least partially answer each of them in some way.

That all changes this morning. I’ve been stumped. Does prayer change God’s mind? I honestly have wrestled with this question for most of my life, and I am stumped. I don’t have an answer that feels satisfying. But the entire point of our sermon series is to ask the tough questions. If we only asked questions that we felt we could answer, we wouldn’t get very far. If we only asked questions we already had answers to, what would be the point? So I’m admitting it right up front, I don’t have an answer to this question. I would be giving you a theological argument to explain why prayer does or doesn’t change God’s mind.

All I know is this is an important question we have all wrestled with. What do our prayers mean? Can we influence God through prayer? How do we know that God hears us and then cares enough to listen to our prayers? Does prayer change God’s mind?

As this is a sermon on prayer, and despite the fact that we may not be able to adequately answer this question it is still our calling as Christians to live lives of prayer, I have decided to infuse my sermon today with prayer. I have chosen some well known prayers that I think are beautiful and meaningful, and have asked some folks to read them as we work our way through the sermon, wrestling with our question. We’ll take breaks to pray, and in doing so think about the significance of prayer as it relates to the question at hand.

So, our first prayer. The first prayer. The Lord’s Prayer. It is the model that Jesus gives us in the gospel on how to prayer. I invite whoever has the Lord’s Prayer to stand and read it allowed as the rest of us listen in prayerful silence.

The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.*
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,*
but rescue us from the evil one.*

For Yours is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

 

So, back to the question. Does prayer change God’s mind? Let’s start with the scripture passage I read this morning from Exodus. The story of the Israelites turning away from God, God’s anger towards them, and Moses pleading with God to spare them. Moses prays to God, please spare the people. Look at them compassionately, with mercy. And what does the text tell us. “14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Now for some of you, that answers the question right there. It says, verbatim, that God’s mind changed after Moses prayed for mercy for the people. But, do we really think God’s mind changed? Was God actually planning one thing for the people, and then convinced by Moses pleading to do something differently? Or was God’s plan always to look on the people with compassion, and it was Moses who had a change of heart?

I’m not sure if this answers our question necessarily, but I think it does tell us something important about God’s character. That God’s compassion is greater than God’s anger. God looks on humans with compassion even when God’s anger is the most justified response. In pleading for God’s compassion, Moses reminds us how we should pray. We don’t pray that God punish others. We pray for God’s forgiveness and compassion. For ourselves, for those we love, and even (if we take the gospel seriously) for our enemies.

Did God’s plan for the Israelites make a sudden 180 degree turn after Moses prayed? I’m not sure. Did God’s mind change or was that part of the passage more of a literary device than it was a historical account of the mind of God?

Let’s take another break and pray once more. Please quiet your hearts and minds and be in a spirit of prayer. Would the person with the Christ Be With Me prayer please read your prayer aloud?

 

Christ Be With Me 
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Salvation is of the Lord.
Salvation is of the Christ.
May your salvation, Lord, be ever with us. Amen.

 

Does prayer change God’s mind? Why might it be a problem if God’s mind can change? There are definitely some philosophical dilemmas presented if the Mind of and omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God can change because of a request of a flawed human being. Does God not have a plan that has been laid out since before the beginning of time, and wouldn’t it create a problem in that plan if somewhere along the way God’s mind changed. Or was God always planning to change God’s mind, in which case was it really changed or always how God had planned it. You see the philosophical rabbit hole we could go down here, don’t you?

Ultimately, I think one of the things we have to do regardless of how we answer the question does prayer change God’s mind is recognize that there is point where God is mysterious. A point where our finite human mental capacity cannot comprehend the infinite nature of God. We have to accept this mystery, accept the fact there are some things we might never understand, but be consoled because the greatest mystery is how an infinite God can love each of us so deeply and so profoundly. God’s mind may or may not change, but one thing never changes. And that is that God loves every single human being who has ever lived more deeply than we can ever begin to understand.

Let’s take another moment to pray. This prayer is commonly known as the serenity prayer. It was penned by an American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is probably one of the best-known American theologians of the 20th century, and actually taught at Union Theological Seminary, which is where I studied.

His serenity prayer has become one of the most popular contemporary prayers, and has been incorporated into Alcoholics Anonymous as a prayer of strength and serenity for those struggling to overcome addictions. Would the person who has the serenity prayer please read it aloud as the rest of us join in silent contemplation.

 

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.

Amen.

 

We might not know what effect our prayers have on God, if they change God’s mind, but one thing we must ask ourselves is this: Does prayer change our minds? When we go to God in prayer, are we going with an agenda? Approaching God as if he were some kind of wish granting genie at our beck and call? Or do we approach God with open mind and open hearts, ready to be changed by the experience.

I think this is an important question in our lives, because if prayer does not change us, than we have gained nothing. Our relationship with God that is evident in our prayers is about us being changed. Allowing the grace and compassion and love of God to transform us. To change how we live and how we think.

Does prayer change our minds? This is a question we must ask ourselves. I want to challenge you this week to ask yourself this question before and after you pray. Am I ready to have my mind changed by God? Am I truly opening myself up to being filled with God’s spirit in ways that will transform me, or am I just going to God with a laundry list of requests that I’m hoping might be granted. Does prayer change our minds?

Let’s pray again. Will the person with the Prayer of St. Francis please lead us in prayer?

 

The Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life. Amen

 

Does prayer change God’s mind? If I’m going to get anywhere close to answering this questions it’s with this. We live in an era when we’re told that to change your mind is a sign of weakness. Think about the lengths that politicians go to in order to avoid admitting that they made a mistake or that they have changed their minds. Think about how quickly politicians are labeled flip-floppers when their minds change, and how negative the connotations of that label. It’s so powerful that it has derailed political careers and campaigns.

But why is it considered weakness to change our minds? And why do we apply that logic to our understanding of God? Our culture is increasingly polarized because we have been convinced that changing our minds is a sign of weakness.

But could we not see a change of mind as a sign of strength, not weakness? The ability to be open to ideas and views that challenge your own. To be open to being changed by others. I think if we begin to see flip-flopping as a good thing, than maybe we will think about our question this morning a little differently. Maybe prayer does change God’s mind, and that is because of how strong God is. God listens to us. God cares deeply for us. So much so that our desires have an effect on the heart and mind of God. The creator cares so deeply for the creation that God has opened up to being effected by us. God saw Moses’ compassion for the Israelite people and was so moved that God decided to spare them. To have mercy on them.

Does prayer change God’s mind? What do you think?

We’re are going to end with one final prayer. We’ll pray it together. It comes from the orthodox church and is simple yet profound. It contains in a very short prayer the depth of Christian belief and experience. Orthodox Christians use the Jesus Prayer as a way to center themselves. To hone their focus on Christ by repeating this prayer. We will spend just a short period of time repeating this prayer together.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

 

 

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