Honest to God
Isaiah 53:4-end, Mark 10:35-46
This is a dense and rich story - as every story involving Jesus is. There’s a whole sermon series in it, and a good half hour of content from me - but I didn’t think you’d welcome that!
But I think it has one very simple thing to say to us.
It encourages us to be very, very honest when we pray. To say what’s really going on in our hearts when we speak to Jesus - just like James and John did when they took their Master aside and said ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’
We want you to do whatever we ask of you.
Isn’t it brilliant - haven’t James and John understood something really profound about Jesus - that we can say to him what we really think or feel; that we can tell him stuff without any politeness or sugar coating. That we can say anything to him.
Of course, if you’re anything like me, when you first heard what they said, you thought - really; that’s rude, or presumptuous, or arrogant. They can’t talk to Jesus like that! They can’t say that kind of thing. This is Jesus they’re talking to.
But why not? Isn’t it great that they are so full of trust in him that they can ask him for anything they want, knowing it’s ok to ask; and more than that, they ask because they have enough faith that he can answer - that he really can deliver what they want. Isn’t that what it means to be a disciple? To trust Jesus enough that we can ask him for anything - even for the really stupid stuff. That we can say anything to him, even things that are embarrassing, awkward, shameful or unpleasant. Especially those things.
I want to tell you a story which makes the point. It’s a true story about two real people.
A woman went to see a wise Christian priest. She had just discovered that her husband had been having an affair - and it wasn’t the first time. She had left him, but she was consumed by anger towards him and the anger and hatred was eating away at her. The priest invited her to pray; he said ‘Prayer is simply talking to God. But there’s no point in telling God anything that isn’t true. What would be the truth for you right now?’ The woman flashed with anger ‘I wish he was dead!’ The priest looked her straight in the eye and replied ‘well then, that’s what you need to pray. Pray for him to die.’
Not surprisingly, she said she couldn’t do that, so the wise priest asked if she would pray a prayer from the bible - which presumably, if it was in the bible, was acceptable to God. That she thought was reasonable, so he told her to pray the words of Psalm 55 every day.
Psalm 55 goes like this
It is not enemies who taunt me—
I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—
I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend,
with whom I kept pleasant company;
we walked in the house of God with the throng.
Let death come upon them;
let them go down alive to Sheol;
for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.
‘Let death come upon them’ - it was her experience, it was her prayer. These are the honest words of someone who has been betrayed by a loved one and who wants them to die. And they’re in the bible. And because she could see that he was a wise and godly counsellor, she took his advice and she prayed those words every day. She prayed honestly what was on her heart. She prayed that her ex-husband would die.
Some weeks later the woman returned to the wise priest. Her ex-husband hadn’t died yet, and when asked if she was still using the prayer, she replied ‘not every day’. ‘Why not?’ asked the priest. The woman said this ‘You said I was never to pray anything that wasn’t true. And one day I found myself looking at those words and they just weren’t true any more. At least not that day. I ‘m still hurting, but I realised I don’t want him to die.’
That is the power of honest prayer.
How many of us, in a similar situation might have prayed like this - Lord, if you don’t mind, I know you’re busy, but I am a bit cross with my husband - he hasn’t treated me very well. And, well, I know I shouldn’t feel this, but I am upset. And I know I did some wrong stuff too, and I feel bad about that and so on……you know the kind of things - where we plead and use nice words, and are all very religious and, try hard not to say things that are rude or arrogant or wrong.
God doesn’t need us to make up a nice story, or to persuade him that we’re worthy of his attention. He doesn’t need us to remind him that we behaved really well this week, or that we know that we didn’t behave well this week, and we’re really sorry. God wants us to be honest.
Because God can really work with our honesty. Because with honesty comes vulnerability, and with vulnerability comes the possibility of change. James and John didn’t filter what they said; they didn’t say what they thought was a ‘good Christian prayer’ - they just said what they honestly thought. ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’
They didn’t get what they asked for in the way they wanted it, of course - they had to discover that following Jesus to glory doesn’t mean having status or honour, or the best seats in the house; it means sharing Jesus’ cup - which is the cup of suffering that he prays to have removed from him in the Garden of Gethsemane before his torture begins; and it means sharing his baptism, which is a descent into the deep waters of death, where everything we thought we could rely on is removed, until all that’s left is God.
But do you know what - James and John received what they asked for, even if it wasn’t quite how they expected it; they would go on to follow Jesus to the cross and then, afterwards to be key apostles who spread the word of his resurrection and founded the first churches and James at least was to die a martyrs death.
I reckon that at the hour of their deaths, as they looked back at their time with Jesus, they praised him that their prayer had been answered. They were bold and honest; they said to Jesus what was really on their hearts. And that’s our call too.
So when you pray - be honest. Be completely honest with Jesus. After all, he knows it anyway - and by sugar coating it and saying all the nice things, all we’re doing is exposing ourselves as liars.
If you feel hatred, loathing, disgust about someone or something, tell him. He can cope.
If you want something unrealistic or unreasonable, tell him. He’s heard it before.
If you don’t know where he’s gone or why he isn’t doing what you want him to do, tell him. He’s just waiting to respond.
Be honest and bold. And then wait to see what happens. Wait to see how he responds. And don’t be surprised if he says, yes, I have answered your prayer - but don’t be surprised if it turns out he has answered in a way that challenges and changes you.
Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’