The Power of Praying for Others

Sermon for Sunday, October 19, 2014
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I Thessalonians 1:1-10

“We always give thanks to God for all of you
and mention you in our prayers…”  I Thess 1:2a

As he does in today’s lesson from 1 Thessalonians, Paul begins several of his letters by mentioning his prayer for people:

For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers. – Romans 1:9

I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.  – Philippians 1:4

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. – Philemon 4

It seems that Paul is constantly praying for his converts and congregations.  Shortly, I will invite us to consider the role that praying for others – the kind of prayer called intercessory prayer – might play in our lives.  But first, I want to take a detour to Harry Potter.

In the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry has been falsely accused of trouble at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft and has been sent to Dumbledore, the Headmaster’s, office.   As Harry waits for Dumbledore to arrive, he surveys the room:

One thing was certain: of all the teachers’ offices Harry had visited so far this year, Dumbledore’s was by far the most interesting… It was a large and beautiful circular room, full of funny little noises. A number of curious silver instruments stood on spindle-legged tables, whirring and emitting little puffs of smoke. The walls were covered with portraits of old headmasters and headmistresses, all of whom were snoozing gently in their frames. There was also an enormous, claw-footed desk, and, sitting on a shelf behind it, a shabby, tainted wizard’s hat — the Sorting Hat.  – From Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Harry in Dumbledore’s office is a lot like intercessory prayer:

    1. To undertake intercessory prayer is to enter into an extraordinary space, large and beautiful, with things that make us curious.
    2. As Harry was surrounded by the portraits of previous Headmasters, to pray for others surrounds us with the company of the saints.
    3. Just as Harry waited in Dumbledore’s office, so does intercessory prayer involve waiting.

First, to undertake intercessory prayer is to enter into an extraordinary space, large and beautiful, with things that make us curious.   Maybe you’ve seen the movie and – like Harry –  have been entranced by Dumbledore’s office:  the “curious silver instruments… on spindle-legged tables, whirring and emitting little puffs of smoke,” the talking portraits of old headmasters, and the Sorting Hat.  The sense of wonder at Dumbledore’s office is but a glimpse of the awe and wonder that we can experience when we enter into God’s presence to intercede.  When we intercede we draw near to One who is infinitely fascinating and interesting, and with whom to relate is infinitely satisfying.   If we but had eyes to see, we might see that to come into the presence of God to intercede for others is one of the most rewarding and satisfying things we can do.

It is this sense of wonder of God that we try to convey when we build beautiful places of worship.  The Bible tells us how beautiful Solomon’s temple was, and archaeologists say the same about Herod’s temple (the temple in the time of Jesus).  I have been to Chartres cathedral twice now and am amazed at its intricate, seemingly endless beauty; I could probably spend my entire vacation just at Chartres, taking in the glass, the stonework, the labyrinth on the floor.  Indeed, Malcolm Miller, an English expatriate who came to France in the 1950’s and fell in love with the cathedral and has been leading tours there for over 50 years, told our tour that he never tires of the cathedral, that he’s continually discovering new things that he hasn’t seen before.  That’s just what it’s like with God:  God is beautiful, and there’s always more to discover.  And when we come before God to intercede, we enter an extraordinary space, large and beautiful, where we continually discover more.

Icon All Saints

Second, as Harry was surrounded by the portraits of previous Headmasters, to pray for others surrounds us with the company of the saints.  I don’t know about you, but I was taken, when I first read the Harry Potter books, that portraits in the wizarding world are not “still” portraits; that is, the figures in them are not still, but move.  Harry Potter fans may recall that the former Headmasters in the portraits in  Dumbledore’s office usually appear to be snoozing,  but will speak with Dumbledore, only to clam up and feign sleep again if somebody else enters.  Likewise, we are surrounded by the communion of saints.  Though we may see their pictures in our windows or on our bulletin covers, they are not still.  They are constantly singing and worshipping and… praying for us.

When we intercede before God on behalf of others, we step into a stream of prayer that is deep and has been ongoing for centuries.   Our prayer, along with theirs, flows to the throne of God and returns to the earth and waters it abundantly, “bringing forth life and giving growth” (Isaiah 55:10).   Our prayer, along with the saints, may sustain this world more than we know.  Remember how, in the book of Jonah, the prayers of the people of Nineveh spared their city?  I suspect that, in the next life, we will see how our intercessions have effected far more than we ever could have asked or imagined.

Just as Harry needed to wait for Dumbledore to come in, so does intercessory prayer involve waiting.  One of the great disciplines of those who intercede is waiting.  Just as Harry had no idea of how long he would have to wait for Dumbledore to return to his office, neither do we have any idea of how long we will wait to see the result of our prayers.   God answers our prayers, to be sure, but in God’s time and not ours.  Part of the intercessor’s discipline is not only praying, but waiting.

But I hope we don’t the waiting deter us from prayer.  Again, intercessory prayer can be extremely satisfying and fulfilling now, in the present – it can really deepen our relationship with God.  Even though we might need to wait to see results, why wait to start?

I have heard stories from colleagues about the man or woman in their parish who has a gift for intercession.   When he or she prays, amazing things happen – things they never could of planned.   I wonder if any of us might have a particular vocation for intercessory prayer?   Or to put the question more directly, I wonder if you might have a vocation for intercessory prayer?

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