Genesis 18.20-33

Job 10.16-22

Luke 22.39-45

Praying Poker: The Power to Change God’s Mind

(Summertime On Demand – V)

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

            On the morning of September 11 2001, as it slowly became clear that something horrible was happening in America’s skies, people began drifting into our church office. They came almost instinctively, I think, because they needed some place and someone to share their confusion, their anger, their disbelief, their grief and their disequilibrium. Two jets had already crashed into the World Trade Center towers, there was a rumor about the Pentagon and another jet was lost somewhere over Pennsylvania. At that moment, nobody knew what else to expect that morning. And as people gathered, we did the only thing we felt powerful enough to do: we prayed. We circled up, held each other’s hands both tightly and tenderly, and just prayed whatever came to mind. I can’t remember everything we said in those moments, but one prayer in particular has remained with me ever since. Someone in our circle prayed, “God, if there are any other planes up there, bring them down right now! Bring them down safe, but bring them down. This is already enough. This is already too much!” While the rest of us were “Please, dear God,” and “Help us, God,” this prayer – this pray-er - shook a fist in the face of God and demanded action. With all due respect to Jesus’ prayer in the garden, on that morning there was none of this, “If it is your will…” stuff. It was, “Let’s get ‘er done and get ‘er done now!” And I thought to myself, “Now this is a prayer - this is a prayer .” This is a prayer that takes God seriously, this is a prayer that takes prayer seriously, this is a prayer that expects and demands results. Immediate results. I learned a lot about prayer that morning.

            And really, this attitude of taking prayer seriously and taking God seriously is right in line with what we learn about prayer in this morning’s scripture lessons. Job demanded answers from God. Job, a just man who lost everything: his livestock, oxen and donkeys and sheep and camels; his servants, or his entire workforce; and every single one of his children, sons and daughters alike - and Job wanted to know why. A good deal of the book of Job consists of his asking God the hard questions and demanding answers: “Like a lion you hunt me… you increase your vexation towards me… why did you bring me forth from the womb? Are not the days of my life few? Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort…” This is not the way we imagine biblical people of faith talking to God, and it is certainly not the way many of us pray, but there is Job shaking his rhetorical fist in the face of God. And isn’t this exactly what prayer is? Talking to God? Job knows that God is a just God, and so expects nothing less than justice.

            But for me, the most breath-taking example of taking God seriously – and by extension, taking prayer seriously – is the encounter with Abraham Deb read for us this morning. As we heard, God had decided to destroy the city of Sodom – “That great and wicked city.” But Abraham questioned the wisdom of God’s decision: surely there have to be some good people in the city – are you really going to destroy the good with the bad, the righteous with the wicked? Is this really who you are, God? This morning, to try to capture the sense of bold edginess I find in Genesis 18, I’m going to invite you to exercise your imagination with me this morning. Imagine, not a page in the Bible, but rather a card table. On one side sits God, on the other side, Abraham. It is a different kind of card game they are playing. First, it’s kind of a combination of draw poker and bridge; many, though not all the cards have been dealt, just enough so that each player, by virtue of the cards each one holds, has at least some idea of what is in the other’s hand. And the object of the game is not to raise the ante, but rather to lower the ante. Abraham studies his cards, peers into God’s poker face and looks for the tell.

Here comes Abraham’s opening bid: he begins with a fifty..   “Suppose there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you sweep away the place and not forgive if fifty righteous are in it?” God looks down at the cards, knows these are some pretty good cards and sees Abraham: “If I find fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham smiles, takes a sip of his coffee and puts another card on the table, lacing his play with just a dash of humility – Abraham knows God has a soft spot for humility. “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And when God agrees to lower the ante to forty-five, Abraham smiles because the rest of his cards show he is ripe for a run. Abraham dips the ante once again - to forty – not too much of a decrease, not too little, just the thing to keep God in the game. “For the sake of forty I will not do it, God replied.” Five more souls come off the table. Abraham is getting bolder now, and the cards are in his favor. After all, this is the Judge of all the earth sitting across the table from him, and every one of Abraham’s cards is marked with justice. He doubles down and lowers the ante by ten. God sees where this is going, and admires his opponent’s chutzpah: “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” Another ten off the table and Abraham gets to play the same card and an additional ten come off the table. Last card: “Lord, don’t be angry if I speak just this once more: suppose ten righteous people are found there.” God smiled. “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” Abraham folds his cards, and they both win: Abraham has saved the city for the presence of a mere ten faithful souls, and God’s justice has been reconnected to God’s mercy. It was another Old Testament win-win.

Abraham was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Almighty. Knowing God to be a god of justice, Abraham demanded mercy. God had decided to obliterate the city of Sodom; Abraham changed God’s mind. I think this is the kind of prayer God encourages from us, prayer that seeks to do something, to change what is to what ought to be. Abraham’s prayer sought justice and mercy for others; Job’s prayer sought justice, and mercy, and understanding, for himself. Each of these is a good example of how prayer works, because each one expects an answer. When we pray, when we boldly pray, we have a right to expect the same.

But how do we know when our prayer has been answered? I’ve heard it said that there are three fundamental ways God answers prayer: Yes, No, and Wait. I’m not completely convinced these are the only three, but they are a good place to begin, and I invite you to measure them against our own experience. Have we ever had a prayer answered the way you had hoped? I think a lot of us have, especially when we pray for the well-being of others – Sunday morning after Sunday morning in church we have heard a number of joys and concerns that have gone on to find happy and healthy resolution. God has said Yes to many of our prayers. Have we ever been disappointed? Sometimes the answer to prayer is No, and as difficult as this is to admit, it still is a prayer that takes God seriously: why bother asking if the answer is always going to be Yes?   And still other times we learn, in retrospect, that the answer was, Not right now. Wait. Be patient. This is a difficult answer to hear as well, especially in a culture that more often than not promises immediate gratification. But waiting, as we know, can be salutary, it provides time for both growth and maturity. Are there other answers to our prayers? Sure there are – some we will agree with and some we won’t. But if the experiences of Abraham and Job and yes, even Jesus in the garden – and remember, when Jesus asked that the cup might pass from him, that is, his imminent suffering and death, the answer was No – these three different experiences all feature individuals who took God seriously, who took prayer seriously, and who know that God is a just God, a merciful God, a loving God, a God who listens and listens carefully to the children of earth, and sometimes, yes, sometimes, a God whose mind can be changed. But first, we have to pray.

Amen.

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