I once read a book by the televangelist Joel Osteen. He’s known as the smiley preacher. His Lakewood Church meets in the old Compaq Center in Houston, Texas. Their 4 services host more than 43,000 people. I read his book, “Your Best Life Now.” In it, he talks about prayer and how much we should pray. He says we should pray about everything, at all times. At one point, he suggests that we should even pray that God open up for us a good parking spot.
What we pray for and about reveals a lot about who we believe God is and what He does. For example, if we pray for God to open up a good parking spot, we believe God takes interest in the little details of our lives like how close we park to Walmart. I personally think God has more pressing matters to deal with then you getting rockstar parking, but I think God enjoys us talking to Him, even about the most mundane things. The more we talk to God about the little things, the more we’re likely to talk to Him about the big things. However, we still need to think about why we talk to God about parking spots and if we really believe God is going to have someone leave at just the time we’re rounding the front row.
There is a story of a mother, Ruby Johnson and her son’s prayers. She calls her son’s prayers “pea soup prayers.” The Johnsons lived near the school so Ruby’s son, Curt, walked home every day for lunch. Along the way, he would pray, “Please don’t let Mom fix pea soup for lunch today.” Curt didn’t like pea soup. No matter how hungry he was, no matter how good it was for him, Curt did not want pea soup for lunch.
Our “pea soup prayers” or our “parking spot prayers” are prayers in which we ask God for how we want God to intervene in a particular situation. We tell God how He should help us, want we want God to do. In these prayers, we don’t thank God for soup, we ask God to have mom make chicken noodle soup, instead of pea soup. In these prayers, we don’t thank God for a car to drive, legs to walk, or money to buy the things we need, we ask God to make it more convenient for us to shop.
So, who do we believe God is and what do we believe Jesus does? There’s a poem by Godfrey Rust called, “What Kind of Messiah?” In it, Godfrey asks, “What kind of Messiah is Christ?” Here are Godfrey’s words:
What kind of Messiah does anyone want? What sort of Savior will do?
Before we subscribe and get dunked in the font, what kind of Messiah are you?
What kind of Messiah does anyone need in our postmodern hullabaloo?
What qualifications will help him succeed? What kind of Messiah are you?
Will you stop us from worry and calm us from fear? Will you free us from debt and fatigue?
Will you send [President Obama] packing next year?
Will you put our Cardinals on top of the League?
Will you heal our diseases with mystical magic so we’ll live to 102?
Will you make it all better when things turn out tragic? What kind of Messiah are you?
Will you find me a spouse and get me a job? Will you save me a good place to park?
Will I be superfit even though I’m a slob? Will you keep me a berth in the ark?
Will you answer my prayers (but not everyone else’s)?
Will you make all my wishes come true?
Will you bless all the Bears’ plays (not the Packers)? What kind of Messiah are you?
Will you be kind to Hindus and good Muslims? Will you send all the bad ones to hell?
Will you show atheists you do exist? What is it you’re planning, do tell!
Will you stop every war, every flood and tsunami and remove the excess CO2?
Will you fix all the people who’re driving me [crazy]? What kind of Messiah are you?
Will you make sure my mortgage rate doesn’t go higher?
Stop me drinking too much alcohol?
Can I win millions and go and retire on my own private island?
Will you bless my belief and ignore my behavior and vindicate all that I do?
Oh, just be my own private and personal Savior— what kind of Messiah are you?
There were a lot of expectations placed on Jesus, about who would be and what He would do. There was a long history of prophecy setting up Jesus as a political revolutionary who would save the nation of Israel and restore the united Davidic kingdom. We’ll read some of those prophecies in a couple weeks when we do a lessons and carols service on 12/20. We’ll hear the expectations placed on Jesus and His work.
We know, in Jesus, a personal Savior who gives us new life, reconciles us to God, takes away our fear and worry, gives us the Holy Spirit and peace, heals and forgives. Thanks be to God!
But, is He concerned about soup and parking spots?
Our Scripture reading today is a song of praise by Mary. She sings God’s praise when she discovers that she is going to be the mother of a great Son. God is going to do great things through Mary and she considers herself blessed that God recognizes her humble faith. Mary doesn’t ask for anything. God didn’t necessarily answer any prayer of Mary’s. Mary sings a song of pure praise. Mary sings of what God has done for her AND her people.
There is a long tradition in the Bible of women singing praises to God for the mighty saving acts He has done for the people of Israel. In Exodus 15: 20 – 21, the prophetess Miriam, Moses’ sister, sings praises to God in these words, “20 Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women Followed her, with timbrels and dancing. 21 Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.”
Later, in the time of the Judges, the military leader, Deborah praised God after a great victory in Judges chapter 5. I won’t read her lengthy song, but here are a few highlights: 4 “When you, LORD, went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. 5 The mountains quaked before the LORD, the One of Sinai, before the LORD, the God of Israel…7 Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel. 8 God chose new leaders when war came to the city gates, but not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel. 9 My heart is with Israel’s princes, with the willing volunteers among the people. Praise the LORD!…“Then the people of the LORD went down to the city gates. 12 ‘Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, break out in song! Arise, Barak! Take captive your captives, son of Abinoam.’ … 24 “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women…31 “So may all your enemies perish, LORD! But may all who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength.”
Also, in that time, the women of Bethlehem praised God for Naomi’s salvation through her daughter-in-law Ruth. The women said in Ruth chapter 4: “14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”
All of these women in the history of the Bible, the stories of God’s saving acts for the people of Israel, leading up to Mary’s pregnancy, praised God for what He had done for the people. These were songs of thanksgiving and praise. These weren’t thanks for the chicken noodle soup prayers or thanks for the good parking spot prayers. The praise was for salvation from oppression, victory over enemies, and new life for a family. And, Mary’s Song recounts the acts of God which defeated rulers, fed the hungry, helped Israel, and, above all, were faithful to God’s promise to Abraham. What the women sing about, especially Mary, tells us who we can expect the Messiah to be and what He will do.
I don’t think His work has anything to do with soup or baseball, but that doesn’t mean I don’t talk to Him about the little things. I thank God for the joys of spending time with my nephew going to see Sci-fi movies or taking my niece shopping. I thank God for a puppy who keeps me company and is happy to see me when I come home. I thank God for Spotify music that allowed me to create a Christmas playlist of almost 16 hours of Christmas music that I have listened to non-stop since well before Thanksgiving, because I love Christmas music. I thank God for a call to work that I love…in a place that I love with people that I love.
I can’t make sense of how God acts in the world of politics and world relations. I want God to swoop in and smight the evil. I want God to swoop in and feed the millions of starving children. I want God to swoop in and make us value the life of every human being. I want God to come down and bring justice for the millions enslaved, imprisoned, and oppressed. I want God to protect us from violence and terrorism.
Unfortunately, I think we believe more that God is willing to intervene in the matters of parking spots than of safety in our public spaces. And, so, it is easier to pray about what kind of soup we want to eat than starving children. But, our Savior is more concerned about women and children being trafficked as slaves or living in fear of terrorist attacks than our desires, comforts, and conveniences.
So, how do we change the way we pray? How do we pray for the important stuff when we don’t seem to have words to express our fear, pain and worry? I like to use short prayers and keep it simple. For example, when I hear sirens, police, ambulance or fire, I simply say, “God, protect the responders and comfort those being responded to.” When I’m watching the news, I ask God, “How do we prevent these things?” Or, “Receive the souls of the departed and heal the hurt.” Or, “Lord, keep us safe from harm and pain.”
If we can begin to believe that God does work in healing and reconciliation, we can begin to know how God intervenes. It is through us. We were called and sent. We were called to be Disciples and sent to be the hands and feet of Christ. We are the ones who God sends to comfort the hurting, heal the sick, visit the lonely, advocate for justice and peace, and protect the vulnerable.
Here’s my advice: Make your own soup. Walk a few extra feet to the store. Visit someone in their home who is lonely or the hospital who is sick this week. Call someone who is grieving and offer your condolences. Write a letter to Congress about how you think we should respond to gun violence or human trafficking. Make a donation to the food pantry or Week of Compassion or Global Ministries. Be the hands and feet of Christ who blesses the humble, feeds the hungry, and protects the vulnerable.