Once upon a time, according to Greek myth, a boy named Phaethon decided to go and visit his father, who was the sun god, Helios. Now Helios, being a god, and having a very important job to do, from which he never had a day off, was never at his boy’s home to help bring him up, and when Phaethon appeared at his place, he was so overjoyed to see him—and perhaps just a little guilty—that he offered his son, on the spot, whatever he wanted. “Please Helios,” prayed Phaethon, “the one thing I want is to take over your job for a day.”
Now what the sun god’s job was, was to every morning, take out the fierce strong horses and the huge chariot containing the sun, and drive the sun across the sky, starting up the steep road across the heavens in the morning, reaching the top of the road at Noon, and driving down the steep road to the other side, arriving at dusk, when he put the sun, the chariot, and the horses away for the night. Without Helios, the sun would never rise over the Earth, and without his strong hands, holding the reins of the horse-and-chariot, it would never stay on its proper course across the heavens.
Helios asked Phaethon to choose something else, for he knew that no human being could control the sun and horses on their trip across the skies, let alone a young boy. The horses might run wild and take the sun far off into outer space, or refuse to be stabled again at night. Phaethon was adamant, however. “Helios,” he prayed, “you promised I could have whatever I want. This is what I am praying for – to be the driver of the sun chariot for one day.” And having made a promise, Helios finally consented.
The next morning Helios and Phaethon opened the stable doors, and out came the magnificent horses, the huge chariot, the brilliant sun. Phaethon jumped into the chariot, grabbed the reins, and began the steep climb up into the sky. “This is great!” he thought. “I gotta get me one of these.” But it wasn’t long before the horses realized the hands on their reins weren’t the strong ones of the sun god, and began to run wherever they wanted.
They carried the sun straight up into the highest heaven, then down, down, down so close to the earth that the mountains caught on fire. The heat on earth was unbearable; rivers and streams were turning into steam, and finally Earth herself cried out to Zeus, who looked down and saw that Earth might soon be destroyed.
He had no choice but to grab a lightning bolt and hurl it at the chariot, shattering it, sending the pieces into the sea – saving the earth, but knocking Phaethon from his perch. He fell from the car down through the air, like a shooting star, his hair on fire, until he met his death in a distant mysterious river. And as he fell, Zeus and Helios watched, and sadly, sadly said, “My son, don’t you know? Be careful when you pray, for the answer may come in a form you don’t expect.”
Once upon a time, according to Greek myth, there was a man name Tithonus. Tithonus saw his son killed at an early age in battle, and death became so frightening to him that he prayed to Zeus every day: “Zeus, please grant that I might live forever, and never have to face death.” Now Tithonus was the lover of a goddess named Aurora, and at her request, Zeus granted his prayer. But alas, Tithonus had forgotten to ask also that he might remain young and healthy. So he did live on and on, but grew older and older, and more and more things went wrong with his body, until finally he was so miserable he was begging for death to come. Zeus finally responded by turning him into a grasshopper, but not without first teaching him: “Be careful when you pray, for the answer may come in a form you don’t expect.
Once upon a time, the people of Nazareth in Judea saw their land occupied by the Roman empire. And these people used to pray every day: “God, send the Messiah that you have promised. For we wish to be delivered from that which oppresses us; we wish to be saved. God, we pray, send the Messiah that you have promised.” Because they knew who the Messiah was going to be. He was going to a powerful but mysterious man, suddenly appearing out of nowhere, a man without a past. He would bring powerful armies and defeat the Romans, pushing them out of their land. Then he would become king, and rule over Israel with a strong but wise hand, and Israel would become the richest and most powerful nation on earth. All other nations would recognize its superiority, and come and bow down. So they prayed to God, for this Messiah.
A local man named Jesus appeared in their synagogue one day, and read one of their favorite passages about the Messiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, for God has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord.” Then he went on: “That text is being fulfilled today.”
Fulfilled today? That could only mean one thing: he’s claiming to be the Messiah! But we know him – this is a hometown boy, the carpenter’s son! He has no mysterious past. He has no armies. He can’t push the Romans out. No, we know the Messiah, and you’re no Messiah. So they hustled him out of town to throw him off the cliff, though he managed to slip away.
Be careful when you pray, people of Nazareth, for the answer may come in a form you don’t expect.
So often when we pray we think we know exactly what we’re asking for. Phaethon knew that the way to happiness was to drive the sun chariot for a day. Tithonus knew the way to happiness was to live forever. The people of Nazareth knew exactly what the Messiah was supposed to be like. And in every case, it’s the specifics of what the people knew, the things they were so sure of, that got in the way of their seeing what was really going on. Phaethon and Tithonus had the chance to get almost any prayer granted. The people of Nazareth had the chance to be with the Messiah! But they didn’t recognize it. They were so caught up in their details, in having things exactly the way they had pictured them, that they couldn’t see the benefits really being offered to them.
In Nazareth, we notice that they did see for a moment. We’re told that at first Jesus won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips. Oh, but then they started to remember their specifics, their details, their conditions, and decided that those were more important than their new impression. “Almost took me in there for a little while, Jesus, but . . . I know the Messiah. He’s got to be mysterious and powerful and kingly. So . . . no way you’re him.” Their preconceptions overwhelmed what they were experiencing.
It would be nice to think that their type of thinking was found only at the time of 2000 years ago, and only at a small town in Israel. But we know better, don’t we? Are they the only ones to ever say: “NO, I know God. I know how God works, and I know what God wants. And what’s happening now, what seems to be asked of me now—that, that can’t be God. No way.” Are they the only ones who block signals from God because they don’t conform to what’s expected or what’s comfortable? Are they the only ones to reject a pretty clear signal because the details don’t match what they had planned?
Be careful when you pray; the answer may come in a form you don’t expect.
Notice the specifics of the verses Jesus read that day: God has anointed me:
- to bring the good news to the afflicted;
- to bring liberty to captives;
- to bring sight to the blind
- to let the oppressed go free.
Afflicted, captives, blind, oppressed – this Messiah seems to have a certain group of people in particular in mind, doesn’t he? He seems to regard the work of the Messiah as very much concerned with those with some disadvantage. He defines the work of the Messiah, as did the Old Testament passage he’s quoting, as lifting up those at a disadvantage, restoring them to an equal footing, alleviating their hurt or sorrow. In short, he’s talking about correcting injustices.
As we mentioned before, that part would not come as a surprise to the people of Nazareth, for this was a familiar passage, and it echoes a familiar theme found throughout all the Hebrew scriptures. We’ve read some of the passages in our worship services: Amos 5 – “Thus saith the Lord: I take no pleasure in your solemn assemblies, but let justice flow like water and righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Isaiah 1 – “Sabbaths, assemblies; I cannot endure solemnity combined with guilt. Cease doing evil, learn to do good, search for justice. Micah 6 – “With what shall I enter the Lord’s presence and bow down before God almighty? You have already been told what the Lord requires of you, only this: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. And Isaiah 58 – “This is the sort of fast that pleases me: to break unjust fetters, to let the oppressed go free; to share your food with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor.”
No, the message that the Messiah wants justice was not an obstacle to the people of Nazareth – that they knew, even if they did define it a little too much in terms of Romans and armies. The obstacle to them was their expectation of a warrior-king Messiah, with a mysterious past. That’s why they thought Jesus was not the one.
We’ve had that obstacle corrected for us. We know now that the Messiah came to save us from sin and to reconcile us with God, not necessarily to lead armies against Romans. But while gaining that understanding, have we lost to a large degree that one reflected in the prophets we just read, the one Jesus picked to read in Nazareth, the part about the Messiah being fundamentally interested in justice?
NO, we don’t say: “I know the Messiah and he has to have a mysterious past.” But instead we’ve tended to pick up: “I know the Messiah and he doesn’t want me to get involved with issues that make people uncomfortable, issues that can be labeled ‘political,’ issues that are complicated or hard to think about, issues that force me to associate with people I’m not sure I like.” Now we tend to say, “I know God, and what God wants is for me to go to church, at least most of the time or when it’s convenient; to attend a couple dinners; to pray for my family and friends, the people I am sure I like; to take care of myself and not do anything that makes me uncomfortable. I pray to God to show me what I ought to be doing, and I know that the answer will be restricted to those areas: church, prayer, Bible study, comfort. That’s what God wants,” we say to ourselves.
Well, be careful when you pray. The answer might come in a form you don’t expect. When you ask what God wants, you may hear words like “justice,” “hungry,” “homeless,” “oppressed.” You may hear instructions like “free the afflicted,” “share with the hungry,” “break unjust fetters” – action words. You may find a message that you’d just as soon throw off a cliff. Be careful when you pray.
The good news, however, is that God doesn’t give us messages that can’t be managed. Unlike the Greek gods, who gave the people exactly what they asked for, whether it was good for them or not, we believe in a God that gives us what’s best for us, whether it’s what we expected or not. And we believe that God will be with us, helping us fulfill the tasks we’ve been called to accomplish, helping us decide in favor of the cause of justice, helping us to face new or uncomfortable situations. We might not get exactly what we prayed for, but we’re never left alone with what we get, and we’re never given things that will ultimately do us harm.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus’ prayers were so general, rather than listing precise details. He said prayers like “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done,” not “There was this dress I saw in the window at the mall a week ago last Thursday – no, not the pink one, the blue one; you remember the third one from the left as you face the window . . . ?” If we’re truly interested in what God wants, the answer might sound a lot more like a justice message than we expected, and it might make us a little uncomfortable, but it won’t be something we must face alone. Be careful when you pray, for the answer might be in a form you don’t expect, but know you’ll have help in accepting that answer, and acting on it.
Once upon a time, a Jewish priest was walking along a road, rejoicing in a beautiful day and in life in general, for it was treating him well. He began to pray: “I thank you, God, that you have allowed me to be a priest in your Temple, to offer up the sacrifices to you, to scatter the incense, to chant the prayers.” He stopped and looked down, frowned, then crossed the street. “I thank you that you heard the prayer I prayed for so long: ‘God, show me how I can be of service to you,’ and that you answered that prayer.” And he continued on his way.
A short time later a Levite came down the same road, and he too was praying: “I thank you God, that you have called me to serve in your Temple: to polish the silver, to clean the stones, to play the music – to help provide for you a wonderful place.” He stopped and looked down, frowned, and crossed the road. “I thank you that you heard the prayer I prayed for so long: ‘God, show me how I can be of service to you,’ and that you answered that prayer.”
A third man soon came by, one of those lowly Samaritans, and believe it or not, he used to pray that same prayer too: “God, show me how I can be of service to you.” He knelt down at the spot where the other two had frowned and crossed the road, and he bound up the wounds of the beaten man who was lying there, and took him to an inn and paid for his care.
Be careful when you pray to follow God; the answer may come in a form you don’t expect.
Let’s pray now: God, thank you for encouraging us to pray, for hearing our prayers, for guiding our prayers to be the kind they should be. Thank you for providing your strength and wisdom and guidance to us, so we are not alone in carrying out the answers you give to our prayers. Help us to hear and recognize your answers, and act with faith to carry them out, confident of your presence and help. Amen.