Based on Ex 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, Mt 22:1-14
While I was in seminary I had the great opportunity to work as an on-call Chaplain in a medium-sized community hospital. My on-call hours were from 7 pm until 7 am during the week and from 7 pm on Friday until 7 am on Monday. If the pager went off during my on-call times I would dutifully drive into the hospital and seek to answer the spiritual need of the person who requested a Chaplain. As you might expect, I was called mostly to the bedside of those who were dying or who had just died. But there were times when I was called to provide prayers of intercession that were the most memorable. In one case I was called to see a large family whose patriarch was in the ICU and was severely ill. I spent a few hours with this family over one weekend, and I was surprised and deeply moved by the wife’s faith and trust in Jesus and the Holy Spirit to do what it was that needed to be done. What she needed from me was a listening ear and intercessory prayer.
There are a lot of different types of prayers, from simple breath prayers to ongoing discernment dialogues with God. Intercessory prayer is that prayer where we ask God to intervene in a situation that is remote from us – that is, when we pray for others rather than ourselves. This is a powerful part of what we do together in our life as Christian community; in fact, I believe that it is what holds us all together, ultimately, through the suffering we all experience. Before we go any further, let’s ask God to bless this time together…
Our first story of intercession comes from our reading in Exodus. Moses has been gone a long time from the people and they were getting a bit unruly. They came to Moses’ brother Aaron and said that they didn’t know what happened to Moses, but they were not prepared to wait anymore for him to come back. They wanted Aaron to make them an idol (a calf like the Egyptians worshipped), and for reasons only known to Aaron he agreed. They set about to party, at the foot of God’s mountain, I guess thinking that God wouldn’t notice? They had forgotten so soon what God has spoken to them about not making graven images and worshipping false idols. God was angry and was prepared to wipe out the Hebrews.
Moses intercedes however, and calls God back to consider how God would look in the face of leading the Hebrews out into the wilderness only to kill them all. Moses also asks God to remember the promise that he made to Abraham to make his descendants “like the stars in heaven”. God reconsiders as God did when Abraham negotiated with God about Sodom and Gomorrah. It appears that human intercession can work with God – especially if God is reminded about God’s promises.
Paul takes a more human tack on intercession – and one that is more familiar to each of us. Here, he is interceding on behalf of the Philippian church in his prayers for them. Paul reminds them of their calling to be people of God through Jesus and to allow their prayers to God to guide their behavior. He says in verses 6 and 7, “…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus….” (NRSV) He finally reminds them to keep doing things that are pure and right and God will always be with them.
The Matthew text is a bit daunting in its message. Here we have a king (aka God) who sends out slaves (aka prophets) to get the Temple leadership to come and join the king in a lavish wedding feast. But the leaders wouldn’t be bothered to come to the feast as they had other more important things to do – and they killed the prophets to boot. Well, the king did what kings with armies do – and then the king sent more slaves to find everyone they could so that the banquet hall was filled. Some poor soul didn’t get the message about the dress code and was summarily thrown out with the uninvited, because he didn’t fit in. This is what scripture tells us will happen to us if we don’t have an intercessor to help us interact with God, when we behave poorly towards that God.
Three very different types of intercession are depicted in these stories. In the first we see the influence that a Patriarch has with God. In fact, Moses is the first human since Abraham to have this kind of relationship with God. Moses, in his priestly role, intercedes with God on behalf of the sinful people. He puts himself in between God and God’s creation and lobbies (if you will) for leniency in the face of the people’s blatant disregard. In Paul’s letter we see the more typical pastoral exhortation to a church plant on how to continue in the way of Jesus and to avoid falling back into the ways of the world. In the Gospel, we see what could happen to us if we didn’t have anyone who believed in God enough to intercede for us. We could find ourselves out in the dark where things will not be kind.
The good news of all of this is that scripture is quite clear that God saw that prophets really didn’t work well and so God became incarnate as Jesus to help us see that we had a different way that we could be with God. God also created for us an intercessor in Jesus who will be like Abraham and Moses and will go to bat for us when we sin and are stiff-necked and unruly (which is most of the time) – and when we are just off doing our own thing and ignoring the invitation from God to come to the feast.
We have an intercessor in Jesus who came to show us how to love others – especially the least, last and lost. Those persons who are marginalized by the powerful in this world – who need someone to hear their cries and speak up for them. In this way, as we learn again how to truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we will intercede with God on their behalf. When we pray for those on our prayer list and for those we know who do not make the list, we are interceding on their behalf.
Some of you may be thinking to yourselves, “Come on Pastor Dan, what difference can my intercessory prayers make? There is so much evil and disaster, war and violence, greed and self-centeredness, so much suffering – what can my prayers do against such powerful forces?” I remind you of the letter of James (Chapter 5) wherein it says that prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. When we have our own spiritual house in order – when we are in right relationship and confess our sins to one another, then our prayers for each other and for the world are powerful. Because they are grounded in the love that God has for each of us.
Our prayers do matter. When we intercede on behalf of someone else, our outlook on the world changes. We get out of ourselves and our own situations and seek to be of service to another person through love. Often, our prayers are for people that we don’t even know, like when we raise up prayers for those in foreign countries and faraway places. Yet, we all are connected because we are children of the same loving God. The family I prayed for and with, in the ICU that weekend did not have a happy ending – the patriarch died from complications of his diseases. Yet I know for a fact that the wife was in a good and peaceful place – because I could see it in her. She told me that her God was indeed near to her and her family. She knew that even though her prayers were not answered as she hoped, that she still had the love of Jesus interceding on behalf of her and her husband. She radiated peace in a time of great sorrow because she knew that she wasn’t alone in her grief – she was surrounded by people who loved her enough to pray on her behalf. That’s the true power of intercession…it reminds all of us that because of the love of Jesus, none of us have to endure the suffering of the world alone. Amen!