The Wishing Prayer

Sermon for Sunday, August 15, 2021 || Proper 15B || 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

I grew up in arguably the best decade for animated Disney movies of all time. They call it the Disney Renaissance, and it featured such classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin. I loved them all (except Little Mermaid, which scared the heck out of me), but I think at the time I loved Aladdin most. Robin Williams hits it out of the park as the genie in the lamp, and I guarantee you I can sing every line from his song “Friend Like Me.” The timeless story of Aladdin invites everyone who hears it to ponder what they would wish for if they stumbled across a magic lamp. In the Disney film, the genie gives Aladdin only three restrictions: you can’t wish for someone to fall in love with you, for someone to come back from the dead, or for more wishes.

Aladdin uses his wishes to become a prince, to not die of drowning, and *spoiler alert* to free the genie at the end of the movie. The selfless act of freeing the genie contrasts with the selfish act of the villain Jafar when he wishes to become the most powerful sorcerer ever (and ultimately a bound genie himself when the hero tricks him in order to save the day). Okay, now I’m just telling you all the plot of Aladdin. Sorry. The point is, what would you wish for if you stumbled across the genie’s lamp?

This is the exact question that confronts King Solomon in today’s reading from the first book of Kings. His father, King David, has died, and Solomon ascends the throne amidst much turmoil and violence in the country. In the power struggle, Solomon has multiple men, including his own older brother, put to death. Suffice to say, the transition of power was not peaceful and served as a bad omen for things to come, for upon Solomon’s own death, the kingdom splits in two. To prove his legitimacy, Solomon trades on the facts that he was David’s choice to be king and that Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed him just like Samuel had anointed David. But once he secures the throne, he realizes that now – uh oh – he has to rule. Gaining the seat of power was just step one. Now Solomon has to govern and govern responsibly so his people can flourish.

And that’s when, in a dream, God acts like the genie in the lamp, saying, “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon could ask for anything – wealth beyond imagining or security from his enemies or a long healthy life. But he doesn’t. God’s question (“Ask what I should give you.”) reveals Solomon’s true colors in a four-step process. 

  1. First, Solomon responds with humility uncharacteristic in powerful rulers, giving glory to God and recognizing God’s steadfast love. 
  2. Solomon then admits his own limitations, saying, “O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.” 
  3. Next Solomon accepts his place in the grand scheme of things: “Your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.” 
  4. Finally, Solomon makes his request to God, his wishing prayer: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

In the end, Solomon wishes for a greater capacity to understand and discern so he can serve his people effectively – a pretty good outcome for a wish. Just think if he had been hungry at the time; Solomon might have just wished for a sandwich.

The thing is, I believe in our own prayer, God is constantly prompting us with the same query God says to Solomon in the dream: “Ask what I should give you.” As we discern how God is moving in our lives, we can follow the same four-step process as Solomon.

First, we humbly acknowledge God’s steadfast love. We believe that without the constant presence of God, we would cease to be, so the simple reality of our existence (now and in the life to come) is a profound sign of God’s love. In the book of Psalms, we remember God’s steadfast love 125 times in passages like “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds” (Psalm 35:5). Rehearsing God’s presence and love in our wishing prayer reminds us that God came first and that God is prompting us to wish in the first place.”

Second, we admit our limitations. We recognize that our vision is cloudy, our perspective is narrow, and our goals are most likely smaller than God desires. The key here is that we still make our wishing prayer in the midst of our limitations. We don’t wait until we resolve our limits because that won’t happen. But we are clear-eyed that our limits exist and that our wishing prayer will need revision, and that’s okay. Famous 19th-century preacher Phillips Brooks once said, “Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings.”

So we first acknowledge God’s steadfast love and second we admit our limitations (while still praying for wings). Third, we locate ourselves in our context in however many ways we must: physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, relationally. We see where God has planted us. We dig our roots into the soil around us. And we stretch for the sun above us. Our wishing prayer becomes one of extension if our context is life-giving. Or our wishing prayer becomes one of liberation if our context is not life-giving. Most likely, the prayer will be a combination of the two because none of us can find personal fulfillment when so many live lives of quiet desperation. Recognizing our context includes discerning how we can serve using the gifts God has given us.

And that brings us to the fourth and final step, the wish itself. If we have followed Solomon’s blueprint so far, then our wish will reveal God’s great desire for us. We will pray, like Solomon, for wisdom. Or for strength and patience to endure current hardships. Or for compassion to unlock deeper layers of love. Or for a more generous heart. Or for newfound curiosity to replace old patterns of judgment. Or for any number of things that God desires for us, all of them wings to soar upon the wind of the Holy Spirit and the steadfast love of God.

This week, I invite you to prayerfully imagine your way into the wishing prayer. The genie’s lamp sits before, burnished brass holding a single wish. You hear God’s promptings in a beckoning whisper: “Ask what I should give you.” Following Solomon’s example, make your wish as you discern what God dreams for you. And remember, pray not for crutches, but for wings.

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