Monday, 23 February 2015

Learning the Ways of God- Psalm 25

When God set in motion a plan to heal the division between Himself and humanity he began with one man. He made a covenant with Abraham, and God promised that his family would be a blessing to all the families of the world (Gen 12). Abraham’s family grew into a nation called Israel. And God says, through the Prophet Isaiah, that Israel will be a light to the nations (Is 49). God was going to use this family to reform humanity.

Unfortunately, Israel was unwilling to live up to their calling. They grumbled against God and desired slavery in Egypt. They entered into a cycle of calling out to God when they were in trouble and He would save them, but then they would reject God when things seemed okay. The cried out for a king, which was a rejection of God as their king. They worshiped strange gods. They became inward focused and forgot about their call to be a light to the nations, and a blessing to all the families of the world.  Israel failed, and humanity’s hope was lost with Israel, just as it was lost when the couple sunk their teeth into the forbidden fruit. 

Jesus was born to be a representative of all Israel and therefore the hope and light of all humanity.  When Jesus walked through the waters of baptism he was walking through the sea with the Hebrew people as they left Egypt hoping for the Promised Land where they would be made into the light to the nations. Jesus would succeed where Israel failed. Where Israel spent 40 years, Jesus would spend 40 days. Where Israel gave in to temptation to grumble against God, Jesus would succeed in fighting against temptation and the Enemy of humanity.     

In the wilderness Jesus learns to be who God has made him to be. As a human being his knowledge grew through time. It is in the wilderness that he learns to place himself under the Spirit’s guidance. It is a guidance he can only hear if he is humble. It is in the wilderness That Jesus develops the humble character that is necessary to be trusted with God’s power.     

As we imitate his 40 days in the wilderness through the season of Lent let’s look at Psalm 25 is a model for placing ourselves under God’s instruction. The psalmist calls to God 
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” 
That is the beginning. In the liturgy we respond to “lift up your heart" with "We lift them to the lord.” When we lift up our heart, or our soul, to God we are bringing the very central part of who we are to this task. We are recognizing that to come before the Creator of the universe should not be undertaken lightly. God is not a hobby to be added onto our lives. If God is not central in our life then we are fooling ourselves and should reconsider how we spend our Sunday mornings. We should not approach the creator of the universe half-heartedly.

The Psalmist is also very honest though. To the God of the universe he says, “I am lifting up the very central part of myself to you, God. I’m trusting you, so don’t let me down. Don’t let me be ashamed that we have put our trust in you and don’t let our enemies stand over us and point us out a fools for putting my trust in you”. There is a risk in placing ourselves into God’s care. We are suddenly trusting ourselves to someone who we have no control over. What if we are wrong? As we stand before God we might feel like there are those on the sidelines who are atheists or who maybe think we are foolish for being a part of this Jesus stuff. We stand before God, and we sense they are on the sidelines sneering, waiting for us to fail so they can say, “told you so”. The Psalmist is basically saying I am bringing the central part of who I am to you, God, don’t let me be sorry I’ve put so must trust in you. So we come to God not half-heartedly, but with our whole heart, our whole soul.  But the Psalmist also comes with honesty. The psalms are not about praying as the people we want to be, but as the people we are. So we come to God with our doubts, saying here I am, don’t make me sorry I’ve done this.  

The psalmist comes to God with his central plea 
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord;   teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, (v4-5)”. “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (v9). “Who are they that fear the Lord?  He will teach them the way that they should choose” (v12).
We don’t learn from God mere facts.  James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder”.  So learning from God isn’t just about holding beliefs in our head. It is that, but it is much more than that. We are called to be disciples. Disciple means "student", but maybe more accurately, "apprentice". This is not being a student in the sense that we learn some information to write on a test, which we can then forget. This discipleship is about learning the ways of God. It is about practically, and everyday, following God by allowing him to guide our decisions. We apply what he says to our life. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be his apprentice in how life is best lived.  

The psalmist says that the instruction of God will come to those that are humble and have fear of the Lord.  Fear of God doesn’t mean to be afraid of God in the way you might be afraid of a bully. To fear the Lord in the Bible is to be in awe of God. It is to recognize that you are before the creator of the entire universe. It is the awe an ant might have of us as we walk by. Not fear that we might squish it, but just an awe of the power and size. Likewise, we need to come to God with at least a sliver of understanding of the vastness of God as the creator of the universe, and the creator of us. 

We are also to come to God with humility. Have you ever tried to teach someone that thought they knew more than you in the matter? It is impossible to teach someone without them first humbling themselves. We too need to be humble before God is able to teach us.  To be humble is just to know who we are honestly. It is to know ourselves especially as God sees us. That means that we remember the words spoken on Ash Wednesday “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. We are creatures formed from the ground. Adam is not just the name of the first human in the Bible, ‘Adam’ is also the general name for human beings. We are made of the ‘adamah’ the soil, the earth. We are dust. When we pass through the fires of cremation, we are quite literally, dust.

If you are full of pride and maybe think more highly of yourself than you ought, you should remind yourself that you are mud. 
If you despise yourself and think you are worthless then you should remind yourself that you carry within your soul the imprint, the image, of God. Both of these are humility. Humility is seeing yourself accurately in God’s eyes. Jesus in the wilderness could both recognize himself as the Son of God and be humble. Humble doesn’t mean thinking bad thoughts about yourself. It means thinking accurately about yourself.   
If we are going to come to God for instruction though, a requirement is humility. St. Augustine of Hippo has said,
God “will teach his ways not to those who want to run on ahead, as if they should rule themselves better than he can, but to those who do not strut about with their heads in the air or dig in their heels, when his easy yoke and light burden are set on them”.
So before we can be instructed we have to stand in awe of the One who created us, and also see ourselves honestly for who we are before the creator of the universe. Once we come to that place the Spirit can begin instructing us. The Egyptian orthodox monk ‘Matthew the Poor’ talks about this humility as we read the Bible. He says, 
“There are two ways of reading:   “The first is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its meaning to his own understanding and then comparing it with the understanding of others.       
“The second is when a man puts the text on a level above himself and tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and even sets the text up as a judge over him, counting it as the highest criterion.     
“The first is suitable for any book in the world, whether it be a work of science or of literature. The second is indispensable in reading the Bible. The first way gives man mastery over the world, which is his natural role. The second gives God mastery as the all-wise and all powerful Creator.
“But if man confuses the roles of these two methods, he stands to lose from them both, for if he reads science and literature as he should read the Gospel, he grows small in stature, his academic ability diminishes, and his dignity among the rest of creation dwindles.
And if he reads the Bible as he should read science, he understands and feels God to be small; the divine being appears limited and his awesomeness fades. We acquire a false sense of our own superiority over divine things- the very same forbidden thing Adam committed in the beginning.”  (p 16) Matthew the Poor “the Communion of Love”.

As we follow Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness to learn the ways of God. Let’s come before God with our whole soul- not half-hearted, but whole hearted. And there as we stand in awe of God, humbled by how small we are in the universe. Lets allow God to teach us. Not in a way that we master facts, but in a way that God’s way masters us. AMEN  

Sunday, 15 February 2015

what happens when we die?

One of the benefits of being a priest is that I get to hear a lot of your stories. There are certain stories that you don’t want to tell because you think people will think you’re crazy, but I get to hear those stories. I get to hear the stories about a kiss received from a loved one who recently died. Or, seeing a dead family member wave to you from the side of the road. Some of you have seen dead friends wink at you from a picture. Others have felt their shirt tugged after a partner has just died. These stories wouldn’t necessarily convince a sceptic, which is why you are often reluctant to share them, but I hear these stories over and over.   

In our Gospel reading Jesus is seen with two men who have died- Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-9).   As Jesus is being crucified he promises the criminal next to him that he would soon be with him in paradise (Luke 23). So there seemed to be the idea that we are still in some way having experiences after we die. We see this in the Old Testament too, we might look at King Saul visiting the witch of Endor and calling the prophet Samuel from the mysterious place of the dead (1 Sam 28). The Bible seems to teach that people have some kind of existence after death, though it doesn’t say a lot about it. In our reading from the book of Wisdom (3:1-3) we read, “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”   

Our big question this week is, “As a senior at 88yrs, I look forward to the brightness of a new life promised by Jesus”. The implied question is that they would like to hear a bit more about what this might be like. What should we expect when we die?
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a medical doctor and psychiatrist who studied death and dying. She came up with the famous stages of grief- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She was very important in pioneering work with the terminally ill, and her work helped with the development of hospice care. She spent thousands of hours with her dying patients and heard many stories about people having experiences when they were near-death or considered “dead” and were then resuscitated. She became interested in the possibility of life after death and began researching peoples’ experiences. She noticed a pattern when looking at the near-death stories of many people.[1]

These stories span across cultures, across ages, and across religions (including atheists and agnostics). People have reported these experiences after having sudden deaths, and after long drawn out deaths.[2]  After looking at these experiences she noticed a pattern of 3 stages.  In the first stage, before death, we are connected to our bodies. She calls the body a “cocoon” that we are contained within. This is not an overly Biblical image but we will get to that later.

In the second stage there is a sense of being separated from the body (A). The person perceives what is happening in the room where their body is present (a hospital room, or the place of an accident, etc). The person has “no blood pressure, no pulse, no breathing, and in some cases even no measurable brain waves” (p5). And yet they are able to describe details surrounding their unconscious body, “for example, that three blow torches were used to cut [their] body out of the car… or the license plate number of the car that ran into them”[3]. In one case a patient having an out-of-body experience mentioned a shoe on a windowsill in a different part of the building than her body, which was found. Another patient, while “out of their body”, mentioned overhearing conversations outside the hospital room that were later verified.[4]
At this stage they also report a sense of bodily wholeness (B). The blind are suddenly able to see. Those who are deaf or mute can hear and speak. Those who can’t walk are suddenly able to walk. Those with amputated limbs, find their limbs restored. Cancer patients without hair are once again conscious of having hair. Kubler-Ross reports doing a project involving “Blind people who had not had any light perception for at least the last ten years. Those who had an out-of-body experience and came back can tell you what colours and jewelry you were wearing if you were present. … They can tell you the color and pattern of your sweater, or of your tie, and so on”.[5] These blind people could say “who came into the room first and who worked on the resuscitation”.[6]

People in this stage also report not being alone (C). They say they can instantly bridge thousands of miles to be with those they love on the other side of the earth.  They also say there where people waiting for them who died before them. This was often a mother, father, grandparent, or a predeceased child. They sometimes talk about angels or other religious figures that greet them. Kubler-Ross even reports cases of people meeting family members they didn’t know existed. For example, there was a 12 year old girl who met a brother her parents hadn’t told her about who died three months before she was born.[7]  People also report being greeted by people they hadn’t known had died. She speaks about a case where a family was in an accident, but only members of the family who had actually died were present in the person’s experience (p 53-55).  We might say it is merely wishful thinking, but with children you would expect them to be greeted by their parents, “but not one of these children who nearly died has ever seen mommy and daddy at this time unless their parents had preceded them in death”.[8] Some people seem to experience theses visits with pre-deceased loved ones before they actually died.[9]

Next in the second stage there is usually the experience of a passageway (d)- a tunnel, bridge, gate, or mountain pass.[10]  At the end of the tunnel these people say they are embrace by an incredible light and are overwhelmed by an intense unconditional love. After experiencing this they don’t want to return.

In the Third stage, while in the presence of this incredible love there is something like a life review. You look back on your life from the beginning to the end. Every action, experience, word and thought are brought to your mind and you are suddenly aware of all the consequences resulting from these choices. In this moment they come to see that in life they were their own “worst enemy”.[11]  

That is a brief overview of what has become known as Near Death Experience. We want to take this with a grain of salt and remain somewhat skeptical. There have been those who have eventually confessed that they made their story, such as Alex Malarkey whose story became the book, “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” (not “Heaven is for Real”).  As Christians we rest our hope on God’s revealed truth rather than people’s subjective experiences, but the testimonies are interesting and I think they shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.     

There is some tension here with the Biblical understanding of life after death. In our creed we say we believe in “Resurrection”. Jesus as the firstborn among the dead (1 Cor 15; Col 1) was resurrected. His tomb is empty. His spirit didn’t exit his body and fly to heaven. His physical body was raised from the dead. In a biblical sense, we and our bodies can’t really be disconnected. Our body is a part of what makes us, us. The ultimate end that God has in mind for us is resurrection, not a disembodied existence as a spirit without a body. So we should be wary of talking about our body as a mere “cocoon” for our spirit. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has said, “Christian faith says that since God has come to encounter us in this world of material bodies, as a material body, and since God continues to use material things and persons to communicate who and what he is, we can’t suppose that life with him will ever simply sidestep our material life. The Bible speaks rather seldom of life with God in heaven; it is more inclined to talk about a renewal of creation”.[12] Bishop N.T. Wright has said “We will become more human, not less. If, in the present, we have been given tasks to do, vocations to pursue, the ability to delight in music and love and light and laughter, then it would be strange if, in the new creation, none of this mattered anymore”.[13] As Christians, we can’t let go of our bodies that easily as if they were just “cocoons” for our spirits. Physical matter is important to God. 
I tend to believe we have some kind of existence after death, but I also think that is just a stage in life after death. I think we will have a conscious existence when we die, but after that we will have a new embodied existence. In the book of Revelation we are taught that there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). There will be a close relationship between Heaven and Earth, with a heavenly holy city present on Earth where God will be present with human beings in a uniquely intimate way (Rev 21:2-3). In that new existence God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).

We should not think of the afterlife as a kind of ‘create your own heaven’ (as in the TV show Supernatural, or ‘what dreams may come’), or as a ‘holodeck’ like in Star Trek. The afterlife is paradise because we are so close to the source of all life, pleasure, peace, and joy. Being with God and with God’s perfected creatures is what makes paradise great. You will never be bored because you have an infinite God to explore and you will be surrounded by an incredibly loving community of God’s family.    
We want to also be careful when we talk about how great the afterlife is.  A faithfully biblical understanding of life after death should protect us from escapism. Jesus did not plead with God to die on the cross so he could escape the corrupt and painful world. Jesus wanted to live. Jesus saw the gift and the beauty of life and didn’t want to lose it. So we should beware of a tendency to reject life in the desire to “fly away”. At the same time we do not have to be afraid to die. John the Baptist did not want to die, but in the face of threats on his life he was still willing to speak what he believed. Similarly, when we understand the biblical view of life after death we won’t be so controlled by the incidental values surrounding us, but rather by the eternal values of Jesus- love and compassion (especially for the marginalized).  Our understanding of life after death should ultimately help us live this life with incredible courage, even in the middle of horrible circumstances. It was that belief that allowed Christians to stay in plague ravaged cities in the Roman Empire to tend to the sick, and to face martyrdom with courage.   When we understand that we will live forever then we won’t feel so dependent on the passing pleasures of this life for our happiness. We will find ourselves not wanting to waste a minute of life on this earth because each moment is a gift and we will give an account of how we have used each opportunity to love God and our neighbour. But, we don’t behave this way because it buys our way into paradise, rather, it is the way of eternal life. This is what living eternally looks like.[14] The preacher Jonathan Edwards said it this way, “There in heaven this Fountain of love, this eternal three in one, is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it. There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love”[15]  


[1] At the time of her presentation in 1980 over 25,000 cases had been collected from all over the world (p 45).   
[2] over half of cases are sudden death              
[3] “On Life after Death” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,  p. 4

See also “Life After Life” by Raymond Moody, and “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander

Raymond Moody wrote “Life After Life” which is a look at Near Death Experiences. Moody is very educated with PhDs in philosophy and psychology. He is also a medical doctor. He eventually began studying consciousness and Near Death Experience. He collected over a hundred reports from people who experienced “death” and had subsequent “Near Death Experiences”. He found remarkable similarities among these reports and found that in some cases people “came back” with knowledge they could not have gained if the experience was only inside the person’s skull.

Eben Alexander‘s “Proof of Heaven“. Alexander has been an academic neurosurgeon for over twenty-five years. Some of that time was spent at Harvard Medical School. Alexander had concluded that Near Death Experiences were the product of neurobiology alone, and that it does not reflect an experience that takes place anywhere outside the human brain. He had his own Near Death Experience, however, that convinced him otherwise. Based on his physical condition and the reports of his brain activity while he was in a coma he concluded that there is no way that he should have been able to have the kinds of experiences he had.

[4] A story retold by Raymond Moody
[5] Kubler-Ross p. 7
[6] Kubler-Ross p. 49
[7] Kubler-Ross p. 28
[8] Kubler-Ross p. 29
[9] Kubler-Ross p. 42
[10] Kubler-Ross p. 10
[11] Kubler-Ross, p. 11-12
[12] “Tokens of Trust” by Rowan Williams, p. 140
[13] “Simply Good News” by NT Wright, p. 96
[14] If you don’t want to live that way now, you won’t want Paradise.
[15] Jonathen Edwards “Heaven Is a World of Love”

Monday, 2 February 2015

How does prayer work?

Hear the sermon by clicking the link to the right

We are continuing our sermon series on big questions. This week we are dealing with the topic of prayer. This is the question someone submitted- 
“Does the number of people praying for something make a difference to God? If one person prays for a cause or one million pray for it, isn't it quality over quantity?”
 It’s an interesting question. If it doesn’t matter to God that many people pray for a matter then why ask our friends and our church to pray? If it is quality over quantity then should we only ask the most saintly people to pray? … The larger question behind this question is how does prayer work? And what is the most effective methods of prayer? And the question behind that is, why is prayer sometimes not answered?

First, it might be helpful just to talk about what prayer is.  Prayer is something people do all over the world. Anywhere you go in the world you will find people praying- in a variety of ways and as members of a variety of religions. All through the Bible there are examples of human beings praying to God and even having conversations with God. We see prayer modeled especially in the life of Jesus. Biblically, prayer is communication with God. Some would call it seeking union with God. Other would simply call it being with God and enjoying His presence.  Prayer has to do with a relationship with God.
Famous Christians have described it in various ways for example: Clement of Alexandria said prayer is “dialogue with God”. Augustine of Hippo said it is “raising of the mind and heart to God”. John Chrysostom said prayer is an “altar to God in your mind”. Theresa of Avila said prayer is a “special friendship”.   Richard Rohr has said it is a “way of living in awareness of the presence”. James Houston said it is a “homesickness for God”. (Mentioned by Charles Nienkirchen in an article titled "Prayer", in the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality
Prayer is where we meet with God and are transformed. It is where we bring our lives to God, not as we wish they were, but as they are with all our pain, passion, and problems. Prayer is a part of our life before God, the goal of which is to love and serve God and to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ. Prayer helps to make us holy by transforming our character- our will, desires, motives, and behaviors.     
People also pray in a variety of different ways. Some speak out loud; some are quiet. Some stand with their hands in the air; some kneel. Some use prayer books and written prayers; and some speak spontaneously. Some find it easier to pray in the evening; some in the morning; some pray all through the day and they keep a quiet discussion with God.
We should emphasize that this is about relationship, not magic.  We sometimes treat prayer as if it is magic. We maybe think of it as a way to manipulate God to get what we want and so we look for techniques and tips to make sure our will gets done. Really that is magic and sorcery, rather than prayer.
Prayer is about a relationship with God. It is like my relationship with my sons. Jesus’ primary way of referring to God is “Father” or in the original Aramaic “Abba”. Which means something like “Pappa” or “Daddy”. It was one of the first words a child learned. It is what a child yells when they run towards their father to get picked up. Jesus gives the image of “Abba” as we approach God in prayer.  So the analogy of the relationship between me and my sons is not a bad one. … I hope that my sons are not primarily concerned with manipulating me to get me to give them candy or buy them toys. Though no doubt toys and candy pass through their minds from time to time. I hope that they are more concerned with us being together because we love each other. That doesn’t mean they should never ask me for anything. It just means that the asking is embedded in a relationship. The relationship with my sons is not primarily about them asking me for things, but that is a normal part of a parent-child relationship.
When my sons make a request of me I can respond in one of three ways. I can say “yes”, “no”, “or “not now”.   
If I say “yes” then that means that my son has asked me within the realm of my will. If I tell my boys to go play outside in the back yard they could be doing a variety of things and still be “in my will”. Being “in my will” doesn’t mean I have defined exactly which game they play and how they play it. There is a range of things they could be doing. They also know that I don’t want them to hurt each other and start throwing punches at each other’s noses. I also don’t want them to do anything dangerous that could lead to them getting seriously hurt. So there is a range of things that they could be doing and still be in my will if I tell them to go in the back yard and play.[1] I think this is similar to how God works. I think we can be doing a number of things and still be in the range of God’s will.

If my sons ask me for ice cream. I might say “yes” if it is in the realm of my will, which means that it fits into the overall context of my will for them.   
There are times when God does say “yes” to a request in prayer. When we ask “in Jesus’ name” what we are doing is we are asking as Jesus’ disciples, who have learned to live with his desires becoming our desires and his life living within us. Praying in the name of Jesus means having a sense of God’s will and what God wants to happen in the world. It is about praying according to our place in God’s story. Amazingly, God has chosen to work through prayer. We have been given the privilege and opportunity to cooperate with God through prayer. I’m sure we have very little understanding of the power of our prayer in effecting the world.
We have amazing examples of prayer in the Bible where it seems like God is persuaded to change His mind. We might think of Moses pleading with God after the rescued Hebrew slaves bow down to a golden calf and God is ready to give up on them. Amazingly, God allows Moses to seemingly alter his decisions. At times God even allows humans to have their way even though He doesn’t think it is best, for example, when the people of Israel pray for a king (1 Sam 8).  In the bible there is a tension between a God who is the far and away creator of the universe (transcendent), but also the one who comes to visit and speak with individual human beings like Abraham and Moses (immanent). In prayer it is important to hold both these images in tension. We should at times pray as if we can persuade God, but we also need to remember that God has a much broader and loving vision than us. 
We must also remember that prayer doesn’t eliminate our need to act. There is an Old Testament professor named Bruce Waltke who recalls playing David and Goliath with his daughter. He would be Goliath and she would be David. She would have a paper ball in her hand and she would yell “I come to you in the power of God” and throw her paper ball and he would topple over. If she didn’t yell “I come to you in the power of God” he wouldn’t topple over because she didn’t rely on God. But, he also wouldn’t topple over if she didn’t throw the paper ball. Prayer often works with and through human action.

I might also say “no” to my sons request for ice cream. If, for example, we are close to the time we will be eating supper. I don’t want them to spoil their appetite so I’ll say “no”. I will deny them this not because I don’t want them to have good things, but because I want better things for them. Having a healthy diet is more important than having a treat. I also know that too much ice cream can sometimes cause a stomach ache, or can become unhealthy. So while my sons might see my saying “no” as being mean, the reason I say “no” is because I want something better for them, or want to prevent future pain they can’t see. 
Similarly, God might say “no” in response to our requests in prayer. We might be denied certain requests because there might be effects on our soul, or on the souls of others, that would be undesirable. For example, if I prayed for a billion dollars and God granted me that request God might foresee how that might have an effect on my soul. I might not be able to handle that kind of power. I might become self-centered and greedy if I don’t have the character to handle that kind of wealth. There are times that we make requests that fall outside God’s will for us and for the overall plan he has for the world.
Un-answered prayer is one of the most challenging things to our faith. Especially when we pray for someone’s healing, who we think deserves healing. That can be very painful. There is a certain mystery in this where we trust that God has a broader vision than we do and even though we can’t understand it, we trust that God has good reasons. 
Paul prayed to have a “thorn in the flesh” removed from him, but it was not (2 Cor 12). Jesus himself prayed an unanswered prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26). He prayed for the cup to be removed from him. He prayed to not have to endure the cross. In the midst of prayer Jesus’ human will was brought into alignment with the Divine will so that he came to trust that there was great purpose in enduring humanity’s evil. So there are times when a “no” actually leads to transforming us and our will.
There are also other times when God answers the prayer, but not in the way requested, but it seems like a “no”. For example, in the first century the people were praying for a messiah who would be a warrior that would raise an army to defeat the Romans. It seems like God refused, but really God gave a messiah that defeated death for all of humanity, rather than merely defeating the Romans for Israel. What looked like a “no” was actually a “yes” but that was not answered as expected. 
There are other reasons we might receive a “no” in a request. Sometimes it is just logical. No doubt there are players on the Seahawks and the Patriots that are praying to win the Superbowl. Logically both can’t win, so one side will feel the sting of “no”.
There are other reasons we might hear a “no”. Our sin might get in the way of us understanding the will of God, and in the way of our relationship with God. We might have selfish motives. We might not be thinking about justice and service to those in need. Sometimes we pray for “my will” to be done rather than “thy will” to be done.  We might pray with a lack of faith, or sincerity, or perseverance. Or there is some other mystery in the will of God that we don’t see that leads to a “no”.  
When my sons ask me for ice cream I might also say “not now”. I may have planned for us to go for ice cream after supper. At home we might have had ice cream cones, but maybe I was planning on getting hot fudge Sundays. So I might ask them to wait because the timing isn’t right.
Similarly, God might respond with “not now” to our prayer requests. God sees the bigger picture and he can see that now isn’t the right time, or that he has something better planned for you in the future. This can be a difficult answer to hear because it seems like such a decent request to us, but we seems to not have an answer. At times we really have to trust that God has a greater understanding than we do and that He answers prayer according to what is best for us and for others.   

Again, we want to be careful to remember that prayer is about a relationship with God, not merely a way to manipulate God to get what we want. And so we want to remember too that we can pray by sitting in God’s presence with our mind and heart drawn to him. We can approach God in thanksgiving, and in many many other ways.

With this as our context we can come back to our question- “Does the number of people praying for something make a difference to God? If one person prays for a cause or one million pray for it, isn't it quality over quantity?” Jesus says in Matthew 18:19, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven”.  So there seems to be a special strength that goes with gathered prayer, but we shouldn’t think we can manipulate God with sheer numbers. We also read in the letter of James (5:16) that “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. So there is also a certain strength in the prayers of those who have a strong relationship with Jesus, but again, we can’t use that to manipulate God either.
There is a certain mystery to all this, but it remains that we are invited by God to pray and to be his people praying for ourselves and for the world. And by doing so we participate in God’s work in the world.

[1] I once heard Dallas Willard teach on this point
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