Prayer (2016 Lent Sermon Series #3)

Two and a half weeks ago, at our Ash Wednesday service, I used these words:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here we have six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives, as a way of opening ourselves up to the presence of God in a new and fresh way. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Third Sunday in Lent, we’re going to look at prayer.

Our theme verse for Lent is the well-known verse from the Book of Revelation:

“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).

In this verse the Lord is calling us to welcome him again into the centre of our lives – to return to our first love for him, or perhaps to kindle a deeper love for him than we’ve ever known before. And there is probably no practice that’s more fundamental to this than the practice of prayer.

Prayer was central to the life of Jesus. Jesus had a busy daily schedule and he was always on the move. But in the midst of all that, the joy of his heart was to take time to be alone with God. In Mark 1:35, after a very busy sabbath, we read these words:

‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’.

We know from the gospels that this was his habit – regular withdrawal from the crowds for that quiet time with God. When he had decisions to make or when he was facing some particularly difficult task, he sometimes spent whole nights in prayer – no doubt waiting on his Father to guide him and strengthen him for what was ahead.

Jesus is also our teacher of prayer. In Luke 11 we read,

‘(Jesus) was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples”’ (Luke 11:1).

Have you ever felt that? Have you ever felt this deep hunger inside to come closer to God, to be more aware of God’s presence in your daily life? Have you ever wished you could find a journeyman prayer who could teach you how to pray? If so, you can understand what the disciples felt as they saw Jesus’ prayer life and thought, “Wow – he seems to be so much more aware of God’s presence with him! I wish I could pray like that!” And Jesus responded by giving them a prayer outline that we’ve used ever since – we call it ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, although it might just as easily be called ‘the Disciples’ Prayer’.

I don’t consider myself to be a journeyman prayer – far from it – but this morning I want to give you a personal testimony of prayer. My experience is that prayer is like a rich banquet with many different dishes available for us to enjoy. Christians have been praying for nearly two thousand years now, and our Jewish ancestors in the faith were praying long before us, as the Book of Psalms testifies. Down through those years our fathers and mothers in the faith discovered many different ways of praying, and all of us can find ways that work well for us. So this morning I want to pass on to you some of the things I’ve learned from them, in the hope that maybe you might get some ideas that will be helpful to you.

I’m going to go in roughly chronological order, in terms of when I discovered these various ways of praying in my life. So I want to start with the simple daily Quiet Time. The person I learned this from was my dad.

Some of you will have heard me tell the story of how, when I was a young teenager, my dad challenged me to give my life to Jesus, and I did. Not long after that, my dad gave me a little booklet called Seven Minutes with God. It was designed for people who had never prayed regularly before, and it described a very simple and accessible way to get started in daily prayer. The idea was to start with a short time, with the idea that it’s better for people to think “I wish I could go longer” than “This is boring – when is it going to end?”

The idea was to start with half a minute of silence, just to slow down, relax, and open yourself up to the peace of God in your heart. Then you would turn to the Bible, read a short passage, and maybe try to find one thing you could take with you through your day – perhaps a promise to receive, or a command to obey, or an example to follow, and so on. Having done that, you would turn to a very short time of vocal prayer, based on the outline of the word ‘ACTS’ – ‘adoration’, ‘confession’, ‘thanksgiving’, and ‘supplication’. ‘Adoration’ of course stands for worship and praising God. ‘Confession’ is admitting our sins to God and asking his forgiveness. ‘Thanksgiving’ is self-explanatory – naming our blessings and thanking God for them. And ‘supplication’ is simply asking God for his help – whether for other people or for ourselves.

The little booklet gave strict time allocations for this – half a minute for silence, four minutes for Bible reading, half a minute each for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, and then half a minute at the end again for silence. I started following that outline almost immediately. I was always a morning person, so I liked doing it first thing in the morning before anyone else was awake.

As time went by, of course, I found that seven minutes wasn’t long enough, and so it gradually expanded. I wanted to spend longer in Bible reading, thinking about the passage and maybe noting down specific things I thought God might want me to do about what I was reading. I wanted to pray about what I was reading, too. And of course, it didn’t take me long to think of far too many sins to fit into thirty seconds of confession – not to mention needy people I wanted to pray for. So without feeling any sense of compulsion about it, I found that as the years went by the time expanded until it gradually settled down to about half an hour.

I didn’t always feel anything special while I was praying. I didn’t have great mystical experiences of the presence of God, and a wise spiritual writer called C.S. Lewis taught me not to worry about that. Don’t try to manufacture a feeling of God’s presence, he said; let God worry about that. If he thinks you need it, he’ll give it to you, and if not, trust that he knows best. One thing I did almost always experience, though, was a sense of peace after my prayer time. I still experience that today.

So that was the first meal I discovered on the banquet table of prayer. The second meal came after I started working as an Anglican minister. That was when I became aware of the ancient discipline we call ‘the Daily Office’. The Daily Office was developed over many centuries in monasteries as a way for monks and nuns to pray together. Monks had seven daily services, but in the sixteenth century Anglican reformers wanted to make them more accessible, so they reduced them to two – Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Many of us who have been lifelong Anglicans remember when these services were used on Sundays, but they weren’t originally intended for that – they were intended for daily prayer.

The Daily Office uses set written prayers. At its heart is the praying of the psalms – one hundred and fifty hymns and songs written by people in ancient Israel, and quickly adopted by the Church for its worship. We still say the psalms in our services each week; they are by far the oldest part of our service, as they were all written before the time of Jesus. In the Daily Office we pray through the book of Psalms regularly – the joyful ones and the miserable ones, the loving ones and the cursing ones. It doesn’t matter whether an individual psalm fits for us on a particular day; the Daily Office is the prayer of the whole church around the world, and you can bet that someone, somewhere is feeling what that psalm says! So we join with that person in offering the cry of their heart to God on that day; on other days, they join with us.

The Daily Office also includes short readings from the Bible, canticles of praise for us to pray together, and intercessions for us to offer for people all around the world. You can find the Daily Office at the front of our Book of Alternative Services in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Many Anglican clergy and some lay people use these offices to help them through times in their lives when prayer seems difficult, as well as good times. If you’re interested, I’ve prepared a shorter form of the daily office in bulletin format, and I’ve put some copies of it on the table at the back of the church today.

As I mentioned, I find the Daily Office very helpful when I’m going through a dry time, or when I’m tired, or when I just can’t think of what I should say to God. Sometimes it’s a great way of ‘priming the pump’ and getting prayer going. And it gives a good sense of fellowship; even if you pray it alone, you’re conscious of hundreds or thousands of others around the world who are doing the same thing. When we lived in the Arctic, in a very isolated community, I found that very meaningful.

So we’ve looked at two meals on the banquet table of prayer – the simple daily quiet time, and the daily office. A third one that I discovered was the prayer of silence, sometimes called Contemplative Prayer.

In one of his books, Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom tells the story of a priest who noticed that an old man was coming into his church every day to spend an hour or so, just sitting quietly, looking up at the figure of Jesus hanging on the crucifix at the front. The priest noticed that the man just sat there quietly, not moving very much, and he didn’t appear to be praying, because his lips weren’t moving. ‘He must be praying in his mind’, the priest thought. Eventually after a few weeks of this, the priest went and asked the old man, “What are you saying to the Lord when you sit here every day?” The old man smiled and shook his head. “Nothing”, he said. “I look at him, and he looks at me, and we are happy together”.

That’s a good description of contemplative prayer. We have a tendency to want to fil the universe with words all the time, but contemplative prayer recognizes that God is far beyond any words we can use. In contemplative prayer we simply quieten ourselves down, listen with our hearts, and open ourselves up to whatever it is God wants to give us. If we feel something or hear something, well and good. If we don’t, well and good too.

Some people find that quietly saying a verbal prayer in their hearts, over and over again, is a good way of moving into that contemplative silence. An old Orthodox prayer called ‘The Jesus Prayer’ is especially well known; it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The idea is to quietly say it in your heart, over and over again, until the repetition helps you to centre your heart on God. Some people like to coordinate it with their breathing, so that they’re breathing in for the first half of the prayer, and out for the second half. Eventually, when the verbal prayer has done its work, you can let it rest and just be quiet before God. If you find yourself getting distracted, you can use the verbal prayer again, to centre your mind and heart.

I have to say for myself that I find contemplative prayer difficult. It’s rewarding, but it’s hard work for me, so I don’t try to do it very often. That’s probably something to do with my temperament. We’re all different, and, as a wise prayer teacher once said, “Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t”.

So we’ve talked about three ‘meals’ on the banquet table of prayer: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, and contemplative prayer. Now I want to mention a fourth one that I’ve personally found very helpful: writing my prayers.

 

I learned this one from Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Bill is the sort of person who runs on adrenalin; slowing down to be with God is not something that comes naturally to him. He’s also discovered that it’s very easy for him just to say words without really thinking about what they mean. But he’s discovered that writing is a good way of slowing down.

Bill’s daily discipline is to journal and pray, one after the other. Every morning he writes a page of journaling, just looking back on the previous day, reflecting on his walk with God and how it’s going. He then writes a one-page prayer, thinking carefully about what he wants to say to God, usually using the same four-part outline I mentioned earlier – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It’s his practice to then kneel down and pray the prayer he’s written out loud.

I tried Bill’s method for a while and then I modified it a bit to fit my own preferences. I started with the journaling, and then I did my daily Bible reading, trying to be alert to any particular verse or teaching that God wanted me to reflect on a bit. I find that reflecting with a pen in my hand works very well for me, so it was easy for me to write out my meditations and underline the things that were particularly significant.

I sometimes found that my writing was turning naturally into prayer. I didn’t feel the need to follow Bill’s practice of reading my prayer out loud to God; I figured that God could read my writing quite well, thank you very much! Nor did I necessarily feel the need to cover all four of the prayer subjects – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. An ordinary conversation doesn’t go that way; it tends to be unscripted, and sometimes we’re surprised at the way it goes. But I did find, like Bill, that writing the prayer was a good way for me to slow down, think about what I was saying, and use words that meant something – not “heaping up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard by their many words”, as Jesus says in Matthew 6:7.

This prayer journaling is a very effective way of praying for me; it’s probably my favourite way of praying. As I said, we’re all different, so pray as you can, not as you can’t!

However, it’s not my most common way of praying. I know my sermon is longer today than it normally is, but this is an important subject and there’s one more ‘meal’ I want to lay before you. We’ve thought about the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, and written prayer. The last one I want to share with you this morning is regular prayer with someone else.

People who want to exercise regularly will tell you that there is real power in agreeing to exercise together with someone else. We don’t always feel like doing it, but our commitment to the other person can carry us through those difficult times. And prayer is like that. Monks and nuns meet together every day to pray – that’s how the Daily Office started. They have their private prayers too, but the daily corporate prayer keeps them going. And praying together can be a powerful way of bringing us closer together too.

Well, I’m not a monk, but I do have a community; it’s called a marriage. And so I’m very happy to share a commitment with Marci that we pray together each day. This is not something that we’ve been doing for very long. We tried it a few times over the years, but we usually fizzled out – often because we were trying to do it last thing at night, and sometimes when you’re tired, it’s easy to put things off. But about three years ago we decide to try praying together first thing in the morning, and it seems to have worked well for us. We make a cup of tea and then pray a simple form of Morning Prayer together. We use little devotional Bible commentaries that lead us through individual books of the Bible; sometimes we discuss what we’ve read, and sometimes we don’t. Then we pray out loud in an informal way, first one of us, then the other, bringing our thanksgivings and requests to God. If one of you has asked for our prayers, that’s when we pray fro you. We finish with the Lord’s Prayer, and then we start our day. I think we’re both grateful to have discovered this practice, and we would certainly recommend it to others.

Well, this morning I’ve laid out a banquet table for you. Here are five different ways of praying that God’s people have discovered down through the centuries: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, written prayer, and praying together with someone else.

Is it possible that this Lent God might be calling you to try one of these things? Maybe you’ve already got a regular habit of prayer, but you’re getting a little bored with it, you want to try something different, and something you’ve heard this morning has piqued your interest. Or maybe you don’t really have a regular prayer practice at all, and you can sense the Spirit calling you, saying, “Now’s the time”.

Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20). That knocking that you hear this morning is the call of the Holy Spirit to a deeper life of prayer. It’s probably one of the most powerful ways of welcoming God into the depths of our hearts. Psalm 8 says:

‘“Come”, my heart says, “seek his face”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.’

Let’s not ignore that voice in our hearts. Let’s seek the face of God by going deeper in prayer. Amen.

A Word of Encouragement

Thursday is the day I prepare my Sunday sermon, but it begins at 7 a.m. with our weekly Men’s Bible Study group at the Bogani Café. I was driving one of the men home this morning after the study, and as I dropped him off he said, “I’m praying for your sermon preparation today”.

What an encouraging moment! I know that he values the preaching ministry, and he is joining me in prayer that God will help me with the preparation process today. Thank you God for a word of encouragement this morning.

Expecting surprises

In yesterday’s reading in ‘New Daylight‘, our Bible passage was John 11:38-44, which is a portion of the story of how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead:

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (NIV 2011 translation)

In her comment on this passage in ‘New Daylight’, Veronica Zundel points out that, although Lazarus’ sister Martha was a woman of faith, she was nevertheless fairly sure she knew what would happen when that tomb was opened: there would be a stench! Common sense told her so; they lived in a hot Mediterranean country, and Lazarus had been dead four days.

How often I am like Lazarus! I’m a person of faith, but I protect myself from disappointment by not expecting too much. There have been times when I have been more expectant, but (like many people) I’ve often experienced the disappointment of not having my prayers answered (or at least, not in a way I wanted or recognized). If you live with this for long enough, eventually it becomes emotionally safer not to expect anything.

Except that then you don’t take risks. Then you live your Christian life on the assumption that it’s all up to you. And maybe you even stop praying altogether, except as a sort of Christian stress-reduction technique. Yes, I feel better after I pray, but do my prayers actually have any effect on the circumstances?

The subject of unanswered prayer is a big one, and I’m not likely to solve it in a short blog post this morning. I do want to come back to this issue of knowing what we’re going to find when we open the grave, though. Veronica says (and this really struck me) that a good definition of faith could be ‘expecting surprises from God’. And I think that’s exactly right.

I’ve seen people come to faith in Christ, at least in part because of words of witness I had spoken to them. What a beautiful surprise! Often I wasn’t expecting anything like that, but God did the unexpected, and it was lovely. Those experiences have made it easier for me to step out in faith and speak words of witness to other people, because, in that one area of my life, I have come to expect God to do the unexpected.

So, God, what you have done in one area of my life, would you please do in others too? Maybe I’m not at the ‘raising Lazarus from the dead’ stage yet, but it would be nice to walk through life with a little more hopefulness, looking forward to the next time when you will surprise me!

We do Jesus and we do prayer

In a recent interview in ‘Christianity Today’ magazine, Dr. George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in the USA, talks about a conversation he had with a Chinese Pentecostal pastor who, at the age of 75, had restarted a church after four decades of communist opposition and persecution.

He told me that when the church re-started 5 years earlier, he had 30 mostly elderly people. But, in answer to my question, he handed me a book with the names of the adult baptized members of the church hand-written on its pages. As I turned page after page, I learned that Pastor Mung’s church now numbered over 1,500 people. I was astonished at this and asked, “How did this happen?” He smiled and I surmised he thought I had asked a typical American question. After all, we Americans are interested in the techniques of church growth: what books did you read, what conferences did you go to, what strategies did you employ? I’ll never forget his answer: “Well,” he said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And we pray a lot.” Then he went on to describe what the Lord had done in that town, including some remarkable healings.

The entire interview is worth reading. In my earlier years as a Christian I was very much influenced by Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity (Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning was the ‘burning bush’ that God first used to get my attention as a young teenager). I’m not so interested in it any more, but I resonated deeply with George Wood’s emphasis on Jesus and prayer.

A few years ago a survey taken among people who had recently started going to church revealed an interesting fact: overall, the new churchgoers were surprised about how hesitant long-time church people were to talk about God. The new churchgoers had assumed that church was all about God; why wouldn’t lifelong church members want to talk about him? And I think this applies all the more to Jesus. We want to talk about service opportunities, action plans, growth statistics, social justice, climate change, pastoral care – all good things, to be sure, and I’ve done more than my share of talking about them. But if the risen Jesus isn’t a living reality to us, how are we any different from social service agencies (apart from being less well-funded?).

No – we have to emphasize what is central to us – Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, and his living presence among us by the power of the Holy Spirit (and if that’s not real to us, then we have some pretty basic problems). And prayer – the way we connect with God, individually and corporately – should surely be our greatest joy, and also our first resort when we’re facing challenges and problems, successes and failures, opportunities and setbacks.

Deep down inside, this is the church growth strategy I really believe in: put Jesus at the centre of our life and message, pray a lot, and teach people to pray. Everything else follows on from that.

‘Out of the Depths’: a sermon on Psalm 130

When I was in college my Old Testament professor used to say, ‘the rest of the Bible speaks to us, but the Psalms speak for us’. I think this is true, and I’m really glad that we use them week by week in our Anglican worship.

The Book of Psalms is a book of prayers written by Old Testament people; some of them perhaps date as far back as the time of David, a thousand years before Jesus, while others are more recent. In the psalms we’ll find the whole breadth of human experience and emotion – joy and suffering, praise and anger, love and hate – every part of our human life, even the nasty parts, all presented to God in prayer. I hope you’re getting to know the psalms, and I hope you read them regularly. This extraordinary collection of prayers is telling us that every part of our human life can be prayed; there’s no experience, and no emotion, that can’t be brought up in our conversations with God. The psalms invite us to be honest and to be ourselves in our prayers. God knows all about us anyway, so we may as well tell him the truth!

Today’s psalm, Psalm 130, is definitely speaking for us in our troubles. It speaks of a painful aspect of our human experience, when we say to ourselves, “I’m in trouble, and it’s my fault: I’m the one that caused it”. So we’re not only dealing with despair and difficulty, but guilt as well. If we’re religious people, we may find ourselves thinking “God must be punishing me for what I did”.

This was a common view in Old Testament times: the idea that if you were suffering, you had obviously done something wrong, and God was punishing you for it. I say this was a common Old Testament view, but of course it’s still with us; we still hear people who are going through hardship asking, “What have I done to deserve this?”

But even in the Old Testament not everyone agrees with this, and when we turn to the New Testament we come across a completely different view. In John chapter 9, Jesus’ disciples looked at a man who had been born blind, and they asked Jesus, “Who sinned – him or his parents?” Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Throughout the gospels Jesus lives out a message of grace, which is God’s unconditional love for all people, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the woman caught in the act of adultery at the beginning of John chapter 8, and even his own friend Peter, who denied him three times. In each case, instead of sending trouble on the sinner to punish them, Jesus is reaching out to them with the message of God’s steadfast love, and is calling them to come home to a God who is more than ready to welcome them.

Psalm 130 is one of those places in the Old Testament where we catch a glimpse of this truth as well. Let’s explore it together. I’m going to use the pew Bibles, the NRSV translation, rather than the BAS which we prayed a few minutes ago, because there’s one word that I think is translated much better in the NRSV; I’ll point it out when we get to it!

So let’s start by asking ourselves, what is the writer of this psalm experiencing? Look at verses 1-2:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

The ‘depths’ are a common Old Testament metaphor for suffering, despair, and depression. The writer is talking about the ocean depths, or maybe the floods: ‘Lord, I’m drowning in despair here!’ There’s another example of it in Psalm 69 where we read these words:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God (Psalm 69:1-3).

Our readings for today give us examples of these depths. In our first lesson, David is crying out to God in grief for his dear friend Jonathan, who has been killed in battle with the Philistines. Grief, we know, is one of the hardest things we go through as humans – the death of someone we love, and the continual experience of their absence, is something we never really get over. And of course, the more we loved them, the harder it is to deal with.

In our gospel one of the characters in the story is going to deal with that as well. Jairus has a little daughter, and he’s frantic with worry about her; she’s very ill, and indeed is at the point of death. The serious illness of a much-loved child is one of the great fears of all parents, isn’t it? And if you’ve lost a child, you know how black those particular depths can be.

There’s also a woman who has been suffering hemorrhages for twelve years; she’s spent a lot of money on doctors, and we can guess that she’s prayed a lot too, but nothing has changed. Twelve years is the age of Jairus’ little girl; all the time that Jairus and his family have been enjoying their dear daughter, this woman has been suffering, and there has been no relief. A long, chronic illness, and years of unanswered prayer: that’s a very, very dark valley.

In 2 Corinthians 8 there are hints of another dark valley. Paul is organizing a relief fund in all his Gentile churches to help the Christians back in Jerusalem, who for some reason are going through a time of severe economic hardship. Very few of us have to deal with that sort of thing; even if we’ve been out of work for a while, we usually haven’t had to worry about where our next meal is coming from. But of course, there are people in the world who are overwhelmed with worry about that; they have no idea whether or not they’ll be able to eat today.

So these are some of the ‘depths’ that Bible people experienced – bereavement, chronic illness, unanswered prayer, crushing poverty. They are with us still, of course, along with many other hard circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us.

I wonder what ‘depths’ you have experienced, that have led you to cry out to God in fear or desperation? Maybe it was the depths of grief at the loss of a loved one, or maybe it was panic when you found yourself in serious financial difficulties, or maybe lost a job that you were depending on. Maybe it was the pain of the breakup of a marriage, or conflict with children or parents. Maybe it was the unexpected diagnosis of a serious illness. Or maybe it was a sense of guilt at some things you had done, and a fear that God had turned his back on you and abandoned you.

These are all common human experiences; we all go through them, whether we’re Christian or not. Sometimes it’s harder for us as Christians, because we’ve been told that if we follow Christ, God will always bless us and look after us. So we find ourselves asking, “Have I done something wrong that he’s punishing me for?” Or again, we’ve been taught that we’ll always be joyful if the Holy Spirit lives in us, and now we’re not feeling that joy.

So how does the writer of Psalm 130 deal with this experience? What does he have to say to God? Where does he find hope in the midst of despair? Let me point out a few things to you.

First, the writer arrives at what seems to us to be a blindingly obvious conclusion, but it’s surprising how many people don’t seem to get there without some help. What’s the conclusion? Simply this: If God was sending thunderbolts to strike sinners dead, there’d be no one left standing. Look at verses 3-4:

If you, O Yahweh, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.

Of course, we tend to think of ‘sinners’ as being people who are guilty of some particularly heinous sin. What we classify as a ‘heinous’ sin, of course, changes with our culture. To some people, it’s anything to do with sex; to others, it’s anything to do with social injustice. In the Middle Ages, it was daring to charge interest when you lent money to anyone!

But we Christians can’t be so selective in our definition of sin, can we? In most of our services we confess our sins together, saying “We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves”. This, of course, is based on Jesus’ two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If we’ve neglected to do this, then we are sinners. And as soon as you start defining sin to include the good things we don’t do, then we know we’re all nailed! As Paul says in Romans 3, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ – which is pretty much a New Testament Christian way of saying exactly what our psalm writer said.

So that’s the first thing the writer reflects on: everyone is a sinner, so whatever else my troubles might be, they can’t be God’s punishment for my sins, because if they were, everyone would be going through the same punishment. The writer then goes on to reflect on three aspects of God’s character that give us hope.

First, God is a God of forgiveness. Verse 4 says, ‘But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered’. The wording seems a little strange to us, but if we read the psalm as a whole, we can see that this ‘with you’ language is the writer’s way of pointing out different aspects of God’s character; he might say ‘there is courage with you’ or ‘there is patience with you’. So in verse 4 we have ‘forgiveness’, and in verse 7 we read ‘For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem’. And these three ‘with you’ characteristics turn out to be just the things that give us hope in our despair.

So – first, forgiveness. We who follow Jesus, of course, don’t need to be in doubt about that. Over and over, Jesus met people who were in despair over their guilt and assured them of God’s forgiveness. He reached out to people who were considered to be the worst sinners, to the point that he was even described by his enemies as the ‘friend of sinners’ (hint: they didn’t think that was a compliment!). He taught us that God is like the father who welcomes the prodigal son home after he’s wasted all his property, or like a king who forgives an embezzling servant a debt bigger than the entire revenue of the kingdom. Paul says, ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). ‘There is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered’.

Secondly, God is a God of steadfast love. This is why I like the NRSV better than the BAS translation of this psalm. The BAS says, ‘for with the Lord there is mercy’; the NIV says ‘for with the Lord there is unfailing love’, which is a little better. The Hebrew word is ‘chesed’, which I think means ‘love with muscles attached to it’, ‘stubborn love’, ‘love that never gives up’. And so the NRSV has this wonderful phrase, ‘steadfast love’.

What’s it telling us? It’s saying that God has made a covenant with us that he will not break. In that covenant, he has adopted us as his children, forgiven our sins, given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and promised that nothing can ever separate us from his love. His love for us is patient, stubborn, steadfast and sure, and we can count on it. His love will never let us go. Never.

So God is a God of forgiveness, and God is a God of steadfast love. Thirdly, God is a God who comes to the rescue. The NRSV uses the old word ‘redeem’; it says in verses 7-8, ‘…and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’.

The word ‘redeem’ is often used in the Bible to mean paying a price to set slaves free, or rescue them. But it’s also used in a military sense: God rescuing his people from a hopeless situation by what the Bible calls ‘the strength of his right hand’. Our psalm writer asks the question ‘What enemies are too strong for me to defeat all by myself?’ and comes up with the surprising answer, ‘My sins’:

‘…with (Yahweh) there is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’ (vv.7b-8).

Yes, our own sins, or ‘iniquities’ as the psalm calls them, can be our worst enemies. How many times have we made New Year’s resolutions about dealing with our bad habits, and how many times have we broken them? And, on a less humorous note, how many times have we said of someone, “He’s his own worst enemy?” Positive change is very, very difficult for us humans; if eternal life is a reward for good behaviour, we’re in a desperate situation indeed.

So once again, we’re back to forgiveness. Jesus says in Mark’s gospel, ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). In the original language, the word ‘ransom’ comes from the same root as ‘redeem’ or ‘redemption’. Jesus is using the illustration of the slave market: we are slaves of evil and sin, but he’s given himself on the cross to ransom us from slavery, so that we can be forgiven and go free.

We’ve seen that God is a God of forgiveness, a God of steadfast love, and a God who rescues us from our sins. What’s the conclusion? The conclusion is two words: ‘Hope’, and ‘wait’. Look at verses 5-6:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

This is honest and realistic; the writer isn’t promising that the answer to our prayers is going to come instantly. Whatever this ‘flood’ is that’s threatening to overwhelm him, he’s not expecting that God will instantly taking it away. Far from it: he’s expecting to have to wait.

And this lines up very much with life as I experience it. My Dad told me once, “I’ve been impatient all my life, so every time I’ve really wanted something, the Lord has made me wait for it!” And I remember that in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells us a parable to encourage us ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’ (Luke 18:1); there would have been no need for him to tell that parable if we always got everything we asked for right away!

So – keep on praying, and don’t lose heart. ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope’. Whatever trouble we’re going through, let’s keep bringing it to God in prayer, confident that God is not punishing us, because he’s a God of forgiveness and steadfast love. This trouble we’re going through isn’t a big stick he’s using to beat us up or punish us. Rather, he’s walking through our dark place with us, just as he came and lived and died as one of us in Jesus, experiencing all the trouble that we go through as human beings, all the way to death on a cross. So we can come to him with confidence, knowing that nothing can ever change his steadfast love for us.

As we finish, why don’t you put your own name in the last two verses of this psalm? ‘O Tim, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him there is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem me from all my iniquities’. Amen.

We don’t send prayers ‘out to’ people – we send them out to God

I’ve noticed in the world of Facebook that people will often say something like “Our thoughts and prayers are going out to Joe Green and his family in the difficult time they’re going through”. Or, “Prayers going out to the family of Mary Smith, who died last night”.

Here’s the thing, though: we send our thoughts out to people, but we don’t send our prayers out to them. We send our prayers out to God, on the people’s behalf.

Why does this matter? Am I just being nitpicky?

I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, if prayers are just something purely human that we ‘send out’ to people, like sympathetic thoughts, then they can’t really give those people any significant help – other than the comfort of knowing that friends are thinking of them, which is surely what ‘sending out thoughts’ means. In other words, the ‘prayers’ are not really that much different from the ‘thoughts’; they’re just a different way of saying the same thing.

Second, if we’re actually sending our prayers out to John for his healing, for example, then prayer becomes a sort of ‘mental ray of love’, and the more rays, the better. So we can fall into the trap of thinking that if we can get a thousand people praying for John, that’s more effective than, for instance, two or three. The more prayers, the better! Whereas Jesus clearly tells us that two or three are enough. One is enough, actually; if God is my father and I am his child, and if he is anything like the best earthly fathers (which he is), then the voice of even one of his beloved children will surely be heard.

No – we send our loving thoughts and hugs and best wishes out to our friends who are suffering, but we don’t send our prayers to them. We send our prayers to the place where they can really make a difference: the heart of God. And because God is a God of love, he will hear those prayers, and in his own time and in his own way, he will answer them.