Sermon: Giving Up OUR Prayers For Lent: How God Prays
Scripture: Psalm 139: 7-12
Date: March 4, 2018
In his book, The Source, the 20th Century author James Michener tells of the history and rise of the Hebrew people, by tracking the civilizations that evolved through the centuries in the fictional area of Makor in what is now Northern Israel. It is a work of historical fiction. And early in the book he tells the story of Urbaal and Timna, a husband and wife who lived in Makor around 2000 B.C. At that time, the people of Makor were primarily agrarian. They lived off the land where they grew their crops and fed their animals and they were polytheistic, in that they had a god who controlled nearly every aspect of their lives. The most important of these gods was Astarte, the goddess of fertility. (Show pictures) She was responsible for keeping the ground fertile for the crops as well as the animals for additional livestock to be born. And in exchange the people believed that Astarte required a great sacrifice, the sacrifice of your first born son. It was every father of Makor’s duty to take his first born son to the Temple of Astarte and present him to sacrificed on behalf of the whole village, in exchange for a great harvest and abundant livestock. In fact, the day of sacrifice, much like the later Jewish day of Atonement became a ritual that the whole community participated in. And in Michener’s telling, the day came for Urbaal to take their newborn son to the Temple and Timna, wife and mother, pleaded with him not to go saying that it was wrong to worship a god that required such a sacrifice in order to bless the people. But Urbaal went and Timna followed him from a distance and watched with great sorrow and disgust as he presented the baby to be sacrificed. And Michener writes this: “(She), still grieving for her son, watched dispassionately and while others celebrated she walked slowly homeward, seeing life in a new and painful clarity. (And she thought to herself) with different gods her husband would have been a different man.
Well last week we thought about how who we understand God to be, makes all the difference in how we pray and when we pray, and even whether we pray at all. And I talked about how who we believe God to be can sometimes lead us to not pray at all. So for instance if we struggle to understand God as a loving father we might not pray at all. Or if we understand God as judge, just waiting to pass judgement on the life that we present in our prayers, many choose not to pray. Or if we don’t think we are worthy to be in a prayer relationship with God, we choose not to pray at all. If you weren’t here last week or you were too busy eating donuts to pay attention, check the message out on the church web site. But there is one more reason that people don’t pray and this may be the most prominent one. People don’t pray because they believe that their life, dare I say your life and my life, is so insignificant, so unimportant, a speck of sand in the vastness of all creation, that we don’t see how an almighty and powerful God, could possibly be interested in what’s happening in my life. Job, when his world starts crashing down around him, reveals this understanding of prayer, or should I say misunderstanding of God, when he exclaims: Who am I that God should be mindful of me? In the vastness of the universe, why should the creator God, almighty, be concerned about my problems? Why would He listen to my prayers when there are so many suffering because of much bigger concerns then mine? This attitude towards prayer comes out of the misperception that God is a one dimensional God. That He created the universe and set things in motion and is now content to let things unfold as they will. That He gives us life but then detaches himself from our day to day struggles because with billions of people on earth and who knows how many more life forms across the galaxy, he doesn’t really have the time, or inclination to interact with us on an everyday basis. But the testimony of scripture is that God is a God of many dimensions and unlimited scope, and power and love, who is not only wanting to be present in the “big” things of our life, but also in the day to day moments of our life. He is creator, but He is also son. Because time and time again we refused to place our lives in His hands, refused to enter into relationship with Him, He decided to place His life in our hands. He cared so much for you and for me that He came down from from Heaven, was willing to give up eternity, in order to step into our lives, to become like one of us. And Jesus was born, not in the courts of kings, or the Temple, but in the day to day lives of two people that the world had declared insignificant. And from that time on, when we are hurting, He is hurting, when we weep, He weeps. When we are tempted He is tempted. Scripture tells us that He knows everything about us. Even the hairs on our heads are numbered. Jesus says consider the birds of the air. God clothes them in glorious colors, gives them food to eat, provides for their every need. How much more will He provide for you, because, and here’s the completion of the thought, How much more will he provide for you because unlike the birds He was willing to become like you. He is willing to die for you. In the book of Job, Job is having a really bad day and He says to God. “Why should you care? Who am I that you should even think about me and my difficulties?” And God says in response: Job can you fathom the limits and bounds of my goodness and power. The sky is no limit for me, but it is beyond your reach. I know the world of the dead, but you don’t know it. You haven’t experienced it. My goodness is greater than Creation, bigger than the earth, and the seas. You see, our God is not just the creator. He is not a one dimensional God and so limited to act beyond that one dimension. God is also an ever present God – present in all of the dimensions that make up our life. There is nothing that we can do, or say, or think, or experience, that is beyond His presence and caring. David writes in Psalm 139 “Where could I go to escape from you? Where could I ever go that is beyond your presence, your reach?” Our God is present in every dimension of our life. Through prayer we can see His work, we can feel His touch, we can hear His voice, and we can experience His presence. We need to give up our one dimensional prayers, that seek to isolate God from us and our day to day concerns. Our prayers are offered in relationship with a God of every dimension, every moment, every circumstance of our life. So how do we pray in many dimensions. Well the quick answer is that the dimensions of our prayers needs to mirror the dimensions of our faith. So as we prepare for this Holy Sacrament, may I be so bold as to offer some quick thoughts on how I believe God wants us to pray based upon the way that Jesus prayed.
First when we pray, we need to start by looking back. Through prayer God wants us to LOOK BACK at the Cross. Because the cross adds the dimension of redemption to our prayers. When we pray looking back at the cross we are seeking redemption. We confess our sin, receive forgiveness through the atonement of Christ and are redeemed by God’s work on the Cross. So when we pray we open our selves up to a relationship with Jesus the Savior. Who for us became both lamb and Shepherd. Rick Warren in his study on prayer says this: “(The Cross) is a good place to start because it fills you with Thanksgiving because it reminds me of three things: How deeply God loves me, how costly evil and sin are, and how completely I’m forgiven.” When we look back at the cross in prayer, we clearly see how much we are worth to God.
The other night I was watching the Antiques Road Show and I saw a first. Someone brought in an object to have appraised and the expert was completely stumped. After hearing the story behind the object the appraiser said: “I have never seen anything like this and so I can’t tell you what the worth of it must be. The best I can tell you is that, as a one of kind object that has been in your family and never on the market before, it is worth a lot. But the exact value is set by what someone is willing to pay for it. The only way to determine what it’s worth is take it to auction and see how much someone is willing to pay.
You see sometimes we don’t pray because we don’t think we are worth much in the eyes of God. But our true worth is determined by the Cross, where Jesus was willing to pay everything He has for our redemption. In his first Epistle Peter said it this way: God paid a ransom to save you. He paid for you with the precious blood of Christ; the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. When we look back at the Cross, we see clearly just how much we are worth in God’s eyes. We’re worth everything to Him because He paid the price for us on the Cross. When you pray, Jesus tells His disciples, seek forgiveness and redemption. “Forgive us of our sins” He prays.
And then the second dimension of our prayers is look up. LOOK UP to your Heavenly Father. Because when we do that then two things happen. First we see God in the light of a personal relationship. We talked a couple of weeks ago about how startling it would have been to the Disciples to hear Jesus address God as Father. In such a familiar, even intimate, way. And Jesus did that intentionally because when we pray, we don’t pray to some great theological being that is mostly out of reach. Out of touch. No, when we look up we see a Father who loves us and wants us to talk with him, who longs for us to pray. When Jesus began his teaching of the Disciples, the first thing He wanted to do was break down the barriers that existed between God and human beings. Our Father places our prayers into the midst of our relationship with Him.
And then when we look up, we take our prayers out of the earthly dimension and place them in the heavenly realm. When we look up we see that God answers our prayers in the light of eternity, rather than the limitations of our earthly existence. The hard times that we experience on earth aren’t nearly as troubling when viewed from the dimension of eternity, forever. When we look up when we pray, we take our lives out of our will, and submit them to God’s will. Because you see our griefs and sorrows and illnesses and our troubles, even our death, are all a part of our life on this earth and when we look at them from that earthly perspective, as a dimension of our human will, they become great struggles for us. But when we look up in prayer and place all those struggles into the will of God, and we view them from the dimension of eternal life, where our Heavenly Father promises there will be no pain, or sorrow, or illness or troubles of any kind and like Paul count it all as joy. Believe me, I know how hard this can be, but we need to give up our prayers that can not see beyond the present worldly circumstances and look up to a life lived in eternity, a heavenly life with our Heavenly Father.
And then the third dimension of our prayers comes when we look inward. We LOOK INWARD to Jesus living in us. Through prayer we become aware of His presence within us. In a very real sense our church vision of Jesus Christ in every life, is an invitation to all to enter into a prayer relationship with Jesus. David, in his prayer which we know as this 139th Psalm, is certainly looking inward when he says, “Search me and try me, Oh God, and know my heart.” Because here’s the thing, when we look inward, we will see Christ working in us, but we will also see some things in us that are making Christ uncomfortable. When we look inward in our prayers we come face to face with our sins, and bad attitudes, and hurtful memories, and our fears and our anxieties. The very things that Jesus wants to take to the cross, to atone for, but that we have trouble letting go of. When the Corinthians write to Paul about their struggles to give these things up, Paul writes this: Examine yourself to see if your faith is real and growing. Test yourself and see if Jesus is really living in you. When we pray, really and truly pray, we quickly discover that our will and God’s will cannot coexist within us. Paul expresses this when he writes to the Romans about His own struggle within:
“I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
You see, Paul discovered that prayer that looks inward can be the most painful kind of prayer there is, because it often creates this inner turmoil between that which we want to do, and that which we do. It’s when we look inward in prayer that we truly see the love and grace and mercy of God opening our lives for Jesus to come and dwell in us.
And then the fourth dimension is that in true prayer we LOOK AROUND. One pastor writes that the most dangerous prayer we can pray is when we look around, see all the difficulty and pain in the world and simply pray “use me.” And then he goes on to say: I dare you to pray that prayer and mean it, because if you get usable, God will wear you out. The world is just waiting for us to look around.
Paul says something similar when he writes: “Give yourself completely to God – every part of you – since you’ve been given a new life and you want to be used as a tool in the hands of God, used for his good purposes.”
In true prayer we look around at our friends and family and neighbors and our world, beyond just our area of existence and say, “Good Father use me.” And He will.
Through this Sacrament Jesus shows us that our God is so much more than a one dimensional God. That He is a God who desires to enter into every aspect of our life and offer us love and grace in the midst of it all. So as you come to this prayer rail come ready to look back at the cross, and up at your Heavenly Father, and in – to experience the presence of Christ dwelling completely in you, uncrowded by the junk that the world tries to fill us with and then as we go, may we look around at our world and say simply “use me” Lord.
That’s how God prays and wants us to pray with Him.