Fr. Kevin did not preach today (please mute your applause). The following sermon was delivered on Sunday, June 27, 2010.
Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning I want to talk about how to develop a trust in God that will help sustain us in our darkest hours. Specifically, I want to focus on offering some practical suggestions on how to improve your Bible reading skills and prayer life. The suggestions I offer are certainly not comprehensive or exhaustive. It is impossible to be comprehensive in 20 or so minutes on a topic that takes a lifetime to try to master. That’s why I will be preaching extra long today—for hours in fact. You can kiss that early breakfast (or lunch) goodbye.
This sermon is aimed at those of you who are looking for ways to improve your devotional life or are just getting started. For you veterans out there who have been doing this for a long time, please be patient and consider this sermon to be (hopefully) a confirmation of that which are currently doing.
Like last week’s sermon, the genesis for today’s sermon started as a suggestion which resonated deeply with me. But I struggled with it because at first blush today’s texts really didn’t seem to fit with the topic. I kept asking God to give me some direction on this and then about midweek he opened my eyes to read the texts differently and showed me how I could use them in today’s sermon.
How did he do that? By giving me a new insight into the texts as I was reading them and trying to figure out how to fit them into the context of how to develop trust in God. As I gained the new insight I also received a deep impression on my mind that it was right, this is what I was supposed to do. It was the same kind of impression that I have received many times before and I have learned to trust it as God “speaking” to me, even though I don’t hear an audible voice. I tell you this because this is one of the ways we learn to trust God—experience. I have had these kinds of impressions before and I have learned to trust them as being from God because they are also accompanied by a sense of assurance and peace.
So how to we learn how to trust in God? We take our cue from today’s Gospel and OT lessons because they offer us a “how to” and “how not to” lesson. In today’s Gospel lesson, we are given three examples of how not to learn how to trust in God. Luke tells us of three would-be followers of Jesus and our Lord’s response to each of them. In each instance, the person approaching Jesus indicates that he or she is only willing to be a part time follower of Jesus and that simply won’t cut it, either in terms of being his disciple or learning how to trust in him. Jesus does not want part of us; he wants all of us.
Likewise, if we are going to learn to trust in Jesus we must give it our best and sustained effort, the kind of effort we see Elisha give in seeking to become Elijah’s successor as the Lord’s prophet. Elisha would not be sidetracked or denied. He followed Elijah tirelessly and relentlessly during Elijah’s last hours on earth and in the end his perseverance paid off. The Lord appointed him as Elijah’s successor.
So the first and prerequisite lesson we must learn is this. As we saw last week, in learning to trust the Lord when bad things happen to us we must be ready to give it our best shot and to be prepared to do so over the long haul. And this ought to make sense to us, shouldn’t it? What athlete is going to excel without a rigorous and regular training regimen? What business is going to succeed without the necessary planning, hard work, and perseverance? What relationships are going to grow if either of the parties are only willing to give it a minimum effort? No, if we want our relationships to grow, we must give them our best efforts and do so over the long run. The same is true for our relationship with God. When we signal our willingness to do what is necessary on our part to learn how to trust God, it is both the biblical witness as well as the consistent testimony of Christians over time and culture that God will not disappoint us.
So how does this apply to reading the Bible and our prayer life? Just this. If you ever intend to learn to trust God during your darkest hours, you must become disciplined in doing both because prayer and Bible reading represent the main means of grace by which we learn to develop our trust in God. This means that we must set aside some time every day and stick to that appointed time as closely as possible. This is what it means to become disciplined in your devotional life.
If you are just starting to develop this holy habit of disciplined devotions, I suggest you start out by giving our Lord 15 minutes of your time at the start of each day and try to work your way up to at least an hour. There are 1440 minutes in a 24 hour day. If you cannot give God 1% of your time each day, then you really do need to question your willingness to have any kind of meaningful relationship with God. And to help keep things in perspective, even if we spend an hour each day in devotions, we are only giving about 4% of our regular time to God. What do you think would happen to any of your relationships if you only dedicated about 4% of your time to them on a regular basis? And yet many of us do not give this much time to God each day. Is it any wonder that many of us never learn to fully trust in God? The point is not to become a bean counter, but to intentionally give part of your day to God on a regular basis.
“But” you say, “I don’t have time to do this. I have work and family obligations,” to which I respond by asking you to look at your priorities. We all have busy lives, but if you want to grow in your trust and relationship with God, you must commit a regular part of your day to God and stick with it to the best of your ability. For some of you that means doing your devotions in the morning. For others, it means doing them in the afternoon or evening, as your daily schedule permits. Whatever the time and for however long you do devotions, get on a schedule and stick to it. If you are trying to establish a time for your morning devotions and are finding yourself getting sidetracked, consider getting up 15 minutes earlier or not doing email until after you have finished your devotions, or wait to do email when you get home from work. Email can wait. Your relationship with God cannot. Establishing a regular time for devotions is hard but if you are successful, you will soon find that you want more time with God. I cannot explain it but I know it is true. God will reward your efforts by making you want more of him.
Once you have established the discipline of having a regular time for devotions, you need to focus on the task at hand. There is no magical formula to reading the Bible or saying prayers. I prefer to start by reading the Bible because I have found that it helps get my mind right to pray. For example, you might find that your hope in God is failing and you need to read some Scripture that will help restore it, but you don’t know where to look. Many Christians find help in the psalms and an online Bible concordance can help you find psalms that relate to hope. A good place to start is Bible Gateway’s topical index (http://biblegateway.com/topical/). While it is not a concordance in a strict technical sense, the topical index will help you find desired topics [show hope search screen shots and read appropriate passages from Psalms 9, 23, 27, 31, 38, 56].
On a broader scale and to help you learn to read the Bible systematically, there are several good tools for you to use. The BCP has devotionals for individuals and families starting on page 136. If you are just beginning to establish a regular time for devotions to help build your trust in God, I would encourage you to start there. If you are looking for something a bit more robust, check out the Daily Offices starting on page 39. There is an Office for morning, noon, and evening, and they come in modern or Elizabethan English (Rite II or I), depending on your preference. Both use the Daily Office Lectionary starting on page 936 as the basis for which to read most of the Bible over two years.
If you find the Daily Office confusing, or if you don’t know how to use the Office’s Lectionary, there are other resources available. Again, Bible Gateway (http://biblegateway.com/resources/readingplans/) offers a variety of reading plans [show reading plans screenshot] and you can tailor them to fit your needs. Whatever plan you use, the important point is to start reading your Bible regularly. Doing so will help you gain a better understanding of God’s plan of salvation for his people and how he deals with us right here and now.
As you get to know your Bible better, there will be certain passages that speak to you. Memorize them and recall them when things go wrong. For example, during the dark days immediately after my second divorce, I memorized God’s promise to his exiled people in Jeremiah 29:11— “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (NRSV). I repeated that verse constantly—still do— and I believe God used it to help me persevere. It was not easy—I almost committed suicide—but it helped sustain me in my most desperate hours. Memorizing and recalling your favorite passages can do likewise for you.
In addition to your regular reading schedule, you can also use the concordance to help you find passages about a particular topic. Here again, if you don’t have a Bible concordance, use the topic index tool on Bible Gateway to help you find what you are looking for. Once you find passages that speak to you, stop and ask yourself what the passage is saying. Scripture is a historical document in the sense that it was written for and by a people living in a particular period of time. Don’t let that get you sidetracked. For example, the anxiety that the Israelites felt in the desert before they entered the Promised Land was every bit as real as the anxiety you feel when you are about to embark on something unknown, like a new job or new marriage. They worried about their property just as we worry about ours, even though our property (houses, cars, etc.) looks different from theirs (livestock, etc.). Read Scripture in this way. Ask what it meant to the original audience and what it means to you now. Don’t be surprised if you find new meanings in the same passage. The depths of God are limitless and we should expect God’s Word to continue to speak to us in new and fresh ways even though it was written thousands of years ago.
But most importantly, when you read the Bible, read it to learn the story of God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. There is no better way to learn to trust God than to learn his story of salvation because here you begin to understand the depths of God’s love for you. When we consider the terrible, terrible price God paid to give us our one and only chance to live with him forever, it is hard for us to believe that he would ever abandon or forsake us. But because we are so easily distracted, we must continuously keep this knowledge in the front of our minds. Otherwise, we will forget what he has done for us and lapse back into fear and distrust. And Satan will be only too happy to use our fears to try to drive us further into the darkness and away from the Light.
And of course you should always read the Bible in conjunction with your prayer life. If you are having problems praying about something, use a passage from Scripture as a basis on which to pray. For example, if you are seeking to develop your trust in God, find relevant passages in Scripture and then pray about that. In Psalm 56, for example, the psalmist says this: “O most high, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (v.2-3). Ask God to show you had to do that. Lay out the specific situation about which you are anxious and ask God to give you a wise and discerning eye so that you can learn to trust him more. Find some relevant Scripture that talks about how God has demonstrated his trustworthiness to his people. If you don’t know where to look, use a concordance to help you.
To summarize, then, reading the Bible creates knowledge in us—knowledge about God’s trustworthiness, his plan of salvation for us, and how we can expect him to deal with us as his people—and knowledge is power. Let us never hesitate to let God use our knowledge of him to help sustain us in our trials. If we do, we will never be disappointed.
After you have finished reading Scripture—and here I would encourage you to get a good study Bible to help you with difficult passages—then move into your prayer time. Again, if you are having difficulty praying or don’t know how to pray, find a psalm or psalms that are appropriate for your mood and pray them. Ask God to accept them as your prayers.
When you pray, you must always pray with humility. Humility, you recall, is the understanding that God is God and we are not. In other words, we understand and acknowledge that God is eternal, omnipotent, and unchanging, and we are none of these. Humility means that we acknowledge God knows better than us, and that he knows us better than we know ourselves.
Consequently, it is always a good idea to start your prayers by acknowledging this fact to God and asking him to help you accept his will over yours. Before you bring your concerns to God, stop and offer him your praise and thanksgiving for all that he has done for you. Doing so will help give you some much needed balance and perspective about your life because it will force you to focus on his blessings instead of exclusively on your problems, and this should remind you that God has indeed not abandoned you because you can still count your blessings—literally.
If the words just are not coming to you in prayer, consider using the prayers of others. Here again the Internet can be a useful tool and I would encourage you to explore the Christian Classic Ethereal Library (http://www.ccel.org/), another free resource. Take, for example, this prayer from Hannah Whitall Smith from her book, Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/smith_hw/secret.toc.html)
Lord Jesus, I believe that Thou art able and willing to deliver me from all the care, and unrest and bondage of my Christian life. I believe thou didst die to set me free, not only in the future, but now and here. I believe thou art stronger than Satan, and that thou canst keep me, even me, in my extreme of weakness, from falling into his snares or yielding obedience to his commands. And, Lord, I am going to trust thee to keep me. I have tried keeping myself, and have failed, and failed most grievously. I am absolutely helpless; so now I will trust thee. I will give myself to thee; I keep back no reserves. Body, soul, and spirit, I present myself to thee, a worthless lump of clay, to be made into anything thy love and thy wisdom shall choose. And now, I am thine. I believe thou dost accept that which I present to thee; I believe that this poor, weak, foolish heart has been taken possession of by thee, and thou hast even at this very moment begun to work in me to will and to do of thy good pleasure. I trust thee utterly, and I trust thee now!
Here we see humility and trust illustrated at its finest. The prayer acknowledges God’s strength and our weaknesses. It acknowledges that life can be a struggle and we are up against the powers and principalities. There is a determination to trust God immediately because of all this.
Here are two other examples of a prayer for humility and utter dependence on God by Charles de Foucauld.
Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures. I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.
And this one:
You give your help, not in proportion to our merit, but to our needs. You came for the sick and not for the healthy. How true I feel this is. I feel your love as you hold me to your Sacred Heart, my Beloved Jesus, my God, my Master, but I feel, too, the need I have of your tenderness, and of your caress because of my infinite weakness.
As with our first example, in these two prayers we see an abiding trust in God, a trust that can only come about from the belief that God is greater than us and that he is indeed for us, not against us. If you are struggling with humility or trust in your prayer life, consider praying these prayers, or ones like them, to help you in your weakness
After you have offered your prayers of praise and thanksgivings, confess your sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. Ask him to help you bear the fruit of repentance and to give you an assurance that he has indeed forgiven your sins, and then trust that he has.
Next, pray for the needs of others. Keep a list and pray for these folks regularly. Praying for others before your own needs helps you develop a sense of selflessness and reminds you that you are not alone in your trials.
Finally, pray for your own needs and here simply lay them out before God. Talk to him as you would to another person. Tell him what you are feeling and what you fear most. Ask him to help or heal you, but do not try to pigeonhole God by demanding that he answer you in a given way. God will answer prayers, but not always as we expect him to answer them nor on our timeline. Ask God to help you with your struggles with this and to give you a clear and discerning heart and mind to help you see how he is moving in your life. If, for example, you are struggling with financial catastrophe not of your own making, ask God what he would have you learn in the midst of this difficult time. Many people report that they grow most in the midst of their struggles and God can use our trials to help us become the people he created us to be.
Or it may be that you simply ask him to help you persevere, to use your trials to help you grow in your own dependence on God. Whatever it is you are asking, do so in an honest, real, and straightforward way and then take time to listen for God to speak to you. Here again, do not be eager to pigeonhole God by expecting to hear an audible voice. God speaks to us through Scripture, through the advice of Christian friends, and by impressing thoughts and insights on our hearts and minds, the way he does with me on occasion. Keep an open mind about how God will speak to you and always be ready to hear him speak. When he does, write it down and review it often so that you do not lose his guidance in the midst of your distractions! If you are patient and persistent and are willing to hear the answer he has for you, you will not be disappointed.
Last, I would encourage you to pick up some devotional readings and make that part of your time with God. Here again, the CCEL can provide a useful and free resource for you. For example, one of my favorite writers is Francois Fenelon and some of his writings are in the CCEL, including this on how to grow in your spiritual life [show Fenelon screen shot].
Or pick up our own John Kasich’s new book, Every Other Monday. It is a compelling and readable story about his own struggles with growing in the faith. I like it because it is real. John doesn’t pull any punches regarding the ups and downs he has experienced in his faith journey. Reading real stories like John’s reminds us we are not alone and it opens our eyes to the realities of our spiritual growth. Here again, knowledge is power that God can use to help us build our trust in him.
Learning to grow in our trust in God is not easy or automatic. But there are proven ways in which we can do so. I have chosen to look at two of those ways today: Daily Bible reading and constant prayer. We have seen that to use these means of grace in effective ways requires humility, effort, and discipline on our part. We will surely struggle in our attempts because we are broken and fallible creatures. But it is the consistent testimony of Christians that the struggle is worth it because we will learn to grow in our faith and trust in God.
And as Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, we are not left to guess whether we are maturing as Christians. We have evidence. We simply have to look at the desires of the flesh versus the fruit of the Spirit. As Paul reminds us in Romans 7, the two are at constant war with each other, but if we are faithful in reading the Bible each day, and praying regularly and with great humility in which we seek God’s will over ours, we will begin to see the fruit of the Spirit take hold in our lives and we know then that he is living and active in us. As his Presence and Power continue to grow in us, so will our trust in him to deliver us in our trials. He will also remind us of our eternal destiny, a destiny prepared for us by Christ and sealed by his very blood, and when that begins to happen for you, if it has not happened already, you really will have Good News, now and for all eternity, and nothing can ever rob you of it because you are clothed in Christ.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.