Sermon preached Sunday, October 18, 2009 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to hear the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on stewardship. You recall that we define stewardship as involving more than just our care of money. God has created humans to be stewards of his creation and this means we must be stewards of all his gifts, not just his material blessings. Today I want to focus on our stewardship of prayer because our prayer life (or lack of it) reveals what we think about God and the kind of relationship we have with him.
We take our cue from today’s Epistle lesson. The writer of Hebrews tells us that, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.” Like the Gospel writers who remind us repeatedly about Jesus’ prayer life, the writer reminds us that prayer was important to Jesus. If prayer was important to our Lord, it should be even more important to us. Because unlike our Lord, who was sinless, we are sinful, rebellious, and disobedient people.
We see this fact illustrated in today’s OT and Gospel lessons. Job has asked the Lord to explain himself, to explain to Job why he has been made to suffer. In today’s passage, we get God’s rather abrupt answer. In a series of rhetorical questions, God reminds Job that God is God and Job is not. Job therefore has a choice. He can choose to trust God, even in the midst of his suffering, or he can continue to be uppity. Implicit in this exchange between God and Job is the perverse idea that somehow humans (God’s creatures) are equal to the Creator. In a series of questions, God puts to rest that folly in quick fashion. I remember that when I first read God’s response to what I thought were perfectly reasonable questions from Job, I got very irritated. “What kind of answer is that?” I asked myself. What I didn’t realize at the time is that my irritation betrayed a sinful hubris, like I was actually capable of completely understanding God and all his ways! Precisely the point God was making to Job.
Then in today’s Gospel lesson, we see our sinful human desire to make it all about ourselves rear its ugly head when James and John ask Jesus to allow them to sit next to him when he comes in glory. This, of course, earned them a swift rebuke from Jesus and our Lord went on to remind them (and us) that anyone who wants to follow him must be a servant rather than a master. Given the human condition, I am quite sure that went over like a lead balloon because we humans like to be served rather than to serve!
Where is God’s Grace?
And so we find a consistent biblical mandate to pray because prayer is our vital breath if we hope to develop and grow in our relationship with God. Scripture reminds us that God finds it grievous when we do not pray (see, e.g., Isaiah 43:21-22), that many evils in life are attributed to a lack of prayer (see, e.g., Daniel 9:13-14), that it is a sin to neglect prayer (1 Samuel 12:23), that to continue to pray is a positive command (see, e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Colossians 4:2), and that prayer is God’s appointed method for us to obtain what he has to give to us (see, e.g., Matthew 7:7-11). Besides our Lord, the apostles themselves thought that prayer was the most important thing to which they could give their attention and time (Acts 6:4).
Prayer is where we can learn God’s will for our individual lives so that we can be transformed by him and grow to become like him. In prayer we offer our thanksgiving and praise to God and bring to him our hopes and fears, our needs and desires, and our concerns about our world around us and those we love. We can approach God with boldness in prayer because of the work Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross and the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit creates in us a desire to pray and then helps us in our prayers because as Paul reminds us in Romans 8, we do not always know what we should ask for.
We pray to God because we believe that he is a personal God, that he cares about each of our lives. We pray to him because we believe he is a sovereign God and there is nothing too great for him to handle. We pray to God because we remember that he is God and we are not, at least in our best moments.
On the other hand, if we do not believe God hears or answers our prayers or is incapable of doing so, praying does not make much sense, does it? In fact, it seems to be downright silly. So our prayer life (or lack of one) can tell us a lot about how we feel about God and the state of our relationship with him.
Where is the Application?
So how is your stewardship of prayer? How is your prayer life? Do you pray without ceasing? Is your prayer life robust, so that God is using it to transform you? Do you approach the throne of grace with boldness and a sense of awe and expectation that the Creator of the universe wants to have a conversation with just you? If you have that kind of prayer life, it is a safe bet that you are committing the time and effort to develop your relationship with him and are growing in grace. Keep it up and share what you are doing with the rest of us!
But many of us do not have that kind of prayer life. We are simply not good stewards of prayer for a variety of reasons besides the ones we have already mentioned. If you are struggling in your prayer life, I would offer you these suggestions. Start by asking yourself if you are committing adequate time to pray. We all have busy lives but prayer must be a priority if we ever hope to grow in our relationship with God. Toward that end, start and end your day with the Lord. Start where you are and go from there. Surely each of us can commit 15 minutes at the beginning and end of our day to have a conversation with God. There are 1440 minutes to each day. Can you give at least 2% of that to God? Start your day by thanking God for giving you another day of life and ask him what he would have you do that day.
If you are not sure what to ask for or how to talk to God, use the Lord’s Prayer as a model to follow. If we look at that prayer, we see the first half is focused on God and his goodness and sovereign power. This is a good place to start because it reminds us that we are created to bring glory to God and that he is big enough to handle anything we throw at him. If you do not think your God is not big enough to handle your problems, you will not likely bother with him. Focusing on God and his greatness as you begin your prayers is a good antidote to remedy that problem.
The second half of the Lord’s Prayer focuses on humans. Ask God to provide you what you need for the day. Lay out those needs and ask him if he agrees with you. Ask him to correct you where you are wrong and reinforce those things which are good and right for you to ask. If you know you are going to have a tough day, ask God to give you grace to meet the demands of the day.
As you go through your day, learn to pray on the fly and ask God briefly for grace to meet your daily needs as they arise. For example, if you know you are going to have a meeting with a difficult person, ask God to guide you both in your speech and conduct as you go to your meeting.
When your day is done, review it in light of your morning prayers. Did you meet the mark or go astray? It’s likely that you will do both and so give thanks to God for allowing you to meet the mark and ask his help for those things in which you missed it. Think about how you were able to bring glory to God during the day. It doesn’t have to be something spectacular, you know. It can be as simple as living a faithful life because you want to please the Lord. End your day by giving thanks for your life and the day just lived, and ask for God’s protection over your household as you go to sleep.
As you grow in your prayer life—and this will not happen overnight so do not be impatient if you do not see dramatic growth in your stewardship of prayer right away—learn to incorporate praise and thanksgiving, confession, intercession, and supplication. Praise God first and thank him for his many blessings in your life. This will get you ready to confess your sins to him and help you to believe that because God is loving and merciful, he will forgive you your sins. Learn to pray for others, especially those EGR (Extra Grace Required) folks who are like fingernails on a chalkboard for you. Ask God to help you be a blessing to them. Finally, bring your own needs to God. Supplication is where we talk to God about our own personal needs. Make that the last thing you do in your prayer so that you learn to put God and the needs of others first.
Like anything else, the more we practice prayer, the better we get at it. Here are two things that can help you see if you are making progress in your prayer life. First, are you growing in your trust in God? Can you start to see that no matter what the circumstances in your life, you are always under God’s care and protection, that he is never far off? As we get to know God more intimately and really start to believe he knows far better than we do about the living of our days, and as we continue to remind ourselves about God’s great love and sovereign power in our praise and thanksgivings, this becomes easier to do.
For example, my father-in-law is struggling mightily with health and infirmity issues right now. Each day seems to bring more bad news on that front and it is easy to get discouraged as we watch him struggle. He recently went back into the hospital and it looked like this might be the end for him. Now it would have been easy for me in my prayers for dad to challenge God and ask him why he is allowing this to happen to dad. But I am learning not to do that because that is making my prayer about me, about my wishes and wants. It betrays in me a lack of trust in God’s sovereign power and love for my father-in-law, and it implies that I know better than God. That would earn me the rebuke Job received in today’s OT lesson. Instead, I am learning to trust God’s power and will for my life and the lives of my loved ones, and so I simply prayed to God that if it were dad’s time, that God take him quickly and mercifully. But if it was not dad’s time, that God might bring healing and bless him with a modicum of quality of life for the rest of his days.
Regardless if God answers my prayer in that manner, I know that my father-in-law is going to be all right, irrespective of how it turns out medically for him. In one sense, I already know how it is going to turn out for dad. He’s going to die because the wages of sin for each one of us is death. But I also know there is more to this than his physical death. I know from reading Scripture diligently, from my own personal experience, and from the testimony of others in my life, that God is in control, that he loves dad, and that dad has a glorious future ahead of him because he too believes the promises of God in Christ. Like Paul, I am beginning to really believe that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Not life or death, not sickness or infirmity, not powers or principalities, not things present or things in the future. Nothing can separate us from God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:38-39) and that is helping me trust God as I watch my father-in-law struggle and my family grieve as they watch him do so.
Make no mistake. This doesn’t mean that I do not grieve or that I am not sad about the prospect of losing my father-in-law to death. Yet even in the midst of my sadness about this, I know that dad is going to be all right and that helps me be patient and persevere in the midst of adversity. It has taken me years to develop this level of trust in God and there is still much room for improvement, because some days I get overwhelmed by it all. But I am convinced that God is far, far greater than my puny mind to comprehend God and his great love for each one of us.
Second, are you focusing more on God and his greatness than on your own wants in prayer? Are you beginning to see that you deserve absolutely nothing in this life and that the blessings you do enjoy are gifts and a sheer act of grace on God’s part? This is closely related to the first indication of progress in your prayer life because doing so will help you grow in your appreciation for this vast and awesome God who condescends to have a relationship with each of us. As you focus on God’s greatness and his wonderful love for you, and realize that the blessings we enjoy are a result of God’s bountiful grace and generous Spirit toward us rather than something we have earned or deserve, it becomes easier to trust him and give your life to him. It becomes easier for you to want to follow his will rather than your own because you understand that things will be much better for you in the long run if you do.
God created each of us to have a relationship with him, one in which we acknowledge God is God and we are his creatures. He has ordained prayer as the main way of developing our relationship with him and if we are serious about developing that relationship, we must take our prayer life seriously. This is not easy for us to do because as Augustine reminds us, each one of us are “cracked pots” who are wayward and rebellious. But God has taken care of that problem for us. He has taken on our flesh, died for us, borne the punishment that we rightfully deserve, and by his death and resurrection has given us our one and only chance to live with him forever. He has also given us his Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness and our prayer life. The rest is up to us. If we believe in his promises and mighty acts, we will respond to his gracious invitation with love and gratitude and work hard to develop our prayer life because that is the primary means of grace to help us do so.
Are you ready for that kind of relationship? If you are, God promises that you will not be disappointed. You will have the joy and peace as well as the strength and perseverance to live out your days in his wonderful Presence. And when our bodies die, we will get to live directly in his Presence forever, eventually with new resurrection bodies and in a New Creation where there is no more sorrow nor sickness nor suffering nor death. What a glorious vision! That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.