Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sermon: Psalm 119: 145-152 Crying to the Lord

What has been your experience of prayer? Have you seen any of your prayers answered? Perhaps it can feel as if your prayers bounce off the ceiling, unheard and unanswered. As we continue in Psalm 119 (in our last section of it), we find the writer thinking about prayer, about calling out to the Lord, crying to him.

In these verses we find Passionate Prayer. Look again at 145. ‘With my whole heart I cry; answer me O LORD!’ or in 146, he speaks about how ‘I call to you.’ I wonder is this true of us - that we turn to the Lord, calling out to him; or do we first try to fix things ourselves.

The writer is committed to praying - look at verse 147. ‘I rise before dawn and cry for help’, or again in 148 ‘My eyes are awake before the watches of the night.’ Morning, noon and night, he will be praying, crying out to God, asking for his help. It reminds us of Paul’s instruction to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thes 5) - this is more than just a ten minute quiet time or a quick prayer before bed and that’s you done with God for the day.

Now perhaps you’re waiting for some instruction, some rule on how long we should pray for; or how many times in the day we should pray. I think lots of us, if not every one of us, are legalists at heart - we turn something that’s a joy, a delight, into a duty and want to set up rules. Perhaps you look at the Muslims and their five times of prayer in a day and think - why don’t we have something laid down. Perhaps if the Bishops decreed set times each day, then it would be easier to pray.

But the Christian life is about grace, not rules - prayer is given to us not in order to follow specific rules about how often and how long. God isn’t like a vending machine - you put your coin in and the can of coke pops out. You can’t just come to God and put a prayer in and expect him to comply. He’s not a machine, he is our Father, and prayer isn’t just about asking for things, it’s about relating to our Father; getting to know him better, and express our dependence on him. We’ll want to be praying to God because of this, not because of some external rule.

We also find passionate prayer from the writer because of the circumstances he’s facing. In 149 he’s asking God to ‘hear my voice’, because he’s facing a difficult time - there’s opposition, persecution: ‘they draw near who persecute me with evil purpose; they are far from your law.’

We’re not told exactly what they’re doing, and yet we’ve already seen some of what that meant from earlier weeks and other sections of 119. They are his foes (139), cunning (118), evildoers (115), persecute with falsehood (86). So he’s under attack; these evil men are making life difficult for him - and that’s a spur to pray.

Things haven’t changed - there are still those who are far from God who attack the people of God. Paul, writing to Timothy, warned him that ‘everyone who desires to live a godly life will be persecuted.’ While we may not face the extremes of persecution that some Christians may face in other countries; there will still be a level of persecution. That may be in the workplace (where you could be shunned or refused promotion because of your faith); in the home (if your parents aren’t Christians); among friends (where you’re left out of dinner parties or not invited because of your faith).

The writer is facing this persecution, but he doesn’t sort it out himself - rather it drives him to pray, to call out to the Lord.

So we’ve seen passionate prayer - vocal, dedicated, intense. And you might be thinking to yourself - yes, I need to be more active in prayer; I want to do more; I want to depend on God more and myself less. Yet you’re left wondering - how do I pray? What should I pray?

There’s no doubt that prayer can be passionate, and pointless. Just think of the showdown at Mount Carmel from 1 Kings 18. The prophet Elijah confronts the 450 prophets of Baal (and 400 of Asherah) and set up two sacrifices with the challenge - the God who answers by fire, he is God. The prophets of Baal show plenty of passion; crying out until they’re hoarse; dancing around the altar; cutting themselves even, yet there’s no answer.

Or perhaps we can be passionate in prayer by heaping up grand sounding words and phrases (especially if we’re leading the church in prayer!), but Jesus reminds us to avoid ‘empty phrases... for they think that they will be heard for their many words.’ (Matt 6:7).

So how should we pray? What can we pray, that we can be sure God will hear us and answer us? The answer isn’t very surprising, especially if you’ve been with us on these other weeks in Psalm 119. Let’s read the passage again, and look for the emphasis: [READ] It’s the word words, isn’t it?

This section of Psalm 119 calls us to passionate prayer built on permanent promises. ‘I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words. My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.’ He’s saying that as he cries for help, he finds hope in God’s word; he meditates on God’s promise so that he can pray. His prayers are built on God’s word and promise.

Do you remember when you were a child, or if you’ve seen kids interacting and they’ll say something and make a promise. Now, sometimes those promises can quickly be broken and there might be a falling out. But God doesn’t break his promises - we can depend on them; and so we can pray from them.

We see it everywhere in this section, but particularly 149: ‘Hear my voice according to your steadfast love; O LORD, according to your justice give me life.’ Why should God hear our prayers? It’s not because we deserve for God to listen to us - after all, God is immense, powerful, almighty, beyond comprehension. We, in contrast, are so very small (just one of 7 billion alive at this moment), on a small planet in a small solar system in a small galaxy... Why should God listen to little old you or little old me? ‘Hear my voice according to your steadfast love.’ God has already declared his steadfast love for his people in covenant with him; we can be sure he will listen to us, and so we pray, expecting him to listen to us!

If that was true for the writer of Psalm 119, how much more for us, who are part of the new covenant, who have received the promises from The Word (the Lord Jesus), who have the assurance of grace and mercy and covenant through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

In the Church of Ireland we have those things called collects - set prayers for each Sunday. Over the course of a year lots of different themes are prayed for, but the pattern is usually the same - they always begin in a similar way. Take today’s: ‘Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love toward you...’ Before we get to ask what it is we want to ask, we’re reminding ourselves (and God!) of who he is, his character, what he has already done - our praying flows out of his promises.

The rest of this section is then like a case study of this principle in action. We’ve already thought about the opposition and persecution the writer is facing; the persecution we may also face. If these evil people are drawing near, what are we going to do about it? If you’re facing attack, what would you be doing?

The writer brings passionate prayer, based on the promise: ‘They draw near... But you are near, O LORD, and all your commandments are true.’ They may be near as they make life difficult, but the truth is that God is nearer to us - a truth we marvellously celebrate as we recall the Lord Jesus’ words that he would be with us to the end of the age; that he will never leave us or forsake us; that we have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside us! Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world!

Now as we close, there’s a great encouragement to us to pray passionately based on God’s promises, precisely because they are permanent. Look at 152: ‘Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever.’ The word of our God endures forever - what God has said, he continues to say, so that we can build our life on it, can pray according to it, place our hope for the future on it. These are the things God has already promised to us in the covenant - therefore we can be bold and ask for them; we can be sure God will answer these prayers and give us his steadfast love, save us, and bring us safely to eternal life with him, no matter what we’re going through.

Friends, this is a great encouragement for us to pray - perhaps you realise that you’re outside the covenant today, well the good news is that you can be brought in as you call on the Lord - he has promised (!) to hear and save all who call on him.

Or perhaps you’re a Christian, have been for a long time - this is why it’s so important to have Bible reading and prayer together - to know the promises, be confident in the promises, meditate on them; and come boldly to your Heavenly Father in passionate prayer based on the promises.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 31st July 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment