“Will He Answer Me?”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Questions We Must Ask”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
August 12, 2018
1I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
3O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.
7The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
8O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
9O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
10The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
11Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?
13Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.
14Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
15The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.
16The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
17When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.
18The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
19Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.
20He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.
21Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
So I have promised that these first two weeks in August I would take questions in an “Ask the Pastor,” type of thing. I asked for questions to be submitted so I could prepare, but I also will intentionally invite you all to respond with follow ups if you feel moved to do so this morning. I have called this series, “Questions We Must Ask.” The question I am using this morning asks, “What is the point of prayer?” The writer points out that “when bad things happen, people tend to say things like ‘it was God’s will/plan.’ If God does not deviate from the plan, what is the point of prayer?”
I like this question because it raises a lot of questions many of us have had or still have. I want to answer it in the context of the Psalm we read because I think it speaks to our understanding of God and our relationship with God which is important if we are going to talk about prayer. Prayer is one of the key ways we as Christians believe we relate to God. So while this Psalm is not technically in the form of a prayer or about how to prayer it does talk about our relationship with God which can help us better understand what the point of prayer is.
Scholars point out that this Psalm in the original Hebrew is written as an “acrostic.” This means the beginning of each line starts with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. This is true except for two verses, which means they may have been added as commentary by a scribe somewhere along the way and then incorporated by later copyists. The point of this is simply to say that Scripture comes to us not as something transcribed by a single person who was transcribing God like a stenographer in a courtroom. Most of what we call Scripture – that is holy writing – began as verbal communication later written down, copied over and over by hand, and passed on until the introduction of the printing press in the 16th Century. I say all that simply to point it out not as commentary on the truth of Scripture, simply to point out how we have received these words we now see in print.
The overall tone of the Psalm is one of assurance that God is good and good people generally get good things and bad people get their comeuppance, with the exception of a couple of verses that admit that good people do sometimes face adversity. Verse 19 confesses that, “19Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.” We will come back to this later. The Psalm is essentially what we would call a “testimony,” by King David about God’s goodness and inviting the hearer to join in praising God. So it moves from personal praise to calling the congregation to join in the praise based on their own experiences of God’s goodness. But that is just the structure of this Psalm. And praise is a good way to begin any prayer to set our minds on the One with whom we are talking.
Beyond prayer being a way to praise God and thank God the model that Jesus gives us in what we call the “Lord’s Prayer,” reminds us also to pray to confess, to ask for “daily bread,” to forgive, and about those things that lead us into temptation and those events that bring evil into our lives. Prayer is so many things. It is praise, it is confession, it is seeking God’s wisdom, it is asking for mercy. It is all these things and more. You all know that. Nothing new there.
The question we began with raised the issue of the point of prayer when bad things happen and people say that it is God’s will. So let’s be honest, that’s a poor way to comfort or encourage someone – and it is probably wrong. Sometimes after prayer, medicine, and all the efforts things don’t get better. A child dies, a mother dies, a soldier far from home dies. We live right, eat right, pray right and we still get cancer. The Psalm claims:
19Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.”
Well does that mean God rescues by curing every disease of every faithful person? If so, then that means any Christian who dies isn’t really truly faithful and we know that isn’t true. Does it only mean God rescues through the resurrection and so we have to spiritualize our faith so much that real life doesn’t mean anything? The consequence of that might be the safest thing is for us all to die the day we are born so that we don’t have to live and risk either doing something wrong or suffering something like illness. Again, neither are good answers. Simple answers rarely are.
The Psalm affirms that God hears our cry and is present. The writer of the Psalm testifies that his experience is that God delivered him from his fears and saved him from trouble. I think the challenge of these words for prayer is to realize our problem, whether it is health or otherwise is never only physical or spiritual. The harm we do to ourselves and others is whenever we reduce our problems to one or the other. The other reality is when we forget we live in a broken world. I believe that the primary way God delivers us from our fears is not by taking away what we fear, but giving us courage to face that situation and know that we are not alone, and know that no matter the outcome, God will work to redeem it – even if the only redemption is the promise of our resurrection into the realm of God – that time and place where things are “on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words where love and peace and justice and mercy are the most powerful realities and the opposites of that are no longer sources of fear.
But that is not the way things are here and now, right? The world is not as God intends it, can we agree on that. Genesis affirms that God created the world and called it good and the creation of humanity was “very good.” But creation was broken by a number of actions by human beings. We are free but our freedom is a problem for us because the temptation is to always be free from our Creator, from the one who means for us to enjoy life and to have “abundant life.” So when we don’t, as people of faith, we pray for things to change.
The Bible does testify that human prayer has changed God’s will. Moses talks God out of destroying the people of Israel several times. Jesus prays “if it be your will take this cup from me,” asking God to change the circumstances leading to Christ’s crucifixion. But God doesn’t. So perhaps the best way to understand the purpose of prayer is that it has the power to change us.
When we are afraid, praying to God can help us let go of our fears and trust that God will help us because we can remember and reflect on ways we have gotten through past fears and problems. When we are ill and praying for healing, many people have found that through prayer they have found a peace to not only face the illness, even if there isn’t a cure, but to trust that there is something more than this life and it will be in God’s presence and that has a quality of healing that allows them to face that there is no “cure.”
If prayer is only about getting what we want then we have missed the point of faith. If all we had to do was silently think in our head “I want to win the lottery” and it happened every time – well you can see how impossible that is. So the problem with prayer is more about our expectations of its purpose and its outcome. I don’t want to say God never changes circumstances or heals physically as there are those who have experienced what they feel are “miracles.” But if it happened to everyone we wouldn’t call it a miracle would we?
The best theology I have heard is that what we call “miracles” in the Bible are what are better called “signs.” They point to God’s will for our lives and for our world. What I would most want to affirm is that God intends for the world to be perfected and God redeems evil, suffering , and injustice constantly and ultimately. The crucifixion of Christ could be described as the ultimate evil. He was executed unjustly by the religious and political powers, but God redeemed that evil with the resurrection and that is the ultimate sign of God’s intention – of God’s will to “perfect” reality. I would say God intends, God destines, God redeems, God is actively working to bring good out of injustice, life out of death, hope out of hopelessness.
Perhaps the best understanding of prayer is that is a way to get in touch with that intention, with that destiny and to find ways we have experienced that in the past both personally and in the lives of others. This can build our faith in God’s purpose and give us hope. There is a very real difference between saying God’s will controls everything, and saying that God works through people, circumstances, and sometimes miracles to bring redemption, new life, and the fulfillment of God’s ultimate reign of justice, love, and mercy. Let us all pray for that reality in our spiritual lives and let us all work for that reality in our daily physical world.
There are many ways to pray. Someone might say there is no such thing as a “bad” prayer, because all prayers express our hope to be in relationship with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer God. Even the silent prayer where one sits, aware of the presence of God or maybe even aware of the lack of a sense of the presence of God is a valid prayer. Prayer most of all, I have found, is not a place of easy answers, except when the answer is, “No.” AMEN.