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Psalm 143 sermon

Psalm 143

TEXT

POWERPOINT

AUDIO

…The Book of Psalms is Jesus’ prayer journal. But don’t worry, He’s very happy for us to be reading His prayer journal. It’s not confidential. We’re meant to own these prayers ourselves and the Spirit helps us to pray Jesus’s prayers to the Father.

This is such a relief. Because, just speaking for myself, I’m very bad at praying. And when I feel desperate and faint and spiritually thirsty, I’m just no good at articulating that, whether before God or anyone else for that matter.

So, how wonderful to know that Jesus has felt those things Himself. He knows what it is to be flat on His face in desperation, sweating blood, overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. He knows about betrayal and loss and excruciating pain. He knows about the valley of the shadow of death. He knows how it feels to be utterly ashamed, utterly alone, utterly godforsaken.  God the Son knows ALL these feelings.

More than this, He knows how to pray through them. And here are those prayers. What a relief! Because we’re terrible at praying. Yet Jesus prays for us. And then He says, “Why don’t you join in? Why don’t you pray my prayers? I’ll give you my Spirit to help you, and now you pray to God like I pray to God. I call God “Abba, Father”, why don’t you call God what I call God? And why don’t you pray to God what I pray to God? I’ll even give you a whole prayer book of 150 prayers – they cover EVERY situation. So use my prayers, the Spirit will help you and my Father will hear you.”…

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Levy

Steve Levy on Ephesians 6:19-20; Ezekiel 37

If you preach, please listen, and pray.

If you listen to preaching, please listen, and pray.

If you know someone who preaches, please pass it on.

So they can listen. And pray.

I firmly believe that evangelicalism would be revolutionized if we had a true theology of preaching. This sermon both models and exhorts us towards that kind of proclamation. And prayer.

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It’s happened three times in the last three weeks, so let me give you a composite account of the conversations…

— [Embarrassed biting of lip] Umm… I know I should know the answer to this… And I feel really silly for bringing it up.  I realise it’s, like, really basic… but it’s been bugging me for ages now:  How do I Have A Relationship With God?

— What do you mean?

— Well I know it’s not about rules.  I keep hearing that Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.  Well, ok.  But how do I Have A Relationship With God?  It sounds so stupid that I should ask that.  I know this is Christianity 101.  It makes me wonder whether I’m even a Christian.  But when people talk about “having a relationship with God”, I kinda know what they mean.  But I’m not sure I have what they’re talking about.  What are they talking about?

— To be honest, I don’t really know what they’re talking about.  And I wonder if they know what they’re talking about.

Yes, that’s really how I’ve been answering this question.  Really.

Which will make you wonder whether I’m even a Christian.  I mean honestly, who could possibly be against having a relationship with God??

Well I’m not against enjoying the gift of relationship with God.  But I’m dead set against definitions of Christianity that throw the spotlight on me and my relationship with God.  That might sound like a trivial difference.  Actually it’s all the difference in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I know the living God – a personal God – I hear Him in His word, I speak to Him in prayer.  I enjoy fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Honest, I do.  It’s great.  All a wonderful gift that’s mine in Jesus.  Fantastic.

But if I have to “have a relationship with God” then I’m stuffed.  Seriously.  I’m hell-fodder if ‘relationship with God’ is up to me.

Let’s put the exact same truth in slightly different terms and you’ll see what I mean:  I love the law. It describes the good life of loving God and loving neighbour.  Brilliant.  And I have performed good works which the Father has prepared in advance for me to walk in (Ephesians 2:10).  And that’s been a lot of fun.  Yay law.  Yay works.  Yay.  But if I ever start talking about ‘the heart of Christianity’ as ‘me obeying the law’ then let me be accursed!  If I ever say “People get the wrong idea about Christianity, it’s not about ancient rituals, it’s actually all about legal obedience” – you’ll instantly realize my error.  Well, it’s just the same when you say “It’s not about being religious, it’s about Having A Relationship With God.”

And you’ll say – No, Glen, you’ve got it backwards.  Religion is about rules – yuck.  But Christianity is a totally different thing.  It’s all about relationship.  It’s not the same thing at all!

To which I’ll say – Really?

Really??

I understand that the essence of Christianity is not my outward works (so far, so good) – but then I’m commonly told that it’s about the quality of my inner devotional life towards God.  Do you see what’s happened?  We’ve come to a different swamp, but we’re still sunk.  We’re still lost in ‘works righteousness’, it’s just there’s a different flavour to the ‘works’.  Before it was all about outward, ritualistic hoops.  Now I’m being told it’s all about inward, pietistic hoops.

Well Hallelujah!  Don’t you feel the chains just falling off you?  Rejoice, you don’t have to perform physical acts, only mental and spiritual ones! Is that the freedom the gospel brings?

No, it’s just a different kind of slavery.  And in some ways, it’s an even deeper slavery.  That’s why Christians, furtively, secretly, wonder to themselves (and sometimes they wonder it aloud to visiting Christian speakers) What is this Relationship With God I keep being told to manufacture?  And why is it spoken of as liberating when all I feel is condemned by it??

Because, seriously, who on earth can have “a relationship with God”?  Where would you even begin?

Look at the person in that photo at the top. Are you like them? Can you do what they’re doing?

And if you could manage it, what, precisely, would be the point of Jesus?  Do we really need “the One Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus”?  Is He actually crucial to our Christianity?  Or perhaps He just gets us in the door and then leaves us to get on with the main work of Christianity: having a relationship with God?  Is that it?

No! The priesthood of Jesus is absolutely vital to understand. And this is what I’ve told my questioners when they’ve asked. The good news is this: We, by nature, are sunk in self and sin and have no chance of a relationship with God. But Christ is our Mediator who became Man for us, who lived our life for us, died our death for us and rose again to the Father’s right hand for us. He now lives to intercede for us, carrying us on His heart the way Aaron carried the sons of Israel on his (Exodus 28:29).

Jesus is the true David – the true Man after God’s own heart. Now, by the Spirit, I am swept up into Him – carried on His heart while He enjoys the ultimate heart-to-heart. I am included in the true God-Man relationship – not because of any devotional aptitude or inclination on my part. It is a sheer gift of grace given freely in Jesus.

I have a relationship with God. The good news is that it’s not my own relationship, which would be as fickle as my feelings. No the relationship I have with God is Christ’s relationship with God.

Some don’t like this way of speaking.  They think it diminishes a warm and personal walk with God. The opposite is the case. To know that I have Christ’s relationship with the Father is where my personal walk begins. Secure in Jesus I can enjoy my status as a child of God. I can even join in with the Spirit’s constant prayer: “Abba, Father.” But none of this is a relationship I must manufacture. It’s the grace in which – FACT – I now stand through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:1-2).

So this is what I said to my questioners. Don’t look within, trying to find a relationship with God. You won’t find it in you. Look to Christ – your Mediator, Advocate, Intercessor and Priest. He is your relationship with God. To the degree that you know you’re on His heart, you’ll feel Him in yours.

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Previously I’ve blurted out some thoughts on memorialist sex and memorialist preaching.

In both (as with memorialist communion) there is an unhelpful divorce between the physical act and an internal realm: where ‘the action’ really happens.

In sex it leads to a proliferation of fantasy sex (porn) and/or a growing uncomfortability with the physical act.  The mechanics of sex put us off and we retreat into remembrances of the real thing.  All the while, the pressure for sex to be “mind-blowing” makes actual love-making less and less likely.

In preaching it leads to sermons that offer the raw materials of gospel proclamation but there’s no belief in the ‘real presence’ of Christ ‘in, with and under’ the preacher’s words.  Preaching does not hand over Christ, it merely calls truths to mind and leaves the congregation to piece it together in their own internal worlds.

Here’s another area, ripe for the divorce between physical acts and the real meaning: prayer.  Let me ask you some questions:

How do you feel about prayer beads?  Why?

Do you close your eyes when you pray? Why?

Do you pray silently? Why?

There is an explicit reference to silent prayer in the bible.  Hannah came to the temple to pray for a child:

Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli [the Priest] took her to be a drunken woman.  (1 Samuel 1:13)

The High Priest thought only a drunk would pray silently!  He was wrong of course.  But it’s interesting what his expectations were.  And it’s interesting how our expectations have almost completely inverted.  Prayer, for us, is a silent and utterly internal act.  As with communion, as with sex, as with preaching, apparently all the action happens between our ears.

And when we do physically pray (especially with others) we find our prayers are peppered with “Just… really… Lord… hmmmm…. Just…. Just…   LORD…  HMMMM…. Really….”  We know we’re praying but we feel that… really… you know… we should… REALLY… MEAN IT!  We feel that prayer is one thing but the main thing is a “spiritual” frame of mind – one which becomes increasingly difficult to muster.

Are you the same?  When I pray with others I “hmm” along, as is our evangelical wont, I say ‘Amen’ but still I sense a lack of emotional intensity in my soul. So I attach a silent addendum to the prayer-time: “Lord, Really. I meant that one. Please.  Mmm.”  Is it just me?

I’m tempted to think that the act of praying is one thing, but on top of that there’s a pressure.  A pressure to really mean my prayers.  And so I leave prayer meetings with furrowed brows and sage nods and an intangible fear that I wasn’t ‘engaged’ enough.  Perhaps – Oh dear – I was just ‘going through the motions.’

But I wonder whether I’m labouring under a pretty serious misapprehension.  Maybe I’m imagining that my prayers themselves establish a connection between myself and the Father.  Perhaps I’ve been duped into thinking my prayers must make the journey to the throne of grace.  In which case, they’d better be good!  They better be sent up with a fair bit of impetus.  What kind of thrust do rockets need to escape the earth’s gravitational pull?  Well surely I need to match that intensity – emotionally speaking!

But what if my prayers don’t travel to the throne of grace.  What if Christ has already made that journey?  What if I’m not shouting up to heaven.  What if I’m at the Father’s right hand – whispering in His ear?  What if my prayers go, not in my name, but in Jesus’ name?  What if their efficacy is not determined by my heart towards God, but Christ’s heart?  What if the Spirit is Himself praying within me (Gal 4:6)?  What if I genuinely have the Father’s ear before and apart from any of my “prayer-righteousness”?

Then I can just pray.  I can take the focus off my internal world, and simply speak to my heavenly Father.  Of course, as I do that, I might just find myself “really meaning” my prayers.  Great!  When you understand the real presence of Christ in the Supper, you’re free to commune with Him in your heart.  When you understand the real connection which sex brings, you’re free to commune with each other in a personal way.  When you understand the real presence of Christ in the sermon, you’re free to receive Him powerfully in your pew.  But it’s got to start with the reality.

Prayer really connects with God – not because you really connect with God but because Christ does.  Prayer really works, but it works apart from any of your fickle feelings.  So, speak to your Father and rest your confidence, not on your own heart, but on Christ’s.

So the High Priest shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD.  (Exodus 28:29)

 

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Happy Friday

Prayer in cinema.  Illuminating…

 

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Sometimes I use the Valley of Vision prayers like a starter motor for my own prayer life.  (Some of them are here).

This morning I was praying through Consecration and Worship.  It reminded me of a lot of the issues I tried to raise with my ‘Christ our Substitute‘ video.  Here’s the prayer.  Note the ending especially:

My God, I feel it is heaven to please Thee, and to be what Thou wouldst have me be. O that I were holy as Thou art holy, pure as Christ is pure, perfect as Thy Spirit is perfect! These, I feel, are the best commands in Thy Book, and shall I break them? must I break them? am I under such a necessity as long as I live here?

Woe, woe is me that I am a sinner, that I grieve this blessed God, who is infinite in goodness and grace! O if He would punish me for my sins, it would not would my heart so deep to offend Him; But though I sin continually, He continually repeats His kindness to me.

At times I feel I could bear any suffering, but how can I dishonour this glorious God? What shall I do to glorify and worship this best of beings? O that I could consecrate my soul and body to His service, without restraint, for ever! O that I could give myself up to Him, so as never more to attempt to be my own! or have any will or affections that are not perfectly conformed to His will and His love! But, alas, I cannot live and not sin.

O may angels glorify Him incessantly, and, if possible, prostrate themselves lower before the blessed King of heaven! I long to bear a part with them in ceaseless praise; but when I have done all I can to eternity I shall not be able to offer more than a small fraction of the homage that the glorious God deserves. Give me a heart full of divine, heavenly love.

I can pray this prayer with heartfelt devotion.  I empathise completely with the sense of inadequacy from which it springs.  But I always feel a little odd about it.  As though the Father will be forever short-changed.  As though angels and men will do their best into eternity but it won’t be enough.  I mainly feel odd because Christ our High Priest – i.e. our Worshipper! – is not being credited with a job well done.  So, I think I’d like to rework it:

I confess Father that I do not consecrate my soul and body to Thy service and I grieve over my dry and sullied devotion.  Indeed Father, I cannot consecrate myself as I might, as I would, as I ought.  Woe, Woe is me that I am a sinner.  Therefore I look again to Thy Son – given up to Thee, without restraint and without ceasing; every will and affection perfectly conformed to Thy will and love.  I look to Jesus, the heavenly Worshipper, the Director of music, the eternal High Priest.

O may Christ glorify Thee incessantly.  He who stooped to depths far deeper than men or angels have trod; He who has paid homage at infinite cost; He whose blood speaks a better word than all creation ever could; He who is full beyond measure with Thy Spirit of truth and of glory and grace; He who was born and baptised, who was raised and appointed to be Thy Priest and mine – may He offer my praise.   And will you accept mine from Him – my Amen a faint but hearty echo from below.  I thank Thee and bless Thee for Thy perfect rest in Christ, confident of a full share in that homage that echoes into eternity with ceaseless praise.

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A prayer of Martin Luther’s:

“O Lord, deliver me from Christian churches with nothing but Christian saints in them. I want to remain in and be part of a church which is a little flock of faint-hearted people, weak people, who know and feel their sin, their poverty, their misery, and they believe in the forgiveness of God.”

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