A sermon given at the 8am BCP Eucharist and 10.30am Choral Eucharist on Sunday 6 March, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

                        God moved the heart of Cyrus. [Ezra 1:1]

With these words the book of Ezra opens a gripping story about the rebuilding of the Temple after the people of God, who had prayed to Him during their exile in Babylon, had returned to Jerusalem. This opening verse, then, spoke to the power of prayer in that epoch. Today, we too are a people in exile from God’s perfect Sabbath, so how should we pray?

Our readings this morning all touch upon this question. In Deuteronomy 26:10 we heard that the people of God were told, as indeed are we all, ‘to bow down before the Lord your God’. Psalm 91:2 told us that, when in the darkness of the shadows of the world, the people prayed ‘Lord, you are my refuge and stronghold’. While in Romans 10:13 we were reminded that ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Our gospel reading then told us of Jesus being ‘full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1), in other words in an ultimate state of prayerful communion with the Father.

With readings such as these and with our world having been cast into a very dark valley of conflict and distress, we are called in Christian love not only to think about those in the Ukraine, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere who are in the grip of the violent breakdown of humanity’s disregard for God’s perfect Sabbath – we are called to pray for them.

This week a friend of mine with whom I had been in communication about the situation in Ukraine responded to a criticism of mine about the ‘lettuce leaf’ response of a certain overseas government to the actions of the Cyrus of Russia, Putin, by writing:

Perhaps convert it into a prayer, Lynn.         

Now, you need to understand that this friend of mine is not a believer, and therefore his comment was more sardonic than sincere … but it was also salutary, because it made me pause to reflect on what prayer should mean in situations such as we face now. I think my friend feels that praying is a mere feel-good ticking of a box by believers, absolving them of any other responsibility; ‘I’ve done enough, I’ve prayed’ type of attitude. But prayer, in its deepest sense, is no mere token of activity, it should be much more than communication with God, it should be a communion with Him; in other words, we need to pray filled with the Holy Spirit if we are to be in prayerful communion with the Father, as Jesus was in the wilderness.

Coming back to that verse from Ezra, the Hebrew word used for ‘heart’ as in the heart of Cyrus, was ר֙וּחַ֙ [ruach] or ‘breath of God’. In answer to decades of prayer by His people, God had connected with the very essence of life in Cyrus, that essence with which all of us are endowed – that breath of life, the breath of God. God connected and so Cyrus’ heart could be moved.

In other words, prayer and its hoped-for outcome should be more than just mere words, it should reach beyond them to the profound eternal silence from which the beginning Word sprang, forever gifted to us by God in the form of His ever-present Holy Spirit. In seeking by prayer to connect with God, through His Holy Spirit, we should seek to link our broken world with God’s perfect Creation; to find sanctuary in his perfect Sabbath. Genesis 2:3 refers to the seventh day, the completion of Creation – the Sabbath – the day when God rested. However, Hebrews 4:1 helps us understand that ‘rest’ in that verse from Genesis did not mean simply taking a break and then returning to the fray, it meant coming into a continuing serene communion with God, for we read in that verse in Hebrews about ‘entering into God’s rest’. This then is the real context of that line in the Lord’s Prayer:

Your Kingdom come.

We are praying to come into a continuing sense of God’s rest, that His spirit of peace may reign not just in our own lives, but in our world, hence in the lives of all; thus His Kingdom may indeed come into our broken world.

At Shabbat at the Beit Shalom Synagogue here in Adelaide, on the first Friday after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Rabbi Shoshana Kaminski, seeking divine guidance in the wake of that invasion, included in her reflection a reading about praising God from the Siddur Hadash prayer book. That reading struck me as being a commentary about what prayer should be:[1]

To praise [here I interpolate ‘to pray’] God and God’s Creation is to celebrate the world into which we have been born; it is to dig beneath its sorrow and injustice to find the beauty which redeems the ugliness which is too readily apparent.

The reading continued with this telling line:

Yet praise of the world as it exists can linger on our lips just so long; and then we must cry out.

Then ‘we must cry out’. In 1845, one of Ukraine’s greatest poets, Taras Shevchenko wrote The Caucasus, which was written in honour of a friend of his, Yakov de Balmen, who had died fighting the Tsarist army which was then attacking the Circassian minority in the Caucasus.[2] Starting with a quote from Jeremiah:

O that my head were waters,
            And mine eyes a fountain of tears, 
            That I might weep day and night 
            For the slain….  [Jer 9:1]

Shevchenko tussled with issues of the struggle for freedom and justice in his poem, linking them in a psalm-like way, in other words he wrote a prayer calling out to God, such as in this verse:

Oh, when will justice rise at last?
And God, when wilt Thou give 
Thyself from all Thy toil a rest? — 
And let the people live!

And then, in a further verse that would be a particularly apt question in any Lenten season, but especially so in this one where Ukraine has been invaded, he wrote:

For whom, O Jesus, Son of God,
Then wert Thou crucified?
For us good folks, or for the word 
Of truth… Or to provide 
A spectacle at which to laugh?
That’s what has come to pass.

‘For whom, O Jesus, Son of God … wert Thou crucified?’ This Good Friday, what will be our answer to that question? More importantly, on the morning of Easter Day when we will once again proclaim: ‘He is Risen!’, what will we understand by that proclamation – He is Risen! … for what?

Last week, on Ash Wednesday, we commenced this year’s Lenten journey. A critical part of that journey each year is Maundy Thursday with its remembrance of the Last Supper. That which we refer to as the Last Supper was a Paschal meal that had been celebrated each Passover from the time of Moses; a meal at which the following question is ritually posed in Jewish households:

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Traditionally, the answer has been that the meal was a remembrance of God’s saving his people from the persecution of Pharoah, thus enabling a journey to the promised land. However, at the Last Supper, Jesus answered the question not by remembrance of a past event but by a forth-telling of the power of his imminent resurrection which was yet to come. He said:

Do this in remembrance of me.

In other words, take this special meal not in remembrance of things past but of something extraordinary to come. Though the disciples were still days from understanding what he meant, by these words, Jesus gave especial power to that line from the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Your Kingdom come’ – that perfect Sabbath in which the world may find continuing rest.

Returning to the reading Rabbi Shoshana did from the Siddur Hadash, it had continued:

There are evils which we shall not accept, there are cruelties and horrors which we shall not let our celebration conceal.

And finished with:

And so our praise (again I interpolate here ‘our prayer’) is not complete until we take the world which our Sabbath vision celebrates, and make of it the text of a new song – shattering the rhythms of the familiar life we know with a chorus of resolve to wipe out cruelty and ugliness, writing an anthem which all people may sing in a world of justice, love and peace.

It seems to me then, that our prayers at troubled times like this should be an ‘anthem … of justice, love and peace’, calling upon God that his ministry of reconciliation may prevail. These verses from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians come to mind:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. [2 Cor 5:17-19]

So, as we come each day in prayer to God, may we seek not just to be in communication with him but, like Jesus in the wilderness filled with the Holy Spirit, may we seek to be in communion with the Father; so that thereby his Holy Spirit may infuse and enthuse us. And in troubled times such as these, in the Ukraine, in Yemen, in Syria and so many other places, may our prayers for peace then find themselves anchored in a eucharistic spirit of our saying ‘yes’ to God’s call for us to proclaim the ‘message of reconciliation’.

Then may we truly know that God indeed can move the heart of any modern-day Cyrus.

[1] Rabbi S Greenberg & Rabbi J Levine (ed), Siddur Hadash: Sabbat and Festival Morning Services, 1997, p65. 

[2] Quotes are from a translation by John Weir which appear in Taras Shevchenko. “The Caucasus​​” poem (English translation by John Weir) (storinka.org)