A sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
Prayer might, perhaps, be thought of as a conversation with God. Sometimes we speak to God, sometimes we try to listen for what might be the voice of God. Prayer is not always easy and we may find ourselves struggling to know how to express what it is we wish God to know, to hear. Perhaps, even more, we may find ourselves struggling to listen for the voice of God, to trust in God to reach if we have need of God’s holy voice.
Music can help, as it so often does at Choral Evensong. The stained glass windows telling the stories of our faith, the architecture of our cathedral pointing to the wonder of God, the beauty of the flowers, all can help us to sense God’s presence and so to pray. For many nature is one of God’s most lovely gifts and where we find ourselves at prayer, often prayer where words are few or even unnecessary.
Sometimes, though, we are nurtured most in prayer by the words of scripture. And, so, I thought this night we would spend a little time allowing the words of our three scripture readings to guide our prayer. Our voice finds its expression in the words of this evening’s psalm, a portion of Psalm 40. God then almost seems to reply in the words of the prophet Isaiah. And then, in the verses we heard read from Paul’s Letter to the people of Galatia, we find some of the most well known words on prayer, prayer as being nurtured by the Spirit.
We heard sung this evening the second half of Psalm 40. Psalm 40 opens with the following words:
I waited patiently for the Lord
and he inclined unto me, and heard my calling.
He brought me also out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and clay
and set my feet upon the rock, and ordered my goings.
And he hath put a new song in my mouth
even a thanksgiving unto our God.
In the first five verses of the psalm the psalmist speaks first of a relationship with God, of his crying to God, of God hearing and rescuing. Of the joy of having a new song to sing and of the profound thanksgiving that the psalmist feels. The psalmist speaks of a life of trusting in God.
The psalmist then turns to God in prayer.
O Lord my God, great are the wondrous works which thou hast done, like as be also thy thoughts which are to us-ward
We entered the psalm this evening at verse 11. The psalmist is clearly in trouble. He begins by pleading his cause, by asserting his faithfulness:
I have declared thy righteousness in the great congregation
lo, I will not refrain my lips, O Lord, and that thou knowest.
I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart
my talk hath been of thy truth, and of thy salvation.
I have not kept back thy loving mercy and truth
from the great congregation.
We can be like this I guess, especially in times of trouble. We can remind God of our loyalty, of our encouragement of others in the faith. Then we tells God what we need:
Withdraw not thou thy mercy from me, O Lord
let thy loving-kindness and thy truth alway preserve me. For innumerable troubles are come about me; my sins have taken such hold upon me that I am not able to look up
yea, they are more in number than the hairs of my head, and my heart hath failed me.
The psalm ends with the psalmist hope and truth in God.
As for me, I am poor and needy
but the Lord careth for me.
Thou art my helper and redeemer
make no long tarrying, O my God.
What we notice about the words of the psalm is their honesty.
The psalmist describes his relationship to God, to a hearer, perhaps really to himself. And then he turns to God and speaks so openly about his need for God’s help. Words of request woven with words of trust.
God’s reply might be found in our Old Testament reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah Chapter 44 was written to people of Israel in exile where the people have lost just about everything that gave them their identity. The psalm that best expresses exile is Psalm 137 which opens “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” But our psalm will do very well. When we find ourselves in a situation or a time where we almost lose who we are, psalm 40 will do very well.
And, perhaps, we might hear in response, God’s words spoken through Isaiah. Isaiah always knows what is at the heart of the people’s cry in exile. Expresses it so often. At the heart of the people’s cry in exile is fear. When who we are seems to be stripped away, it is in the grip of fear that we find ourselves. And so God speaks of this, names it openly in God’s response through the prophet’s voice.
But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
2 Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
And then again, in our final verses:
Do not fear, or be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one.
God speaks of God’s relationship with us. That we are chosen by God is repeated in these verses. And then God promises water on thirsty land, streams on dry ground, God’s spirit poured out and blessings given to the descendents of those who find themselves in exile.
The prayers that we see in our psalm and in the words of the prophet Isaiah are steeped in honesty. The people speak of their trust in their relationship with God and then express their need of God in the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. God speaks of God’s love of God’s people in naming them chosen and then God promises to lead the people out of their place of trouble.
Honesty is at the heart of this conversation. I sometimes think that prayer is really telling God the truth, speaking of the struggle, crying out about our hope for rescue. And then if we can sit quietly as our words echo in the stillness, we might hear God’s truth if we can only stay in that quietness.
Paul, writing to the community of faith in Galatia, speaks about prayer and sees God’s spirit at its heart.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Jesus went up in the mountains to spend time praying and as he prayed he called God “Abba, Father”, the name an utterly trusting little child would call their Mother or Father. We are chosen by God, named children of God, and Paul reassures those to whom he is writing that when they pray is it the spirit of God’s Son, it is Jesus’ spirit, who prays in us.
We might ponder that …that when we pray it is Jesus’ spirit who prays in us. And know that when we are struggling to sit with our truth and speak out our truth, that Jesus’ spirit is with us, in us, guiding our thoughts and our words. We might be reassured by that. And so we turn, as we have this evening, at times, to the words of the scriptures that Jesus so loved and allow those words to be our speaking to God, perhaps in a psalm, and our listening to God’s voice, perhaps in the beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah.