In this week’s prayer times I was drawn mainly to Psalm 80 which resulted in this page of my prayer journal and a sermon for one of my churches – my only sermon this Sunday.
What I wrote could easily apply to any congregation in the Church of England. I did wonder whether or not it was too ‘punchy’ and even asked my dear husband to read it through. He agreed it was hard hitting, but he also said my authority would carry it through, and that he would be praying for me. So I peppered it with humourous asides and added references to God’s love. It was well received and I could tell people were not feeling got at. I reproduce it here and hope it helps.
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 and Matthew 1:18-25
Use the psalm using the response during worship. Preached at Denstone church.
I’ve started a new practice of using the next Sunday’s readings in my prayer times each day, starting on Monday, instead of the ones set for each day. This started at the beginning of Advent – a new church year. I’m also using a journal where I note anything in particular that comes to mind and that helps the prayer to continue throughout the week. The journal is large art paper and so I can include drawings too. It helps that Denstone church has the Redemptorist leaflets with them all on one A5 sheet so I can highlight and underline bits. You could take the sheet on Sunday and do the same in your prayer times, except you would be using the Sunday just had rather than looking ahead like me. Try it for a few weeks and let me know how you get on.
This week I was particularly drawn to the psalm and I’ve been praying for the churches here in the Dove and Churnet Benefice. In sharing what has come to me, I would like to encourage you to be praying along these lines too. The church needs prayer.
Restore us, O Lord – was the first thing I wrote. We are in need of restoration. The Church of England in this country is in decline, whilst other churches worldwide are growing.
The psalmist writes: “You have made us the derision of our neighbours, and our enemies laugh us to scorn.” That is how it sometimes feels, isn’t it? Churches seem to only be there for the Life Events and community festivals, which these days include Christmas, where I sometimes wonder if it is a festival of worshipping our children rather than Jesus. They are the stars of the show, for many people, not God.
But I don’t believe we are in the state we are in because of God. He hasn’t caused this situation. On the contrary, I believe we are in the state we are in because of people.
We seem to be at the end of an era. The psalmist was also lamenting the end of an era. He was lamenting the end of an era in Samaria. 10 of the 12 tribes had been wiped out, leaving the little realm of Judah exposed on the north to a new Assyrian province instead of its sister kingdom Israel. So they were in dire need of deliverance and help. Naturally they call out to God in prayer asking why he has let this happen. Where is he?
The Refrain is repeated in several verses and has the phrase: “show the light of your countenance” which could also be translated: “cause your face to shine” probably refers to a smile which in turn suggests favour and blessing. We are encouraged to ask God to bless us.
Prayer doesn’t add anything to God’s knowledge. He already knows the situation. Prayer doesn’t add anything to his will to help either. Prayer isn’t persuasion. But prayer is vitally important in God’s economy and the way he works. Our impassioned pleas do not fall on deaf ears. He will rouse himself and act. But …… is he perhaps waiting until we want change as much as he does?
How long? (last thing I wrote in my journal) How long will it be before God does something despite our prayers and our tears? I don’t know, but that shouldn’t stop us from praying and asking. Perhaps the clue is in the phrase:
Give us life that we may call upon your name. (2nd phrase I wrote) Maybe we need to ask God to give us more spiritual hunger and thirst – to give us life enough to call out. Imagine someone so poorly and ill that they don’t have the strength to ask for a sip of water. Perhaps the church has got that ill.
Perhaps we need to ask for enough life to get to the point of being able to effectively call upon God.
Interestingly, that was the theme I picked on for the first two weeks of Advent. I have the words “My soul is waiting for you O lord. In your word is my hope” as my verse for Advent – from psalm 130 – as well as: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” from the Advent hymn. I’ve been praying for more of the Holy Spirit to be working within me with the image of a desert flowering as the result of abundant rain. I have also been praying that for my churches.
Perhaps that was laying the foundation for this week’s prayer for the church to be restored. On Friday as I prayed I imagined a tree or a vine decorating the page. Imagine my surprise when, as I started to write this and I looked up the psalm in a commentary I learnt that the missing verses 8-15 contain images of a vine, which is a metaphor for God’s kingdom, and one that Jesus used. So the words in my journal now have a decorative vine border.
The answer to the prayers of Israel was prophesied by Isaiah. Ahaz was the king at the time and God told him to ask him for a sign. He can even ask for a miracle. The words “make it as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven” suggest that Ahaz can feel free to go beyond the bounds of ordinary human experience. The sign could also be God’s providential control over events and their timing, and not necessarily miraculous intervention. Anyway, he can think big and think outside the box – he can go for it!
But Ahaz didn’t want to. Do we sometimes think we shouldn’t bother God with our prayers? Do we say… Oh no… we can’t be so bold as to ask for God’s help? Perhaps we need to think bigger. Perhaps we need to think outside the box.
Isaiah points out that they are trying God’s patience. I imagine God being like a parent with squabbling children (many of us have been there)… we lose our patience but we still love them. We just want them to get on. Isaiah tells Ahaz, God’s told you to ask him and you are refusing to do so? So God himself will give a sign that he will indeed rescue his people. A young woman will bear a child and name him Emmanuel, which we know means God With Us. Love took on human flesh.
Matthew picks up on this in his gospel as he recounts Jesus’ birth. An angel visits a perturbed Joseph in his dream and assures him that Mary is telling the truth and that he should not fear to take her as his wife. Joseph is told to name the son Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Love went to the cross.
And that is the answer to our prayers too. Jesus will forgive our sins and our failures – he will restore us when we turn to him. You will know better than me what the particular sins of this church have been in the past. I have caught glimpses and could hazard a guess or two, but it is better if you all, and especially those who have worshipped here for many years, think back and perhaps call to mind things that haven’t been as they should. Wrong attitudes and behaviours in the past, broken relationships and deeply felt emotions, can fester and affect the present. You can’t see it and you don’t know it is there, but they do affect the spiritual well being and growth of a church.
It’s like the horrible experience I had yesterday. We’ve got a 2nd freezer in the cubby hole where the tumble drier is kept. The freezer isn’t used very often but the drier is regularly used. Yesterday I went to see if there was anything we could use for a meal at the weekend. I opened the freezer to be met with a terrible stench. It had been switched off for I don’t know how long but there was something with a fur coat on in the top drawer and the job of emptying it made me feel ill. Whose fault was it? Who switched it off? Was it me or him? No kids to blame! But it didn’t matter – that’s not the point – we got on with clearing it up.
The spiritual life of a church can be like that freezer if sin is left un-confessed. By sin, I include the things done unintentionally; the hurt and unforgiveness, the unwillingness to be reconciled. All sorts of things can fester and go bad. All may look well on the outside but look under the surface you can see unpleasant behaviour and attitudes prevail and be toxic to the church’s life. I just offer that image for you to ponder as appropriate. And I say all this in love – not pointing the finger.
Moving on though, perhaps one of our sins is our feeble prayer, our lack of faith and trust and perhaps our stubborn independence and trying to do it all ourselves, without asking God????? It’s an easy trap to fall in to – and a sin that I freely admit to committing. The verse in Isaiah immediately before our reading started today is: “If your faith does not remain firm, then you will not remain secure.” Isaiah 7:9
So I urge you today to have faith and trust in Jesus who is our Saviour – the one who forgives and heals, the one who restores and revives, the one who is Emmanuel – God with us.
And if God is with us, who can be against us?
Here endeth the sermon! I hope you found it helpful. If you want to know more about history and toxicity in the church then I point you to The Rev’d Russ Parker. The link below is to a talk he gave at Carlisle Diocese and is a bit long but well worth it if you are interested in this aspect of healing. He is very easy to listen to.
He has also written a book entitled Healing Wounded History – also worth spending time with.