Paul’s Vision

May 20, 2018
Bible Text: Romans 8:18-25, 31-39 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp I have often told you about the Apostle John who penned the wonderful gospel of John that celebrates our relationship to God as adopted sons and daughters. That affirmation forms the foundation for John’s great hope and faith. For John it is a wonderful gift of God to know that being accepted by God and loved by God requires no special manner of birth in this world and depends not on how wealthy or influential our earthly family may be. He knows that no one can become a child of God except those who accept the Word that has come from God in the form of Jesus, the Christ. Paul echoes the words of John in Romans chapter 8, verses 14-17 when he declares that all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God. He knows that the Spirit we have received from God is not one of slavery, leading us to a fear of God but a Spirit of adoption and so we can call God “Abba, Father.” Further he knows that the Spirit of God affirms to our spirits that we are God’s children. And as children inherit from the parents, so we will inherit from God the life that was promised through Jesus – the eternal life lived in the kingdom of God, not as slaves or servants but as children who are loved and cherished. But Paul recognizes that if we want to be the children of God, if we want to inherit the kingdom that is promised to the children of God, then we need to be prepared to suffer as well. In spite of the fact that Jesus many times told his followers that they would suffer for their decision to believe in him and the message he brought from God the Father, many still see suffering for the gospel as not part of the plan. Certainly we understand that the coming of God in Jesus Christ, his suffering, death and resurrection have brought about a change to our ultimate end; but we can forget that we still live this life with the same challenges that faced Jesus and those first disciples. The world in which we still live is not perfect; it still holds people who seek to destroy life; there is still illness, hatred, war, oppression. The people of this world still have the right to accept or reject the promises of God. The interaction of people and events in this world can bring us to places and times where our faith in God will be challenged. Paul pulls no punches. He does not pretend for a moment that our life as disciples and followers of God in Christ will be sunshine and roses all the way. He sees great hope and great promise for us in this life because of the presence of God’s Spirit with us but he also sees challenges and wants us to aware that we cannot expect our lives to be without trial or tribulation or suffering. Jesus never said that the disciples would live idyllic lives. He knew that suffering would be part of their lives if they remained true to his revelations about God and the life to which they were called. So suffering is not optional for us. What is optional is how we choose to respond to that suffering. Paul knows that the final coming of God in Christ has not happened and that he was living in a time when the knowledge of what was coming was not yet revealed in its fullness. For Paul it was most critical that the believers understood this so that they would not lose faith or give up hope. How do we reconcile the suffering of this present time? We can reconcile it in part by recognizing that the suffering and death of Christ mirrors our own suffering. We may never feel the sting of a whip or the pain of nails but we are still subject to the ways in which the people of this world can inflict pain in word and action. We may not die a death like Christ but we know that this life will end one day. For now we make a choice – the choice to live this life by the will and commandment of our God, the one who has chosen to adopt us as his children or the choice to live this life according to our own will and design. If we choose the former, says Paul, then we need to know that the time of our final liberation from sin, suffering and death has not yet come. For now we have the hope that God places in us by faith to know that God’s actions – past, present and future – will bring about that full liberation not only of our spirits and bodies but that of the whole created order. We may know that we are adopted by God – and nothing can take that hope away from us – but the world still cannot fully see that adoption. And so Paul encourages us to continue to hope for and expect that day to come when all the world will come to see what will know to be true by faith. Paul then goes on in the last verses of chapter 8 to make one of the strongest statements about Christian hope. If God is on our side – who is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of life – then who could ever be against us with any power over us? Paul knows that there is no condemnation, no judgment that can ever be held against us for the only one who could ultimately judge or condemn us is God and God has already decided to accept us as his adopted children. Paul then makes his ultimate statement of hope and faith. “Then what can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or hardship? Can persecution, hunger, nakedness, danger or sword? For I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths – nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 38-39) This is the day in the Christian calendar when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit of God upon the disciples as recorded in the book of Acts; but the coming of the Spirit – be it in tongues of fire or not – is only the beginning of the next chapter in God’s plan for the people of this world. For it is not the gift of the Spirit of itself that is most critical, it is what the people who receive the Spirit of God allow to happen in their lives. We may never be a Paul or a Peter or a John or a Mary, but each of us can be faithful to the hope that God has given us through our faith in the revelation made in Jesus Christ, by allowing the Spirit of God to guide us in our lives and so realize the love of God for us that nothing can take away! AMEN

What makes a Family?

May 13, 2018
Bible Text: Acts 1:12-26 and John 17:6-19 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp Each of us has an experience of family. Your family may look similar to my family or it may look quite different. Your family may have two parents or one parent. Your family may have a caregiver who is neither your father nor your mother. You may have siblings. You may have a large or a small extended family. You may be physically close to your family but distant in your relationships. You may be physically far from your family but close in your relationships. In short, family is something that is not so easy to define or describe. Depending on the experience we had in our childhood, we may have found ourselves following in the footsteps of our parents as we fell in love and married and had children of our own. Perhaps we chose to remain single and enjoy the company of others in the family whose children we could watch grow and spoil them as only aunts and uncles can do. Perhaps we found ourselves raising children on our own because of the loss of a spouse through death or divorce or maybe we chose to adopt a child. The image of family that I knew, as presented to us through our society and the media of television, books and magazines, gave a picture of the ideal family in their eyes. There were two parents, two or more children – preferably at least one child of each sex – and a family pet which usually was a dog. The reality is that I grew up as an only child and could not have pets such as dogs or cats due to severe allergies. Yet somehow I didn’t feel that my family was not a real family. Today the images of family that we find in our media and in our society are much more diverse. This helps us to understand that families do not come in one form but in many. It may be quite surprising to realize that many of the images of family that we see portrayed and lived in our modern day were very much present in generations past but they were often suppressed or hidden because people were made to feel that only the ideal family was to be celebrated and recognized as a positive model for growing healthy people. As we ponder what makes a family, we can think of Jesus’ own answer when told that his mother and brothers were waiting for him to come home. To paraphrase, Jesus said: “whoever does the will of God, these are my brothers and sisters.” Family in Jesus’ eyes meant something more than flesh and blood. To Jesus it was about our heart. It was about whether or not we found partners and helpers with whom we could share burdens, joys, responsibilities and encourage one another on this journey called life. For Jesus, family was defined as people who are willing to partner with each other, to help each other and to share life together. But Jesus never forgot or abandoned his mother or his brothers. Yet he knew that family went beyond physical blood relationships. And so St. John the Divine could write with all confidence that we can consider ourselves to be not only children through blood but even more, children of God – adopted by God who truly wants us to be his children. Jesus looked at those whom he called to be disciples and who followed him and he called them friends and family. None of them was physically related to him as we may be related to our parents or siblings but each of them was loved as much – if not more – than any blood relation. Whatever our family may look like, the hope of God is that we find a positive and supportive family association. So how do we create and maintain positive and supportive families. Above all, we need to see family as a community that can reflect the love spoken of by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8) When we find ourselves in a relationship, a community where we are accepted for who we are and are supported, there is family. The intention of God for us and for all our families is that we live in mutual respect and acceptance of one another. Each one of us is to be mindful of the needs of one another and seek to be supportive to one another. We need to recognize the gifts of one another, acknowledging one another and enabling each other to grow to our potential. Family is meant to be a relationship where we find and feel security. We are to secure one another physically but also mentally and spiritually. So what makes a family? It is people; people of different ages and different life experiences; people who are short and tall; people who are young and old and in-between; people who are willing to truly love one another; respect one another, encourage one another and support one another in this journey of life. Will we ever find ourselves in a perfect family? Not while we are still here but one day we will experience a perfect family. For now we can celebrate that God in Jesus shared with us a vision of family and a vision of family life. May we seek to embrace that vision and so strengthen the family we are closest to and may we ever seek to become the family of God that God calls us to be in this place. AMEN
Bible Text: Acts 8:26-40 and John 15:1-10 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Over the last number of weeks we have been exploring the topic of praying. Every one of our explorations has encouraged us to express our needs and wants, our emotions, our cries for help, our frustrations and our thanks and praise. But through all of these expressions of our thoughts and emotions, we have been encouraged to use meditation as a means of calming ourselves and enabling us to approach our time of prayer with the sense that we are entering into a space where we will have a conversation – a dialogue – with God. We have been encouraged to feel comfortable and safe in the presence of God and never forget that God has promised to be with us on this journey of life no matter where that journey may take us and no matter what we may encounter. Last week we were reminded that while we each need to develop our own relationship with God, we need to also remember that what each of us gains through our own time of prayer can provide strength and insight and support to others in community. So as we worship together we can encourage one another in our faith and in our life. Today we are going to conclude this series with a focus on the heart. Of course we all know that when the Bible speaks about our heart, they are expressing that image of the heart that is associated with our thoughts and emotions. Often we believe that they were unaware of the fact that the heart really is an organ that pumps the blood that keeps our bodies going. But the reality is that they chose the image of the heart because they believed that just as the physical heart enabled the body to function at its best, so the metaphorical heart was the centre from which all our thoughts and emotions emanated and touched every part of our being. The unity that is so often expressed in the Hebrew Scripture to depict our creation by God finds its ultimate expression when we come to see our physical, mental and spiritual life summed up in that one central place – the heart. And so, biblical religion is essentially heart religion. To have a good and honest heart is to have a God-centered motivation in our life; this ties in with Jesus’ declaration that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul, mind and strength. While expressing it with more than just the word heart, the Hebrew person would understand that all was centered in the heart. Secondly biblical religion is about the renewal of our hearts. We talk often about the renewal of our hearts through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What we are really talking about is letting God’s Spirit teach us and direct us into the ways that will bring us to a place where we will think and act in ways that will reflect the will of the One who has created us. We seek for God to help us to see the things that can cause our hearts to be pulled from God and so seek to bring peace and wholeness to our inner heart – our inner soul and being. Such inner peace and wholeness will then be radiated out into our whole body just as the physical heart pumps a supply of life-giving blood to every part of our physical being. But for that renewal of our hearts to occur requires us to seek for three qualities. First our heart needs to be consistently repentant – not just regretful or remorseful but understanding that repentance means turning back from dark paths of self-service to face, love, thank and serve God. We are to repeatedly renew our commitment to holiness and constantly re-examine ourselves in God’s presence. Second we are to consciously return to God day by day traveling home to our Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend. Third, the desire of the renewed heart for God moves us to become runners, not that every one of us will physically run a race, but runners in the sense that we will press on in life toward the goal of a full life with God as expressed to us through the life of God in our Lord Jesus Christ and continually brought to our minds through the presence of the Holy Spirit. But even when we seek for these qualities of a renewed heart with God, we recognize that coming to that unity of heart is not an easy thing. Christian living will always involve an element of conflict and struggle with temptations both from the outside and the inside. We want to be perfect in serving God but practically we know that we will fall short. When we read in Scripture that we are to pray with our whole heart, we need to understand that this is to be our intention even if the reality is that we will ever need for our heart to become whole. There will be moments when we feel at perfect peace and feel that we have reached a wholeness of heart and there will be time when we feel our heart torn and struggling and there will be all the times in between. But it is for us to never give up hope, to never surrender our faith in God and to ever seek for that wholeness of heart that will draw us closer to that full communion with God. And so our goal in life as Christians is to receive from God the gift of an undivided heart. There are four tests that we can use to help tell us how far our own hearts are united Godward. The first is, how far are our heads right? Are we seeking to embrace God’s truth as revealed in the Bible, assessing our life by it, and sensing God’s presence and gift throughout life? The second is, how far are our hands right? Are our hands engaged in activities that are pleasing to God or just pleasing to ourselves? Third, how far are our habits right? Are our routines, our cherished ways of thinking, our hobbies and interests aligned with the heart of God? Fourth, how far are our hopes right? What do we save for, plan for, scheme for, and pray for? Clearly we need to watch what it is that we take into our hearts – for what we take in will always seek to take over. We are what we are at heart – no more, no less. The heart is the inside story of everyone’s life; and we do not understand ourselves, or anyone else, until we are in touch with what goes on in us and in them at heart level. And so the Bible constantly encourages us to guard our hearts for from it flows our life. Finally we are enjoined to pray in the Spirit with our whole heart – not praying tongues or from some ecstatic experience but conversing responsively with God through an awareness of our life with God as imparted to us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God. First we are to remain aware of the new covenant revealed by God through Jesus and know that we live our lives as the people of that new covenant. Second we are to remain aware that the Spirit will lead us on a progressive, intensifying realization of who God is, leading us to dwell even more on the wisdom, power and love of God. Third we are to remain aware of the beauty of life and the presence of God throughout creation. And so for us as Christians, we are to open ourselves continually to the Spirit of God and the ministry of that Spirit leading us to contemplate and rejoice in the relationship we have with God in Jesus Christ as the frame and foundation for the rest of our lifelong praying. We are to pray clearheadedly and wholeheartedly. Jeremiah knew this truth about God: “When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you.” (Jer. 29:13-14) AMEN
Bible Text: Acts 4:5-19 and John 10:7-18 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; Let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, And let us exalt his name together! Psalm 34:1-3 So far in this series our focus has been almost entirely on individual prayer, the kind of praying that we do when we are alone. This private communication between each of us and the Father has been the centre of our attention. We have looked at petition – which is the heart of personal prayer; we have explored meditation; we have looked at the importance of praising God and learned about expressing the pain of our lives through uttering our complaints or pleas to God for help; and we have highlighted the importance of hanging on to God in persistent prayer that expresses faith and hope as we come to realize that God will not abandon us no matter what happens in our lives. Truly each of us must take responsibility for our life and our life with God and in God. Each of us needs to acknowledge that we live our lives under God’s eye and that we will answer to him for whatever we do. We have to be the persons who exercise faith in Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour and Lord and we need to ask God to show us how we can each one of us be a disciple and please God in everything we say and do. This is God in Christ making us realize and develop our own individuality in his presence enabling us to take our faith seriously. This emphasis on deepened personhood and intensified individuality is integral to understanding and living our life of faith and hope and love and prayer. But it is not the whole story. We need to not forget that our growth as individuals is not for us alone but is developed in order that we may become strength and hope for others in the fellowship we call the church. But as we explore the concept of joining in, we need to have a clear understanding of what is really meant by church. We all say that the church is not a building or a denomination but that is the way we most often identify church. But the descriptions of church in the New Testament make no real mention of buildings. The focus is on connections: associational and organic. The fact that we come together in this place of worship shows our connection to one another by association. But the images given to us by Jesus and by Paul and others about church speak of an organic connection – a sharing of life and energy. We have only to think of the image of the vine and the branches from John’s Gospel or the powerful image of the body as told by St. Paul. As each branch of the vine can only truly live as it is connected to the vine and thus share the same nurture, so the body only functions to its fullest capacity when all its members are respected and cared for. To use a modern illustration think of a bicycle wheel. The hub is the centre from which all the spokes emanate but if too many spokes are broken or faulty, the wheel loses its effectiveness and can no longer perform the function for which it was intended. So it is with the body of Christ – the church. We need to recognize that we share a common life with one another with God in Christ and that – as a consequence – we are to be giving ourselves to love, serve and strengthen our fellow participants in Christ’s body. Learning to be accepting of one another with all our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies is critical to being shaped into a single body with one head – Jesus Christ. We are all connected to the Lord and connected to one another by the grace of God in a body whose visible shape is what is to be known as “church”. Packer believes and affirms that we need each other! God has called us together to be this body on earth, to find that sense of belonging and to share it with each other. It is through loving connectedness within the church that we can draw others. The image Packer uses is that of a group who are holding hands but who drop hands to welcome a new addition. True enough each of us comes to the body of Christ as individuals engaged in our own path with God; but when we gather in worship, we seek to affirm one another in the faith and seek to express our shared thoughts and desires to reveal a unity in fellowship and focus on our relationship to and with our God. So we are encouraged to come together for worship, for prayer, for study and fellowship; and we are to remember that this is not something commanded in order to maintain a building or to secure funds to maintain clergy but that it is the will of God who so well knows how difficult it can be to maintain faith when we are isolated from one another. When we come together, we no longer hear just our own words or thoughts but we hear the words and thoughts of others. But we need to not only hear but also acknowledge and respond to one another, praying for one another and encouraging one another so that no one has to walk alone. But God not only wills that we should come together in worship, fellowship and prayer but he also uses that time of our togetherness – if we are open to see it. We are to become conscious of and remain conscious of the lives of others within the body and seek to teach, advise, listen, pray and act as we are able. We often wonder when Christ will return. Perhaps he is waiting for us to show ourselves as his body so that when the head returns, there is a body ready to receive him. I realize that this sounds like we can become perfect but that perfection is not outside of or apart from Christ; it is rather a seeking for a wholeness in the body that only Christ can bring and yet is to be achieved in part by our willingness to be perfected by Christ. So we are enjoined to join with others in building our relationship with God and in expressing our faith within a body that we know as the fellowship of which we are a part. Packer quotes an anonymous poem that goes like this: To live above with the saints we love, Oh, that will be glory! But to live below with the saints we know? Now that’s a different story! We have all found ourselves struggling with coming to terms with a difficult fellow believer. It can cause all kinds of divisions and hurt and can even tear fellowships apart. Developing, building and encouraging healthy Christian fellowship and healthy bodies of believers has never been easy and probably never will but if we truly believe that God has called each of us and adopted each of us and loves each one of us and hears each of our prayers, we will choose to come together and stay together. We will choose to give and receive love with a mutual openness to one another. We will choose to commit ourselves to the congregation, to identify with its goals and members, to open our lives and our homes to one another, and to help one another wherever that help is needed. For as much as we may be close to God individually it is critical that we choose togetherness and choose wholehearted, closely bound involvement in our congregation’s life of prayer, praise and service. Through this we will discover not only the will of God for our own lives but also find the will of God for our life in community. Let us never forget to join in! AMEN
Bible Text: Acts 3:1-10 and Luke 24:36-53 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Hanging On I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. Psalm 130:5-6 In this Psalm we are given a picture of a person whose patience in waiting for the Lord to answer is even more than watchmen waiting for the morning. If you have ever been on sentry duty, you would know that the night always seems so much longer than it really is. Developing the will to hang on until the morning and not give in to sleep is important to the task of a sentry. And when morning comes – and you are still awake – you can celebrate the fact that you hung in there. Hanging on to God in prayer is often hard. Life is full of forces that pull us away from prayer. Disappointment over a project or situation that hasn’t gone as expected, health troubles, broken relationships and breakdowns can create a sense of discouragement that makes us feel that prayer simply does not work, and that if God has let us down in this all-important matter, why should we pray about anything at all. Hanging on in prayer during such circumstances is the specific problem area that this message addresses. Hanging on in prayer is often difficult for us and deciding not to pray often becomes an option that we consider. It is certainly easy to say that we are to be patient, persistent and persevere in prayer but sometimes the reality of our situation makes it extremely difficult to continue to believe in prayer. This is one of those situations where the support of a fellow Christian is so important. We discover in the moments when our life and our faith are most challenging that we have great need of one another if we are to hang on and find the strength of mind and soul to continue to ask for God’s help. But how can we be persistent in praying when we are trying to hang on? There are four things that we are encouraged to dwell on. The first is relationship. We are to remember that no matter what happens to us in this life that God never abandons us nor does he ever let us go. We have been adopted by God and as such we are loved with a love that goes beyond the bounds of any other love. The Bible speaks about our “sonship”. God has chosen to make us his sons and daughters and to welcome us into his family. Further, we are not only welcomed into the family of God but we receive the gift of God’s own spirit to help us develop a God-centered mind. The blessing of adoption and the blessing of the Spirit of God do not shield us from any of life’s grimmer experiences, but they do turn us into unique people with a unique outlook on life and a unique destiny. When bad experiences come it is critical that we do not forget who and what we are. We are in a covenant with God – one that he will not break – and we need to ever remember that God will be faithful to his own word. Feelings have their ups and downs, but whether the sun is shining or whether the clouds are dark and the rain is falling, the promises of God still stand. The second thing we are encouraged to dwell on is the records of persistent praying in the Bible. We have already seen one example from Psalm 130 but there are others. Too often we have misinterpreted the Hebrew word “wait” seeing it as a sign of inactivity but the word is meant to convey a sustained effort of keeping on, keeping on in prayer and expectation. It is about focusing on the Lord, asking the Lord to help us to hang on until the time for action comes. Eugene Peterson in his translation of the Bible – The Message – puts it this way: “Stay with God.” That certainly conveys something active rather than passive. In another passage from the Psalms, Peterson translates being still before the Lord as “Quiet down before God” and “wait passionately for God”. In Psalm 40 the patient waiting of the author for God is interpreted by Peterson as” “I waited and waited and waited for God.” In Psalm 62 the author talks of waiting in silence. He has gone beyond the point of complaining or asking and is simply at a loss for words but is still hanging on waiting for God to answer. Other examples that come to us from the Bible are Nehemiah who lamented the situation of the people in exile and sought for their relief from their oppression. Another is Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who endured years of humiliation from other women for her inability to conceive. Then she gives birth to the prophet Samuel. Finally think of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth who longed for a child. They were blessed with the one known as John the Baptist. Third we need to dwell on the reasons why we are to be persistent in prayer. I am sure that – from time to time – we have become frustrated with waiting for God to act. I am sure we have wondered what was going through the mind of God. There is no real answer to that question in this realm but it may help us to consider that there are reasons for God making us hang on for answers that do not appear to us in the moment. There may be something else that needs to happen before our prayer is answered. In the meantime we hang on, we stay with God, we quiet down before God, and we do not lose sight of our trust in God. The fourth thing we are to dwell on is how to overcome the resistance we may feel to persistent prayer. Remember that persistent prayer is difficult. The circumstances that cause us to pray and challenge us to be persistent in prayer will work to encourage us to abandon prayer. The losses we experience in life, the disappointments and the troubles we face will work on our minds, hearts and spirits to convince us to abandon our faith and turn our backs on our relationship to God. We may find ourselves telling ourselves that resistance is hopeless; we can’t hold out in hope. It is then even more than at other moments in our lives that we need to look to faith to keep us going, to keep us expecting, to keep us hanging on to God’s promises. To close this week, I want us to consider that when we face our most trying moments in life, when we feel overwhelmed by life and feel most helpless; when we struggle most to hang on and hang in there; those are the moments when prayer becomes even more vital. Those are the moments that we need to reflect on our relationship with God and to God and not surrender to the urge to abandon the hope we have in God. So may God help us and may we help each other to be persistent in our praying, in developing that relationship with God and so hang on as we wait for God to help us. AMEN
Bible Text: Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-31 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon, I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice. (Ps. 55:16-17) The person who wrote this Psalm was actively praying to God but not in terms that we have so often been instructed to pray. So often we have been trained to be nice to God when we pray, to be respectful, to ask for things, to pray for forgiveness for our failings, to honour God with heart, mind, soul and voice. Yet here we have a person who feels that he has the perfect right to complain to God. So the question that lies before us today is: Do we have a right to complain to God and, if so, how are we to do it? As I said, we seem to have been trained that we can complain about anything and anyone but not to or about God. Yet the Bible does not shy away from recording the prayers of people who complain with great freedom and at considerable length to God when bad things happen and when they feel they are at the end of their tether. We hear them say: things are out of hand; I’m isolated, helpless, hopeless, hurting; Lord, do something! The phrase “How long?” appears nearly twenty times in the Psalms. The Psalms are filled with sentiments expressing a desire for God to intervene in situations beyond the author’s control. One of the best examples of complaining in prayer comes from the book of Job. Job is a person who has been greatly blessed by God and yet suffers tremendous setbacks. The book further reveals that these setbacks have been allowed by God. Satan believes that Job will turn from God if his life is less than successful. God does not agree but allows Satan to test Job. He can do anything to him except take his life. And at some point the taking of his life would have been a way to end his suffering; but not even Job considers this. Instead we find Job in conversation, in prayer to God venting and yet at the same time asking questions which are rational. He is puzzled by the turn of events yet he does not lose his faith in God. Job is indeed distraught by grief and human pain, he is goaded to despair by his well-meaning friends, and yet he speaks his words of complaint to God not because he is disappointed or angry with God but because he believes in God and believes that God will answer his questions and his complaint. In the end Job never really gets the answer that he or any of us might have expected but Job is content with his answer. He accepts his situation, he does not lose hope and his life changes again and all is restored. The prophet Jeremiah has become known as the “weeping prophet” and for good cause. Jeremiah was given the task of telling the people of Israel that the nation would be overrun and the people sent into exile. For his trouble he was not only persecuted by his own people but also suffered exile himself and probably never did return to his homeland. The interesting thing to note about Job, Jeremiah and the psalmists is that their prayers of complaint are never met by any rebuke from God. Their complaints were acceptable and accepted. Before we proceed further with the subject of complaining, let’s think back to that image of the Christian life being like a hike we are taking with the Lord. Being invited to go on a hike sounds upbeat, adventurous and perhaps romantic; yet depending on the terrain that the hike will take, it may be more challenging than we were prepared for. As much as we are told by Jesus that the life of faith that we have chosen will not be all sunshine and roses, we focus on the positives and choose to deny the negatives. When we made the decision to believe in God and believe in Jesus, we set ourselves on a path through this life that very likely might involve some trouble or tribulation or persecution. But if we have in our heads that Jesus suffered so that we would not have to suffer or believe that only good things and good times will fill our lives as believers then we deny the reality of life itself. Think about the temptations of Jesus. He had the opportunity to avoid all the things that we encounter in our lives – hunger, the desire to be saved from all ills and trials, the desire to be in total control of our lives; yet he did not give in to the temptation to relieve himself of any of these things. They are part of our life here and he made sure that he knew intimately how it felt to be hungry, ill or depressed or helpless. Foolishly, we have come to believe that we need to be stoic about our pain and troubles. We probably feel that many of the Psalms and other writings where people complain to God are not appropriate but while the Bible teaches self-control, it also teaches us about the relation between our thoughts and our emotions. The view of the Bible is that we are a unified being. This is why we believe in the resurrection of the body because our soul needs a body to be whole. The Bible teaches that when we suffer in body, mind or spirit, that we suffer in whole not in part. Our physical body then is the vehicle through which we express all our thoughts, emotions and actions and so we can describe ourselves as either an embodied soul or an ensouled body. And so it is perfectly appropriate for us as believers to express not only our joys to God, our hopes and our petitions, but also to express our frustrations and make our complaints known to God. And this is all about being realistic about life and realistic about our relationship with God. If as parents we only wanted our children to tell us about the good things that happened, the requests that were easy to grant, we would miss out on much of what happened or happens to our children and would miss so many opportunities to support and encourage them. And so it is with God. But what can lead us to a prayer of complaint? Situations in our lives where we feel opposition, betrayal, deprivation or isolation, losses or depression; any of these can be moments for us to offer a prayer of complaint, an honest prayer that makes no pretense of prettiness. The good news is that God invites us to pour out our hearts to him – even from our darkness – and he never lets go of us once we are in his grip. Finally how does God answer our prayers of complaint? God responds in two basic ways. First he sustains us in our weakness and keeps us going in spite of our pain. Every situation in life that gives rise to a complaint may not be resolved as we may hope but we learn through bringing our complaints to God and asking for his presence and strength that we can survive these situations. Second we are encouraged to keep trusting God despite the circumstances. So we live, passing through life’s ups and downs. Nobody’s Christian existence is sunshine and roses all the way. Some of us experience horrible losses, loss of health, loss of respectability, loss of friends, spouses or even children. These losses are not beyond the bounds of possibility for any of us and are actuality for many of us. But at such times, the only strategy for us is to pray out our complaints to God, following the models we find in Scripture. And as we do so, may we remember that God loves us, we are his children, he has adopted us and that he will hear our complaints and will love us now and forever. AMEN
Bible Text: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and Mark 16:1-8 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Asking So far in our study of prayer, we have focused on our relationship with God in order to see how an appropriate understanding of the Christian life can generate good praying. We have been exploring our commitment to the real God in real faith for the living of the real Christian life; and we have discovered some tools to help us develop that relationship and deepen that commitment. We have been encouraged to see meditation or brooding or contemplation as a way of bringing ourselves into the presence of God. We have been shown why God wants us to praise him and we have learned to consider having God do a spiritual checkup on us. Today we are going to explore the petitionary aspect of prayer and look at the key truths we need to keep in mind about human asking and divine answering. Now it is interesting that the Westminster Shorter Catechism – which is embraced by the Presbyterian Church – was written mainly by Anglicans but it is seen as one of the best documents to guide us in learning better praying. The first question to consider from that Catechism is: What is prayer? The answer is that prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies. The second question is: What rule has God given for our direction in prayer? The answer is that the whole word of God is of use to direct us in prayer; but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer. The Catechism then asks four questions that lead us through the Lord’s Prayer. The opening part of the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to draw near to God. We come as children to a father who is able and ready to help us. Then we are taught to pray that God would enable us, and others, to glorify him in every way that he is known. Third we are encouraged to pray that the kingdom of God’s grace may come and that we, and others, may be drawn into that kingdom. Finally we are to pray that God, by his grace, would make us able and willing to know and obey his will in all things as the angels do in heaven. Going beyond the Catechism, there are some other questions we can ask. First, what is it right to ask for in prayer? What is to be the scope and range of our petitions? Second, what should be the reason for our asking, that is, our motivation? Third, what is our reason for expecting God to answer our prayers? On what basis do we make our petitions? Fourth, how does God answer prayers? What should we expect when we make our petitions? But while we may ask these questions as we approach God in prayer, we need to ever remember that prayer is a two-way street. God will be asking his own questions about our asking: Why do you ask for this? How serious is the matter to you, and how deep does your concern go? Why do you think that what you are asking for is in line with my will? Would something other than the precise thing you now request satisfy you equally? Tell me. We expect as parents to question our children’s requests and so we can expect God to question our requests – not to deny them outright or to be vindictive but to come to appreciate our situation better and help us to learn to ask for what is really needed. So first: What should we ask for? Scripture tells us that whatever we ask of God in the name of Jesus, we shall receive; but the key element is not the actual ask but what informs the ask. Remember that Jesus sought to do the will of the Father. He even asked for the cup to be taken away from him – the cup being a metaphor for the life he was asked to live that would lead to death on the cross; yet if it was the will of the Father for him to drink the cup – complete the life he was called to live and the death he was called to die - then that would be Jesus’ prayer. That worked for Jesus but how do we formulate petitions according to God’s will? We are to follow the guidelines of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray for daily bread – sustenance for body; we pray for daily pardon – release from the sins that trouble our hearts and minds; and we pray for daily protection – God’s presence with us to keep our whole being from falling off the path. Now this may meet our needs but what about our petitions for others, especially when people ask us to pray for specific outcomes? First, we lay before God the reasons why we think that what we ask for is the best thing. Second, we are to tell God that if he wills something different then we will seek to understand how it is better, and it is that that we really want him to do. Second: Why should we ask? What is the motivation of our asking? The biblical perspective throughout is that, with God – the searcher of hearts – the inner realities of motivation, purpose and desire that prompt and energize our actions are just as important as the performance of the actions themselves. When our prayers become mechanical without focused thought, then our prayer is not from our heart. Remember that God assesses all our actions from the inside as well as the outside. The Lord’s Prayer was given not just that we might learn the words but that the spirit, the attitude of this model of prayer might also be appreciated and adopted as our spirit and attitude. Third: On what basis do we ask? What are our expectations in prayer and what is the basis for those expectations? What reasons do we have for expecting answers to our prayers? Packer uses the image of a 3-legged stool. The stool will stand if all the legs are equal. The first leg is our knowledge that God is now our Father by adoption and grace. We have become God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ. The second leg is the promises of God as set forth in Scripture. Let us remember, though, that the promises of God have more to do with spiritual development. We are to seek to become more like Christ and so we seek to grow in grace in order that we might truly understand and appreciate the promises of God. The third leg of the stool is purity of heart, our own purity of heart before the holy God to whom we pray. As was mentioned in a previous message, purity is not in the moral sense that we so often think of but rather in the sense of unity of focus – our God-centeredness. Our centeredness on God, our unity of focus will lead us in our prayers. Finally, how does God answer our prayers? The short and the long of it is that God always gives positive answers to our prayers; the prayers may be answered in the terms we outlined, in terms that differ from the ones we presented or we may be told to wait. Truly we are taught that we can expect answers to prayer and God will be faithful to answer; yet we also need to understand that the relationship we develop with God, our deepening knowledge of God and his will, our willingness to let God search us and change us will have a profound effect on not only what we ask for but what we expect of God. Take heart, be of good courage, pray both in and out of season and trust God! And never forget the words of Jesus: Ask and it shall be given unto you; knock and the door shall be opened; for everyone who asks receives, and every one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8) AMEN
Bible Text: Isaiah 50:4-10 and Mark 14:1-11 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Prayer Checkup As we enter Holy Week, it is appropriate that the subject of today’s message on praying is titled “Prayer Checkup”. We are all no doubt familiar with checkups in other aspects of our lives – particularly the importance of medical checkups; but spiritual checkups? Sounds like going to the confessional or having the minister visit and being expected to answer questions about our faith that we really might not feel comfortable discussing. Well, be assured, it involves neither of those things; although, it does involve examining our lives a little closer than perhaps we are used to – in the matter of our spiritual health. When we are challenged to let Scripture shape our lives, to examine our motives for hints of self-serving, and seek connection and/or correction from the living God, we are going through a spiritual checkup. Packer applies this to prayer specifically as prayer is the vehicle through which we engage with God in relationship and it is in and through this relationship that we seek for God to give us our checkup. The passage of Scripture which is the focus of this message is from Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (vv.23-24) As mentioned before, Packer is concerned more with the development of our relationship with God and how we view that relationship. Our actual prayers in words come from the ground we prepare as we enter into the presence of the One we call our Lord, our Friend, our Companion on the journey. And a vital part of that preparation is what he calls a “prayer checkup.” When we come to regard a spiritual checkup as a necessary spiritual discipline and give it its proper place in our lives, we will be more honest in our prayers. As we take ourselves to our doctor and expect that person to examine all aspects of our physical and mental health to help us discover areas of weakness that can be helped through medical treatment, we come to God and expect God to help us examine all aspects of our spiritual health to help us discover areas in our lives that God can help us with that we might become healthier in our spirits, our minds and our bodies. First God checks up on our faith. This happens when we ask ourselves questions such as: Do we trust God, do we trust Christ? Do we look out for and take careful note of God’s promises; do we rely on God to keep those promises? Does our faith bring us peace of heart – peace with God through forgiveness, peace with circumstances through leaning on the Lord, peace with people because through faith we love them? Does our faith hold up in crises or give way under pressure? Second God checks up on our repentance. Our repentance is not about regret and remorse for things gone wrong but a change of life that we are constantly seeking to make. We are to be serious about tracking down and turning away from all the false steps of our past. Remember the Iona Community interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer when we said: Forgive us what we owe to you, as we have also forgiven those who owe anything to us. We ask for forgiveness but we also ask for help to change. Third God checks up on our love. Love is the most basic command of God for life and the one that we all have the most difficulty with - whether it be love of neighbour or enemy or even self. Our checkup is a way to be more conscious of how we are seeking to express our love to God, our love to neighbour or stranger and even of how we are approaching the love of our own self - the person we are in God’s eyes. Fourth God checks up on our humility. Packer describes humility as honest realism and realistic honesty. Genuine humility comes from a desire in us to be Godward in direction and to let that mind that was in Christ Jesus – to quote Paul – be the same mind that is in us. When we invite God’s help in self-examination we will find ourselves asking questions such as: Am I able to joyfully perform tasks in my church that have little or no visibility? Do I regularly credit others for their contributions? Can I value and enjoy people who are not normally considered respectable? Are my thoughts toward the difficult people in my life infused with grace? Do I honour others with my thoughts, words and actions? As we learn to honestly say yes to questions like these, we are learning humility. Fifth God checks up on our wisdom. Time spent in reading the Scriptures, meditating on the words, and exploring the meaning of the Scriptures bring to us a depth of wisdom to help us find the way through this life, what life itself is meant to be and how to cope with life, its ups and downs. Wisdom helps us to form strategies, calculate consequences, channel passions, discern and avoid foolishness and cherish peace and harmony. Finally God checks up on our focus. When you really think about it, when we invite God to check up on our faith, our repentance, our love, our humility and our wisdom, we are inviting him to check up on our focus. How far have our faith, repentance, love humility and wisdom combined to make us clear-sighted about our goal in life and the priorities it brings. God wants us to discern whether we’ve got life together or whether, as yet, we haven’t. Probably the second is true for most of us but that doesn’t mean that we are done for. It just means that we need to keep trying, to keep being open to God’s checkup, to being open to trusting God to continue drawing us along the path. We began this message with Psalm 139: “Search me, O God.” The Psalmist knew that he needed God to check him out. He knew that he needed God to examine him so that he could become more aware of his spiritual health and his relationship to God, to himself and to others. The searching of God – the eternal physician – happens as the teachings found in the Scriptures impress themselves upon us and then the indwelling of the Holy Spirit carries those teachings to the depths of our being where they can help us to help ourselves. A prayer checkup will help us be more focused as we seek to come into the presence of our God and to engage our friend and Lord in honest meaningful conversation. So let us ask God to lead us in the way everlasting; let him search us that we may see what he sees and let him show us what needs to change for the health of our spirit and life. Let us invite God to examine our inner being, the part that no one else sees so we may be led into spiritual health finding our faith enlivened, our desire to follow God deepened and our prayer life strong and engaging. May we not hesitate to go with God! AMEN
Bible Text: Hebrews 5:1-10 and John 12:20-33 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Praying by J.I. Packer Over the last few weeks we have been following a path to prayer that the author says is more about a who-to than a how-to. But to get to that point where we are focused on the who-to we need some how-tos along the way. First he encouraged us to understand who is the God we want to pray to and then to understand that this is a God who does not just tell us who he is and what he can do but also a God who seeks to be in a real relationship to us. He wants to be a companion to us on this journey called life in general and our lives in particular. And he has chosen to reveal himself in three significant ways in order to help us gain an understanding of how we can relate to him – as a parent, as a visible companion in Jesus and as a spirit that can enter our hearts, minds and souls and bring us gifts of wisdom, peace, and hope. So when we make the choice to have God as our companion and friend on this journey, we come to understand that we will never again travel the path alone. But we also come to understand that we can become distracted and veer off the path that God desires us to follow. But while following those distractions and by-paths we learn that God is ever calling out to us to come back to the real path. With a patience beyond our imagining, he continues to call us until once again we find ourselves back on the way. All of this is really preparation for prayer because as we commit ourselves to being in a relationship with God, we are preparing to speak with God in a real and honest way and also preparing to listen to God speaking to us in a real and honest way. Remember that Packer said that a real friend does not respond to our wants and perceived needs simply because we believe them to be what we really need and want. A real friend understands the situation and the dynamics of our situation and responds in a way that shows a deep care and affection for us. A real friend wants the best for us even if the best may not seem like the best at the time. And if we really trust that friend, we will listen and accept what they say even if it is not what we want to hear. But we can become distracted and we can find ourselves not really listening – perhaps because we have already made up our mind as to what we really want or need and have closed ourselves off to having a conversation or dialogue with our friend. Prayer is so much more than just closing our eyes and going through the motions. Prayer is our dialogue with the one with whom we will have an eternal relationship. And so Packer encouraged us to consider brooding prayer or meditative prayer or contemplative prayer. He reminds us that meditation is as old as the creation of humanity and God ever encouraged people to meditate on his words and commandments. Finding our focus through brooding or meditative prayer is an opportunity to reflect on the Scriptures and begin to seek for a deeper understanding of what God has said to people throughout the ages. In this way we draw ourselves into a place where we not only better understand the one whom we are seeking to pray to but we also can begin to see more clearly the answers we need to the situations we face in our journey. And so we come to the next element on this exploration of prayer: praising. C.S. Lewis came to believe in God as an adult. Once he made the decision, prayer became a big part of his life pattern. But Lewis also had lots of questions. He wondered: why does God, the God of the Bible, the God of Christianity, call on us to praise him? He said,” we all despise the man who demands continual assurance of his own virtue, intelligence, or delightfulness.” Did God want praise so that he could feel good about himself? Is a prayer of praise an opener so that we can get to the stuff that matters to us? Lewis answered these questions in this way. We praise God not because God demands praise but because it is an expression of our gratitude for what God has done for us and in us. Praise is an active enjoyment of a renewed display of God’s active love. Our praise together in church as a body of God’s people is an expression of that gratitude corporately and helps to draw us into a deeper sense of the presence of God. Our prayers of praise help us to once again declare audibly who God is and also can remind us of how we have distanced ourselves from our God. Our praise of God is to become a discipline for us and part of our regular spiritual nourishment or diet. The discipline of offering praise to God helps us to stay focused and remember not only the nature of our relationship to God but also the difference that that relationship can make in our everyday lives. When we come together in a corporate body to worship, the discipline of prayer and praise become more regular and we come to depend on one another to be there so that we might be encouraged. Praising God in prayer also needs to be a part of our overall communication with God as it helps us to find the balance that a good diet always brings. Then we come to recognize that to give praise to God is a duty in the sense that we owe it to our friend and companion to never forget the benefits we have from our relationship and it also becomes a delight when we truly appreciate that relationship, the love, the grace, and the forgiveness. And now for the final answer as to why we give praise to God. We often say that we expect to be in heaven with God when this life is over. But when we get there, will we know what is expected of us? C.S. Lewis says that the praises we offer here, our times spent in corporate worship as well as our individual times of prayer are all preparation for us to be able to continue to praise God in heaven. We teach our children to read, to write, to take care of themselves in so many ways and encourage them to practice these things so that when they become adults, they can continue to take care of themselves. In a similar way, we are taught by the generations that precede us how to offer praise to God, how to sing praises to God, how to become disciplined in prayer, that we might know and never forget how to be a thankful people. I have mentioned many times the experience I had in Morrisburg back in the 1980s. A coming together of Christians who had chosen different expressions of faith and were in different worshiping communities of faith and yet could come together as one body to offer praise and prayer to God and encourage and support one another. That experience taught me much about the importance of praise as prayer and prayer as praise. It showed me that even in our diversity we could find unity when we chose to adopt the discipline and diet of praise to God. Clearly there are many elements to prayer and many things to learn and consider but above all may we remember this. Everything we do, everything we say is to be done to the glory of God and to the further development of our relationship to him both individually and corporately. AMEN