JUNE 12, 2016, THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

CREATION: from BEGINNING TO END

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

Lections:  Daniel 12: 1-13; Rom 8:26b-28; John 1:1-14

 

Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear us, and unto whom you have given a hearty desire to pray; grant that by your mighty aid we may be defended; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our prayer is drawn from the collects in the Sacramentary of Gregory and included in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, from 1532 – 1555. The 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer added a final clause, so the 18th century form John Wesley was familiar with went like this:

Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to hear us, and grant that we, to whom thou hast given an hearty desire to pray, may by thy mighty aid be defended and be comforted in all dangers and adversities, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The collect is notable for making explicit “the one assumption that all the Collects” make: “that prayers exist because we desire to pray them!”[i]  

The assumption is warranted.  Prayers are “good” and “desirable” because they are addressed to God, the creator and ruler of all.  We want to be talking with God.  We want to be loved and to love.  We want to help others, and we want our troubles eased. We want an advocate; we want to be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities.  We want to be praying.

And still, we hold back.  We reach for the extra handful of snack nuts, one more beer, a sweater, our phone, the keys to the car; we are always aiming to get what we want, and to satisfy our desires, even as we put off prayer. So why is this?

A lot of what passes for prayer is not prayer, so maybe we get hung up on ideas about prayer.  Today’s prayer, we can hear, is short; our version, translated from the Latin, is only 34 words long.  The Sacramentary of Gregory, from which it is taken, dates back to the early the 7th century.  That’s less than two and a half words for every hundred years of use, not counting the extra 8 words added on in the 17th century, after the Puritans took over the English Parliament, lopped off the heads belonging to Archbishop William Laud and King Charles I, and introduced so much disorder into the country over a period of 20 years that Charles II had to be recovered and installed on the very throne his father had been taken from: “To be comforted in all dangers and adversities” is no slight matter.

To talk to God, to listen to God, to join our voices with the heavenly choir and all the saints of heaven, to ask for what we want:  this can be done with the slightest of vocabularies, with barely a nod toward sounding out words.  The old service books are a treasury of prayers that have been used century after century; they are, for the most part, lovely, well-structured, and brief.  They bear repeated use, and by praying these prayers, we discover desires worthy of expression, and worthy of the God we address them to.

Today I want to reflect upon the character of God, and I have chosen our readings with this in mind.  Specifically, I want us to call to mind who we are praying to when we desire to pray.

The passage from Romans says a lot about God’s character.  Let me mention first, though, that people all over the world are praying, while Paul instructs us, no one knows how to pray.  Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer, but we have since used many others.  To help us with these prayers, Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit, who prays with us.  Paul writes,

We do not know how to pray as we should,

but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;

and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is,

because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good

to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.[ii]

God is purposeful; our lives are not meaningless; we are not random, momentary indentations in a gravitational field of waves and particles.  We are caused, and we work; we function the way we are intended to, the way we are designed to work, not at odds with everything else, but together with all things:  for good/ to those who love God.  A lover of God shares reality with the ignorers of God and the haters of God, but the lover of God sees all things working together for good, and the ignorers of God and the haters of God don’t see this.  God causes all things to work/ together for good/ to those who love God.

We can know for certain – by grace, through faith –the God we pray to. We can know for certain that God lovers are called/ according to His purpose.  We understand ‘being called.’ We are called to dinner, we are called in from playgrounds or the barn, we are called by our children, called to the phone, the door, and every time we are called, we have a choice: a response is called for. Sometimes we ignore the call, we don’t answer the phone, we don’t go in for dinner, but if we get in the habit of responding the way we are intended to respond, then we are getting basic training in how to live our lives responding to the way God designed us to work.

Here we should consider how prayer fits into this design. Paul says,

We do not know how to pray as we should,

but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;

and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is,

because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Paul says “Not knowing how to pray is ‘weakness’” so God gives us his strength – the strength of his Spirit – to pray for us. When God “searches our heart,” he’s not looking for us; he’s looking for his Spirit, to discover his mind – its disposition – for accomplishing his will.

This is how “God causes all things to work together for good.”  There is an engine of prayer in our heart, an unceasing prayer, that is the Spirit of God at work. The Spirit takes our prayers, framed by our weakness and ignorance, and offers them to God as desire that his will, not ours, be done.  In this way our acts and our very likeness are conformed to God’s will and purpose. God flexes his sovereign muscle through our prayers.

The Spirit is not verbose; the Spirit within prays at the verge of language, “with groanings too deep for words.” Paul says, “the whole creation has been groaning.”  Through this groaning, this prayer, creation brightens its goodness and anticipates our Christ-likeness.

The readings from Daniel Chapter 12 and The Gospel according to John, Chapter 1, further illustrate the character of God.  Daniel has a vision of end things, while John recounts creation.  Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of all things, and we become Christ-like by responding with love to the love he has shown for us. Daniel’s vision occurs between heaven and earth, which is where we find reality. Daniel sees the Archangel Michael and hears about “the wrath to come,” which is a time of extreme distress for God’s people, not unlike the Commonwealth of England.  Daniel’s vision of the final Resurrection is noteworthy for its clarity:

“At that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book [of truth] will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

Even angels are astonished by Daniel’s picture of the Resurrection, so naturally they want to know when its events will take place.  The displacement of good by evil is a dimension of the abiding reality of all things, even the angelic order, which is why we plead to God, “by your mighty aid we may be defended.”

Daniel likens Resurrection’s judgment to a court proceeding, during which “many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase.” Knowledge by itself, however, will not comfort us, because knowledge is double-edged: the knowledge of conviction, and the knowledge of salvation.  In Daniel’s vision, he recalls the words of the prophet Amos:

Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land— not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).

We recognize the horror being described, because we know from personal experience the dread that arises from having made an irrevocable mistake:  the sinking feeling that comes from knowing that our act is ‘sealed’ and we have no hope of escaping its consequences.  Our comfort comes, not from knowledge, but from Jesus; even when we have done the unthinkable, we have our hope from Jesus, the Son of God, who has promised in those days of distress to advocate for us, and has sent even now his Spirit to abide in our heart, to teach and to remember for us, and to intercede for us with constant prayers.  Like Daniel, we are meant to go our way, trusting the insight of the Spirit to guide us.

The beginning verses of John’s Gospel are the counterpart to Daniel’s vision:

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) Jesus reveals the character of God as no one else can, because the Son has seen the Father, and “He has explained Him.” John says, “Grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ,” and “of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.” 

The creative act of God, the bringing into being all things, time and space and the stars, black holes and the planets, oceans and clouds, soil and rocks, sparrows and hawks and deer, trees and grasses, rivers and mountains, family and neighbors and strangers, all these things the lover of God sees working together for good: In God was life, John says, “and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”  The ignorers of God and the haters of God do not see that creation is good.

The engine of prayer in our hearts is God’s mighty aid, by which we are defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities, and through which we shall obtain Christ-likeness and be perfected.  The Spirit prays without ceasing in the hearts of the lovers of God. His is a frictionless prayer, a silent prayer, a prayer of groanings attuned with the desire and purpose of all creation.  Let us rejoice and be glad, for God is good.  Amen.

 

[i] Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer,75

[ii] Romans 8:26b-28

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