Prayer

I want to begin this post by asking you a question…what does prayer mean to you?  This isn’t a test, but just think what your answer is to that question…what does prayer mean to you?

It seems clear from the Bible that prayer can be very different in both content and character.  There is tremendous scope for creativity in prayer, and that is a creativity that comes from knowing God’s heart.

We can all become disheartened in our walk of faith and in our prayer life.  We can all enter into wilderness periods that seem very dry and very bleak, times perhaps when God might seem to be very far away.

But I want to share with you today some aspects of prayer which may fit with some of the things that prayer means to you. For me prayer is many things:

  1. A declaration of truth
  2. At the heart of relationship and intimacy
  3. Knowing God’s heart
  4. A lifeline to the Lord
  5. A vehicle for confession
  6. Worship & praise
  7. A way to restore balance through humility
  8. Drawing close to the Lord
  9. A request for God to act from an open hand of need and hope
  10. Intercession; a desire to gain God’s intervention in a specific situation
  11. Joyful and continuous (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Prayer is interwoven with faith, hope and love. We pray in faith, we pray in hope, we pray in love.  We pray to be in relationship with God.  Even if God knows our thoughts from afar, we must put effort into maintaining that relationship with him.

Jesus is the foundation stone or heart of discipleship. He is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2) His practice in prayer was:

  • in secret, away from the crowds (Luke 5:15-16)
  • in conflict, anticipating his death (John 12:27-28)
  • in thanksgiving, upon return of the 72 (Luke 10:21)
  • in intercession, for the disciples (John 17:6-19)
  • in communion, at the transfiguration (Luke 9:28)
  • in choices, choosing the disciples (Luke 6:12-16)

Don’t you think it exciting that even Jesus as God still needed to pray; and that should speak volumes to us?

It is sometimes said that there are three answers to prayer…yes, no or not yet. We like the yes, we don’t like the no and we struggle with the not yet. But how do we deal with what we consider to be unanswered prayer? When we pray, is our heart’s desire to do God’s will, or do we have our own private agenda? What is it that really matters – that God’s will be done? As Christians we can struggle with unanswered prayer, but we have to try to understand why our prayers can remain unanswered:

  1. We ask with the wrong motives (James 4:3)
  2. We are not in obedience to God (1 John 3:22)
  3. We are not praying in faith (Matthew 21:22, John 16:24, Matthew 17:14-22)
  4. We pray in complacency (Proverbs 1:32)
  5. God answers in a way that we do not expect or understand (Isaiah 55:8)
  6. We do not listen (James 1:19)
  7. We have forgotten that prayer is two way!!
  8. We give up too easily

And on that last point we come to our reading where Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. When we face resistance and obstacles in prayer, we should not give up. And notice how Jesus didn’t simply say don’t give up. He also said always pray. Or as Paul later goes on to say in the New Testament “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1Thessalonians 5:16-18) Other translations use “pray without ceasing”.

Jewish custom and practice at that time was that it was considered best to pray three times a day so as not to weary God! But to pray without ceasing and not give up does not mean an endless monologue, but keeping our prayer requests constantly before God as we journey through each day, believing he will answer. When we sleep at night our vital body functions persist…it is how we are hard wired. We continue to breath even when we are asleep…and that is how our prayer should be, as natural as breathing. We are hard wired to be in relationship with God too.

We are told in Scripture to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-8), which concerns our personal and intimate prayer lives with God. Yet we are also told in Scripture the importance of corporate prayer (Matthew 18:19-20). We must also remember to put on the “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (Ephesians 6:10-20)

If we know God, and we know the heart of God – through his Son Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit – we would never ask for anything in prayer that is out of kilter with God’s right and holy way. And when we are in that depth of relationship with God, as children of God, we begin to realise what covenant is all about which was mentioned in our first reading. And in that covenant, God says “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

That is what Christ has accomplished. That we may come before a Heavenly Father, our Heavenly Father, in faith, hope and love. So don’t give up, may your prayers be as natural to you as breathing, and may you be led into a deeper relationship with Him.Amen

Watching life go by

Picture the scene: imagine a nation living under an oppressive regime.  Sadly it’s not too hard to do that these days – we only need to think of what conditions were like in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, in Libya under Gaddafi, or currently in Syria under Assad.   There are many other countries too with appalling records for having a repressive society.  I am sure we all are aware of other countries where human rights are violated all the time. 

When we think about what it was like in Israel at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry we have to remember that at that time the Israelites were living with the reality of Roman rule and oppression.  The Jewish people often say “there is nothing new under the sun.”  There have always been oppressive regimes; sadly, there probably always will be.  And so in Israel, there were real tensions and discontent amongst the people; much like there has been in the countries I mentioned earlier. 

The people were desperate to be liberated; they were desperate for someone to come and raise up in revolt against the Romans.  They believed that God would send them a revolutionary to lead them to freedom…and the title they had for such a person was the Messiah.

I wonder, if you were expecting some great liberator to come, especially one sent by God, where would you expect them to come from and who might you expect them to be?  And this brings us to our reading today in which we learn about the calling of Nathaniel. 

We don’t know a great deal about him except that he was from Cana in Galilee. It was in Cana that Jesus did his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding feast.  Nathaniel’s name means “gift of God”, although as a disciple he is often referred to as Bartholomew.  He, like so many others, was sceptical of the thought of a Messiah or Saviour coming from Nazareth.  Nazareth was one of those backwater villages with a population of less than 200, and it was hard for anyone to imagine that the Saviour of the World could possibly come from such a place.  We know that Jesus spent his boyhood years in Nazareth before beginning his earthly ministry when he was about 30.  After moving his home to Capernaum, Jesus returned to teach in the synagogue of Nazareth twice more, but was rejected both times by the people.  On one occasion the townspeople were so outraged at Jesus that they tried to throw him off a cliff to his death.  Not exactly something that sells Nazareth as a place to us is it?

We are told that Nathaniel had been under a fig tree.   Such trees could be tall and provided fruit. But they also acted as shade from the blazing sun. The spreading branches and thick leaves were an ideal place of shade and shelter. It was a common occurrence for a person to sit in the shade of a fig tree to reflect, contemplate and to wrestle with the issues of life.  It was also a place from which Nathaniel could observe what was going on around him; he could see what Jesus was up to from a distance.  John in his writing makes us aware that Jesus makes reference to the fact that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. These may be a clear indication that Nathanael was troubled or conflicted; he had heard about Jesus of Nazareth and now he was able to see him for himself. Is he seeking guidance? Was Nathanael wrestling with the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah? Did he not believe whilst sitting under the fig tree? Is it because of this honest wrestling, this element of doubt that Jesus is able to say that Nathanael is a true son of Israel.

We can be just like that in life too; we find our “fig trees” in life where we can sit and observe what is going around us, where we can grapple with things and get our heads together.  I am sure you all have such special places.  And when we do grapple with things, and try and make sense of life and what is going on, it is reassuring to know that it isn’t wrong to doubt.  It is good to be honest with ourselves, to be real.  Real people have real doubts, real people are part of this wondrous mess that life can be sometimes, real people are people just like you and me.

We may not see Jesus standing right before us as Nathaniel did, but he is with us all the time.  When we have an encounter with Jesus, he often speaks right into our heart and shows that he knows us.  Like Nathaniel, we may find ourselves asking “How do you know me?”  But there is nothing about us that Jesus doesn’t know.  Whatever experiences we have had in life, there is nothing that Jesus doesn’t know.  And he comes and calls us because he loves us despite ourselves and he delivers the goods; he doesn’t let us down.

This place of meeting, this church building can be a place for all of us to sit and shelter from the pressures of everyday living. It can be a bit like an oasis in the desert.  This isn’t simply my church – it is our church, the church of this parish.    Here we are offered that space, safety and opportunity to consider the questions of life; and I’m not talking about the little questions like what colour socks should I put on today, I am talking about us trying to make sense of why we are here, what does our future have in store for us?  Jesus longs to engage with all of us, those of us who are sitting under a fig tree or in a church or wherever.

You may be feeling like Nathanael with doubts and questions whether you are here for the first time or if you are regular member of the congregation. But I tell you this; if you are looking for answers, I truly believe you are in the right place.  You are in a place of prayer, a place of healing, a place of forgiveness, a place of love and a place in which you are valued beyond measure.

Nathaniel got it.  He said to Jesus “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”  As we think about Nathaniel’s response, and how we may have been sitting under our fig trees watching life go by and trying to make sense of it all…no matter where you are in your life right now, I offer you an invitation.  Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes to pray.  If you would like to respond to Jesus maybe for the first time or even to recommit yourself to him now I invite you to simply raise your hand.  No one else will know.  And then I will pray a prayer and we can make it our prayer together:

Lord Jesus Christ,

I know that I have sinned

and done things that have hurt you.

 I am willing to turn away

from what is wrong in my life.

I want to go where you lead in the future.

Thank you for dying on the cross

so that I might be forgiven.

Come into my life this day;

Come in as my Saviour and Lord:

Come in to be with me for ever.

Thank you Lord Jesus.

Amen.

Bread of Life

When I was a child I distinctly remember helping my Grandma to make bread.  I think the memory is so clear because making and baking bread engages so many of the senses.  As a child we sometimes want to show that we are responsible and helpful, so having helped to measure out the flour and prepare the yeast, I offered to knead the dough.  Already coated in flour, there I was up to my elbows in the dough and before too long I got tired and then my Grandma with a loving smile on her face took over.  She made it look easy.  She knew it would be too much for me to do, but there was still something special in that shared moment.  The joy of simply being together.  This part of preparing the bread dough engaged my sense of touch and judging by the look of me at the time, a sense of sight too.  Once the bread dough had been prepared, and allowed to rise, we could put the dough into the bread tins and pop them in the oven.  Freshly baked bread.  You really can’t beat the taste or the smell.  It is a delicious aroma.

Nowadays of course, you don’t tend to see people baking their own bread as often although some people have bread machines that take all the hard work out of the process.  More often than not it will be a loaf bought from the supermarket or local convenience store and even if you do decide to buy one of their shop made loaves they still tend to be full of flour improvers and simply don’t have that taste or texture of home baked bread.  And of course, whether it is home baked or shop bought, it doesn’t last.  For bread to be at its best, it has to be fresh. 

This was certainly the case with the manna that God provided for the Israelites.  In Exodus, we are told that “the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.  On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” (Exodus 16:4-5)  The Israelites were only to gather as much as they needed for that day.  The manna was provided to deal with an immediate and not an eternal need, and to teach the Israelites to trust in God.  “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Despite the instruction from God and Moses, the Israelites tried to store up more than one days supply of manna.  But of course it went off, it perished.  Their focus had shifted from God to their physical needs. Despite all that God had done for them they sinned still more against him; they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power.  They didn’t think that God who had delivered them and provided for all of their needs would and could provide for them.  And perhaps even still worse, what God provide for them wasn’t enough.  God offered them the world and it still wasn’t enough.  God provided for their needs, not their selfish wants.

The people in our Gospel reading were no different.  Basically they were materialists. Their real interest in Jesus lies in his feeding their bellies, so that they no longer had to work for their food. They became so obsessed with the material world that they were not able to see that the true blessing which God is offering them is not on that level at all. God provides the food that endures to eternal life, the gift of the Son of Man whom God himself has affirmed—on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.  Jesus’ confrontation provokes them to ask what it is that God wants them to do. Jesus points them to the true food, faith and trust in the one he has sent.

One of the prayers that we say most often is the Lord’s Prayer.  This amazing prayer is beautiful, complete, but also incredibly challenging.  And it contains the words “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is something that we can appreciate in so many different ways.  If you translate this expression literally, it means “give us tomorrow’s bread for today”.  This expression then looks forward to God’s ongoing and future provision; it looks beyond out immediate needs in the here and now.  We are expressing complete and utter reliance on God, and not just physically but spiritually. 

Our Bible reading from this morning includes many references to bread and as we know from earlier in this chapter from John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us in one of his seven “I am” statements that He is the Bread of Life.  This is something that is clearly very very important because Jesus says it loads of times in this chapter. What though does it mean for Jesus to be the Bread of Life?

Jesus as the Bread of Life is radically different to the manna that the forefathers of the Jews ate.  This morning’s Gospel reading tells us that he who feeds on the bread of life will live forever.  Jesus tells the crowd not to work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life (John 6:27).  In Isaiah (Isaiah 55:2), listening to the word of the Lord is likened to eating bread.  Jesus is the Word of God in flesh.  The Word of God is the bread of life.

Even some of Jesus’ followers found this hard to accept.  Not his core of disciples – the Twelve, but some of those on the fringe who turned back and no longer followed him.

All of these strands can be drawn together in the Eucharist.  In the Eucharist we remember the sacrifice that Christ made for us – we break the bread to share in the one body of Christ, and we receive his body which he gave for us.  We feed on him in our hearts and with thanksgiving.  Taste and see that the Lord is good. In Word and Sacrament we are transformed and enabled to choose, to act and to persevere in living the truth of Christ.  Jesus is the Bread of Life who will never perish…there is always that freshness, that very aroma of Christ.  We are reminded of God’s provision, and in participating in the Eucharist we are reminded that we are nothing more than beggars showing other beggars where to find the bread.

It’s very interesting that there is no account in John’s Gospel of Jesus instituting Communion at the Last Supper.  Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels) all carry accounts of Jesus taking bread and wine, giving thanks for it and giving it to his disciples and telling them to eat and drink in remembrance of him.

But John chooses to omit this great event, recording instead Jesus ‘bread’ comments here in this chapter.  Why?  It may be that John wanted to make the point that Christians don’t just feed on Christ at the Communion, but continually in their hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

Hence the useful reminder in our Communion service to “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving.”

So, perhaps as we come to celebrate Harvest this year, we might do so, not just in thankfulness for the material blessings God has given us – great though these are, but also with thankfulness that God has given us so many spiritual blessings too.

For as he feeds us with wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart (Psalm 104.15) so he feeds us with the food that endures to eternal life (John 6.27)

So when we ask ourselves the question “To whom shall we go?” we should look to Jesus Christ who has the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that he is the Holy One of God.

Have you ever wondered why the liturgy we use in the Church of England is so important?  It helps us to remember, it is a declaration of truth, it is a statement of faith and worship.  It helps us to remind ourselves every week of God’s gracious provision and plan.  It helps us to trust and experience something of God’s constancy, and stability.  It helps us to try and stop history repeating itself.

As we break bread together today, let’s take time in the beauty of the space and silence after we have received to remember…let’s remember together that Jesus is the Bread of Life…Jesus can provide for all of our needs.  Let’s renew our trust in him and come to the foot of the cross together and say “Lord, I believe help my unbelief”.