By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Sunday 24 July, 2016
St Ninians & St Chads Church, Maylands
It is easy to feel we have no need of God when life is going well. When we think we have all that we need and most of what we would like, we also think we can deal with everything in our own strength. This being so, we do not need anyone else. However, life experience tells us that it is easy to keel over or become side tracked, and then what? We need something to keep us going, so we have to find some way to convince ourselves that all is well. We have to look for supports outside of ourselves. Without God these are likely to be drink, drugs, chasing pleasure or even getting an adrenalin rush through pursuing extreme sports. These things take us out of this world into a new reality that is preferable to the old reality. The danger is that it can become addictive.
Today’s readings tell us that we are not self-sufficient and as the Collect for Lent 3 reminds us, ‘we have no power within ourselves to help ourselves’. By that is meant we have no power in ourselves to achieve our salvation. We need God and there can be no substitutes for him, so it is vital for Christians to grow into a deep relationship with him.
The first reading about Abraham follows on from last week’s reading where we heard that Abraham had offered hospitality to the three angelic figures who announced he would become a great nation. Today’s reading seems to be about Abraham pleading with God on behalf of any righteous persons in Sodom and Gomorra. Abraham seems to be the voice of compassion while God seems to be a God who punishes the righteous as well as the unrighteous.
There is much more going on in this dialogue than meets the eye, and the key to understanding it lies in verses 17-19 of chapter 18. In these verses God soliloquises about whether he should tell Abraham what his plan of salvation is, or whether he should let Abraham discover it for himself. God chooses to let Abraham discover for himself what God’s justice is about and so we have what seems to be a game of bargaining between God and Abraham. Would God destroy the cities if 50 righteous people were found, then 45, 30, 20 and finally 10? The answer is that he wouldn’t.
So here we see something of who God is. He takes the initiative, and then waits for a response. Only when that response is given, does God make the next step clear. There are numerous examples in Scripture where God does this, and it is no different today. God invites us to de true disciples and apostles, i.e. to undertake some form of ministry. He waits for a response. If we say, ‘what do you want me to do?’ we are saying tell me first and then I’ll let you know whether I will do it. God is waiting for us to say ‘Yes’, before he lets us know what it is. There is a subtle, but vital difference between these two responses. God behaves like this, not to play cat and mouse with us, but to draw us into a deeper relationship with him.
And this same learning curve is demonstrated in Luke’s version of the story of Jesus teaching his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus’ disciples had witnessed him praying numerous times, so they did what students of Jewish Rabbis did. They asked him to teach them how to pray. The answer Jesus gave was a completely new understanding of prayer because it presumed a different understanding of our relationship with God than the one that the rabbis taught.
Jesus didn’t provide a manual on how to pray, or provide them with a set of techniques. A young theological student once asked a monk which prayer technique he found most helpful. The monk told him that he didn’t know about techniques, he just went into chapel, knelt down and hoped for the best.
Jesus taught his disciples to have a conversation with God their Father. They were to pray for daily bread, forgiveness, victory over temptation, the gift of the Spirit and the completion of the Kingdom of God. For Jesus, prayer is having a conversation with the Father which is a natural part of his relationship with him. Any leader in the Christian community must be a person of prayer, for if not, the community will flounder. In his book on the Mega-Churches like Hillsong or Riverview, Oz Guinness quotes a Japanese businessman who said, “Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader I meet a manager.
Prayer is part of our relationship with God that helps to shape that relationship.
Our relationships with other human beings cannot deepen if we only meet in formal encounters, or our meetings are rare. Our relationship with God cannot develop if our prayer life is contrived, or made to fit into the Sunday worship slot in our lives. We have to work on our relationship with God and that means we have to be real. At times, we need to pray with others in the formal liturgies of the Church. At other times we need to have our private conversation with God, and at times we just need to be silent in each other’s presence. Our relationship will not deepen if we only share with God the nice things or what we think he would like to hear.
It certainly will not deepen if all we do is ask for things we want or need to be fixed. Be real in prayer. Jesus protested on the Cross when he cried out, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ The prophets and psalmists were very open when they approached God, and if you have ever read the Don Camillo stories, you will be familiar with the parish priest who used to shout, argue and plead with God as he gazed at the crucifix.
Be persistent in prayer, just as we have to be persistent in our human relationships. God will answer prayer but not always in the way we want. We have also to be careful what we pray for because we might get it! Don’t make your prayer life artificial. Human relationships that are like plastic never blossom, neither will our relationship with God.
Abraham challenged God and discovered that God’s justice must be our justice. Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer that God’s forgiveness must be our forgiveness. God’s love must be our love. These are fine sounding words but they are easily turned into empty shells.
Despite what the world may think, there are no substitutes for God. St Paul tells the Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God and we must keep our eyes on him.
In our Western world meditation schools, relaxation tapes and techniques to release our inner power surround us. But who is the focus of these programmes? It is ourselves, so we become our own god. The focus must be on God if prayer and meditation are to be Christian.
So prayer is part of our relationship with God, and unlike in our human relationships, we can be certain that God loves us and wants nothing more than for us to love him in return.