Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Praying through Lent

Sermon Notes for February 18, 2018 

Read Mark 1:9-15 and Psalm 25..

One of the biggest concerns I hear from people regarding their spiritual life is that they feel like they don't know how to pray. They don't know the right words, or they find it hard to come up with the right things to say and a lot of the time that means they just don't pray at all.

Now there is no one right way to pray: however you find to talk to God when you need to is a good way. But we all sometimes struggle to find words to express our feelings, or what to say to God when we are frustrated or hurt or sad or happy or anxious and any one of a thousand different feelings.

That's why God gave us the Psalms.

Reformer John Calvin called Psalms "the Anatomy of all the parts of the Soul" and observed that "There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn . . . all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are want to be agitated."

Or, as someone else noted, while the rest of the Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us. The Psalms provide us with a rich vocabulary for speaking to God about our souls. The Psalms show us how to pray when we feel lost. They are a prayer book in the middle of our Bible.

So for this Lenten season, we are going to be going through different types of Psalms - different types of prayers and talking about how to bring them into our own prayer life. For the longest times, Psalms were the prayers people used - many of them in song form. Many hymns are prayers set to music, which is why we sang Psalm 25 before I read it this morning.

For thousands of years faithful Israelites read, sung, and memorized the entire Psalter. Our Lord knew all 150 Psalms by heart and frequently quoted them in his own prayers. For generations stretching back to the dawn of the church, the Psalms have been the hymnbook of God's people. Indeed, until recently, being part of the church for any length of time meant regular and systematic exposure to the Psalms.

James L. Mays, says that in the Psalms, "you may find instruction about what God is like and how God deals with people and the world. You can learn about the human predicament and human possibilities in a world populated by the powerful and the lowly, the wicked and the righteous. You can learn about the conduct of life and how that affects its outcome. You will be taught trust and the language of trust, prayer and praise."

While there are other prayers in the Bible, there is no other place where you have an entire course of theology in prayer form. There is no other place where you have every possible heart condition represented, along with the way to process that situation before God. Even the Lord's Prayer is more a summary of what we must pray, while the Psalms are a comprehensive program in how to pray it.

Scholars generally classify the psalms in three types: that of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.

Basically, the Psalms of orientation are about our relationship with God when it is good. Learning and trust, joy and worship, and obedience and satisfaction all fall under this group. The Psalms of disorientation are the ones where humans are lashing out in their brokenness. Anxiety, fear, shame, guilt, depression, anger, doubt, despair, all of them are covered in these Psalms

But after the disorientation, the psalms of reorientation portray reconciliation and redemption in prayers of repentance, songs of thanksgiving, and hymns of praise that exalt God for his saving deeds. These are also the ones that look forward to the Messiah when God will bring the entire world into God's kingdom.

In other words, no matter where you are at in your cycle of faith, you can find something that speaks to you in the Psalms.  Each week through Lent we will go through a different type of Psalm and look at how it is speaking to God, and what it means for our own prayers.

To begin with, we are looking at a classic Lenten prayer.  "To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God."    As we begin our journey to the cross, we echo what could have been the words of Jesus as Lent began for him.  As the opposition intensified and the accusations got nastier and his own sense of the weight of our sin increased and his need for divine guidance grew more desperate, Jesus may well have used this Psalm in one of his many times of prayer on the way to the cross.

As we read it, it becomes clear that the psalm is the testimony of one strong in faith: "Yes, you are God; yes, I trust you; yes, I am as sure as I can be that your ways are right."

But, because the psalmist is human, it follows this declaration of faith with: "but please, please don't disappoint me; please let me be right about you!" Here with the psalmist we come face-to-face with all that's at stake when we surrender ourselves in faith, even when that surrender is to the God whose gracious mercy we know so well. We have faith, but we can't help to be worried that we might be wrong.

This is also a Psalm about learning to follow our Lord better, which makes it perfect for the beginning of Lent. Repeatedly the Psalmist asks to be taught God's ways. "Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths" (verse 4). "Lead me in your truth, and teach me" (verse 5). "God instructs sinners in the way…and teaches the humble" (verses 5-6). To know about God is a starting point, but the Psalmist wants something more. The Psalmist wants to be with God, to walk in God's path.

We pray as we begin this journey to the cross that our own walk with God might be deepened and strengthed, that we too might be shown the rigth path to walk. The right ways to follow.

I want to finish by reading some of today's psalm again, but this time in Eugene Peterson's paraphrase "The Message." Listen to this psalm translated into more familiar words and see if it speaks to you today.

 My head is high, God, held high; I'm looking to you, God; No hangdog skulking for me. I've thrown in my lot with you; You won't embarrass me, will you? Or let my enemies get the best of me?

Show me how you work, God; School me in your ways. Take me by the hand; Lead me down the path of truth. You are my Savior, aren't you? Mark the milestones of your mercy and love, God; Rebuild the ancient landmarks!

Forget that I sowed wild oats; Mark me with your sign of love. Plan only the best for me, God! God is fair and just; He corrects the misdirected, Sends them in the right direction. He gives the rejects his hand, And leads them step-by-step.

From now on every road you travel Will take you to God. Follow the Covenant signs; Read the charted directions. Keep up your reputation, God; Forgive my bad life; It's been a very bad life.

Look at me and help me! I'm all alone and in big trouble. My heart and kidneys are fighting each other; Call a truce to this civil war. Take a hard look at my life of hard labor, Then lift this ton of sin.

Keep watch over me and keep me out of trouble; Don't let me down when I run to you. Use all your skill to put me together; I wait to see your finished product. Amen.