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Power in Prayer

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 16, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.   Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:   And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.   Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.   Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.  And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.  (James 5:13-18) 

Not long after I started preaching, I began reading biographies of great preachers and missionaries of the past.  I enjoyed reading about all the wonderful things they did for the Lord, but I was particularly drawn to those biographies about Christians who had the reputation for being mighty in prayer.  I read of the way God answered their prayers in such remarkable ways.  I read about how John Wesley and George Whitefield spent so much time in prayer.  I read about the prayer-filled lives of people such as David Brainerd, Edward Payson, known as “Praying Payson of Portland.”  I read of the amazing prayer lives of people such as John Hyde (“Praying Hyde”), George Mueller, and Rees Howells.    Then, later in life I discovered the biographies of those before the Reformation who were known for their great prayer lives.  I read of all the desert saints and how they withdrew from the world to give themselves totally to prayer.  I read of those who entered very strict monasteries so that they could devote their entire lives to prayer.  I read of Eastern Orthodox saints who lived either in monasteries or as hermits in the forest so that they could do nothing but pray.

If you read enough of those kinds of books, you may begin to develop an idea that the secret to success in prayer is simply time.    It seemed to me that the more time you spend in prayer, the more likely it is that your prayers will be answered, and the more likely it will be that you will see the miraculous begin to happen.  In the early days of my ministry, I wasn’t seeing these great and wonderful works, so I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t spending enough time in prayer.  I read somewhere that John Wesley used to get up at 4:00 A. M. and spend four hours in prayer before he began to do anything else.    So, I started getting up at 4:00 A. M. to pray,  and the result was that it made me too sleepy to do any of my other ministerial duties during the day.    Still throughout my life, and this may be true of you as well, I had these nagging doubts that my prayers were not powerful with God simply because I didn’t spend enough time in prayer.  You may begin to think that the ordinary Christian, the one who has to go to work every day, the mother who has to take care of a husband and children and tend to all the other duties that she may have to do, will never really be mighty in prayer because they will never have the time that is necessary to devote to prayer.

If God has called a person to spend a great deal of time in prayer, and the circumstances of life permit them to do so, there is nothing wrong with  such a life of devtion.  We find instances in Scripture where our Lord continued all night in prayer, but that doesn’t seem to have been a normal occurrence.  We find people like Anna, a widow, who had the time to serve God day and night with prayers.  But when you go through Scripture, do you really find many instances of people who on a daily basis set aside these huge blocks of time for prayer?    Most of the people in the Bible were people like you and me.   They had jobs, and they had numerous other responsibilities that took up most of their days and nights.  There is no command in Scripture that says you must spend at least four hours a day, withdrawn from the world, praying in your closet.   There is no threat that if you do not spend that much time locked away in prayer, your supplications will not be heard.

In this epistle, James writes about prayer, and he is especially concerned about praying for the sick.    In the context of talking about praying for the sick, he makes a statement about prayer in general.  He says that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much, or as the New International Version has it, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”  James doesn’t say that the prayer of a person who spends at least four hours a day in prayer is powerful and effective.  Such prayers may be powerful, but if they are, it is not because there is some kind of reward from God for having spent that much time in prayer.  God is not saying, “Well, I see you spent your four hours in prayer.  That’s pretty impressive.  I guess I’ll have to give you what you want.”  There is no time requirement.  We simply read that the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

I hope to encourage you by showing that you can be mighty in prayer.  As a matter of fact, if you are a Christian, whether you realize it or not, you are already mighty in prayer.  You can see God answer your prayers in amazing ways even though you don’t spend a great deal of time alone in prayer.  You may be looking at me and asking, “If it’s not the amount of time in prayer that is the secret of success, then what is?  I don’t seem to see God answer my prayers in the same way that some of these people you mentioned did, so if it’s not time, then I must not be fulfilling some other qualification to be mighty in prayer.”

Trying to find the answer to such questions, we look at James 5:16 and we see that word “fervent.”  James says that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.  We tend to draw the conclusion, “That’s the problem.  I’m not fervent enough.”     So, we start trying to work up fervency.  We think the key to success is that our prayers have to show a great deal of emotion.  Have you ever been in a prayer meeting where you saw people trying to work up fervency?  Sometimes they try to work it up with music.   They think that if they get the music going loud enough, sentimental enough, get those emotions flowing, then the prayers will be fervent.  Sometimes people confuse fervency with loudness.  They think that if they pray loudly, they must be praying fervently.   In this attempt to get our prayers answered, we work on the fervency, maybe shed a few tears, and get up from our knees and say, “How was that Lord?  Was that fervent enough?”  We must think that the Lord shakes his head and says, “I don’t know.  That was pretty weak.  I’ve seen you more fervent at football games, so I don’t know if that amount of fervency you just showed measures up.”

There is nothing wrong with fervency in prayer.  As a matter of fact, when we read many of the prayers in the Bible, we see that they were often offered with great fervency and emotion.  There will be times, depending on the occasion, when your prayers may be accompanied with tears, and if you are in pain, either physically or mentally, you may pray loudly.  But the fervency will not arise because you deliberately tried to pray fervently.  Such fervency flows naturally from the emotions and circumstances of the moment.  Just as an aside, let me say something about our Book of Common Prayer.  Many people don’t think that we Anglicans pray fervently because we pray from a book.    First, we don’t pray only from a book.  We know how to pray extemporaneous prayers and cry out to God just like as other Christian does.  We know how to offer fervent prayers without a book, but we also know how to offer fervent prayers from the Prayer Book.    As a matter of fact, many Anglicans find that praying from the Prayer Book actually adds fervor to the prayers, rather than diminishing it, for we are liberated from having to search for words.  Furthermore, by using the Prayer Book we are assured that we are praying prayers that are in accordance with Scripture and the will of God.  As far as fervency goes, just get sick or have some crisis come into your life, and see if you can’t pray those prayers from the Prayer Book with fervency.    When you are in pain, physically or mentally, praying from the Prayer Book in no way diminishes fervency.  But whether we are praying from a book or praying our own words, we make a mistake when we equate fervency with strong, outward emotion.  A simple prayer, sincerely offered, with no great emotion, is still a fervent prayer.

I read a moment ago from the New International Version, and it translates this verse the way most modern translations have it. The word “fervent” does not modify the word prayer.  The word “fervent” is a word that simply means “working.”  It is the word from which we get our word “energy.”  Listen to these more modern translations:  “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (NIV).  “The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working” (ASV).    “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (ESV).    This word “fervent” does not describe you in the act of prayer.   Rather, it describes the power of the prayer as it is it working.   It is not you being fervent, but the result of the prayer that is fervent.  Let’s say you are praying for a sick person.  This verse does not say that you are fervently praying for a sick person.  It is saying that after you pray, the result of the prayer in the life of the person you prayed for will be fervent—it will work powerfully, energetically in that person.  Again, I am saying this to encourage you.  Don’t think that you have to get all worked up emotionally for your prayers to be answered.  God does not answer your prayers because you get sufficiently emotional.  Sincerity in prayer is fervency enough.

Then, you may ask, “What is the requirement that I need to meet so that I can see God answer my prayers in a mighty way.”  Let’s look again at what James said:  “The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”  You may think that the problem is that you are not righteous enough.   Before you draw that conclusion, let us examine what the Bible means when it speaks of a righteous person.   Does it mean that the person is sinless?  If the requirement for getting our prayers answered is that we must be sinless, then no one would ever have a prayer answered.  As we go through the Scriptures, we find God answering the prayers of his people, but were any of them perfect?  Were any of them sinless?  Did God answer the prayers of Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, Peter, and Paul because they were sinless?   We know that they were sinners as we all are.  We know that in the Biblical sense, we are made righteous only through faith in Jesus Christ.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then God has given you the righteousness of Christ.  You are considered a righteous person because of what Christ has done for you, not because of what you have done.  Of course, we need to be careful not to draw the dangerous conclusion that we can live in rebellion against God and still expect to have our prayers answered.  The Christian is someone who has received the righteousness of Christ by faith, and that person is striving to live in conformity with the commands of Christ.  Occasionally, he fails, but just because he fails does not mean he is not a righteous person.  In the Biblical sense, a righteous person is someone who has faith in Christ and is striving to live in obedience to Christ.   If you are a Christian, you are a righteous person,  and your prayers are powerful.

To clinch this argument, James uses the example of Elijah.  You are probably looking at me and saying, “If I had any hope of getting my prayers answered, you just destroyed it.   I thought I could be mighty in prayer, and now you tell me that the example I should look to is Elijah.  I’m no Elijah.  I mean, if you are going to encourage me to pray, couldn’t you pick somebody I could remotely resemble and say, ‘Well, if he got his prayers answered, maybe I can, too.’ But Elijah?  Forget it.  I’ll never be like Elijah.”  But James is making the point that that Elijah was no different than you.  Notice how James puts it:   “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain : and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.”  The New International Version has it, “Elijah was a man just like us.” The English Standard Version has it, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.”  The argument is that Elijah was just like you, and he prayed and stopped the rain for three and a half years.  That’s powerful praying, but it was done by a man no different than you.  Elijah was a good and righteous man, but he was not a sinless man.    Yes, it is true that Elijah could defeat 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, but when he hears that Jezebel is out to get him, he runs into the wilderness, sits under the juniper tree and says, “I’m the only good person left in the world.  Everybody else is an idolater.  Lord, just kill me.”  Does that sound like a perfect man of God?  It sounds like a little child full of self-pity, doesn’t it?  All these instances prove that Elijah was a man who sinned and had weaknesses just as we all do, but he could still get his prayers answered in a mighty way.  The same thing is true of all the other people in the Bible.  They had a nature just like ours.  They had failings and shortcomings, but God still answered their prayers.

The same thing is true of all those people you read about in the biographies I mentioned at the beginning of this message.  You have to be careful about  biographies about saints, because very often the biographers only tell you their good, godly qualities, but they don’t tell you of their failings.  You get the idea that they were perfect, and you say, “No wonder God answered their prayers.  They were so good.”  But I guarantee you that if you could go back in time and spend a week with these people, you would find that they were people with like passions as you.  If you could have spent a week with St. Francis of Assisi you would have been disillusioned, for you would have found that he too had his sins, his failings, and these great saints of the past would be the first to admit that to you.

You must get rid of this notion that maybe one day you will be good enough, one day you will be righteous enough, and then God will answer your prayers in a mighty way.  There’s a word for that kind of thinking—legalism.  In other words, you are thinking that God is going to answer your prayers as a reward for being so good.    Get that idea out of your head.  You are never going to be that good.  God does not answer our prayers because of our merits.  He answers our prayers out of his mercy.  He answers our prayers because we come to him through his Son.  Even our prayers have to be cleansed by our Mediator in order that they might be acceptable to God.    In our Communion service we pray, “We beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.”  The same thing is true of our prayers.  When we offer our prayers to God we say the same thing.  We say, “Don’t accept our prayers because of our merits.  We have no merits.   But pardon our offences and receive our prayers through Christ for what he has done.”  God answers our prayers because his Son is righteous, and we are in his Son.

I hope that today I have destroyed every excuse you have for believing that your prayers cannot be answered.  You should go away from this place believing that your prayers are a great force in this world.  There are no other requirements you need to fulfill.   You have been made righteous in Christ, and your prayers are powerful.  You may be asking, “If what you say is true, and I can have the same power in prayer as Elijah, why can’t I stop the rain for three and a half  years?”  Have you ever thought that perhaps God doesn’t want you to stop the rain for three and a half years?   I’m not saying that your prayers will be answered in the same way, with the same dramatic power that we find recorded in Scripture or in some of these biographies you read, but your prayers will accomplish what God wants your prayers to accomplish.  Keep praying.  Keep your Prayer Book handy.  Pray those prayers over and over again.  Pray for peace, for grace, for those in government, for clergy, for all sorts and conditions of men, for the church, for the unity of God’s people, for children, for the sick, and all the other many prayers that are in our Prayer Book.  And as you pray, believe.  Have faith that God will answer, for the prayer of a righteous person has great power in its working.  Amen.

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Persevering Prayer

A Sermon preached on December 24, 2008, by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;   Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:   And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.   And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;   Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.   And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith.   And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?  I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:1-8)

persevearanceprayerLooking ahead to the year 2009, we don’t know whether to approach the year with optimism or pessimism.  We could take a Pollyannaish attitude toward the future and think that this year will be filled with nothing but fun, games, happiness,  and the belief that all our dreams will come true and all our problems will be solved.    But we know, deep down inside, that this year will be like all others.  The joy and happiness we experience during 2009 will be mingled with its share of disappointments, disillusionments, disasters, and tragedies.   So, we could take the pessimistic attitude and see all of the dangers, wickedness, sin, and ungodliness around us and say that things are only going to get worse and worse.   One of my favorite websites is “despair.com,” a site that offers t-shirts, posters, and mugs that look on the dismal side of things.  One of my favorites is a poster that says, “It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch black.”   I also like the poster that has a salmon jumping into the mouth of a grizzly bear and the caption reads, “The journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very badly.”  I also like the poster of an iceberg that says underneath, “No matter how great and destructive your problems may seem now, remember, you’ve probably only seen the tip of them.”

                Should a Christian view the future with such a bleak attitude?  As we look at the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, do they lead us to be optimistic or pessimistic concerning the future?  In our text for this morning, we find one of those sayings of our Lord which seems to indicate a certain amount of pessimism concerning the future.  He has just taught them this parable, and then it seems in an almost hopeless gesture and attitude, he sadly shakes his head and says, “Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, shall he find faith on the earth.”  It seems as though our Lord is saying that when he comes, he is concerned that there might be no one left on earth who has faith.  But is that what our Lord was really saying?  Surely our Lord wasn’t saying that there is the possibility that there will be no believers in the world when he returns.  After all, we have many places in Scripture that tell us that there will be believers in the world when he comes again, and we will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  When our Lord says, “When the Son of man comes, shall he find faith on the earth,” he is not talking about faith in general, or saving faith in Christ.  From the time the Church was established until the end of time God will always have a people in this world who have believed in his Son.  The word “faith” in this context refers to a particular kind of faith, a faith that he has just described in this parable

                You know the parable well.  In Luke 18:1, we are told that Jesus tells this parable to show that his people should always pray, persevere in prayer, and never lose heart.  So, he tells the story of a widow who has some kind of adversary, some kind of enemy who has abused her in some way.  To get justice, she goes to a judge, an unjust judge who fears neither God nor man.  She pleads with this judge to hear her case and to punish her adversary.  At first the judge will not hear her, but she is persistent.  She will give him no rest, and finally, the unjust judge says, “All right, all right.  I don’t care one way or the other about this case, but you are about to worry me to death with all this continual nagging.”   So, he finally grants her request.

                What are we to make of this parable?  We have to be careful when dealing with parables because we may try to make one to one correspondences where none exist.  Is Jesus saying that God is an unjust judge?  Of course not.  The Bible teaches continually that God is the righteous judge of heaven and earth.  Is our Lord teaching us that we have to twist God’s arm and worry him to death until in a fit of exasperation he finally say, “All right. All right.  I’ll do it.  I’ll answer your prayer”?  Actually, the teaching of this parent is exactly the opposite of that interpretation.  The point of the parable is that God’s answers to our prayers are sometimes long in coming.  Notice what he says in verse 7:  “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”  God is not an unjust judge.  He will certainly avenge his elect, but he may bear long with them.  Though they cry day and night to him for a long, long time, he will eventually come to their rescue.    He will answer them speedily, but that speedy answer may be a long time in coming.  There seems to be a contradiction here, but we have to remember what St. Peter taught us in II Peter 3: 7-9:   “But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.   But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.   The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  We have to remember that God has existed from all eternity past.  When you look at the span of years in that perspective, the time from the resurrection of Christ until the present time has only been a few milliseconds in the mind of God.  To him, a thousand years is as a day.  From the way God looks at things, we haven’t made it two days sense the Ascension of Christ.  But to us, it seems a very long time.  In God’s perspective, his answer is on the way speedily.  What our Lord is teaching us here is that we must continue to pray, we must persevere in prayer even though, for us, there is a long delay in the answer to those prayers.  It is at this point that our Lord asks the question, “When the Son of man comes, shall he find faith on the earth?  This is not a pessimistic or an optimistic question.  It is a question which asks us to examine ourselves and ask ourselves, “Do we have the faith that will cause us to persevere in prayer even when the answer is long in coming?”  This is the faith that he is talking about here.  He is talking about the faith that continues to believe in God’s promises concerning prayer when we are seeing no results.  It’s so easy for us to become pessimistic, hopeless, and give up on praying when there is a long delay, but the point of this parable, and this question, is to make us persevere in prayer though God delays in answering our prayers.

                Why is persevering prayer such an important issue with our Lord?  It’s interesting that he doesn’t say, “Men ought always to preach, and not to faint,” although we certainly should.  He doesn’t say that we should always do good works, and not to faint, although we should not be weary in well-doing as the Apostle Paul says.    Why does our Lord place such emphasis on prayer.  You remember he already taught on this subject using another parable when he told about the man who went to the friend to borrow three loaves of bread.  What was the point of that parable?  Our Lord described the reaction of the friend in these words:  “Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.   And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.   For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Luke 11:8-10).  Once again our Lord says we must be importunate, that is persevering, insistent, in our praying.  The Apostle emphasized the same truth throughout his epistles.  In Ephesians 6:18, he writes, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.”  Notice those words, “praying always,” and “with all perseverance.”  In I Thess. 5:17, he tells us, “Pray without ceasing.”  Why is there so much emphasis on persevering in prayer?

                First, prayer is the most important weapon we have to accomplish the purposes of God in this world.    God does accomplish his will and purpose in this world, but he does it in response to the prayers of his people.    Sometimes we let our beliefs about predestination and providence confuse us concerning how God accomplishes his purposes in the world.  It is true that God has ordained whatever comes to pass, but it is also true that when God ordains to do something, he also ordains that he will do it in response to the prayers of his people.    God will save the lost, but he will do that in response to prayer.  God will edify, build up the church, but he will do so in response to prayer.  God will make his people holy, but he will do that in response to prayer.  God will strengthen our families, but he will do that only in response to the agonizing prayers of his saints.  God will overthrow the kingdoms of darkness in this world, but he will overthrow them through the prayers of his saints.

                     This morning I have included several quotations from the 19th century Methodist preacher E. M. Bounds on prayer.  Bounds wrote many books on prayer, and though I don’t always agree with him, he has some of the most wonderful thoughts concerning prayer.  For example, on this subject on the importance of persevering prayer, he wrote:

No insistence in the Scriptures is more pressing than prayer. No  exhortation is oftener reiterated, none is more hearty, none is more solemn and stirring, than to pray. No principle is more strongly and broadly declared than that which urges us to prayer. There is no duty  to which we are more strongly obliged than the obligation to pray.  There is no command more imperative and insistent than that of praying.   Art thou praying in everything without ceasing, in the closet, hidden from the eyes of men, and praying always and everywhere? That is the  personal, pertinent and all-important question for every soul.

Prayer is the most important weapon that we have.  Prayer is even more important than preaching, not that we should ever dispense with preaching.  We must always preach just as we always pray.  But preaching is lifeless, and it does not impart life if the preacher is not a man of prayer and if the members of the church are not bathing him in their own prayers day after day, week after week, year after year.  To quote Bounds again:

The preaching of the Word to a prayerless congregation falls at the very feet of the preacher. It has no traveling force; it stops because the atmosphere is cold, unsympathetic, unfavorable to its running to the hearts of men and women. Nothing is there to help it along. Just as some prayers never go above the head of him who prays, so the preaching of some preachers goes no farther than the front of the pulpit from   which it is delivered. It takes prayer in the pulpit and prayer in the pew to make preaching arresting, life-giving and soul-saving.

Sometimes you may leave here saying that I preached a cold and lifeless sermon.  Well, did you ever stop to consider that it may be your fault?  Did you spend the week in agonizing prayer, praying that God would use me in a powerful way?  Did you spend the week in praying that my preaching would transform the lives of all who hear me?  Did you spend the week in praying that God would send people to our church, and that when they came the sermon would be so powerful that their hearts would be melted before the mighty power of God’s word applied to their hearts by the Holy Spirit?  How important it is for the church to pray for the preaching of their pastor.

            Prayer is such an important activity that the Scripture teaches us that it is the most important duty of the pastor.   In these days, churches want their pastors to be businessmen, social activities directors, psychiatrists, and financial wizards.  Do you remember in Acts 6 when the office of deacon was instituted?  The church needed people to minister to the widows in the church.  In Acts 6:1-4, we read, “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.   Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.   But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.  The church pays the pastor a salary so that he can do two things—pray and preach?  Sounds like an easy job, doesn’t it?  If you only knew!  No one knows how difficult it is to give yourself to prayer and preaching until you try it, but notice that it is the most important task of the man of God to pray, because it is through preaching, bathed in prayer, that God works in the world.  It is in the prayer closet of the pastor where the battle for your soul is fought.  It is in the prayer closet of the pastor where the devil assaults him in order to keep him from this most important task, for the devil knows how powerful prayer is.

                      Prayer is the most important of all tasks.  Prayer is even more important than the reading of Holy Scripture, because we cannot understand the Holy Scriptures unless we pray and seek God’s guidance.  Many people study the Scriptures diligently and never come to the knowledge of the truth, simply because they do not read the Scriptures on their knees, submitting to the will of God as it is revealed in the pages of holy writ.  Prayer is more important than good works, for without prayer, good works can be nothing more than social work, benefiting neither the recipient nor the giver in a spiritual way.

So, we are encouraged by Christ and the Apostles to never lose heart, to never faint, to never give up on praying, because it is the most important weapon we have.

                    But the other reason Christ and his apostles emphasize persevering prayer is that prayer is the thing we give up on first as being a pointless activity, a waste of time.  What happens when we have been praying a while for something, and God delays in his answer?  We decide to give up on prayer and find another weapon.  The Church is very prone to give up in this way,  and has been doing it consistently for a long time now.  When God delayed to answer the prayers of his people to convert the lost, to bring the lost into our churches, we decided to adopt the ways of the world to bring them in.  Rather than pray and depend on God to bring in the people, we decided to offer entertaining worship services, short, light sermons, rock music, dance, choreography, food, games, and fun.   We have to confess that these methods worked.  We got the people in, but they didn’t come to know Christ, they didn’t come to worship God, they didn’t come to live a holy, spiritual life, and now we have this farce that people call the church filled with silly people who have no concern for the true things of God.  This is what happens when we leave prayer and devise our methods for reaching the world.

                    In America, the Church abandoned prayer because we detest delays.  We live in a time of instant gratification.  If God delays, as he often does, for his own reasons and purposes, then we turn to another method and use carnal weapons instead of the spiritual weapon of prayer.    But St. Paul reminds us in II Cor. 4:3-5:  “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh:   (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)   Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;  What are these weapons that are mighty through God, weapons so powerful that they can cast down every thing that sets up itself against God.  Well, it’s certainly not contemporary music, praise choruses, and church fairs and picnics.  The mighty weapons are prayer and the teaching of God’s word.

                    If you look at Luke 18 in the light of what I have just said, then you can see that our Lord’s haunting question is a good one.  When he comes, will he find that we are still using prayer as our chief weapon, or will he find that we have abandoned it in favor of other methods so that we can look successful in the eyes of the world?

            At this time of year we often think of the story of Anna, the prophetess who was alive at the coming of Christ.  Remember the description of her in Luke 2: 36-38:   “And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;   And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.    And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” Why wasn’t Anna out there doing something important?  Why wasn’t she out organizing programs and boating trips down the Jordan River to reach the young people?  What a wasted life she lived! She didn’t leave the temple, but was always there praying and fasting for redemption, and she lived to see her prayers answered.  As a matter of fact, the New Testament teaches us that the  chief occupation of the Christian widow is prayer:  St. Paul wrote in I Tim. 5:4-6:   “But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.  Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.   But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.”  We may think that giving ourselves continually to prayer is a waste of time, but the life that the New Testament demands of us is a life devoted to prayer.

                    Here at St. Paul’s, we don’t make many demands on your time as far as activities are concerned.    We only ask that you do two things—pray and study God’s word.  We pray here and study God’s word here in our  Sunday School and regular services, and we ask you to do the same at home.     Since we began St. Paul’s, our motto has been Acts 2:42:   And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.  So here we emphasize doctrine, fellowship, the Sacraments, and above all, prayer, rather than a thousand activities, because it is so easy to make activities a substitute for prayer:  To quote E. M. Bounds again:

    Sacred work,–Church activities–may so engage and absorb us as to hinder  praying, and when this is the case, evil results always follow. It is better to let the work go by default than to let the praying go by neglect. Whatever affects the intensity of our praying affects the value of our work. “Too busy to pray” is not only the keynote to  backsliding, but it mars even the work done. Nothing is well done without prayer for the simple reason that it leaves God out of the account. It is so easy to be seduced by the good to the neglect of the   best, until both the good and the best perish. How easily may men, even leaders in Zion, be led by the insidious wiles of Satan to cut short our praying in the interests of the work! How easy to neglect prayer or abbreviate our praying simply by the plea that we have Church work on our hands. Satan has effectively disarmed us when he can keep us too busy doing things to stop and pray.

For this reason, we ask so little of you in the way of church activities.  I want you to pray, pray in your closets, pray in your families, and pray here with the gathered church, because prayer will accomplish so much more than all the busy-work we can ask church members to do.  This is all we ask of you, but in doing so we are asking you to do the greatest, most time-consuming, most difficult work of all, for these are the mighty weapons of God, which if we truly used, and refused to give upon them up, God will bless in his own time and in his own way.   The Church should call a moratorium on all church activities until it learns to pray, because all our other activities result in failure, all our other activities are pointless and fruitless unless they are first bathed in prayer.  Of course, the modern church is not going to do that, because they would lose their members–all the members that is, except those who want to pray, and that would be a good thing, because then we could see something genuine happen.

               One of the advantages of being a small church is that we have no weapon but prayer.  We don’t have the numbers, we don’t have the programs and activities, and we don’t have the facilities.  How can we succeed?  Only one way—prayer!  We are in a position to prove that prayer is more powerful than numbers, programs, activities, and buildings.  We are in a position to prove that the lost can be won to Christ by nothing but persevering prayer.

                    At this time of year, we often think about making New Year’s resolutions.  Here is a good one for our church for 2009:  we are going to persevere in prayer.  Of all Christian denominations, our church is ideally suited for absolute dependence on the power of prayer.  The Book of Common Prayer is at the center of our spiritual life. Yet, the people who have the Book of Common Prayer are the very people who are not known as a praying people.  We are known as a drinking people, a partying people, but not as a praying people.  We, of all Christians, should be known as those who are, in the morning and in the evening and at many points during the day, offering up the cry, “How long?”  Of all churches, our church should truly be known as the house of prayer.  But Episcopalians, though we use the Book of Common Prayer, often give evidence by our actions that we hate prayer.  We should rename the Book of Common Prayer, “The Book of Common 20 Minute, Once a week, Prayer,” and we daydream through that.  Isn’t it obvious that our English Reformers wanted us to be known primarily as a praying church?  Why do we have daily morning and evening prayer?  Not only did they have in mind that as individuals we would daily pray, but as a church we would gather and daily and pray together, and yet the last thing we are known for is our praying.

                    One of the most useful tools that has ever been given to the world to persevere in prayer is the Book of Common Prayer.  As you know, many Christian groups have an aversion to written prayers.  What often happens is that  when such people often try to pray, without such helps, they find their minds begin to wander, they can’t stay at it long, and they give up.  But if we are having difficulty concentrating, we merely take out our prayer books, we start praying these prayers, and the further we go, the more our hearts are inflamed in prayer and the first thing you know we have left the written prayers and are offering some of our own prayers to God.  

                    As I look through the Prayer Book, I find so many prayers that we need to pray every day, and never cease praying them until the day we die.  Right now, in this time of political turmoil, how we need to be using with perseverance the prayers for our country, Congress, the state legislature, and the courts of justice.  Looking at the condition of the Church, how often should we be using the prayer for the Church and the prayer for bishops and clergy?  How many times each day should  we be offering up this prayer for missions:  

    O GOD, who hast made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the whole earth, and didst send thy blessed Son to preach peace to them that are far off and to them that are nigh; Grant that all men everywhere may seek after thee and find thee. Bring the nations into thy fold, pour out thy Spirit upon all flesh, and hasten thy kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

 How many of us parents should be praying today, every day for the rest of our lives, this prayer for our children:  

    O LORD, Jesus Christ, who dost embrace children with the arms of thy mercy, and dost make them living members of thy Church; Give them grace, we pray thee, to stand fast in thy faith, to obey thy word, and to abide in thy love; that being made strong by thy Holy Spirit they may resist temptation and overcome evil; and may rejoice in the life that now is, and dwell with thee in the life that is to come; through thy merits, O merciful Saviour, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost livest and reignest one God, world without end. Amen.

Whether your children are faithful or wayward, is there ever a time we should relax in saying that prayer?

                With the threat of war and terrorism, should we ever relax in praying that prayer for peace and deliverance from our enemies:  

    O ALMIGHTY God, who art a strong tower of defence unto thy servants against the face of their enemies; We yield thee praise and thanksgiving for our deliverance from those great and apparent dangers wherewith we were compassed. We acknowledge it thy goodness that we were not delivered over as a prey unto them; beseeching thee still to continue such thy mercies towards us, that all the world may know that thou art our Saviour and mighty Deliverer; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

These are just a few of the prayers we should be praying with perseverance, not to mention the prayers for the absent, for those we love, and the prayers for the sick.  We have here for us in our Prayer Books prayers that we should never cease praying.  These are the prayers that can bring down strongholds, these are the prayers that can move mountains, and these are the prayers that God will bless if we will always pray and not lose heart.   

                    But you know what may happen when pray these prayers?  Nothing!  We may see no answer to these prayers, for a year, for 10 years, and possibly, for the remainder of our lives.  To persevere in prayer is even more difficult, primarily because it seems a waste of time, because we may not see any results for years and years and years, for generations, for centuries.  That is why Jesus asks, “Shall he find faith on the earth?”  Do you have enough faith in the promises of God’s word that he will answer your prayers, though for years and years you see no results?

                    To continue in prayer though you see no results is the evidence of a true faith, because when you continue to pray, you are saying, “With my eyes, I see no results—but I know God’s word is true, and he has promised to answer our prayers, so I will continue, though he doesn’t not arise immediately to grant my request.”  Can you continue to pray, knowing that you may be dead and gone before God answers your prayer.  Praying when there are no results is a true test of faith.  If I give my life to writing, I would have a stack of books to show for my efforts.  If I give my life to building a great cathedral, I would have a beautiful edifice to show for my labor.  But if I give my life to prayer, what do I have to show for my life?  I may have nothing to show for it.  Furthermore, the doubt may creep in and say, “If there is no God, all your hours on your knees have been for nothing.”  That’s frightening, isn’t it?  But we must have faith to believe that our prayers accomplish great things even when we don’t see them, sometimes, long after we are dead.  Let me quote E. M. Bounds once more:  

God shapes the world by prayer. Prayers are deathless. The lips that uttered them may be closed in death, the heart that felt them may have ceased to beat, but the prayers live before God, and God’s heart is set on them and prayers outlive the lives of those who uttered them; outlive a generation, outlive an age, outlive a world.  That man is the most immortal who has done the most and the best praying. They are God’s heroes,  God’s saints, God’s servants, God’s vicegerents. A man can pray better because of the prayers of the past; a man can live holier because of the prayers of the past, the man of many and acceptable prayers has done the truest and greatest service to the incoming generation. The prayers of God’s saints strengthen the unborn generation against the desolating waves of sin and evil. Woe to the generation of sons who find their censers empty of the rich incense of prayer; whose fathers have been too busy or too unbelieving to pray, and perils inexpressible and consequences untold are their unhappy heritage. Fortunate are they whose fathers and mothers have left them a wealthy patrimony of prayer.

Do you want to do something great for the rising generation.  Pray for them.  If you want to leave them a fortune, leave them a fortune of prayers that always appear before the throne of God.  If I ever accomplish anything for God in my life, it will be because of the prayers of my grandmothers and great grandmothers that God is continuing to answer. 

It’s difficult to persevere in prayer, because prayer doesn’t get much recognition.  It is often in the closet, and if you brag about it, you have your reward.  We’re going to find one day that the greatest saints in our world were not the preachers who had all the notoriety, or the singers who had all the talent, but two or three little old ladies who were sitting in their rocking chairs with their Bibles in their laps and were offering unceasing prayer to God. 

                So, we can be optimistic as we look to 2009, because prayer never fails.  God will answer our prayers in his own time and in his own way, though the answer may be delayed for thousands of years.  Do you have the faith to persevere in prayer for that long, to persevere in your prayers for the Church though it may be hundreds, even thousands of years before they are answered. 

                I was reading a sermon by John Henry Newman recently, and he was describing how during the Advent season, during winter, the congregations were small, and it was easy to get discouraged, but he said the following, and I would like this paragraph to be our theme for this coming year:  

The season is chill and dark, and the breath of the morning is damp, and worshippers are few, but all this befits those who are by profession penitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims.  More dear to them that loneliness, more cheerful that severity, and more bright that gloom, than all those aids and appliances of luxury by which men nowadays attempt to make prayer less disagreeable to them.  True faith does not covet comforts.  It only complains when it is forbidden to kneel, when it reclines upon cushions, is protected by curtains, and encompassed by warmth.  Its only hardship is to be hindered, or to be ridiculed, when it would place itself as a sinner before its Judge.  They who realize that awful Day when they shall see Him face to face, whose eyes are as a flame of fire, will as little bargain to pray pleasantly now, as they will think of doing so then.

 Yes, the worshippers are few, but how many people do you expect to join with us?  Our advertisement is come join penitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims.  Newman says that we have tried to make prayer less disagreeable to the modern man, but prayer is always disagreeable.  Prayer is lonely and severe, but that severity is cheerful, and that loneliness is dear.  Prayer is lonely, severe, disagreeable business, but to those who have faith, there is nothing that can make them lose heart in praying, because we know that God will speedily answer those who cry out to him day and night.   Let us commit ourselves at St. Paul’s in 2009, that should the Lord ask us this question, “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth,” we will be able to say, “Yes, Lord, you will find us on our knees, persevering in prayer, never losing heart.” 

 Amen.

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A Sermon preached on March 1, 2009, by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.   Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.   For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.   Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.   Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.   Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.  Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.   Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.  Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.   Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.   Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.   Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. (Ps. 51:1-12)

We began this Lenten season Wednesday evening by reading together the 51st Psalm, one of the most moving and beautiful expressions of repentance that we find in Holy Scripture.  We have committed so many of the verses in this chapter to memory that they have become part of our vocabulary, part of our cultural heritage, even.  As Anglicans, the words of the 51st Psalm are never far from our lips and our hearts.  Not only do we read this Psalm on Ash Wednesday, but as we do Morning and Evening Prayer during Lent we will read this chapter twice more.  Over the course of  the entire year, we read it 10 times.  Not only that, but there are words from the 51st Psalm, that as Anglicans, we say every day of the year.  “O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise” (see Ps. 51:15).  “O God, make clean our hearts within us.  And take not thy Holy Spirit from us” (see Ps. 51:10-11).

                Down through the centuries, this Psalm has been used by the Church to express our great sorrow for our sins.  The Orthodox Church has always used it very frequently in its various liturgical services.   Athanasius recommended that Christians should say this prayer if they were unexpectedly awakened in the middle of the night.  Martin Luther said, “There is no other Psalm which is oftener sung or prayed in the church.”  Well, that might have been true in Luther’s time, but in our modern evangelical churches, we don’t sing or pray this Psalm very much, because we feel that we are done with repentance and sorrow for sin.  But in the true, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, this Psalm has never gone out of fashion.  Individual believers have always found it to express the deep sadness of their hearts when they have sinned against God.  Remember that the Psalms are the hymns of the ancient Church.  If you will notice in the heading, there is an instruction to the chief musician.  This is a plaintive Psalm, sung by the Church as a whole when they meet together, for there is no one in the midst of the assembly of God’s people who does not need to pray this prayer on a daily, even moment by moment basis.

                Now that we are in the season of Lent, we should have two goals mind.  First, we hope to come out of this holy time with a greater sense of our sin, accompanied by a greater brokenness of our hearts for the many ways in which we have offended a holy and loving God.  Next, we want to experience the joy of knowing that these sins, horrendous as they are, have been blotted out, forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.  Though the Christian always practices the disciplines of self-examination and repentance, it is good that we have this season of Lent to concentrate on these matters so that the discipline practiced during Lent will carry on into the rest of year.  In his book on the Festivals and Fasts, Bishop Hobart wrote:

The duties of humiliation and repentance are of constant obligation, and are the essential and uniform characteristics of the sincere Christian.  But there is great propriety in setting apart a season for the more particular and solemn discharge of duties, which otherwise might be entirely forgotten, or only imperfectly and superficially discharged.  When the mournful anniversary approaches of the sufferings and death of Christ, it is highly proper that the Church should lay aside the songs of praise and triumph which distinguished the preceding joyful festivals, and in humility and penitence prepare to sympathize in the sorrows of her Lord; it is highly proper that Christians should call to mind the sins which brought their Saviour to the cross, and express their deep sorrow for them by acts of humiliation and self-denial.  The solemn and devout exercises of this holy season tend also to strengthen in the soul the sentiments of piety and virtue, and to prepare us for successfully encountering the temptations of the world.

We have come a long way since the time of Bishop Hobart.  How many modern Christians do you suppose would say that the essential and uniform characteristics of the sincere Christian are the duties of humiliation and repentance?  Our Anglican forefathers, and the writers of holy Scripture saw the Christian life and experience in an entirely different way that what we have been conditioned to believe about the nature of true Christian spirituality.

                If, as Bishop Hobart says, the duties of humiliation and repentance are the essential and uniform characteristics of the sincere Christian, I can think of no better way to cultivate these characteristics than by deeply studying, praying, and meditating on the 51st Psalm.  Thus, during the season of Lent, we are going to look closely at this Psalm, and may God in his mercy use it work in us true sorrow for sin, deep humiliation, and the joy of sins forgiven.  You will never outgrow your need for the 51st Psalm.  You will never become so spiritual, that there will not be times when you will need to bow before God in deep sorrow and repentance, using words very similar to what we find David using here.

                We are told in the heading to this Psalm, that what prompted its writing was David’s sorrow after Nathan the prophet had confronted him with the sin that he had committed with Bathsheba.  We all remember the sordid story of how David saw Bathsheba, lusted after her and he took her to himself, though she was the wife of another man.  We all know how David conspired to have her husband Uriah the Hittite to be killed in battle.    It is so horrible to think that David could have committed such horrible sins.    After all, think of who David was and all that he accomplished in his life, all the virtues he had displayed.  This is the man who as a young boy had fought and killed Goliath.  What faith he had in God!  Look at him standing up to Goliath and saying, “Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.  This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.   And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hands” (I Samuel 17:45-47).  That’s the brave young man, so sure of God, so sure of his faith in God, so sure of God’s presence with him, that not even the mighty champion of the Philistines could cause his faith in God to waver.  And it is this same man who won’t be able to resist a woman.  This same man will succumb to adultery and murder. 

We look at David when Saul was so jealous of him and wanted to kill him, but we are told, “And David behaved himself wisely in all his ways; and the Lord was with him” (I Sam. 18:16).  Wise David!  And yet, there would come a time when he would be a very foolish David.   

We see David, who when he had the chance to kill Saul, would not touch the Lord’s anointed.  But this man who would not kill when many people would say that he would have good reason, now kills a faithful man of his own army in order to avoid scandal and have his wife. 

When people were turning against him, we are told that “David encouraged himself in the Lord his God” (I Samuel 30:6).  Here is a man who knew how to find his peace and consolation in God alone.  Yet, he will come to believe that the only way he can be satisfied is by taking another man’s wife.

 Then, if we just look at the book of Psalms and see all of the expressions of devotion that flowed from the mouth and hand of David.  David knew the Lord in such a rich and wonderful way.  Some scholars estimate that Psalm 51 was written some 23 years after the 23rd Psalm.  How could the man who wrote the 23rd Psalm, how could the man who could yearn for God and the worship of God so much, become an adulterer and a murderer?  There is only one answer to that question:  David was a sinner, as we all are.  Though he was the man after God’s own heart, he was still a sinner.  You may achieve the lofty spirituality of the apostle Paul, but you will still find in your heart what we read a few moments ago in our epistle reading, how there is a “law working in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:23).

                You know, we often think that we can get to the place in our lives where we are incapable of committing certain sins.  Sometimes, we think that if we have a certain experience, perhaps a very powerful conversion experience, we will never succumb to certain temptations.    We may hear of a Christian friend, perhaps a minister of the Gospel even, who is caught in some notorious sin, and we may jump to the conclusion, “Well, he was just never really saved.  If he had really been saved, if he had really been a Christian, then he couldn’t have done that.”  Oh yes, he could have.  God’s greatest saints may become guilty of the greatest sins.  Peter can deny three times that he even knew the Lord.  Some people often tell me, “Well, that was before the Holy Spirit was poured out.  After Pentecost, he was never cowardly again.”  Ask the Apostle Paul if that is true.  You remember that Peter was so scared of offending the Jews he wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles. 

Paul said he played the hypocrite this way simply out of fear, that old fear that caused him to deny Christ.  Paul said that even Barnabas was caught up in that hypocrisy.    Some people think that if they have some kind of second experience after conversion, like being filled with the Holy Spirit or achieving the point of complete surrender, they will no longer be troubled by certain sins, and they will not be capable of committing them.  If the Scripture teaches us anything, it teaches us that even believers are capable of falling into any sin,  and that we must watch, pray, fight, wrestle with our sins, with Satan, with the world, until our dying day.  Thus, the Apostle Paul admonishes, “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12).  David Dickson, the great Scottish commentator, put it like this, “How soon the most mortified lust may be kindled, and break forth like fire in the embers when it meeteth with powder; how frail the strongest of the saints are in themselves, when they are tempted to sin; and what need he who standeth hath to take heed lest he fall; for the holy prophet, the sweet singer of Israel, is here foully defiled by his going in to Bathsheba.”

I don’t want anyone to use David’s sin as an excuse for ungodly living, presuming on the grace of God, but I’m glad that Psalm 51 is in the Bible, because I need it.   I am sorry that David fell in this way, but it is a comfort to know that even if a child of God falls in this fashion, there is still mercy with the Lord.  If a person commits a terrible sin, it doesn’t mean that he was never a child of God.  It does not mean that he has to start seeking a new conversion experience, and then once he has it, he can say, “Now, I’m set.  That was my problem.  I just never was converted.  Now, I won’t ever do anything like that again.”  Poor soul!  Unless you have an incredible gift for self-deception, you are going to have to have thousands of “true” conversion experiences.

                Part of our problem with believing that David was a true child of God at the time he committed this horrible act is that the sins were so horrendous:  adultery and murder.  You may think that a true child of God wouldn’t do those things.  Well, would a true child of God tell a lie?  Have you ever told a lie since you became a Christian?  Well, that’s not as big a sin as murder and adultery.  Oh, so now we are going to adopt the Roman Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sins after all.  Let me ask you a question.  Is murder a damning sin?  You say, “Yes.”  Well, is lying a damning sin?  Of course it is.  All sin, every sin, deserves the eternal wrath of Almighty God.  Let me cover a few other sins for you.  Have you ever had false or erroneous views about God?  Have you ever been selfish, self-seeking, or self-centered?  Have you ever been guilty of unfaithfulness, distrust, hardness of heart, or pride?  Have you ever been lukewarm or dead to the things of God? 

Have you ever resisted the commands of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit?  Have you ever grumbled when things did not go your way?  Have you ever complained about your circumstances in life rather than being content with what God has given you?  Have you ever violated oaths, vows, or promises?  Have you ever acted hypocritically?  Have you been ashamed to confess Christ before men or stand for holiness because of fear of what others might say about you?  Have you ever been cold and negligent in your duty to worship God in his church?  Have you ever been resistant,  refusing to obey or to submit to those who have authority over you?  Have you ever been guilty of sinful anger, envy, immoderate  eating and drinking?  Have you ever had lustful thoughts?  Have you ever been guilty of idleness, covetousness, loving the things of this world too much, disrespectual, or prejudiced?  You see, all of these are the respectable sins, and I would venture to say that most of  us in this room have committed these sins, some of us have committed some of them this morning already, and some of us are committing them on a daily basis.  Do you think that murder and adultery are the only sins that should bring out the heart-wrenching cry, “Have mercy on me, O my God.”  You see, you don’t need Psalm 51 only when you have committed particularly heinous sins.  You need the language of Psalm 51 all of the time.

Spurgeon explained the 51st Psalm like this:

I think that nobody will doubt that David was a child of God, and that, even when he had defiled himself, he was still dear to the great Father’s heart.  I gather, therefore—I feel sure of it—that he was quite right in praying the language of this fifty-first psalm, and saying, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness; according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies, blot out my transgression; wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”  Yet this is precisely the way in which an unconverted man ought to pray.  It is only an enlargement of the prayer of the publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” 

This language, so suitable to the sinner, was not out of place in the mouth of one who was not only a believer, but an advanced believer, an experienced believer, an inspired believer, a teacher of others, who, with all his faults, was such a one as we shall rarely see the like of again.  Yes, amongst the highest of saints, there was a time with one of them, at least when the lowliest language was appropriate to his condition.  There is a spirit abroad which tells us that children of God ought not to ask for pardon of their sins, for they have been pardoned; that they need not use such language as this, which is appropriate to sinners, for they stand in a totally different position.  What I want to know is this:  where are we to draw the line?  If, on account of a certain sin, David was perfectly justified in appealing to God in the same style as a poor, unforgiven sinner would have done, am I never justified in doing so?  Is it only a certain form of evil which puts a man under the necessities of humiliation? 

It may be that the man has never fallen into adultery, or any other gross sin; but is there a certain extent of sin to which a man may go before, as a child of God, he is to pray like this?  And is all that falls below that high-water mark of sin a something so inconsiderable that he need not go ask any particular forgiveness for it, or pray like a sinner at all about it?  May I under most sins speak very confidently as a child of God, who has already been forgiven, to whom it is a somewhat remarkable circumstance that he should have done wrong, but still by no means a serious disaster?  I defy anybody to draw the line; and if they do draw it, I will strike it out, for they have no right to draw it.  There is no hint in the Word of God that for a certain amount of sin there is to be one style of praying, and for a certain lower amount of sin another style of praying. 

I venture to say this, brethren, going farther—that, as this language is certainly appropriate in David’s mouth, and as it would be impossible to draw any line at which it would cease to be appropriate, the safest and best plan for you and for me is this—seeing that we are sinners, if we have not been permitted to backslide so much as David, yet we have better come in the same way:  we had better take the lowest place, urge the lowliest plea, and so make sure of our salvation.  It is safest to assume the greatest supposable need.  Let us put ourselves into the humblest position before the throne of grace, and cry, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness:  according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies.”

This is what I have learned in the Episcopal Church:  I am a great sinner who needs a very great Savior.  I’m not a monk who has peered into the Godhead with his mystic eye, although I have tried no telling how many meditation techniques to achieve it.  I’m not a Puritan who has had an earth-shattering conversion experience, though I sought it with prayer and fasting for many years.  I’m not one of the super-spiritual who has had his old nature eradicated, or who has been filled to the spirit to the degree that sin and temptation no longer bother me.  I am not a gifted orator, a talented writer, or a lofty theologian.   I am a wicked man, pleading for Christ to have mercy on a poor wretched sinner.  I was thinking the other day that there is only one verse in the Bible I disagree with, and that is the one where Paul calls himself the chief of sinners, because I can say without fear of contradiction, that that title belongs to me.  Of course, I don’t really disagree with the Bible at that point, because Paul just didn’t know about me yet when he made that statement.  But every Christian knows that his own heart is cesspool of iniquity, that he is guilty of sin every day.  The Christian knows that even his best actions are tainted with sin.  My worship, my prayer, my study of God’s word, the work I do on the job, the service I give to my family and church, are never done with the whole-hearted effort and love to God and to my fellow man that God requires. 

                This is why Christians down through the centuries have used the 51st Psalm.  Nearness to God, union with Christ, did not eliminate their own sense of sinfulness.  As a matter of fact, the closer we draw to God, the more we see our sin and the more hideous it becomes.  This is one of the purposes of Lent.  When the last moment of Lent passes, the Christian doesn’t wipe his brow and say, “Whew!  I made it 40 days without chocolate.”  He comes to the end of Lent with a greater awareness of his sin, a greater sorrow for his sin. 

The Christian comes to the end of Lent, crying out,

“O Lord, I never fully realized how horrible the condition of my heart really is.   Have mercy on me, O God, blot out my transgression, wash me, cleanse me, purge me, create in me a clean heart, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” 

This awareness of our need for cleansing, this recognition that we need to be made anew is the whole purpose of the Lenten season, for it reveals to us that there is only one place where we find this cleansing, and that is at the foot of the cross of Jesus.  May God have mercy on us during this Lenten season to reveal to us our many sins and the corruption of our hearts. 

May this sight of sin cause us to run to our Savior for cleansing, and may we celebrate a joyful Easter knowing that the grace of God is even greater than our sin. 

Amen.

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