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Sermon – “Constantly Prayer” – June 1, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, June 1, 2014 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Constantly Prayer

Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35; Acts 1: 6-14; John 17: 1-11

At a Baptist conference in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I met a woman from Brazil who, with her husband, runs a ministry and small church in inner city New Jersey. In addition to new arrivals who speak Brazilian Portuguese, she has a ministry among the destitute and desperate. Those she serves include drug addicts, prostitutes, homeless persons, and the deinstitutionalized mentally ill

Someone said she had her work cut out for her. No, she said, it was God’s work. She had to encourage people to count on God, she had to help people accept that their only hope for making any progress in their lives was God, and she had to support the people who gave themselves to God make the choices that their new sense of dignity and purpose dictated. She believed that people who might look hopeless had hope, not because of promising circumstances or because of inner resources, but because God cared for them and wanted them to discover new life by turning from the things that were keeping them down and going God’s way.

I’m addressing a congregation which doesn’t typically think in terms of angels and demons. We’re a tradition which is open to reason, reluctant to be governed by emotion, and unaccustomed to discerning, in the day-to-day, a great cosmic drama between the side of God and the side of Satan. My friend from Brazil did see the world that way, and she did describe reality in those terms, which sound more or less mythic to us. Of course, the evils with which her neighborhood contended reinforced that world view. The people whom she helped turn to God were folks about whom almost anyone might say “they had their demons,” and their changing direction and getting religion always looked like a miracle. It may be easier for people like you and me, in an environment like this, to have abandoned a medieval mindset about invisible realities, than it is for those in lives less overlaid with respectability, civility, and control over at least some circumstances.

The psalm for today uses exalted language of God, and by exalted I mean lifted to a higher altitude, a plane above the one in which we live. God is described as “riding upon the clouds,” a common and familiar image for the Almighty. Some may be tempted to think that way of conceiving God childish. We need to talk about that, and about the language used by the Bible of holy things and people, and wondrous and mysterious events, because whether you take that language literally or not, it is an effort to assert the reality of a beautiful, commanding, and unassailable realm from which God dispenses blessings and from which God can come to render judgment. There is a sense in which the religion of the Bible knows that such descriptions of God are relics from folk culture, that they are inadequate and possibly misleading. They are used with poetic license, to evoke God’s power, and to link the grandeur of vast vistas and the power of natural phenomena with the unseen and indescribable deity worshiped by Israel.

This is important for us to remember, because this tradition of describing God as a great being riding clouds, or seated upon a heavenly throne, or any of the other comparisons to mighty or powerful men which are made, never has vanished. Though thinking of God in the “negative way”–the art of conceiving God by what God is not, in an effort to avoid this anthropomorphism, or over-reliance on human analogies which seem second-nature to us– has been part of Christianity from the beginning, these other images have not disappeared. For some people, in some circumstances, such notions and mental pictures identify realities so successfully that persons find the perspective and power to be transformed, so who cares if they are approximations or intimations of something unable to be described or imagined?

God is greater than we are. Some ways of expressing that make more sense to me than others, but my ways of thinking about God don’t make much sense to some other people, and as long as we agree on the greatness and goodness of God how can we help each making sense the best we can? If God’s wisdom and venerability seem the more so to a person who thinks of God as having a long white beard, where’s the harm? Anyone who pays attention to scripture will have to admit that’s not really who God is. God is beyond our grasp, and beyond our guessing, or whatever you want to call our imagination’s greatest flights in conceiving God. We are mortal, and our poor powers of communion with holiness are helped by images, and the resonance of certain phrases, and the instincts cultivated in our hearts by things like prayer and worship.

The Psalm describes God in lofty, poetic terms, but those whose hope is in God in a down-to-earth way. God is the father of orphans and protector of widows. God gives the desolate a home in which to live, and delivers the imprisoned into prosperity. Those who don’t have much hope, humanly speaking, the vulnerable, the impoverished, the overpowered, have a champion in God. Whether they think of the holy and mysterious Being who is their hope in terms of riding clouds or not, their rescue will come from God. Things will change because of God, either in ways which are hidden to us, or in the more evident form of faithful persons, like my table mate from Brazil, helping on God’s behalf.

What connects God’s realm, this providence poetically placed in the heavens, with the flesh-and-blood reality of the miserable? It is spirit. Though we may be broken, though we may wander and waste our potential, we are made in God’s image, and that image is not the physical resemblance we impose on God when we picture God a wise old man, or a king in the clouds. The image is the spiritual nature God gives us, a likeness in our immaterial selves, with capacities to know greater heights and depths than flesh alone can apprehend. We are so essentially spirit that a person with a weak body but strong spirit is inspiring, while a person with a strong body but weak spirit is an object of pity.

There is sometimes, in scripture, an impatience with the way religious people are distracted by those experiences of supernatural power or mystical illumination. Though firsthand witness to wonders is the foundation of our faith, insights into a more spiritual realm than our own, if that’s what visions are, don’t translate readily into responsible, faithful deeds of service to God. One can’t help, if one is attentive enough to matters of faith, having some intimations of unseen powers, even if it’s only what scripture in one place describes as the tingling of one’s ears, and in another place the burning of one’s heart within. What God requires of us, however, is engagement in daily living, and a focus on how our being persons of God is to be used, by God, for the good of the world around us.

How do we hold these two things–awareness of God’s realm, and responsibility within our own– together? Our reading from the book of Acts shows a way. Jesus ascends to heaven– he leaves them, a cloud taking him from their sight, perhaps like in the psalm, where one rides on a cloud, or perhaps like the Transfiguration, where perceptions are clouded. Either way they are looking heavenward when they are challenged by a couple of figures in white–angels, evidently, but not named that– ask them, “Why are you staring up into heaven?” With that challenge and assurance of Christ’s eventual return, they accept that their place is in this world, and they go back to Jerusalem, and they pray.

I think it’s significant that they’ve already been told that power will come on them from God’s realm and equip them to be useful servants of God, but they pray anyway. It must seem true to them that prayer is a way for a person who is living in this world to seek wisdom and help from that other world which is more completely God’s realm. Prayer may justly be criticized as no substitute for action, but it is equally true that action is no substitute for prayer. Once a person recognizes the responsibility to live in this world as a servant of God, seeking God’s will and God’s help in order to take action simply relies on prayer.

Jesus prays for the disciples in John’s gospel, and emphatically for the disciples. Jesus, who elsewhere in John’s gospel says that he has come, not to condemn, but that the world might be saved through him, and that when he is lifted up, he will draw all persons to himself, here stresses that he prays not for the world but for his followers. This isn’t about the scope of God’s saving effort or grace. This is about Christ’s recognition that disciples of Christ need God’s help in order to live in the world as we ought. Advocacy for God will not always be easy, or popular. We need spiritual support, our souls need encouragement, we have to be reinforced in our inward selves in order to endure the difficulties of life and not give up hope, in order to spend life unselfishly in a world in which selfishness has so much power. The message of the gospel is that though Christ is in a different realm than we are, he has bidden us power and guidance, protection and peace of mind from God. As we seek God’s will through prayer and seek to do God’s will by right words and right actions, remember Christ’s intercession on your behalf. Regard it is a reminder that prayer is the way to invoke heaven’s help, and as assurance that when you seek to serve God, there is more to you than meets the eye.

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