January 7, 2018
As you know this week is our annual Week of Prayer. For the last 32 years I have given a message on prayer to begin this week. My hope is that many of us will participate. We meet each night at 7:00. We will be praying for the various ministries of the church.
This morning I would like us to think about the importance of prayer and we will be in Ps.123. We don’t know when the Psalm was written or the circumstances in which the Psalm was written, but we can relate to the focus of this psalm. For now let me just say that as believers living in a hostile world, we must give ourselves to prayer.
I. PRAYER IS A DEPENDENT APPEAL TO GOD. Ps.123:1-2
A popular expression we often hear is, “I’ve got this.” It means, “I can handle this. This is something I can do. I know what I’m doing here.” It is an expression of self-confidence. Basically we are saying, “I don’t need your help.” In life there are many things about which we can say, “I’ve got this.” Every day I get up and make oatmeal for myself. I don’t need anyone’s help. “I’ve got this.” The older we get, the more things we’ve “got.”
There is nothing wrong with this unless we become so self-sufficient that we see little need for God. Whether we are talking about career, finance, health, or anything, for that matter, when we are self-sufficient God is often the last person we connect with about our lives. I believe this is especially true in our society which values individualism and independence. We are a self-reliant, “can do” people.
If you are a self-reliant person then prayer is going to be difficult for you because prayer is not for self-reliant people. Prayer is for people who recognize that nothing in this world is certain or reliable apart from God. Paul tells us in Col.1:17 that all things are holding together in Jesus Christ. The implication is that apart from Jesus Christ nothing holds together. God has graciously established various laws of nature that we count on, but even those laws of nature have their coherence in Jesus Christ.
We see in v.1 that the psalmist has lifted up his eyes to God who is enthroned in the heavens! We just finished celebrating the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, who is God with us! And of course, we believe that God is present everywhere. He is as close to us as the breath we breathe. So when the Psalmist refers to God as the One who is enthroned in the heavens, he is making a very important point. He is reminding us that God is in charge. God is the King of kings. God alone can say, “I’ve got this.” No matter how self-reliant you may feel about things in your life, everything you and I do is ultimately dependent upon God. Our next breath comes from the hand of God. It is appropriate to recognize that we’ve got nothing apart from God. And since this is the case, we are wise to look to God who is enthroned in the heavens, for all of our life and eternity.
The Bible is filled with exhortation to look to God. But in v.2 we are told to look to God in a particular way. We are to pray taking the posture of a servant looking to the hand of his or her master or mistress. None of us have ever been servants or maidservants. So let me pick an example of something many of us can relate to. If you ever had a dog you know what meal times can be like. There you are eating some chicken or beef and there is the dog sitting patiently by your knee. The dog’s eyes are riveted on your hands, watching as you eat. The eyes are focused on the food as it goes into your mouth. Then the paw is placed on your leg. Your dog is hoping for a morsel from your hand.
There is something pitiful about that picture and from the perspective of this world, there is something pitiful about praying to God. We are completely dependent upon God for his favor or mercy. The picture in these verses is one of humility and trust. The servant is not telling the master what needs to be done and how to do it. The servant looks to the master in hope and confidence. In prayer, our confidence is in God and not in our ability to pray. Now there are people who can pray in such a way so as to encourage our faith. We might ask so and so to lead us to the throne of grace because that person is a person of prayer who has learned by experience to pray with clarity and confidence. But their confidence is not in their ability to move God’s hand with their words. Their confidence is in God. There is no, “I’ve got this,” when it comes to prayer. Rather we come to God who says, “I’ve got you.”
Jesus was a man of prayer. When he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed like a servant looking to the hand of his master. Jesus prayed in humility and great need. “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will." Or I think of Paul in 2Cor.12. He was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited because of the revelations given to him from God. In 2Cor.12:8-9 Paul writes, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Both Jesus and Paul prayed in dependence upon the Lord. They trusted in the Lord to do what is good and right by them. They trusted in the Lord who is working all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
When we pray I believe it is important to begin by settling ourselves in quietness and trust before the Lord. I understand that we often pray in the moment for momentary needs. That is one thing. But when we are going to pray for others and pray for ourselves, taking some moments to settle ourselves into the posture of a servant looking to the hand of its master helps to cultivate a humble, dependent heart and mind before the Lord. Our prayers may be fervent filled with pleading, but our trust is in the Lord and not our fervency.
II. PRAYER IS A DEPENDENT APPEAL TO GOD FOR MERCY. Ps.123:3-4
Whenever we pray to God, we pray for his favor or grace. The word translated, “mercy,” can also be translated, “grace or gracious.” In prayer we ask God to see and meet our needs. As we have often heard, sometimes God says, “Yes.” Sometimes, “No.” And sometimes, “Wait.” We don’t always know what God is saying at any given moment, so we pray until we have come to a settled place in our heart before the Lord concerning that request. Of course God can do a miracle, but more often than not, our answers to prayer come in the outworking of life’s circumstances. More important than getting specific answers to prayer is our growth in trust and confidence in the Lord to direct our lives into his ways. Paul writes in Phil.1:20, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” This is the goal of our lives. No matter what comes our goal is to see Christ honored in our bodies. Underneath every prayer we pray, God is seeking to accomplish important goals in our Christian maturity.
In Ps.123 we are presented with a pressing concern that is just as real today as it was when the psalm was written. In v.3-4 the psalmist prays, “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.” Notice that the psalm begins in the first person: “To you I lift up my eyes.” But by the end of v.2 it becomes plural. “Our eyes look to the Lord.” This psalm is a prayer of the people of God. In the Old Testament the people of God is found in Israel. In the New Testament, the people of God is found in the Church of Jesus Christ.
The people of God who dwell in this world are subject to the contempt and scorn of the world. Jesus told us that in this world we will have trouble. Why do we have trouble? Well in one sense, everyone has trouble in the world. This world is filled with trouble and we are all fallen people. But as followers of Jesus Christ we live in hostile territory. In Hebrews and 1Peter believers are called strangers, sojourners, and exiles on the earth. “This world is not a friend to grace to help us on to God.” We can expect no less than Jesus received from this world, because we are his followers. We see this contempt and scorn expressed clearly in areas of the Middle and Far East where Christianity is not the favored religion. Jesus told us to not be surprised when persecution comes.
From the very beginning, Protestantism was the primary religious orientation for many of the founders of our country. And while I do not believe the United States has ever been a Christian nation, it is clear that Protestant Christianity had a deep influence in the development of this nation. The United States is only 242 years old. That is not very old compared to many nations in the world. And while Christianity has enjoyed a favored status in our country, that is changing. As our country is becoming more secular, Christianity is losing its power and influence. So we should not be surprised if we find ourselves scorned and held in contempt.
But there is an observation I want to make. In the Old Testament, time and time again, Israel made alliances with the pagan nations around them. Instead of trusting in the Lord, the Jewish kings often trusted in their ability to negotiate alliances with those nations who cared nothing about the Lord. Time and time again those alliances failed them. The temptation for the people of God in this world is to seek and embrace political power, thinking that political power will enable us to promote Christ and a Christian way of life. I believe that Christians who serve in politics can do a great deal of good. Christian politicians can use their position to promote the care of those who are poor and needy, protect freedom of religion, and justice for all. But we must not think that having a political platform will promote Christ. Christ did not tell us to make disciples by means of political power. In our country we have seen very few Christians who have been able use politics to promote Christ, but we have seen many politicians use Christ for their own political advantage.
Over and over again we are taught in the New Testament to let our light shine by the way we live as followers of Jesus Christ. We are to be known for our love for one another and for everyone else. We are to be known for our righteous living and good works. We are to be preaching the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as men and women who have received God’s forgiveness and have been brought from death into life. My sense is that if we pursued a Christ-like way of living, graciously proclaiming the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, we might be crying out to God for mercy because of the contempt and scorn of this world. As it is today, my sense is that the church of Jesus Christ needs to be crying out to God for a fresh awareness of his grace and mercy to us so that our priorities in this world are focused on graciously living for Jesus and making disciples.
It is no secret that Evangelicals are openly maligned and held in contempt these days. And sometimes when we hear ourselves being maligned and scorned by the media and non-Evangelicals, we become upset and even angry. We feel like these people are trying to take away our place at the table, so to speak. We are told that we need to stand up for religious freedom. Instead of becoming angry and lodging our protest, I believe the Psalmist calls us to cry out to the Lord for mercy. The most important table is not the table of political and social power. The most important Table is the one right before us. It is the Lord’s Table. We have a place at his table. The hymn says, “From ev'ry stormy wind that blows, from ev'ry swelling tide of woes, there is a calm, a sure retreat; 'tis found beneath the mercy seat. 2 There is a place where Jesus sheds the oil of gladness on our heads, a place than all besides more sweet; it is the blood-stained mercy seat. This table speaks of our mercy seat found in Jesus Christ. If you know Christ, you are welcome to his Table. Amen