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Scripture and Prayer - Josh Monteiro

posted 17 Aug 2015, 03:18 by Bert Weenink
This Sunday's sermon was not recorded. Please find the text of the sermon below:
Scripture and prayer

As a church, this summer has been set aside for a season of prayer. Wednesday evenings are set aside for the church to gather and seek God together. And as we set ourselves to pray, we become aware that we are just beginners in the school of prayer. And that is not just those who are newer Christians among us. I think it would be fair to say that as elders of the church we know that we have much to learn about intimacy and awe in the presence of God. The morning series on prayer is not a complete package but a variety of aspects of prayer we are exploring not just to give new thoughts but to inspire all of us to grow in our walk with God.

As we think about prayer today, I want us to start by thinking about love poetry. Around the world and through time, men and women who fall in love with each other write love poetry to each other. And if we are incapable of writing it ourselves, we may steal good examples from great poets of the past. In most cases this poetical streak is something that dies down a bit if the relationship continues. But even in a long standing relationship, occasional love poems are written and can sometimes be very precious. In poetry we can express ourselves, our love, in ways that would seem ridiculous if done in prose. The internet is full of love poems. But here is an expert- Shakespeare: Shall I compare thee to a summers day? (Sonnet XIII)

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st;

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


Now I don’t know whether those examples made you go Ahhh, or want to vomit. It doesn’t matter whether you think those particular examples were good or bad. Poetry has been a part of communication between those who love each other as long as we have records. Now if a husband were to come down one morning and recite a wonderful love poem to his wife over breakfast, that might well go down well. But if the next morning he did the same thing, it would be less well received. And if morning after morning he said the same poem, with all expression leaching from the performance, it might actually get quite tiresome. And if a husband would never speak to his wife except in love poems, then something would be very wrong with that relationship. There is a place for love poems. But the conversation between husband and wife continues and is real day by day by mostly not being love poems. They talk about fresh things day by day because they each talk about what they are learning and experiencing, about what is no their hearts, and they listen to each other. They chat about what they have watched, what happened at work, what the children said, and many other things. The conversation may not be as “special” as the poetry that they occasionally use but it is real.

You may already see where I am going with this. I wonder if part of our problem in praying to God is because we mistakenly think that all of our prayers must be special poetry, not chatting to him. There is nothing wrong with special prayers, thought about and written down. Jesus gave us a model prayer, the Lord’s prayer. It is good to have these prayers, and worship songs, which express profound truths and emotions well. And when we gather together, we need liturgy, we need well thought through words that we can all say together. But these special words are not the limit of prayer or even the standard needed for prayer. A husband who would not say a word to his wife until he had composed his thoughts into poetry of Shakespeare standard would not be loving his wife or communicating well with her. Prayer with God is meant to be an everyday chatting thing as well as beautiful poems and formal liturgy.

If prayer is chatting to God about our day, then each day we will be saying something different to God. We will talk about experiences we’ve had, frustrations and joys, questions that have struck us, and so on. It may be that we do this in one go- when Karuna was working in Oxford I knew that the first 30 minutes after she got home would be her chance to debrief on the days teaching adventures. And sometimes that is how it is with God: we get to the end of the day and we chat through the day with God. But since God is with us, it may like going on a day trip with someone- you can comment on things to God as you go along through the day. Whatever pattern you have, prayer involves talking to God about the realities of day to day life, involving him in it, inviting him to work in it, seeking his help to respond well.

But good conversation is two way. Not only do we chat to God about what we are experiencing and learning, inviting his response, but we also want to hear from God and respond to him. What’s on his mind? And so this morning’s sermon is focused on how we respond to God talking to us- how we use Scripture to continue a conversation with God.

Scripture as the voice of God

Firstly, we just need to be convinced that the Bible is how God speaks to us. Many people think of it as an old book, a bronze age mythology. Others look for God to speak in mystical experiences, or some other way. So why would we think that God speaks to us particularly in the bible? The short answer is because Jesus thought so. And if we are calling ourselves Christians, or investigating what true Christianity is, Jesus is the one who defines reality for us. What Jesus teaches is true Christianity. And Jesus shows the highest respect for the Bible. In the Gospel accounts, the biographies of Jesus written by eyewitnesses or those who heard from eyewitnesses, we find Jesus affirming the total reliability and authority of the Bible. It’s Jesus in Matthew 5:18 who says that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law.” It is Jesus who when tempted by Satan in the wilderness quotes the Bible at him: Matthew 4:4 “Jesus answered “It is Written, Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When Jesus is questioned on divorce, he quotes from Genesis and 1 and 2- those controversial chapters of the Bible- and he says “The Creator said” (Matt 19:4-5). Jesus believed that God spoke a living message through the Scriptures- even those that were already over a thousand years old by this point.

And other New Testament writers, the people appointed by Jesus to reliably pass on the message about Jesus, say the same thing about the Bible. Paul says, “All Scripture is God breathed” 2 Tim 3:16. Hebrews quotes Psalm 95 and introduces it with “The Holy Spirit says”. Not said. Says. The Holy Spirit takes centuries old words translated from Hebrew to Greek and speaks them today. God speaks in the Bible. Peter, the friend of Jesus, tells us that “prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” If you want to hear God speak clearly, reliably and authoritatively, then you must read the Bible. And only if you regularly listen to God in the bible can you safely hear him elsewhere.

God does speak through creation, the stars proclaiming his praise as Psalm 19 tells us. When Scripture tells us that God is creator, we can see his fingerprints in creation and worship the creator rightly. But without the Bible, awe at creation has often led to nature worship, and even today people speak of mother nature, rather than worshipping the creator God. God does speak through conscience and internal promptings. But apart from Scripture, we can have misshapen consciences. Our conscience can easily give us peace over sin we’re involved in, so that our conscience is used against God, unless we allow the Bible to speak often and clearly to our minds.  

The Bible is God’s word. We are not left guessing what he likes and cares about. But we must listen to him each day. And the more we listen to the Bible regularly, the more our minds will see God’s works in the world, in people, the better our consciences will speak God’s word to us, the more likely it is that God’s truth will inform our decisions even if we have not consciously asked God for guidance. If a husband tunes out his wife’s words all day long, for week and after week, and then tries to please her based only on his own guesses, he is likely to go badly wrong. If we want a good relationship with God we must listen to him in the Bible. Sometimes we may just dip in and out- as we are doing this morning. But if we want to follow God’s train of thought, his ongoing concerns, then it will be helpful to try and read through whole books of the Bible- which we will return to for Sunday mornings in the autumn with a series on the book of Romans.

Chatting with God in response to what he says

Well once we are listening to God, then we also need to respond to what he says. We might have questions about what we read. We may need to stop and think about it a bit. Even then we can talk to God, saying that we are finding it a bit hard to hear what he is saying. And when we have understood something of what a passage of Scripture says, then we chat to God about what he is saying to us. And the sort of conversation we have will depend on the sort of things God has been telling us. We have a different conversation with a friend if they’re joyfully sharing about a promotion at work than if they are telling us about a personally tragedy. And the same is true of our conversations with God. What he is telling us will shape the conversation we have with him. What follows is not exhaustive rules for talking with God but some worked examples of how we might respond to what God says.  

a) Greatness and goodness leads to praise

“Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:15-17 The Bible reveals God to us, lifting up our eyes to see that the God who we have to deal with is far greater and better than we imagine.

My sister is an artist, she paints beautiful pictures. And when she has finished a picture, and she tells someone about it, she doesn’t want them to ignore the picture and talk about themselves. She wants them to look at the picture, to notice the details, to enjoy the beauty. I guess artists who have put a great deal of thought into their work quite like questions about what they have done, and what it means.

So when God reveals that Jesus Christ made everything, and then begins to fill that in with details, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, we might want to look around us. To think of stars, to look again at trees, to notice the colours of the sunset. And to chat to God about it. Lord it is amazing that out of you mind you could create such variety and beauty. Why did you make so many stars? But as we begin to pay attention to the world Jesus has made and his greatness as the source of all and the one for whom they were made, I’m pretty sure that understanding Jesus’ greatness and goodness will lead to praise. How great you must be Jesus, if you made the stars, so many, so big, beautiful in the night sky. How powerful you must be Jesus, if you made the sea and the storm. What artistry and engineering to make a landscape so beautiful and finish it off with a sunset. When we see beauty, or success, a great football match, or a well ordered garden, a triumph against the odds or a successful concert, we enjoy it. We praise the objects. And we praise those who produce the objects.

This is what CS Lewis writes on praise: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete until expressed.” Spouses praise each other, finding delight in the beauty and strengths of the other, rejoicing in their successes even if it is in quite different fields. Success in athletic or work or in a hobby is praised even if it is not done directly for the marriage. And so when God shows us himself, we talk to him about how amazing he is. God is truly stunningly beautiful, great and good. And he reveals himself in the bible as great and good and the creator of every good things so that we can enjoy his goodness, explore his goodness, and then as we talk to God we will, if we have truly understood who he is, praise his goodness.

b) Sin exposed leads to apology and repentance

If our spouse tells us that something we have done was wrong and hurt her or him, then the right response is to apologise and to seek not to do that thing again. One of the things God does in the Bible is to expose sin. He has a number of strategies for doing that. Sometimes, simply seeing how good and great God is makes us realise we have not been treating him the way we should- we say sorry, we want to treat God rightly from now on. These categories overlap, you see. Sometimes, the commands of God, telling us how to live rightly, expose our sin. Sometimes, it is the list of sins where one particular sin in the list jumps out and convicts us. But I want to use the examples of sinful behaviour in the bible, as a way that God talks to us about our sin. 

1 Corinthians 10:10-11 “Do not grumble, as some of them [the Israelites rescued from Egypt] did- and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.” So you’re reading in Exodus. And you get to Exodus 15 and 16. Up to this point in Exodus, God has supernaturally, graciously, rescued Israel from Egypt by plagues and by making a passage through a sea and drowning the most powerful army in the world. God has been amazingly powerful to save and amazingly gracious in saving his people. And immediately they get into the wilderness, they are grumbling about water, and food. And maybe you chat to God about that. God, I can see that the Israelites were stupid and ungrateful. It is just so ugly to see people who you have been so kind to, who you have done so much for, treating you so badly. They don’t trust you, they don’t respect you, they are in the wrong. But even as I say that, I know that last week I spent a long time grumbling about the stuff you haven’t done yet in my life, and almost no time praising you for all the amazing things you have done. I’m no better than the Israelites. I’m sorry I treated you that way God. Please help me not to make the mistake the Israelites made, please help me not to grumble but to humbly ask you for what I need and trust you to provide. As God exposes sin, we talk to him about our sin, apologising to him and asking for his help to be different.

c) Holiness and judgement leads to awe and thanks for Jesus

In other places, the Bible shows us God’s holiness, his purity, and his righteous anger at sin, his terrible judgement. Maybe you are reading about all the sacrifices in the tabernacle in Leviticus. There are so many sacrifices for sin. And even then, most of God’s people were separated by two curtains from God’s presence. Sin suddenly becomes a much more serious matter than we often treat it. Playing with sin suddenly seems far more dangerous. And perhaps you read one of the accounts of people who did not treat God as holy being burned up. And you talk to God about it.

God, I can see that you are much more holy than I often think of you. You are an awesome God. I often act as if coming into your presence is a small thing, but God, you are absolutely perfect and you hate evil. You are so pure that when there is sin, there must be death. I am so much in this world of sin that I forget how bad sin is. Only occasionally, like when I see what ISIS does, do I feel horror at sin. But you see all sin as horrific, something that must be wiped out. You are a holy God, help me to remember that. And thank you so much for Jesus. I would be without hope if Jesus had not come. I could not even talk to you if Jesus had not come to deal with my sin and make me holy in your sight.   

d) Grace and mercy leads to thanks

When God reveals himself to Moses he declares himself to be “the lord, the LORD, gracious and compassionate”. Throughout the Bible God shows his kindness towards people who don’t deserve it. It is a pervasive theme of the Bible, brought to particular focus at the cross where we see how far God’s love for us goes.

So perhaps we are reading Luke 19. The story of Zacchaeus. He’s a tax collector the Romans. He’s a traitor to his people and a sort of mob boss, extorting money and getting very rich. He’s an unpleasant man. He doesn’t deserve God’s mercy. He wants to see Jesus, but he’s too short, and so he climbs up a tree to get a good look at Jesus from a distance. But in his grace, Jesus comes near to the tree, calls Zacchaeus, says he wants to eat with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is included in God’s family by the grace of Jesus. And we know his sin is paid for by Jesus himself at the cross. Jesus takes the anger at Zacchaeus sin upon himself. He opens the gates to heaven by being shut outside on the cross. What do we talk to God about as we read this account? Maybe we accept the grace of Jesus- we say: “Jesus, I believe you are the same today as you were back then. So even though I am not good enough, I want you to come and live in me. I welcome your grace and I want to be part of God’s family.” If we have received a present from someone, it’s always good to say thanks. In family life it is good to say thank you even for things that the other person does all the time. But when the price paid is so high, saying thank you is especially appropriate. So maybe we would chat to God and say, God thank you that you welcomed me, even though I am no better than Zacchaeus. Thank you that your love is so big. Thank you that you want to be part of my life, to be friends with me. Thank you that your Son paid such a high price so that I can be part of your family forever. Jesus’ love changed Zacchaeus, and I want it to change me.” God’s grace and mercy leads to acceptance and thankfulness.

e) Promises lead to trust and requests

Confession of sin and thankfulness for salvation, and praise for God’s greatness are vital parts of a good relationship with our maker. Reading through the bible will stimulate praise, confession, awe, and thankfulness. But we are also encouraged to ask God for things. The Lord’s prayer includes asking for daily bread. We are not to be more spiritual than the Bible- God knows we have needs and he likes us to ask him to meet those needs. While we can talk to God about anything, and ask for anything, there are particular Bible verses that are meant to stimulate our requests. Whenever God makes a promise to do something, he’s inviting us to respond by trusting him for those things and asking him for those things. If I promise Juliana and Eleanor that we can go to the park after lunch, then after lunch they will remind me of that promise and be very bold in asking to go to the park. And when our heavenly Father makes promises, he wants his children to rely totally on these promises, to plan life based on these promises, and to ask boldly based on these promises.

So perhaps you read John 6:37 “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away… (40) My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have everlasting life and I will raise him up at the last day.” Jesus promises not drive away those who trust him, but to give everlasting life. Perhaps you have never trusted in Jesus, never come to him and asked him for to be Lord and Saviour. Perhaps you have sinned terribly, or wandered away from God. Well God puts this promise in his word so that you can take hold of it and say it back to him. “Lord Jesus, you promised that whoever comes to you you would never turn away. I’ve messed up so badly. I don’t see how you could love me. But you promised, and you keep your promises, so I come to you. Don’t turn me away, give me the everlasting life you promise.”

Or perhaps you read Matthew 6:33 “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” Put God above food and clothing and housing, pursue him and his righteousness and he promises to supply your basic needs. So if you have a need- if you lack a place to live or food to eat, then you can pray very boldly- God, I am putting you first, and seeking to do what you say is right. Give me today what I need to live, provide for me as you promised.” God’s promises are his invitation for us to make requests boldly. It is a pattern in many of the great prayers of the Bible that they plead God’s promises and God’s character.

f) Commands and warnings lead to requests for help

Finally, the commands and warnings of Scripture lead to requests for help to live as God wants. Sometimes those who are not Christians say of Christian morality- that’s unrealistic, that’s impossible. And they are actually right. The standard God gives us is impossible to live unless we have God’s help. So perhaps you read Ephesians 5:3-5 “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are all out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person- such a person is an idolater- has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” There is a clear command to be pure sexually and free from greed- made humanly impossible by the addition of “not a hint”. There is a clear warning- those who unrepentantly live this way, those whose life has this pattern, will not be saved. God forgives sinners who repent, not sinners who say sin is ok and keep sin the pattern of their life. And the warning and command are meant to turn us to God. “God, I hear your standard here, and I acknowledge that your standard is right. But I know my heart is still full of all sorts of lust and greed. I know that by myself, I will keep falling into these sins. I don’t want impurity and greed to be the mark of my life. Please, help me not to live in these sins, but to live as you want. Please help me to walk away from temptation and not into sin today”

God’s promises call for us to respond with trust and bold requests. God’s warnings and commands call for obedience and requests for God’s help. God’s standards are impossible for humans without God, but possible for those who live with God’s help and seek his help daily.   Much more could be said about Scripture and prayer. We haven’t even glanced at the many prayers found in the bible and especially in the book of Psalms, prayers that could be used as models for prayer. But hopefully you are beginning to see how you could chat daily with God as you read any portion of the Bible. Ask for his help to understand the passage, and then in so far as you understand the passage, talk to God about it, in a way that is appropriate to what God is saying. Revelation of his excellence and holiness, or exposure of our sin, or display of his grace and mercy in Jesus, or promises, or commands: each invites us to talk to God. We have heard what is on his heart, and he wants our heart’s response to him. Scripture is the fuel for prayer because it turns prayer from ritual and vague hopes to conversation with a God who reveals himself and wants to hear from us.