Sermon on Psalm 28, for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "If You be silent to me..."
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Does God really hear or answer our prayers? Why does it so often seem like He is silent, or deaf to our pleas? Our Introit, Psalm 28, explores this common fear. David, some 3,000 years ago, cried out this theme, found in all the other readings as well. The fear of rejection, silence, unanswered requests…these themes show up all throughout the Bible. We’re not the only ones. It’s the common experience of faith. Faith lives in this tension between the invitation to trust God and call out to Him for help, and His seeming slowness or inaction. Faith lives in this real tension between our present struggles and how and when God will respond.
It’s the Canaanite woman’s struggle in our Gospel reading, Matthew 15. She is crying out for help for her daughter. At first Jesus won’t even answer, then His disciples try to push her away, then when she persists, Jesus puts her off with an answer that sounds an awful lot like “NO.” But she wouldn’t give in, and Jesus finally healed her daughter and praised her great faith. Doesn’t that sums up how we often feel? Like God is not listening, or that Jesus turns a cold shoulder, or is unwilling to help?
David cried out: “To you, O Lord, I call; my rock, be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit.” In other words, God, if You don’t answer I’ll be no better than the rest of men who die and go to their graves with no hope! God is our hope and our Rock—there’s none like Him. But why won’t He answer? We talked about it last week. Faith and fear compete for a hold in our heart. All through the Bible we get these windows into the life of believers, in situations just like ours. Calling the Lord our rock and praying to Him is an act of faith. Cutting off our prayers and giving up, that’s an act of fear or doubt.
It’s so easy to forget the prayers God has already answered…don’t we go through life asking for God’s help, peace, comfort, and then forgetting to give thanks and remember it when He does answer? Always looking for the dramatic, we forget the daily bread, the stuff of everyday life. This is another good reason we need the strengthening fellowship and encouragement of other believers. We need to hear about and celebrate together their answered prayers, or as some people call them, “Praise Reports.” That reminds me, I want to encourage that we continue to do that in worship, as Pastor Bowditch had often done while I was gone. It’s all too easy to forget how God is working, or that He’s working at all, and we get into our narrow, near-sighted, and navel-gazing habits, and we can easily give fear and doubt the foothold to drive out faith. With the help of other believers, we can gain a bigger perspective and look outside our problems to see God at work in the whole body of Christ. So if you have a “praise report” to share, please let me know, and do encourage your brothers and sisters in Christ by sharing your answered prayers!
Another common pitfall is that when people forget that prayer is designed to accomplish God’s will in our lives, not our will. Thy will be done. Not my will be done. Think about this. Amazon.com runs one of the biggest global businesses, and they call their 175 shipping locations “fulfillment centers.” They “fulfill” your personal orders, and service with a smile 😊. Is that what God is? A fulfillment center in the sky, and we place our orders and He guarantees delivery and customer satisfaction? God works for us? Is that how we think of prayer?
Alternatively, if we pray as Jesus taught: “Our Father who art in heaven” and “Thy will be done”… what does that mean for our prayers? How about that we have been invited to pray to the Sovereign Lord of all the universe, and that His will rules all creation and will accomplish all He desires? Does that mean He ignores or scorns your requests? Not at all, He invites them! He loves us and He cares. But He is not bound by our will—we are subject to His will. So again we come back to the understanding that prayer is aimed at our will being joined into His good and gracious will, not the other way around. So it helps to have a Biblical understanding of prayer, when it seems that God is silent.
But that doesn’t wave away the problem either. It’s the genuine tension and challenge that almost all believers struggle with. Even when we are praying for God’s will to be done, and genuinely believing that, we still experience that painful silence. The silence of not knowing. The silence of my continuing pain and struggle. The silence of no apparent solution from God.
This is why praying the Psalms is such an ancient spiritual discipline. It trains our hearts when we join the prayers of saints through the ages. We learn from their example, their struggles, their courage, their words. And more than just the saints, when we pray the Psalms, we are really praying them together with Jesus. What do I mean? Jesus prayed the Psalms, as all faithful Jews did, and several of the Psalms contain direct prophecies about Jesus. His role, His life, His death, and His resurrection. But more than just that, Jesus prays for all of us. He lifts us up in His prayers, and when you begin to read the Psalms as prayers spoken by God in the flesh, for us, they take on a whole new meaning. We hear the cries of our heart, our loneliness, our guilt and our fear, being lifted up to the Father, by God in the flesh, Jesus our Savior. We experience being connected to the Father by the love of the Son, as we are the body of Christ by faith. We have the access of Jesus to our loving Father.
Listen now to this verse as though prayed by Jesus: “To you, O Lord, I call; my rock, be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit.” At the cross Jesus faced that unbearable silence from God, as He was cut off from God, bearing the sins of the world. But He knew His Father was His rock. He pleaded for Him to listen, and He knew that He would not be abandoned to the grave. Jesus was in the same boat as us, but at the cross everything was at peak darkness. If ever there seemed a time when God had failed to answer or hear, it was then. When God seemed absolutely silent, and Jesus’ dead body was carried to the grave. When you hear Jesus in those words of the prayer, does it help you meditate on how He is joined to our struggles?
The Psalm continues: “Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.” With Jesus and with David, we pray that God would hear our prayers. What do we say over and over as a congregation when we pray? Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. We remind God of His promises to hear, not because He is forgetful, but to confess that we are banking on His promises. We can take His Word to the bank. And the posture of our prayer is hands lifted toward God’s house. We do not forsake assembling together, but we join in God’s house of prayer, where we humble ourselves before God and call upon His promises.
Finally the Psalmist answers with words of hope: “Blessed be the Lord! for he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy. The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.” God does hear. The tension of faith is being in that waiting place. Knowing we are assured of God’s promises, recalling His record of goodness and answered prayer in times past, and the confidence that He loves us in Christ Jesus our Savior. And yet we wait, uncertain of when and how He will answer. But always strengthened by the knowledge of His goodness, love and mercy. These strengthen and lift up our heart to trust in Him, and we are helped. Only God can answer your prayers. I cannot, nor can any other Christian, however badly we may wish to. But we can join you in prayer. Wherever two or three gather, and we agree in His Name, our prayers are strengthened and we know above all else that He listens and He loves.
His answers always flow from “Thy Will Be Done…”, God doing what is best for us as only He can see in the great grand scheme of things. We can feel lost, ignored, and insignificant in our small corner of life, and the challenging situations we face. But then we pray in and with Christ, who lifts up our prayers, and the prayers of all the saints, and we know that we are heard in Him. We know that God did not turn away from His own Son forever, even on that day of peak darkness, the day that Christ died. It’s always darkest before the dawn, and Jesus did arise to life again. As the heavenly Father shielded and helped Jesus and filled His heart with the new song of praise when He rose from the dead, so Jesus lifts us up in His prayers, and we too shall arise in Him. Of this we can be certain! Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!