A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sermon (January 18) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "It Takes One to Know One"

    There are many questions that people have about their faith. One of those questions centers around the topic of prayer.
      More specifically, people want to know if God cares about every little detail of our daily living. Is it OK to pray to God about being selected for a new job? What about praying for God to give me an “A” on my next test? If I pray, will God help my favorite sport’s team win?
     My home church had a Ultimate Frisbee league when I was in high school. If you never heard of Ultimate Frisbee, it’s kind of like football except you use a Frisbee and there’s no tackling and you’re not allowed to run with the Frisbee. You have to work the frisbee down the field by throwing it to your teammates. You score when someone catches the frisbee in the end zone.
     Before each game, the two teams would come to mid-field for a prayer as a sign of good sportsmanship. Somebody from one of the teams would give the prayer. The person who was giving the prayer at one of the games was offering a really nice prayer, but then ended the prayer by saying, “And Lord, help the Muppets to win. Amen.” Of course, he was referring to his team which was known as the Muppets.

     Does God care about which team wins a Universal Frisbee game? What about football players who point to the sky after scoring a touchdown? Should preachers do the same thing after preaching a stirring sermon?

     What about the weather? Should we pray for nice weather when we’re planning a big event? And what about a particular situation we may be facing? Does God want us to pray for there to be a certain outcome that will benefit us?
     I think that Psalm 139 offers some important insights to these questions about prayer. This Psalm reminds us that God is not some remote deity who is disengaged from our day to day living. This is a God who knows each one of us intimately. This is a God who is acquainted with all our ways.
     The Psalmist begins by saying, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thought from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.”
     What does this Psalm teach us about prayer? It teaches us that it’s OK for us to pray about the specific details that are going on in our lives. What kind of details? It includes everything from challenges and adversities, to joys and celebrations that we experience in our everyday lives. God cares about it all.
     Jesus had this picture of God in mind when he taught the crowds by pointing out some birds in the air and saying how they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet our heavenly Father feeds them. Are we not of more value than they?
     This is the biblical picture of who God is. God is a God who cares about our needs, our problems, our wants, and the challenges we face. Have you ever heard someone refer to God as the “man upstairs?”  I don’t think that’s an accurate biblical image of God. The biblical image is that God is intimately connected with all of creation and wants to have a relationship with us.
     God is not the absent landlord. God is the ever-present source of life.
     God calls us by name like he did for the young boy Samuel in the middle of the night. Samuel heard his name being called and it was Eli, the Priest who helped Samuel to know that it was God who was calling him. God wanted to have a personal relationship with Samuel so that Samuel would be able to grow in his faith and use his leadership gifts to be a blessing for God’s people.
     When our two children were in their early elementary school years, my brother gave each of them a very special gift on their birthdays one year. He had taken a picture of each of them and had their photos enlarged and placed in very large frames to hang in their bedrooms.
     At the bottom of each of their photos was a verse from this Psalm. It was the first part of verse 14 in this Psalm where the Psalmist states, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” What a wonderful verse to remember. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
     Say that with me. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I’m sure that when he thought of this large picture idea for their birthdays, that he just wanted them to always be reminded that God loves them and cares about them.
     Maybe we should all have large pictures like this somewhere in our homes with this same verse to remind us that we have been wonderfully made by God. Sometimes, we might not feel like we have been wonderfully made. Sometimes, we may question if God is that close at all.
     Psalm 139 reminds us that even if we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there, God’s hand shall lead us, his right hand shall hold us fast.

     This is a Psalm that reminds us of that wonderful Wesleyan doctrine of Prevenient Grace. Prevenient Grace is the grace of God that is always present with us in any given moment of any given day. The good news of our faith is that God is always reaching out to us and wants to be in a relationship with us. Prevenient Grace is God’s grace that is always being extended to us even though we are not always conscious of its presence.
     God’s Prevenient Grace reminds me of my 40th birthday which ended up being a surprise party. My wife was sneaky. During the several weeks leading up to my birthday that year, she had invited my family from out of state to come and surprise me.
     Now, I’m not the brightest crayon in the box so I didn’t pick up on the clues that she was up to something. One of those clues was when she asked me to clean the house a few days after I had just cleaned it. I remember saying to her, “But I just cleaned it last weekend. Can’t you tell?”  She said, “I just think it would be nice to clean it again.” 
     She wanted the house to look really nice for when the family would arrive from out of town. And in my own clueless happy go lucky way, I said, “Okay, I’ll clean it all over again.”
     That’s the definition of a happy marriage when your wife can get you to clean the house for your own surprise birthday party!
     And then on the day of the surprise party, I’m still totally clueless that anything was going on. It was the day before my birthday, a Saturday, and she said, “Let’s go out to lunch and then go see a movie.”
     We went out to lunch and had a wonderful time together and on the way back to the movie theater, she said, “I need to stop at the church to pick up a few things first.”  And I’m thinking, “This might make us late for the movie. What does she need to pick up at the church?” But remember, I’m Mr. Clueless so I didn’t think anything more about it. I just said, “OK.”  I would be the world’s worst detective.  All of these clues and I still don’t pick up on any of this.
     So we walk into the church, go down the hallway, and I’m thinking to myself, “I wonder what she left in the Fellowship Hall?” She opens the door and I hear everyone yell out, “Happy birthday!”
     So then, I’m thinking, “Oh that’s nice. Some people in the church are throwing a birthday party for me.”  And as I start talking to one of the church members, out of the corner of my eye, I see my mother who had traveled from out of state to be there.  And I think, “Oh that’s nice, Penny arranged for my mom to come to Ohio for my birthday.”
     After I hug my mom, I look over her shoulder and I’m shocked to see my brother in law who was also from out of state. “Gary is that you?” And then I notice my nieces, my sisters, and my brother who all came in from long distances to throw this surprise birthday party for me. I was so humbled. I looked over at Penny and she was laughing so hard because she knew that I was totally clueless.
     And by the way, I am still upset that we never made it the movie theater that day!
     Prevenient Grace is like that surprise birthday party. As we go through our day, God is working behind the scenes to remind you and me of just how much he loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us.
     There are clues of God’s grace all around us, but we’re so focused on our regular day to day living, that we don’t always pick up on the little hints or even the big hints along the way.
     The story of the bible is a story of the great lengths that God is willing to go to be in a relationship with us. This God just doesn’t know when to quit! Even if we quit seeking God or we take detours away from God, God is always there for us wooing us back. God always takes the first step toward us and all we need to do is respond.
     The Psalmist says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”  God is always preparing a surprise party for us even though we are often times clueless!
     One of the ways that we can live out Psalm 139 on a daily basis is to take some time during the day, to just slow down and remind ourselves that in that very moment, in that very moment, God is reaching out to us with his grace. What an incredible thought to keep in mind during our day to day living. God is reaching out to me with his grace in this moment.
     How about right now in the middle of this sermon? Did you know that God is trying to get your attention? God is saying, “Hey, I’m here. I’m right here. You might have forgotten about me, but I haven’t forgotten about you! You are fearfully and wonderfully made!”
     “Hey Robert, I know you’re preaching right now, but I want you to know that you are fearfully and wonderfully made and I care about you. Don’t worry. I’ll help you finish this sermon. You’ll be fine.”
     I want our church to be a church that is always seeking to be aware of God’s Prevenient Grace at work in our lives. I want our church to be a church where we help each other recognize and celebrate God’s prevenient grace in our lives.

     One of the ways that we can become more like the Psalmist and remember God’s Prevenient Grace is by living out our church’s vision which is to love, grow, and serve. We love by being part of weekly worship. We grow by attending a Sunday School class or attending one of our six core courses that we are just beginning to offer on a rotating basis throughout the year. We serve by becoming part of a LifeGroup where our small group serves in a ministry and where we can share our faith with each other on a regular basis.
     Love, Grow, Serve. That’s how our church is seeking to be a Psalm 139 church where we are becoming more aware of how God’s grace is being poured out in our lives every moment of every day. This is what makes our faith real. It’s when we help each other know that God cares about us and wants to be in a growing relationship with us.
     We began this message by thinking through if God cares about our many concerns and desires in life. Based on Psalm 139 and Jesus’ teachings, the answer is yes. God does care about our what we are thinking about and dealing with in life.
     Now, we can take this a little too far and expect God to help our favorite football team go undefeated every year.  We might expect God to provide nice weather for a special event we are planning. And we might even pray for God to help us get that promotion at work.
     How do you think God handles these types of prayer requests on a daily basis? In thinking this through with someone, his thought was that God must have a great big spam folder in heaven that catches all of these types of requests.  There may be some truth to that. I don’t know.
     But even when we offer to God these kinds of prayer requests, I believe that God still wants to hear those requests. God might not perform a miracle and give us an “A” on a test, but God can strengthen us to study as much as we can and be as prepared as possible for that test.
     God might not give us a promotion at work, but God wants us to use our gifts and abilities in the best possible way so that we can make a positive difference through our work. And God might not lead our favorite team to an undefeated season every year but God can help us to be sportsmanlike regardless of the outcome.
     In all of our prayers, not matter how noble or petty they may seem, there is a God who wants to be in a loving relationship with us. This is a God who not only knows everything about us but who wants us to know Him.
     Psalm 139 reminds us that it takes one to know one.


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