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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:Our God wants to have a conversation with his covenant people
Text:LD 45 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Prayer
 
Preached:2016
Added:2016-07-10
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 77

Psalm 105:1-4

Hymn 42

Hymn 1

Psalm 98

Scripture readings:  Jeremiah 33:1-13, Acts 12:1-19

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 45

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of our Saviour Jesus,

A healthy relationship requires open communication.   Without communication, relationships just don’t function the way they should.  This is just true when it comes to relationships between human beings, but it’s just as true when it comes to our relationship with God. 

It’s important to remember that we have a covenant relationship with God.  He has established a covenant of grace with us.  To remind you, the covenant of grace has brought two parties together in peace and fellowship:  the holy God and sinners.  There’s also an important third party in the covenant of grace, a Mediator.  He is the one who brings the two parties together and, of course, that Mediator is our Lord Jesus.  Because of what he has done in his life and death, he has reconciled us to God, brought us into his family.  Whereas without Christ, we would have a relationship of animosity with God, with Christ, we have a relationship of harmony and peace.  We find ourselves in the covenant of grace because of the Mediator. 

Now that we are in this covenant of grace with our God, he has certain expectations.  As the one who designed and initiated this covenant, he has the right to not only expect certain things, but even require them.  As those who’ve been shown so much mercy in this covenant, we ought to be readily willing to submit to what he wants.  And one of the most important things he wants is to have a conversation with us.  He wants the relationship to function the way that it should, with lines of communication wide open.  This is not an onerous or burdensome thing that he wants.  Instead, we should look at this as a sign of further grace in the covenant.  Think about this:  the infinite and Holy God wants to have a conversation with you, a finite and sinful human being.  The almighty Creator of the entire universe wants to dialogue with you, one of his weak creatures.  The exalted King wants you, one of his lowly subjects, to come into his presence and speak with him.  He desires this, not just once on some special occasion, but all the time.  Far from being an oppressive expectation, this is an enormous privilege!

So this is what we’re going to look at this afternoon with Lord’s Day 45 as our catechism lesson.  I proclaim God’s Word to you:  Our God wants to have a conversation with his covenant people

We’ll learn about:

  1. The two sides of this conversation
  2. The two results of this conversation

As mentioned, in the covenant relationship there are two parties, God and us.  These two parties obviously line up with the two sides of the conversation God wants to have.  God is on one side, and we are on the other side.  That’s simple enough.  However, how does any conversation take place between these two sides?

One place that illustrates the answer to that question is found in Jeremiah 33.  God comes to the prophet Jeremiah with his Word.  God takes the initiative in this conversation and he speaks first.  He speaks to Jeremiah through his Word.   But then he expects the prophet to respond.  He expects there to be a two-way conversation.  He commands the prophet to pray in verse 3, “Call to me and I will answer you…”  God speaks first with his Word, he wants the prophet to pray in response, and then, to continue the conversation, God will answer him with his Word of blessing.  There is a back and forth in the relationship God has with Jeremiah.  On God’s side of the conversation, the communication takes place through his Word.  On Jeremiah’s side of the conversation, the communication takes place through prayer.

For us today, God’s side of the conversation comes through the Bible.  The Bible is where God speaks to us clearly and directly.  As someone once said, “If you want to hear God speaking to you, read your Bible.  If you want to hear God speaking to you audibly, read your Bible out loud.”  The Bible alone is God’s Word to us.  The Bible is God’s side of the conversation he wants to have with his covenant people.

That leads us to this conclusion:  if you want to be close to God and growing in your relationship with him, you need to be busy with your Bible.  That cannot be said enough.  Loved ones, Satan wants nothing more than for you to neglect God’s Word.  When you neglect God’s Word, your ears are closed to his speaking.  That makes you vulnerable to temptations.  That makes you an easy mark for the evil one.

Is it fair to say that we more easily pray with some regularity than read and study our Bibles with regularity?  If that’s a fair statement (I think it is), why would that be the case?  Have you thought about that?  Let me put it this way: when we pray we speak, we get to set the agenda in some sense.  God has to listen to us.  But when we read our Bibles, we have to listen, we have to submit, we have to have our hearts and ears open to God.  For many of us, speaking comes easier than listening and this is not just because of our personality, it’s because of our nature, because of our sinful pride.  We want to be heard.  Isn’t this why James says in James 1:19, “Know this, my beloved brothers:  let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak…”  James was speaking about human relationships, but it can be applied to our covenant relationship with God too.  We should strive to be quicker to hear what he has to say.  After all, in this covenant relationship, who is the greater and more majestic?  Who is the Father?  Who is the King?  Shouldn’t you let your Father have the first Word?  He does that through the Scriptures and that’s why we have to be regularly in the Word.            

So God’s side of the conversation comes through the Bible.  Prayer is our side of the conversation.  If we define it, prayer is simply calling upon God, speaking with him.  Moreover, as the Catechism puts it, a God-pleasing prayer that reaches his ears, is made from the heart.  It says, “…we must from the heart call upon the one true God only…”  Those three words “from the heart” are easily overlooked.  That’s too bad because these three words are one of our greatest challenges when it comes to prayer.  Let me explain. 

It’s not hard to pray superficially.  You could imagine a person who prays three times a day.  Every day, three times without fail, this person prays.  But every time, they pray the exact same thing and use the exact same words.  Perhaps it’s the Lord’s Prayer, or perhaps it’s something of their own devising.  Looking from the outside, you might say, “What a devout person!  He prays three times a day.  He’s very religious.”  But if you could look on the inside, there might be a different story.  Not necessarily, but there might be a different story.  Remember:  our Lord Jesus warned about mindless repetition of prayer in Matthew 6 and his warning should be taken seriously.  Repetition is dangerous because it easily becomes mindless and heartless.  When repeating the same prayer over and over again, the danger is there that it is no longer from the heart.  Instead, it’s just a religious routine, something you do, but don’t really think about.

If you did that in a human relationship, you would right away see the absurdity of it.  If you said the same 50 words to your spouse three times a day every day and nothing besides those 50 words, I’m sure your spouse would start to wonder about your relationship.  No, if you’re in a normal, healthy human relationship, when you speak, you speak from your heart.  Why is it that when God comes in the picture, we think it is okay to mindlessly say the same words over and over again?  What a strange and absurd notion!  If we do that, perhaps we’re confusing religiosity with a living and healthy relationship with God.  God wants to have a genuine conversation with his covenant people, not a scripted stage act.  Several times in Psalm 119, the Psalmist mentions calling upon God from the heart.  Verse 145, for example, “With my whole heart I cry, answer me, O LORD!”  This is meant to teach us to pray in the same way.  “We must from the heart call upon the one true God only…”  The Catechism is exactly right.

Now when Christians approach the throne of grace, they want to not only speak from the heart to their God, but they also want to speak in a way that honours him.  Speaking from the heart doesn’t mean that you can or should speak however you want.  No, a Christian loves God and therefore wants to do things God’s way, also when it comes to prayer.  A Christian wants to have their prayer line up with what God’s Word teaches about prayer.  As it happens, the Bible gives plenty of teaching about prayer and we can’t and won’t ignore that.  As the Catechism summarizes it in QA 117, prayer has to be to the one true God, praying how he has taught us to pray, praying in humility, and praying with confidence because we have Christ as our Saviour.

Christ has given us a good model for prayer.  He’s given us a paradigm for how our side of the conversation should go.  The Lord’s Prayer is included in Scripture for teaching us how to speak to our covenant God.  It’s not the only prayer in Scripture that we can learn from, but it does present the most comprehensive and concise model.  I once heard a speaker compare the Lord’s Prayer to a trellis.  A trellis is a wooden framework for vines to grow on.  The Lord’s Prayer is like a trellis.  It’s a framework.  A trellis can’t grow a vine, but it can help the vine grow in the right direction.  It’s something similar with the Lord’s Prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer helps our prayers grow in the right direction.  As we study it over the next few weeks and learn from it, we’ll find that our side of the conversation will improve.  God’s side doesn’t have to improve.  He’s the perfect communicator.   Our side always needs improvement.  We are imperfect listeners and speakers.  But God mercifully helps us grow in overcoming these imperfections.  And one of the ways he does that with regard to our speaking to him is the Lord’s Prayer.                                  

Now we move on to the two results of this conversation. 

First of all, this conversation we have with our covenant God changes us.  God’s side of the conversation, His Word, changes us.  The Spirit takes the Bible and applies it to our hearts and we change.  We more and more become who we are in Jesus Christ.  We become that new creation.

But there is also a strange and mysterious way in which our side of the conversation changes us.  Prayer changes us.  The Catechism says that prayer is the most important part of our thankfulness.  That’s a remarkable statement for a few reasons.  We might be inclined to think that our obedience to the law would be the most important part of our thankfulness.  But no, the Catechism summarizes Scriptural teaching and says that prayer is even more important than following the Ten Commandments.  It’s even more basic because the Christian life starts and continues through prayer.  But being the chief part of our thankfulness also puts prayer in the realm of sanctification.  Sanctification is the process of becoming holy, it’s the process of becoming more and more like the Saviour to whom we’re united. 

How does prayer change us?  Going to God in prayer is an expression of dependence.  We depend on our Father for everything we need for body and soul.  We are poor and helpless, but he has a bounty of blessings.  Prayer is a denial of ourselves.  We’re humbly turning outward to Someone else, acknowledging that we are not God, but he is.   Similarly, going to God in prayer is an acknowledgement of the source of our blessings.  We bring our thanks and praise and love to God in prayer.  In all these ways, prayer turns us inside out.  This is the way we’re supposed to be as Christians.  By nature, we’re turned inward.  By nature, we’ve all got a case of what you could call spiritual scoliosis.  Scoliosis is a condition where the spine is curved in on itself.  We’ve got spiritual scoliosis by nature, we’re turned in on ourselves.  But when we pray, that condition is being corrected.  We’re being healed and brought back to God’s design for our lives.  The covenant of grace is functioning the way that it should, with the two sides speaking together in peace, and that will always be a blessing for us.

The second result of the conversation is seen in the changing of our circumstances.  Prayer not only changes us, it also has a mysterious power to change our circumstances.  We see that vividly illustrated in what we read from Acts 12.  Peter was again put in prison.  Herod was persecuting the church and Peter was an obvious target.   Notice verse 5 here in Acts 12, “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.”  The church prayed fervently and constantly for Peter that he might be delivered from Herod.  Someone might say, “Why pray for Peter if God is sovereign?  Why bother?  God is just going to do what he has planned anyway.  So why pray?”  To that, one might respond, “Why pray if God isn’t sovereign?”  God is the one who has power to change things.  We pray because God is sovereign and he has the power to make things different.  Moreover – and this is important, so listen carefully:  God has decided to work through our prayers to accomplish what he has decreed.  That’s why James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power as it is working.”  It has power because God gives it power and works with it and through it.  If you ask me exactly how that works, I have to say, “I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.”  Indeed, the way God’s sovereignty and our prayers work together is not explained for us in Scripture.  But it is taught and it is promised that it will be this way, so we believe what our God says.  The Sovereign God will work through our prayers to carry out his plans.    

As we pray, God always hears us.  The Catechism says, “God will certainly hear our prayer…”  You can count on that.  God is never deaf to the cries of his children.  This is guaranteed because we are his children through the Mediator of the covenant of grace, through Jesus Christ.  We have God as our listening Father in this conversation, because we have Jesus as our Saviour.  This Father not only listens, but loves us.  And that comes through in how he answers us.  In Acts 12, God heard the prayers of the church and he answered them the way they had prayed.  Peter was miraculously set free.  But it doesn’t always happen that God answers our prayers the way we had prayed them.  We pray for healing for someone, but instead of healing complications set in, and then maybe we even lose that person.  God heard our prayers, his Word promises that, but he didn’t answer our prayers as we hoped he would.  Sometimes he says, “No, I have a better plan” or “No, what you’re asking for is not right or not for your good.”  At other times he says, “Yes, I will do what you ask, but later.  I am going to delay because I have something to teach you through this.”  Sometimes he says, “Yes, I will do what you ask and do it right away because I have a plan in doing that way, a plan for your good.”  Whatever the case may be, it is part of growing as a Christian that we learn to trust that God hears prayer and will answer.  We have to learn to trust that he will answer in the way that is best for his children.  He is greater, wiser, and far more loving than we could ever be.

Because this is true, we should always pray expectantly.  Loved ones, you have a great God.  He not only has infinite power in his hands, he also has the deepest love for you in his heart.  When you engage him in conversation, listen to his Word promising that this is true.  And also pray with an attitude and words of expectancy and faith, trusting that he will come through for you in just the right way, the best way possible.  This is how the covenant of grace works.  God gives you gracious words of promise and you believe him.  You believe him because you have been blessed by him in Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the Covenant.  In a moment, we’ll sing from Hymn 42.  That beautiful hymn comes from Hebrews 4:14-16.  As we sing, we’ll be reminded that Jesus is the one who greases the wheels of our covenant conversation.  Our prayers come towards the throne of God imperfect and stained with sin.  Jesus perfects and purifies them.  He washes them clean with his blood and he even adds his own intercessions for us.  So when we pray, we not only have our voice being heard in the conversation, but also the voice of our elder Brother.  If you think about that, what a comfort that is!  How could God not hear us?   

This Lord’s Day of the Catechism brings us all back to school.  We’re back in Jesus’ school of prayer.  For the next few weeks, we’ll again be sitting at the feet of our Master as he teaches us how to properly carry out our side of the conversation.  Loved ones, let’s all aim to be good students in this school, so that we can grow in our covenant communion with God.  AMEN.

Prayer:

Our Almighty and loving covenant God,

Thank you for the relationship that you’ve established with us.  We know that we’re not worthy to be your children.  We’re not worthy to have open access to your throne of grace.  You’ve given these things to us in the Mediator, Jesus Christ.  Thank you for him and how he makes this relationship work.  We thank you that through him we may freely speak to you.  We’re grateful because we have Jesus, we know you hear our prayers and answer them.  Father, please help us to be diligently listening to your voice in your Word.  We want to be better students of the Bible, but we need help with that.  Please make us motivated and eager to study your Word.  Father, we also want to be speaking with you from the heart.  This doesn’t come naturally to us, and so here too we ask for your Spirit to drive out everything in our prayer life that’s just a going through the motions.  Work in us so that we genuinely speak with you and bring our supplications and thanksgivings to you. We pray that our prayers would be making us more thankful, more dependent on you.  We ask that you would help us so that through prayer we grow closer to you and that more and more we reflect Christ.  Father, we also pray that you would help us always to trust that you hear our prayers and will answer them.  Whether we’re in good times or adversity, please let your Spirit drive out all doubts and make us always trust your good will for us.                                                             




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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