I am preaching at Southbourne Evangelical Church on the evening of the 17th. This is the first half of my sermon as currently drafted.
Everybody agrees that prayer is the lifeblood of the church. Read biographies of great Saints of the past like Robert Murray McShane and John Wesley and you will read of the many hours they spent in prayer. Read about the great revivals and you will learn that they were fuelled by prayer. Yet ask Christians about their own prayer lives and overwhelmingly they are dissatisfied. A Christian publisher conducted an internet poll – of 678 respondents only 23 were satisfied with their time spent in prayer. For the past few months I have been pondering over why our prayer lives are so unsatisfactory, so I feel that the Lord has laid on my heart that I should spend these two sermons considering the difficulties we encounter in prayer.
Have you ever met royalty? I have twice met Princess Anne and once Princess Margaret. I have been 20 yards from the Queen in a crowd. Princess Anne I found sharp with a mind of her own and Princess Margaret a heavy smoker and drinker who liked a joke. I've never met a famous politician, though our local MP, whom I have met once, is shadow minister for culture and sport. I was once in the same bank queue with Harry Redknapp but apart from him the only sports star I have met is Frank Bruno. I do know a member of a well-known rock band of the 1980s. Of course, I know a lot of doctors who are famous in their own circles, but I have never met anyone from the world of culture apart from a second violin in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Natalie Clein, the cellist, though I knew her parents rather better than her. I have met a few well-known journalists, both professionally and socially, though the ones I knew socially are both dead. Even in the world of the Church the people I have met are pretty small fry – the Suffragan Bishop of Swindon being the most exalted. If we put it the other way round and asked all these people, "Do you know Terry Hamblin?" they would mostly answer, "Terry who?"
Even compared to royalty the awesomeness of God is hard to contemplate. What does the second Psalm say about kings? He who sits enthroned in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision
One morning in church we sang this chorus:
Our God is an awesome God,
He reigns from heaven above,
With wisdom, power and love,
Our God is an awesome God!
Then we sang it again – in fact we repeated the same words five times. I was getting irritated at this 'vain repetition' but then it began to get to me. We need to realise just how awesome He is.
He is not Princess Margaret, Princess Anne, not even the Queen. Not Gordon Brown,Tony Blair, not even George Bush. Not Christiano Ronaldo, David Beckham or Mohammed Ali. Not Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford or George Clooney. Not Nelson Mandella, the Dalai Lama or the Pope. Their grandeur is a pale imitation.
This is the one who created the earth, the sun the stars.
Have you ever been on a long walk? In the past we have spent the day walking and covered perhaps 10 miles. On his great walks Ian Botham managed about 25 miles a day. That’s an easy drive to Southampton or Salisbury, but try driving to Scotland – it seems an awfully long way. The fastest I have travelled is about 600 miles an hour, but as you look out of the window of your airliner at the frozen wastes of Canada you seem hardly to be moving at all. 6000 miles to San Francisco is a very long way. The moon is not a few thousand miles away but a quarter of a million miles. Mars at its closest is 35 million miles away. The sun is 93 million miles away.
I travelled at 600 mph. Jet fighters can manage about three times that. Rockets that leave the earth have to travel at about 25,000 mph or 7 miles a second. Light travelling from the sun or radio waves traveling from the transmitter on the Isle of Wight travel much faster – not 7 miles a second but 186,000 miles a second. Light from the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, traveling at that enormous speed takes 4.3 years to reach us. Our own sun and the three suns rotating around each other that make up the system of Alpha Centuri are members of a Galaxy that we call the Milky Way (sorry if it all sounds like a load of chocolate bars). The Milky Way contains 500 thousand million stars. But that is only one of many galaxies. Observations through the Hubble telescope have led to an estimate of there being 125 thousand million galaxies in the universe. The nearest galaxy to ours is the Andromeda galaxy. Light from Andromeda travelling at that unimaginable speed takes 2 million years to reach us.
If what we see through the telescope is mind boggling, then what we see through the microscope is more so. In a teaspoonful of blood there are 25 thousand million blood cells. Down the microscope they look like simple red bevelled discs. But even with my best microscope which magnifies about a thousand times I can’t see what’s going on inside these cells. For that I need an electron microscope. These can magnify up to 2 million times. The increased resolution is due to the wavelength of an electron, its de Broglie wavelength, being much smaller than that of a light photon.
When we look down an electron microscope we enter a world that no-one had dreamed of until about 70 years ago. It is the strange world of the mitochondrion and the endoplasmic reticulum where reaction and interactions take place in a complex and almost incomprehensible way. The molecules there that do the work of life there are too small to see, even with an electron microscope – we know they are there by their effects. These processes are only partially understood by the greatest brains on the planet. Every day about two thousand scientific papers are published each trying to understand more about the world that we live in. About a quarter are concerned with understanding what goes on inside the cell. We understand so little yet what we do understand leaves us awestruck. Every type of cell in the human body cell is different, yet the information required for every type of cell is contained in the fertilized human egg.
And it’s the same for every type of bird or insect or mammal or lizard or fish or slug or tree or daisy or grass. I won’t even go into things smaller than molecules. Atoms I barely understand; subatomic particles: quarks and leptons, fermions and bosons, tachyons and hadrons, mesons and baryons; even their inventors are not sure whether they really exist or are just works of fiction. A couple of years ago I was invited to join the faculty of 1000 – the thousand most renowned scientists. If the other 999 understand as little as I do…
No wonder that Job’s comforter could chide him thus: Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the almighty? They are higher than the heavens – what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave – what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.
No wonder that God himself can answer Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
How awesome is a God who knows every hair on my head and cares for the raiment of the flowers of the field and holds the very sparrows in his hand. How tremendous He is who created this marvelous universe from the smallest electron to the mightiest star, who stands outside of time to see simultaneously a crystal form in Alpha Centuri and a murderous thought in the mind of a tribesman in the Kalahari.
Surely, like Job all we can say is “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” As far as trying to influence God with our prayers we must agree with Job –“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.”
And when we come to prayer we are apt to be dumb before him lest like Job we
“speak of things we do not understand; things too wonderful for us to know.”