This is the text of my sermon for Sunday morning.
Last Sunday evening we considered the difficulties we encounter in prayer and we thought about the majesty of God. How could an almighty God be concerned about the puny goings-on, on planet Earth? And we learned that here alone in the Universe was God disobeyed and that here alone He sent his son to redeem us so that we might be adopted as sons and become co-heirs with Jesus Christ. And just as Jesus prayed to his father, so should we.
This morning we are going to consider the problem of God’s omniscience; what is the point of praying to a God who knows everything?
Psalm 139 is a prayer that glories in God's omniscience. "You have searched me and known me," prays David. It is fashionable these days to sing songs about God's emotions, but one emotion God cannot feel is surprise. He knows the end from the beginning. When I was young and went to the cinema, the performances continued one after another without clearing the auditorium at every showing. You could, on a cold winter's afternoon buy a ticket for one and ninepence and sit in the cinema from 2 in the afternoon until 10 at night, watching several showings. More often than not I would arrive half way through the second feature and watch until the end, then see the news and a cartoon, then the first feature and then the second feature again until we reached the part where we had come in. "Let's go," we'd say, "we know how it ends." (My young brother on being taken to his first football match and realising that it had already started asked my father, "Can we stay on and see the bit we missed?")
It was Karl Marx who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, but God's omniscience doesn't come from having seen it all before. He sees the beginning and end simultaneously as if He were standing outside of time. He even knows what would have happened had we made a different decision. In I Sam Ch 23 there is an interesting story about David when he was battling against the Philistines and being hunted by King Saul. He had rescued the town of Keilah and was holed up there. He asks God, "Will Saul pursue me to Keilah and will the town surrender me to him?" When both answers came back in the affirmative, he left the town and Saul, on hearing of it, gave up the chase. God not only knows what happened, is happening and will happen, but also what would have happened. His omniscience is complete.
David Pawson tells a story from when he was an Air Force Chaplain based in the Middle East. His Arab servant was discovered hidden in a wardrobe scoffing a cream cake during Ramadan; he thought God couldn't see him if he hid. Verse 11 of our psalm says, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light for you. In fact, God could not only see him in the dark, he not only knew his hiding place, he knew the very moment when the idea hit him that he could secretly satisfy his hunger.
Are you worried about the government eavesdropping on your e-mails? About CCTV cameras? How about the DNA database that can trace you wherever you've been? The truth for a Christian is that there is nothing that he does that is unobserved. Not a single action. He knows when we sit and when we rise; when we go out and when we lie down. We can’t escape from him. Have you been following the case of the disappearing canoeist? He thought he was safe when he settled on the far side of the sea. He reckoned without the internet. All the time the canoeist was canoodling with his wife in Panama. But God didn’t need the internet to find him. He knew where he was there from the moment the thought formed itself in his mind that he would defraud the insurance company.
How about the case of Clark Rockefeller, who turns out nor to have been a Rockefeller at all. He is estranged from his wife and when his young daughter came to visit him he did a runner, prompting a manhunt. As the American authorities sought him, it turned out that Clark Rockefeller did not exist. It was just one of his many aliases. Apparently, he is a German, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who moved to America in 1978 and is wanted for the murder of Jonathan and Linda Sohus in California in 1985. He may have thought he was under cover for all these years – but God, the all knowing has known about him; exactly who he was, where he was and what he was doing.
We have no secrets from God. Not a single word spoken. Not a single thought. "You perceive my thoughts from afar," writes David, "before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely." It is clear, then, that we do not need to pray aloud. Our unspoken thought may be a prayer.
But some may ask what is the point of praying? The Psalmist praises God for His omniscience: V19 “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” but can he change God’s mind? Rather than plead with God, he complains, “If only you would slay the wicked.”
If God knows everything about us, if he knows our needs, our worries and our desires, if, more importantly, he knows what's best for us, why pray? Are we not just making fools of ourselves, asking for what it is silly to ask for, exposing ourselves as idiots in the grand scheme of things?
Perhaps our prayers should just be praise? As for the future, perhaps we should just be fatalistic? God knows best; we must simply accept what comes our way.
As it happens we are given an example of a prayer that seems to change God’s mind.
Do you remember Abraham’s strange encounter with the LORD in chapter 18 of Genesis? These three visitors came to see him near the great trees of Mamre and after he had given them dinner they told him that his old (or should I say ancient) wife Sarah was going to bear him a son the following year. As they were leaving, the LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" and reveals to Abraham that He was about to destroy Sodom where is his nephew Lot lived with his family. Remember how Abraham argued that God would surely not destroy the righteous with the wicked. What if there are fifty righteous men in the town? Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
God seems to back down as Abraham wheedles concession after concession out of Him and beats Him down like a second hand car dealer to just ten righteous people. I reckon that Abraham was calculating that Lot and his wife and two daughters made four. It was likely that the girls had boy-friends by now, so if you counted them and their respective parents there were likely to be ten.
In the end Sodom turned out to be worse than anyone suspected. Lot and his two daughters were saved, but no-one else. Even Lot's wife hankered too much after the sins of Sodom. So it turned out that God's original plan was accomplished. Sodom was destroyed. God did exactly what he said He would do. So what was all that negotiation about? It seems to me that it was all about Abraham approximating himself to God's will.
Later on Abraham would be more severely tested. At stake would not be the life of his nephew, but the life of his son - and not just any son; the son of promise. Out of Isaac would come many nations; yet Abraham trusted God. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead - so he had no compunction in offering his son as a sacrifice.
What transformed Abraham from a man who wanted to stay God's hand from destroying a wicked city to save his foolish nephew to a man who was willing to trust God to do the right thing even if it amounted to sacrificing his own son? It can only be a lifetime of prayer. A lifetime of listening to God and learning about His wisdom and justice.
Is this what prayer is meant to do for us?
Last Sunday evening we came to the conclusion that we should pray because we follow the example of our co-heir, the Lord Jesus Christ. If you read the prayers of Jesus, it is clear that he had an intimate, conversational relationship with his father. In John 11:42 at the raising of Lazarus, Jesus says, "Thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."
We find it harder to be certain that God always hears us. It’s very hard to carry on an intimate relationship with someone you can’t see or hear or feel.
Are you troubled by cold calling? Every day we get a call. Someone with a strong Indian accent wants to help us with our debts (we don't have any), or a recording tells us how much money we have locked up in our home, or someone offers us free double glazing if we allow our house to become a show-case for them to demonstrate their wares, or a man with a Birmingham accent thinks we are not getting the best return on our investments. Yesterday, a rather nice lady with a Yorkshire accent asked me, "Do you have trouble getting out of the bath?"
How do you deal with them? Some people just put the phone down on them. Others get abusive. One lady I know replies, "No, I don't have any money worries, but do you know where you're going when you die?" and then continues, "Let me tell you about the Lord Jesus Christ..."
In the days when we called it 'junk' mail rather than 'spam' David Frost had a good idea. Inside most junk mail there is a prepaid reply envelope, that is only paid if it is posted. He suggested that we sent it back empty. That would deter them.
On the same principle, one fellow I know, just puts the phone on the table and lets them talk away. After all they're paying for the phone call. There's nothing to say you have to listen. I wonder how long it takes before they get tired at the other end of getting no response? If you are a fan of Fawlty Towers you will know all about telephone responses. Prunella Scales' brilliant portrayal of Sybil with her "Oohhh, I knoooooooow" and her braying laugh, which her husband compares to "someone machine-gunning a seal" sent the verbal signals to her friend Audrey that someone was listening.
When we pray we lack those verbal reassurances. Not only is God invisible to us, but he does not reply, "I know" down the telephone. There are times when we feel God is very close. But at other times, as Philip Yancy says, God's baffling tolerance of the world's atrocities and my unanswered prayers, make me feel that I am talking to the ceiling.
The first thing to realise is that my feelings about the matter are not a measure of God's presence. Like the sun, he is always there though clouds hide his face. Wherever we go, not just in beautiful gardens or exhilarating mountain tops, God is with us. Think of the most disgusting place: a filthy prison without sanitation where the inmates are tortured by the guards or a 'hospital' in Africa without sheets or blankets, without medicine, where people lie waiting to die with undressed wounds and untreated fevers. It sounds like Hell - a place defined by the absence of God.
But listen to what Jesus said, "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (Matt 25:34-40)
When we visit such places He is already there. He is in the sick and hungry, the tortured and the oppressed, the weak and the lonely.
As the psalmist writes, "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:7-12)
We pray because Jesus prayed. A simple enough answer. Christians follow Christ. The Bible records more than a dozen of Jesus' specific prayers as well as his teaching and parables on the subject. We can see that it was his practice to pray regularly and for long periods. Five times the Gospels mention his practice of praying in solitude. He prayed in the Garden, he prayed on the cross. He seldom prayed for himself. The request that this cup be taken from him is perhaps the only occasion and that was modulated by "not my will, but thine." He often prayed for others: for children brought by their mothers, for the people by the grave of Lazarus, for Simon Peter whom Satan sought to sift, for those who were crucifying him. At times of special importance he intensified his prayers: at his baptism, all night before choosing his disciples (was it Judas that gave him so much trouble or was it Peter?), on the Mount of Transfiguration, and especially before his death. His prayer could be exuberant as when the 70 returned from their mission. He prayed that his disciples would receive the Counsellor; he prayed in his great High Priestly prayer of John 17 for all of us believers who would come after him.
Did he get everything he prayed for? Do we? The answer is no, it doesn’t seem so, or at the best, not yet. When I said he prayed for us, what did he pray for? He prayed for unity. John 17:20-21 "My prayer is not for them alone (that is, the disciples), I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." At the last count there were 34,000 distinct denominations and sects. Is that an answered prayer?
I suggest that on that long night before he chose the twelve, he prayed for Judas. He certainly prayed for Peter, that his faith would not fail. We know that Peter's faith failed him three times before the cock crowed. The Bible tells us that Satan has asked to sift him like wheat. As for Judas, Luke tells us that 'Satan entered Judas'. We are in spiritual warfare. We face supernatural forces. Sometimes Satan wins the battle. We know that he is a beaten foe, but he won't lie down just yet. He means to take as many casualties with him as he can.
Like his ancestor Jacob before him Jesus wrestled in prayer. We must do the same. Prayer is hard work. Despite our wish to be spared Satan's attacks, God permits them. We cannot fathom that. Why was Satan permitted to smite that good man Job? Why didn't Jesus restrain Satan when Peter slunk into the courtyard and warmed his hands by the brazier? He was bravely there when others had fled. Why wasn't he protected? And Judas? Are we allowed to say poor Judas? He had been Jesus' friend and companion those three years on the road. Why would he not spare his friend from this harrowing? Why did he allow this evil possession?
We know now why. We know why Jesus died. It seemed a cockeyed plan at the time, but Jesus had to die. He had to be betrayed. He had to be denied. No rescue plan could be allowed to interrupt the proceedings. The just must die for the unjust. There was no other way. There was no other good enough. God knew what He was doing.
We may be perplexed at God. Why doesn't He answer my prayers? Why doesn't He do what I want? Prayer reconciles us to the will of God.
If He is going to do what he wants anyway, why should we pray? I don't know. I only know that in some mysterious way his plans are accomplished because we pray. How do I know? Because Jesus prayed and even though his prayers appeared not to be answered, God's will was accomplished and millions were saved.
The other night I watched an old war film. The captured flyers had spent a year in a prisoner of war camp somewhere in northern Germany. Under the cover of a vaulting horse they had tunneled out of the Stalag and with forged papers they had crossed the country by train to the nearest port. They were holed up in a small hotel while trying to contact Swedish seamen. When they went out they realized that they are being followed. They tried to give him the slip, but he was still there. How would you pray in these circumstances?
The authorities are looking for you. You have managed to keep below the radar. Every night you sleep in a different bed and some nights in no bed at all. You have many loyal friends who support you, but only a very few who know where you will lay your head tonight. Although your position seems precarious, in reality you have enormous strength. Your father has ready and prepared thousands of crack troops who could rescue you from danger at a moment’s notice. All it needs is one radio call. This isn’t World War II with a crackly wireless and long and ponderous flights from England; this is instant access with communications loud and clear. This is ‘Beam me up, Scottie’ instant transportation.
You hear a crowd gathering. In the dark you see torches. The light glints on the body armor. There is no doubt about it; they have come to arrest you. One of your so-called ‘loyal’ supporters has blabbed. Here’s the decision: do you make the call?
The problem is this. You have invested three years in this mission. You always knew it might cost you everything. If you pull out now it would mean abandoning not only your friends, but all those you had come to liberate. Not to make the call means torture and certain death; and not a pleasant death either. This is no quick bullet in the back of the head or lethal injection. This is death by torment and humiliation. It will leave your followers shocked and in despair. If you pulled out they might seem better off. They could go about their business much as before. Some of them would go back to fishing – they were quite good at it. Some might farm, some might trade, and others would take clerical jobs. They would certainly be able to make a living, but they would be living under a malign Ruler who had their distress close to his heart. He would certainly know that he had won a victory, and won it without even a fight.
Well, as I am sure you have realized, Jesus never made that call. It was one of those prayers that Jesus never prayed. When Satan desired to sift Peter like wheat, Jesus never prayed that Peter be declared off limits for the Devil. He never prayed that Peter would be so strong as to resist the evil one. He prayed that his faith would not fail. It seemed to fail, as Peter denied his Lord, but the sifting got rid of Peter’s undesirable characteristics: his arrogance, his bombast, his violence, his boasting. The man whose vain bluster claimed that if all deserted, he would stay steadfast; the man whose violent temper struck off the servant’s ear; the man who swore blind that he never knew him, became the writer of the letter that recommends to his followers that they “live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing.” (I Peter 3:8)
God’s answers to prayers may not be intelligible to us. The atheist scoffs, “If your god were all powerful and all loving as you claim, he would not allow the suffering that we see every night on the ten o’clock news. Either he is all loving but powerless or he is powerful but doesn’t care. Or more likely he is a figment of your imagination.”
What do we say to the child sexually abused by her father? What do we say to the young mother whose breast cancer has spread to her bones? What do we say to the children of missionaries who have been hacked down in one of the world’s trouble spots? What do we say to the mother whose daughter has killed herself? That God could intervene but he tolerates evil? That he recognizes the arbitrariness of suffering but has to put up in it? That he understands wicked and oppressive regimes, but has to stand by and do nothing?
What do we say when they ask for a miracle? Pray that my handicapped baby will walk. Pray that my wife won’t die of her brain tumor. Pray that my brutal and abusing husband will love me again as he used to.
I believe in miracles, but they are miracles. They are rare exceptions to God’s laws that mean that up is up and down is down and that water flows from up to down and 2+2=4. Miracles can’t be turned on like a tap. If prayer worked like magic you would not dare put one foot in front of another in case someone, somewhere had prayed that paving stone in front of your footstep disappears. No, God’s answers must be altogether more subtle.
Has God done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the world? He gave us his Word to tell us how to live. He sent us his Son to cancel our sin. He sent us his Spirit to live in our lives. The foulest oppression; He has experienced it. The deepest deprivation; He has known it. The greatest disappointment, the most murderous torture, the most fearsome abuse, the most harrowing loss; He has shared in them all.
It was not on the cross where Jesus’ sweat was like drops of blood, but in the Garden beforehand. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.” (Heb 5:7)
That prayer was answered, but not in the way that you might expect. On the third day he rose again. He was saved from death but not from the suffering. We cannot imagine what transactions took place in those long hours in the Garden, but we know that they were vital. Was it some sort of negotiation? Was it a matter of Jesus reconciling his mind to that of the Father? Was that even necessary or possible? Was the Father rehearsing with Jesus what the final outcome of his suffering would be, for we are told, “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame”. (Heb 12:2)
Jesus continued to pray despite seeing wrongs un-righted. Everyone was looking for him. The previous evening, the whole town had gathered at his door and Jesus had healed many who had various diseases. Instead of starting work on healing the next lot, very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place and prayed. (Mark 1:35)
Jesus hasn’t stopped praying. “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Heb 7:25) “Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Rom 8:34)
We live by faith not by sight. We pray in faith; not from telephone responses. Prayer is our lifeblood.
The psalm begins, “O LORD you have searched me and knw me.”
Listen to how it ends: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.