Sermon - Sunday, 4 November 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 4 November 2018.

Scripture: Deuteronomy 6: 1-9 / Mark 12: 28-34

Text:  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you                          (1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18)


It goes without saying, Jesus was a man of prayer – but it is worth saying, and it is worth reminding ourselves Jesus’ ministry as the wandering preacher, teacher and healer was shaped by prayer.

At the beginning of his ministry, immediately after his baptism in the river Jordan, all four gospels report Jesus retreated into the Judean wilderness.

For forty days and nights Jesus fasted and prayed.

How would he use his God given powers – to satisfy his own hunger, to meet his own need – or in the service of God and God’s kingdom?

As the wilderness experience ends with Jesus telling Satan, the tempter, to get behind him, so the pattern for what follows is established; Jesus’ commitment to worshipping and serving God alone.

The pattern of prayer continued throughout his ministry and at several points we read Jesus withdraws from the crowd, and from all the demands and expectations being placed upon him, in order to pray.

And never more so than on the night of his betrayal when, having eaten his last supper with his disciples, Jesus led them to the Mount of Olives and to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Taking his three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, Jesus withdrew from the larger group and, while the three struggled to stay awake, he prayed.

With the shadow of the cross looming large, St Luke reports such was the anguish in Jesus’ heart, the fervent nature of his prayer, his sweat fell like drops of blood to the ground.

Yet however fearful of what lay ahead, the commitment made at the beginning of his ministry continued until the end – not as I will but as You will.

If this commitment to seeking God’s will in all things – even at the cost of his own life – was one of the defining characteristics of Jesus’ ministry, it also tells us something important about the nature and purpose of prayer.

Although it takes many different shapes and forms, from the traditional and highly liturgical to the charismatic and spontaneous, at its best all prayer is about discerning God’s presence, promise and purpose in our lives, our church and our world.

Not as I will but as You will – but don’t take my word for it, it is what Jesus taught his disciples.

Fishermen, tax collectors, house wives – whatever they imagined, I doubt if the wonderfully diverse group of women and men who responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow had any idea of the extraordinary journey of faith and life which lay ahead.

Teaching, preaching, calming a storm, feeding a crowd with a few loaves and fish, healing a woman of her bleeding, telling a crippled man to pick up his bed and walk, raising a dead girl to life, restoring a blind man’s sight, arguing with the Scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the law – and at all times speaking and acting with an authority they had never experienced in anyone else – as they followed Jesus through the towns and villages of Galilee, one of the things the disciples noticed was Jesus praying.

And having noticed how important prayer was to Jesus, they asked, Lord, teach us to pray.

And what did Jesus teach them?

Jesus taught them the Lord’s Prayer.

And how does the Lord’s Prayer begin?

It begins with the petition that God’s kingdom comes and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Not as I will but as You will…………..

Many years ago, attending a meeting of the Presbytery of Glasgow, the Presbytery Moderator did not so much lead us in prayer as give God a ‘to do’ list.

God do this, God do that, God do the next thing – and on and on it went, God being given a long list of instructions and being told exactly what was required in each situation until it became too much for my American colleague and friend, John Bartholomew.

‘Oh Russell,’ John whispered to me, ‘is it possible to feel sorry for God?’

At its best, not my will but Your will – and if we believe – and we do – God knows each one and knows each need - and if we believe – and we do – God watches over our going out and our coming in, in other words, God is aware of each situation and circumstance in life – and if we believe – and we do – justice, forgiveness, healing, wholeness and love are of the very nature of God – then whatever else prayer is about, it is not about telling God about this or that or the next thing.

God already knows.

And because God already knows – and knows far better than us – and sees more clearly than us what the various options and possibilities might be in each and every situation – prayer draws us to discern something of what God wills.

Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one…………….

Known as the Shema, the famous passage from Deuteronomy captures the central prayer of the Jewish tradition.

Proclaiming the Oneness of God, the Shema encourages the people Israel to take no heed of the laws and commandments of other gods.

Instead Israel’s devotion should be directed to the one true God who led people out of slavery in Egypt, brought them through the wilderness to the land once promised to Abraham, and gave the people laws and commandments by which to order every aspect of personal, family and national life.

And given its importance, is it any surprise Jesus took the Shema and made it his own, his whole ministry showing us what it looks like to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength by loving our neighbour as ourself.

Yesterday, as part of the National Day of Prayer promoted by the Church of Scotland, a group of us met in the chapel.

We prayed for discernment to hear where the Spirit of God is leading the church, courage to trust God where risks require to be taken and boldness to try new things at a local and a national level.

We prayed for the health and vitality of Cramond Kirk and for the gift of encouragement in our various endeavours.

We gave thanks for the many good gifts God has given us.

We made use of the Moderator Susan Brown’s prayer especially written for the occasion – and of course we finished with the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father………………….not my Father

The difference matters.

It matters because whenever and wherever we pray – in church, in the garden, out for a walk, sitting at home, waking up in the morning or going to bed at night – whenever and wherever we pray we never pray alone, but always in company with Christian people in heaven and on earth.

It is profoundly humbling yet encouraging to know, no matter how stumbling or inadequate you consider your own prayers to be, you never pray alone but always in company with others and with Christ.

It is also profoundly humbling and encouraging to know people are praying for you.

During our year of adventures Margaret and I were sustained in the knowledge we were held in your prayers.

Indeed one of my colleagues, Hugh Wylie, himself a former Moderator but now elderly, frail and registered blind promised to pray for me every night at 10.30 pm.

And on several occasions throughout the year a card would arrive in the Moderator’s office from Hugh, the message as simple as it was meaningful; 10.30 pm.

If thou shoulds’t never see my face again, wrote the poet Tennyson, pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.

It goes without saying Jesus was a man of prayer – but it is worth saying.

It goes without saying the people of God are a people of prayer – but it is worth saying, it is worth being reminded of how prayer shaped our Lord’s life and shapes our lives as women and men and as a congregation.

And where better to be reminded than at the Lord’s Table.

As bread and wine draw us into communion with God and with one another, the God who already knows all our hopes and dreams and hurts and worries,  let it be your prayer and mine – not as I will but as You will.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen