Psalm 119:9-16 & Matthew 6:5-15

Helpful Habits

I wonder if you have a favourite book, TV show, film, piece of music, or piece of art. That thing that you go back to time and time again. It doesn’t matter that you’ve read it, or listened to it, or seen if before. It doesn’t matter that you know the characters, or that you know what’s going to happen. In fact, if you can join in with the dialogue or sing along all the words all the better, because it’s found its way into your mind and heart. And yet, even though you know it so well, somehow it still manages to surprise you, as you discover hidden corners or depths. Perhaps it means so much to you because you came across it at an important time of your life, and it brings back memories of falling in love, having children, setting up home, starting a new job. Maybe it helped you through some tough or painful times. It gave you something to hang on to, when things felt fragile.

This is how the writer of the first Bible reading that we had this morning felt about God’s word. It was taken from a collection of poetry and songs that we call the Psalms. Psalm 119 is the longest poem in the book, and is very carefully constructed. It has 22 sections, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section has 8 lines, the first word of which begins with the letter of that section. So the first 8 lines of the poem begin, in Hebrew, with the letter Aleph. The next eight lines, which we heard read in English, begin with the Hebrew letter Beth. 22 sections. 176 lines. Every single one of which talks about how important God’s word is to the poet.

Just in the section we read, we hear about living by it, not straying from it, hiding it in hearts, learning it, speaking it out, finding joy in it, meditating on it, delighting in it.

Now, when this poet was writing, the Bible as we know it today didn’t exist. What the poet had in mind was probably the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures. In these first books of the Bible we read the great poems of creation, the accounts of human beings choosing to turn away from their Creator God, the great promises of God to Abraham, that through his descendants, all creation would be blessed. We read of the rescue of the people of God from slavery in Egypt, and the return to the Promised Land. Here we find the commands of God, summarised in the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love each other.

It was in reflecting, in meditating, in keeping these words, that the Psalmist found life and joy and delight.

In time the Psalms themselves were added to the collection, along with other books of wisdom, the histories of the Jewish Kings and Queens, and the books of the prophets, messengers of God bringing warnings and words of hope to God’s people. They complete the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament.

The New Testament opens with four accounts, based on eye witness testimony, of the good news of the life, death, and return to life of Jesus of Nazareth. His teaching, the stories he told, the things he did. The power he demonstrated over sin and death, evil and disease. And then, the story of the first Christians, told in carefully researched history and letters sent from one church to another.

All taken together, this is the Bible, the word of God to us. It is this, now, that is our delight. The book that we go back to, that still has surprises for us, that keeps us going in tough times, that we can learn the words of, so we find ourselves joining in when its read out on a Sunday morning. It is this that we read, that we listen to, that we hide in our hearts, that we learn, that brings us joy and delight.

Let me give you an example. In our second reading we heard from Matthew’s eye witness account of the life of Jesus. The bit we read is in the middle of a longer bit of teaching that Jesus is sharing with a whole crowd of people, when he gets on to the subject of prayer. And he has good news for the crowd. He says it’s not about who can come up with long, beautiful, sounding words. It’s not about showing how religious you are, or how good you are. It’s just about you and God, and an honest conversation. In the quiet of your room, at the kitchen sink, in the car on the school run – just talk to God.

In the following verses, Jesus teaches them a prayer, we call it The Lord’s prayer. And it’s a good prayer to pray, but it’s more than that. It’s a pattern for how we can talk to God. The first thing is that we can call God, “Father”. God loves us more than the very best human Father could. When we pray, we aren’t going to someone who doesn’t like us very much, who is impatient with us, or is reluctant. God is our Father, and loves it when we talk with him.

I was talking to someone a little while ago about “manifesting”. For those of you who haven’t come across “manifesting”, it is the idea that if you think positively about something you want, the universe will manifest it, and you will get it. It’s the power of positive thinking on steroids. They asked me what the difference between prayer and manifesting is. We talked a bit about this prayer, and especially about the part where it says, “your will be done” and then they said, “So manifesting is all about what I want, and prayer is all about what God wants.” They were right.
That’s not to say God doesn’t want to hear about our desires, and what we want, but in the end prayer trusts that God knows what we need, and that God’s will for us is good. This can be really hard when things are painful, and we don’t understand why the things that are happening are happening, but I believe that there can be real hope and comfort in leaning into God, and trusting that in the end God will work all things for the good of those who love God.

We show this trust as we turn to God for our daily bread. God cares about our day to day, ordinary lives. We don’t have to save prayer up for the crisis, or the big ask. Day to day conversations with God about day to day things are what Jesus had in mind.

And then, one of the biggies. Forgiveness. We can ask God for forgiveness. Because Jesus died on the cross, defeated the power of sin and death and was raised to life, we can be forgiven for everything we have done wrong. We can be freed from any guilt or shame. We can live free of the power of the wrong things that we find ourselves doing again and again. We just need to say sorry, and receive forgiveness. We can also be freed to forgive others. All the grudges and bitterness and anger can go, as we talk about them with God. By the power of the Holy Spirit, gently but firmly, our fingers are unwrapped from their grip on the baggage we’re carrying.
There is so much more I could say about this prayer, but even were I to continue till tea time, it wouldn’t be enough, the only way to explore its depths is to pray in its pattern, and see what God does.

The Bible and prayer are two of the greatest gifts that God has given us to help us grow closer to Jesus, to learn from Jesus, and to follow him. As we soak in the word, so our hearts and minds are shaped, and we are drawn closer to Jesus. As we talk with God, as we choose to share our lives with God, so we fall deeper in love with the one who is Love.

It may that as you’ve been listening to me this morning, you’ve not recognised the experience of reading or listening to the Bible, or of prayer. Perhaps you’ve had the idea that they’re not for you. That they’re something super serious Christians, or vicar types do, but not you. The thing is, I firmly believe that they are for every one. God is always willing to meet with us in word and prayer, more than willing in fact, calling us, inviting us, waiting for us to respond.

If this is completely new to you, start simple – read a gospel and see how the story of Jesus hangs together. Pray the Lord’s prayer every morning for a week – each day adding your own thoughts. Use your phone to help – some people find the Lectio365 app helpful. Find a Bible app that will read the Bible to you. Read Bible stories to your children. Pray with them before bedtime.

As you go on, you might find some Bible notes helpful – either in book form or online. Perhaps read the Bible passages for each weekday on the back of the notice sheet. Make a note of situations or people that you want to pray for consistently and regularly. Use the prayer ideas in our Prayer diary. Write or draw your prayers.

Whatever it is going to be for you, and that is likely to change as time goes by, and circumstances change, the helpful habits of reading or listening to the Bible, reflecting on it, and praying – talking with God, are ones that will help you get closer to Jesus, to learn from him and to follow him, and in doing that there is life in all its fulness.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.