Isaiah 55:1-11 & John 15:26-16:7

Intimate with the Ultimate – Relational Prayer

Last week we began our exploration of some of the ideas in the book, Intimate with the Ultimate, and were introduced to the idea that prayer is the conversation that happens naturally as we walk with Jesus, work with Jesus, and watch Jesus. This morning we’re focussing in on the idea of what happens when we walk with Jesus, and particularly on the relational aspects of our walking with Jesus.

One of the things that happened in lockdown for me was that I wasn’t able to meet up with people in the same way as I had pre-lockdown. So, I ended up going on walks with people instead of having meetings with them. These walks had a different feel to the meetings we used to have. They felt less task focussed, and more relationship building. I feel like I got to know those people in a different way, which felt fruitful. As I was writing this I realised that I have slipped back into the “meeting” mode with people, rather than a going for a walk mode – perhaps because it’s been winter, but it reminded me how much I’d enjoyed those walks and encouraged me to return to that model on occasion, even when I’m not forced to by Covid rules.

Anyway, back to our walk with Jesus, and what it means for our prayer, our conversations with God, to be relational.

The first thing to say flows out of our reading from John’s account of the good news of Jesus. This is part of the conversation that Jesus had with his friends on the night before he was crucified. These are some of his last words, the things he really wants them to remember. He promises them that when he has gone, when he has died, been raised, and ascended to heaven, he will send the Holy Spirit, and one of the things that the Holy Spirit will do is to guide them into all truth.

When we look back on the stories of the early church, and how it grew, and the deep prayer lives of the early Christians, we might be tempted to think that they had an advantage over us– they had seen and known Jesus in his earthly life. And that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth, that in itself would not have been enough to sustain those disciples in their faith once Jesus had gone, unless the Holy Spirit had come. It is the Holy Spirit who guided them, and guides us, into all truth. It is the Holy Spirit who is guarantor to them, and to us, of that relationship with God. It is by the Holy Spirit that God walks with us now, and we have exactly the same access to the Holy Spirit as they did. We are not second class citizens because we weren’t around when Jesus was physically on earth, we are not at a disadvantage when it comes to having a real, living, relationship with God – because the Holy Spirit is given to us, is present with, and in us – just as the Holy Spirit was poured out then.

So, if this is true, why do we sometimes find prayer hard work, how come it doesn’t always feel like a conversation with someone who loves us, as we walk through life? What is getting in the way?

There are, perhaps, three related things that get in the way of our relationship with God developing healthily.

The first of these is a misunderstanding of who God is, and who we are before God. We can have the idea that God is mostly angry with us or disappointed in us, and that we are victims before God. In this view God doesn’t like us, and God’s intent is to smite us.

The second idea flows from this. Somehow, we’ve got to persuade God not to be angry with us. We have to plead for mercy, do good works, somehow get out from under the smiting and try and cajole things out of an unwilling God, who doesn’t want us to have good things. This becomes the primary focus of any prayer.

With these two in the background, it is hardly surprising that our relationship with God is driven by fear and lack of trust. We fear God’s anger, and don’t trust that God wants our best – so we seek to manipulate God into doing what we want, against God’s will.

These ideas of who God is, and where we stand before God have a variety of roots. There is astrand of Christian teaching that emphasises the anger and wrath of God. In our own personal relationships, it may be that our ability to trust has been damaged by broken or abusive relationships with parents, partners, or friends. But these are at best incomplete, and at worst utterly wrong ways of seeing God.

One of the reasons that Jesus came was to show us what God is like, and now he has sent the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, including the truth of who God is, and who we are to God.

The first thing we see in Jesus is that God loves us. Elsewhere John writes, “God loved the world in this way, that he sent his only Son into the world, that all who believe in him may not die but have eternal life.” God wants the relationship with us that we were created to enjoy, that we might walk with God in the garden. Yes, sin and rebellion against God does anger God, but it angers him because of what it does to our relationship with God.

Secondly, because of what Jesus has done, we do not have to appease God, or get God on our side. God is already on our side. That is why Jesus came, to deal with the consequences of our sin, so that our relationship with God could be restored. We don’t need to do anything do make God like us, or to prevent God from punishing us. Some of you have asked what the tattoo on my left arm means. It is a Greek word – tetelstai. It is the last recorded word of Jesus on the cross in John’s gospel. It means, “It is finished, everything that needs to be done has been done, it is fulfilled, it is complete.” I chose to have it there as a reminder that Jesus has done it all.

Thirdly, because of God’s love for us, and the fact that Jesus has dealt with everything that gets in the way, our relationship with God can be founded on trust, rather than on fear. We don’t have to be afraid that God wants to hurt us, we can trust that God wants our best, God wants good things for us, God wants us to prosper. Even when life is difficult or painful, even when we’re walking the way of the cross, and experiencing suffering, God is in it with us, and is trustworthy.

It seems to me that we can see this at work in what we heard read from Isaiah 55.

In this beautiful poem we hear the gracious invitation of God to come and have a feast. However poor you feel, come and receive the riches of God. You don’t have to pay for it, it’s all paid for, there is no cost to you. It has been paid for. There is abundant provision here for what you need. There is God’s promise and faithful love for you. Here are the words of life, come and listen, and live.
God wants to give good things to God’s children, that’s you, come and eat and drink, and be delighted.

But then, in verse 8 it takes what might seem to be different turn. It talks about God’s ways being higher than our ways. And this might be read to introduce a distance between us and God. Is God saying, “The sky is higher than the earth, in the same way I am higher than you?” Well possibly, but then we read on, “as the rain comes from heaven and waters the earth, so my word goes out of my mouth and brings fruit.”

So we can read it in this way, “you know that the sky is far above you, but you can see that the rain connects the sky and the earth and brings fruitfulness. In the same way, I am far above you, but my word connects us and through this connection, I will bring you good things.” So even the part of this passage which at first glance seems to emphasise God’s distance is actually about how connected God is with creation.

So, as I come to a close, I want to invite you this week to do some reflecting on these things – maybe on your own, or with a friend or your small group. You might want to ponder these questions. Am I open to the Holy Spirit leading me into all truth? What is my picture of God, and how is that affecting the way I talk with God? As you think on these things, and others that might have occurred to you, I pray that you will be drawn into a deeper, more trusting, more intimate relationship with the God who loves you.

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