Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Sunday 31st January 2021
Gospel: Mark 1:21-28
Did you see the inauguration of President Joe Biden a few weeks ago? What an extraordinary ceremony it was, outside the Capitol building, in January, in freezing cold weather. Former presidents and vice-presidents paraded in to their own soundtracks; there were performances from Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga who sang the national anthem dressed in an enormous red skirt. And then there was the religious element. Fr Leo O’Donovan, a Jesuit priest, delivered what was called ‘The Invocation’, which started off as a prayer but became a sermon and a history lesson, telling God what he ought to know rather than asking for much from him. And later there was ‘The Benediction’ delivered by Revd Sylvester Beaman, which began by asking God’s blessing but soon turned into a tirade telling God what they were going to do in America, and how glorious it would be. God appeared to be sidelined, and his blessing superfluous.
It is a risk that anyone who prays will pray selfishly. God knows our needs before we express them, but we still need to express those needs in order for us to address them and express our commitment to working towards a solution. God in whom we live and move and have our being, should always be treated with respect and deference, and the proper way to approach him is with humility,
mindful of his sublime greatness and our human weakness. We should come before him like the penitent tax collector of the parable and not like the self-righteous pharisee who parades his virtues before the Lord.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses that he will raise up prophets and command them to speak in his name. A prophet is in an invidious position, he usually has to tell people what they do not want to hear, but also here God gives the warning that if a prophet presumes to say something in God’s name that is not of God, he will die. No pressure!
Many serious errors, many grievous sins have been committed by those who have dressed up their own prejudices, bigotry and hatred in the guise of doing God’s will. Sir John Betjeman lampooned selfish prayer in the poem ‘In Westminster Abbey’ where a woman prays
Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
Her ‘prayer’ asks for protection of the British Empire, and its forces, with special favour to the whites, and extra special protection specifically for her home at 189 Cadogan Square, and that he won’t let the price of her shares go down! She reminds God of all the good things that England stands for, and then seeks to bribe God with a promise to come to evening service, when she can. After this couple of minutes of talking at God rather than praying to him she concludes:
Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr'd.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date
We diminish God if we if we make God serve our own purposes rather than seek the answers in God’s discernible ways, if we try to drag God down to our own base level rather than let him raise us up to his,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
he says through the Prophet Isaiah
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
How often do we enter into prayer convinced of our own rightness, telling God what he ought to think and wanting him confirm that we are right, rather than opening ourselves to the wise correction of his Holy Spirit?
We are in danger in these times of isolation of getting set in our own ways, as we lack general interaction with other people who will present an alternative point of view and help us keep things in perspective. Our characters, with all their flaws and shortcomings, are all the more strongly pronounced because they are undiluted by company.
However we still have the company of Jesus along the way. He speaks still with the authority that the people of Capernaum discerned. He speaks to us now from the pages of the gospel. His words still possess the same authority for they are more than words from God that the prophets spoke, they are the word of God spoken by the living Word. May his gospel truly have authority over us. May our words and our deeds be governed by his commands.