Thursday, 14 August 2014

Unanswered prayer

I read a sermon recently on unanswered prayer by a Free Church minister of the nineteenth century whose name is forgotten today. He was James Cameron and he was the pastor of Glenbervie from 1864 to 1875. For reasons not stated, after he died several of his friends published a short memoir containing a brief biography and several sermons. No doubt, those friends wanted to have a permanent record of his ministry. Their names are mentioned in the preface, but as far as I could see they are now forgotten as well. Such will be the fate of most of Christ's servants and of virtually everyone else. Yet when I picked up this short book I discovered that James was still speaking through what he had preached long ago.

One of his sermons is about unanswered prayer, a common problem for Christians in all ages. The sermon was based on James 4:3, where the brother of Jesus tells us that the cause of unanswered prayer is that we ask amiss, which is another way of saying that it is our own fault if our prayers are not answered. As the preacher pointed out, this is a divinely-inspired explanation of why that happens. 

Cameron explains what it is to ask amiss. He begins by saying that it is possible to ask for wrong things. He then tells us that it is possible to ask in the wrong manner and he obviously regarded this as very important because most of his sermon dealt with this failure. How can we ask in the wrong manner? He said we do so when we fail to address God as Father and experience the warmth that such a relationship should bring; he said we do so when we fail to realise that we approach the Father through Jesus the mediator; he said we do so when our prayers are not earnest and sincere; and he said we do so when we cherish a secret sin in our hearts.

It is obvious that the preacher said nothing new in his sermon. But it is also the case that he said nothing untrue in his sermon. The reasons he gave for unanswered prayer in his congregation in nineteenth-century Scotland are probably the reasons for unanswered prayer in congregations in twenty-first century Scotland and elsewhere. Is there a bigger tragedy in a congregation than unanswered prayer?

One question for me is why did God in his providence bring this sermon on unanswered prayer to my attention in 2014. James, I am sure, would not have imagined that a simple sermon of his would minister to another preacher almost 150 years later. But God had it in mind and when he enabled James to prepare his sermon I was the focus of divine attention, as well as those who heard it and later those who read it. We can say that about any item from the past that comes our way. I would suggest that the God of grace brought it my way so that I would pay attention to how I pray and for what I pray. That is an evidence of his kindness. And since you are reading this summary of the sermon, he has brought it to your attention as well.

In my mind, I can imagine meeting James somewhere in the heavenly country and telling him that his sermon was used by God to help me. Perhaps you too will be able to join the conversation and say that you also were guided to pray appropriately even by this brief mention of the explanation he gave of why we experience unanswered prayer.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Say Something Inexpressible

It is unlikely that we would classify Paul as a person who would ever be lost for words. Yet in 2 Corinthians 9:15 he writes, ‘Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift,’ which is a reference to Jesus.

Paul describes this divine Gift as inexpressible, as impossible to fully explain. Sometimes it is difficult to describe a thing because it is too small; others cannot be described because they are too large. With regard to Jesus, he is inexpressible because he is too big. This has not stopped some people trying to reduce him in size: such speak of him as a great teacher or a willing martyr for a good cause. It would not be impossible to describe such a person; in fact, many such biographies have been written of important people. But you cannot get a biography of Jesus because as John says in John 21:25: ‘Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ (The four Gospels are not biographies of Jesus but explanations of his mission.)

The fact that the Gift is inexpressible does not mean that people should not speak about it. Paul, the man who wrote this verse, often speaks eloquently of Jesus and what happened to him. An example of Paul’s words are Philippians 2:5-11. Despite his great mind and vast understanding, Paul knew he was only paddling at the shore of an infinite ocean. Others in the Bible also give great descriptions of Jesus Christ.

Throughout the centuries, many great minds have written and spoken about Jesus Christ. Theologians and preachers have endeavoured to explain who he is and what he has done, and despite the vast number of words that have been said or written, they have not fully described him. To them we can add the estimation of the heavenly host who have had access to him in heaven since they were created. They know a great deal about him that is not contained in the Bible, yet when their contribution is added to that of the theologians and preachers, we are still on the edge of the ocean.

To the contribution of the above, we can add all the thoughts of the redeemed. Some have expressed themselves in poetry, all of them say something about Jesus in prayer or in words of testimony. Yet when this combined description of Jesus is added up, he is still inexpressible, not all has been said about him that can or will be said.

As we think of the fact that more can be said about Jesus, it means that there is space for us to say something about him today. There is always space for a new and accurate comment about Jesus. Your actual words may not be different from what others have said, but your experience of Jesus will be totally unique. So say something about him today, perhaps to encourage or comfort a friend or perhaps to commend him to someone who does not know him yet.