Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
Advent 4A, 2016
In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we’re going to talk about how God speaks to us and how we can prepare our hearts to receive it. One way in which God speaks to us is through the birth of the Savior something which we continue to await in this fourth and final week of Advent. Several weeks ago, Todd spoke eloquently to the waiting, the disciplined waiting this season brings and the preparation.
I wonder, as we await the coming of Christ, how are we preparing our hearts to hear this expression of God? There are many ways in which we prepare; we light candles on the Advent wreath, we decorate our homes with lights, wreaths, a tree, and Nativity sets. And we make time for special gatherings with family and friends.
But the most important way in which we prepare is through prayer. We mark the four Sundays of Advent at church and by lighting candles here and at home. We attend mid-week Evening Prayer services. And we add special seasonal prayers to our regular rhythms of daily prayer. (Did you know that Hour by Hour has special prayers in the back here? There’s one to be said over and over every day in Advent to mark the season.) It is this regular and intentional conversation with God that tunes our hearts, to prepare us for the coming of the Savior.
The other night I was with a small group and we ended our time together by each naming a prayer concern. The idea being that when the group convenes again in a week’s time or so,
the amassed prayers will bring comfort and closeness as the group checks in regarding those concerns. But the most beautiful part of that closing prayer was going around the circle, hearing each person list a name or two and watching the group nod in familiarity as tears often welled up in someone’s eyes. You see, this group has been together for a while and they have gotten to know each other well. They know whose mother has cancer. They know about the complexities of another’s mentally ill cousin or a strained marriage.
And they know these things about one another because of their regular and intentional relationships through this small group. We closed out the night lifting our voices and those names in prayer – giving them over to God to hold and to protect as eyes were dried and relationships deepened even further.
And all of that leads me to wonder: What are we doing when we pray? How is prayer different alone or in a small group? Or in a very large group like here on a Sunday? When we say a person’s name in prayer, what are we hoping will actually happen? Do we pray for miracles? Do we pray for healing? Do we pray for God to intervene in our lives and make them better? And, how do we know whether or not our prayers are “working”?
Prayer, all prayer is about being in relationship with God. Consider other relationships in your life. If you ignore the other person, that relationship withers. With God, we know that God is always there, but without tending that relationship, it withers to our detriment. God wants to be in relationship with us and prayer is the language through which we do that.
Prayer in a group, particularly a small group or in a family, is connecting soul to soul, that’s why it can be so emotional. When we pray, we are seeking transcendence. We are connecting with that thing that is larger than our minds can imagine. We are reaching out beyond ourselves and inviting God and others into our vulnerability. That is real and that is powerful and it transforms us. Sometimes, we lob a prayer at God in a time of crisis and wonder why God doesn’t answer or feel like God is silent. But perhaps it isn’t God who is the one being silent. Maybe the problem is us. We aren’t asking the right questions or God’s answer doesn’t look the way we think it should look and we miss it.
Doyt likes to use the image of the person in the pew next to you as your workout partner.
If we aren’t working out together and in training day in and day out, we can’t expect to be able to run the race. In other words, prayer is something we do regularly – on our own and together – it is a practice and a discipline. To hear the word of God, we have to be listening. When we think God is being silent, maybe God is just answering differently than we expect. The preparing of Advent is an opportunity to train. It’s an opportunity like the group had the other night as they sat in a circle sharing their prayer concerns. They were practicing listening for the voice of God. They were preparing their hearts for the coming of the Savior.
Twenty years ago, I heard a priest talking about prayer in a way that was unlike anything I had ever heard before and it profoundly changed the way I would pray from that day forward. He was talking about living with chronic back pain and how he talked to God about that. Did he pray for a miracle? To wake up one morning with the pain completely gone? Of course, he did. Had that happened? No. But he didn’t let that discourage him. Instead, he focused his prayers differently. He asked God, not to heal him, but to give him the strength to endure the pain so he could better serve his neighbor. And I have never forgotten that.
What are we praying for when we lift up a person or a name? Sometimes we are praying for a miracle and I believe that miracles do happen. But more often than that, we are praying for strength or comfort. We are praying for our dying parent to know that they are loved and cared for no matter what and for them to have the strength to endure their illness. When you pray, consider who or what the prayer is for. Is it for you or is it for them? And don’t forget to listen. Prayer is equally about the listening and the hearing.
Now, let’s spend a little time talking about the ways in which God speaks to us today. When you think of God speaking to people, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A burning bush? What about a voice from the clouds or an angel in a dream? These are common biblical images embedded in our memory, but today I want to challenge us to expand our thinking to less obvious ways of experiencing God.
When was the last time God spoke to you? Whenever it was, I’m willing to bet it was NOT a booming voice from the clouds and it probably wasn’t your Christmas tree on fire in the living room or even an Angel in a vivid dream like Joseph. But, it might have been a series of coincidences that weren’t coincidences at all. That was God.
God speaking to us is like yelling into a canyon. What happens when you yell into a canyon? It echoes. You get a resounding echo coming from lots of different places, bouncing around all over the place. The voice of God is kind of like that, a reverberation in many places around your life. An idea pops up in conversation with a friend, then your daughter comes home talking about the same thing which is sort of strange. The next week, you’re reading a book and come across the topic again. It’s like you can’t escape it. Whatever this idea or invitation is in your life, you begin to consider and pray about it and it takes hold, leading you into something new and unexpected. That’s the way God works. We have to trust it.
God works in mysterious ways and yet the more mysterious thing is that we are aware of God’s mystery at all. For a few minutes, I want to turn to Joseph and consider the way in which he embraced the mystery of God and trusted with his whole heart. He could do that because he was ready. Joseph was a righteous man, a faithful man, whose heart was in tune and ready to hear the voice of God. This bit of text from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel is so familiar to us. It skips the genealogy of Jesus and begins with Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph’s wrestling with this development, and the status of their engagement.
Several things immediately jump out in this text: Mary is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Joseph is known to be a righteous man thinking not only of himself, but also of Mary and the child. And yet, Joseph is on the brink of dismissing her quietly which is well within his right. Now remember, Joseph was a devout man of prayer and no doubt struggled mightily with this predicament he found himself in – a pregnant wife with whom he was not yet sharing a home or a bed and a culture that did not accept such things.
So, Joseph did what he was accustomed to doing; he talked with God. He was also in the habit of interpreting his dreams, so when the angel came to him in his dream, he didn’t miss it. Joseph knew the Angel in the dream was the voice of God. His heart was ready to receive that message, even a startling message, even a counter cultural message. He heard God’s voice loud and clear and trusted it because he was regularly in conversation with God and accustomed to listening.
In these final days before Christmas, tune your hearts to receive the voice of God however that may come to you. Join the conversation. If you have been absent or spotty in your prayerful attendance, make a change. Use this week of preparation to practice listening for God. There are some great places to do it. While you’re waiting in line at the Post Office (for a long time), listen. When you’re addressing and stamping all of those Christmas cards, listen. Like Joseph, let us be ready, to have the courage to recognize God in the unexpected places in our lives, in the unconventional and counter cultural spaces, and to have the courage and strength to trust that voice when we hear it – to trust our heart and follow God.
When was the last time God spoke to you? How did you know?
How do you practice listening for God?
What are the way in which you have prepared your heart this Advent to receive Jesus?