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Title: Turned towards Christ and turned for Prayer
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor.
Readings: Isaiah 58. 1–12, Matthew 6. 1–6, 16–21
Date: Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday on the theme of ‘Prayer’, one of the Diocese of York ‘Habits of Christlikeness’ in the Diocesan Rhythm of Life
George Herbert in his first poem on Prayer, describes what prayer is, or rather, he ends up telling us, rather beautifully, that there is no singular definition. Prayer is many things, The Church’s banquet, he begins, angel’s age, God’s breath in man returning to his birth, the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.
It seems that Prayer is a thing which is almost undefinable, it is the other country of our souls, whilst also being as Herbert would say, Heaven in ordinary, or the milky way, the bird of paradise, church bells beyond the stars. In more prosaic language, prayer is a habit of Christlikeness, for it through prayer that we become more and more like Christ.
We are today entering into a season when we are commanded to pray as a means of seeking forgiveness, and of orientating our lives anew in the right direction. But what is the right direction? And how shall we pray? How can our praying help us navigate not only this lent but our whole lives as beloved children of God?
Another take on prayer is and what prayer isn’t, is offered in our readings this evening. God does not desire, God is not interested in, the kind of prayer and fasting that is orientated to the self. The people of Israel complain that they are ‘not seen’ by God when they make ostentatious prayers and offer fasting for their own good- their fasting does not recognise the needy in their midst and their prayers are neither honouring God nor their neighbour, they are primarily honouring themselves. The direction is all wrong.
The Philosopher Soren Kierkegard reminds us that the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather change the nature of the one who prays. To become more Christ-like, we might say. The change God wants to see through prayer: is the bonds of injustice being loosened, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the oppressed set free, the words of Isaiah, taken up by Christ himself when he defined his own mission in the world.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God calls the people to humility in their praying, which means to be properly brought down to the dust of the earth. For it is stood in the dust with our eyes looking to the stars that we know who we really are- creatures made in the image of God our creator, and creatures seeking transformation and change in our lives, and from there seeking transformation and change, and healing and renewal in the life of a broken world.
When prayer is rightly directed, other joys and blessings will emerge like a spring of water- the praying will direct the living.
Prayer does not need trumpets, prayer does not need to be seen. Prayer is ultimately an activity of the human heart in response to God alone, the turning and tuning of the heart to sing, as Herbert would again say a kind of tune, which all things hear and fear. Prayer is you and me, each one of us, stood before our maker-
In a sense, it is that kind of personal reflection and prayer that we are all called towards this lent, this is an inward journey of the heart and soul, the journey we all must face as we stand before God who sees us even in secret. This is a journey which plumbs the awful depths of our humanity and lifts us up from the dust of the earth to rise in glory.
The Litany of Penitence which follows this sermon sets us off on that journey by naming out loud and helping us each recall our propensity to turn away from God. It’s a list of things we know we all do and this is followed by a symbolic gesture of penitence which marks our foreheads with an ashen cross.
We remember that we are of the dust, and to the dust we will return, we are reminded that in the meantime, we are daily being tuned to sing the song which glorifies no-thing and no-one but God, and through that prayer we are turned away from sin to be faithful to Christ.
And there is perhaps the key, the secret, the only way of praying- For however we pray, whether on our knees, or in silence, or with others, or indeed on street corners or noisily with trumpets, the key to prayer, the secret to prayer, is that it is orientated always and only towards Christ, we are to be humble in the dust with our eyes fixed on Jesus. O God, turn us and tune us to sing your song.
If our prayers and our hearts are so directed, then our lives will be directed in the same way, turned and tuned to be faithful to Christ, open to being changed and transformed in his name, and ready to serve Christ in one another, in the world he loved and came to save. To his name be glory forever.
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