Prayers We Don’t Pray: Preaching Ash Wednesday 2022

February 1st, 2022

Scripture: Psalm 51:1‐17

  1. Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
    Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
  2. Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
    purify me from my sin!
  3. Because I know my wrongdoings,
    my sin is always right in front of me.
  4. I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
    I’ve committed evil in your sight.
    That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
    completely correct when you issue your judgment.
  5. Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
    from the moment my mother conceived me.
  6. And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
    you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.
  7. Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
    wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
  8. Let me hear joy and celebration again;
    let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
  9. Hide your face from my sins;
    wipe away all my guilty deeds!
  10. Create a clean heart for me, God;
    put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
  11. Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
    please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
  12. Return the joy of your salvation to me
    and sustain me with a willing spirit.
  13. Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
    and sinners will come back to you.
  14. Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
    so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
  15. Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
  16. You don’t want sacrifices.
    If I gave an entirely burned offering,
    you wouldn’t be pleased.
  17. A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
    You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.

Sermon

The smells of spaghetti, French bread, and corn on the cob filled the kitchen. It was Carol’s turn to say grace, “God, help us know when we have eaten enough and stop.” She stunned everyone at the table. How cruel does a person have to be to pray something like that? Some things shouldn’t be prayed. We know to avoid praying about things we have no intention of changing.

Hunger, for instance, is one of the subjects about which we’ve learned to be careful. If you pray too seriously for hungry people you’ll end up skipping meals and giving your money away. One church member I know makes a point of not having cash in his wallet on World Hunger Day. He understands that if you’re honest with yourself and God about hunger, then you have to give.

That's why most of us are careful not to pray too seriously for the homeless. It’s awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have empty guestrooms. A pastor confessed, “If I don’t stop just talking about helping the poor and start doing something to help the poor I’m going to be embarrassed to meet God.” If you pray for poor people, then you have to help.

When our country is at war, we’re careful about how we pray. If you’re against a war, it’s hard to pray honestly about the sense of moral superiority that may take up residence in your heart. If you’re for a war, it’s hard to pray honestly about Jesus’s compassion for innocent children who are dying. If we pray too seriously, then God reminds us that there are people whose homes have been destroyed who need help. If we pray about it, we realize that there are things we could do that we haven’t done.

We avoid praying about things that we don’t want to change. It’s frightening to pray about our careers. Does the senior pre‐law major want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker? Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?

We’re careful about praying about the big questions. We know it would be dangerous to pray for orphans who need to be adopted. We’re careful about praying about small stuff. What if you’re going to a movie with some friends when a lonely person calls? If you pray about what you should do you might miss the movie.

We’re especially careful about praying for people we don’t like. Think of the person whose presence bothers you the most, who gets on your nerves and probably always will. When Jesus said “Pray for your enemies,” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we don’t want to say.

Most of the time we’re afraid to pray about what we could be and do. In so many ways, we choose a life given to comfort over a life given in prayer. It’s easier to live by the rules everyone follows and strive for the same version of the good life that everyone wants. We like what we have— including the vices we’ve gotten used to and the enemies we’ve carefully chosen. We don’t avoid praying because our prayers go unanswered. We’re afraid our prayers will be answered. We try not to see our potential, because we know far more of what we should be doing than we do. We’ve learned to pray, “God, make me a better person, but not so much better that I have to change the way I live.” Prayer is hard because we don’t want to start doing what God invites us to do or stop doing what we’ve gotten used to doing.

King David went a long time without really praying. One afternoon a look turned into lust, and David didn’t pray about it. The lust turned into manipulation, and David acted in ways that he never would have considered if he had the courage to pray. David was able to keep from admitting what he had done or what he needed to do for a long time. He didn’t pray, because he didn’t want to face the harsh realities.

Psalm 51 is the cry of a person who struggled to find the courage to pray. The amazing thing about this psalm is that for all of its agony, there’s also a sense of relief. What David ignored for so long is finally brought out into the open. It couldn’t have been any easier for David to tell the truth about himself than it is for any of us. There is no painless way to stop protecting our easy lives and be honest to God. Yet, David’s painfully honest prayer leads to joy. When you think about the most courageous Christians you know, the ones who make sacrifices for their faith, do you feel sorry for them or is it clear that they have something we should want? People who pray passionately don’t have easy lives, but they have abundant lives. God has dreams for us that we’ve been afraid to imagine.

What would be the result if we prayed for hurting people, the victims of tragedies, and our enemies? What would happen if we made a searching, fearless inventory of how much more we could be if we asked God for the courage to take chances?

—Brett Younger

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