5 December 2021

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” Luke 1:78-79

You may recall the story of David and Bathsheba, which is perhaps David’s most known sin.  When he realized that she had become pregnant, he tried to get Uriah to sleep with his wife to cover it up and claim that the child was Uriah’s.  Uriah refused to go in to his house, however, so David was left with no option but to marry Bathsheba himself.  He had to “take care of” the husband before he could marry her, however, so he had him killed in battle.  The Lord was angry with David for doing this.  The child that was born to him fell ill, and David fasted and got down on the floor and prayed and prayed for that child.  He hoped that perhaps the Lord would have mercy and make the child well.  His prayer, however, seemed to be to no avail.  The child died.  Instead of falling into worse anguish as the king’s officials feared, however, that was when he got up and praised God anyway, even though the Lord did not answer David’s prayer (2 Samuel 12:16-24).  Why didn’t the Lord answer his prayer?  And why did David praise God in the house of worship when the prayer went unanswered?  He knew that what was done was done, but God was still God, he did not know all the answers, and it was better to turn toward God than to turn away.  Instead of turning away from God when God does not answer us in the way we want, we need to call ourselves back to God.  Even if God did not fix things now for reasons unknown to us, God STILL promises to fix things at the end of the story.  God will make all things right.  Being turned toward God is putting ourselves on the “nice list.”  We won’t be the ones getting coal in our stockings.  We will be the ones rewarded with everlasting peace.

I do not know if any of the victims in the Oxford High School shooting in Oxford, Michigan was Christian.  But if they were, especially for the one who went to the hospital and died the following morning, and for the one who was on a ventilator for days in critical condition, I imagine the parents would be gathering to pray nearly every moment, and calling family to pray in every other moment.  Why would God not seem to answer their prayers?  There is a popular response that some churches do at the beginning of services and it goes like this.  The leader says, “All the time,” and the people respond with “God is good.”  Then the leader says, “God is good,” and the people respond with, “All the time.”  David may have said something like this when he worshipped the Lord following the tragedy in his family.  The writer of the song “It is Well With My Soul” Horatio Gates Spafford may have said it when he wrote the lyrics to the song on a boat at the very place that his daughters had perished in the sea in 1873.  Despite the deepest tragedy, we can still find God.  We can still turn to God.

Turning back to God despite not having our prayer answered is all well and good, but we might still wonder why our prayer is not always answered.  We may feel like God has never heard any of our prayers.  If you don’t feel like that, good for you; you can help others who do.  And if God never hears any of your prayers because you don’t pray, that’s the first thing to fix.  But let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: God hears every one of our prayers.  God just does not respond to every one of them.

I heard a sermon from Pastor Craig Groeschel that was preached just last week, which is part of a sermon series called “Every Wonder Why?”  He asked the question, “Why Doesn’t God Answer Prayer?”  He proposes four possible reasons.  First, your relationships with other people might impact your relationship with God.  In Matthew 5:23-24, in the middle of the beatitudes, Jesus said, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  God may not respond to us if we have not reconciled with our brother or sister.  You need to be in right relationship with God, and to do that you have to be in right relationship with your brothers and sisters.  Second, you may have selfish motives.  The Pharisees loved people who praised them for being faithful in their prayer, in their long robes.  They wanted to look good.  They wanted to look faithful.  But Jesus criticized them for their motives.  If you are praying for your own benefit, and not for God’s benefit, you are praying for the wrong motive.  You do not need to pray that the pain in your back or your feet stop, because that is only for your own benefit.  You can pray that God may put a spring in your step so that you can better serve others and the kingdom.  You can pray for a deeper faith, like the prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).  Pray for things that will help you or someone else serve God better.  Pray for another’s need.  But do remember to take care of yourself while you think of the other.  If you realign your motives, God will bless you richly too, even if it is not in taking away all your pain.  The third reason that God may not answer a prayer is because you do not believe that God will actually do it.  You are lacking faith.  Jesus said many times, “Your faith has made you well.”  On one occasion, Jesus actually asked a group of blind men, “Do you believe that I am able to make you see again?” (Matthew 9:28).  They answered him, “Yes, Lord!”  If you expect God to answer your prayer, you have to believe in God’s capabilities to make it happen.  But perhaps you have good relationships with everyone you know, you have the right motives, and you believe in God’s power to answer your prayer.  And God still doesn’t answer your prayer.  In that case, Pastor Craig, notes, perhaps God has something different.  Jeremiah 29:11 assures us, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  God knows better than we do, to be completely honest.  This may be difficult to accept when God doesn’t answer our prayer to prevent a tragedy, but even then, we can accept that God is still here, God will still make something good out of everything even if God doesn’t will it, and God is still sufficient because God’s grace is all we need.

Pastor Craig says one more thing that we should remember: “Why brother praying?  Not to get God to do what we want.  The purpose of prayer is relational; to get to know God intimately so that we can do God’s will.  Praying also reminds us that we are not in control, and prayer keeps us close to the one who is.  Remember.  God is not here to serve me.  I am here to serve God.  We are not the main character; God is.  … Always believe that God can.  Always believe that God will.  And even if God doesn’t, the good news is, I still believe.”

Today, we see the candle of peace lit before us.  Yet we struggle to find peace in a world where we wonder if God hears us, and where we wonder if God really is watching over us and taking care of us.  Sometimes we feel abandoned.  Why would we have to suffer as we do if God was still with us?  That is a question for a different sermon.  The truth is, though, that God is still with us.  If we come to God with the proper mindset, we will better be able to understand this.  We will be better able to feel this.  We will be better able to capture the peace that God brings us.  We can know God intimately.  We just need to be in right relationship with God.  First, we need to be in right relationship with others.  Second, we need to come to God with proper motives.  Third, we need to believe in God’s capabilities.  And finally, we need to realize that we are not God.

Luke 1:67-79 is Zechariah’s prophecy about Jesus.  The father of John the Baptist noted that God looks favorably on the people even in a time where Roman control and oppression may have seemed to be at its worst.  Our world has never been immune to hard times.  Yet “Hope is not pretending that troubles don’t exist.  It is the hope that they won’t last forever, that hurts will be healed and difficulties overcome, that we will be led out of the darkness into the sunshine” (Unknown quote) . Zechariah is able to find peace in that hope.  He believes in God’s capabilities.  He said, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).  Jesus is the coming Messiah who promises that peace.  And as both Zechariah and John say in their prophecies, the way is being prepared for the Lord (Luke 3:4).  The way is being prepared for peace.  When we see Jesus, and follow the example that He gives us, we are able to find that peace, no matter what happens in this world.  No matter what happens in the world around us, God is still God, God’s grace is still sufficient, and we know that God is all we need.  If God doesn’t answer your prayer, praise and worship anyway.  If God doesn’t answer your prayer, be sure you are following the path that Jesus has laid out for you.  And if God doesn’t answer your prayer in the way that you expect, allow the way of peace to give you confidence that God is still the God you trust, God is still the God you call on, and nothing can shake God from his throne.  Do not feel abandoned.  Yes, it would be nice to see peace now.  Yes, it hurts every time we see violence.  Yes, it hurts every time we experience tragedy.  Yes, it hurts every time we pray for a miracle and do not see it happen.  Is there even such a thing as a miracle, we ask?  Yes, there is.  It is the miracle that God breaks through every wall.  God breaks through every darkness.  God breaks through every devastation and oppression.  Peace is the victory that Christ proclaims.  This is why we pray.  This is why we turn to God.  God is the victory.  God is the main character.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Luke 1:68-79
1:68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
1:69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
1:70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
1:71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
1:72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
1:73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us
1:74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
1:75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
1:77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
1:78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Philippians 1:3-11
1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you,
1:4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,
1:5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
1:6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
1:7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.
1:8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
1:9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight
1:10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,
1:11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Luke 3:1-6
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
3:4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

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