By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.

Psalm 14:2

As I hope to get to know someone, I look to spend time with them.  On Labor Day, I elected to go hiking in Hocking Hills State Park with someone I recently met.  We both wanted to get to know each other some more and we knew that spending time with each other would help in that effort.  It is the same way that I get together for lunch with another pastor or friend, except that it was able to be for much longer.  The more moments you spend with one another in person, the more you are able to get to know them.  We explored the Hocking River on a kayak in the pouring rain.  Then we got a little lost in Wayne National Forest until a group from none other than Bellevue, Ohio informed us of a shortcut back to the parking lot.  And we hiked around Old Man’s Cave and Cedar Falls in Hocking Hills State Park.  It was a great first time to the park.  The pouring rain for the half hour that we were on the river made the experience that much more memorable.

Some of you may remember back on New Year’s Day where I mentioned that I wanted to focus on the theme word of “prayer” in 2022.  I challenged you to pick one: Praise, Prayer, Listen, or Share.  This year, all of our book group has been focusing on prayer.  We are working to improve our relationship with God, and I asked a question: What have you done this year to improve your relationship with God?  Have you prayed more?  Have you read scripture more?  Have you listened more?  What have you done this past year, and what goals are you making now to be still better?  This is one thing that all Christians should try to do.  Always seek to have a better relationship with God.  Always seek to get to know God.

In June, we began with an Introduction to Prayer.  I promised that after we talked about the types of prayer, we would answer two more key questions: first, What does prayer do for us?  And second, How do we know that God is the one we hear?  Today, our scriptures address some of what prayer does for us.  Prayer gives us much that we should not live without.  According to Jeremiah 4:22, prayer gives us knowledge of God, understanding, and the knowledge of good and evil.

In Psalm 14, the psalmist paints a longing picture of God: “The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God” (Psalm 14:2).  How do we seek God?  We seek God by praying.  How do we become wise?  By seeking after God.  The Lord grieves the fact that there is no one on earth that truly seeks after God unconditionally.  All the people are distracted by their own path and their own way.  Although the Psalmist writes in a different time, I could picture the Lord grieving the same today.  There are so many other things to seek after.  There are so many other things to distract us.  What do you need to do today to make sure that you are not one of those who does not actively seek after God?  The Lord is actively looking for them.  If the Lord finds you seeking, you will gain the Lord’s favor.  I think that it must be pretty good to gain the Lord’s favor.  Remember that the Lord is looking for people who make an effort to seek God!  BE one of those people.

Prayer is like a mandarin.  If you stop eating the mandarin, you lose the taste.  But if you keep eating it piece by piece, you will still experience its savory juice and taste and you will not lose it.  There is a physical action you have to take in eating it.  If you stop eating, the taste will disappear fairly quickly.  That is why you have to keep feeding your taste buds with prayer.  That is why we have to keep taking bites of prayer, so that we never lose the taste and experience of God.  When we stop tasting God, we taste other things, and we are led astray.

In God’s words, spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, God had three complaints: 1) they do not know me, 2) they have no understanding, and 3) they do not know how to do good.  How do you think we can fix that?  If this is us today, how would you want to go about fixing these things?  How do we come to know God better?  How do we come to have better understanding?  How do we come to knowing how to do good?  Can we fix these things by praying?  By seeking advice from friends?  By reading the Bible?  Ultimately, we come to improve at all of these things simply by seeking God in our various ways.  And though God is disappointed in each of the failures, God does make one promise in the same selection: “Yet, I will not make a full end” (Jeremiah 4:27).  God still gives us an opportunity to change the ending.  There is still opportunity to change our ways.  We can show more devotion.  We can know God more deeply.  We can show more goodness in our lives.  God is still looking for it.  God is still trying to reach us and has not written the end of the story.  God is still in the process of perfecting, and God still believes in us.  Psalm 14 ends with a word of hope as well: “When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad” (Psalm 14:7).  God is laying the opportunity directly before us; what can we do to know God in a deeper way?  What have we already done, what are we doing, and what can we do better, to know God in a deeper way?  Yes, God is watching and waiting.  God is watching and waiting to embrace us as we come to him.  Relationships are a two-way street; we need to do some of the work.

When we do the work, Heaven rejoices!  When I say that what we gain in prayer leads us to a deeper knowledge of God, an understanding, and the knowledge of good and evil, you may wonder what’s so great about that.  Why do I need all this?  What will that do for me?  I had hoped that prayer would actually give me something better, like what I have been praying for all these years, or maybe that cool material thing I have been wanting for so long.  Prayer is not really about any of that, however.  It is about establishing a relationship and connection with God.  And striking up a friendship with the Creator of the Universe is a pretty special friendship if you ask me.  From these three things that we gain, we gain so much more on top of that.  We gain God on our side to fight our battles.  We gain a sense of peace and security unlike any other.  We gain freedom from what has held us in bondage, which could have been fear, worry, financial stress or any other kind of stress.  We gain hope.  We gain a reason to keep going and to strive for better.

And if that is still not enough, perhaps it will be enough to know that Heaven is rejoicing when you seek God.  Imagine more joy added to the infinite joy that is already there.  Somehow, it gets greater with every soul that seeks the Lord.  As Jesus tells us through the words of Luke 15:7, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”  There is something that each of us could do a little better in seeking the Lord.  May you be blessed in finding that and in acting upon it.  May you know the Lord deeper.  May you be the cause for greater joy and celebration in the heavenly realm.  May you do the work to know God, and then, when you know God deeply enough, you can sense a call and a purpose for what God wills you to do in each moment.  If you crave this interaction and this relationship with God, you have to put in the work.  It does not just happen overnight.  It does not come from status or who your family is.  It comes from your own, individual, intensive seeking of God.  Always seek to have a better relationship with God.  Each day that you live is an extra opportunity to gain more traction in working towards that goal.  Each day, we should be trying to get a little closer than we were the day before.

I close with a quote by the late Queen Elizabeth II: “When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat; instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.”  Life is often hard.  But do not lie down and accept defeat.  Work harder for a better future.  Work harder, striving to know God’s glory and presence, as God is our hope, our rock, and our salvation.  Always call on the Lord whenever and wherever you can.  And may all glory and honor be to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
4:11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse–
4:12 a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
4:22 “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
4:23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.
4:24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.
4:25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.
4:26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.
4:27 For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
4:28 Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.

Psalm 14
14:1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
14:2 The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
14:3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
14:4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD?
14:5 There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
14:6 You would confound the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge.
14:7 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Luke 15:1-10
15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
15:3 So he told them this parable:
15:4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
15:5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
15:6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
15:8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
15:9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’
15:10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

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