Damariscotta Baptist Church
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Growing personal relationships with God and community

10/27/13 Sermon - Ed Wynne


Zephaniah 3:1-9

II Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

Luke 18:9-14


If I were to take an informal anonymous survey right now concerning how many of us really drive no faster than 55 miles per hour, how many of us would confess to being speeders?  I assure you this is not one of those holier-than-thou pronouncements from the pastor.  I have gotten a speeding ticket or two in my driving lifetime.  Of course, for those of us who do occasionally speed, we know if many of the cars and trucks ahead of us suddenly slow down, someone up ahead may be aware of a speed trap coming up.  So-called "fuzz busters" and other devices that detect radar can give some warning.  We can be warned of the speed trap before it is sprung on us to the tune, sometimes, of hundreds of dollars.  As one of my ministerial colleagues was fond of saying,  "It's amazing what a law-abiding citizen I've become since installing this radar detector!"

I am not aware to date whether the Maine State Police have caught up with the sophistication of the New Jersey State Police a State in which I lived for more than forty years. .  Rather than only zapping our cars with radar and then having another trooper down the road pull us over, the New Jersey  State Police have the type of radar that will not only detect our excess speed, but also shoot a photograph of our license plate.  We will not even know we have been spotted.  A few weeks later, a ticket, with appropriate fines attached, will magically and mysteriously appear in our mailboxes.  No messy problems with troopers pulling over belligerent and sometimes dangerously angry drivers.  What we have, friends, is the ultimate speed trap-- it is completely invisible.

That kind of speed trap is something like the traps or snares we can fall into when we pray.  The snares are there.  These snares can impede prayer, destroy it, or render it powerless.  These snares delude us into thinking we are praying, when what we may be doing in reality is merely mouthing words that have no power and no connection to God.

If our prayer life has been a bit sparse lately; if it seems our prayers are useless or a waste of time, maybe we have stumbled over these snares.  Awareness of them can help us avoid them allowing our prayers to have more meaning and thus we can have richer lives more in touch with God.  Here are some snares to avoid.

WE MUST BEWARE THE SNARE OF MISGUIDED MISDIRECTION.  It seems to me we must always maintain an awareness of the One to whom we are praying.  Are we really praying to God or simply to ourselves?  Our Gospel Lesson today tells us, "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself. . ."-- a classic case of misguided misdirection.

Too often, we do what the Pharisee did-- pray only with ourselves about ourselves, loading God down with our personal problems, as though the Almighty were merely some sort of Divine Concierge, who, instead of magically getting us theater tickets, will miraculously cure our ills, solve our financial problems and make our children model citizens in the bargain.  Or, even more arrogantly, we pray to ourselves, addressing God with our lips but secretly believing in our hearts we'll find the internal gumption, talent and courage to solve our own problems without any outside interference from the Lord.

In either case, we are misguided and our direction is missing as well.  Jesus clearly always prayed to God, not, we will note, to himself.  And Jesus prayed for God's will to be done.  Jesus acknowledged God's sovereignty, even in trying circumstances, such as his last night in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He knew God was his Guide, and prayers should be directed to God and God alone.

Media mogul Ted Turner has fallen into this snare.  At a convention in Orlando, Florida, Turner received an award for "Humanist of the Year."  In explaining his humanism, and his turn from God, Turner told the audience he had been raised in a God-fearing family.  All was well until his sister became critically ill.  Her illness progressed.  Turner prayed desperately and fervently that God would cure his sister.  She died.  From then on, Turner said, even as a youngster, he knew there was no God.  What kind of loving God would allow a sweet, young, innocent girl to die?  From then on, Turner continued, he had lived the rest of his life depending only on himself, his own "smarts," his own abilities.  The audience applauded wildly.

How sad-- how sad Turner's sister died.  How sad Turner could not be sustained during that awful time.  How sad that, somehow, Turner's prayers and understandings about God were misguided and misdirected.  We all wish we knew why things like that happen.  We don't.  But we must not fall into the snare of believing God hates us or never listens, just because difficulties, tragedies, and, yes, even death, invade life.  They do and they will.  But those stress-points can become the very places where we can draw more closely to God, rather than keeping God at arm's length.

Our Pharisaic friend, however, falls into other snares as he and the tax collector stand at opposite ends of the temple sanctuary.

WE MUST BEWARE THE SNARE OF FLAWED COMPARISON.  In the Pharisee's case, the comparison is made by him about how wonderful he is in contrast to others.  There is a snare that waits for us all.  "O Lord, I thank you I am not a bank robber; I go to church every week; I am such an all-around good person, unlike all those folks who show up only at Christmas and Easter."  The snare, of course, is that we assume it is others to whom we must be compared, and, in addition, we have the right to choose those to whom we wish to be compared!  God's reality and Jesus' reality is we must compare ourselves. . . to ourselves.  As Daniel interprets for King Belshazzar the mysterious message written on his palace wall, "You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting."

The comparison, my friends, must always be between ourselves, ourselves alone, and God's standards for each of us.  The Ten Commandments, for example, begin with how we must behave in relation to God, and then continue into how we must behave with each other, all with the understanding that how we behave with others reflects our relationship with God.  Those still-valid rules, those commandments, have nothing to do with whether we have kept them better than Susie, who lives next door, or Johnny, who is sitting in another pew here this morning.

A writer named Dan Henderson reports encountering this "I'm better than you are" attitude when he ran into a middle-aged man in a police station parking lot in Harlington, Kentucky.  The man called out to Henderson, "Are you saved, brother?"  When Henderson did not reply, the man said, "I just got out of jail.  I was arrested because I was drunk.  But I have a better relationship with God than you.  I've been saved.  Give me $5 and I will get down on my knees and pray for you.  I will pass the word to the Man upstairs."  Henderson asked why this would cost $5.  "Oh," replied the man, "I pray better after I've had a few drinks."

It becomes so easy, doesn't it, to think we are superior to others.  How thankful, but how flawed, we can be, assuming our spirituality places us closer to God.  What a snare, which will impede and cripple our prayer life.

Rich or poor, supposedly spiritual or not, Biblical illiterate or scripture scholar-- we all need to pray to and work for God.  The question is not, "Am I better or worse than my neighbor?"  Rather, the prayer must be, "What do you, O God, want me to do?"  Let us beware the snare of flawed comparison.

Our Pharisee falls into one more snare as he prays.  He is arrogantly confident about himself; he is certain he is better.  And he believes this based upon what he does.

WE MUST BEWARE THE SNARE OF EGOCENTRIC EVIDENCE.  "I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income."  Rather than asking God for guidance, our Pharisee spends time telling the Almighty how much he does.  His prayer, then, is not so much the needed openness to God's will, but rather a bottom-line report on what a good boy he has been.  What a snare this can be for us as well!

"Thank you, Lord, for using me to teach Sunday School.  What a shame, Lord, that more will not volunteer to work as hard as I do." Or, "Lord, I am grateful you let me sing in the choir.  My prayer is that more would give the kind of commitment I do week in and week out.  Help all the monotones become singers so they can be as good as I."

Now, let's compare this to the prayer of the tax collector, a hated figure in Jesus' day, and not much better loved today.  "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"  A simple, direct prayer, asking for mercy and indirectly saying, "Lord, show me your ways; use me for your work."  As Jesus concludes, the exalted will be humbled and the humbled exalted.  God is well aware of what we do and what we do not do.  A laundry list of achievements for the Almighty's approval is not needed.

If anyone could have expected God to recognize his brilliance, it would have been Abraham Lincoln.  If anyone could have compared himself to others and come out favorably, it would have been our 16th President.  Yet, here was a man who knew Who was in charge.  A personal friend of Lincoln wrote, "I had been spending three weeks at the White House as a guest of the President.  One night-- it was just before the Battle of Bull Run-- I was restless and could not sleep.  From Lincoln's bedroom, I heard the low tones of his voice.  Looking in the door, which was slightly ajar, I saw a sight which I have never forgotten.  The tall Chief Executive was kneeling before an open Bible.  He did not know I could overhear his agonizing supplications as he pleaded, 'O Thou great God, who heard Solomon in the night when he prayed and called out for wisdom, hear me.  I cannot lead these people, I cannot guide the affairs of this country, without thy help.  O Lord, hear me and save this nation.'"

Lincoln knew relying on God, and God alone, was the way to be aware of those snares in our prayers.  So did the tax collector.  So can you and I, when we know we must simply go to God and say, "Lord, here I am.  Forgive me.  Use me.  I am your child and on you alone I depend.  Amen."