Maybe there’s a department in heaven just concerned with prayer… one can imagine the group of angels deputed to intercession counting up what has been asked for. Maybe 50 prayers for sun in Norwich, compared to 54 for rain means we get rain … Although at the moment it seems the sun prayers are winning - of course that may have changed before you read this. Prayers of praise and thanksgiving are wafted in God’s direction, and prayers of penitence go to a different department, depending on how general or specific they are. Or maybe it’s just God: maybe God is too overwhelmed with prayers to pay attention to each one, and we have to shout loud enough to get any attention; maybe there’s a series of steps we have to go through, so that our prayers are only heard once we are holy enough; or maybe the prayers just waft around, and God carries on the way regardless …
Or maybe God is there, ready and waiting, longing for us to turn and pray, longing for us to make contact. Maybe God will hear the prayers of any who pray, rather than just those who are ‘special’. Just occasionally I will get asked to pray by someone who seems to think that my prayers are more likely to be heard than theirs; although of course I do pray for them, I have never managed to convince any of these people that actually God will rejoice in their prayers just as much as mine. But I wonder if we do not all have similar thoughts at times. The ‘maybe’s’ in the first paragraph are caricatures, but I also wonder if they don’t relate to some ideas of God that we may share deep down. Whether our childhood version of God is one we still believe in at one level.
Do we believe that if we get the correct formula our prayers will automatically be granted? I can’t help thinking it’s more complicated than that. Do we believe in a God of Love, while deep down believing also that this God of Love needs to be placated and kept happy? Do we allow the God we worship (or, possibly, the image of the God we worship) to expand and change, or do we simply know who we think God is, and feel threatened if that is changed? Is your God a God of Love, or a God who delights in hell-fire and judgement? do you believe in a God of love who longs to send you to hell the minute you step out of line? It’s a contradiction, but one we are quite capable of holding together without examining it. If you believe in a God of Love, how do you define love?
For most of us, our initial experiences of love come from our friends and family; that must surely shape how we see love, how we respond to love. Does an unhealthy image of love lead to an unhealthy image of God? and do we truly understand what the Love of God is like? How can we? I was reading Isaiah 65 last week and had this image of an overarching God, who is just longing for us to make contact. Just the first two verses speak of God’s hands being held out, yearning for people to turn and listen, to hear and to follow. It goes on to speak of how they did not follow, and God’s response to that. But it was those early verses that gave the image of the God, waiting, seeking, longing for us. The longing that led to the incarnation, to show us the way to God; a way I can’t help thinking we distort, and hide the wonder and greatness of God’s love. Because we don’t really believe it? because we’re scared of the implications of really believing it? because we’re too busy being irritated by others, to realise that they are loved by God?
Whatever your answers to these questions – and they are only questions – I want to leave you with the image of a God who is longing for us to make contact, longing for us to listen, longing for us to realise who God is and how God is; and therefore who we are and where we are travelling, even if none of us have got there yet. A God who does not treat sin lightly, but also a God who has dealt with that and calls us not to judge others; a God who does not want us to ignore things that are going wrong – who indeed wants us to deal with them – but a God who wants us to respond from love rather than judgement. Not a soft, sentimental, anything goes kind of love, rather the love of God that is patient and kind but that does not rejoice in evil; the love that never fails; the love, that if we need a concrete example, can be found in Jesus, who loved both the sinner and the Pharisee, but responded differently according to their needs. A God for whom prayer is not an obstacle to be managed, but much more about spending time with Love and getting to know our God, a lifetime of getting to know God, and that spills over into our daily life. A God who, however much we fail, is always there ready and waiting, rejoicing in our turning back and starting again. A God who is longing to spend time with you.