Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is past, we’re off into the “Christmas” season. We call it Advent, but even so, it’s readiness for Christmas. And, Christians or not, much of the world is preparing. How are you preparing? Do you already have your tree up? Is it more than one? Tinsel and garland? Outdoor lights? Maybe if you’re beyond the family-at-home stage, whatever you do has gotten much simpler, to very little at all. However…we know there are many ways to prepare with our decorations for Christmas. But as we’ve gathered so far, we’ve been considering a totally different matter: of how we prepare our hearts.
We often consider it in this season but, in truth, it’s not a seasonal matter. Christmas provides us with an event to anticipate, but our preparation is a daily one. Tonight we say that “Christians prepare…” because this is a characteristic matter for people of faith. It’s part of who we are. We live with an attention to who God is and what God says. We live and work and prepare with an intent to communicate with that God too. And so, tonight we say, “Christians prepare with prayer…”
145 I call with all my heart; answer me, O Lord, and I will obey your decrees. 146 I call out to you; save me and I will keep your statutes. 147 I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. 148 My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises. 149 Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, O Lord, according to your laws. 150 Those who devise wicked schemes are near, but they are far from your law. 151 Yet you are near, O Lord, and all your commands are true. 152 Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever.
As you heard it from Psalm 119 tonight, when Christians pray, they pray according to God’s Word. Which is important to remember because I’m tempted to let my own word characterize how I pray – or don’t. Consider your own prayer life for a moment, then consider this example: the psalmist says tonight that he calls “with all [his] heart” or “rise[s] before dawn” to pray or is attentive and prayerful “through the watches of the night”. Do you see yourself there? Or do you say instead, “That’s a lot… I don’t know if I’ve ever prayed that way – or if I could…” Do you hear it and begin to see the gaps in your own prayer life? The inconsistencies in how you pray – how short your attention or devotion or commitment? There’s a temptation like that to focus on your own word about prayer. To say negatively, “It’s been so long or so patchy, that maybe it’s been too long or too broken. I just should forget about it altogether – God wouldn’t want to hear from me…” Or the pseudo-positive word that says to be truly Christian “I ought to pray this much…”, “I need a night time vigil…”, “I need to pray like that…”
And those might be true in parts and could be helpful things, but that kind of word by itself won’t prepare your heart; it will kill it with guilt or fear or self-reliance. Which is why when Christians pray, they do so according to God’s Word – because they understand the blessing of his Word. Look at what the psalmist says tonight: vv.147-148: “I have put my hope in your word. [I stay awake all night to] meditate on your promises.” A word that holds hope? That is full of promise? How?
The psalmist reveals it in v.149 – “Hear my voice in accordance with your love…” He doesn’t ask God to hear on the basis of the pray-er’s track record, but on the basis of God’s “love”, his “mercy”. His promising love gives us hope. God spoke it to Moses long ago when he characterized himself like this: “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” (Psalm 86:7). God is filled with love and commitment to you that forgives all your patchy prayers and your inattention, all my sins, dismisses all my guilt.
How so? Because, as you know, God isn’t just loving, but he makes promises of love and he keeps them. Just like to King David long ago – You want to build me a house? I will build you a house and kingdom with a king who will rule forever – a dynasty that no one can break. And later to Mary, that king finally revealed, “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:31-32) And how great he is! Watch Jesus at work when we get to Epiphany. Look at how he meets the dawn in prayer. Or how he earnestly prays to do God’s will. See how he remembers every facet of his disciples’ lives in his praying. How he longs that they would do God’s will. See how he keeps and does what we cannot possibly keep and do perfectly. See God’s love poured out in the promised Savior who kept all of God’s laws. All so that we could pray in that Word – v.149 “preserve my life, O Lord, according to your laws.” Preserve my life, Lord, because Jesus my Savior kept your laws – according to your own keeping of your laws, save me, hear me, bless me.
In truth, praying in God’s Word means that Christians pray this kind of thing: Be true to yourself, Lord, and your promise and our hope that, when we are in Christ Jesus our Savior, we are preserved because he was perfect. Save me as you promise because he died on the tree of the cross to make payment for my sins and he lives forever and he continually supplies me with his perfect record to cover me so that I can call on you. Christians prepare with prayer and pray according to God’s Word because he provides the salvation we need – the kind that brings us into true life with God.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this, then… Christians prepare with prayer because prayer is the way that Christians ask for God’s help to remain Christians. Christians prepare with prayer, praying in God’s Word, in order to live a life with God – so that they may trust his commands are true.
Because it can seem like he is far away. This life…there are temptations and dangers in people and institutions and advertisements… There are wicked schemes for self reliance and for complete rejection of God’s Word. There are people who want to be and want you to be far from God’s law. It’s like v.150 said, “Those who devise wicked schemes are near, and they are far from your law.” So the Christian prays and prepares his or her heart with this: v.151 “You are near, O LORD, and all your commands are [truth].” (NET Bible) When temptations come and fearful things loom, when the world lies, we prepare our hearts again in prayer by declaring what God has said through Isaiah, “[The one] who vindicates me is near. Who will bring charges against me?” (50:8) What scheme of man can break God’s plans? Or take us away from his love? As he promised at Christmas, he is near in this way best, the virgin Mary gives birth to a son whom we call “Immanuel–which means, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:23) We trust and pray that God who is so near is both powerful and faithful to help us trust his commands are true – to live according to them.
In fact, notice how the psalmist prays exactly for that tonight: I call…answer me, O Lord, and I will obey your decrees… I call…save me and I will keep your statutes. My hope is in your Word; I meditate on your promises. I learned from your statutes... To summarize, though tempted to live far from it, he’s clearly praying to be in God’s Word. Christians prepare their hearts with prayer in order to trust his commands are true – and they do it by keeping that Word.
And a good example of it in our world at the moment is the Disney series The Mandalorian. If you aren’t familiar, it’s in the classic space western family of Star Wars. It’s sometime between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. The main character is a bounty hunter of a warrior class known as Mandalorians – they’re legit serious, hard as steel, ninja quick. Of course, the sensation of the story by the end of episode 1 is, as CNET called it, “the absolute gut punch of cute that is ‘Baby Yoda.’” You have two marching orders tonight – by far the first: pray in God’s Word and be his people; distant second: go home and google Baby Yoda so that you too can be lost in the bottomless pools of his black alien baby eyes and be wrapped in the warmth of his over-large green ears, and gush over his little three-fingered claw hands… The thing of the show is that classic Western theme: hard-as-leather hero’s heart is touched by cute-as-a-button child figure and everything changes. Everything changes – Mando should have dumped off that little green sail-eared kid and left with the bounty, but he couldn’t – he spends every episode fighting for the child, taking laser blasts for the child, hiding with the child — doing every possible thing he can to keep that child safe.
Every analogy limps – I’m very aware that I’m now about to liken God’s Word to Baby Yoda but… to mix our metaphors, “Let’s boldly go where no one has gone before…”
Christians prepare their hearts with prayer – and they ask for many things. We should. God commands us to call on him, to petition him, to trust he will give what we need. But you might argue that the main emphasis of our praying is to keep his Word – to guard it fiercely from being taken away, to hold onto it and protect it as near and dear to our lives, to do everything we can to have it and know it and grow in it – so that we trust his commands are true. We pray this way at the end of one of our services often:
“Almighty God, we thank you for teaching us the things you want us to believe and do. Help us by your Holy Spirit to keep your Word in pure hearts (ones dedicated to you) that we may be strengthened in faith (our hope in you), guided in holiness (our knowledge that we are forgiven and yours and that we continue to walk in your ways), and comforted in life and in death (because we know you are near and we will be with you), through Jesus Christ our Lord…”
My dear friends, perhaps you will start a daily prayer cycle, or sharpen your “through the watches of the night vigil”, or… whatever form, prepare your hearts in this way. Pray – filled with the language of God’s Word; the hope of his love; the promises of his Savior; the confidence that he is faithful and has made you his own. Filled with that joy, freely pray – that the God who is near will strengthen you and help you to keep that dear Word as your own so that you trust his commands are truth and we might continue to live for him. And, praying so, you will be ready…in Advent, for Christmas, for everything. Amen.