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How to Pray in Distress

How to Pray in Distress
8th July 2018

How to Pray in Distress

Passage: Psalm 20:1 - 9

Bible Text: Psalm 20:1 – 9 | Speaker: Clayton Fopp | Series: Psalms – Songs of Praise | Psalm 20
How to pray in distress?

A prayer before going to war …

One April Sunday, back in 2013, we got Jonno Erwich up the front of church one morning, to pray for him, as he was deployed to Afghanistan for the second time.
The moment is quite clearly etched in my memory, for a couple of reasons. One is, that because we got Matt Wynn who was also in the army to lead us in prayer, I was up the front between these 2 massive, strapping young blokes, at the peak of physical fitness, and I’ve never felt less fit or more like I should join a gym than I did in that moment!
But more significantly, I remember that day, because of what we did,
We as a church stood with a young man who was about to go into a warzone, and do battle with our enemies.

And we prayed that God would protect him,
We prayed that he would serve those around him well,
We prayed that God would return him to us and to his family, safely.

And we prayed that even during the testing and stressful 8 months away, he would live as Christ’s faithful servant, and learn more and more what it is to trust in our sovereign God.
And I was thinking of that day as I looked at Psalm 20, because this Psalm is a prayer before battle. It’s what you pray for someone going into a warzone.

At least, it’s what you did pray, if you were an ancient Israelite, and your king was heading out to battle your enemies.
Psalm 20 and 21 go together. They’re the prayers before and after the king heads out to war.

Look down at the last verse of this Psalm,
Lord, give victory to the king! Answer us when we call!
And then the first verse of 21, The king rejoices in your strength, Lord. How great is his joy in the victories you give!
But of course, Jonno Erwich is not our king!
What’s the point of a Psalm about a king when we don’t have a king.

We’re certainly not expecting the Queen to head out in battle any time soon!
But let me ask you, how can you pray?

What makes you think God would hear or answer your prayers?

And why is there any point in praying? Especially, when life hangs in the balance.
Those are the answers Psalm 20 gives us.
This is a Psalm of David. Remember that the italic titles in the Psalms are part of the Bible text, they’re not just made up by the publishers to help us find our place, like the other paragraph headings in the Bible are.
So David was the king of Israel, about a thousand years before Jesus. And its’ verse 9, right at the end, that lets us know that it’s the king who’s on view right through the Psalm.

And the chariots and horses in verse 7, give us the context for the distress in verse 1, literally the “day of trouble.”

He’s going in to battle.
And notice the pronouns. It’s school holidays, I know! But let’s just do grammar for a moment!

The prayers are all about you, and your, second person singular.

Each of those first 4 verses includes one of those pronouns twice. It’s all addressed to the king.
But then in verse 5, look, May we shout for joy
It’s first person plural,

This is a prayer for people to pray together!
And the fact that we find prayers like this in the Bible, is one of the reasons that often in our Sunday services, we do this;, we pray together out loud.
We pray, we prayers, corporate prayers. Yes, we pray individually,
In private,
But the Bible is filled with examples of God’s people praying together, bringing before God, things that are not just on the heart of one, or 2, or a few, but a prayer that we can agree in together,
But having said that this is a prayer. The first 5 verses are not really a prayer, are they? At least not in terms of how we tend to think of prayer.
Those 5 statements in the opening verses aren’t directed to God, they’re spoken to the king.

The people are saying to the king, this is what we want for you,
This is what we’re hoping God is going to do for you?
But clearly the people are echoing the prayers of the king.

The implication is that they’re asking God for the same things he’s asking God for!
The king’s sent out an email to the Prayer Network, “Here’s what I’m praying for. Will you join me?”

And the people respond, and pray for their king, because they’re confident in the God they’re calling on.

We call on the God who’s made himself known (v 1)

See verse 1, May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
As I said before, distress is literally the “day of trouble.”
In the life and death moments, the place to turn is God.

The point is made again in verse 7 Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
It’s easy to trust in God, to have confidence in God’s ability to deliver you when everything is going well.
But to cling to that confidence in the day of trouble, that’s something altogether different, isn’t it?
And so, what a wonderful thing to pray for someone else! Whether they’re the king of Israel or anyone. To say to your friend, “I know a God who is able to answer, even in the midst of life and death.”
For someone to say, “this is what we’re praying for you, that the Lord will answer you when you are in distress”, what a great comfort and a reminder.

Somebody else can tell me what I know to be true, even if I’m in a moment when I can’t see it?
Are you telling people?

Maybe there’s someone you know today, who needs to be reminded, of God’s willingness, eagerness to hear, respond, and answer their prayers, because that’s what God’s always been like!
Where do God’s people see that salvation and deliverance can be found? the name of the God of Jacob
Jacob was the father of the nation of Israel. And in fact in Genesis 32, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. And he’s a good one to mention to highlight protection, and presence, and the fact that God’s not unknown. God had said to Jacob in Genesis 28 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, I will not leave you
See, the name of God is not some kind of lucky charm, if I just say the name, then everything bad disappears. It’s to remind us that it’s possible to know a God who can be depended on.
You may know that the first account of the Loch Ness Monster is in the record of the Life of Saint Columba, who was an Irish missionary in what is now Scotland in the 6th Century.
The story goes that Columba heard stories of the monster attacking people in the River Ness, by the Loch. So he instructs one of his men to swim across the river, and the monster appears, and is about to attack him, when Columba makes the sign of the cross, and the monster stopped, as if it had been, quote “pulled back with ropes.”
Now, I’m sure the guy who was told to swim across the river was pleased! But that’s not really kind of idea spoken of here.
the name of God is not magical.
But in the ancient world, someone’s name represented their character.

And the fact that you can call on God’s name, means you know he’s there.

You’re not calling out, “hello, hello, is anyone there? Can anyone help me?”

No, God has made himself known, he’s revealed his character, so we can have confidence to call on him.
The people’s confidence in prayer came from the sacrifice of the king (v 2 – 4)
And while, I’m sure we can all think of times when we’re in distress, and we want to pray to the God who’s shown that he cares and he’s interested, when we get to verses 2 and 3, we realise there’s a significant difference between the king who’s the focus of the prayer here, and you and me.
2 May he send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion.
3 May he remember all your sacrifices and accept your burnt offerings.
The historians tell us that before a battle, the king and the people would gather at the temple, the sanctuary, in Jerusalem, that is, Zion, and the king would offer sacrifices.
And perhaps even while this is going on, the people all gathered, would say these words from Psalm 20.

And so the nation’s confidence that God would hear their prayers, and send help, came from the fact that the right sacrifices had been made.

3 May he remember all your sacrifices and accept your burnt offerings.
“We’re asking God to find the sacrifices you’ve offered acceptable, so that he’ll act to save you.”

Don’t read ourselves into the Scriptures

But of course, we know that that’s not our experience.
If God’s willingness to answer our prayers, is dependent on whether we’ve offered the correct burnt offerings and right sacrifices, we’re in trouble, aren’t we?!
And so we’re reminded, not to automatically read ourselves into the Bible.
We are not the subject.

And if anyone tells you otherwise, you can ask them, how they’re going offering their burnt offerings to God in order for their prayers to be heard!
How do you get on when you’re in a plane and you can’t light a fire, but it’s getting bumpy and you want to pray? A friend of mine flew into Egypt 20 years ago, and the passengers had their little gas burners out cooking their dinner in the aisle of the plane!

Maybe you do that!
This is not us!

This is not our situation.
The king of Israel was a man God raised up to lead his people.

The kings were supposed to protect God’s people,
To lead the nation in obedience to God. In fact when the king ascended to the throne, he was supposed to write out a copy of the Law of God with his own hand, not get one of his lackies to do it, so that he’d know it cover to cover.
And the kings were supposed to prepare people for, communicate something of what God’s eternal king would be like when he arrived. They were little shadows of the one who was so come. And you may know that the word Messiah, or Christ, the title given to Jesus, comes from the way these kings were crowned.
Messiah and Christ just mean “anointed one”, which is what happened to these kings at their coronation;, they were anointed with oil.
So, to oppose God’s chosen king, was to oppose God himself.

Setting yourself up against King David, and saying, “I’m out to destroy David”, was not like saying, “I want to get rid of Clayton”,
It’s not even the same as running for parliament against Malcom Turnbull, you can do that if you want, that’s fine!

But opposing the anointed, chosen, king of Israel, the “little Christ” you could say, who was supposed to protect, and lead, and shepherd God’s people, that was to oppose God’s purposes.
Fight against God’s king, and you’re saying “I don’t want God’s rule established here.

I’m doing everything I can to stop God’s plans reaching their fulfilment.”
The kings of Israel held a unique place in salvation history, a place that we don’t inhabit.

Our confidence in prayer comes from the sacrifice and victory of the king.

And so realising that we’re different to the kings of Israel.
What’s true of them is not necessarily true of us,
Where do we find our confidence when we pray?

How do we have any expectation that our prayers will be heard and answered?
The people of Israel’s confidence, was on the basis of the king’s sacrifice.
Where’s our confidence?

How can we say to someone May the Lord answer you when you are in distress when they haven’t offered any sacrifices?
Well, actually, while we’re not the king God’s raised up to lead his people,
And we’re not even the people of Old Testament Israel,
Our confidence when we pray comes in a very similar way.

We can have confidence when we pray, because of the king’s sacrifice, and because our king, has already won his battle.
Now, what do I mean?
Well, let’s step back a little for a wider perspective.
The Bible is clear that God is holy, that is he’s separate from us. He’s distinct. He’s not just like a nicer version of you and me. Like Clayton with all the selfish bits taken out. No, he’s entirely different and other.
That’s holy.
Holiness also means that God’s separate, yes, but he’s also good.

He’s perfect.

He never sins,
He’s never unjust,
He acts for our good,
All that is holiness.
And it’s interesting that God’s holiness is on view in this Psalm, although it’s hidden in our NIV translation. In verse 2 where the people speak of God’s sanctuary, it’s literally holiness. And the same thing down in verse 6. And those of you with an ESV Bible, can see that translation.
But that’s God, holy.

And we’re not!
Left to ourselves we throw off Gods’ pattern for life,
We doubt that his way is best for us and best for others.

And because of that, we hurt ourselves, we hurt others, and we fail to look after the world that God’s put us in.

It’s what the Bible calls sin.
And if we’ve spend our lives walking away from God,
If our consistent pattern, and the consistent pattern of every person who’s ever lived, is to ignore God,
To live as if God neither exists nor matters,
To enjoy all the great things God gives us, and there’s heaps, but never give thanks to God, or never pause to consider how God might intend for us to use all these wonderful gifts and freedoms and opportunities he’s given us,
If that’s us,
And that was God, holy, perfect, right,
What possible grounds could we have, to come before God, and ask him for stuff?
How on earth could you pray, May the Lord answer you when you are in distress, with any confidence, when that’s how you’ve treated God?

And that’s how I’ve treated God.
I got our house and contents insurance renewal notice this week, which always makes me want to go and live like some kind of hermit without any possessions.
But all the years that I’ve paid my premiums,
Made sure I meet all the obligations,
Locking the doors,
Not leaving valuable unsecured,
It’s all so that if I make a claim, I’ll be able to point to my faithfulness, to all the things I’ve done right, in order for the insurance company to do what I ask.
And some people think that’s how we come to God.

Why can I ask God to do things for me?

Because look at all the good stuff I’ve done!
Why do I think God will hear and answer my prayers?

Well, I’ve paid all the premiums! Look at how much money I’ve given him!

God should answer my prayers, because, really I’ve done everything he could possibly expect of me, certainly more than, plenty of other people.
Do you know people who approach God like that? Maybe not quite so crassly, at least not out loud!

But that kind of “I’ll scratch your back, God, if you’ll scratch mine.”
Maybe that’s how you think about God, and about prayer.

There’s no point asking God to act, unless I can show him how much I’ve done to deserve it

But what did we see? God is holy, and perfect, and pure.
And we are so not.
It would be like trying to claim insurance when you’ve never paid the premiums,
Never followed the instructions,
Never even taken out a policy!
How would I get on with Allianz if I asked them to pay up when I don’t even have a relationship with them?
No, we offer our prayers to God, not on the basis of our own performance, or obedience, but in the light of the sacrifice that’s been offered.
How can I, sinful, rebellious human, stand before God and have the temerity to ask anything from him,
To expect him to answer my prayers?
Well, the same as Psalm 21;, because of the sacrifice of the king.

The sacrifice Jesus made in my place.
It’s only because Jesus says, “I’ll take your sin and rebellion on me,
I’ll restore the relationship with God that you’ve broken,
I’ll usher you in to relationship with God by taking away the sin that’s keeping you out of God’s holy presence.
And King Jesus isn’t riding into battle like the king in Psalm 20. King Jesus has already triumphed. His battle is won. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, having disarmed the powers and authorities, that is the forces of sin and evil to which we were enslave, Jesus made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross
Jesus has already made his sacrifice and come through the battle.
For him they were the one act of dying in our place on the cross.
Friends, that’s why we can come to God, and say “please act.”

It’s why we pray “in the name of Jesus”,
We pray depending on the character,
The work,
The accomplishments of Jesus.
If you’ve been brought into relationship with God through Jesus,
You can have every confidence that your prayers are valued by God,
Heard by God,
Answered by God,
Because of the sacrifice and victory of the king.
And if you’re not a follower of Jesus, but you long to have this kind of confidence, this is where it comes from;,
Not through your effort or your goodness,
But only Jesus’ sacrifice in your place, and his victory over your sin.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to perform at a certain level,
Or tick off a certain number of religious boxes,
Or give to the church above a certain threshold, to get your prayers heard.
I flew to and from Sydney this week, and each time we boarded the plane, some special people got priority.

People who paid more,
People who travel more,
People who deserved special treatment, they got to the front of the queue.
That’s not how it works when it comes to prayer.
Our confidence is not in ourselves, but in Jesus bringing us to God through his death in our place.

Are we promised everything we wish for? (v 4 – 5)

So, then, when we pray, are we promised everything we wish for?
It certainly sounds like it!

Verse 4, May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.
And down in verse 5, May the Lord grant all your requests.
It sounds like my Ferrari is going to be waiting for me after church, doesn’t it?!
But remember the kings of Israel were different to us, their role and relationship to God was unique.
And so, perhaps as disappointing as it might be, this isn’t a universal promise that anything you plan will happen.

If my desire is to get rich, and my plan is to establish a successful money laundering enterprise for organised crime, is God obligated to get behind it and make it profitable?
Or even if my desire is to never get sick,
Or my plans are to form a charity to help other people, things that we’d say are generally good, this prayer isn’t a promise that you will succeed.
The king, what were his plans?

If he was serving the people as he was supposed to, his plans were God’s plans.

He set his hand to carrying out God’s work on earth.

Remember he had the law of God in his head!

His plans were supposed to be God’s plans, what was good for people, and honouring to God.
This isn’t a prayer about getting a Ferrari, but a prayer about being faithful and obedient.

The congregation are praying, “May God help you as you follow his plans to protect his people,
I’m praying that God will deliver you, as you stand faithfully in a dangerous situation,
I pray that God’s purposes will succeed, through you.”
And of course, what better things to be praying for, than for God’s purposes?

For those things that we know God wants.
That’s not to say that you can’t pray for anything other than what God has specifically said he wants for us,
We’ve prayed in very specific terms for members of our church family in recent weeks, haven’t we? In terms that go well beyond what we’re explicitly told is God’s will for us.
And that’s right and good. The Apostle Paul urges the Christians in Ephesus to pray with all kinds of prayers and requests.

So absolutely let’s keep doing that.

But praying for those specific things that are on our hearts, should never come at the expense of praying for the things that we know God wants for us, because he’s told us what he wants for us.
We pray for people who are sick to get better. Excellent. Please do.
If I get sick, please pray that I get better!

But what God wants for me more than getting better, is that I’ll trust him even if I don’t,
That I’ll still work hard at my godliness even when my plans don’t come together,
That I’ll learn, whatever lesson he wants me to learn in that situation.
I remember when I was quite sick a few years ago, sitting down in the doctor’s office, hoping she’d make me better, but the doctor, who many of you know, Dr Cara, patted my hand and said, “Clayton, what do we think God is trying to teach you in this?”
It’s not what I wanted to hear, particularly!
But it is what I needed to hear.
Yes, pray for the things that are on your heart.

But in doing so, don’t ever neglect the things that are on God’s heart.
This isn’t a promise that you’ll get everything you’ve ever wanted,
It’s not even a promise that the king of Israel will get everything he’s ever wanted,
It’s a reminder to him and to us,
To put God’s glory,
And his plans and purposes for us and for others, at the centre of our prayers.

What is it about God that makes you pray the way you do? (v 6 – 9)

But the Psalm takes an interesting turn at verse 6, and if you were still watching out for the pronouns you will have seen this.

We’re now in the first person singular, Now this I know:
The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
with the victorious power of his right hand.
In the original context this might now be the king speaking,
Or it might be the service leader, so maybe I should have got Andrew up to read it just then,
But whoever it is, we’re given an insight into what it is about God, that makes them pray the way they do.
We run a group a couple of times a year, for people who are new to Trinity. It’s called God, Church & Me. And it’s to help people find their place in the body of Christ here.
We spend some time looking at the Bible together, and when we look at what the Bible says about prayer, we sometimes ask people to think about, what aspects of God’s character, make them pray the way they do.
Because, of course, however you understand God,
However you think he’s going to act, that will influence what you ask for,
How you ask,
What you think God is able to do,
What even makes it into your prayers.

What does the king or this person understand about God that makes him pray the way he does?
Well first of all he knows that God is in control, doesn’t he?

The Lord gives victory to his anointed.

He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
with the victorious power of his right hand.
Victory in battle doesn’t go to whoever wants it more,
Or even whose army was bigger!

The outcome is in God’s hands.

The same kind of thing we saw in Daniel, many times in the last few weeks.
And because the king here speaks of his anointed, our attention is drawn once again to God’s purposes.
Why does The Lord give victory to his anointed, well, because the king is on God’s business,
This is God’s work, and God’s work never fails.
And you probably noticed that God’s help is pictured as coming from the sanctuary in verse 2, but now it’s the heavenly sanctuary.

It’s like we were watching something on a tiny little Nokia phone screen, and now all of a sudden were watching it on an IMAX cinema screen.

The dimensions, the scope is suddenly so much bigger.

It’s kind of a way of saying “all the resources of heaven are at our disposal, can be brought to bear in answer to our prayers.”
Do you get a sense of the breadth and depth of how God can see his purposes met?

Nothing will get in the way of God bringing his plans to fruitfulness.

The king is convinced of that!
Are you?

Are we? As a church?

Now, we’re not going into battle hoping for victory, but do we hold the same conviction about God always bringse people to himself who he will call?

Or do we think that yes, God wants people to be saved, but there are so many competing claims, or arguments against God, that there’s not really any point praying that God will save my friends?
God’s in control. His purposes will not be frustrated. Not by ancient armies, nor by anyone.
Are you looking at the God who answers your prayers, like he fits within a tiny mobile phone screen, or like he can’t even be contained on the cinema widescreen?
The king, or this leader, is also convinced that God has revealed himself to be more reliable, than what everyone else trusts in.
Verse 7, 7 Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
8 They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm.
Put your trust in what everyone else is trusting in, you’ll be let down, because these things are perishable. How much help is a chariot these days?

But trust in God, look to him for security, and you can stand firm.

Once more we come across the name of the Lord, everything that God has revealed about himself.
And probably even the language of horses and chariots is supposed to remind us of how God has revealed himself as the helper of his people in the past;,
The armies of both Egypt and the Canaan lost their chariots in miraculous defeats when God came to the aid of his people.
What is it about God that makes you pray the way you do?

Is it the way that God has revealed himself by his name? That representation of everything he is,
Everything he’s done for his people,
How he’s acted,
How he’s thrown wide access for relationship and confidence?
He doesn’t just answer the prayers of those who paid more, did better, or somehow got themselves to the front of the queue.

He’s shown himself to be the one who answers our prayers, welcoming us in Jesus.
What is it about God that makes you pray the way you do?
Or let me put it a different way if you don’t pray.
Or maybe you’re not a Christian but you’ve come today to try and find out what Christians are on about? What you need to be convinced of about God, in order to pray, with the kind of confidence we see here?
Maybe the place to start, is to consider the name of the Lord our God

Everything he’s done for his people,
How he’s acted,
How he’s thrown wide access for relationship and confidence.
And let that give you reason to begin praying.

I was reminded this week, of the hymn God Save The Queen. You can see why!

Mostly we only ever hear the first verse, but in 1946, King George ordered that the second verse be re-written, because he thought it sounded belligerent and imperialistic, and didn’t fit the mood for the first ever UN General Assembly being held in London.
The bit he didn’t like went like this:

God Save The King.
O Lord our God arise,
Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all.

You can see the sensitivities the UN might feel!
But actually those last 2 lines, that’s the hope of Psalm 20, isn’t it?
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all.