Wednesday, 5 March 2014

BCP Commentary 2 - 'the prayers' Part 1

In our last commentary on the BCP we looked at the start of the services of Morning and Evening Prayer - the Scriptural and Reformed prayers which bring the congregation not only to a true understanding of repentance but also a true understanding of their hope in Christ.  

Towards the end of the BCP services of Morning and Evening Prayer there is an opportunity to add in prayers and thanksgivings for various things.  These are all written out under a section following the Litany which Cranmer, in his original wit, named "Prayers and Thanksgivings."  This section of the BCP is kind of like Ronseal - it does exactly what is says on the tin.  Yet there is a lot, and I mean a lot, of deep and important teaching about God and humanity in this part of the BCP.  In this article were are going to look at the Prayers, and in the future we will turn to the Thanksgivings.  I have underlined important parts of the prayers to draw you attention to the key words and phrases I will be looking at.

Prayer for rain

Recently the UK has had a terrible problem with rain, storms, flooding, and tidal surges.  Huge parts of the country are simply a mess and a number of people have died - I would hope that no one has been using the first of these prayers, the prayer for rain:

O GOD, heavenly Father, who by thy Son Jesus Christ hast promised to all them that seek thy kingdom, and the righteousness thereof, all things necessary to their bodily sustenance: Send us, we beseech thee, in this our necessity, such moderate rain and showers, that we may receive the fruits of the earth to our comfort, and to thy honour; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

So, what does this prayer teach us?  

1)  Firstly, that when we pray to God we pray not to some distant and abstract idea or figure but to our "heavenly Father" - someone we have an intimate relationship with.  Someone who loves us and who we love back.  Someone who cares for us and who we want to obey and respect.  This is important because it means we can trust Him fully to have our best interests at heart. In all our prayers we should pray "not my will, but Yours be done" - we should not demand but humbly request, with an emphasis on the humble.  Ultimately, when we pray we should always remember that 'Dad knows best'

"One basic principle of Biblical prayer to is to pray Scripture back to God."

2)  Secondly, we learn that God has promised those who believe in Jesus "all things necessary to their bodily sustenance."  Listen to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew chapter 6.25-34 concerning prayer:

25 “This is why I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? 27 Can any of you add a single cubit to his height by worrying? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labour or spin thread. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was adorned like one of these! 30 If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t He do much more for you—you of little faith? 31 So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. 34 Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

Recognise any of that from the BCP prayer for rain?  That is because this prayer is pregnant with Biblical foundations and principles.  Does this mean that if you have faith you will never go hungry, that all those people in Africa who profess Christ with their lips but starve to death are not really Christians?  No, this is a general principle, but importantly God wants us to seek first His Kingdom and Righteousness which is what matters most; we shouldn't spend all our time praying for our basic needs.  This is something the BCP prayer for rain recognises.  Rather than just praying for the basics it boldly affirms that those who seek the Kingdom and the righteousness within it God will provide for as He sees fit.  One basic principle of Biblical prayer to is to pray Scripture back to God.

It is in light of this promise that God has made, not because of our own worthiness of His mercy, that the prayer can go on to beseech God to send moderate rain and showers.  The rain is needed to receive the fruits of the earth - it is needed to help the crops grow.

3)  But there is one final point this prayer makes which is very important.  The prayer ends by saying that we need this rain to receive food "to our comfort, and to thy honour."  Whenever we pray for something it should not only be that we ourselves should be satisfied but also, and more importantly, that God is glorified and honoured - that God is shown to the world to fulfil His promises, that God's mighty power to affect and change anything and everything, including the weather, is supreme.  Not only should we live lives that honour God, but our very prayers and requests to Him should be ones that will bring Him the most and the highest honour.

"Because of our sin we deserve bad things.  It really is that simple."

Prayer for fair weather

Having dealt with a prayer in case of drought, we turn to the prayer in case of flooding - a prayer we in the UK should be using at times like these!

O ALMIGHTY Lord God, who for the sin of man didst once drown all the world, except eight persons, and afterward of thy great mercy didst promise never to destroy it so again: We humbly beseech thee, that although we for our iniquities have worthily deserved a plague of rain and waters, yet upon our true repentance thou wilt send us such weather, as that we may receive the fruits of the earth in due season; and learn both by thy punishment to amend our lives, and for thy clemency to give thee praise and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1) Rather than starting with an emphasis on God as Father, and thus one who loves us and will provide for us, this prayer takes a different tack.  Here the prayer is to the "Almighty Lord God".  The God we pray to is not weak or unable to change things, He is not just mighty but He is all-mighty.  He is so mighty that He can do anything He chooses, there is no task too small or too large He cannot accomplish.  Even where the human mind cannot fathom the awesome power needed to change something - like the weather (think of all the tiny things that create the weather systems we know, think of how they are all interlinked, think how even with all our science we cannot even begin to control weather - and remember God can do it easily.)  Not only is God Almighty, but He is also Lord - He is the King, the Emperor, the Tsar, the Ruler of the world, the earth is but His footstool.  Not only can He change the weather and whatever He chooses to at a whim, but as Lord of the Universe He has the perfect right to do so.  This earth is to God is like a world a child builds from LEGO - the child can do and change whatever he or she pleases in their world they have built and the little plastic men are helpless to change that.  God made this world and all that is in it, God sustains this universe and everything that happens - it is His creation and He is the creator, the story of the Universe is His story and as the Author He can write in to the story whatever He likes.  As my favourite Bible verse says:

"Our God is in heaven, He does whatever He wants." Psalm 115.3

2) Again this prayer begins with Scripture and repeats the facts of the world back to God - God did once drown all the world, except for Noah and his family.  Importantly, the prayer recites back to God another promise He has made - in God's great mercy He promised never to destroy the world by flooding again.  Note the use of "great mercy" for it was indeed great because God would have been perfectly just if He had destroyed all life and not kept a sinner like Noah and his family alive.

"The answer to this problem is not just to ask God for good weather but above all else and before all else - to repent."

3)  Because of our sin we deserve bad things.  It really is that simple.  Sin is an offence to God and for it we don't just deserve His wrath and anger and judgement and all kinds of bad stuff in this life, we deserve death and an eternity in Hell.  Does God still use natural disasters to 'punish' people for their sins?  That is a difficult question.  I do not believe that, except for some extraordinary reason, God punishes believers for their sin in this life now that Christ has died.  The reason is that Jesus took all of the punishment we deserve for all our sins past, present, and future, and thus it would be unjust for God to still punish us when Christ took the sentence and punishment already.  But God does chasten and discipline His children as any good parent does, and in a sense this could be understood as 'punishment'.  Importantly, it is not punishment for the sake of justice, it is 'punishment' for the sake of building us up and teaching us: it is part of loving us. As Hebrews 12.6 tells us

"for the Lord disciplines the one He loves,and punishes every son He receives." 

The matter is very different when it comes to non-believers, those who are not part of God's people, not part of the elect, and I would say (with some controversy!) Jesus did not die for in this way. This doctrine is called "definite/particular atonement" or, rather unhelpfully, "limited atonement."   Jesus has never taken the punishment that justice demands for their sins and thus God is perfectly just and right to punish them as He sees fit not only in the afterlife but in this life as well.  This can be applied to nations even when there is a remnant within the nation who believe.  We see this in the history of Israel where God often punishes the whole kingdom for abandoning Him and turning to idolatry, though He always spares a remnant of the elect.  If a nation turns its back on God there is no Biblical reason to say that God is not entitled to 'punish it.'  That said we should be very cautious about ever ascribing specific natural disasters to specific sins or indeed anything of the sort.

4)  Nonetheless, the answer to this problem is not just to ask God for good weather but above all else and before all else -  to repent.  This is exactly where the prayer now heads "We humbly beseech thee... upon our true repentance thou wilt send us such weather..." Repentance and prayer go hand in hand just as repentance and a relationship with God go hand in hand - this should not surprise us.

5)  So why would God send such weather?  As we have already shown, God doesn't really 'punish' His people because Christ has taken their punishment.  But He does teach them and discipline them.  This is what the prayer goes on to explain to us when it calls upon God to not only give us fair weather that we might have food but also that we might be changed by this experience.  The prayer calls on God to help us learn of God's right to discipline or 'punish' in order to bring and teach His children to repent and turn back to Him.  It also calls on God to help us to learn of Hiss mercy and love for us, His never pushing us beyond our ability and His always providing once repentance is genuine.

6)  And why should we learn these things - God's discipline and mercy?  That God might be praised and glorified of course!  All things should be about glorifying God, including our learning.

Prayers in time of dearth and famine

This was obviously an important kind of prayer to Cranmer because the BCP provides two different ones.  In an age before machinery and booming international trade fame and times of dearth (that is times of lacking and scarcity of resources) were common and much more problematic than in the Western world today. Let us look at these prayers in turn.

O GOD, heavenly Father, whose gift it is that the rain doth fall, the earth is fruitful, beasts increase, and fishes do multiply: Behold, we beseech thee, the afflictions of thy people; and grant that the scarcity and dearth, which we do now most justly suffer for our iniquity, may through thy goodness be mercifully turned into cheapness and plenty; for the love of Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

1)  We return again to God as our Father.  But the first major thing to point out is that the rain falling, the earth being fruitful and beautiful, the animals and fishes increasing in number is all a "gift" of God.  We don't deserve it and He doesn't have to provide it, but He does because He is generous. We should not take any of these things for granted because as with anything that you have no right to, it is all too easy for it to be taken away and you left with nothing.

2)  The prayer calls on God to see and behold the pain and need, the afflictions, of His people - a common prayer and call in the book of Psalms.  Again the prayer places this all in the correct context - that of sin.  The only reason that this world is fallen and groaning to be redeemed is because Adam and Eve sinned and the whole cosmos was thus brought under the curse of death.  Sin is at the heart of all that is wrong in the universe, and that sin is not from God but from our foolish use of the blessing of free will He gave to Adam and Eve.  Till Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead this world is going to suffer - but His victory and return has been made certain by His death and resurrection, a foretaste of what is to come.  We justly suffer need because of our sins.

"Ultimately, when we pray we should always remember that 'Dad knows best.'"

3) But God is ever merciful and above all good.  God is good all the time and always.  This prayer calls upon His goodness and mercy, as should we, for we know from Scripture that this is who God is and He loves to show His mercy because He is, above all things, good.  Thus it is trusting upon His attributes and personality that we pray for plenty.

4) And why should God show us this goodness and mercy?  For the love of Jesus Christ our Lord who died in our place to take upon Himself all of our need and lack.  For Jesus Christ sake we call on the Father to answer our prayers, and this is the very reason Jesus told us to pray in His own name when calling on His Father.  Obviously, the prayer ends by emphasising the honour and glory God deserves for whatever He chooses to do.

O GOD, merciful Father, who, in the time of Elisha the prophet, didst suddenly in Samaria turn great scarcity and dearth into plenty and cheapness: Have mercy upon us, that we, who are now for our sins punished with like adversity, may likewise find a seasonable relief: Increase the fruits of the earth by thy heavenly benediction; and grant that we, receiving thy bountiful liberality, may use the same to thy glory, the relief of those that are needy, and our own comfort; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1)  God is not just a heavenly Father, but a "merciful Father".  This second prayer fleshes out the Biblical background that we have explored concerning God punishing or disciplining nations for their collective sins.  It emphasises that often this can be very sudden and unexpected - like a thief in the night or a freak earthquake.  The story of Elisha in 2 Kings is recounted concerning God's punishing of Samaria for turning its back on Him.  Just like Samaria, so are we today punished with the same kind of adversity - God doesn't change so we shouldn't expect His ways to change either.  

2)  But just as God brought relief to Samaria so we can trust in Him and call on Him to do the same with us. Scripture is chock full of God showing mercy and giving generously to the nations that He chose.  

3)  God is called on to increase the fruits of the earth that we may receive of His great and enormous goodness so that three things may happen.  These expand on the two given in the previous prayers.  Firstly, and primarily, we pray for God to provide for us that we may use what He lovingly gives to glorify Him. Secondly, we use what He gives to provide relief for those who are most in need, those other than ourselves. And then, after God is honoured and others are cared for, only then should we begin to think and look to our own comfort.  God - others - you.  This is an important order to remember in being a disciple of Christ for it is exactly the kind of servant-hood He modelled and called on us to follow.

"Repentance and prayer go hand in hand just as repentance and a relationship with God go hand in hand - this should not surprise us."

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