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When Prayer Doesn't Seem to Work

Psalm 102

Pastor Robin Fish

Lenten Midweek #5
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church  
Laurie, MO

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Wed, Mar 13, 2013 

Psalm 102

(A Prayer of the Afflicted, when he is faint, and pours out his complaint before the LORD.) Hear my prayer, O LORD! And let my cry for help come to Thee.

Do not hide Thy face from me in the day of my distress; Incline Thine ear to me; In the day when I call answer me quickly.

For my days have been consumed in smoke, And my bones have been scorched like a hearth.

My heart has been smitten like grass and has withered away, Indeed, I forget to eat my bread.

Because of the loudness of my groaning My bones cling to my flesh.

I resemble a pelican of the wilderness; I have become like an owl of the waste places.

I lie awake, I have become like a lonely bird on a housetop.

My enemies have reproached me all day long; Those who deride me have used my name as a curse.

For I have eaten ashes like bread, And mingled my drink with weeping,

Because of Thine indignation and Thy wrath; For Thou hast lifted me up and cast me away.

My days are like a lengthened shadow; And I wither away like grass.

But Thou, O LORD, dost abide forever; And Thy name to all generations.

Thou wilt arise and have compassion on Zion; For it is time to be gracious to her, For the appointed time has come.

Surely Thy servants find pleasure in her stones, And feel pity for her dust.

So the nations will fear the name of the LORD, And all the kings of the earth Thy glory.

For the LORD has built up Zion; He has appeared in His glory.

He has regarded the prayer of the destitute, And has not despised their prayer.

This will be written for the generation to come; That a people yet to be created may praise the LORD.

For He looked down from His holy height; From heaven the LORD gazed upon the earth,

To hear the groaning of the prisoner; To set free those who were doomed to death;

That men may tell of the name of the LORD in Zion, And His praise in Jerusalem;

When the peoples are gathered together, And the kingdoms, to serve the LORD.

He has weakened my strength in the way; He has shortened my days.

I say, "O my God, do not take me away in the midst of my days, Thy years are throughout all generations.

"Of old Thou didst found the earth; And the heavens are the work of Thy hands.

"Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed.

"But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end.

"The children of Thy servants will continue, And their descendants will be established before Thee."

Penitential Psalms for Lent

When Prayer Doesn't Seem to Work

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Some Psalms are beautiful.  Some are majestic.  Some are very familiar to us and are nostalgic to hear.  Some are just naturally comforting.  Then there is Psalm 102.  It is pathetic, that is, filled with and evoking pathos, suffering, great suffering and passion.  It does not roll trippingly off the tongue.  It is harsh and intense and oh-so-sad.  It is, as the introduction to the Psalm, which is part of the inspired text, a prayer of the afflicted, when he is faint, and pours out his complaint before the Lord.

Have you ever had the experience of praying and having the feeling that your prayers are just bouncing of the ceiling, not being listened to?  The kind of prayer I am talking about is the one you repeat night after night, day after day, and there is no relief.  That is the sort of prayer we see in Psalm 102.  It is ardent, full of pain and sorrow and suffering, and the earnest appeal of one who has borne with suffering, internal or external, for a long time, and yet stubbornly keeps coming back to God.  Psalm 102 is the Psalm for When Prayer Doesn't Seem to Work.  And that is our theme tonight.

First of all, this penitential Psalm is a prayer of faith, and patience, taught by long suffering, Hear my prayer, O LORD! And let my cry for help come to Thee.  Do not hide Thy face from me in the day of my distress; Incline Thine ear to me; In the day when I call answer me quickly.  There is no flowery talk here, just the earnest plea of one familiar with grief.  Like Job, the Psalmist has endured much and endured long, but will not let go of God or his hope in God.  He calls on God, but he is not demanding God take action or listen to him.  He know that he cannot make God do anything, so He pleads, Hear my prayer, O LORD!

His long misery is indicated by his own self-description: For my days have been consumed in smoke, And my bones have been scorched like a hearth.  His suffering has cooked him out.  My heart has been smitten like grass and has withered away, Indeed, I forget to eat my bread.  His heart is like that grass that has been walked on too much and died out.  His prayer and his troubles are so intense he often forgets to eat.  This is deep pain, Perhaps you have known such pain and anxiety, maybe about an illness, or troubles in your life or the life of someone you love.  His grief and turmoil so intense that he is wasting away, Because of the loudness of my groaning My bones cling to my flesh.

The temptations to despair are terrible and strong because of his troubles, I resemble a pelican of the wilderness; I have become like an owl of the waste places.  I lie awake, I have become like a lonely bird on a housetop.  The pelican and the owl are two of the unclean birds.  The wilderness pelican, in particular, was an enormously ugly bird when roosting.  The obvious meaning is that the psalmist feels unclean, unacceptable, and very alone - the little bird that has lost the flock and sits all alone on the rooftop.

You probably don't need a line by line description of the Psalm to get the message: this person is miserable and nearly hopeless, suffering terribly and praying endlessly for help and for recovery that does not seem to be coming.  He talks about eating ashes as bread - ashes being a sign of mourning.  His drink is mingled with tears, true and powerful emotion.  And He assigns the cause of it all to God, Because of Thine indignation and Thy wrath; For Thou hast lifted me up and cast me away.  My days are like a lengthened shadow; And I wither away like grass.  He knows that God is behind his troubles in some way, but he is not blaming God.  He understands sin and death and how little he deserves from God.

Sounds hopeless and defeated, right?  But he is not.  He still clings to God and goes on in the prayer to worship and praise God, and even to express his confidence that God is ready to listen and to answer: But Thou, O LORD, dost abide forever; And Thy name to all generations.  Thou wilt arise and have compassion on Zion; For it is time to be gracious to her, For the appointed time has come.  He knows that he, too, is Zion.  The time has come, he says, for God to arise and have compassion!

His faith sees the answer of the Lord coming, even though his long experience of prayer and suffering give no indication.  He confesses God's compassion and goodness, and the final rescue, even though he has not seen any of it yet.  He says, He has regarded the prayer of the destitute, And has not despised their prayer.  This will be written for the generation to come; That a people yet to be created may praise the LORD.  For He looked down from His holy height; From heaven the LORD gazed upon the earth, To hear the groaning of the prisoner; To set free those who were doomed to death; That men may tell of the name of the LORD in Zion.

In these words the psalmist has looked beyond his own troubles to the cross.  He may not know the shape of it, but he sees the effect: God reaching down and rescuing those who were doomed to death.  That is what Jesus did.  He set us all free from sin and death and hell, and even if the psalmist does not see his own rescue clearly, he knows the promise of God and the salvation which God is preparing and about to pour out in Jesus Christ, from his perspective in time.  That confidence alone causes the psalmist to praise God and rejoice, even in the midst of his misery.

The Psalm continues, He has weakened my strength in the way; He has shortened my days.  I say, "O my God, do not take me away in the midst of my days, Thy years are throughout all generations.  This tells us that the afflicted psalmist is not expecting that he will get his heart's desire or have his prayer answered the ways he would like.  He may die early.  It may not go the way he wants.  But he continues to pray, because he realizes that God is God, and he is not.  This is the equivalent of saying, "Thy will, O Lord, not mine be done."  He doesn't put it that way because Jesus has not prayed His prayer yet, but the thought is the same.

It is a false teaching that Christians will not suffer, or will have all their problems wiped away if they claim it or pray for it.  God is in charge.  Life happens to everyone, to each of us differently to one degree of another. Why we endure the pains and troubles we endure is not often very clear to us.  God chooses to answer some prayers just the way we would like, and others He will seem to ignore.  But faith tells us that God is true, and that He is with us and hears our prayers and answers each one just as He promised He would.  It is just that not every answer is what we hoped for.  When we pray, "Thy will be done", however, we can be sure that petition is always answered "Yes!"

When you pray, as did this psalmist, and the prayer just does not seem to be working, understand that it is not the prayer failing, or that God is ignoring you, but that He is with you, as He says in Matthew 28:20, Behold I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.  We never know what specifically God is working in us or around us, but He is with us, and the final victory is ours, "In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world."  John 16:33.  Examples of suffering and loss are not new, you can find them throughout the Bible, like the Apostle Paul, for example, More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.  Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.  Phil 3:8-9, 17

The writer of Psalm 102 ends the Psalm with something not too different, even if less explicitly focused on Christ.  He ends with a confession of God, and seems to say, You are God, and You will make everything work out right in the end.  He writes these familiar words, "Of old Thou didst found the earth; And the heavens are the work of Thy hands.  Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed.  But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end.  The children of Thy servants will continue, And their descendants will be established before Thee."

Now and again we will encounter troubles that just don't go away, or that linger longer than we think we can bear.  It doesn't happen to everyone, certainly not with the intensity of this Psalm, but it happens sometimes.  Psalm 102 shows us the way when prayer doesn't seem to work.  You keep praying!  God is still God, and His Word to you is still grace and salvation.  The New Testament equivalent of this Psalm might be Romans 8:16-18, The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.  For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Psalm 102 reminds us that not everything works out the way we would like it to work.  We will not always find peace and joy in our circumstances.  God never intended us to do so.  He wants us to find our peace and joy in Christ, and see His love for us on display on the cross, and trust in Him even when things are dark and unpleasant.  And if we should find ourselves in the place of the Psalmist, imitate him by looking forward to the goal, and continuing to trust in God, and keep on praying, even when prayer doesn't seem to work.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

(Let the people say Amen)



These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due. Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.



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