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Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
17 December 2023

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (expanded to vs 12 – 25)
John 1:6-8, 19-28


1 Thessalonians 5
12But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
25Beloved, pray for us.

Prayer, it seems to me, is at once natural and innate to us, yet also hard.
If we are indeed created for God, and if it is true that the fact that God transcends our existence to such a degree that believing that there is a god is sign that there is a god indeed, since we could not have imagined anything beyond our own existence, then prayer comes to us naturally, for we intuitively know ourselves in relationship with God, and I wonder whether – when talking to ourselves – we really are talking to ourselves or are not practising some form of prayer, for we intuitively know that God is present and listening.

And yet often, prayer, as St Paul and the church exhort us to practice, is a task we do not know how to do, not only because we are people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5) or because we lack in eloquence and are slow of speech and tongue (Exodus 4:10), but also because we do not know what to say, and save for Sunday mornings, we lack a habit of prayer.

So when we come upon St Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing, we think that it’s a desirable and honourable goal but perhaps it’s not for us. Maybe for people who have joined religious orders and who rise at 2 am for matins and again at 5 am for lauds and then carry this through their day; but we are glad to be asleep at those hours. And yet, when we participate in the liturgy we wish we could always pray like that. When I was growing up my family would at times attend vespers at a large Benedictine Abbey. I knew that Lutherans did not have religious orders but even as a child the life of prayer that I witnessed attracted me.

Of course, prayer does not have to be liturgical. One of the simplest definitions of prayer we hear is that prayer is “talking with God.” This is valuable and important, but we also know that we do not want to do all the talking because what we most long for when we pray is deeper than words, it is God.
And so we may know not only the gift (which it is) but also the limitations of extemporaneous prayer, for we pray not for the sound of our own voice, and we are not fans of phrases like, “Lord, I just wanna …”, and of prayers that turn out not to be prayers at all but the stating of particular convictions a pray-er may hold, the laying out of which cannot be interrupted since they come in the guise of prayer.

After high school I spent a month with a fundamentalist organization in England, this was before I spent a year in a monastery. My pastor had warned me, and I realized quickly that it wasn’t for me. But from those four weeks I remember a time when our little group of people came upon another small group of people who were evangelizing among London’s immigrant poor. We recognized each other’s mission by the tracts we carried and someone decided that right then and there we should pray together. I felt slightly uncomfortable because this was in the echoey entrance-way of a high-rise building. I did not feel so much a hypocrite for praying at street corners as I felt that we were invading people’s personal space, for it wasn’t easy to maneuver past us or retrieve one’s mail, as people in their own home might want to do. Now definitely aware that I somehow had ended up in the wrong part of the church, I did not say anything. Believing we would pray in an orderly fashion, one after another, and maybe just a couple of us, to then let the residents retake their building, I was surprised when everyone (except me) started praying at the same time and over top of each other, so that we were creating a pious shouting match, a spectacle right by the mailboxes, and the prayers echoed in the stairway. The residents could not know we were friendly.

And so we know that to pray is not just about words, neither their eloquence, nor their sheer number. The language of prayer in public worship voices not only what we ask of God but also alludes to scripture and tradition, while at the same time it is poetic and open to the imagination. That our own prayer follow this example is not a requirement but may be helpful as it connects us to the great cloud of witnesses.
And yet, in Romans Paul writes about prayer that we do not know how to pray. Which means, at least, that we are all on the same page, those of us who have been Christians a long time and those who are new Christians, those who pray a lot and those who struggle with prayer, those who lead public worship and those who do not. Paul writes, “26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8) So, given the opportunity, the Spirit will pray for us and through us. In today’s reading Paul exhorts us not to quench the Spirit. (5:19)

But how to we give the Holy Spirit Opportunity?
David Brooks of the New York Times recently spoke of the experience of people in public places, almost all of them buried in their cell phones. And even those of us who do not take transit know the experience.

Brooks tells of Nick Epley, a behaviour scientist at the University of Chicago who noticed exactly that and he observed that the fact that people were buried in their cell phones meant that no one was talking to each other. He decided to do an experiment in which, over the next few weeks, he would pay people on the train to talk to each other.
At the conclusion of the experiment he interviewed all participants. It turned out that all were happier. The introverts were way happier. Extroverts were way happier. People are just way happier when they talk to each other on a plane or a train or a bus or wherever. And Brooks says, “so the first thing I would say to do is next time you’re adjoining another person, start a conversation.”1

You may wonder what this has to do with prayer. Well, a lot. Prayer is the intentional turning toward God. Turning toward each other is a start, it is also a practice, and besides, every person is created in the image of God, so turning toward my neighbour means that I turn toward God.

The other thing about this is that prayer requires focus in the same way that I cannot carry two conversations at the same time. Our smart phones may be convenient but they are also a great distraction because I can spend endless hours on my phone, during all of which I am likely to lack focus, so that at the end of the day I may have been entertained and glanced cursory information about a thing or two, but I will have wasted my day. Phones are addictive which is why it is a good practise not to touch it at least for the hour we are at church. It is also a distraction for our neighbour in the pew.

In Philippians 2, the Apostle Paul exhorts us, to let the same mind be in us that was in Jesus Christ. (Philippians 2:5) Paul then goes on to unpack what that means. Prayer seeks precisely that, to let the same mind be in us that was in Jesus Christ. How do we do that? By spending time with Jesus. By thinking about Jesus. By praying to Jesus.

And focusing on Jesus requires us to let go of other things, our anxieties, our anger, our diversions the things that distract us, because we can only focus on one thing at a time. Or put differently, focusing on Jesus reminds us that Jesus is all we need, that God is all we need, and so our anger, our anxieties, our greed, our diversions, all that fades into the background.
And so praying without ceasing means to let God be God.

Most of us know the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10.
38Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

The story can make us uncomfortable because we often read gender stereotypes into the story, stereotypes that are not in the story. Without explaining today why they aren’t in this story, I want to focus on the way that Mary teaches us something about prayer. Mary she sits at Jesus’ feet and listens. Sam Wells from St Martin in the Fields in London says, “… Mary is exalted because she imitates the action of God. In Jesus God’s whole attention is focused on us. Jesus isn’t fretting and fussing about a thousand things. Jesus is God choosing to be wholly engaged with us. Martha says she’s serving Jesus, but her notion of service is entirely on her own terms: she’s not giving Jesus what he wants. Mary’s service doesn’t look like much, but it’s a statement of faith. Martha offers food; Mary shares communion.”2

Prayer is imitating the action of God. Prayer is sitting at the feet of Jesus. Prayer is not a lot of words but giving God our attention, leaving behind diversion, and distraction, remembering that there is need of only one thing, and his name is Jesus.

There is a 19th century Russian book by an anonymous author, called The Way of the Pilgrim.3 In it the author describes his quest to learn to pray without ceasing. He makes reference to the Philakolia, a collection of writings of Eastern church father and theologians from between the 3rd and the 15th centuries. His prayer becomes a single sentence connected to his breath, so that after much practice, his body will continue to pray, even when he is not speaking the words. And the words are the essentials, are all we need. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. Everything else flows from this.
But for today, all we need to remember is that there is need of only one thing, his name is Jesus, it is his presence we seek, as he gives himself to us.



2 Sam Wells, Incarnational Ministry – Being with the Church, Norwich: 2017 Canterbury Press, page 6

3 The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, New York: 1992 Image Books

Christoph Reiners

Pastor Christoph was ordained in Vancouver in 1994 and has served congregations in Winnipeg and Abbotsford before coming to Our Saviour in the fall of 2016.