Prayer is an exercise in juxtaposition–we seek to have intimate conversation with a mysterious and unknowable God. He INVITES us into this mystery. He pursues us, seeks us out, surrounds us with His Presence, yet He hides His face from us and shrouds Himself in light and cloud.
God is Spirit– He is Eternal, Omnipresent, and Invisible. Yet He chooses to reveal Himself– in the beauty of Nature, in the smile of a stranger, in His revealed Word, and through His Son. Everything we need, we can find in and through Him, yet we cannot say that we comprehend Him, because He is so far above and beyond anything we can imagine.
Prayer is a humbling experience– to approach the Throne of the One who holds the Universe in the palm of His hand; but it is also an intimate and very personal experience– to run into the arms of the One who knit us together and knows the very hairs on our head (or lack thereof!).
After a lifetime of praying and pursuing prayer, I still marvel at the complexity, majesty, mystery, and fragility of prayer. That God should desire to listen to me–whimpering, questioning, confessing, and even offering my best and inadequate praise– it astounds me. And yet it also sustains me, strengthens me, and stimulates me. This same God who holds the stars and planets inhabits the tiniest of atoms in the air I breathe. The same God who ordered the first sunrise, and has watched empires rise and fall, cares when I shed a tear and rejoices when I laugh. God who is perfect, has mercy on me when I confess my pettiness and offers forgiveness when I throw tantrums. The same God who bore the pain and agony of betrayal and crucifixion promises eternal life to those who have rejected Him– if only they will listen, turn, and follow Him.
Today, let the awe of Who God IS– both sovereign, unknowable, and mysterious, AND intimate, loving, and gracious–wash over you as you enter into prayer.
Jesus was born in obscurity– yet he was also born during a Census year…
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:1-7 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)
This is a Census year in the U.S. (something that has largely been forgotten in the wake of the COVID pandemic.) I actually worked for the Census Bureau for a few weeks this year, doing follow-up interviews for addresses which had not responded for various reasons. Census taking is much different now than it was in Jesus’ day. I had a script, and a smart phone, and several different forms to fill out or hand out to explain what we were doing–one form contained information in at least 14 different languages, and all of them had phone numbers and web addresses where people could “respond” electronically without ever leaving the comfort of their living room, let alone traveling over dangerous hills and trying to find room at crowded inns. I was the one who had to travel– mostly around my small town and within a 20-mile radius. One interview required me to travel 100 miles; another required me to utilize my ability to speak and understand Spanish. Otherwise, the interviews were simple and straightforward. Except when they weren’t.
“Everyone Counts,” the Census Bureau told us, and I did my best to get names and ages for everyone at every address I visited. But many of the addresses were abandoned buildings– even demolished. Others were summer homes or vacation rentals–I had to be careful not to count the same people twice! Often, I could tell that people were living at the residence, but either they weren’t home at that time or they would not come to the door. Some houses required several attempts before I got any response, and it wasn’t always positive or cooperative.
I imagine the scene in Bethlehem, though lacking the technology and ease of travel of our modern age, wasn’t so very different. There were people who wanted to do their civic duty; those who were annoyed at the inconvenience and general bureaucratic chaos; those who hated the Roman Government and everything it represented; and some who just wanted to get it all over with and go back to “normal life.”
We know that Joseph was called up to go to Bethlehem because is was his ancestral home. And we know that Joseph would have been counted as the head of the household. But is it possible that Jesus was counted in that census? That he was numbered among his people and with his family? That the God of all creation became a simple hash mark among thousands of others that year? “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.” “Infant son.” “Male child.” Jesus was counted. But He was also lost in the shuffle; discounted and ignored.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
John 1:10-11 (KJV via biblegateway.com)
This season, it’s easy to feel left out, discounted, passed over. This year, especially, it can be lonely and discouraging as we look out on the world from lockdown, or look at faces covered by masks, unknown or unrecognizable. It’s easy to feel that no one sees us. Rest assured, Jesus knows what it is like to get lost in the numbers. He knows what it is to be discounted and misunderstood, rejected, and scorned.
And He knows exactly who you are and who I am– better than we know ourselves! We count! Not because of who we are, but because He is the creator and author of all life. No matter where you are, no matter who has rejected you in the past, no matter how dark and grim things look– God sees you; God loves you; God has taken you into His count. He doesn’t need a census count to find you, and you can’t get “lost” or hide in the crowd.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV)
In my life I have met “important”people– people with money, or power, or fame, (or all three!) And I have met “forgotten” people, “ordinary” people, “special” people, flamboyant people, even repugnant people.
I know hundreds of people’s names; recognize their faces; carry memories of laughter created, or goals accomplished, or griefs shared. As I get older, I sometimes meet up with people I should remember or know, but I can’t place their name, or their face has changed out of recognition since we last met. And of course, the same thing sometimes happens in reverse– I expect to be recognized, but the other person has no memory of me. It can be distressing; this feeling of not remembering or not being acknowledged.
I know many families who have journeyed through Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Loving someone who no longer remembers looking into your eyes, no longer reacts to the tone of your voice, no longer knows your intimate secrets…who searches your face and sees only a stranger. Hoping for even a glimmer of recognition; a moment of memory–it’s heart-breaking and harrowing and exhausting.
But imagine hearing those words from your creator– “I never knew you.” In all your life, never having made time to create memories with the God who formed you in the womb, who counts the very hairs of your head; hearing HIM say, “I never knew you. I made you; I was as close as your next breath through every moment of your life. I heard every laugh; I saw every tear– yet I never KNEW you. You never let me in; you never reached out or looked in my direction. You pretended to others that you knew me. You ‘name-dropped.’ You told others that we were friends. That you spoke with me every day. I heard you. I wept. But I never knew you. And you never knew me. Oh, you learned about me. You knew enough to convince some others that you knew me. You even said elaborate prayers and quoted many of my words. You put on a good show. But you lived your life as though you never met me; as though I were no more than a myth or a shadow. And now, now that you see me for who I AM; now that your eternal life depends on it–you have to hear the most frightening words I will ever speak: ‘I never knew you.'”
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Philippians 3:10-12
Of all the people I have met; of all the people I know– Lord Jesus, let me recognize Your voice above all. Let me cherish your presence in every moment of my life, and in every relationship. Grant me grace and wisdom to follow you and live in joyful obedience. And let me invite others into your presence. Let me know you and be known by you. Let me be eternally yours as you are mine.
A Psalm of David. 103 Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name! 2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits: 3 Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases, 4 Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies, 5 Who satisfies your mouth with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. 6 The Lord executes righteousness And justice for all who are oppressed. 7 He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel. 8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. 9 He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever. 10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities. 11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; 12 As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father pities his children, So the Lord pities those who fear Him. 14 For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. 15 As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. 16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, And its place remembers it no more. 17 But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting On those who fear Him, And His righteousness to children’s children, 18 To such as keep His covenant, And to those who remember His commandments to do them. 19 The Lord has established His throne in heaven, And His kingdom rules over all. 20 Bless the Lord, you His angels, Who excel in strength, who do His word, Heeding the voice of His word. 21 Bless the Lord, all you His hosts, You ministers of His, who do His pleasure. 22 Bless the Lord, all His works, In all places of His dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!
Often in our churches, we focus on two factors of our relationship with Christ– worship and obedience. Worship focuses on His majesty and worth. Obedience focuses on His power and authority. But when the Psalmist speaks here, he is actually focusing on another element. Blessing isn’t so much about majesty or authority; it isn’t about obedience or worship. It is about communion. We bless and are blessed, not just by a word or deed, but by the speaker or doer–they bless us by what they say or do, but they ARE a blessing to us for who they are.
God is worthy of our worship and obedience, but he wants us to be a blessing– to come to him in Love and fellowship, and to be blessed by Who He Is as we meet with him.
Today, worship God. Obey Him. But let’s take time to bless Him and be blessed in return as we spend time with the Lover of Our Souls.