Every day in Jerusalem men and women gather to pray at the Western Wall. This is one of the support walls remaining after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. The Western Wall is also the one closest to what was the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount. Today it is the most significant site in the world for Jewish people. Jews gather here from around the world to pray. They write notes to God and place them between the stones of the Wall. It is a holy place because of its history and its lasting connection to the presence of God. There are some things we should notice about the scenes we find at the Western Wall. Traditional Jewish culture still dictates that there are separate areas for men and women to pray. Everyone who approaches the wall comes reverently, with their head covered. No matter how many people may be around, everyone is given time to pray in their own way and people wait their turn to get as close to the wall as they can. When you are there you cannot help but be drawn in to the sacredness of this place and the wonder of knowing that people have prayed here for hundreds of years. This is a place where you feel God’s presence. Isn’t that what most of us are seeking – to feel God’s presence? Since the Garden of Eden where God walked and talked with us, we have longed for that relationship to be restored. God has wanted the same, and longs to be with us. Yet, the very nature of God and humanity dictates that there be some protocol, if you will, for approaching God.
In the text this morning, Solomon challenges us to prepare ourselves before we before we go to God. Our hearts, minds, and mouths must be ready to spend time in the presence of God. We must check our mental attitude and our motives. He is telling us to remember that God is God and we are not. We need to be prepared to listen more than we talk. “Let your words be few,” he says – don’t babble on endlessly; open yourself to God and listen. And don’t make promises to God that you cannot or will not keep. How we approach God matters to God. One of the lessons the Lord was trying to teach the people of Israel by having a special priesthood was that God desires his people to approach with holy hands and godly hearts. The book of Leviticus describes how the priests were to work in the presence of God. One of the main lessons was that how we come to God matters. As we talk about approaching God in prayer, I think we need to think about two things:
- Our physical approach to God
- Our spiritual approach to God
I noticed at The Western Wall that people approach reverently and with a measure of awe. Everyone covers their head – an act of humility before God. Many raise their hands to heaven or touch the wall gently and with love. Some bow as they pray.
Solomon begins our text today with, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God;” Reminds me of the warning we hear so often from people…“Watch your step.” It is a courteous warning of potential danger ahead that we should be aware of. We are being warned to be careful. Solomon’s warning has the same meaning: “Be careful as you come into God’s presence; it is an awesome responsibility.” How we come to prayer physically can have a powerful effect on how we pray. It is hard to feel very important when we are kneeling in front of God. It is easier to let go of things when we come before God with our open hands lifted toward heaven. You feel less proud of yourself when you bow your head in confession and shame asking God to forgive you. Something as simple as folding your hands and closing your eyes as you pray serves to help eliminate distractions that take your mind away from meeting with God. Our physical approach to God really does matter.
It is equally important that our hearts and minds be right when we come to God in prayer. I mentioned earlier that those who approach the Western Wall do so with their heads covered. The head covering symbolizes that God is over their entire being; in this way they show their humility and submission to God’s authority. They approach with a sense of awe and wonder, expecting God to be present and approaching God carefully. Jesus told us in Mark 11:25: “Whenever you stand up to pray, if you have something against anyone, forgive so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your wrongdoings.” We need to come to God with a clear conscience, ready to be obedient. That is not to say that we come without sin; of course, that is not possible. In fact we come to God because of our sin; to offer repentance and ask forgiveness. However, we should not come to God asking for forgiveness if we have not also forgiven others and asked them to forgive us. Holding a grudge against someone tends to spoil the mood of your own prayers as God sees and knows your true heart. Harboring ill will toward another makes it hard to ask God for favor toward you.
It is important that we also realize that what Solomon says in this text applies to both
prayer and worship. That makes sense because prayer is actually one form of worship. When we open ourselves up to understanding this text in terms of prayer and all other forms of worship, then we begin to draw out all sorts of other important images. I remember when we first made the move from the Roman Catholic Church to the Methodist Church. Particularly when we were very young, our behavior once we entered the sanctuary was very different from what we found here. We were not accustomed to seeing people bring drinks or food into the church. There was no audible conversation and people did not come and go during the worship service. The Catholic view of worship was much more formal than we have found in most Protestant churches. Does this mean that one way is right and the other way is wrong? – No, I don’t think so. It is not the particular building that inspires more reverence than another. No denomination can lay claim to being the only place where God abides. And surely, talking in church doesn’t scare God off. What is important, regardless of the setting or the style of worship, whenever the church gathers for the purpose of worship, there ought to be a sense of God’s holiness and abiding presence. It is about being in an attitude of prayer or an attitude of worship. It is about recognizing why we have assembled and to whom we are offering our prayers and your worship. It is about God!
What might Solomon be talking about when he tells us: “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God.”? Did your mother ever tell you to, “Watch your tone of voice!”? Mine did, and it was a reminder of who had the authority and that they deserved respect. Likewise, God is saying, “Son, you need to remember who your Father is.” It is unwise to hastily and impulsively give God a piece of your mind. First of all, you will be giving God a piece of your mind that you can ill afford to lose. Second, that part about God being in heaven and us being on earth is about perspective, not distance. In other words, God is the infinite one in this conversation and we are the mortal ones. It kind of puts us in our place when we realize that Solomon wants you and me to understand that God is not your “buddy next door.” He’s not the “big man upstairs.” He’s the infinite, eternal, unchangeable God who is full of wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Yes, He’s also a faithful friend and a caring Father, but He’s always more than that too. He expects us to take Him seriously as the chief authority in our lives.
Finally, we really need to hear that, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it.” This series is about prayer; why and how we should pray. It is also part of a bigger message that will include all of the membership vows we make when we join the church. I mentioned these last Sunday. Whenever we join the United Methodist Church we make a vow to “faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” Think about it. People make vows all the time. People are baptized. People become members of a church. Spouses commit their lives to one another. People make commitments to read God’s Word and to maintain their purity. Yet, all of us have broken vows that we have made before God and others. Maybe you have even said, “God, if you get me out of this mess I promise that I am going to stop this or start that or serve you with my life.” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but God remembers these vows and holds us to them. I believe it is important that we really think about the promises we make to God and to one another.
When we pray, God listens and God knows the sincerity of our heart. When we confess and promise to “go and sin no more,” God expects us to do our best to keep that promise. Remember the lady from last Sunday looking for that parking place? She promised to go to church and give generously, but found a way to get out of her promise. Sometimes I think we may have a somewhat flippant attitude in prayer. Many times prayer is an afterthought, or merely a ritual around a dinner table. But to be able to enter into the presence of God and lay our petition at His feet, there are certain requirements that the Lord demands. Guard your steps; draw near to listen; let your words be few; watch your tone; and keep your word. These are the essence of approaching God. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.