A St Michael’s Day meditation
Why are we here tonight to celebrate St Michael’s Day? Many of us come from a tradition where we don’t celebrate saints day, or at least view them with a lot of suspicion. It may seem odd or unusual to select this day as a particular one on which to hold an evening of prayer and praise. But as I looked at the calendar, it seemed to me important to celebrate it for three reasons.
First of all, the day reminds us of the history of our particular churches. And that’s important, because there are few official records of the history of St Michael’s. You won’t find many details in histories of Plymouth or Devonport, and most of the records are stored away in the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office. Yet St Michael’s has an extraordinary history that dates all the way back to 29th September 1843 when the foundation stone of the then chapel-at-ease was laid. We need, it seems to me, to stop and give thanks for all the Lord has done over the past 168 years, and for the men and women who have faithfully passed the gospel from one generation to the next. I don’t know about you, but when I look at the memorials in the corridor, I want to give thanks for these faithful servants whose lives are commemorated there.
Secondly, the dedication to St Michael, the chief archangel, reminds us of an important spiritual truth. When we plant a church, we are not simply opening another franchise of a multinational organisation or setting up a branch of another charity. We are engaging in a spiritual activity and declaring a supernatural truth – that Jesus is Lord. Church-planting and church-building are not neutral activities, but extensions of the kingdom of God.
One of my favourite sayings is by the early 20th century missionary to China, C.T.Studd who wrote:
Some wish to live within the sound
Of Church or Chapel Bell.
I want to run a rescue shop
within a yard of Hell.
This particular church in this particular location seems to me to fit C.T.Studd’s description perfectly. Our mission, if you like, is to offer a piece of heaven amid the hell of drug abuse, spiritualism, alcoholism, loneliness and sheer boredom that blights the lives of so many who live without hope and without God. And if we ever forget this mission, we are not being faithful to our dedication to St Michael’s.
Thirdly, this dedication reminds us that we ourselves are involved in spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare is not just for Christians of a particular tradition, or long-standing church members. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12 that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Maybe that’s one reason why prayer meetings seem to attract so few people. Whether we realise it or not, we are placing ourselves on the spiritual frontline as we come together in prayer, and that’s not a comfortable place to be.
Which leads me to the reading set for today, Daniel 10:1-21
Now I’m not going to preach a sermon on this passage, and I don’t claim to have done much research on what is not the easiest chapter in the Bible to understand. But I would like to draw out some important principles which are of help to us as we gather in prayer tonight:
Effective prayer starts with humbling ourselves before God. Daniel is told in verse 12: Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard. Prayer and humility go together. If we rush in with our own lists of demands and priorities, then, yes, the Lord may be gracious enough to grant our requests. But we will not really gain any understanding of the Lord’s sovereign and gracious purposes for us, or for the people we pray for. Prayer starts with a true recognition of the relationship between God and ourselves – that He is in charge, that He is the maker of all things, and He is too pure for any of us to approach, and that we are only able to draw near because God has first drawn to us in His Son Jesus Christ.
Secondly, prayer does not always give us easy answers. When Daniel was given a revelation, we are told in verse 1 that: Its message was true and it concerned a great war. Sometimes the Lord wants to disturb and challenge us. That may well not be what we want. We want comfort and reassurance that everything will be all right. But many a time I have stood up at the Blockhouse and looking out over city thought of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. We may not have the insight Daniel has into the events of history, but the fact there are men and women dying without knowing of Christ should lead us to mourn as much as Daniel and Jesus did. Indeed on this night when we remember the history of the church, we should recall that revival has nearly always broken out when men and women have felt the awful burden of praying for the lost and unconverted.
Thirdly, prayer does not always yield us instant answers. We don’t know exactly why Daniel had to wait twenty-one days for the answer, although in this passage something of the unseen heavenly realities are exposed and we begin to understand something of the great conflict that is taking place over this earth. To be in that position of waiting, to wonder why our prayer has not apparently been heard, both frustrates us and makes us anxious. There have been times over the past nine years when I have prayed long and hard, for example, about the right way forward for our children’s ministry, or the raising up of someone with the gift of evangelism and the reply has seemed to be, “Not yet”. That’s been hard, but I know whenever God gives the green light to my request, I will have learnt the hard but important lesson growth does not come from me and my gifts, or from the skills of the church, but from the grace of God, and God alone.
Fourthly, we must expect prayer to change us. I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold round his waist. His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude. We know from the book of Revelation that this is a vision of Jesus. And Daniel’s response, like Paul’s on the Damascus Road, is to fall down in wonder and awe and sheer helplessness. When, I wonder, did you last have a vision of the beauty and greatness and splendour of Jesus? A tame Jesus who is there at our beck and call is not a true Jesus. In His mercy Jesus often forbears to show us His true majesty, but we should never forget that the risen, ascended and glorified Jesus to whom we pray is the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Prayer is a serious business with a seriously awesome Saviour, and if we are to engage in prayer, we must be prepared to let Him have His way with us.
Fifthly, and finally, prayer is about receiving the grace and mercy of God. I love verses 18-19: Again the one who looked like a man touched me and gave me strength. “Do not be afraid, O man highly esteemed,” he said. “Peace! Be strong now; be strong.” There is something so truly amazing, isn’t there, about the way Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord and Lords, comes to each one of us with His personal touch. Indeed one of the things about Jesus’ earthly ministry was the way He touched the lepers, the blind, the little children, a picture, if one was needed, of His infinite grace to the last and the least. Or again, when the disciples were gathered in the upper room, locked in by their fears and doubts, what are the words of Jesus to them? Peace be with you.
Now I guess we are all very comfortable with the last point about prayer. Indeed we should never downplay the infinite mercy and patience and love God shows each one of us. But Daniel’s experience reminds us we should always expect to short-cut straight to an immediate experience of God’s grace. Tonight let us expect to be humbled. Let us expect to be broken by the burden God gives us. Let us expect to wait for God’s timing to be fulfilled. And let us be prepared to be changed by our experience of Jesus. For if we expect all this, then our experience of God’s grace will be all the stronger, and more powerful, and the greater our desire to reach the lost in the power and strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.