ARE THE COALS BURNING?
Has the flock of Christ become worn and bedraggled? Are the Lord’s sheep plodding ahead instead of frisking and gamboling? Do we appear more like a funeral procession than a caravan of released hostages? The problem could be that the coals of gratitude are cooling down. If the coals are not burning, how can the incense rise? Dr. Luther once said that the incense of prayer depended on the burning coals of gratitude. Without those coals, prayer is sluggish, awkward, stumbling, but from a grateful heart, prayer ascends fein lustig.
Interpreting that means like a puppy who has been inside for a week and suddenly gets loose outside. In that mode one enjoys his prayers, and earnestly seeks their natural fruit in life.
For coals to burn they need to get air. They can’t get air if they’re buried under layers of ashes. So as we approach the mercy seat, as we seek God through prayer, we have some difficulty stoking the coals because our gratitude is buried. Praise must come before prayer. Praise is not only vocal thanksgiving, important as that is, but also the practical life of thanksgiving to Him who made us to be the firstfruits of redemption. Just as He first called the Hebrews’ attention to His mighty acts on their behalf in bringing them out of Egypt before He gave them commandments, so today He assures us of our deliverance from sin and death first, then invites us to walk with Him.
Now just what are those layers of ashes that smother our gratitude? The outermost layer, one which is very public and easily recognizable, is the popular mythology of our day. We do not live in a Christian society. We live in a society that is counter-Christian, turning Christmas and Easter into secular holidays, in fact, into occasions to misbehave rather than to remember the Lord. In modern mythology the world is everything. How can anyone be grateful to the world? They thank technology, and all the systems that end in ism – those are substitutes for God, or they attribute their happiness to that demon they call progress. What might that be? It never tells you where it’s going, but it is in a dreadful hurry to get there. You will hear someone say, "You must not stand in the way of progress." What that means is some rich person has found a new way to steal something from some poor person, so he would appreciate it if you don’t interfere. Once, in heaven, hell raised a revolution. Now things are different. In Christ, heaven has raised a revolution here in the midst of hell. The Lord is our Shepherd, but He is leading us through the enemy’s back 40. None of that progress is for us, it's too distracting. Concentrate on the Good Shepherd’s staff.
The second layer of ash is more private. It’s simply that we don’t look in the right places to find God’s blessings. He could be sending showers, springs, and wells of water all around us, but we remain thankless because none of it is coming through our favorite pipe. We say He didn’t answer us, even though the answers are all over the place; in fact you couldn’t help but look right at them. Maybe things didn’t happen as quickly as you would like, or maybe the answer came when it was inconvenient to receive it. Sometimes God waits until He’s downright interrupting to answer your prayers. Nevertheless, He did answer. Be thankful!
The third layer of ash is how we look at ourselves. Our society has taught us to make excuses for everything under the sun. It teaches people to consider themselves victims rather than sinners. We must use the word "sin." Nothing else tells it the same way. We need repentance rather than complaints. If we see ourselves as sinners, we will thank the Redeemer who saved us with His blood.
During His ministry Jesus encountered all the layers of ashes we find in our lives. He met the popular mythology in His disciple, Peter. The common belief was that the Messiah would be a king, so when Jesus predicted His crucifixion Peter objected loudly. All popular mythology, including progress and evolution, come from hell. The Incarnation came from heaven. The only progress Jesus was interested in was His inexorable approach to Calvary.
Jesus also knew about people looking in the wrong place. When Nathanael asked Philip "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" he was affirming that he would never look there. At the very time when Jesus was incarnate to be the Messiah there was a large group called the Herodians who believed that Herod was the Messiah. At the same time there were Sadducees who denied that there would ever be a Messiah. And there were Pharisees, who expected a Messiah, but not one that ate with tax collectors. How sad, even as God was fulfilling His promises, people were looking everywhere else. God was opening the Fountain of Life while they argued about who had the best canteen.
None of these setbacks had the last word. Satan tried to keep Jesus from sacrificing Himself, but He roughly pushed him out of the way. The sectarians of His day wanted a sign before they would listen to Him. By rising from the dead the Lord gave them the sign of Jonah . When the disciples wondered who could be saved, Jesus understood their question. So He told them plainly, "With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Because of sin we cannot save ourselves, but God has acted to save us. That is the best reason to be grateful that anyone could ever have.
Unless you have a profound sense of sin you will never be grateful enough to pray persistently, effectively, thankfully. The coals have to be burning for the incense to rise. St. Paul had such a sense. He knew what a sinner he was, and how greatly God had blessed him. Only when he came to grips with those facts, and to be sure they are facts, can feelings come into it. The facts are our personal facts. They involve us. Even if we merely read about them, they would still be deeply moving, but we actually live them. This gratitude comes from people who are actually saved. That’s us. AMEN.
~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross