Prevent us, O Lord

This is my homily  for Sexagesima Sunday at Grace Anglican Church.

1. Prevent us, O Lord

Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favor, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy name, and finally by thy mercy obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ Our Lord.

The prayer I just prayed is a classic prayer from the BCP.  I read an older version of it, not the modern version.  It begins with this pretty interesting phrase: “prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favor.”  This is kind of comical at first glance – why would we want God to stop us from doing good works?  If we’re seeking to have all our works, begun, continued, and ended in him to the glory of his holy Name, why would we want God to prevent us from doing that?

This is one of those funny things about the English language.  “Prevent” used to have a more broad meaning.  “Pre-vent” is actually Latin; it means to go before: pre-venire.  When we’re praying that God would prevent us, we’re praying that he would go before us.  And with God going before us, that could mean either that he’s leading the way for us to go, or blocking from going the wrong way.  And that second one, blocking us, is the meaning that we have kept for the word “prevent” to this day.  But when we pray this old prayer we mean this old meaning of prevent – for God to Go before us with his most gracious favor.

So it sets us up with this idea that our works start with God.  And indeed the rest of the prayer spells this out – that all our works begun, continued, and ended in thee may glorify thy holy Name.  Everything we do is begun in God, is continued in God, and is ended in God.  As Paul once rebuked the Galatians: ” Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3)  We need God’s strength every step of the way in the pursuit of good works in a Christian life.  So we need to keep this singular focus in mind – the very power of God to go before us, to lead us, to get us started, to help us to endure, and to enable us to end.

This morning we read excerpts from Psalm 83.  It has a very similar feel to it: “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold thy peace or be still!  Behold, your enemies are in an uproar; those who hate you have raised their heads.”  And it prays against the enemies: “make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind,” and on and on.  It’s a prayer for help.  It’s a prayer for God to go before us.  This prayer doesn’t ask that God give us the strength to defeat our enemies, it simply asks God to be the one to work, to act, to take down our enemies so that we can survive.

The Collect of the Day says much the same thing: “O God, who sees that we put not our trust in anything we do, mercifully grant that by your power we may be defended against all adversity.”  In all three counts so far (the “Prevent us O Lord” prayer, Psalm 83’s prayer, and the Collect of the Day), we’re getting a clear echo throughout that we need God’s help – we are completely reliant upon him.

2. Our enemies and adversities

But help against what?  What are our enemies and adversities?  As we seek to figure out exactly what those are, the context of these prayers and Psalm help point us in that direction.  The biggest hint is in the Collect of the Day: God sees that “we do not put our trust in anything that we do.”  Why can we not trust in anything that we do?  Well, let’s look at what happens when we trust in what we do.  Let’s look at Genesis (3:9-19).  What happens when Eve trusts her own decision-making over the command of God?  What happens when Adam trusts his wife’s decision-making over the word of God?  They say, “Oh, we can be like God!  We can have knowledge like God if we just eat this fruit; what a great idea!”  No.  That’s not how it happens.  They were wrong to trust in themselves because that was precisely the Serpent’s intention: to get them to trust in something that was not God.  Thus they discovered sin.  Our enemy & adversity is sin.  When we cry out to God for help, the biggest help that we need, the biggest enemy that we need help to overcome is sin.  ‘Cos sin is an evil taskmaster.  It rules over us, it puts us down, it enslaves us, it kills us, literally, in every way.  So we cry out to God for help.  Help in enabling us to not sin, and help in defeating the power of the sin that affects us.

Similar to that, there are other ways we can describe our adversity.  Look at the parable that the Gospel brings to us (Luke 8:4-15) – when you think about the growth of the seed as the goal here, what are the enemies and adversities?  The packed ground, the rocks, and the weeds.  Those are the three conditions that stop the seeds from being able to grow properly.  And Jesus explains what these all mean.  The packed ground is a heart so hardened that Satan snatches away the seed of the Gospel before it can even take root in them.  The rocky ground is a heart that’s excited to receive the Gospel on the surface, but never let it take root in them so they whither away over time.  The weedy ground is a heart that receives the Gospel but continues to be choked by the cares and occupations of this life, thus being held back from a fruitful Christian life.

Once again, we find a problem here that we can’t get out of, and we need God’s help to overcome.  But we’ll come back to that in a minute; I want to point out a couple interesting motifs that are bouncing around these readings and prayers this morning.  Two key words in particular: the concept of fall, and the concept of ground.  There’s a really neat reversal that happens between the Old Testament and the Gospel.

3. the Gospel of falling to the ground

First of all, the fall.  In the beginning, we have Adam’s Fall, the fall of Adam and Eve into sin.  But in the Gospel we have the fall of the seeds into the ground.  And then, secondly, there’s the very question of the ground.  In the beginning, the ground is where Adam toils and eventually dies because of his fall, because of his sin.  Whereas in the Gospel, the ground is where the seed is received.  The ground is our hearts being prepared to receive the Gospel which brings life and restoration!  There’s a sort of a poetry between this account from Genesis 3 and this parable from Luke 8 and the interplay between the two is so fascinating & beautiful that there’s actually a Bach Cantata that exploits this double imagery and really enjoys the wordplay that ensues.  Not to mention the beautiful theology that emerges: where falling is a source of destruction in the beginning, and yet a means of new life in the Gospel; where the ground is a place of labor and death in the beginning, and the place of birth and new life in the Gospel.

Anyway, all of this works together to underscore the very simple point that we need God’s help.  We do!  We can’t solve our problems on our own.  We can’t solve our adversities on our own.  We cannot defeat our enemies on our own.  When our enemy is sin, when our enemy is packed ground, rocks, and weeds, and we’re just dirt, what can we do?  Nothing!  We need to pray.  We need to rely on God so completely, ‘cos we are helpless against those problems and adversities and enemies.

As a result, we have nothing to boast about.  We cannot boast in anything good that has happened to us.  We cannot boast about our salvation especially, and that’s what St. Paul is going on about in 2 Corinthians 11:19-31.  It’s sort of a long diatribe he goes, “well what am I going to boast about?  I’m going to boast in my sufferings, because that at least proves God’s work on me.  It takes me as far away from my own credit as possible.”  Or, to bring in the parable, you coudl say that we can no more boast of our salvation than the soil can boast of its crops!  Because the soil cannot help its situation (whether it’s packed, or rocky, or weedy, or fertile. because only the Farmer can till the ground, pull the weeds, and fertilize it.  In the same way, we need God to go before us (to “prevent” us) and clear away our hardness of heart, our obstacles, our idols, all those adversities and enemies that pursue us, hold us down, and kill us.

4. All our works begun, continued, and ended in God

It’s also from these concepts, of God preventing us and going before us, that we get this doctrine of Prevenient Grace.  It’s from the same word: “prevent” and “prevenient.”  It’s the work that God does on our hearts before we even receive his Spirit.  Before we even have faith in him, God works on our hearts.  God’s Spirit works upon us beforehand, God goes before us even in the life of faith.  And this is a very important and beautiful doctrine, because whether you lean Calvinist and emphasize that “God chooses you” and thus you are saved, or whether you lean Arminian and emphasize “I chose God” and therefore I am saved, either way we all believe in, and thank God for, Prevenient Grace: the reality that God goes before us and works on our hearts and prepare us to receive him, prepares us to live a life with him.  He prepares us for a life of salvation.

And, in an oversimplified way, last week’s message was very Arminian and today’s message is very Calvinist.  Because last week we were talking about work, and spiritual disciplines, and discipleship: how we must be working tirelessly, training like Olympic athletes, to be the best Christians possible.  We are practicing to be not sinners, and the commitment and work that goes into that is fierce and intense!  Whereas the message today that we receive from the Scriptures and prayers is very Calvinist.  They say “God does this.”  You cannot trust in your own works.  You cannot defeat your enemies and overcome your adversities; you need God to go before you and take care of that.  And so, Prevenient Grace, the doctrine that God goes before us and paves the way for us and enables us to move forward, is the binding framework that holds these two types of message together: one where we have an incredibly intense to work, and one where we have an incredibly intense call to trust God to work.

Another way you could put is is that last week we were called to work, and today we are called to pray.

There’s an old quote (I don’t know if it’s from Martin Luther or just made up): work like your salvation depends on it, and pray like your works are nothing.  It’s a saying that gets us away from excessive theological debate, and focused on living the Christian life that Christ is calling us to.

5. From discipline to spiritual discipline

So as you put these two messages together, as you think about spiritual disciplines, keep prayer at the center of it all!

Prayer is the beginning and end of all other works.

As we go forward, preparing for Lent, and looking at spiritual disciplines such as fasting, such as alms-giving, and such as study and prayer, we must approach all of these in a spirit of prayer, remembering that God is the one who works through these disciplines; God is the one who changes us and acts upon us and makes our discipline in to a spiritual discipline!

Speaking from my own experiences, fasting is something that is not a major feature of evangelical protestant Christianity, so it’s not something that I was terribly familiar with growing up.  But as I entered into first Catholic and then Anglican practice and tradition I started learning about fasting and started trying it out in certain ways and at certain times of the year.  And much of the fasting that I’ve done in the past couple years has been a discipline, but as much of a spiritual discipline.  I’ve been fasting almost for the sake of fasting.  There hasn’t been as much intentional prayer, or as much intentional purpose behind it as there could be.  And so the message today, that is a helpful reminder for me at least, is that as I prepare to fast in Lent in a different way than normal, there needs to be an intentionality, there needs to be a purpose behind that, there needs to be a spirit of prayer, a spirit of supplication, asking God to go before me, to prevent me as I fast, helping me to uplift this discipline into a spiritual discipline.

It’s the same thing with any other discipline.  For example, the classic “I’m giving chocolate up for Lent.”  Setting that kind of a vow of abstinence into the context of prayer can be very difficult.  It’s one thing to say “I’m not going to eat chocolate for 40 days,” but it’s another thing to say “I’m not going to eat chocolate, and when I have the opportunity to eat chocolate and have to turn it down, I will be reminded to pray for… whatever.”  To pray for more self-control, or to pray for the growth of this church, or to pray for those who can’t afford chocolate and need the compassion of others to eat regularly or healthily at all… whatever that spiritual element is that elevates your discipline to a spiritual discipline.

Keeping prayer at the center of our discipline is what today’s lessons are all about.  We need God to go before us, so that all our works, begun, continued, and ended in him, may bring glory to his Name, and that we might obtain everlasting life, by his mercy.  Because our works do not merit our salvation, but our works are preparation for our salvation, ‘cos our God calls us to be like Christ.  And as we enter into these spiritual disciplines, as we enter into the work of the Christian, we’re essentially practicing to be perfect; practicing to be sinless.

So again we pray:

Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favor, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy name, and finally by thy mercy obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ Our Lord.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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1 Response to Prevent us, O Lord

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Ash Wednesday | Leorningcnihtes boc

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