Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 13: A Prayer for mercy.

REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.

Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 13: A Prayer for mercy.

The Book of Common Prayer contains some very realistic prayers. The one headed In the time of any plague or sickness is such a prayer. It is not found in our more recent Prayer Books, which is sad, since it offers us a perspective on the pandemic that is easily neglected, or perhaps no longer believed.

I was reminded of it a week or so ago when a friend remarked that he had been using the prayer in his own devotions. Then at last Friday’s Morning Prayer service, the minister concluded our extempore prayer with:

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of King David, didst slay with the plague of Pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest; Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command of the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen    BCP 1662

What are we to make of this prayer, with its realism concerning God’s wrath and understanding that plagues and sickness may be God’s visitation? Sometimes it is good to ask the why question of God’s actions, whereas at other times it can only be pointless. It can be right if we are genuinely inquiring with open hands and humble heart, but always wrong with a clenched fist that demands God account for His actions. We must be governed by the wisdom of Deuteronomy 29:29.

This prayer first appeared in the 1552 Prayer Book and according to a reliable source, Neil and Willoughby’s, The Tutorial prayer Book (1912), may have been included because of the 1551 sweating sickness that caused many deaths, of mainly the rich in England on five occasions (1485, 1508, 1517, 1528 and 1551). It is interesting to note that this plague never recurred. Nobody is sure of its cause but the symptoms were quick, painful and most died within 3-18 hours. It was said, ‘people were alive and well in the morning and dead that night’. It is not surprising that the national church included such a prayer in its Book of Common Prayer.

The prayer refers to two Old Testament manifestations of His people’s blatant disobedience. The first against Moses by Korah and his mates (Numbers 16), the second by David’s foolishness in counting his troops (2 Samuel 24). On both occasions there was swift punishment by God and mercifully, at the intercession of Aaron and David, an end of God’s judgement. It is on this basis that the prayer is framed. Offence against God brings His displeasure and atonement His mercy. The means of receiving such mercy was humble repentance expressed in prayer.

Should we be engaging in such prayer in regard to the covid-19 pandemic? Is it an act of God’s punishment on our and other nations? We are wise to tread very carefully in these matters. There are some things we can say and others we ought not to say. These include:

  1. The Old Testament people knew that they these deserved punishment from God since their sin was a blatant and specific rebellion against God. We have no word from the Lord about this covid-19 pandemic.
  2. We have been taught by our Lord that when disasters happen we are not to ever assume that those who died were worse sinners being signalled out for punishment (Luke 13:1-5). Rather we are wise to see these deaths as warnings, to make sure that we have repented, and therefore ready to meet God. So important is this that our Lord twice warns, His hearers and, through Dr Luke, us: unless you likewise repent, you too will perish (13:3 and 5).
  3. With this in mind we are wise to examine ourselves when our mortality is threatened, and our meeting face to face with God more imminent. This is true at all times of course, since a sickness of any kind is useful in sobering us up (as Samuel Johnson said, “the prospect of hanging wonderfully concentrates the mind”). Any concentration on our unconfessed sins or tardy habits of discipleship can only be for our good (2 Cor 13:5), since, if rightly heeded will keep us from being drawn away by sin (1 Cor 10:6-13).
  4. But what about as a public prayer? No one would deny the request that the pandemic should cease. This is surely right as an act of love for our neighbours and fellow world citizens. And if it is true, as Scripture (Mark 7:20-23, Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8-2:2) and the affirmation of our weekly liturgies, that we are not only all sinners, but sinners deserving of God’s judgement, then to pray this prayer is right. Our Saviour’s atoning death at Calvary for the sins of the world affirm the teaching of both Testaments, that God desires not the death of a sinner but that s(he) might turn and live (Ezekiel 18:23/32; 1 Timothy 2:1-6). Far from being the opposite as some would suggest, that there is no punishment to come nor any need for people to repent, the remarkable cost to God, both Father and Son, means that we have a greater obligation for fidelity to God than the Old Testament people, and far more reason to be faithful to Him. We see this in the remarkable conclusion of Hebrews 12:28-29 and the words of 1 Peter 4:17-18).
  5. This prayer then is one that we ought to pray for everyone, not only that the pandemic might cease, but more importantly that having been alerted by the pandemic to the simple and sobering facts that we are neither masters of our fate, nor captains of our souls, might repent to escape God’s eternal judgement.
  6. This prayer recognises that punishments such as the sweating sickness of 1551, the pandemic of 2020, the famines, wars, droughts, earthquakes of every decade of human history, as awful and devastating to so many they certainly are, provide room for repentance since the final one to which they point, allows no opportunity for repentance. This appears to be the tenor of our Lord’s teaching in Matt 24:4-8, where they are gracious reminders, given that there is time to repent, providing refuge on the Day of His return as judge (24:36-44) for all who own up to their sin, and own Him as their Saviour.
  7. As Christians, we ought to pray this prayer especially that God will show mercy to our church and denominations, since we who have been shown much grace have more responsibility for faithfulness than the world. We would be very unwise if we prayed the prayer only for the nations (which we should) but not for ourselves and for our churches.

If Hebrews 12:28-29 is the gracious reminder for us never to take God’s grace to us in Christ lightly, then 10:30-31 an ever present reminder that we believers do well to remain faithful. The words it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10:31), far from being a reason to cause us to doubt the re-assuring work of our Saviour’s nailed pierced hands or promises about His and our Father’s safe hands (John 10:28-30), are to fill us with wonder and awe in His presence. Such a prayer as this, builds into our hearts and minds a sense of God’s holiness and love, that would cause us to exercise our priestly role (1 Peter 2:4-10), as did Moses (Exodus 32:31-32) and Paul (Rom 9:1-5), of standing in the gap by interceding on behalf of our fellows (believers and unbelievers alike) that they would find both temporal relief from the pandemic, and even more importantly from eternal punishment. Praying like this will not only be an expression of our love but keep us from becoming like Jonah, or the pharisaical brother of Luke 15:28-32. In this way we recognise the privilege and awesome responsibility of having received God’s grace through faith in Christ.

Peter Brain 12th May, 2020

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