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Parochial Sermons

The Posthumous Works of the Late Right Reverend John Henry Hobart, D.D.
Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of New-York.

Volume Three.

New-York: Swords, Stanford, and Co., 1832.

Sermon XVII. The Nature and Necessity of Prayer.

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Matthew vii. 7.

The duty of prayer is enforced by the dictates of reason and the solemn injunctions of the word of God. "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you;" is a declaration, which, while it establishes the duty of prayer, affords the most animating encouragements to the performance of it: for this declaration teaches us that prayer is the mean s of procuring whatsoever blessings our infinitely merciful and gracious Father may deem requisite and necessary, as well for the body as for the soul.

The Sovereign Arbiter of nature and of grace has so arranged the course of events, and of his moral dispensations, as to suspend his favours on the qualifications of his intelligent creatures, and particularly on their humble and earnest prayers. In this suspension of his favours on our humble supplications, there is not any thing which reason would not approve and sanction in a human governor or an earthly parent. The conduct of that magistrate would not be considered wise and prudent, who, intrusted with the sword of punishment for maintaining the welfare of civil society, should [200/201] remit the penalties of their crimes to offenders so hardened and arrogant as to refuse to entreat for pardon? Forgiveness granted to such offenders would not deserve the commendation of being ge~ neraus and humane: on the contrary, it would be subject to censure, as calculated to give impunity to crime, and to loosen the bands of civil society. And surely that would not be wise and proper in the infinitely glorious Sovereign on whose decisions rests the harmony of the moral universe, which, in. a human agent intrusted with the authority of society to promote its welfare, we should condemn as the height of folly and rashness.

Again; the human parent would not be considered as pursuing a wise course to improve the moral dispositions of his children, who should confer his favours on the arrogant child, who disputed the reasonableness of his requisitions, and disdained the respectful and dutiful language of supplication and entreaty. It is with the view to form, in us the virtues of humility, submission, and holy gratitude, that our heavenly Father requires the duty of prayer. It is in the exercise of prayer that we are taught our dependence as creatures, our guilt as sinners; that we recognise the power of Him who ruleth over all, and with lively gratitude acknowledge the goodness of Him who gives us all things to enjoy. It is prayer which awakens in us a sense of the enormity of those sins, deliverance from which we supplicate; which engages us in earnest endeavours to subdue them; and which thus cherishes in the soul that holiness which constitutes her resemblance to God, who is infinitely holy, and reinstates her in the divine favour. Prayer, then, is enjoined by God: it is the [201/202] channel of communication between our souls and the Father of mercies: it is the means by which all holy tempers are formed in our hearts: it is the condition, in the performance of which we have the promise that we shall obtain what may be necessary and convenient for us--"Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."

Let us consider the dispositions with which our prayers should be offered, in order to render them acceptable.

1. We should pray with humility.

That humble temper of mind which realizes the supreme authority and power, justice and holiness of the Almighty Sovereign of the universe, and our distance from him as creatures and sinners, lies at the foundation of the duty of prayer. If God were not infinitely powerful, just, and holy, and we weak, imperfect, and sinful, there would appear no cause to supplicate his favour, or to deprecate his wrath. When we contemplate him as that Almighty Being who at first spoke the world into existence, and whose providence sustains and directs the vast and complicated machinery of the universe, regulating the motions of the orbs that traverse infinite space, as well as the course of the humble sparrow that falleth to the ground; when we contemplate him as the Lord of the armies of heaven and of earth, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders; when we contrast with his infinite power and majesty, our own weakness and imperfection, sprung as we are from the dust, and fast tending to it again--unable to tell what a day may bring forth, or to preserve for an instant that breath which fleeth as [202/203] a vapour; when to the consideration of our weakness and imperfection we unite the sense of our guilt, burdened as we are with offences that have insulted the Majesty of heaven and provoked the divine displeasure--alas! surely we, who are worms of the dust, creatures of a day, sinners laden with iniquity, cannot approach the most glorious and high God with emotions of humility too profound! "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace unto the humble." Humility is the disposition which becomes the suppliant; for it discovers his sensibility to his own wants and to the power of his Almighty Benefactor.

Let us humble ourselves, therefore, brethren, before God, if we wish that he should exalt us. Let our humility be that of the heart, uniformly exerting itself in the virtues of gentleness and meekness. Let us not insult the all-seeing Jehovah with that spurious humility which, while it profusely pours forth the language of self-abasement, has not subdued the self-sufficiency of the heart, nor corrected a censorious temper and arrogant deportment, and which, in its lowest abasement, displays the rankest pride. Let us cultivate that humility which, realizing our manifold imperfections, subdues the arrogant, and censorious, and unkind passions, and calls forth the virtues of meekness, gentleness, and courtesy. Our prayers, thus offered in That humble spirit which prostrates us before God, and renders us lowly in our intercourse with men, will be heard and answered by that High and Holy One, who, though he inhabiteth eternity, dwelleth with the man that is of an humble and contrite spirit.

[204] 2. Our prayers should also be offered with penitence.

Humility has respect principally to the greatness and power of God, and our own weakness and insufficiency. Penitence contemplates chiefly his justice, holiness, and goodness; and our own guilt, impurity and ingratitude.

And, my brethren, who that for a moment looks into his heart, which so many evil thoughts and desires corrupt--who that for a moment reviews his life, stained with imperfections, with numberless violations, if not of social duties, of those which we owe to the all-powerful Maker and Preserver of our being--can say that he has not sinned--that he has no cause to acknowledge his iniquity, and to be sorry for his sin?

Ah! we have sinned. What shall we say unto thee, thou Maker, Preserver, and Judge of men I When we approach the throne of thy glory, our sins testify against us: when we plead for mercy, they cry for justice. O then, Heavenly Father, hear the intercessions of Him who hath made atonement. Touch our souls with contrition, that, confessing our unworthiness, thou mayest be merciful unto our unrighteousness, and remember our sins no more. O may our supplications, ascending to thy throne from hearts deeply penetrated with shame and sorrow, awaken thy compassion and secure thy favour! For the sacrifices which thou requirest are those of a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

3. We must pray with submission:

Submission to the infinitely wise and gracious purposes of Him who, while he worketh all things [204/205] according to the counsel of his own will, extends his tender mercies over all his works, and makes "all things work together for good to those who love him"--submission to the merciful will of that Heavenly Parent, who often finds that it is a greater mercy to us to deny than to grant our supplications; and who often seeks to perfect our faith and patience, by delaying those blessings which are proper for us.

Short-sighted we are and erring--often pursuing evil under the guise of good, and rejecting a blessing because our weak judgment pronounces it an evil. But our Heavenly Father is infinitely wise and infinitely good. When he delays, mercy prompts; when he afflicts, it is goodness which guides the rod; when he withholds, it is wisdom, infinite wisdom which refuses to grant what, in ignorance of our best interests, we had asked. Let us then pray to this, the wisest and the best of Beings, submitting to his wise and good providence; and let us qualify our entreaties for deliverance from those temporal evils which we most dread, with the holy language of resignation--"Not my will, Heavenly Father, but thine be done."

4. But while we pray with submission, we must pray with earnestness:

With an earnestness, in some degree at least, proportioned to the magnitude and value of the blessings which we implore, and to the greatness and seriousness of the evils which we deprecate--with an earnestness in some degree proportioned to the power, the glory, and the perfection of the High and Holy One whom we adore, and to our [205/206] incompetency to offer him, at best, a just tribute of homage.

When we contemplate the infinite perfection and goodness of that God at whose throne we are prostrate--the loving-kindness of him in whom we live, and move, and have our being--the numberless temporal and spiritual mercies bestowed upon us by that gracious Benefactor, who ever watches over us for good--above all, when we contemplate the glorious privileges of that redemption wrought for us by his eternal and well-beloved Son, our souls and all that is within us must be awakened with holy fervour to praise the Lord, and to magnify his holy name.

And alas! when we consider our frailty and infirmity, and review the many formidable evils which assail our feeble frames--the terror by night, the arrow that flieth by day, the pestilence that walk-eth in darkness, and the destruction that wasteth at noon-day; when our spiritual enemies encompass us--the world alluring, the flesh seducing, the great adversary assailing us; when the lake that burneth for ever opens beneath our wandering and guilty footsteps, whither shall we fly in fervent supplication, but to him who is the Father of our spirits, and beseech him to grant us health, and life, and strength, and salvation?

From thee alone, God of power and of goodness, cometh our help. Thy throne will we approach, and with holy earnestness invoke thy guidance, until thou bring us to thy holy hill, and to that eternal rest, from which, as the everlasting portion of thy saints, thou hast excluded sickness, and sorrow, and temptation, and sin.

[207] 5. But the earnestness of our supplications must be chastened by reverence.

We must be earnest, because our wants are manifold; we must be earnest, because many of the evils which we deprecate, and the blessings which we implore, are infinite; and we must be earnest, because the Being whom we worship is worthy of our warmest praises. But we must also be reverent; because Jehovah is a great God and terrible, clothed with majesty and honour. It would be a mockery of the High and Holy One, for creatures who, deprived of his sustaining power, would perish, to approach him with insincerity: and it would be an insult to the Sovereign Jehovah, for worms of the dust, for sinners laden with guilt, to approach him with bold familiarity, with careless and unadvised lips. Oh! let us not insult that Being, before whom angels cast their crowns and cherubim and seraphim vail their faces, with the light effusions of a frivolous heart: let us not dishonour him with the unhallowed language of a heated imagination: let us not provoke him by our bold expostulations, our familiar addresses, as if we were his equals. Great God! let us not thus profane thy name, lest thou punish us in thy wrath: let thy fear fall upon us, let thine excellency make us afraid.

6. And that our prayers may be accepted, we must pray with constancy.

It is the apostolic injunction, "Pray without ceasing;" that is, we must constantly cherish the spirit of prayer, habitually lift up our souls to God in devout and humble aspirations, and persevere in [207/208] the regular discharge of the stated exercises of devotion in public and in private. Prayer which is inconstant and irregular, is unworthy of the name, insulting to the great and glorious Being to whom it is offered, and incompatible with that sincerity and earnestness which are the indispensable characteristics of true devotion. Under all discouragements and trials we should pray and not faint; for though God may for a while delay, yet he will finally come, and will not tarry. The Lord is the hope of his people; there is no Saviour beside him. On him therefore let us wait; let us tarry his leisure; let us be strong, constant, and persevering in our supplications, and he will finally comfort our hearts.

7. To insure the acceptance of our prayers, they must also be accompanied with holy resolutions and endeavours.

To come before the Most Holy One with hearts and hands defiled with iniquity; to adore his majesty, his power, his justice, and his mercy, while we discover in our lives no sense or acknowledgment of his glorious perfections; to implore from him the forgiveness of our sins, and to deprecate his displeasure, while we are continually adding to the catalogue of our iniquities; to beseech him to create a clean heart and to renew a right spirit within us, while we discover no solicitude and exert no endeavours to serve him in newness of life--oh! this surely is that hypocrisy which is hateful in his sight, and which renders the prayers of the wicked an abomination unto him. No; watchfulness must be united to our prayers, to render them acceptable and efficacious. While we humbly [208/209] implore the God of our salvation to redeem us from iniquity, we must exert our earnest resolutions and endeavours to cease to do evil, and to learn to do well; to put from us our evil doings, and to perfect holiness in the fear of God. Then only will our prayers and praises ascend as acceptable incense to that Almighty Jehovah who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and who cannot look on sin but with abhorrence.

8. But, lastly, vain will be our prayers, unless offered in faith.

Without faith, it is impossible to please God for it is a self-evident principle, that "he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him." To offer our supplications to a being insensible to our wants, or indisposed and unable to sup ply them, would be folly; and to offer our prayers to the ever-living God, without realizing those perfections which are the object of our homage and those infinite merits of his eternal Son which are the foundation of our confidence, would be an idle and unprofitable service, and a mockery of his holy name. Faith then must animate and direct our prayers.

By faith we must realize the eternal Jehovah in all the fulness of his perfections, in his infinitely interesting relations to us, and in the resistless extent of his dominion. We must view him as that first of Beings, who laid the foundations of the earth, stretched forth the heavens, and still ruleth in that earth and heavens which are the work of [209/210] his hands. We must believe that this infinitely wise and gracious Being, whose is the whole earth, who knoweth all the fowls upon the mountains, and the cattle upon a thousand hills, is ever ready to open his hand and to satisfy the desires of those who humbly call upon him. Especially we must believe, as the only foundation on which, as sinners, we can stand, that this righteous Governor of the universe, whom by our sins we have offended, is in Christ reconciling us unto himself, not imputing unto us, truly penitent, our trespasses and sins. Adoring his mercy in the plan of redemption through his eternal Son, we must bring down every high imagination, and renouncing all confidence in our own merits, present our supplications only in the name and mediation of the great Redeemer. Whatsoever we shall ask which is necessary and proper for us, thus believing, we shall receive: for "the Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, yea, all such as call upon him faithfully."

Behold then, brethren, the dispositions which alone can render our prayers acceptable to God. Cherish correct and lively views of the eternal and glorious perfections of the Being whom you worship, and a deep and constant sense of your own weakness, unworthiness, and insufficiency; and offer your supplications with penitent, submissive, and obedient hearts, with lively, earnest, and persevering faith, to the Author of your being, the Benefactor of your lives, the God of your salvation, from whom cometh every good and perfect gift. Thus "ask, and ye shall receive; thus seek, and ye shall find; thus knock, and it shall be opened unto you."

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