Hespeler, 30 December, 2018 © Scott McAndless
2 Corinthians 1:15-20, Revelation 22:17-21, Psalm 41:1-13
hroughout 2018 we have printed a weekly selection from “A Catechism for Today” in our bulletin. It is a teaching document that was produced by the Church Doctrine Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Canada several years ago. The reason for doing this was to take an opportunity to focus on some of the essential doctrines and teachings of the church. Throughout the year, therefore, I have often drawn on the readings of the catechism for the sermons I preached (though not so much during the season of Advent, I admit). But today we come to the end of 2018 and the end of our little experiment with the catechism. Starting next week, we will begin a new adventure in another old church tradition: the lectionary.
      But as we leave behind our old friend, the catechism, it is kind of fitting that we take a little bit of time today to ask ourselves the final question. The final question in this catechism is this: “What is the meaning of the little word “amen’?” Not only is amen the last question of the catechism, it is also the last word of the Bible as we saw in one of our readings this morning and it is the last word of all of our prayers. That makes it a pretty fitting word with which to end our year.
      And it is actually a pretty good question because I’m not that sure how well any of us could answer it. And I’m not just talking about you here, I’m talking about myself. I’m not sure I could have given a good answer to that question before taking some time to look at it as I prepared for today’s sermon. Of all the words that we use in the church, amen has to be one of the most frequent, but how much do we know about why we say it and what it really means?
      Amen is a Hebrew word – one of only two ancient Hebrew words that are still in common use in the English language. The other Hebrew word, by the way, is hallelujah which means “praise the Lord.” In ancient times it was likely a word that you would use to accept a curse or a threat. For example, if I said to you, “If you cross this line, I will knock your block off,” you would respond by saying “Amen,” which would signify that you understand and accept that if you step across the line, the consequences will be severe.
      There are several pas­sages in the Bible where the word amen is used exactly in that way. If you ever want some good bedtime reading, for example, try the twenty-seventh chapter of Deuter­onomy which is nothing more than a long list of curses that are read out with the people responding to each one by saying “amen.”
      But if that is where the word started out, how did we get from there to a word that we just use to end our prayers? Well, it kind of grew out of that initial usage. If you could use it to agree that some threat or punishment was due for a transgression, then you could also use it to agree with some good things like a blessing or with words of praise and worship directed towards God. And so it was that the ancient people of Israel developed the tradition of prayer where the leader, the priest or perhaps the king, would address God with praise or requests or complaints, and then the people would call out “amen” at the end or after every phrase as a way of saying that they agreed with what was being prayed. By doing that they could make one person’s prayer the prayer of the entire community. Amen became, “and so say we all.”
      And, of course, we still sometimes use the word amen in that way. In our worship services that is our most common response to the prayers that are led by a worship leader or minister. But that does not explain how we use the word in our private and individual prayers. Why do you say amen when you are praying alone to God? I mean, what would be the point in saying it if all it meant was, “I agree with all the things I just said to God.”
      Well, it does indeed mean much more than that. When you say amen at the end of your prayer, you are actually acknowledging the true nature of prayer. Prayer is not just a monologue – not just a speech where you declare the things that are on your mind and heart. Prayer is not just talking to God, it is talking with God. It is a conversation. Now it is hard for us to remember that sometimes because, unlike in most of the conversations we participate in, we don’t get to hear another voice like ours speaking back to us, but prayer is always meant to go two ways and the amen is an explicit acknowledge­ment of that.
      When you say amen, you are acknowledging that everything that you put forward in prayer is open to the will and response of God. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and famously asked his heavenly Father to “remove this cup from me,” asked that he be spared from the bitter experience that awaited him upon the cross, he also famously added the words, “yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
      That is what saying amen means – it means that you seek God’s agreement to what you are saying but are also open to another answer. You recognize that the wisdom and will of God exceeds your own. It means that you may not understand why God would give you something different than what you ask but that you are willing to trust God to be that father who knows how to give good gifts to his children.
      This amen is what sets the activity of prayer apart from every other kind of conversation. Yes, prayer is different in that we don’t hear that other voice coming back to us in the same way. But prayer is also different in that it is a conversation based on extreme trust. By saying amen, you are saying to God, “I trust you.” You are saying, “you are trustworthy like no other that I know.”
      That is a truth that Paul brings out in our reading from 2nd Corinthians this morning. He is talking to the Corinthians about some plans that had made to visit them. He was going to stop by for a visit on the way to Macedonia and then again on his way back. But something seems to have gone wrong with his plans. Paul doesn’t say what the problem was. Maybe his luggage went missing in the Macedonia International Airport or there was construction on the E75 Highway between Thessalonica and Thermopylae.
      But we can all understand what he is saying here because we have all experienced it. We have all made plans and then had those plans go awry because of circumstances beyond our control. That is what it is to be human: it means that our plans are subject to circumstances beyond our control. And so, as Paul says in his letter, our intentions may be “Yes and yes,” but the reality is that the best we can say is “Yes and no.” Circumstances may change my intentions.
      Paul is saying that God is different. Are circumstances beyond God’s control. Of course not. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ… was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’” But Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on to link that truth about God’s nature to that word we use in prayer. “For this reason,” because God is utterly reliable and doesn’t change God’s mind, “it is through him that we say the ‘Amen,’ to the glory of God.”
      He is saying that, when you say amen, it is not you saying it. You are unreliable because, whatever your best intentions, you are subject to changing circumstances. Amen is a word that you can say through God’s grace. That word is God granting you surety for what you pray because God’s promises are always sure.
      Now, does that mean that you will always receive whatever you ask for when you pray and say amen? No. That amen also still means, “yet, not what I want, but what you want,” and God’s will and response is not something that we will always understand and appreciate. Amen doesn’t mean you always get what you want, but it does place yourself in the hands of a God who understands what you really need and who is committed to you.
      In a day the year 2018 will draw to a close. And, while it has been a good year in many ways, I’ve got to say that there are parts of it that haven’t been all I would have hoped. I have found some political and international relations events to be very disturbing. There have been more than enough disasters from hurricanes to terrifying forest fires to a tsunami. As we come to the end of 2018, can we say amen? Is that a fitting coda to a year that perhaps makes us feel rather conflicted? I can’t say I agree with everything that happened during the year. I can’t say that I accept that everything was exactly as it should have been. But, again, saying amen is not just about agreeing to what I want or need. It is rather about being open to trusting in God for what is past. So let us say amen for 2018. Let us say amen for the joys and the sorrows, for the hopes fulfilled and for the disappointments that may have come.
      And, perhaps even more important, let us think of the year to come. I’ve got to admit that looking forward at 2019, I’ve got more worries than I’ve got certainties, and I have more questions than I have answers.
      2019 will see a federal election for Canada. That is a good thing and I hope we all participate. But the problem is that it seems like it’s going to take place in a political environment that seems to be very negatively charged mostly because of the way that some groups are using the internet. I’m worried about that. I also don’t really know what I think the outcome of that election ought to be for the long-time good of our country. How can I pray for 2019 if I don’t know what’s really needed?
      2019 looks to be a year of great turmoil – I mean political turmoil like we have never seen before – for our closest ally in the United States. Oh boy, do I really not understand what’s happening there and neither do I have any idea what needs to happen for the healing of that country and the world. Those are just two of my anxieties and my questions about the year ahead. Believe me there are many more. How do we pray – how do we say amen as we pray for the year that lies ahead?
      Well, once again that little word seems to be our salvation. When we say amen, we’re not saying that we have all the answers. We are not saying that we understand it all. It is an expression of trust and hope in God. Yes we will ask certain things and try to find an answer that seems to be the best, but our amen says, “You know what, God, in the end we are willing to leave it up to you. You alone can oversee it all. You alone can possibly hold the future in your hand.”
      The year 2018 is in God’s hands. As it comes to a close, we confess we still don’t understand what happened or even what should have happened. But we are here at the end of that year by God’s grace. God has seen us through and we are thankful. Can I hear an amen?
      The year 2019 is in God’s hands. Nothing has happened yet. Nothing is written and we know that many things that will happen will leave us bewildered and confused. We’re not even sure what needs to happen in some cases. But we will get through by God’s grace and for this let us be truly thankful. Can I hear an amen