Summary: Repetition isn’t rote; it’s practice. All of these words become part of us, digging deep into our hearts and minds, helping to form in us habits of thought and action that honor God, that put God first.
Everything in this sEverything in this service is old hat. We know the Apostles Creed so well that many of us don’t have to use the worship notes except to remember to say "sitteth" instead of "sits." I chose the most commonly used prayer of Confession in the English language. The 23rd Psalm is the best known passage of the Old Testament. 1 Corinthians 13 is probably read at most Christian weddings in the country. And we repeat the Lord’s prayer every Sunday. On Communion Sundays we sing it, which is a little different, but it’s still the same words. I also picked really familiar hymns. And when we go to the Lord’s Supper, we will repeat deeply familiar words and actions.
Why do we do it?
There are at least three reasons not to.
First, in our culture, new is always better. We’re always looking for the new, improved model of everything. In every political campaign people clamor for "change" without ever wondering if all change is for the good. "Going back" is a bad thing, â€œgoing forward’ is a good thing. We believe in progress, in newness, in breaking the mold, in being different.
Second, when the apostles asked Jesus how to pray, he told them not to repeat empty words as the Gentiles - by that he meant pagans - do. And when we say the same things so many times, aren’t we doing what Jesus told us not to do?
And third, if God knows what we need before we even ask him, why do we bother to pray at all, much less pray and say and do the same things over and over and over again?
I’m going to answer those three objections in the same order I gave them.
The first - that our culture places a high value on newness - has so many obvious problems that you may wonder why I’m even bothering to address it. The whole point of being church, of seeking to know and follow God, is to become attached to eternal realities, to the things that don’t change.
Now, many church experts tell us that the church has to change its packaging, at least, in order to attract a changing world; if we want to reach the younger generation we should move toward more contemporary music, exchange the organ for a praise band, get rid of some of the old- fashioned liturgy. Well, this isn’t the place to get into the whole worship style controversy - but the fact that there is a controversy tells us that there are still a whole lot of who prefer the classics. And there are a whole lot of reasons why classics retain their appeal.
The second reason not to repeat the same things over and over again, as Jesus said not to do, was that the pagans believed that the oftener you repeated the magic words, the more power they had to affect the gods’ decisions. Well, does anyone here think that by badgering God we can get him to do something he doesn’t want to do? Well, you know what - you may be right. We joke about "being careful what you pray for - you may get it." But the fact of the matter is that Jesus did teach us to keep asking for what we want. In one of his parables, he said,
"In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people... there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ’Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ’Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by
continually coming.’" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? [Lk 18:2-7]
But on the other hand - Jesus doesn’t say that we will get whatever we ask. He says that we will get justice. God approves of justice. God invented justice, in fact. So Jesus hasn’t, in fact, taught us to keep nagging God like a teenager asking to borrow the car.
So why are we to persevere in prayer? That brings us to the third objection. If God only answers the prayers that are in keeping with his desires for us, and he already knows what we need, why don’t we just relax and trust him? Why do we keep saying and singing the same things over and over and over again?
There’s more than one answer to that question, too.
The first answer, and the simplest one, is that prayer is how we communicate with God. Prayer is how we build a relationship with God. Prayer forces us to get into the right attitude by acknowledging our dependence upon God. Prayer is how we learn to listen to God. And repetition keeps us in touch with God, rather than being tempted to stay away until we have something new to say. We are to show up every day with - and as - who we are, whether we’ve changed or not.