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Prayer: When God Says “No”

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, oh God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Somehow, it just doesn’t seem fair, does it? Here was Moses standing on Mount Nebo, looking out at the Promised Land, and God says to him, “Moses, there it is. Take a long, hard look if you like, but you’ll never feel it beneath your feet.” That’s not fair. I mean, let’s remember that Moses never asked for the job of leading those Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt. He was comfortably tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, and along comes God and drafts him for the job. He never asked for it. He never sought it. He never asked for all of those terrible confrontations with Pharaoh. He never asked for the nerve-shattering day when they crossed the Red Sea with the whole Egyptian army in hot pursuit. He never asked for the thankless task of spending forty years wandering in the wilderness with this stubborn stiff-necked people known as the chosen of God. He never asked for any of it. But when God called, Moses responded. And he gave himself to the task which was his, and he set himself out toward the goal. And what was the goal? The goal was to bring God’s people into God’s land.

Now, in all of those 40 years, twice, Moses blew his cool. That’s all. Just twice, frustrated by these people who caused him endless difficulty. Twice. That’s all. Just twice, in response, Moses spoke or acted harshly. Just twice. And yet, for those two sins, even though they were spread over 40 years, when they finally got right to the edge of the Promised Land, God said to him, “Moses, look, but you cannot go there.” That’s not fair.

It says right here in the Book of Deuteronomy that there has not arisen in Israel since, a prophet like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face. None like him. And God says, “Moses, look, but you cannot go there.” I mean, stop to think for a moment about all that Moses had done for God. And what does God say? “Moses, thanks for bringing my people this far, but you cannot go any further.” No. I don’t care how you want to twist or turn that. It’s just not fair.

But you know, I think that most of us here would know something of what Moses must have felt like that day, because most of us know that it is true that sometimes God answers our prayers by saying “no.” There was a time when we prayed for a loved one who was ill, asking God to spare that person, and God said “no.” And that loved one died, and we cried out, “Lord, that’s not fair.” Or there was a time when we prayed for a hopelessly ill loved one, that perhaps that life might be taken quickly, and God said no. And that loved one lingered in illness for years, and we said, “Lord, that’s not fair.”

But what about this? “Lord, I’ll go where you want me to go. I’ll do what you want me to do. But please, not to the mission field. But if it is the mission field, then please, not Korea.” Do you know, one of our Presbyterian missionaries said that? And he said that upon the completion of his twentieth year of service in – where else? – Korea. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes God answers our prayers by saying “no.” So what do we do then? That’s the question of the day. So come along with me now for just a few minutes, and let’s see if we can find some answers from this great story of the last day of Moses’s life.

First thing, I think, to remember is this. When God says no, it is because God knows best what we most need.

Now, that’s an important point. God knows best what we most need. You can see that quite clearly in the story of Moses and the Israelites. You see, God knew that when the people of Israel got to the Promised Land, that in entering the Promised Land, they were going to have to find a number of battles in order to, at last, be able to take possession of the land. God knew that. And God knew that while Moses was rather well-preserved for a man of 120 years, he was no spring chicken. And God knew that the people of Israel, under those circumstances, having to engage in military conflict in order to occupy the land – God knew that under those circumstances, they needed the leadership, not of an old man, as great and magnificent he was. No. They needed the leadership of a young, strong, aggressive man, and God has prepared Joshua for just such a task as that. God knew that the people of Israel needed the military genius of Joshua in order to be able to take possession of the land. God knew that.

But God knew something else as well. God knew that Joshua would never be able to exercise any authority over the people of Israel at all as long as great old Moses was still on the scene. Let’s remember, the Book of Deuteronomy says it, that Moses, though he was quite advanced in years, his eye had not dimmed nor his natural force abated. Moses was head and shoulders above everybody else. He was a man to be reckoned with, and God knew that Joshua would never be able to muster a response from the people as long as Moses was still on the scene. It was necessary, you see, for Moses to be removed from the picture. God knew that. God knew best what the people most needed. That wasn’t what they wanted, and that certainly wasn’t what Moses wanted. But that’s what they needed.

Take the example of Paul and his thorn in the flesh. We do not know what that thorn was, but we do know it hurt him. It drained him. It harassed him. He called it a messenger of Satan. It put a terrible break on his activities, and he asked God to remove the thorn. He said, “Lord, if you would remove this thorn, then great things will start to happen. I’m doing fairly well as it is, mind you. But Lord, if you would deliver me from this pain, nothing would be able to stop the two of us together.” And three times, the Bible tells us, Paul begged God to remove that thorn. Three times. And three times, he heard God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is going to be revealed in your weakness.” In other words, God said no.

You see, God knew what Paul needed. God knew that this tough, brusque, harsh, hard-boiled personality of Paul’s needed to be softened. It needed to be sensitized. It needed to be tenderized, if you will. And God knew that that thorn in the flesh, whatever it was, wearing away at Paul year after year, would gradually begin to transform Paul into a sensitive, loving, power-filled disciple of Jesus Christ. God knew that. And so when Paul asked God to remove the thorn, God said no. But I ask you to notice that while God did not remove the thorn, God did enable Paul to make the best of that thorn and to let the thorn make the best of him. And there came a time – yes, there came a time in Paul’s life – oh, it was years later, to be sure. But there came a time in Paul’s life when he said, “Thank you, God, for this thorn in the flesh.” Because he had come to understand, you see, what that thorn had done for him as a disciple of Jesus Christ. God knew best what Paul most needed. Oh, it wasn’t what Paul wanted. Not at all. But it was what Paul needed.

I love the way Augustine expressed this truth. A great hero of the early Christian church. He said, “Sometimes God denies the form of our desire in order to grant us the substance of our need.” Do you hear that? Sometimes God denies what we want so that He will then be able to give us what we need.

I don’t know if you’ve ever encountered these words or not, but they are so beautiful. They were words written by an unknown Confederate soldier. I want you to listen closely to what he has to say. He says, “I asked God for strength that I might do great things. I was given weakness that I might learn to obey. I asked God for help that I might do greater things. I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy. I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of others. I was given humility that I might feel the need for God. Everything I asked for, I didn’t get, but I received everything I hoped for. For I had asked for all things that I might enjoy life, but I was given life that I might enjoy all things. So almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered, so that now, I am, of all others, the most richly blessed.” Oh, yes. That’s worth remembering, that when God sometimes says no in answer to our prayers, that we need to recall that God knows best what we most need, and that God may be denying our desires in order to grant us what we need.

But there’s something else to remember here, and it is this.

When God says no in answer to our prayers, it is proof that God is in control.

You see, God makes all the great yes and no decisions in life. That’s what He did for the Israelites. They wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, and yet all the while – the Scriptures make it clear. All the while, God was in control. He was guiding them. A cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He was guiding them every step of the way. He was in charge. He was in control. Sometimes He said yes to them, and they were only too ready to praise Him. And sometimes He said no to them, and they weren’t so ready to praise Him. But the fact is, whether He said yes or whether He said no, He was exercising control over their destiny. And that’s a great truth to begin to wrap your heart around, to know that God makes all the great yes and no decisions in life, to know, for example, that the responsibility for the salvation of the world is not ours to bear. That’s God’s responsibility. Oh, to be sure, we have a part to play in that. We have a job to do in God’s scheme of things. Yes, that’s true. But the fact is that the burden for ultimate success is not ours to bear. We don’t have to worry about that. That’s God’s responsibility. All we have to do is to do our part, and it’s a marvelously freeing thing to realize that.

I remember so well. Ooh, the memory is still painful. I was terribly nervous. It was Sunday morning. I’m always nervous before I preach on Sunday Morning. But that Sunday, it was worse than usual. I was preparing to preach my first sermon in the church where I worked when I was in seminary. And, oh, I felt terrible responsibility. And consequently, I felt terrible pressure. And my very bad case of nerves must have been painfully obvious. Because just before the service, the minister in that church came to me. His name was Jim Lowry, and I’ll never forget him for this. Not for a moment. He came to me and he said, “I want you to sit down,” and I did. And he said, “Now, listen here. I want you to remember something. God is in charge. What God wants to happen in this service will happen. And what God doesn’t want to happen in this service will not happen. You are not responsible. You don’t have to worry about that. So just get up there and let it fly”

And, you know, he was right. Oh, I’m still nervous when I preach, but I’m nervous because of my part in that process. Nervous because I’m wondering about whether or not I’m adequately prepared, or whether or not I’m worthy to stand in the pulpit. But I no longer have to worry about the rest of it. God’s in charge. God will work. Yes. Sometimes He will work through me. Sometimes He will work in spite of me. But God will work. God’s in charge. He is in control, and all I have to do is to stand up here and let it fly. And, oh, what a blessed release it is to know that, yes, God’s in control.

But that’s a comforting thing, not only if you’re preaching. That’s a comforting thing to know if you’re living. She was a young mother. She lost her husband to a tragic death, leaving her full responsibility for their four-year-old daughter. And one night, shortly thereafter, she was preparing the little girl for bed one night, and the little said that she was afraid of the dark. And this young mother, carrying a terrible burden in life, admitted that she was more than a bit fearful herself. And so she suggested that she would simply stretch out there on the bed beside the little girl, and that’s what they did, and then she switched off the light. And in the darkness, the little girl caught a glimpse of the moon through the window. And in the darkness there, she said, “Mommy, is the moon God’s light?” And the mother replied, “Yes, dear. The moon is one of God’s lights, and God’s lights are always shining.” And then there came another question. “But Mommy, is God going to turn out His light when He goes to sleep?” and the mother said, “Oh, no, dear. You see, God never goes to sleep.” There was a bit of a silence. And then that little girl – out of the marvelous simplicity of a child’s faith, that little girl delivered herself of a profound truth, a truth that greatly heartened and encouraged her mother, and it’s a truth that we do well to remember. That little girl said, “Well, Mommy, as long as God is awake, I will not be afraid.” Yes. As long as God is awake, we do not need to be afraid. God is in charge. God is in control. He’s in control of your life, and He’s in control of my life, and He’s in control of this world in which we live. And so we do not have to worry. Not only that. We do not have to be afraid.

But then there’s something else to remember here.

When God says no, we need to remember that God never closes a door without opening a window.

You know who said that? You know who said, “God never closes a door without opening a window”? It was Helen Keller. She was blind. She was deaf. She was dumb. I submit to you that no one listening to this sermon today has ever heard God say no like that. And yet, it was Helen Keller who said, “When God closes a door, He always opens a window.”

That day, up on the slopes of Mount Nebo, as Moses looked out on all that he’d hoped for and dreamed for and worked for and struggled for, the Promised Land stretched out before him as far as he can see, shimmering in the Middle Eastern sun, as he looked out, he heard God say, “Moses, take a long, hard look if you like, but you cannot go there.” No. God closed the door. But I want to tell you something. I believe, oh yes, I believe it. I believe that that day, Moses heard God say something else. I believe he heard God say, “Moses, you cannot go to the Promised Land. But instead, you will now come to be with me in the land of greatest promise, the Kingdom of Heaven.” Yes. I believe that God closed the door to the Promised Land, but then opened up the window to nothing less than Heaven itself.

How do I know that’s true? Well, in our great Presbyterian Confession of Faith, there is a perfectly marvelous sentence tucked away down in the midst of it, but I want you to listen to what it says. Ooh, it’s so filled with power. Listen to what it says. It says, “The work of redemption was not wrought by Christ until after His incarnation. But then the effects, the benefits of that redemption were communicated by God’s Spirit back across all the years of time, right back to the very beginning of the age, right back to all of God’s elect.” That’s what it says. And make no mistake about it. Moses was one of God’s elect. And so on the strength of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, communicated back across the years, I believe that when God closed the door to the Promised Land, he opened the window to the Kingdom of Heaven. Because you see, our God never ever closes any door without opening, somewhere, a window.

So dear friends in Christ, when God says “no” in answer to your prayers, before you cry out, “Lord, that’s not fair – ” be it in anger or in tears, before you cry out, “Lord, that’s not fair,” remember that God knows best what we most need. And remember that God is in firm control of your life. And remember that if the door closes, then you need to look around for a window.

Well, those are some things that I learned from this page in the Word of God. And I bid you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to take these things to your heart.

Let us pray. Almighty and most gracious God, oh yes, sometimes You say “no” in answer to our prayers. But let us understand that if we continue to give ourselves in faith and in trust in You, that there will come a day when we shall stand at the gateway to the Kingdom of Heaven, and we shall hear the great resounding voice of God saying, “Yes, come in.” Through Jesus Christ, amen.

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