January 28, 2009

Why Pray? 8: For those warned about sin

“Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die.” (Genesis 20:7)

Genesis tells you things that are not comfortable to hear. One is about the deceit of Abraham, who twice pretended Sarah was not his wife so that when entering unfriendly territory he would not be killed when the King wanted to take such a beautiful woman for a wife. On this occasion King Abimelech (whose town was near Philistia) brought her into his household.

God mercifully prevented Abimelech from the adultery he was about to commit with Sarah, and gave him the instruction with stark warning about sending Sarah back to her husband. Abraham, the very man whose deceit helped pave the way for Abimelech’s temptation would God promised then be praying for him.

But what would Abraham be praying for? Preservation of Abimelech’s life? Forgiveness for a crime he had not yet committed? He would have had on his heart the physical evils that Abimelech and his family was threatened with, asking God to preserve them from those punishments.

Was that it? It was God’s will that Abimelech be spared the consequences of his sin. Abraham would surely be praying that he would obediently turn to the one true God so that he would be saved.

Of course, God was no more giving Abraham the power to forgive sins than he was giving it to the disciples in Matthew 18:18. When God promises Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3) he was not performing an exercise in real-life ‘Bruce Almighty’, as per the Jim Carrey film. Rather he was affirming that his presence with Abraham would be uniquely strong among the people of that time, and that Abraham would pray in the Spirit and will of the Father.

All around us are the consequences of sin: our sins and the sins of others. But even sins past, sins present and sins future can be used for God’s glory. Paul tells us in Romans 9:22-23 that God uses his judgement on sin to show his mercy to his people, so we can be praying for people in that light.

When there are wars and rumours of wars, where there is sadness, ill-health and personal tragedy we should be full of real, active compassion for the immediate suffering. And the example of God’s instruction to Abraham may encourage us to pray that God would show people the original cause of suffering - sin. God wants to take away our sin and nail it to the cross of Christ, but we first need to be aware of its consequences.

And next time someone you love has in front of them an option to step into sin, pray for them that God would help them to see that sin for what it is: death.

January 22, 2009

Why Pray? 7: When God's commands don't seem to make sense

“After I had given the deed of purchase to Baruch…, I prayed to the Lord…’though the city will be handed over to the Babylonians, you, O Sovereign Lord, say to me, ‘Buy the field…’.” (Jeremiah 32:16 & 25)

Imprisoned by his own king for prophesying bad news and under siege from the Babylonian army, Jeremiah was told by God: “I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon…If you fight against the Babylonians, you will not succeed” (v.4-5).

Yet he also promised that Judah would be restored to its own land…at some unspecified point in the future.

And then he wanted Jeremiah to buy a field.

So Jeremiah bought the field.

It is only after buying the field - trusting God at his word - that the prophet approached God to enquire. He did not demand that God prove himself but he wanted to talk the whole thing over and get some resolution about the obedience he had already committed to. It is that last part; the obedience “already committed to” that stands out as real faith.

It would have taken no kind of faith for Jeremiah to say to God, “I hear what you’re saying about buying the field but I need you to show me how that makes sense first and then I’ll do it. I want to see some evidence that I won’t lose out”.

God tells us every day to do what makes no sense in worldly terms. He tells us to push beyond the comfortable to the eternally glorious; to serve him instead of pursuing stuff and money. He wants you to tell people about the cross when they think you idiotic for doing so, to serve people who will throw your love back in your face. He says that everything we see is to be put aside for the sake of what we don’t see and that our reward for what we sacrifice on earth will ultimately not be on earth.

And when we point our lives heavenwards in faith day by day, then we are to go to him for assurance, acknowledging God’s sovereignty and simply laying out our situation before him. Jeremiah did not wait for his hope to wane before going to God as some kind of last resort – the prayer for assurance followed the act of obedience.

And God wonderfully comforted Jeremiah with the words, “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” (v.27).

January 21, 2009

Rick Warren's Prayer

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.”
(1 Timothy 2:1-3)

With that in mind, let's thank God for the witness of our fellow jar of clay Rick Warren when he prayed this yesterday at the history-soaked day that was President Obama's inauguration:

Almighty God, our Father:
Everything we see, and everything we can’t see, exists because of you alone.It all comes from you, it all belongs to you, it all exists for your glory. History is your story.

The Scripture tells us, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made.

Now today, we rejoice not only in America’s peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time, we celebrate a hinge point of history with the inauguration of our first African-American president of the United States.

We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where a son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.

Give to our new president, Barack Obama, the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity.

Bless and protect him, his family, Vice President Biden, the Cabinet, and every one of our freely elected leaders.

Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans—united not by race or religion or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.

When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you—forgive us.
When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone—forgive us.

When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve—forgive us.

And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes—even when we differ.

Help us to share, to serve, and to seek the common good of all.

May all people of good will today join together to work for a more just, a more healthy, and a more prosperous nation and a peaceful planet.

And may we never forget that one day, all nations--and all people--will stand accountable before you.

We now commit our new president and his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, into your loving care.

I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life—Yeshua, 'Isa, Jesus [Spanish pronunciation], Jesus—who taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.


January 17, 2009

Why Pray? 6: To be glorified

“We pray this so that the name of the Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 1:12)

We are here to glorify God. Hopefully we have a good handle on that, but did you know that God wants us to be glorified in Him also?

In the previous verses Paul thanked God for the Thessalonians’ perseverance and reminded them of God’s ultimate vindication of his people. That prompted Paul’s prayer that they live lives worthy of their calling, in part so that they would be glorified in God.

And this is not some isolated idea. For example Paul gives our share in the glory of Christ as one of the reasons for our salvation (2 Thess2:14) and speaks to the Romans of sharing in Jesus’ glory (8:17-18). It is the destiny of every Christian (Romans 8:30). To hear some preachers today you might even think that our glory was the main thing God was working for in our lives, and we should work towards it. It becomes a quasi spiritual version of respect with the goal of our self-esteem and popularity, as if God was concerned to make us more attractive, even though his own son was “Like one from whom men hide their faces…” (Isaiah 53:3).

On the contrary, our pursuit of our glory is one of the biggest ways to ensure it will never happen. Like someone running after a butterfly in hopes it will sit on their shoulder, glory will only be given to those who don’t seek it. It is God’s will that each day of our lives we become more like Jesus. That every morning our increased likeness to the creator of the universe – our Saviour – would bring us glory. And that glory – our glory - is Christ’s; in our becoming more like him through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives (2 Cor 3:18).

The way the moon plays across a harbour is a spell-binding sight and yet the glory of the moon is that through it we see something of the sun. It provides us with light only when it reflects onto us a brightness it can never have on its own. That dull-coloured lump of rock shows us the greatness, power and use of the sun – and that’s no mean thing for a dull-coloured lump of rock!

We are but jars of clay; flawed, sinful, created beings. Despite this God in his grace has granted us increasing glory in our transformation into his own likeness. In that process us we have the joy of helping others to see Jesus through our likeness to him in our lives and words. Until that day when we “will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4).

And that’s no mean thing for a jar of clay.

January 13, 2009

Can God Judge Me?

Mark Driscoll (Pastor from Seattle) responds to the question, "If I'm so sinful I can't even choose Jesus what right does he have to judge me? If I can't choose good, judgement against me would be unjust".

January 9, 2009

Why Pray? 5: For the salvation of those who oppose you

“…I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:29)

Not the best choice of words if Paul was trying to get out of trouble.

Paul’s speech to his accusers caused King Agrippa to query whether Paul was trying to convert him there and then, and this is what Paul said in reply. Far from backing off or trying to appease Agrippa’s sensitivities Paul tells him what he wants and prays for: the salvation of everyone in the room.

Paul was speaking to a room of people opposed to all he stood for.We don’t know that everyone in that room even disliked Paul, but they were all part of a process where justice was abused for money and politics. For a man consumed with the a commitment to the spread of the gospel to all parts of the known world Paul’s incarceration would most naturally have been infuriating to him. And yet he does not seem in the least frustrated, seizing instead on the opportunity to share the gospel with powerful figures.

With the Jews baying for his blood, Paul’s defence to Agrippa that day was not a defence of Paul the unjustly accused, or an attempt to score points against spiritually and intellectually bankrupt opposition. His speech, as his life, was an all-out effort to show the gospel in all its glorious and compelling truth. He was not trying to argue or debate his way out of custody but bring glory to God through bringing Agrippa to repentance and faith.

Many cynical people today say along with Agrippa that we are mad (v.24), or arrogant in our desire to convince people of the truth of Christ (v.28). Our instinct in those situations often will be to justify ourselves, to try and come out well from the conversation, to not be thought stupid or rude, or to agree to differ and move on. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable either with us or with the situation.

Paul did not want people to be made needlessly uncomfortable or offended – he knew the cross would offend them. He wanted everyone in the room to be saved and he wanted them to know that was what he wanted and was praying for. In doing so he knowingly lay himself open to being thought even more “insane” than before.

Do you really want people to know that you pray for their salvation? That your keenest desire for them is that they come to know Christ? Are you comfortable with the idea of telling them?

Ask God to show you what is your heart in the face of cynical opposition. Ask him for less of you and more of him. For a heart that says to those who oppose Christ, I don’t care what you think of me, I just want you in heaven with me.

January 2, 2009

Why Pray? 4: When in Trouble

“Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.” (James 5:13)

When you are hungry: eat.
When you are thirsty: drink.
When you are cold: put a sweater on.
When you are happy: “sing songs of praise” (v.13)
When you are in trouble: pray.

That is the sense of what James is saying in his letter as he tries to reinstall the blindingly obvious to a people prone to forget it.

How much trouble do you have to be in before it occurs to you to pray? Daily stresses and strains, illnesses, a threat to your family? Or is it more that you tend to exhaust every other avenue before coming to prayer? It feels like an admission of defeat sometimes, as if we ought to have been able to fix things ourselves but now that we can’t we are going to play our trump card: Almighty God. Perhaps we have been worried about our health and tried pushing the doctors for a diagnosis before they were ready to give one. Asked for the worst case to see how it felt. Asked for opinions from people who knew even less about the situation than we did. Plotted your own recovery.

Many times recapping situations in my own life I have gone over an issue I am working through, checking to see whether there is anything else I could have done…and then it has dawned on me. I had not yet prayed about it.

For many the notion of prayer being the first port of call in trouble is far from natural. Our attempts to solve the situation, manage our emotions and expectations and relate to others comes on the basis of a self-reliant crisis management. We may become less likely to pray than at other times as we allow ourselves to be fixated on the “trouble” itself.

That is not to say that we do not try to work through any trouble – what James is addressing is our attitude going in. Where are we looking for strength, guidance, hope and courage? In coping with and potentially emerging from the trouble, where are our priorities?

James is not giving us a theological hoop to jump through or adding an obligation to be thought of at times when we are least able to think clearly. No he is pointing out to us what should be the natural, obvious and the first thing we do – even without thinking about it – in times of trouble.

Logically we should go to God as sovereign ruler of all creation, master of history.

Relationally we should go to God as our Father, our Friend and our redeemer.
Emotionally we should go to God as the one source of true comfort.

Most of all, we should go to Him first.