MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 4, 2009 ON PRAYER
As part of our emphasis on prayer this week, I wanted to begin this year with a message on prayer. We looked at many of these texts several years ago as we looked at the church as God’s house of prayer, but I trust it will encourage you today as we focus on the priority of prayer for the believer and for Christ’s church. The truth at the center of everything I will say this morning about prayer is this: Prayer must play a foundational role in our church life and ministry. I chose those words carefully. I did not say that prayer must play an “important” role in our lives and ministry. Prayer is not simply important—having a place to gather is important, but you can live and minister as a church without that. Having a Biblical pastor-eldership is important. Having a truth-driven Constitution is important. Prayer is foundational because nothing else of kingdom importance happens without it. The life and ministry of Jesus and the apostles powerfully illustrate that truth. Let’s spend some time looking at some texts that capture how utterly central prayer was to Jesus’ life and ministry.
First, note that prayer frames Jesus’ entire earthly ministry. We know his ministry began at his baptism when the Holy Spirit came upon him. Luke 3:21-22 records that event and says, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." Have you ever noticed before that Luke says the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus in response to his prayer? Jesus begins his ministry with prayer. At the other end of his ministry three years later, on the cross Jesus concludes his ministry and his life with prayer. Luke says in 23:46, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last.” Jesus began and ended his ministry with prayer. As we will see, his ministry in between those two moments was marked by a radical dependence upon God through prayer.
As we read, please know that this group of texts is not an exhaustive treatment of Jesus’ prayer life seen in the gospels. First, we look at Mark 1:35-39 at the very outset of his ministry in Capernaum in Galilee. This text records the beginning of Jesus’ healing ministry. With miraculous healings like these, which had not been seen in centuries, Jesus rapidly began to cause a stir in this backwash of Galilee. Immediately following this inauguration of his public healing ministry, Mark records this next incident, which happened the day after he called his disciples. “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, "Everyone is looking for you." 38And he said to them, "Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out." 39And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Here’s Jesus beginning his ministry with supernatural healing power and the people are looking all over for him. He’s been praying for some time when Peter, who did not know Jesus very well at this point says, “Everyone is looking for you.”
Peter says in effect, “What are you doing here praying when you’re such a hit—we’ve got something going here—let’s seize the moment?! The people are waiting—come on, what are you doing here praying?” Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right, what I am doing here when so many people need my ministry?” No. He says, “"Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out." So, he leaves all these people who are searching for him and he moves on. The reason for this woeful lack of marketing savvy is because he wasn’t ministering fundamentally for the people, but for God and the story implies that Jesus, in his early morning prayer time, was getting his marching orders for the day from His Father. Evidently, his Father told Him, “Leave Capernaum and keep moving around in Galilee.” We see a similar scene in Luke 5:15-16. Jesus had repeatedly told those he healed not to tell anyone about it. But in spite of that, Luke says says, “But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.” 16But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”
Again, hear the priority of prayer in Jesus’ ministry. Picture this heart-wrenching scene that was repeated over and over again in Jesus’ ministry. People come to him with every human need imaginable. Some are eaten up with malignancy with only days to live--people who have been horribly disfigured in accidents, the blind, the lame, the deaf, the very young and the very old--those who were frothing at the mouth from demonic oppression—all those kinds of people came to their only remaining source of hope--this “healer” from Galilee who had appeared. Maybe HE would take away their horrible affliction. And yet from these verses we know that Jesus regularly looked out on those kinds of people and turned away from them because he had to pray! And the reason for this is because Jesus’ fundamental, rock bottom mission was NOT to heal the sick, but like us, he was sent to do the will of the Father and that requires prayer.
In John 5:30 Jesus says, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he chose to limit himself in such a way that the Father always had to tell Him what to do. Millard Erickson compares this to a safe deposit box with Jesus possessing only one key. Unless the Father provided the other key, his miraculous power could not be unlocked. Well, if Jesus could do only the Father’s will, where did he go to discover the will of the Father? Where did Jesus go to get the key to unlock his miraculous, Messianic ministry? The only place he could go and the place WE must go for Spirit-empowered living and ministry. He went to prayer.
We see this in Luke chapter six where we meet Jesus on the night before he called his 12 disciples. In Luke 6:12-13 we read what he did to prepare for those decisions. “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles:” Jesus spent the whole night praying before he chose those men because He wanted the Father’s will. Do we hear that because Jesus’ ministry was to do nothing on his own--nothing apart from His Father, his ministry lived or died with prayer?! Prayer wasn’t just important to Jesus—it was central to his ministry. The omnipotent King of the universe when He became a man—his ministry lived or died with prayer! What does that say to us about our life and ministry?
Another instance where we see this dependency on God through prayer is in Matthew 14. This text is sandwiched in between two of Jesus’ most stunning miracles. He has just fed the 5000 and later that night, he walked on water out to his disciples. Matthew reveals what Jesus was doing in between those two miracles. Verse 22 tells us that right after the feeding of the 5000, “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,” If you read the whole chapter, you would discover that Jesus had earlier (14:13ff) began to move to a solitary place, but the crowds followed him. His great compassion for them kept him there healing their sick bodies and feeding their empty stomachs. He finally dismissed the crowds and does what he wanted to do earlier, pray. It’s no accident Matthew includes this part of Jesus’ day sandwiched in between these two miracles. He is trying to show us the unbreakable connection between the supernatural quality of Christ’s ministry and his time spent in prayer.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before his greatest work on Calvary, all Jesus wants to do is pray and have someone sit with him while he agonizes in prayer before the Father. The gospels make it clear he repeatedly went to prayer that night. His prayer is not only for himself, but as John 17 records, he prays for his disciples and for those who would come to know God through their testimony. We must hear the priority of prayer in the life and ministry of Christ. We see this in the pains he took to pray. Prayer was often not at all convenient for the Lord according to gospels. He had to make concerted efforts to pray and he wouldn’t let anything stand in his way when he knew it was time to pray. He would not allow even very good things to interfere with his prayer life.
We read in Matthew 14:23 after a long day of grueling ministry that “he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.” In Luke 5:16 the evangelist records, “But he often withdrew to desolate places to pray.” That word “desolate” means “remote, out of the way.” Whether Jesus had to hike up a mountain, or out to some other forsaken place, He was willing to walk a long time to find a place to be alone to pray. Being with his Father in prayer was more important to Jesus than his convenience or comfort. Mark 1:35 says of Jesus, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” In Luke 6:12 we see that Jesus prayed “all night.” Prayer was more important to Jesus than sleep. He got up before the sun and he prayed all night. Prayer cost Jesus sleep. Why was Jesus willing to pay this kind of price for prayer? Because it was necessary!
Only after being with God in prayer are we able to live and minister in ways that honor him. Jesus knew what glory, what joy, what comfort, what encouragement could be found only in prayer and he knew he could never live or minister as he should without prayer. In prayer, we show our humble dependence upon God. We are communicating humility because in prayer we are reflecting a conviction that we cannot live or minister well without God’ help. James says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”[4:6] If you don’t have a healthy prayer life, it’s not because you are not a pray-er, it’s because you’re proud. At the end of the day, you don’t truly believe you need God in all things and if you are pridefully independent, instead of blessing our life and ministry with grace, God might actually oppose you. Jesus, in his utter consistency in prayer models for us a humble dependence upon God and we must follow his lead here.
Even though the apostles aren’t recorded anywhere in the gospels having a “prayer meeting” with Jesus, it is clear from the book of Acts they learned very well the priority of prayer from the example of their Master. Let’s look at some texts that indicate that his disciples picked up where Jesus left off in this ministry of prayer. Before Pentecost, in Acts 1:14 we see what characterized their time of waiting for the Holy Spirit. Luke writes, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Just as the Holy Spirit came upon Christ at his baptism in response to prayer, so too did the Holy Spirit come upon the church at Pentecost in response to the constant prayers of Christ’s followers. In Acts 1:24-25 when the apostles made their first major decision about a replacement for Judas Iscariot, it says, “And they prayed and said, "You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." Like Jesus, they wanted to know the Father’s will.
In Acts 4:29-31 we see the first threat to the new church--the Sanhedrin had warned and threatened the apostles not to preach in Jesus’ name. In response to that threat they prayed, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, … 31And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” They were afraid of the threats of the Sanhedrin so they prayed and God gave them boldness to speak. Later, when the explosive growth of the church threatened to cause the apostles to leave their primary ministry to go wait on tables, they said in Acts 6:3, “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” When the growth of the church threatened what God had called them to do, like their Master, they refused to be distracted. They didn’t want anything to keep them from prayer because they knew that without prayer their ministry would ultimately be in vain. Their ministry, like Jesus’ lived or died with prayer.
Two verses later, when these seven men were chosen it says, “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.” Are you getting the idea that Luke wants us to see that nothing happened in this church without people praying about it? When God chose the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit, he chose Cornelius of whom it says in 10:2, “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.” And when through an angel God told Cornelius to send for Peter to come to his house we read in 10:4, “And he [Cornelius] stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” The Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and upon the Gentiles in response to Gentile prayer. Don’t miss the pattern Luke lays out for us here. The Spirit came upon Jesus through prayer—the Spirit came upon his Jewish disciples through prayer and the Spirit came upon the Gentiles in response to prayer. The lesson could hardly be more clear. If you want the supernatural empowering of the Spirit on your life and ministry, if you want your life and ministry to honor God, prayer must be a priority.
I was reminded of this at the missions conference I attended this past week. Many of you know that Christianity has exploded across Africa. There are over 390 million professed believers in Africa. That’s triple the number of 35 years ago. The center of gravity of world Christianity has shifted away from the West to Africa and Asia and Latin America. This past week, one elderly African man explained that dynamic as he said something like, “We in Africa do not have your technology or your education, but we pray—you in the West have forgotten how to pray.” The reason I have labored with text after text the priority of prayer in the ministry of Christ and the apostles is because it corrects a misunderstanding many if not most believers have about the place of prayer in their lives. That is, many believers see prayer as one element or aspect of their Christian life—an important element to be sure, but one element of our spiritual life. It’s as if our Christian life were divided up into a pie graph and prayer were one piece of the graph. We hear that attitude implied every time someone says something like, “Praying a lot is just not my thing,” or “My prayer life is not very strong,” or “Prayer meetings don’t do much for me.” Do you hear how in each of those statements prayer is seen as being one almost optional part of their Christian life? The underlying conclusion often is, “I need to spend some time an energy focusing on my prayer life.” That’s often the way many people and churches view prayer and it’s unbiblical to think of prayer like that.
That attitude betrays a wrong understanding of prayer. Jesus didn’t see prayer that way. The apostles didn’t see prayer that way. Prayer wasn’t simply near the top of a spiritual list of things for them to do--it was at the very heart of their relationship with God. Prayer is not one section on a pie graph. Its like sugar mixed into your tea—it should permeate everything. The apostles’ prayer life was a thermometer revealing their spiritual health. The principle we must all know and practice about prayer is this: Prayer is not simply a ministry or spiritual activity; it is an external expression of the condition of our hearts. If our prayer life is weak, it doesn’t simply mean that we need to try harder in prayer. A weak prayer life is a sure sign that the whole of your spiritual life is sick because our prayer life irrevocably says two things about us. First, how dependent upon God we are and second how much we have the heart of God. Show me someone who is very dependent upon God in their life and ministry and someone who truly believes that nothing happens of significance apart from God’s intervention and I will show you--100% of the time--someone who values prayer and expends much time and energy praying. Conversely, a weak prayer life is a sign of someone who is not very God-dependent or impassioned for God. If the word of God is our spiritual food and drink—which it is—then prayer is our spiritual breathing.
Prayer is also a discipline—something we need to discipline ourselves to do. But the discipline will be steadfast and energized in our life only if the reason we discipline ourselves to pray is because we are God dependent and see our need for him. That dependence and hunger for God’s grace causes us to say “this is so important; I must carve out premium time every day so that I can cry out to God for his touch on my life and ministry.” The discipline of prayer grows out of the conviction that, like Jesus and the apostles, your spiritual life and ministry will die on the vine without God’s direct involvement in it and the way he becomes active and involved in our lives is in response to prayer.
This year, we want to give prayer the place of priority that Jesus and the apostles gave it by dedicating the first week of the year to an emphasis on prayer. That is rooted in the conviction that there will not be any significant, God honoring life and ministry at Mount of Olives without a Holy Spirit-led renewal in our prayer ministry. Think of prayer as the pipe through which God sends his anointing and power for your life and ministry. Much prayer gives you a bigger pipe, little prayer is like a smaller pipe. The question—as it relates to empowered ministry is--do we want a pipe the size of a storm sewer or the size of a water pistol through which to receive God’s anointing for life and ministry? If prayer is where we show our dependence upon God and our hunger for his presence and power and your prayer life is weak, what does that say about the state of your heart? Go after God on that question. Don’t go to the throne of God feeling condemned—that’s not the gospel. God wants to be with you far more than you want to be with him. God wants his touch on your life and ministry far more than you want it. Go in confidence and repent of your lukewarmness. Ask him to change your heart—to make it burn with zeal for him—to help you remove all the impediments to his grace in your life. Come hear a motivating message on prayer tonight and attend some of the meetings this week—they should be sweet times with God.
2009 can be the most God-honoring year in our history as a church and in your life. God can move in remarkable ways—our loved ones can get saved—we can reach Duluth and the nations with the gospel in ways we haven’t imagined—our worship times can be filled with the sense of his presence and power--the joy of the Lord can be our strength in ways we never thought imaginable as we grow more and more in love with Jesus. But none of that will occur without prayer. May God give to you and to our church much grace in this area this week and this year.
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