MESSAGE FOR JULY 17, 2005 FROM VARIOUS TEXTS
“A Call to Prayer”
We want to step away from our series on First Corinthians for at least one week to take a biblical look at something I believe is crucial for the life of our church, especially now-- when we are in perhaps an unprecedented time of enthusiasm and ministry opportunities. The outlook for the ministry of Mount of Olives is, for even the more skeptical among us, very bright in these days of God’s blessing. Let me just list a sampling of the blessings God has poured out on us during this season of ministry. First, he has allowed us the privilege of ministering to about 100 new people in the last year—people with gifts and ministries and vision--many of whom have already begun to join the church and occupy significant places of service here. The new facility enables us opportunities we simply have not previously had available to us. The gym, institutional kitchen, banquet facilities, ample educational and office space and an inherited intimate relationship with the neighbors who have a high level of ownership in this property--all offer unprecedented opportunities for outreach and an expanding ministry here.
Beyond that, we have a committed, God-centered Children’s Ministry Team that is ever-searching for ways to be more truth-driven and God-honoring. This ministry is destined to grow, if for no other reason than we have had 24 babies born into our church family since September with at least five more expectant mothers due before December. We have by God’s grace an excellent Youth Ministry gifted with truly anointed leadership and a solid core of God-centered parents whose vision is NOT simply to raise kids who manage to stay out of trouble, but instead to equip our youth to be radical followers of Christ now and for the rest of their lives. In two weeks, we will send out our third missionary family in the past two years, all of whom are either directly or indirectly ministering to unreached people.
Other ministries are in very much better places than they have been in my tenure like College and Career and Assimilation. The Pastor-elder candidates are all on a course to finish their training and we have a new Associate Pastor who I trust by God’s grace will be used to greatly expand our small group ministry as well as be God’s instrument to enable needed reforms and reinvigoration to our global mission and local outreach ministries. This Fall, we begin a new AWANA ministry that we hope by God’s grace will enable us to do more and better evangelism in our community. Although we still have a way to go, we as a church have never been closer to fulfilling our vision of planting a healthy church as well as assisting other churches in our area to be more healthy and God-centered in ministry.
Beyond all that, there is a subjective sense within many here that the Spirit of God is moving in a new way and is preparing to do a deep work among us. In light of all of that and more, we should celebrate God’s goodness and faithfulness as all good things are from God and to Him alone be the glory! However, with all those wonderful things God is doing, there is at least one ominous, dark cloud hovering over our church that could not only keep the ministry from progressing and hence not glorify God but could also threaten all that God has done here over the past few years.
That black cloud is manifest in one ministry that, unlike virtually every other ministry, has not grown—has not kept pace—has not increased in proportion with the rest of the ministry here. This has happened in spite of the fact that this ministry is arguably more important to the health and growth of the church than any other single ministry. One ministry that has not kept pace and whose weakness could jeopardize much of the rest of what God has done is the ministry of prayer. I am aware that prayer is far more than just one of the ministries of the church. It is a way of life and is perhaps as accurate an indicator of a person’s spiritual health as any of the spiritual disciplines.
Christ’s life and ministry were saturated with prayer not fundamentally because he was praying out of obedience to the Father, but because he was convinced he was utterly dependent upon the Father to work through Him by the Holy Spirit. John 5:19 says, “So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” Generally speaking, people who have strong prayer lives are people who deeply sense their dependence upon God for their lives and ministries. People who do not have disciplined and healthy prayer lives are those who do not really believe in their hearts they are deeply in need of God’s help to live and minister in ways that honor him. So, the fact that prayer is not simply a ministry of the church but is in fact a measure of spiritual health is even more telling for us as a church where the formal prayer ministry is not growing.
A possible objection at this point might be, “how can you determine the level of prayer in this church since much of it is done informally and in secret by individuals burdened by the Holy Spirit?” That is a valid question and let me say two things in response. First, Paul says in First Corinthians 12:13, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” That verse is jammed with truth that covers many areas but as it relates to the church it tells us that we were baptized into a body, Christ’s church. That is, when we were born spiritually we were born to exist within the church. That tells me that when God is moving in our hearts in a significant way, that movement of God’s Spirit will ultimately show itself in the context into which we were born, the church. In light of the relationship between the individual spiritual life and the life of the church, because there has not been a marked increase in the formal prayer ministry at Mount of Olives, I think it is safe to say there has generally speaking, not been much growth in the over-all prayer life of our church.
Second and anecdotally, in every other growing ministry in our church, when God has powerfully worked privately in individual lives in a given area--burdening people for children or leadership or youth or music—in every case of which I am aware—those private burdens eventually manifest themselves in the formal ministries of the church I mentioned. That has simply not occurred in the prayer ministry here. In contrast to other ministries here, there has been no burst of new prayer cells springing up. The established prayer meetings are no more heavily attended now than they were five years ago even though our attendance has essentially doubled in that time. There are no consistent reports of Spirit-visited prayer among the small groups of which I am aware. We have had great difficulty at times finding even two people to pray during the Sunday morning worship services. I say these things NOT to condemn anyone but simply to sound the alarm that lying underneath what are truly exciting ministry developments here—is a foundation of prayer that is simply not growing in kind to keep us bathed in prayer and God-dependent.
If what we are seeing in the other areas of ministry growth at Mount of Olives are from God, we can safely assume he has already been working to call His children to pray. This morning, I want to by God’s grace cooperate with the wind of the Holy Spirit, which blows through his word, as He wafts across the embers of hearts he has already warmed by his ongoing work to call His people to pray more in general and specifically for the ministry of His church here. To that end, let’s look at three truth-driven reasons why we as a church must significantly increase our corporate and personal prayer ministries.
The first reason we must pray more is because God is glorified in ministry only when it is done in dependence upon him and that dependence is seen primarily through prayer. Perhaps the classic verse on God’s glory in the Bible is Isaiah 48:11. There God speaks of his merciful work among the children of Israel and he says, “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” God will not share his glory with any other person or thing. That means all God-glorifying ministry must manifestly and fundamentally originate WITH Him and point TO Him. If a ministry primarily points to, or gives glory--or shines the spotlight on fallen humans or methodologies or marketing tactics or ministry programs or any other earthly resource-- it will not honor God because God doesn’t share his glory! Since God has set up the universe in such a way that prayer moves His hand, it is therefore absolutely essential for his glory. Man-dependent or program-dependent or just plain independent, prayer-bereft ministries do not honor God even if they seem to generate much alleged fruit because they are not done in dependence upon God. They do not fundamentally point to Him but to someone or something else. God-dependent (and that unmistakably implies), prayer-soaked ministries are the only ones that bring glory to God. If we truly desire for our individual and corporate ministries to bring glory to God, they must be washed in prayer.
We see this fleshed out in dozens of other texts as well. We see this changeless priority in First Corinthians1:28-29, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” Paul tells us it is God’s passion for His glory that dictates who God chooses to be in his church. He generally chooses those who are low and despised and who are NOT in part because when He does remarkable things in and through these kinds of unimpressive people, no one will be tempted to point to things of this earth and give credit to them. But when these lowly people live in holiness, when they accomplish things that are remarkable—THAT demands a divine explanation—God is at work among them! And again, what is it that enables us lowly, despised people to do things and work within ministries that point to God? His PRAYER-INITIATED work among us. Prayer is the God-given fuse we light which moves God to work with explosive power among us, erupting in miraculous displays of his glory. If we truly hunger for God to be glorified in our lives and ministries, we will significantly step up our prayer ministries here.
A second reason we must pray more individually and especially for the ministry of our church is because only prayer-based, prayer-saturated ministry conforms to the biblical pattern. If we want ministries that are truth-driven, they will of absolute necessity be rooted in God-dependent prayer. Let’s look at this from two angles. First, let’s examine the general biblical pattern for the necessity of ministry rooted in prayer. One of the best known texts here is Matthew 9:37-38. Matthew says, “Then he [Jesus] said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." This verse powerfully illustrates how central prayer is in moving the hand of God. Jesus and the disciples are out ministering to the masses who the text says are “like sheep without a shepherd.” And what does Jesus say in response to that urgent need?
The North American evangelical might say—“We need figure out a way to mobilize more people” or, “we need to break the old paradigms for recruiting people for ministry and come up with newer and better ones” or, “we need to generate a huge data base with names of people and their corresponding spiritual gifts and do a targeted mailing to those folks with the gift of missionary and inform of them this need.” Jesus doesn’t respond that way nor does he urgently compel the disciples to “get busy” meeting the needs. No. When he surveys the multitudes in need of God, His response—and the comprehensively biblical response--is to call for earnest prayer to the Lord. Meeting ministry needs here and to the nations happens through prayer—prayer for whatever the pressing needs are. In this case, there was a vast labor shortage—there weren’t (and still aren’t) enough people engaged in the task of bringing in the harvest of souls. So, Jesus says in effect—stop everything…and pray—ask God to do something you could never do—meet the labor shortage. In light of the persistent shortage of soul-harvesting laborers in the ministry of the church and globally—we should all be praying this way. And if God calls YOU to meet whatever the ministry need—then instead of finding dozens of reasons why YOU can’t possibly do that, praise God for answering your prayer for additional laborers!
Other more general and implicit calls to prayer-based ministry are seen in texts like 1 Thessalonians 5:17 where Paul tells the believers, “Pray without ceasing.” The call here is not to pray without a single interruption but to radical dependence upon God. He’s telling us to pray about everything—all needs, all situations, all circumstances. Live with a profound sense of the truth Jesus gave to us when he said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Show me a person who has more or less internalized that truth—who really believes they can do NOTHING apart from Christ and I will show you a person who is largely faithful to the command to “pray without ceasing.” Today, if we meet someone this committed to prayer we immediately assume they have a special gift for intercession and belong to some sort of uniquely anointed class of prayers. Although I believe there are people who are called in a unique way to intercession—ALL believers are commanded to show this radical God-dependency and pray without ceasing. If we were all faithful to just this one command, there would be no need for a special call to prayer.
One final general reference to the centrality of prayer in ministry is in Matthew 21:13. Jesus is cleansing the temple of the crass commercial trappings the religious leaders had allowed to pile up there. Jesus is eaten up with zeal for his Father’s house but notice the specific focus of his ire as it relates to this prostitution of the temple. He says in verse 13, “He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you make it a den of robbers." As Jim Cymbala in His book, “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire” says, Jesus doesn’t say, “My house shall be called a house of preaching” or, “My house shall be called a house of worship.” No. The stated cause for Jesus’ impassioned indignancy is that this sacred place was not fulfilling its purpose to be a house of prayer for the nations. The fact that prayer was being squeezed out by money changing was what so strongly enflamed Jesus here. Preaching the word is important but preaching without prayer is a bit like giving directions to someone who is sitting in a car with an empty gas tank. They have been told where to go, but they have no power to get there.
It’s a formula for frustration and defeated lives and ministries. One reason we should greatly step up our prayer ministry is simply because this is the biblical pattern of ministry. This kind of God-dependent and therefore prayer-rooted ministry is in the blueprint and if you stray from the sacred blueprint laid down in scripture, disaster will eventually come. As I look at the often purely man-powered North American church, I am repeatedly reminded of George MacDonald’s statement—“Anything done without God is destined to either fail miserably or succeed more miserably.” God doesn’t want any miserable successes here.
Beyond the general biblical pattern, there is another biblical template that especially helps us see the crucial importance of prayer in times of ministry development and transition, which is where we by God’s grace find ourselves. If you were to do a survey of those moments in redemptive history when God was doing a new thing, you would find those chapters in redemptive history were marked almost without exception with an increased attention to prayer. When the people of God had finished the building of the temple and Solomon prays that inspired, God-centered prayer—what call does God place upon his people as his people begin ministry in His new temple? It’s at that moment that he says to his people, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” God calls his people to prayer that will issue in repentance. When God’s time came to rebuild the temple after the Jews returned from exile, he chose Nehemiah to provide leadership. Nehemiah was doubtless a brilliant administrator but as you read through Nehemiah you find him to be a man first and foremost committed to prayer. Perhaps above all, he was a praying man. Other crucial moments accompanied by prayer include Jesus’ choosing of the twelve, which was precipitated by an all-night prayer meeting with His Father.
We could trace through the book of Acts and see this pattern replicated. We see this at Pentecost. What were the disciples doing according to Acts 1:14 when the Spirit came in power? They were praying. When Paul and Barnabas are sent out in chapter 13 that occurred in a context of fasting and worship that doubtless included prayer and they were sent off with prayer. When Peter was given his vision to preach the Gentiles with the gospel, he was praying at the time. When Cornelius was told by the angel to send for Peter, it was during his prayer time. There is an almost unbreakable connection between new movements of God’s Spirit and prayer. We see this exemplified today in the Korean church. The ten largest churches in the world are Korean and South Korea, a nation with only one sixth the population of the United States sends out 12,000 missionaries, second only to the U.S. It is no accident that THE over-riding characteristic of the Korean church is a profound dedication to prayer. Daily dawn prayer meetings are the norm for many of the churches in Korea and are well attended. Prayer retreats called “prayer mounts” dot the Korean countryside. The uniquely powerful ministry of the Korean churches is clearly traceable to the fact that they take the biblical call to prayer much more seriously than we in North America do.
Briefly, a final reason why we must step up our prayer ministry is because it is essential within the militant context of the church in a fallen world. This final point is related to what we said last week about spiritual conflict. We see the centrality of prayer in spiritual warfare in Ephesians chapter six. After Paul lists the pieces of spiritual armor he says in 6:18-19, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,” The structure of the sentence indicates the relationship between the pieces of armor and prayer could not be more intimate. John Piper is probably right when he says that prayer is the battlefield walkie-talkie wherein the troops receive their orders from their commanding officer. The most impressive spiritual armor—a sound knowledge of the gospel, the righteousness of a holy life, a skillful handling of the sword, the word of God—are all dependent upon the Spirit’s power and that comes chiefly through prayer.
There are believers who when the topic of spiritual warfare is raised, think something like, “Satan is a defeated foe—he is under my feet and I don’t have to be all that concerned with him.” For those who harbor that delusion, I would only point you to Revelation 2:10 where the risen Christ says to the church at Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Clearly, Satan operates under God’s sovereign control but Jesus here is very frank in telling His church that Satan has the power to use the means at his disposal to imprison and the implication is to even torture and kill some of them. This war we fight is not against a paper tiger but a roaring lion and Peter calls us to be “watchful and sober-minded” and that above all implies prayer if we are to overcome the evil one. We desperately need prayer cover and the fact that God has enabled Mount of Olives to grow and experience some level of health does not mean Satan will back off but rather that he will step up his offensive. As the enemy of God, he hates anything that reflects the glorious image of his Conqueror. The best way we can stem his imminent attacks will be to as a church regularly and sacrificially go to prayer.
Let’s close with some brief application. First, understand the gravity of this need. The plain and simple truth is—in light of the fact that the scope and breadth of this ministry are expanding at a rate far greater than the prayer ministry, if the prayer ministry does not greatly increase, Mount of Olives is destined for ministry that either fails miserably or succeeds more miserably. We must never believe the lie that God simply HAS to continue blessing us—He doesn’t. He is no more likely to continue blessing a man-dependent, prayerless ministry or church than he is to curse a God-dependent, prayer-saturated ministry or church. That is the clear implication of the biblical texts we have briefly examined this morning. Even more importantly, God will not be honored and the pattern of ministry will not conform to God’s authoritative word. Second, by God’s grace--repent of prayerless, self-dependent, self-glorifying ministry. Ask God to show you how this independence from Him by His children grieves his heart. Come to Christ and confess your sin of prayerlessness and ask God for the fruit of repentance, which is a growing sense of dependence upon God and the prayer that invariably comes when that heart is cultivated.
Third, ask God what your role is to increase the level of prayer ministry here. Perhaps God has already been burdening you to begin a new prayer ministry or to join an existing one. If so, obey the Holy Spirit. May God grant to each one of us and to our church the grace to pray, pray and pray so that he will be glorified, his word will be honored and the enemy will be pushed back where he belongs.
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