Saturday, March 14, 2015

Surrounding Our Prayers

Surrounding Our Prayers                                      3/15/15
I Samuel 1, Acts 4:23-31, Matthew 6:5-15

During Lent and Easter, we are considering the call to Discipleship.  A disciple is a student, a pupil of a teacher.  Christians affirm Jesus Christ as the Master teacher, and we are his followers.

We have a Map before us that identifies 10 classic expressions of Christian devotion.  Within each expression are various steps to take.  Worshippers in Stockton, Mt. Airy and Titusville are being invited to take 7 specific steps forward in one or more of these columns, and to tell your pastor about it for support and encouragement.

So far, we have identified the Bible as God-breathed, and worship as response to God’s wide work.  Today, we will discuss prayer.

The definition of prayer is a solemn request made to a deity.  In its most broad terms, it is a hope or wish.  A secondary definition is the spiritual communion that comes from presenting requests to God.

The Bible informs our definition with the reminder that prayer involves both talking and listening.  Prayer is that time that we have with God.  We can imagine, reason, speak, identify, and we can also be quiet, and let God imagine and reason and speak and identify within us.

Prayer should include praise to God, thanksgiving to God, confession of our sin and shortfalls, and prayers for neighbors close and far.  Our two stories today identify two of the more common associations we have with prayer.  We pray when we are in trouble, and we pray when there is something that we want that we don’t have.   The Gospel lesson will bring us back to Jesus’ emphasis that prayer is simply about God.

Acts 4:23-31
Peter and John had helped a man claim faith in Jesus Christ and find miraculous healing.  This man had been crippled, known among the people as he begged each day at one of the gates of the temple.  So when the crowds see this man who previously was not able to walk, much praise and excitement happens.  Peter and John use this opportunity to preach the gospel.  This preaching causes a stir among the temple’s religious leadership, and John and Peter are placed in jail by the temple guards.

In these early days of the church, the church was really a small sect of Judaism.   Believers were mostly Jewish, and simply believed that Jesus was the messiah that God had promised to Israel. They congregated in the temple court areas, which were large space outside of the inner sanctuary where sacrifices were made.

These guards do the work for the chief priests, who did not view Jesus as Messiah.  Alarmed that Jesus would be given praise for a healing that takes place within the temple, the priests bring John and Peter before them, asking for an account of this healing, while also warning that this message should not continue.  The people who listen to John and Peter’s explanation are impressed by their coherent message, despite their lack of formal education.  Readers might be brought back to Jesus’ instructions for his disciples as they are sent out:
   Be on your guard against men, they will hand you over to the local councils and flog  
   you in their synagogues.  On my account you will be brought before governors and
   kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.  But when  they arrest you, do not worry   
   about what to say or how to say it.  At that time, you will be given what to say, for it
   will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
   --Matthew 10:17-20

The religious leaders order John and Peter to be silent, but do not ultimately agree on a formal punishment because the man who had been healed had brought such celebration among the people.

When Peter and John return to the believers to report what had happened, and the people join together in prayer.  It is a prayer spurred by questionable action by the authorities, and the people feel afraid and in trouble.  The prayer gives us clues for how to pray in times of trouble.

This prayer from the believers includes several important elements:
  • The Acknowledgement of God and his character
  • Viewing oneself in light of God’s work in history
  • Scripture
  • Placing one’s prayer in light of Jesus Christ
  • One’s request
  • The results of praying are listed.

  • The Acknowledgement of God and his character
“Sovereign Lord, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (v. 24)
  • Viewing oneself in light of God’s work in history
“You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our Father David” (v. 25)
  • Scripture
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his anointed One.” (v. 26)
  • Placing one’s prayer in light of Jesus Christ
“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.  They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (vs. 27-8)
  • One’s request
“Now Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch our your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your Holy Servant Jesus” (vs. 29-30)
  • The results of praying are listed.
“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v.31)

You are encouraged to review this passage as a model for your prayer in times of trouble.  I offer a couple of examples which include the elements of prayer identified in Acts.

A prayer for a work trouble:
Lord God,
            You worked and rested from your work.  And you have called your children to
work for righteousness and life in your world.  Thank you for your call upon my life, for giving me a job to do, and for the work that is before me.  Your Word says, “that whatever I do in word or deed, to do it all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.  Thank you for his example that guides me now.  He is the Master and I am the disciple.  Lord, please help me with my problem at work.  I feel anxious, but may your Spirit help me to do what is right.  Thank you in advance for your help in whatever comes of this situation.

A prayer for health trouble:
            Almighty God,
You are the Creator of heaven and earth, and all creation will one day give you praise. Thank you that you have been my God, throughout many different seasons of life.  You have watched over me, just like you have watched over the generations.  Your Scripture says that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, a place where you dwell.  Jesus knew and experienced bodily suffering.  I think of him in my time of need.  Lord, I ask your help for my body, for its ailments and the difficulty I endure.  Thank you for your care throughout all the days of my life, and the promise of the life to come. 

I Samuel 1
The story of Hannah giving birth to Samuel is a story of that universal human response to pray when we want something that we do not have. 

The story is different from the Acts passage in that it is not a universal model for how to pray, but rather, one contextual example of how a faithful believer prayed.

During a dark period in Israel’s history, when the Philistines ruled over the remnant of God’s people, hopes for a king gained momentum in the midst of the day’s moral chaos.  We are introduced to a man named Elkanah, who has two wives, and one of them, Hannah, is barren. The story of Hannah’s prayer emerges from a pain that one has lasted “year after year”.  It has caused her pain in her diet, her countenance and her relationships.  And in the midst of this pain, and her desire to get out of it by way of a having a child, a prayer develops.  It is a pray that comes out of a bitterness of soul and out of fear.  But it is also a pray so pure and heartfelt that a vow to God is promised.  “If you give me a son, I’ll give him back to you”. 

This story reminds us that when we pray, we pray to God.  We do not toss our words out into an empty universe or broken system.  We deliver our words and prayers to a living God, one who hears and answers, having already known every prayer before a word was spoken. When we look at Hannah in this story, it is clear that she knows who she is praying to:  I Am Who I Am:  the name of Almighty God.

And when she receives a positive answer to her prayer, she does forgot the one who gave her answer.  She goes to great length to have her son’s name document the work of God.  Samuel means “Heard of God”.  God had heard.  God had answered.

Hannah also fulfills her vow that was included in her deep prayer to God.  After nursing Samuel, he is brought to the temple and becomes a servant in God’s holy place.  This causes Hannah to testify to the Lord’s work and give glory to God.

Three years before Hannah brings Samuel back, a priest named Eli, who possibly had long ago forgotten why he had become a priest, in a moment of anger and perhaps apathy, told Hannah, “Whatever you had asked God will give you”.  Hannah returns with the answer to her prayer, and approaches Eli, “I was that woman who stood here praying”.  She looks back at how God was there in those various moments of her story:  in the pain, and in the promise, and at her son’s birth and now at his place in God’s work.

Hannah teaches us that prayer which comes out of a deep and holy place.  Out of the depth of our souls, God does hear.  And in ways in which we cannot possibly fathom, God answers.  Samuel grows up to be the Lord’s prophet, and anoints King David, whose descendant is Jesus Christ.  God was answering Israel’s prayer by answering Hannah.

Matthew 6:5-15
In his teaching, Jesus reminds us that prayer should be rooted in God, and God alone.
Prayer is about God, and not other people’s responses.
Prayer is about God, not about attention.
Prayer is about God, not reward.
Prayer is about God, who is unseen.
Prayer is about God, not the words we use.
Prayer is about God, a caring heavenly Father.
Prayer is about God, and the right relationship we find in him.

The Path for Disciple’s Prayer Column calls us to surround our prayers with helpful tools.   These tools include intentional time, journals, prayer chains and prayer groups.

More time means more prayers for a broader audience, not more time to pray about yourself.

A journal allows you to record the works of God, how you have seen God answer your prayer.  It slows you down, to pay attention to God, and not to mindlessly or carelessly forget and move on to the next immediate thing in life.

A prayer chain allows you to join others in your time and convenience in a common prayer.  A prayer group allows you to join others in the same space for common prayer.

Even a prayer made from the solitude of your closet, is one that is surrounded with care, emotion and effort.  And a prayer made with the knowledge and awareness of the Lord is surrounded by his loving hands, listening ears and providential care.

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