THE FOLLOWING SERMON WAS PREACHED ON 7TH MAY 2017. IT IS THE FIRST OF A SERIES ON PRAYER, AS WE LOOK FORWARD TO ‘THY KINGDOM COME’ – THE GLOBAL WAVE OF PRAYER BETWEEN ASCENSION AND PENTECOST.
The Church of England, driven by the Archbishop of Canterbury, is calling Christians to come together to pray. It will be taking place between Ascension and Pentecost, with opportunities for people to come together to pray, as well as to encourage us in our private prayers, and to pray as a church.
Leading up to this, we are holding prayer evenings between 7-8pm every Tuesday evenings in our churches. So I really want to encourage you to come to these.
Prayer is one of the most important parts of the Christian life. It is also one of the most rewarding, because we are giving ourselves focussed time spent with God, listening to him as well as bringing our requests to him.
And yet it’s fair to say that prayer is also one of the most difficult parts too. Every Christian you will speak to will say that, in one way or another, they find prayer difficult. I doubt there’s anyone who really feels that they are expert prayers. And the reason people struggle with prayer can fall into a number of categories:
- We don’t have time to pray
- We don’t know how to pray
- We don’t know what to expect from prayer
My plan today is not to address all these areas today, but over the next few weeks, leading up to Thy Kingdom Come, we’re going to be focussing our attention to this important – vital – aspect of the Christian walk: prayer.
And I want us to see how much prayer is at the centre of our own walk with God in Christ, and take our lead from the two passages read this morning: Acts 2 and Matthew 6.
Before we carry on, though, I need to say that I probably struggle in this as much as anyone. So I am not coming at this as an expert. I am a student of prayer, a novice as much as anyone else. And that’s a good place to be to some extent, as it prevents us from arrogance: this is something I’ve got sorted. I can move on. It doesn’t work like that.
So what do we learn about prayer:
Acts 2:42-47 is important as it shows the priorities of the church. Straight after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell in power on the disciples, giving them the power to speak in other languages God’s praises, and Peter – filled with the Holy Spirit – preached Jesus to the crowd, 3000 people made a commitment to follow Jesus. And so the church was born. Not a new religion, but a fulfilment of all that God had promised from the beginning through the history and people of Israel.
And then we see what happened next, what form the church took in its earliest days. And that’s helpful because we see it at its birth – no additions, traditions or different types of churches, just the church.
And we see that there were four priorities that Luke says they committed – or devoted – themselves to:
- The apostles’ teaching — so listening to God’s word taught and applied. They wanted to grow as disciples of Christ.
- The fellowship – that is one another. They were a community that met together and served one another.
- The breaking of bread – some have seen this as the Lord’s Supper (Communion) which may be part of it – but I think it is more likely talking about hospitality, sharing their lives with each other, and opening up their homes and hearts to each other
- And being devoted to prayer – both public and private.
We’ll spend more time in this passage later after Pentecost. But I just want us to see this morning the shape of the early church. And that shape is still God’s intention for how we are to be. There is more to be said, but certainly not less. This is what the church is to look like, if you strip away everything else.
Prayer was, and is, right at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Now, all religions (and none) pray. That is, I guess, one of the features of the religious person. But here’s the thing: for most people prayer is something that happens in an emergency, or when they want something off God. Or it’s a religious duty.
See if you recognise this. We come to God with our list of people or situations, and we say ‘God, do something about this.’ And then when we don’t get it, we think that God either hasn’t listened, or needs more working on, or is somehow uninterested or unable to help. Do we see what happens? My life is over here carrying merrily along, and God is over here, and I ask God to come and do something about this thing, or to solve this issue. It is something of a caricature, I know. But what we end up doing is treating God like a tradesman, who we call up to fix something. But for most of the time, God hardly features in our lives, until we want something off him.
Can we see how much a travesty that is?
Jesus, when he taught on prayer, began by saying ‘when you pray’ not if. Throughout the Gospels we find Jesus praying. Going off to quiet, remote spaces to pray. What was he doing? After all he was the Son of God – if anybody could get along without prayer it was Jesus, surely? Jesus prayed, and in fact Jesus was perfect at praying. Because prayer is at its core about relationship.
Prayer is one of the great privileges and benefits of the death of Christ for us. Why? Because through faith in Jesus, we are given access to God – the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. And through trusting in Christ we are given the privilege to call God Father. Have you ever thought about how awesome it is to be able to call God ‘Father’. Our Father, which art in heaven.
Jesus compares the different approaches to prayer: first, the hypocrites. They like to be seen by others, and heard; so they prayed loudly and publicly, long words, lots of show. Who were they most interested in? Themselves. They wanted others to see how ‘godly’ they were. But there was no interest in relationship with God.
Then there are the pagans – gentiles. Lots of words, heaped on one another. Why? Badgering their gods into doing their bidding just to shut them up, or thinking that the longer they went on the more likely god was to give them what they wanted.
You are not to be like them, Jesus said. Instead, go into your room where no one can see you. What happens when you are in a room and no-one can see you – you can do anything you like. If you were in a room and nobody could hear you – you can say anything you like. And if you’re in a room and it’s just you and God – you don’t have to pretend, you don’t have to hide, you don’t have to try and impress him. Because he knows you better than you know yourself.
And Jesus says ‘pray to your Father.’ You see, prayer is about relationship with a loving heavenly Father. And I can know God as my Father, only because in the gospel of Jesus Christ, he invites me into his presence. I have no right to be there. Remember when somebody broke into the grounds of Buckingham Palace and got into the Queen’s bedroom? They were thrown out – they had no right to be there. But the Queen’s children and grandchildren can come into her rooms and call her ‘Mummy’ ‘Grandma’. Trusting in the death of Christ for my sins means that God accepts me as a child – as his child – and I can call him Father. And talk to him – listen to him, seek out his will, bring him my requests.
Private prayer – building our relationship with God regularly, commitedly, humbly, expectantly. But there is also public prayer. The Lord’s Prayer tells us that we should pray together: Our Father, who art in heaven.
And when we see the early church meeting together, what they did was pray together. I have to say that there are few more energising and edifying experiences I can think of than being with God’s people praying together. We can listen and learn from one another, and we can together build up our personal relationship with God only as we build up our corporate relationship with God. The two go together. That’s why it’s wrong to think of the church as a place I go to, an event I participate in, and right to see it as the community of faith in Christ that through faith I am part of.
Luke describes the early church in the most extraordinary language: they had everything in common, selling property when the need arose to provide for the poorest of them. They met together daily in the temple courts – praying, proclaiming the gospel, and being together, demonstrating each day that something extraordinary had happened – the Holy Spirit had been poured out as promised. And one of the marks of the church, empowered and filled with the Spirit, is a renewed desire for prayer, both public and private.
Now, where do we go from here? Well, can I firstly really encourage you to come to the prayer meeting (this Tuesday) or next Tuesday. In fact, come to any of them up to Ascension. And then can I encourage you to come to the monthly prayer gatherings.
Secondly, I want to encourage you to pray. And one of the most effective ways to pray is with a prayer diary, bringing things to God regularly and making a note when answers have happened. I have an old Filofax I use for mine. I’m not amazing at remembering it all the time, but it something I’m challenging myself over. Use the Lord’s Prayer as a starting point for your prayers, pausing over each clause. Get your Bible out, and just go through a few verses each day, asking God to help you understand them and then let them lead you into prayer for others. I’m going to demonstrate this when I lead the intercessions this morning, so please listen to how I would do it, which may be very different to how you would do it.
Prayer is a privilege, an honour, a wonderful gift that came at a cost: Jesus died on the cross for us to know God as our Father, and have our relationship with him restored. Prayer is one of the great benefits we have been given. Let’s not neglect it.
Thy Kingdom Come is about making Jesus known, praying for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. It is about evangelism: proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, and seeing lives transformed as they come to know him. And God invites us to join in his kingdom work, by both praying for and proclaiming his good news.
At the end of our reading from Acts, Luke tells us that the people who looked on this community where people were flourishing, where needs were being met, where relationship with God was being deepened, and costly discipleship was on show, were amazed. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. That should be our aim too, not that people come to church, but that they come to Christ. That’s why we pray for people, situations, communities, and ourselves ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’