The power of intercessory prayer
Ezra 9: My dear God, I’m so totally ashamed, I can’t bear to face you.
Ezra and his large caravan of returning exiles are very welcome in Jerusalem. However, it’s not long before Ezra learns that there’s a big problem. The Jews already in the area have intermingled with the other peoples of the area to the point of intermarrying. This is a clear violation of the Law of God and Ezra’s devastated by such blatant failure. He came to Jerusalem to teach people who he believed wanted to learn how to worship God. He assumed that they were already the “people of God” and that they only needed someone to teach them how to live as the people of God. Now he finds that they’ve broken the covenant with the Lord in the most basic way by allowing themselves to be absorbed into the cultures around them. Ezra mourns this situation and then begins to pray. Here’s the thing: his prayer isn’t for “them” as much as it’s for “us.” Their sin, in his eyes is shared by all of their people and his prayer is a cooperate prayer. How often do I pray that way? I pray about “those” bad people who are attacking and tearing down moral values in my society and I pray that I might be protected from “those” evil people who would do me and those I love harm. There’s a time and a place for such prayers, but, taking my cue from Ezra, there’s also a place for cooperate confession. Ezra isn’t married a heathen woman, yet he comes to God “totally ashamed” by this breaking of God’s Law. He tells the Lord, “We have thrown your commands to the wind” and confesses that “we” are “openly guilty.” As he prays this prayer of confession others began to weep and repent – others who have actually done the sinning! Here, I think, is the power of genuine intercession. Ezra identifies himself with their sin and then, they identify themselves with his repentance.
Take Away: There’s power in intercessory prayer.
Numbers 5: Tell the People of Israel, When a man or woman commits any sin, the person has broken trust with God, is guilty, and must confess the sin.
The book of Numbers is about naming names. It also contains considerable practical instruction on how this nation of former slaves is going to function as a People of God. Reading Numbers is not always the most uplifting devotional reading one might do. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth reading here. Instead, we have to do a little prospecting to find the gold. This statement from Numbers 5 is a good example of that. Moses explains to the people the true nature of sin; that it is a breaking of trust with God. It isn’t a mistake and it isn’t human shortcoming. Rather, it’s behaving in a disloyal way toward God. Still, there’s hope rather than condemnation here. In spite of the guilt, there’s the possibility of restoration. First, the sinner must acknowledge his sin by confessing it. No excuses are allowed. The offender must meet the issue head on. Second, restitution is to be made. True to the nature of the book, a practical approach is outlined: restore the full amount of the offense plus 20 percent. The concept is even expanded to include just who is to receive the compensation in extenuating circumstances. As a person who lives under the New Covenant, I’m not bound by the letter of the Law. Still, though, the concepts here apply. To sin is to break trust with God. The first step to restoration is to acknowledge my failure. The second is to make things right. The specific steps to a remedy are different but the concept sounds a whole lot like the Sermon on the Mount.
Take Away: Confession and restitution lead to restoration.
I didn’t mean to
Leviticus 4: If the whole congregation sins unintentionally…they become guilty even though no one is aware of it.
A group of children are playing in the yard when one accidentally knocks another to the ground. Soon there’s lots of crying, some because of pain and mostly because of anger. Mom comes to see what’s wrong. Billy says, “Johnny knocked me down!” Johnny responds, “I didn’t mean to.” Mom tells Johnny to apologize to his friend because, intentionally or not, he has wronged him. In this passage, as the law is given every contingency is covered, including unintentional sins. God tells them that when they fail at some point, even if they don’t know it at the time, that they’re to take action to make things right. In this instance, he isn’t talking about making restitution to a neighbor who’s been intentionally wronged. Instead, the Lord’s talking about making things right with himself. Like Johnny, we tend to stiffen and declare that we didn’t do it on purpose. Our theologians might debate about the level of guilt and work through the definition of sin but they all agree that, intentional or not, failure is an affront to God. Jesus, when he teaches his disciples to pray, instructs them to ask for forgiveness even as they forgive others. When I realize I’ve failed the Lord my response isn’t to be a declaration of innocence. Rather, it’s to be an honest confession and an effort to make things right. For these ancient Israelites that meant they needed to make an absolution-offering. For me, it may only require my sincere confession of failure and apology to the Lord. One thing that won’t work is for me to stiffen up and declare that it wasn’t on purpose.
Take Away: The proper response to a realization of failure is to confess and repent.
An old wrestling injury
Genesis 32: He deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
Jacob has a lifetime of taking advantage of people and Esau is the one who has lost the most to him. Hearing that Esau’s coming with a band of 400 men Jacob fears for his life and the lives of all those with him. He shrewdly prepares for the encounter, sending wave after wave of gifts to his brother and instructs his servants to identify Jacob to Esau as “your servant.” Having done all he can do, Jacob retreats to a place where he can be alone. As he considers his life he finds himself in a wrestling match with a man. Now, all his life, Jacob has struggled with people. His very name means “heel grasper” and he’s lived down to that name, tripping up others to his own advantage. However, this unknown opponent can’t be beat and they struggle through the night. Finally, his opponent reaches out and throws Jacob’s hip out of joint. At that, the wrestling match is over because Jacob can fight no longer. Still, he holds on, refusing to let go. Now, it may be that Jacob knows what’s going on from the beginning or at least through the night he realizes that this battle is of a supernatural nature. As he clings to his opponent he insists on a blessing. In forcing Jacob to say his name his opponent is making him admit that his whole life has been about “heel grasping” – cheating and taking unfair advantage of others. Once Jacob does that he receives the blessing he requests. His days of “heel grasping” are over. From now on, he’ll be known as “Israel” — a man who knows how to get hold of God and hang on. While I understand that Jacob has wrestled with the Lord through that night, I think he was really wrestling with himself. Finally, the Lord had to bring real pain to him to cause him to realize he can never win unless he confesses to himself and to God who he is. What does it take for us to admit our sin and failure? Restoration starts with confession.
Take away: Sometimes the best victory possible for us is admitting our failures and yielding in defeat.
Malachi 3: Return to me so I can return to you.
If my relationship with God is strained or even broken today there’s a remedy. When, like the Prodigal Son, I come to my senses, rise, and return to my Father I find that he’s been waiting for me all along. What a relief it is to know that the Lord doesn’t hold a grudge against me. Rather, he patiently reaches out to me, calling me to himself. When Malachi states this spiritual fact of life to his congregation, someone asks for more information on this “returning” business. Exactly how do they do that? The prophet has an answer ready. A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part. In Jesus’ parable, the Prodigal is honest with himself and with his father. He’s messed up and he wants to make things right. He knows he doesn’t deserve re-admittance into his father’s household as a son, so he’ll take what he can get. That, my friend, is honesty. In this passage, Malachi points out that they’ve been dishonest with God in the stewardship of their possessions. He tells them that, for them, honesty with God means admitting their failure in this matter. This business of bringing sick and blind animals for sacrifice has to be stopped, confessed, and made right. Their practice of shortchanging God with their tithes has to end and be corrected. That’s what repentance is all about: confession and change. Through his prophet, the Lord says, “If you’ll return to me in repentance, I’ll return to you and bless your life in wonderful ways.” When a nation as a whole makes things right with God, Malachi says, it’ll be voted “Happiest Nation” and be known as a “country of grace.” That’s a good place to live.
Take Away: A sure sign that a person’s returning to God is honest repentance on their part.
Daniel 9: All we have to show for our lives is guilt and shame.
As we well know, Daniel is a praying man. Honestly, when I first read of Daniel’s opening his window toward Jerusalem for prayer three times a day I had the impression he had some sort of reverent ritual of prayer. I have nothing against praying the prayers of other people or of repeating prayers that are meaningful to us and I had the feeling that Daniel prayed like that. Now, as I arrive in chapter nine I have the actual text of one of Daniel’s prayers. It’s anything but a ritual of prayer! Here’s a man pouring out his heart to God. Daniel has had a disturbing vision, he’s been reading Jeremiah’s troubling prophecies, and, as he considers these things his heart is broken. I note that Daniel doesn’t pray about “their” sins when thinking of the sins of his people. He sees a nation drowning in sin and, without joining them in their rebellion, jumps right into the pool with them. In other words, Daniel doesn’t piously hover above all the sinners calling them to repent. Rather, he becomes one of them and then begins to plead with God for forgiveness and restoration. His humbleness in identifying with lost people is a powerful picture of intercessory prayer. Also, there’s zero self-justification here. Daniel doesn’t try to explain to the Lord that there’s a righteous remnant left or that he, himself, has never wavered. Instead, he grieves “our sins,” confesses that God is right in judging those sins, and pleads for mercy and forgiveness. I need this lesson because I live in a sinful nation that seems intent on seeing how angry it can make God. At the same time, there are millions who have been swept along by this flow, not so much in rebellion against God as in confusion and ignorance. Like Daniel of old, I pray, “Lord save us. We are sinners living apart from you, lost and without hope. Have mercy on us, not because we deserve it but because you are the God of mercy.”
Take Away: Jesus taught his followers to pray for forgiveness for “our trespasses” – not “their trespasses.”
Admitting personal failure
Isaiah 59: There’s nothing wrong with God; the wrong is in you.
Ever since Adam blamed Eve, and in reality, blamed God, people have tried to pass the buck for their sin. “God’s too strict” or “the temptation is too great” or some other lame excuse is used as a defense for spiritual failure. As a pastor I’ve probably heard more than most. I immediately think of lines like: “I was absent from church for two weeks and no one called me” or “the church just isn’t as spiritual as it ought to be.” Isaiah has heard enough and he reacts especially to excuses that place the blame for spiritual failure on the Lord. He tells his people that the thing that has come between them and God is none other than themselves. It’s their sin that has messed things up and until they admit that things are only going to get worse. Listen, I know that the church has a responsibility to reach out to people; even people who know better than what they’re doing. The church is accountable before God when it fails along this line. However, Isaiah’s message places the blame for personal failure directly on the shoulders of the one who willfully sins against God. Don’t blame God, the church, your spouse, your boss, or your friends for your sin. Take responsibility for your own actions, confess, and make it right. You’ll find that the grace of God is sufficient and that brings a whole lot more peace than making excuses does!
Take Away: Take responsibility and make things right.
God’s response to my need
Isaiah 6: Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.
Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness breaks his heart. In light of that vision any claims to righteousness are blown away. His brokenness brings him to the place of honest confession which is just what the Lord’s waiting for. Immediately, the Lord takes action to cleanse him of his sin. Since this is a vision, there’s a lot of symbolism here. We have an altar of sacrifice with fire, which speaks to us of surrender and purification. There’s Isaiah’s direct reference to his “unclean lips” which refer to, not just a tendency to say the wrong thing, but his whole life, which he sees as speaking in ways that reflect a deep level of spiritual need. The thrilling thing is how the Lord responds to Isaiah’s cry of repentance. A heavenly being touches his lips with the burning coal from the altar declaring the wonderful truth that his sin is “wiped out” and his guilt is gone. Listen, I don’t have to pull some surprising insight out of this passage. In fact, it’s surprising enough just as it is. When I realize the purity of God and see my own deep failure…when I confess it, throwing myself on the mercy God…when I do that, I place myself in the only place where the Lord can help me. I can’t forgive my own sin and I can’t purify my own life, but when I “repent and turn” he immediately does for me what I can never do for myself. There’s no better word from the Lord than “gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.”
Take Away: As I confess my need the Lord does for me what I can never do for myself.