When’s the best time to pray?
Revelation 8: Smoke billowed up from the incense-laced prayers of the holy ones.
The seventh seal marks, not the end, but the beginning of a series of judgments about the fall on the earth. Things are about to get bad, with huge events coming to earth, each announced by the blast of a trumpet. The sober nature of these events is underscored as a foreboding silence falls in heaven. Before that first trumpet blast John sees an angel carrying a gold censer. The scene in heaven is one of worship at the Temple and the angel with the censor is in the role of priest. The offering, made with incense, is the prayers of God’s people. Even as the judgment of God is about to be poured out on the earth, the prayers of his people are heard. Obviously, there’s a lot going on in this passage and Bible scholars are pressed to the limit to explain all the symbolism. I don’t claim to have any deep insight into the meaning here. However, I do note that before bad things ever start happening that God’s people are praying and that he’s listening to their prayers. While I doubt that the purpose of this passage is to encourage prayer I do see here an example of the importance of it. Of course we should pray when “something like a huge mountain…is flung into the sea” of our lives. However, it’s a good idea to already do some praying before such earth shaking events (literally in this case) start happening. God’s people need to pray before, during, and after unwelcome life events.
Take Away: Prayer matters.
The most powerful force on earth
James 5: The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.
One righteous person praying is the most powerful force on earth. It’s true you know. Prayer is the most powerful and most underutilized force available to us. Righteous praying influences the God who’s already inclined to bless us. I think I believe this but tend to not act as though I believe it. Prayer’s more an “add on” to what matters to me. I sometimes do the best I can do and then toss in a prayer for good measure. In doing it that way I do it exactly backwards. What I need to learn to do is pray first and then add my efforts to it. James’ example of a powerful pray-er is Elijah. This righteous man prays for rain, and then, when he sees the first evidence that his prayer is being answered, takes action, preparing for that answer to come. His template, then, is: pray first, then, stop praying and start acting as though that prayer is being answered. I really do believe that Elijah is correct in this but all too often I don’t act like it.
Take Away: Pray first and then act.
Praying in times of pain or confusion
James 1: If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help.
James writes his letter to Christians in general, scattered throughout the region. His writings might be labeled “common sense Christianity” because he covers many topics and always in a reasonable, “tell it like it is” way. For instance, he doesn’t deny that hard times have come to many of them but at the same time he tells them that such an unwelcome set of circumstances isn’t all bad. In fact, they can rejoice when, in the midst of trials they catch themselves responding as genuine people of faith. As hard times continue they can be pleased as they realize that they’re handing such times better than they would have earlier on. It isn’t fun to go through hardship, but there’s reason to rejoice when I realize I’m responding as I think Jesus would and that I’m maturing in my relationship with him. James knows this sounds like so much gibberish to many people; outsiders for sure, but also to some believers who’ve concluded that if they’re faithful to the Lord and trust in him things will always go well for them. The Apostle has some advice for that crowd too: pray about it. If I’m in a fix and can’t imagine how God can work in such a disaster, I don’t have to pretend I’m handling things just fine. Instead, I can turn to the Lord and confess that I’m having a hard time seeing him anywhere in all this mess. James is absolutely sure that the Father will hear and respond to such a prayer. I guess it would be better if my first response was the best one, but if that doesn’t happen, the next choice is a good one too as in absolute honesty I run to the Father, telling him I just don’t get it and I sure don’t like it. After all, James assures me, “God loves to help.”
Take Away: It’s encouraging to catch oneself responding to an unwelcome situation as we believe Jesus would respond.
1Timothy 2: The first thing I want you to do is pray.
So, Paul, that seasoned Apostle, missionary, and pastor has some advice for his young pastor friend Timothy. Everyone, pastor-types and regular church folks, leans forward to listen to what he has to say. What’s of first importance? What is Timothy to believe in first of all? Paul zeros in on prayer. For this young pastor the lynchpin of his ministry isn’t preaching well-constructed, well-delivered sermons. It’s not church administration or solid doctrine or even visitation. He’s to be a man of prayer — an expert at it. Paul wants him to pray for people he knows and for people he doesn’t know. He’s to pray for their salvation and, if they have authority, to pray that they’ll rule successfully, maintaining peace in the land. Paul sets for Timothy an example and now Timothy is to set an example for his congregation at Ephesus. As a result, the men and the women in his congregation will focus on prayer. Let’s take these instructions to heart. Let’s “pray every way we know how.” Let’s remember that prayer “is at the bottom” of everything we do. Who knows what might happen as God’s called ministers and their congregations give themselves to fervent, persistent, faith-filled prayer!
Take Away: Prayer is to be our number one agenda item.
Sometimes God answers right now!
Acts 12: The house was packed with praying friends.
Herod decides it’s time to put the followers of Jesus in their place. He murders one of them, James, brother of John. Then he arrests Peter, intending to publicly execute him. However, Herod has heard some of the stories of miracles and he well remembers how the body of Jesus somehow escaped the tomb so he assigns sixteen guards to the fisherman. Two are actually chained to him. Meanwhile, the Church prays like it’s never prayed before. God hears and sends an angel to rescue Peter from the jail and the clutches of wicked Herod. Poor servant Rhonda gets the laugh line every time this story is told. She gets so excited that their prayers are answered that she leaves Peter standing in the street. I’m sure she laughed about it herself in the years to come. When God answers prayer like that, in such a surprising and timely way, even the most faith filled prayer warrior might get a bit confused. I can just imagine years later as various people who were present at that prayer meeting gather with friends for prayer. Someone brings a seeming impossible request, maybe with a bit of defeat already mixed in. That’s when one of those prayer warriors from this passage speaks up. “Don’t count God out. Why, I remember a time when Peter was being guarded by sixteen soldiers….” Everyone already knows the story but no one wants it to stop. Answered prayers feed faith. We need to cherish some of the really good answers and draw strength from them. In fact, we need to use them to encourage those who need a “faith-lift” as they pray over some difficult situation.
Take Away: Answered prayers feed faith.
Acts 4: Take care of their threats and give your servants fearless confidence in preaching your Message.
The “silver and gold have I none” healing of the lame man gets the attention of everyone, including the religious leaders. Peter and John are arrested for starting a riot, but the city has caught “miracle fever” and the leaders are in danger of having a real riot on their hands if they don’t let the “miracle workers” go. The disciples are seriously warned to stop talking about Jesus and then let go. Victoriously, they return to the gathering of believers, telling all that has happened. Knowing that these leaders don’t make idle threats, the Church goes to prayer. On one hand, they ask the Lord to deal with their threats. On the other hand, they ask him to fill them with “fearless confidence in preaching.” If the Lord will, then, they seek an easy path in proclaiming Jesus. However, easy or not, they ask for boldness in telling about him. Luke reports that as they pray there’s a “mini-Pentecost” as the ground trembles and the Holy Spirit re-fills them. Out the doors they go in Pentecostal power to tell the story of Jesus. It may be that we go about this “telling” business all wrong. We tend to focus on the “make it easy for me” part rather than the “make me bold” part. There’s nothing wrong with asking the Lord to open the way, after all, that’s what happens in this passage. However, we might just see a more powerful display of the Holy Spirit in our lives if we backed it up by praying the “easy or not, make me more bold” part of the prayer.
Take Away: Maybe we lack boldness because we don’t ask for it.
Listening to Jesus pray
John 17: Father, it’s time.
This great prayer of Jesus has three parts. The first section concerns our Lord’s relationship with his Father. All that has happened and will happen is done for the purpose of displaying the glory of God, a glory shared by Father and Son; a glory that has existed since before the world began. Second, Jesus prays for his disciples. He’s going to depart, but they’re going to stay. His purpose of bringing glory to the Father will now be their purpose. Jesus prays that everything about his disciples will accomplish that purpose and that they’ll be protected from all that might distract from their mission. Third, Jesus prays for future believers. Again, there’s a prayer for unity of heart and purpose. Our Lord prays that the believers will give evidence that Jesus is the one sent from God because of his love for us. Jesus concludes his prayer by asking the Father to gather all believers to himself, where they can bask in the glory of the Lord, united in love for God and for one another. This passage, my friend, is holy ground. We’re allowed to listen in to a conversation within the Godhead. We witness the Son’s communion with the Father and then, we’re invited into the conversation. It’s humbling to be allowed in this place today.
Take Away: God’s people are considered “insiders.” What an honor!
Loved by God
John 16: The Father loves you directly.
Jesus has prayed for his disciples and he’s going to pray for them again. In fact, his great High Priestly prayer is about to begin. Still, he encourages his disciples to “make your requests directly to him” promising that the Father is ready and willing to hear and answer their prayers. The reason for this is because of their relationship with Jesus. Three years earlier they met Jesus. Some were out in the wilderness where John was baptizing; others were in Galilee as they went about their daily activities. They’ve now followed him for three years and during that time they’ve come to believe Jesus is the Son of God. In these final hours before everything changes, Jesus tells his disciples that the Father is quite pleased with them for believing in his Son. They’ve left all to follow him and they’ve loved Jesus and trusted in him and, because of that, their relationship with the Heavenly Father has changed in a wonderful way. From now on, when they pray to the Father, they’re authorized by the Father, himself, to pray in the Name of Jesus. They’ve loved Jesus, and now, the Father loves them all the more for it and they’re about to reap the benefits of being people who please the Father. I’m nothing close to equal to Peter or James or John, but I have this in common with them: I too love, trust, and follow Jesus. Because of that, in spite of my unworthiness and failure to really understand all that it means to me, I have the assurance that the Father “loves me directly.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I’ve had just a taste of it and what I’ve tasted is very good.
Take Away: It’s a powerful thing to be a person with whom the Father is pleased.
Don’t leave home without it
John 14: Whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I am doing, I’ll do it.
Some of the most empowering words ever spoken are those of our Lord as he prepares his disciples for the soon coming events in these closing days of his earthly ministry. The clock is ticking and soon their world will be rocked in ways they can’t imagine. Still, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. As a result of all that’s coming they’ll do even greater things than what they’ve seen Jesus do. I think Jesus is speaking to them as a cooperate group and not as individuals. They won’t all go out and be messiahs in the world, but together, as the Church, they’ll transform the world in the Name of Jesus. They won’t be alone in their task. Jesus is sending the Holy Spirit, his Spirit, who’ll not only be with them but will be in them, empowering them to do his work. When they run up against impossible situations that threaten to stop them from carrying on his work, all they’ll need to do is call out to him and he’ll make the impossible possible for them. This “asking in Jesus’ Name” isn’t an open credit card that they can use for doing anything they want. Rather, this is all about ministry empowerment. Jesus wants them to carry on his work in this world, bringing the Good News of the Gospel to every nation. He promises them power for the task and he tells them that he’ll never be more than a prayer away. This may not be an all-purpose “credit card” but it is, I think, a mighty fine “Master’s Card” that I need to use more often.
Take Away: Jesus has provided us exactly what we need to do his work in this world.
Bible studies and prayer meetings
John 5: These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you.
It all starts when Jesus heals a lame man with the order to pick up his bed roll and walk. The wonderful miracle is lost on the religious leaders because it takes place on the Sabbath. Never mind the miracle, they insist, what’s this about telling people to carry things on the Sabbath? Pitiful, isn’t it. When these leaders angrily challenge Jesus he does nothing to calm them down. Rather, he identifies himself with his Heavenly Father and claims his support and direction in all he does. How in the world do they think they can win an argument with the man who just worked a miracle? Jesus moves on to point out that they, Bible scholars that they are, know all about what the Scriptures say about the Messiah. He tells them it’s time to get their heads out of their Bibles and look in the eye the one testified about by those very Scriptures. Silly religious leaders! They’ve given their lives to knowing God’s Word and have now missed the Living Word of God standing right in front of them. How could they ever think that Bible study is better than fellowship with the Lord who is right there with them? I’m glad we Christians today know better. We’d rather spend five minutes in the literal presence of the Lord than an hour of debating some obscure term from the Bible. Right? I know, I know, there’s a place for both. Still, I can’t help but note that Bible studies are generally better attended than prayer meetings.
Take Away: It’s better, if one must decide between the two, to know Jesus than to know the Bible. Happily, we don’t have to decide.