Sunday, November 20, 2011
Article: The Power of Prayer
A sermon delivered on July 17, 2005 by Rev. John Schmidt of Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A. (source link here).
Debbie and I took on a project. We decided to tile the bathroom; to tile the floor of the bathroom. Now I want you to know that we did an outstanding job. It was a 3 x 5 area and we are talking about a tight three or four tiles and it was done, but we did a wonderful job, and the reason is not because we were particularly skillful at it, but because we bought the right tools, particularly a tile cutter. It made all the difference in the world. No matter what the project is, having the right tools really makes it work better. If you are working on a flat tire, you better have a jack. I don't know of any reasonable way of getting around that. You have got to have a jack. If you are going to sew, whether you are working with a machine or by hand, you have to have a needle. The needle is the essential tool for sewing; that and the thread.
Well, we have a task as a body, as a church. Our task is to change the world one life at a time. It's a huge task, but it's the reason we have people that go out from this congregation and serve in other parts of the world. CB is out there in Haiti because she believes that God is changing the world. That's the reason why C and K are in Cameroon. That's the reason why GH went to Indonesia. That's the reason why we share with the people in our workplace or around their homes, that's the reason why we give to mission work, that's the reason why we work with the homeless or with battered women. This is all part of something that God is doing and we feel like we are a part of it, and we want to see people who have needs to have those needs met. We want to see them hear the gospel and then we want to see their lives change from that, and then they become part of God's church representing the kingdom of God in this world. And that's part of Jesus' own vision because Jesus said that we are to go out and make disciples of all nations, a global vision. But, if we have something that huge to do, it is important that we keep in mind what our essential tools are to get this thing to happen and to change lives, and to change the world, the most essential tool is prayer.
I think that more than any other generation this is a very difficult thing for us to believe, because we can do so many things without prayer. Think about 200 years ago if somebody was sick and had chills and a fever, you bring some cool towels to cool them down, you give them some blankets for the chill, you may be given an herbal remedy of some sort and then you pray, God please heal this person, because there would be that sense of incompleteness and desperation, God help them. But think about it now if you have a fever and chills. Well you go and if things are bad enough you go and see the doctor and you get antibiotics. If things are really bad you go get x-rays and MRI, you get blood work, they have targeted drugs that work on specific kinds of illnesses and after we do all of these things then we say, "Oh yeah, and by the way God, please heal this person." It's so easy to think that way because there is so much we can do that's effective.
It's the same way when we talk about reaching out as a church in this area or whether we are reaching out overseas. There are so many things we have the power to do. If we are concerned about reaching other people, well lets give better amplifiers and better equipment up here. Maybe we can get a better sign or do a market study. Maybe start CD ministry, DVD's, put something on the Internet. If its overseas, well we can go overseas now by plane and we can be there by tomorrow and we can send teams there to do stuff. We've got money. And so we have so much power that it's very easy in the church as well to think, well there is so much we can do, but it's important to remember that when it comes to the essential things, all the other things we can do without prayer is totally inadequate, and it will never, ever get the right job done. Prayer is the essential tool that God has given. Now God is going to use our technology, use our gifts, use our money, use our buildings, use our equipment, all of that is great, but we have to learn how to pray.
Now to have a sense of where prayer fits into the whole picture we need to get a heavenly perspective on just how critical prayer really is. Now, when we experience prayer, when we experience ministry, there are times that it's absolutely clear how important prayer is. There was a time when a missionary named Irene Webster Smith was working in Tokyo. This was about the time that I was born. She was working in Tokyo and she was working with a group like Inner Varsity, but in Japan. They needed a center for the student work in the city, and so she went and talked to a Japanese woman about a piece of property there in Tokyo and the woman said, "I'm sorry. It's not for sale anymore. Someone has already agreed to buy it." And so Irene said to her, "Well, in case it falls through, please let me know." And she gave her the information. The woman said, "It's not going to happen because we already have an agreement." A day or two later the woman contacted Irene Webster Smith and she said, " The deal fell through; so I am offering it to you, do you have the money for it?" At which point, Irene Webster Smith said, "No, I don't. I don't have a penny of it, but I serve a God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. I will pray about it. Would you be willing to take $3,000 a month for the next six months for us to pay?" And the woman said yes she would.
So, on the last Friday of every month, Irene was supposed to make a deposit in the bank and it was to be transferred to the woman's account. And she made that payment, holding on to the verse from the Book of Philippians, the fourth chapter that says, "Don't be anxious about anything but through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your request known to God" and so she did, and so she made the payments month after month. But there came one month that that final Friday came, and she did not have the money. On that day, the bank called her saying, "We are doing an audit and doing some inventory in the bank. We are not taking any new transactions today. Could you wait and do your deposit on Monday?"
On that weekend she spoke to a bunch of American GI's there in Japan and she raised $3,000 for the orphanage that she was working with, and actually it wasn't the orphanage it was the Inner Varsity work. She got $3,000, and went on that Monday and paid the monthly payment. When the work was over, and she had paid for it all and the property was hers, she talked to the woman who owned the property and the woman said to her, "When you said that you didn't have the money, but that God would give it to you, I made the decision to let you do that because I have been a Shinto believer my whole life, and I have made countless prayers and none of them have been answered. I have lost my husband and my sons to the war and I made a decision at that point that if your God would answer this kind of prayer, then I would follow that God. And so at that point, Irene Webster Smith led this Japanese woman to know Jesus Christ.
God answered in an absolutely unassailable way. But there are other times that it's not quite this clear. I think about 20 years ago I was with a small group study and one of the couples in that study their marriage started to fray and they were on the verge of divorce, when they made the commitment, and we made the commitment as a small group. We made the commitment as a small group that we would pray for them everyday and they made the commitment to continue to work on their marriage. They went and got counseling. They had all kinds of arguments with each other, all kinds of times asking each other for forgiveness and we prayed and we prayed. Now that couple is still together now 20 years later. Now is it because they worked hard at it and got counseling, yes. Is it because we prayed, yes. But it is so hard to unravel that and to know how important prayer really was because you are not going to set up some kind of... well, let's not pray for them. They tried to do studies like that on healing, but there are so many questions that are still out there, because so often it's a combination of our effort, our wisdom, our technology, the best things we can do, and prayer that God actually answers in the world. So if we are going to have an idea of prayer, we are going to have to have a heavenly perspective that comes from God telling us how he views prayer and then we can apply that to the complicated things that actually exist in our lives. To do that I want to go to the Book of Revelation. I want to read to you five verses from the 8th chapter so that we can get a picture of God's perception of the importance of prayer. Revelation 8
"When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about a half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who will stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the alter. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden alter before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went out before God from the angel's hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the alter, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake."
Let's pray. Gracious God, we pray now that you will take these words of scriptures and open our eyes to whatever it is you want us to see so that we might respond to your truths in faith and obedience, for we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Okay, we are in the Book of Revelation and one of the characteristics of this book is that it gives us a picture of history, a picture of reality that's in symbols; symbolic language and in pictures. And so there are all kinds of pictures in the Book of Revelation; all kinds of images that we see that gives us a sense of what's actually happening. So some of the things that are happening in the Book of Revelation are actually history. Some of the things that are happening are a process that is always standing behind history, but it's going on all the time and there are other times when we are seeing something that is yet in the future. So the Book of Revelations is filled with these pictures, symbolic language illustrating spiritual realities. Now in this we come in the fourth chapter to the throne room of God. And so here in the throne room we are not only seeing the things that are actually happening on earth, but we are seeing things that behind the scenes. It's as if we are watching a television special, and we are not just seeing the things that are happening on the stage, but all of the things that are happening in the back, backstage where the people are behind their monitors, people with microphones, people that are making decisions about what people will see on the telecast, the cameramen. That's what is happening in the throne room of God.
It's all the things that are standing behind the action that is actually happening on the earthy stage. In this section, prayer is mentioned three times. Three times from Chapter 5 to Chapter 8 prayer is mentioned. The first time happens in Chapter 5 and it's Verse 8. "And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the lamb . Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full in incense, which are the prayers of the saints." So here in this picture, remember we are looking at spiritual reality through pictures; here is this picture of a censer, which is a bowl or some kind of an object that allows the incense to loft into the air. This is identified with the prayers of the saints and it's before the throne of God and the alter of God.
Now we go to the 6th chapter and we get a picture of what the prayers content might be. Chapter 6 around verse 9. "When he opened the fifth seal I saw under the alter the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, "How long Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" So here we get a sense of the content of what some of these prayers are all about. There is this picture that there is an alter and underneath the alter, which is an exalted placed, there is actually these people who have died for their testimony to Christ, and the cry that was on their heart before they died is still on their hearts at this point. "How long God until you bring justice, until you vindicate us and show the whole world that we didn't die in vain, that this is true, that justice will come, and that we follow Jesus Christ and that was good." So this prayer is coming up before God in the throne room of heaven.
Then we come to Chapter 8. Now up to this point there is all kinds of activity there before God. In fact, between Chapter 4 and Chapter 7 there are all kinds of passages that are the foundation for many of our praise songs and hymns. There are spontaneously prayer and praise erupts in heaven and creatures of every imaginable variety are praising God, holy is the lamb, worthy is the lamb, holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts. This is constantly happening before God and yet here at the start of the 8th chapter everything becomes silent.
Just last week in London in honor of the people, who had died in the bombing, the whole country had two minutes of silence. During that time it is my understanding that they even stopped train lines, and buses, and all. I know they stopped the planes from taking off and landing those two minutes. Silence all across the nation in honor of those who died. Here in heaven before God there is silence for half an hour. Something major is happening. You see, up until this time there has been a series of escalating events. There were seven seals that have been broken and at this point in the book, the seventh seal, the final seal is broken and from that comes seven trumpets and what's happening is this escalating series of events that's leading to the judgment of the world, the end of history as we know it. So the seventh seal has been broken, and then we see seven angels who stand before God, and two of them were given seven trumpets, and it's at that point that they are silence.
Now I want you to take a look at Verse 3.
"Another angel, who had a golden censer came and stood at the alter. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden alter before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand."
So here we are at the hinge point of history, the seventh seal is open, the seven trumpets are revealed and about to take action and at this point again we have this censer and the prayers of the saints rising up before God. Now take a look at Verse 5.
"Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the alter, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake."
At this point of history the image is that this angel takes the prayers that are rising up before God and takes that censer that represents our prayer, and takes it and hurls it upon the earth, and out of that moment come the judgments that lead to the end of the world. So here in this picture of God bringing full and final judgment on the earth, right in the center of it is this image of our prayers. It's not just the prayers of that five-minute period that people happen to be praying. What does time mean in heaven anyway? This represents all the prayers over all the ages of all the saints, all the times that people have cried out, "How long O God until there is justice on the earth? How long God before this changes? How long God are you going to allow children to suffer? How long God are you going to allow things to happen in people's lives like this?" All of that scattered by God and cast on the earth and it's the beginning of the end. Nothing has been lost. Nothing has been forgotten.
This is the picture of how incredibly important it is for us to be praying because God has chosen that prayer is going to be part of what he uses to end history as we know it. It's part of creating a new heaven and a new earth. It's part of bringing in the kingdom that he taught us to pray, thy kingdom come thy will be done. Every time we pray that we are sure we are praying that evidence of that happens now, but we are also praying for this event to happen. When all those prayers, over all those years, are used by God in judgment. It's an incredible image of what God does in prayer. And I think what is important for us to remember is that it is not just at the end of history that God uses prayer like this. This is an image of some of the reality that is behind all of what we do. Sometimes we pray prayers. Now, sometimes we pray prayers that God actually has to change, and so as we pray it across time, God actually changes our heart and we realize that what we were praying for first we don't even want to pray now. But other times we pray something that we know is in the will of God and yet we still don't see the answer. And what this shows us is that this is not lost on God. Sometimes it's long after we have given up hope that God actually answers. If you think back on the life of Elizabeth and Zecariah, two great saints that preceded Jesus Christ. These people had prayed for a child all through their childbearing years and it was only when they were too old to bear children that God actually gave them a son, John the Baptist.
Now, all of our prayers aren't answered in ways we understand. There is a mystery about it all. There are confusing things that don't all come together, but the fact is that behind it all we are sure that God is hearing, and God is understanding, and God is remembering our prayer. Now if prayer is this important, if at the right time God is going to take these things we have prayed and use them in ways that exceed our understanding, if prayer is that important, what are the sort of things that we are praying about? Are we taking seriously the kinds of things that we can unlock on earth, the kinds of things we can shut up on earth, to bind and to loosen, are the kinds of images that Jesus gave that were in the power of the church as it prays? Are we praying for our children, for protection, spiritual and physical and for change to happen in their lives? It's very important that we establish a good solid Christian home. What we do day- to- day, send them to the right schools, all of these things are important, but it's absolutely essential that we pray. We need to be praying for our church leaders, because behind every leader there is a normal life with all of the complexities and ugliness and messiness. We need to be praying for these people so that they don't fall into temptation, so that they aren't hurt, so that they grow and have wisdom. We need to be praying for government leaders, that they will value peace and justice and make wise decisions. We need to be praying for the outreach of the church, for missionaries.
There is nothing too small and there is certainly nothing too big to be praying about. And it means we also have to take advantage of the opportunities we have to pray together. We have two prayer meetings on Wednesdays. We have prayer meetings on Saturdays. We have a prayer meeting coming up in September on Friday, September 23; we have an overnight prayer meeting coming up. We are going to spend all night praying for this churches ministry and for Baltimore. We are also hoping to start some new prayer ministries in the year ahead of us. One of them is going to be an E-mail prayer ministry. If you want to be a part of that you get some E-mail about specific things to pray for. If we are going to be a praying church, we talked about being a praying church, but the only way we are going to be a praying church is if each individual here learns how to pray. There has got to be some reality behind what we say, when we say, that we value prayer.
There are times that God strips away all the technology, strips away all the personal ability, strips away everything so it's absolutely clear and beyond all doubt that it's his power at work through prayer, because that's the essential reality that's behind it all. And I want to share with you one story about the unimaginable power of prayer itself.
This is a story from a missionary in Central Africa named Helen. One night in Central Africa I had worked hard. She was a doctor. I had worked hard to help a mother in the labor ward but in spite of all that we could do she died leaving us with a tiny premature baby and a crying two year-old daughter. We would have difficulty keeping the baby alive. We had no incubator. We had no electricity to run an incubator and no special feeding facilities. Although we lived on the equator nights were often chilly with treacherous drafts. A student midwife went for the box we had for such babies and for the cotton wool that the baby would be wrapped in. Another went to stoke up the fire to fill a hot water bottle. She came back shortly in distress to tell me that in filling the bottle it had burst. Rubber perishes easily in tropical climates. These bottles don't grow on trees, and there are no drug stores down forest pathways. "Alright, I said. Put the baby as near the fire as you safely can, sleep between the baby and door to keep it free from drafts and your job is to keep the baby warm."
The following noon as I did on most days I went to have prayers with many of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me. I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby. I explained the problem about keeping the baby warm enough mentioning the hot water bottle. The baby could so easily die if it got chilled. I also told them about the two-year-old sister crying because her mother had died. During the prayer time a ten-year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt consciousness of our African children. Please God she prayed, send us a water bottle. It will be no good tomorrow God, the baby will be dead, so please send it this afternoon. Well, I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added by way of corollary, and while you are about it, would you please send a dolly for the little girl, the sister of the baby, so that she will know that you really love her. As often with children's prayer, I was put on the spot. Could I honestly say Amen to this? I just did not believe that God could do this. Oh yes, I know he can do everything. The Bible says so, but there are limits aren't there? The only way God could answer this particular prayer would be by sending a parcel from the homeland and I had been in Africa for almost four years at that time and I had never ever received a parcel from home. Anyway, if someone did send a parcel, who would put in a hot water bottle. I lived on the equator.
Halfway through the afternoon I was teaching in the nurse's training school. A message was sent there that a car was at my front door. By the time I reached home the car had gone, but there on the veranda was a 22-pound parcel. I felt tears pricking my eyes. I couldn't open the parcel alone, and so I sent for the orphanage children. Together we pulled off the string carefully undoing each knot. We folded the paper taking care not to tear it unduly. Excitement was mounting. Some 30 or 40 pairs of eyes were focused on the large cardboard box. From the top I lifted out colored knitted jerseys. Eyes sparkled as I gave them out. Then there were the knitted bandages for the leprosy patient's and the children began to look a little bored. Next came a box of mixed raisins and sultanas and that would make a nice batch of buns for the weekends. And as I put my hand in again I felt, could it really be, I grasped it and pulled it out, yes, a brand new rubber hot water bottle. I cried. I had not asked God to send it. I hadn't truly believed that he could. Ruth was in the front row of the children. She rushed forward crying out, "If God had sent the bottle, he must have sent the dolly too". So rummaging down to the bottom of the box she pulled out this small, beautifully dressed doll. Her eyes shone. She hadn't doubted. Looking up at me she asked, "Can I go over with you mommy to give this dolly to that little girl so that she will know that Jesus really loves her?"
That parcel had been on the way five whole months, packed by my former Sunday School class whose leader had heard and obeyed God's prompting to send a hot water bottle even to the equator. And one of the girls had put in a doll for an African child. Five months earlier in an answer to a believing prayer of a ten-year-old to bring it that afternoon, from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 65 "And it shall come to pass, that before they call I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear." Do you long for God to work like that in life? Do you long for God to work like that in this church body? I know I do. But to see God work like that we are going to have to learn how to pray.
Let's pray. Gracious Father, you are to be blessed and honored because you have prepared for us an eternal kingdom, a heavenly city, a new Jerusalem and it's something that we see played out in the Book of Revelation and our Lord Jesus has taught us to pray for that kingdom. Right now we pray for the church, that she might be in truth that new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Our Lord Jesus give to the church purity that we might be without spot or wrinkle and we pray particularly for our own congregation. Grant that we might be a sign, here on earth of the church that exists above. We pray for those who lead our church, for pastors, elders, deacons, small group leaders, worship leaders, staff. Fill them with the spirit and wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. Lord, we pray that not just for this church, but for the church in all nations that they might have an effective outreach to people in different lands, people of all tribes and nations and languages. We pray for those who lead our nation that you will give them a sense of honesty and fairness, intelligence, a love of peace, a love of justice and learning. And we pray for the members of our own congregation Lord, for husbands and wives that their love might be rich and grow ever kinder, for children and students that they might grow in every good direction, for people who live alone, that they might find friendship and community as we obey you at the church, for grandparents, and elderly friends that they might have a radius that belongs to those who have walked along with you. We ask for these mercies, we ask for these things believing that you hear, believing that Jesus Christ sits at your right hand, and he is still our Intercessor and it's through him that we pray. Amen.