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Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

The literary structure of Mark 1:35-45

We’re back in Mark, and as we’ve already seen Jesus has established a home base in Capernaum, has started his church by choosing leaders and beginning his first house church and has displayed his authority in his teaching, healing and exorcism ministries. In our passage today, 1:35-45, he struggles with the crush of the crowds. Word is getting out about his power to heal and the press of people is overwhelming. We see in our verses how he hopes to counter this, but in the end fails.

Let’s begin with the first few verses that talk about –

Jesus’ purpose in coming: Mark 1:35-39

35And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.

Remember, Jesus has just spent a very long day preaching in the Synagogue, casting out a demon there, and then healing Peter’s mother in law. And then that evening, which in the Jewish reckoning is the next day, many of those in need in Capernaum came to Jesus to be healed and helped; a crowd gathered at the door of Peter and Andrew’s house.

So Jesus likely hasn’t gotten much sleep. And yet he’s up very early in the morning. He does this so that he can find time to pray.

He gets away from the weight of the needs around him to get alone with God. “A desolate place” here doesn’t mean a desert. It means somewhere where people are not. (See also Mark 6:46; 14:32-39 for Jesus at prayer.)

This leads us to the first of three lessons I want to highlight for you today: #1. The importance of prayer. Jesus depended on it as his source of strength and guidance. He needed his power replenished by the Spirit and wisdom as he is about to make a big decision. And if he depended on it, how much more do we need it!  And he models for us that when things get hectic and stressful, this is not the time to cut prayer out of our lives to make things more simple for us. This is precisely when we need prayer the most.

36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.”

You can just imagine that early in the morning the crowds came back to Peter’s house looking for Jesus with the sick and needy. And so Peter and Andrew and then the other disciples wake up and are like, ‘Hey where’s Jesus?’ And they begin frantically searching for him.

38And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Instead of staying in Capernaum and healing everyone who had a need there, after prayer, he decides to expand his ministry throughout Galilee.

And notice the focus, Jesus didn’t come to heal every person. Jesus came to preach the word of the kingdom. As chapter 1:15 says, he proclaimed “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” Healing and miracles are intended to draw attention to the message; to verify that it is true. But they aren’t the end all and be all. They aren’t the point in themselves.

But now in Capernaum the crowds are focused on these signs and not necessarily on responding to the message of the kingdom with belief and repentance.

This brings us to the second lesson from our passage: #2. The Word is more important than healing and miracles. In terms of Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t come to fix people’s earthly needs, even though compassion for needs is important. He came to call people to faith and repentance. And remember all the people he healed, eventually still died. But those that came to faith and repentance experience new life into eternity.

It’s the same with us. We can pray to God for healing, but it’s not God’s purpose to heal everyone now. It’s his purpose to call all to faith and repentance. On the final day we will all be healed. Yes, God heals now and we should pray for it. And God answers, I believe, especially as a sign that the message is true. But he doesn’t always heal now.

And as a church we need to remember this lesson on priorities. Some churches practically abandon preaching the word and seeking a response to show compassion to those in need. Yes, we must show compassion. But our purpose in everything is to call people to faith and repentance.

So along these lines, Jesus goes to other towns and synagogues to minister there, hoping people will respond to his message – not yet being focused on his healing power. But then something happens that messes up his plan.

Jesus heals a leper: Mark 1:40-45

40And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”

Leprosy here refers to several skin diseases, not just what we call leprosy, which is Hansen’s disease. It could even include things like psoriasis and eczema. To have leprosy was to have a serious skin disease, but it was also to be a social outcast, since you would be classified as perpetually ritually unclean (and probably contagious as well).

Leviticus 13:45-46 says this about a leper: he “shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ . . . His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

According to Numbers 12:12 the leper was seen as similar to a corpse. They were the walking dead. And it was held that only a miracle from God could cure a leper. It was like raising someone from the dead (2 Kings 5:7).

Although lepers were to stay away from others, in this case the man ‘understandably’ breaks the rule, because this is not a normal situation. Here is someone who can make him clean. And so he comes right up to Jesus and kneels before him. He has faith that Jesus can heal him, the only question is if Jesus wants to heal him and make him clean.

41Moved with compassion, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” 42And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

 [More people are now accepting the textual variant “Jesus was indignant” (NIV 2011). If this is the correct reading it would mean either that Jesus was angry at the ravages of the disease on this man (Edwards, Judges 10:16) or that he is angry because he knows his plan to focus on preaching and to get away from the crush of the crowds will now be upended by healing him.]

Jesus has compassion on the man. Clearly this was a terrible life he was living. He didn’t turn him away out of revulsion for his condition. He consented and healed the man. He made him clean from his leprosy. Again, Jesus’ amazing healing power is evident. He can heal what others think is impossible to heal and he can do so “immediately.”

Jesus’ compassion is displayed in that while most would run away horrified, he touches him. Now, normally if you touch a leper you become ritually unclean. Becoming ritually unclean wasn’t wrong, it was just a part of life. And as long as you follow the Law to be cleansed you’re fine. But here it’s probably better to say that Jesus transmits his cleanness to the man, rather than saying that the leper transmitted his uncleanness to Jesus. (See also Mark 5:41 ff.).

Our final lesson is: #3. Jesus’ great compassion. Even though the man is an outcast, loathed by all and even though healing the man will make his life harder because he will be mobbed by even more crowds, he does so because he’s moved by concern for the man’s problem.

And we need to remember that Jesus is ever the same. He has the same compassion on us in our times of need and suffering; when we are revolting and filthy. And we can come to him knowing what his heart is towards us.

And in turn we are to have the same compassion on others in need. Even if it makes our lives more difficult. Even if they are people that are considered unclean or outcasts, we are to allow Jesus to touch them through us.

43And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, 44and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

Leviticus 14 outlines the process of being declared clean from leprosy by a priest. Remember it was not just about being healed, he had to be certified as clean by a priest in order to reenter society. Jesus wants this to be a witness to the priests and all involved in this process that Jesus and his message are true.

Notice Jesus’ concern for the details of the Law of Moses. Some portray Jesus, especially in Mark, as indifferent to the Law, but this is wrong as we will see.

v. 43 says that Jesus “sternly charged” the man to tell no one. He’s really serious about this. Perhaps he thought that by the time the leper completed the process of being declared clean, a minimum of 8 days, plus travel to Jerusalem and back for sacrifice, he could finish his preaching tour without being mobbed by crowds looking for healing.

45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.

Before, the man understandably disobeys the Mosaic rules to get to Jesus. And now he ‘understandably’ disobeys Jesus’ instruction. How can he keep quiet about his healing? He’s not only healed, he has a life again. For sure, it’s not right to disobey Jesus here, but we can understand it.

And what he does is not bad in itself – he becomes a proclaimer of Jesus; he spreads the word. It’s just that it derails Jesus’ plan to be able to preach throughout Galilee without the crush of crowds seeking healing.

Finally, notice how Jesus and the leper trade places. The leper was not able to enter any town. But now that he is healed he can. At least once he’s certified as clean. But since he told everyone about this, now Jesus is not able to enter any town. At least not openly. The problem Jesus had at the beginning of story remains. He has to go out to desolate places to escape being mobbed by crowds.

Let’s remember together our 3 lessons:

1. The importance of prayer, especially when life is crazy.

2.  Preaching the Word is more important than healing and miracles or more generally helping meet people’s earthly needs.

3. Jesus’ compassion. Even though the man is an outcast, even though it will make his life more difficult, he helps the man.

Let me end with a question: Who might God bring across your path this week that he wants you to have compassion on,  even if the person is repulsive to you and even if helping the person will make your life harder. Keep your eyes open!

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Last week we began looking at barriers to effective prayer, things that keep us from getting our prayers answered, and also how to overcome these obstacles. Today we look at several more, and we begin with –

4. Wrong relationships with others

What I’m saying here is that we can’t be in right relationship with God, if we’re not in right relationship with others, or at least having done all that we can to be in right relationship with them. Our horizontal (as it were) relationships with other people, affect our vertical relationship with God. They are interconnected. And so broken relationships with others, hinder our relationship with God and thus our prayers to God.

Here’s an example that Jesus taught about, when we wrong someone. Matthew 5:23-24 – “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come offer your gift.” He’s talking about coming into the temple to offer a gift, to worship, to pray to God. And if while you’re doing this you remember that there’s a broken relationship with others, and the context here is that it’s broken by your angry, hurtful, damaging words, go make it right with the other person first, and then come to relate to God. Why? Because it affects your ability to pray and worship.

Another example is mistreating your spouse. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:7 – “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman . . . so that your prayers may not be hindered.” What’s he saying? If you’re mistreating your wife; if you’re harsh in your words or violent in your actions, your prayers will be hindered! [See also 1 Timothy 2:8 speaking to husbands]. And this certainly applies the other way around as well, wives don’t mistreat your husbands.

Indeed, it applies to all our relationships with others, family, neighbors, coworkers, strangers, enemies. How you interact with them can affect your prayer life – if you are treating them wrongly. And so to be effective pray-ers; to be in right relationship with God, so that your prayers are heard you must tend to your relationships. Make sure you are in right relationship with others. And if there’s a problem, do all you can to make it right, from your end of the relationship.

5. Asking God for things, that we don’t give to others

We say, “Oh God, I need your help with this and that. I need your mercy; I have done wrong. Lord, I need you to provide for my material needs.” But then, when others come to us and say “I need your help, I need your mercy, I need assistance with my material needs” – we say “No way!”

There’s a principle here, God won’t give us, what we won’t give to others. God doesn’t tolerate such double standards.

A clear example of this is asking God for forgiveness. Jesus said in Matthew 6:15, “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  We can ask God for forgiveness all day long, but if we’re not giving it to those who have done harm to us and have come to us seeking mercy – we will not get it from God. As the passage says, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

But the promise in Matthew 6:14 is that, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” If you give mercy to those who seek it from you, God will give you mercy when you seek it from him.

This principle that, God won’t give us, what we won’t give to others, is also true in other areas. Take for instance asking God to provide for your needs. Proverbs 21:13 says, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” If you’re someone who turns away others who come to you with legitimate needs, God will not hear you in your day of trouble; God will turn away from you.

But on the other hand, the psalmist says in Psalm 41:1– “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble, the Lord delivers him.” If you help the one in need, God will help you in your day of need. So we should give freely to others, mercy and help, and God will give generously to you.

6. Doubting God and God’s promises

God gives us, in the words of 2 Peter 1:4, “many great and precious promises” that God will care for us; that God will give us his mercy. James 1:6-8 talks about one such promise, praying for wisdom from God. It says, “But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” When we doubt God and God’s promises, it makes us unable to receive what God wants to give us.

Here’s an example of doubt as a hindrance to receiving what God want to give us. Turn if you will to Mark 6:1-6.

1He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” 5And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6And he marveled because of their unbelief.

Faith in God and God’s promises is what opens the door for God to work in our lives. So if we want our prayers answered we need to lay aside doubt, and choose to have confidence in God and God’s promises; to rely on God, who is more reliable than anyone. As 1 Thessalonians 5:24 says, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”

7. A lack of persistence in our prayers

Jesus talks about the importance of this in Luke 18:1-8. This is the story of the woman who kept coming to the judge to ask for justice, who finally received an answer because of her persistence. Luke tells us that Jesus taught in this parable that “we ought always to pray and not lose heart” – v. 1. He taught us in this story “to cry out to God day and night” – v. 7

It’s one thing if God says no, and in biblical tradition you can press God up to three times when he says no – e.g. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Paul praying about his thorn. But if there isn’t a no, go for it!

Why is persistence important? Firs of all, God wants to see where our heart is. Deuteronomy 4:29, says, you will seek and find the Lord, “if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Is this a casual thing, or are we really seeking God for an answer? Our heart is made known in the persistence or lack of it in our prayers.

And also, we are involved in spiritual warfare. There’s a third party involved, and Satan and the powers of evil resist God’s will being done on earth. And our persistent prayer plays a role in overcoming this spiritual opposition.

So let’s not give up as we seek to have God’s will come to pass in our lives and in our congregation.

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Last week we looked at our need to pray so that God can work through us here to grow his kingdom. Today, I want to continue on this theme and offer some teaching that I hope will help equip us to be better pray-ers under the title, “Overcoming Barriers to Effective Prayer” We’ll look at three barriers today – things that hinder our prayers from being effective or even heard, and next week, I hope to share more on this topic.

1. Harboring unrighteousness in our lives

Sin blocks our relationship with God. As Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” In this situation, God doesn’t hear us when we pray.

And that’s because it’s hard to communicate with someone when you don’t have a relationship with them, or especially when there is a broken relationship, unless, of course, you are talking about that brokenness and trying to fix it.

And let me be clear, God’s ears are always open to hear prayers of confession and repentance! No matter what you’ve done. No sin you have committed, no wrong you have done is too great that God cannot give you the mercy of his forgiveness.

But, if we stubbornly hold on to our sin that’s a different thing. I’m not talking here about being perfect. I am talking about willful, known sin that we choose to do and cling to it. We are just plain choosing not to obey. If we hold stubbornly to these sins God will not hear our prayers. God will not respond to us.

  • The blind man whom Jesus healed expressed it well when he said in, John 9:31 – “We know that God does not listen to sinners . . .” that is, those who choose to disobey God.
  • In Psalm 66:18, talking about prayer, the psalmist says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”

Well, if God doesn’t hear us when we cling to our sin, we can say with confidence that God does hear us when we confess and find forgiveness for our sins and when we walk in God’s ways

There are many scriptures that speak to this.

  • The blind man whom Jesus healed also said in John 9:31, “. . . if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.”
  • 1 John 3:22 – “And we receive from God whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”
  • 1 Peter 3:12 – “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.”
  • James 5:16 – “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

All of these passages teach us that the way we live our lives does make a difference in our prayer life.

If this is an obstacle to your prayers, I encourage you, seek forgiveness and then choose to walk in God’s ways. And then, as 1 Peter says, “his ears (will) be open to (your) prayer,” and as James 5:16 says, your prayers will be “powerful and effective” as well.

2. Self-righteousness

We’re talking about “pride” here; a wrongful overestimation of who we are and how good we are. This is the artificial substitute for what we just looked at. It is not the righteousness that comes from God working in us as he transforms our lives, but rather our own deeds done in our own strength to try to impress God and others, accompanied by the attitude that we are better than others.

Please turn to Luke 18:9-14. v. 9 tells us, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” So this is definitely about self-righteousness.

Let me read for you vs. 10-13

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”

So both men came to the temple, the place of prayer. And they both offered up to God their prayers. And as the story tells us God heard the tax collector’s prayer, but God did not hear the Pharisee’s prayer. Why? God does not respond to pride and arrogance

As v. 14 of our  passage says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” The Pharisee received nothing from God. But God does listen to those who humble themselves before him. Again v. 14, “But the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

It is as Psalm 138:6 says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.”  When we are self-righteousness, God keeps us at a distance. But God listens to the lowly when they call out to him.

A final barrier for today is –

3. A selfish focus to your prayers

This is where prayer is really all about you and your desires. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” The context of James 4 has to do with the people’s selfishness, worldly desires, and ambitions. And the point is that God doesn’t answer these kinds of requests.

A good example of this is from Mark 10:35-45. In v. 35 James and his brother John say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Wow! Doesn’t this sound like a lot of what goes for prayer today? And there are some who teach Christians to pray this way.

What did they want? v. 37, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In v. 40 Jesus tells them no. Only God can determine who will be exalted in this way. And in vs. 42-45 he teaches his disciples to forsake this kind of worldly ambition to be over others. Rather they are to lower themselves and serve others.

James and his brother John asked, but they did not receive. And that’s because God doesn’t answer selfish requests. (Or if he does it tends to be in the form of judgment – Numbers 11).

Prayer is about God’s will, not just what we want. What we have to learn and remember is that God is not a Cosmic Santa Claus. And the point of prayer is not to give him our daily Christmas list of gifts we want. God is not here to cater to our dreams, our ambitions, our cravings, and what we covet. The point of prayer is to have God’s will be done.

The second petition of the Lord’s prayer sums this up. Jesus taught us to pray, “your will (God) be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And although God allows us to ask for a change in his will or to reconsider the details, and God may or may not grant it – we ask not out of self-centered ambition, but because we are seeking out God’s mercy and glory in a situation.

Alright, we have looked at three barriers to effective prayer and how to overcome them:

1 Harboring unrighteousness – seek forgiveness and walk in God’s ways

 2. Self-righteousness – humble yourself before God

 3. A selfish focus – pray for God’s will to be done

We’ll pick this up again next week and look at how to overcome several other barriers to effective prayer.

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A call to prayer

I want to talk about prayer today, and the next two Sundays. I’m doing this to help us get focused as we begin to have designated times of prayer for our congregation and the work of God here.

God calls us to work for his kingdom. As a congregation this means we are to be growing in our lives of ministry and service to God and reaching out to others to lead them into God’s kingdom. But when we think about this task, we soon realize that –

We have to pray!

That’s because we can’t do any of this in our own strength. Oh sure, we might be able to do some things through our natural talents and gifts. There are some who have built whole huge churches, but in the flesh. Later you find out they are not even a believer or are involved in something like adultery. And think of the various  cult leaders who have gathered a crowd, and many that still grow today. God is not in this.

What we can’t do in our own strength is what God calls us to do. In the power of our flesh we can’t do anything of eternal significance; we can’t produce fruit that remains

As Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” When God calls us to do something, God has to do it through us. Otherwise we are ultimately working in vain.

Also, we have to pray because there’s a whole realm of spiritual powers out there that stand against and oppose God’s work. There’s a spiritual battle going on. When we try to do something for the kingdom, there will be a response! It might be opposition from the community. It might be disruption in our church through conflict or distraction. It might be attacks on our physical health. Or it might be discouragement because of difficult testing and trials.

Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Once we realize our own weakness on the one hand and the powers arrayed against us on the other, we understand the need and importance of prayer for accomplishing God’s call in our congregation. We understand that, if we want to fulfill God’s call, we need to call on God. If we want to do things for the kingdom, if we want to move forward here with the work that God has called us to, we have to be praying.

As an encouragement to prayer, I want you to –

Know that God truly listens to our prayers

It’s not true that everything is already predetermined by God, so that prayer is ultimately meaningless. Rather, God invites us to work with him in bringing to pass his plan to redeem this world.

And God listens to us regarding the details of his plan for the world, the timing and the scope of who is involved.  God actually listens to and takes into account our input. So when we pray, we are involved with God in changing this world and bringing in the kingdom!

Here are some examples of God listening to people’ prayers. Abraham interceding for Sodom: Genesis 18:16-33. God fully intended to destroy Sodom for its sin. But Abraham prayed. He said to God, if you find 50 righteous people will you spare the city? God said yes! And then he went on to say, if you find 45? if you find 40? 30? 20? 10? And God listened to Abraham and agreed to spare the city for 10 righteous people.

God was willing to change the plan. But, as you remember, there weren’t even 10 righteous people there. But God did spare Lot and his family since, as Abraham had said, the righteous should not perish with the unrighteous.

Moses praying for Israel after the golden calf: Deuteronomy 9-10. God had determined to destroy Israel. Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:25, “the Lord had said he would destroy you.” (Also 9:14; 19). But Moses prayed for Israel. He stepped in and interceded. And Moses said, “The Lord listed to me . . . The Lord was unwilling to destroy you” – Deuteronomy 10:10. What God had determined to do was altered through Moses’ prayer.

Finally, while dying, Hezekiah prayed for longer life: Isaiah 38. The prophet Isaiah came to the king and said, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” Isaiah 38:1. You can’t get any clearer than this! But Hezekiah prayed. And God responded – “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life” – Isaiah 38:5. The details of God’s plan were changed in response to prayer.

In all these examples we learn that God takes into account our prayers in how he accomplishes his will and purpose in this world. Especially when our prayers are shaped by his perspective and purposes. So we need to make our requests known to God. You have the ear of the King of all creation! Are you taking advantage of this; are you speaking?

As further encouragement to pray, not only does God listen to us –

God does amazing things through our prayers

– to work out his plan for this world. We’ve already seen some examples of this, but I want to give you some more from 2 Kings:

  • 2 Kings 4 – Elisha prayed and a boy was raised from the dead.
  • 2 Kings 6 – Elisha prayed and made the Syrian army blind and thereby overcame them.
  • 2 Kings 19 – Hezekiah prayed and God defeated an army of 185,000 in one night, without human help.

God still works in this way. Let’s look at the New Testament book of Acts:

  • Acts 4 – The church prayed and the house where they prayed was shaken and the gospel went forth with power
  • Acts 9 – Peter prayed and a woman was raised from the dead
  • Acts 12 – The church prayed and Peter was released from prison by an angel
  • Acts 28 – Paul prayed and many were healed

James 5:16-18 sums this up nicely – “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Our prayers do make a difference!

It goes on to say, “Elijah was a human being like us.” In other words, he was a weak just like us. Remember how he ran away from Jezebel? He’s no different than us! But the text goes on, “and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.” (NRSV)

Even though we are weak, God can do amazing things through our prayers as well, which leads me to my point today

I’m calling us to renewed prayer

Without prayer we won’t get anything done. But with prayer we can accomplish God’s calling. Paul knew this and that’s why he asked for prayer. He said, “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” -Ephesians 6:18-19.

If Paul needed this prayer, how much more do I need it; how much more do we as a congregation need it! So let’s increase our prayers for God to work among us and through us.

Pray for me, please! Pray for each other for God to stir us up and to empower us by the Spirit for his kingdom work. Pray that God will use us to connect with our community in new and powerful ways. And pray that God will touch and transform lives.

 

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The literary structure of Psalm 13

Psalm 13 is really powerful; full of intense and honest struggle, but also faith. And I want to hold it up for you as a model for when you are being overwhelmed by difficult circumstances.

As we get started, a few words about –

Psalm 13

It is the shortest prayer for help in the book of Psalms. There are shorter Psalms, but these are not requests to God.

In terms of how it is put together, there are three obvious parts to this psalm.

  • In vs.  1-2 the Psalmist pours out his heart to God.
  • In vs. 3-4 he makes his request
  • And in vs. 5-6 he expresses his faith and hope in God

And each of these sections has the name of God or “Yahweh” in it, indicated in English by the capitalized “LORD.”

We don’t know the specifics of his situation, but it involves enemies and the threat of death. This is a Davidic Psalm (written by him or in honor of/about him) perhaps referring to his time in the wilderness hiding from King Saul, who was trying to kill him. Whatever the case may be he is facing a very serious situation and needs God’s help.

Let’s look at the first section, which is a cry of despair.

1How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

There is no indication in these verses that the Psalmist has sinned or has been unfaithful so that his difficulties are the result of this. He is simply in an overwhelming time of testing and trial.

Notice the phrase “How long?” This is used several times in scriptural prayers, but this is the only place where it is repeated four times, and in such a short space. There is an intensity in this prayer in asking this question of God. These questions also show us that it’s OK to ask God questions like this. God can take it. We don’t have to put on a smile, or fake it when we come into God’s presence. After all, he already knows what we are thinking and feeling. We only need be careful that we do this with proper respect for God.

You can feel the raw emotions and the brutal honesty of this prayer as you read these two verses.

  • In relation to God the Psalmist feels abandoned and ignored by God. God has hidden his face, that is it feels like God has turned away and is not looking out for him; he feels that God has forgotten him.
  • In relation to himself he feels greatly distressed within. “Taking counsel in his soul” perhaps has to do with trying to sort out what he should do, since God doesn’t seem to be acting for him; it has to do with anxious worrying. And he has sorrow in his heart.
  • In relation to his problem , his enemy, he feels defeated. His enemy has the upper hand and this means that his life is in danger.

Also notice the time indicators, the “how long?” questions, the word “forever” and the phrase “all the day.” The sense is that he is barely hanging on. He is worn down. He is at the breaking point. The test is so hard that he can’t take it anymore. So if God doesn’t act soon, it will overwhelm him and be too late.

Next we have his request to God.

3Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”

In general, he wants God to consider him or take note of his situation to answer him. He’s saying, ‘God, don’t forget me or hide your face from me.’ He wants God to act to bring him help him in the midst of his difficulty.

Specifically, he wants God to “light up his eyes.” In Scripture to have dim eyes means that you are overwhelmed, weak and weary (Job 17:7; Deuteronomy 34:7). And to have eyes that are lit up has to do with being strong, full of life and vigor (Deuteronomy 34:7; Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 29:13). Even today we can tell how someone is doing by their eyes, right? We can tell whether they are full of energy and life or whether they are worn down and discouraged. You can see it.

So, being worn down by his trials, he is asking God to give him strength, new life, vigor, encouragement and hope.

And he doesn’t just make his request for help, he gives God three reasons to act:

  1. lest he die, because he is in danger of death.
  2. lest his enemy win
  3. lest they rejoice at his downfall

In this situation the Psalmist understands himself to be in the right; he is doing God’s will but is being persecuted by evildoers. And so, yes, he wants to be saved and vindicated, and have his enemies put down. But it is bigger than this. He is appealing to God in all this to act for your Name’s sake. Since he is representing God and the righteous, it’s not good that evildoers think that God doesn’t care about their evil, or about the well-being of his own. He needs to act for his Name’s sake and for the sake of righteousness.

In section one the writer is hanging by a thread. In section two he is asking God to give him strength. And then we have a tremendous change of tone in vs. 5-6 where the Psalmist speaks of his faith and hope.

5But I trust in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

Two things are going on here:

1) He is given strength to trust in God. God has indeed begun to enlighten his eyes, even as he has been pouring out his heart and asking God for help. (It is healing to pour out our hearts to God.)

 Now, instead of seeing just his outward circumstances and choosing to give up, he sees God’s faithfulness; that is his “steadfast love” or “unfailing love.” This is God’s covenant love or commitment to him and his well-being. So he has his circumstances on the one hand and then God’s character and promises on the other and he chooses God. This  is called faith.

2) He now looks forward to God’s salvation; for deliverance from his trial and testing. We know he is not yet delivered because his salvation and rejoicing is spoken of as a future reality. But he can now move forward in faith and hope that God will save him, since his faith has been renewed.

  • Even though he may still have some “sorrow in (his) my heart,” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when “(his) my heart shall rejoice” – v. 5.
  • Even though his enemies are exalted “over (him) me” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when God will have dealt bountifully “with (him) me” – v. 6.
  • Even though his enemies are “exalted” – v. 2 over him and seek to “rejoice” – v. 4 at his demise, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when he “shall rejoice – v. 6 in God’s salvation.

And this will not just be a minor thing. God will “bountifully” deliver and save him.

Finally, I want you to look at –

Psalm 13 as a model prayer

It is a model for when you find yourself in times of testing and are ready to give up. Follow the threefold pattern we find here:

1. Pour out your heart to God. Be honest with God. Express your emotions to God – about how distant he seems; about how you are in inner turmoil; about how your problem has the upper hand. And ask God questions, What’s going on? Why, God? Or as here, how long?God, I’m barely hanging on.

2. Ask God for strength. God, enlighten my eyes. Give me renewed life, vigor, vitality and encouragement. And tell him why; so you don’t give in and fail in time of trial and thus dishonor his Name; so that others will see and know that God is faithful to his own and upholds righteousness.

And then, 3. Receive renewed trust in God to make it through. Let God work a work in you as you pour out your heart and as you make your request known and as you think of his unfailing love for you and commitment to you.

Receive the strength to choose to trust in God and stand on his character and promises despite your difficult circumstances. And having been renewed, look forward to God’s salvation; deliverance from your trial when you will rejoice and sing praises to God.

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(I am working through this material again to get to the rest of the book)

Follow the link for The literary structure of 1 Samuel 1:1-20

This morning we are starting into the story of Hannah found in 1 Samuel, and today we are in chapter 1. She is a strong and godly woman, as we will see, and we can learn much from  her.

Today we begin with –

Hannah’s prayer for a child

What I want to say is that she is an example to us of what to do when you have a really heavy burden. Do you have a heavy burden this morning? Is something weighing on your heart? Keep this in mind as we go through this story and let’s see what we can learn about how to handle these.

By way of orientation, the story centers around two places Ramathaim (Ramah), where Hannah and her husband are from and Shiloh, where the tabernacle of the Lord is at this time (Joshua 18:1). Remember this is before there was a permanent temple building in Jerusalem. These two cities were about 15 miles apart, or a journey of two days by foot with family.

Hannah’s difficult situation

1There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. 2He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

In v. 1 we get some background on Elkanah. (Based on the larger story of Samuel and other Scriptures [1 Chronicles 6:26-27, 33-34; Numbers 3:33] perhaps he was of Levite descent but lived in the area of the tribe of Ephraim.)

And then v. 2 gets to the heart of the issue – “he had two wives.” Polygamy was not forbidden in Israel, even though the Genesis teaching is one man and one woman. It wasn’t too common because a man had to be well off to support more than one wife.

In Hebrew it’s clearer that Hannah was the first wife. In this case Elkanah most likely married Peninnah to carry on the family lineage, since Hannah couldn’t have children. That’s why he has two wives.

If you look at the stories in the Bible that talk about polygamy, they certainly don’t glorify it. It caused problems and this is what we turn to now in our story.

3Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord.

Here we see that Elkanah is a devout man, coming to the tabernacle at Shiloh each year to worship. This appears to be a voluntary pilgrimage beyond what was required by the Law (three visits a year for men on major festivals). So this was a yearly family event, like a “family vacation,” where everyone is together in close proximity. And it caused problems. (That never happens with us, right?) 

4On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. 5But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.

Now meat was not too common for meals in the ancient world. But when sacrifices were made some of the meat and other items were given to the family for a feast (Deuteronomy 12:17-18). And how this was divided up highlights Hannah’s predicament.  Peninnah got more for “all her sons and daughters.” But she got less.

Elkanah did give her a double portion, because he loved her, which most likely means more than Peninnah got for just herself. But it reminded Hannah that she couldn’t have children.

The phrase, “though the Lord had closed her womb” (also v. 6) doesn’t mean that if you can’t have children God is specifically causing this. God allows much to happen in this world that is not his direct or preferred will. Although God may specifically be behind this in Hannah’s life, even here it might simply mean that God has allowed this to happen.

6And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her.

So you can see the family dysfunction – Hannah is beloved but unable to have children. Peninnah has children but is feeling slighted by Elkanah, and so she torments Hannah. A vicious circle. Peninnah is Hannah’s “rival,” an enemy who is very cruel to her. (See the language of “rival wife” in Leviticus 18:18)

Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

This was supposed to be a festive time of celebration, but it became a yearly time of suffering for Hannah.

This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a husband tried to console his wife, without really understanding what she was upset about. In that day it was a real social stigma for a wife to produce no children. Others looked down on her. And who would take care of her in her old age? [The mention of ten sons is possibly a reference to the story of Jacob and Rachel, where he loved her more, but Leah, his other wife, had ten sons, with help from her servant (Genesis 29:31-30:22) (Bergen).]

Hannah’s prayer

9After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.

Different translations render it differently, but it appears that the rest of the family feasted, and when the party was over Hannah, too distressed to eat or drink (v. 7, 8, 15), slipped off to the tabernacle to pray.

The condition of her soul is emphasized, “she was deeply distressed” “and wept bitterly” as she prayed.

11And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Vows are voluntary commitments made to God. They are acts of devotion that go beyond what God requires. They often have a deal quality to them. God if you do this, then I will do this, and you can see that here.

Her vow is that if God gives her a son, then she will give that son right back to him to serve the Lord forever. And in fact, she places the son under a Nazarite vow for his whole life – a special state of consecration to the Lord, so that he can’t cut his hair as well as other restrictions (Numbers 6:5).

Notice the awareness of her lowliness. She is “afflicted” and she calls herself a servant three times. She knows that God listens to the lowly (Psalm 138:6). And she calls on the Lord to remember her in her lowliness.

12As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.”

So she is involved in some really intense silent prayer. But Eli, who is overseeing the tabernacle, mistakes what’s going on. Since alcohol was a part of such festive celebrations (e.g. Exodus 29:40, Leviticus 23:13 and in our own story 1:24) he thinks that she is drunk.

Hannah is quick to correct him, for she did not partake in the family feast. Rather she is praying desperately to God for help. (Notice the contrast – her condition is not from pouring out wine, it is from pouring out her soul.) (Notice the irony – while she is offering up her possible son to be a Nazarite, who cannot touch wine, she is accused of being drunk.)

Hannah’s faith

17Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 18And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

Eli speaks out pastorally – go in peace. And he prays that God will answer her. And this is enough for her. She comes to a place of faith and trust in God and so she can put away her sadness and finally eat. She has “prayed through” as the old phrases goes. Even though her circumstances have not yet changed, she has put her burden in God’s hands and has peace and hope.

This brings us to the end of our story –

Hannah’s prayer is answered

19They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. 20And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”

God did indeed remember Hannah and gave her a son. She names him Samuel, which involves a word play  with the word for “ask” – which is how she got her son from the Lord.

This was a true miracle and it marked the child as special, someone from who great things will be expected. And as we know, Samuel doesn’t disappoint.

Encouragement for us

1. Hannah was in a very difficult situation . . . She wasn’t able to have children which caused others to look down on her and put her in a place of weakness socially. And on top of this her rival tormented her about this year after year. It was so bad that she wept bitterly and was deeply distressed and couldn’t eat. She felt afflicted and forgotten by God. She was troubled, anxious and vexed.

. . . what is your situation? We all go through deep waters that push us to the limit and more; where we feel forgotten and overwhelmed. What is on your heart this morning? What burden are you carrying?

2. Hannah took her problem to the Lord in prayer . . . She poured out her heart to God. She acknowledged her weakness and lowliness and dependence on God. She prayed boldly, even making a vow before God. She prayed so intensely that Eli thought she was drunk. She prayed and prayed until, through the words of Eli, she came to a place of faith and peace – that God would take care of her. She “prayed through.” She connected with God and was able to leave her burden with him and move forward in faith.

. . . we should too! Take your burden to the Lord, cast your care on him for he cares for you. Pour out your heart to God. Pray intensely. Pray boldly. And pray until you connect with God and come to a place of peace and trust, knowing that God has heard you and will take care of you.

3. God took care of Hannah . . . He did remember her, he did help her, he did save her from her situation by giving her a son. She gained a new future, full of hope and life.

. . . and God will take care of us. I can’t say how specifically. It’s not always what we think it will be. For instance, not every godly man or woman who has prayed for a child has received one. But we can say with full confidence that God will hear and act, and be faithful to us as well.

4. God brought something good out of her trial for others . . . God not only answered her prayer, but through her God acted for all of Israel by giving Samuel who will lead the people back to God and new life. It was through her difficulties and her faith that God accomplished this.

. . . God can use our trials to bless others. God can transform our suffering into something that will bless many, many people beyond us. God can bring much good out of our struggles. So don’t give up! Trust God and wait for him to act. He will not only take care of you, he will use your trials to bless others.

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Series on Witness

We are in a series of messages on witness that is meant to challenge us to become more outwardly focused as a congregation. Whether this is helping the church’s mission here in SW Chambersburg or whether it is in your own areas of outreach where you live or work or hang out. As a congregation we need to be less concerned with being comfortable and with what we get out of church, and more concerned with taking risks to reach out and with what we should be giving to others as we reach out.

Last week we began with the letter ‘W’ of the word “Witness” – Why we reach out. And we learned from the Scriptures that our motivation is Christ’s love for people. When we have Jesus’ heart of love we will have a different perspective on people, whatever they might be or seem to be according to the flesh. From the perspective of Jesus’ love they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd and need his salvation and grace.

Well today we focus in on a wrong reason to reach out, and this is the ‘I’ in witness – Idolatry and reaching out. And the idol is the desire to get big; to have a large church, thinking that this is what success means. This is where we idolize growth and getting big as the goal in itself.

Now yes, let me be clear, we very much do want to grow and have people come to know the Lord and become workers for his kingdom. But this can easily and subtly be distorted into an idol. And I think this takes place under the influence of American culture where big is the sign of success. And it comes from using a business model where the bottom line is profit and this is compared to getting more people in the congregation. And it can also just be from envy of other churches that are big and seem to be doing well.

So let me share with you three problems with this thinking:

1. The idolatry of big has a wrong understanding of success

According to this thinking a successful church equals growing and being big. And so if you are not growing you are a failure. But according to the kingdom of God a successful church equals being faithful to reach out, which can lead to growth and being big, but it might not. Do you see the difference in terms of what counts for success? Bigness in itself vs. faithfulness to do what God says whatever the results might be?

That this is true just think for a moment about the parable of the soils. What if a church is in a context where there is rocky soil – trials and persecution, or thorn filled soil – where everyone is focused on the good things of this life? If you are consistently reaching out, but with little or no results are you unsuccessful?

Here’s a more concrete example. What if a church is in a Muslim context and you are consistently reaching out but with little or no results. Does this mean you are unsuccessful?

Here’s an example from our congregation connected to the block party last week. I know a person who invited someone and he came. I know another person who invited 35 people and none of them came. But who would say that the second person was less faithful than the first?

And finally, think of Jesus. Was he a failure because at the end of his ministry he only had a handful of followers? Certainly not!

The point is if you are reaching out, you are successful, whether you are growing or not. Because it is the reaching out itself that is the mark of faithfulness, not the results of reaching out. So you can be amazingly, abundantly, fantastically faithful but have little outward fruit to show for it.

After all, Jesus said “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8) not you must have many converts. And so the bottom line is that we are witnessing, not that we are growing; it is that we are loving and obeying God, not that we are big.

2. The idolatry of big will distort our outreach

Anything that we make into an idol will take us down the wrong road. The most prominent example here is that we water down the gospel to get people to come. Right? If the goal is to get people, you need to do what it takes to get people. So you lower the bar to suit your audience so that they will respond. You take away the things that are hard or that challenge people’s sin.

Well, Jesus flatly rejected this approach. We see this first in Luke 14:25-26. It says, “Now great crowds accompanied Jesus.” And we think, way to go Jesus you’re a success! You’re a winner! You have a crowd. But what does he do? “he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’” What? Jesus you have to keep the crowd. You can’t go telling them to give everything up for you. They won’t follow you anymore!

But this shows us that Jesus doesn’t think like us. Jesus wasn’t influenced by the idolatry of big. He was consumed with faithfulness to God. So when there was a temptation to choose between having more people and watering down the gospel, he chose speaking the truth.

Another example of this comes from John 6:26. Before and after Jesus fed the 5,000 a crowd was following him. And in this case he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me . . . because you ate your fill of the loaves.” What Jesus? Why would you challenge them like this. They wanted to make you a king!

But again, Jesus doesn’t think like us. Jesus wasn’t influenced by the idolatry of big. He was consumed with faithfulness to God.

He went on to talk about faith in him in such a way that most deserted him and he had to even ask the 12, ‘Will you leave me also?’ Jesus wasn’t interested in just getting a crowd. His goal was sharing God’s truth with everyone, even if the crowds went away.

3. The idolatry of big leaves God out of the equation

Yes, you can grow a church without God being involved. Indeed there are non-Christian religious groups that grow very rapidly and are large. But God is not in it. And there are churches that have grown because of a dynamic leader who was later found to be full of sin all along. And there are churches that grow because they tickle itching ears and tell people what they want to hear. But God is not in this.

So yes, you can grow a church without God, but this isn’t true growth. It is based on the flesh; on us and our skills or personality or techniques.And so this puts the spotlight on us. Look what we did. And this is in part why so many have become famous, celebrity pastors. They made their church grow! So they write their books and they go on tour and so forth.

But true growth only comes when God moves and people’s lives are changed. And he does this is thousands of different ways, not through some specific technique or strategy or leadership style.

In fact God loves to use the weak and the lowly; those who no one expects to do anything great. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” This brings the glory to God.

As Paul said, we may work, but “only God (is anything), who gives the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:7. It’s all about God, not us.

Now, none of this is meant to excuse not reaching out, and we have work to do here, as do most churches. And it is good to look at how we are doing in our outreach – if it is ineffective – to see if we are doing it poorly and to make corrections.

And you can also turn all this around and make an idol out of being small or not growing. You know, we are small because we are so much more faithful than other groups! When really it is because we don’t reach out or we have created cultural barriers that keep people away.

My point in all this is to have –

The right focus

So let’s focus on being faithful to God to reach out, taking risks and giving of ourselves to others. This is the measure of our success in the kingdom of God. And even if we are not bursting at the seams we can still be encouraged and joyful in our walk with God knowing that God is pleased with us.

Let’s focus on presenting the full gospel to others, even if it means that fewer people will come. Let’s not change his word and gospel message just to get our congregation bigger. If people don’t come or leave because of this we can still be encouraged and joyful in our walk with God knowing that God is pleased with us.

And let us focus on praying for God to move as we minister in his name, to change people’s lives. If there is not much fruit, this isn’t a matter of discouragement, so much as it is a call to greater prayer and reliance on God to bring about the growth, which only he can do. And we will give him the praise when he does his work.

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