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Friday, March 11, 2011

Pray the Impossible - A different kind of Ash Wednesday Message

Most Christians agree that the Bible is authoritative. We bicker with each other about the proper interpretation of scripture, but I don’t run into many believers who reject the Bible. Arguments are about what the Bible says. Most agree that the Bible should be read and applied in life.

With that in mind, I step into an activity we agree on – the reading of scripture. I turn to 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.” Also, Matthew 6:5, “And whenever you pray …” I won’t even finish the verse. Jesus assumes his followers will pray. He doesn’t instruct them to pray; of course they pray! He teaches how.

We turn to Matthew 17, where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you if you have faith the size of a mustard seed , you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (vs.20-21). I don’t know if I like that verse. As a pastor, how do I preach that? I have no practical examples from my own life. I’ve never moved a mountain. Typically, I want to admire mountains and maybe climb them, if the climb doesn’t require equipment or technical expertise. Move a mountain?

Really though, Jesus isn’t telling Peter or you or me to move mountains. He never moved one. He’s talking about prayer and impossibility. When we believe in prayer, nothing is impossible.

Remember, regardless of any theological disputes we might come up with, we all agree that the Bible is important. In the Bible, Paul says pray without ceasing, Jesus assumes we will do just that, and then Jesus says when we do it with mustard seed-sized faith, nothing is too big; nothing is impossible. Mustard seed-sized prayers have mountain moving results.

These verses are a small sampling of what the Bible has to tell us about prayer.

Prayer is a normal activity in Christian life. Adherents of other faiths are equally committed to prayer. Devout Muslims pray 5 times a day. Buddhists, Hindus, and Mormons each in very different forms pray. Everything Christians know about prayer is rooted in Judaism and today devout Jews are steadfast pray-ers. And within Christianity, there are countless forms of prayer.

So what can we say prayer assumes about the world? I approach this question as an Evangelical Christian. I cannot answer for someone in any other faith. I would not attempt to give a Catholic answer, or an Orthodox answer, or a Coptic answer. I am trained as a Baptist pastor, and that training and two decades of service in Baptist churches heavily influences how I talk about prayer.

What does prayer assume about the world? It assumes that human beings need help that we cannot provide for ourselves; help that nature will not provide; help that will not come on its own, over time. The idea that we pray operates on the assumption that right now, there are messes that will only be cleaned up when we talk to God and hear from God. Prayer assumes we need to communicate with God.

Remember, the Bible, which Christians acknowledge as word from God, says we are to pray without ceasing, and when we do so with seed-tiny faith, mountains are moved.

If prayer assumes the world – humanity – needs to talk to God and hear from God in order to survive, then what does prayer assume about the way the world should be?

Bad things happen – war; disease; disasters; economic collapse. When the cataclysmic occurs, either in the life of an individual or in a society or in many societies around the globe, prayer assumes we should talk to God, and we should do with the unfaltering belief that God will hear us. Not only will God hear us, but God is all powerful and is able to give the help we need.

Prayer does not assume that in an ideal world there is no suffering. Suffering leads some to pray and others to give up on prayer. Assuming how the world should be, prayer is the central action in the divine-human relationship. Today millions pray. In assuming how the world should be, prayer assumes people would pray in faith, which for the most part they don’t right now. Some do, but most have very little spiritual acumen when they bow their heads.

What does prayer assume about the world? That people need to be in conversation with God.

What does prayer assume about the way the world should be? People should pray in faith – belief that is so strong it defies common sense. That mountain cannot move from here to there. Jesus says it can.

A third question: what does prayer make possible? In Mark chapter 9, the disciples, minus Peter, James, and John, failed to overcome a demon that inflicted terrible epileptic seizures on a boy. The nine disciples were overwhelmed by the possessing spirit. Then Jesus came along and won the victory over the devil’s minion. Why? He said, “This kind only comes out through prayer” (Mark 9:29).

In my own life, I remember flying across the Atlantic Ocean, remembering a great task I had ahead of me. I wept because I was overwhelmed with the work ahead. I felt completely unprepared, totally unqualified. But, I knew the task was mine and mine alone. But, not mine alone! From my pitiful “woe-is-me” thoughts, I moved into prayer. I was calmed by the reality that God would walk with and help along the way. It doesn’t mean the work hasn’t been hard. It has. Prayer made it possible for me to be relax as I anticipated the work and then to succeed at those points when the work was too much for me.

I think you and I together could brainstorm 100 other things prayer makes possible. I would sum it up this way. Prayer makes it possible for us to hear the voice of God, to live in the power of God, and experience the helping presence of God in all the moments of life.

It that’s a rough synopsis of what prayer makes possible, what does prayer make impossible? Once we have understood a little bit about prayer and entered a life of prayer, it is impossible to say something is impossible. Rejecting the impossible doesn’t mean we get whatever we want. God is not Santa Claus. God is not a credit card with no limits and no requirement of payment.

Jesus does not say, “Ask and your heart’s desire will be given to you.” He says, “Ask, and it will be given to you.” What is “it?” A few verses later, he clarifies. “If you who are evil know how to give good things (like a fish) to your hungry children, how much will the Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask” (7:11).

Prayer makes it impossible for us to not ask. We can choose to ignore God, but we cannot say, “God you ignored me in my need.” God sees us and is ready to meet our needs and meet us in the dead center of our worst with the depths of his limitless love. Prayer makes it impossible to say, “God has forgotten me.” Prayer makes it impossible to say “There’s nothing I can do.” There is always something we can do. We can pray.

Then, the final question is what culture does prayer create? My fellow Bible-reading Christ followers, I want to answer this final question in two ways.

First, prayer creates a shared culture among us. We are different in how we would approach difficult life challenges than we would be if prayer was not an option. One of us may be hit so hard by catastrophe, he simply cannot pray in the moment. However, the body of Christ, the church, comes around that wounded one and prays for him. That phrase means we lift his name and his burden up to God. It also means that we pray in his place until he is able to join them and pray for himself. Until his wounding is healed enough for him to go God, we go to God on his behalf and in his stead. So, prayer creates a culture of connectedness – between people and God, and also individuals with one another.

Second, prayer creates a culture of the possible. Christians enter into scenarios human logic disregards. We’ve never done that. We can’t do that. That can’t happen. In a culture where we believe prayer is real because God is real, we don’t say those things. We dare believe that when we pray for imprisoned Christ-followers in North Korea, our prayers make a difference. When we go before God on behalf of the suffering people of Haiti, our prayer somehow helps. We go to our knees and pray for women who are completely oppressed in Iran, and we believe it makes a difference that we prayed.

Believing that, we know we can do something about the biggest problems in the world. And knowing we can do something means when we don’t pray, that makes a difference too. Failure to pray is failure to participate with God in a way God has made for us.

The season of Lent involves the practice of spiritual disciplines. Believers fast, sacrificing some food or activity. Sisters and brothers in Christ do season-specific individual devotions as signs of their desire to turn back to God. Lent is a season of repenting. I encourage these practices. Give something up for Lent if it helps you focus on Jesus. Repent of your sins and receive forgiveness. Spiritual discipline, including prayer, is the way to live as one follows Jesus.

As we think about the culture of prayer, I believe this year, God is calling us to more than the personal prayers and individualistic spiritual devotion. I think individual practices are part of the call, but I believe specifically in Spring of 2011, God is calling us to mustard seed-sized prayer that yields mountainous results. We are going to together pray the impossible.

In any type of prayer, we have meaningful experiences in specific identification. Exactly what “impossible prayers” will we pray in 2011? I suggest going before God in prayer in the following areas.

- Prayer for Political Upheaval in Northern Africa and the Middle East

- Prayer for Orphan Care

- Prayer for Victims of Disasters

- Prayer for the Persecuted Church

- Prayer for Missionaries known to our churches

- Prayer for persons battling Addiction

- Prayer for Women (in situations of trafficking and in countries like Afganistan)

- Prayer for Water (in places like India, Yemen, and Haiti where water is scarce)

It is entirely appropriate to pray for God to be at work in our individual lives. Equally, it is important to pray for God to bring the redemption of Jesus in our families, in our churches, in our communities, and in our nation. All those prayers matter. But tonight, in the spirit of the culture of praying the impossible, pray for the world and dare to believe that in ways we don’t understand, our prayers matter to God. Make a priority prayer and pray beyond your circle of familiarity. Pray for one of the circumstances listed above. Pray for it every single day from now till Easter. As a part of your Lenten discipline, move mountains. Pray the impossible.


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