Sunday, August 23, 2009

In Prayer, God ACTS!

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Ephesians 6:10-20
This morning, I want to call your attention to a few verses in our second lesson, specifically Ephesians 6:18, one of the greatest passages in all of Scripture. Here’s how it reads in The Contemporary English Version:
Never stop praying, especially for others. Always pray by the power of the Spirit. Stay alert and keep praying for God’s people.
“When we work,” someone has said, “we work. But when we pray, God works.” Whatever good you and I want to see happen in our lives or in the lives of our families, communities, school, friends, neighbors, or world will absolutely have to begin in prayer. (And prayer begins with God, prompting believers to come to Him.)

Bill Hybels is the pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. Some years ago, his father, who had always been physically active, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Hybels writes:
"As I drove to my mother’s house in Michigan, I wondered how I would function without the person who believed in me more than anyone else ever has or will.

"That night in bed, I wrestled with God. 'Why did this happen? How can I put it all together in my mind and in my life? Am I going to recover from losing my father? If you really loved me, how could you do this to me?'

"Suddenly, in the middle of the night, everything changed. It was as if I had turned a corner and was now facing a new direction. God simply said, 'I’m able. I’m enough for you. Right now you doubt this, but trust me.'

"[Hybels goes on to reflect] That experience may sound unreal, but its results were unmistakable. After that tear-filled despairing night, I was never again tortured by doubt–either about God’s care for me or my ability to handle life without Dad. Grief, yes–his death wounded me deeply, and I will always miss him. But it did not set me adrift without anchor or compass. In the middle of the bleakest night I have ever known, one overpoweringly intimate moment with God gave me courage, reassurance and hope."
Life can sometimes overwhelm us.

That’s because, as our lesson from Ephesians tells us, our enemies in this life aren’t the spouse with whom we disagree or the child who rebels or the co-worker who gets on our nerves. Not even the sins that tempt us or the death that comes to us all, which have after all, already been defeated by Jesus Christ, are our real enemies.

Our real enemies, our Bible lesson reminds us, are the spiritual forces of darkness. These are the enemies that pull the human race–and each of us individually–down into despair, depression, apathy, relational discord, and hollow, shallow, pointless living.

We cannot overcome them on our own. We need to call on the only One Who can overcome them. We need to pray to God.

And we need to pray not just for ourselves. We need also to pray for others.

Lutheran pastor Walt Kallestad tells about a friend of his who was annoyed by the clerk at the register for which she was in line. The clerk “was slow, fumbling, and couldn’t seem to do anything right for the people she was supposed to be ‘serving.’” Kallestad goes on to write:
"Irritated, my friend grumbled to God, ‘Why does this always happen to me?’ Then [a]...thought struck her, ‘You’re here because you’re the only one in line who will pray for this clerk and treat her with patience and kindness, which she needs right now, instead of angrily rattling her more.”
God isn’t just interested in our prayers for things like world peace. An old saying tells us that “the devil is in the details.” Satan loves to discourage us in the little, everyday places in which we live, in the details. He knows that if he can trip us up there, there is no way that we’ll ever be free enough to address the bigger issues of life. So, we need to pray for ourselves and we need to pray for others.

But how do we pray exactly? There are lots of ways to approach our prayer relationship with God and, to tell you the truth, I get bored easily with any routine. So, I tend to change my approach to prayer a lot. But this morning, if you’re interested in establishing prayer as a regular part of your life, I’d like to share a simple approach to prayer.

It’s A-C-T-S. I like this acronym because it reminds me that when I pray, God acts.

Following the ACTS formula for praying, the first thing we do when we pray is adoration. We praise God for Who God is, for the characteristics or personality traits of God. More often than I care to admit, my prayers are offered in a hurry when I’m facing a challenge or uncertainty. “God,” I might say, “I don’t know what to say to so-and-so, who is dealing with difficulty.” Or, “God, any ideas for my sermon for Sunday?” Or, “Lord, protect my family.”

There’s nothing wrong with bringing our everyday prayers of desperation to God. Like the loving Father He is, God loves to hear from us. But more than anything, God wants to have a relationship with us.

God can really work in the lives and through the prayers of those who hop off of their own agendas long enough to cultivate a relationship with God. When we begin our prayer time with adoration, praising God for Who He is–a God of infinite power, love, wisdom, grace, mercy, helpfulness, and life–we take the focus off of ourselves and open the channels of communication to our soul. We place ourselves under God.

The C in the ACTS formula for prayer is confession. If adoration opens us up to communicating with God, refusing to confess our sins to God is sure to close off our communication with Him.

But we need to be earnest about this. I know that in my own case, for example, I sometimes find myself saying, “God, forgive me for my sins.” At times though, I may not really be confessing at all, just mouthing religious-sounding words.

A good rule for effective praying of whatever kind is: Get specific.
  • “God, forgive me for being such a critical, stick-in-the-mud.”
  • “Forgive me for trying always to get my way.”
  • “Forgive me for cutting off that red Volvo on 33 the other day.”
Take the risk of inviting God to forgive and help you change in the specific places of your life. “The prayer of an innocent person is powerful and it can help a lot,” the Bible says*. God makes us innocent when we confess our sins in the Name of Jesus. And that gives God's power to our praying.

The T in ACTS stands for thanksgiving. You know the incident when Jesus healed ten lepers, but only one returned to thank Him? One analyst of that passage has said that you can be sure that all ten were grateful for their healing, but only one expressed that gratitude.

Probably most of us here today are grateful for the blessings we have in our lives. But when we take the time to thank God for our blessings–like the blessing of being forgiven, for example–we remind ourselves of where our blessings come from and so, our relationship with God is deepened.

Finally, the S in ACTS is the strangest word of all to our modern ears. It’s supplication, which means humbly asking God for help in our lives. Having adored, thanked, and confessed to God, we bring our laundry lists of needs and wants to God. Repeatedly, the Bible confirms that God wants to hear our requests. “Delight in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,” the Old Testament says. “Ask,” Jesus tells us in the New Testament, “and you will receive.”

Among the many personal characteristics that have earned me the title of geek is that I love the study of history. One thing my geeky pastime tells me is that, repeatedly throughout history, lives been changed by the supplications of those who established strong relationships with God through time spent in adoration, confession, and thanksgiving.
  • Slavery was brought to an end peacefully in England through a movement that began in prayer.
  • The Cold War ended, I’m convinced not because of the policies of any government, but because of people who prayed, inviting God’s power into seemingly unchangeable circumstances. For several years before Communism fell in Europe, a prayer gathering happened in a Lutheran Church that bordered the wall the Communists once built to hold captive people in. The prayer gatherings at first attracted only a few. Just before the wall fell, thousands of East Germans would gather inside and outside the church building for these meetings. When the wall finally came down, East Germans who hadn't been schooled in the Christian faith for decades gathered near the church building, where one banner stood out. It said, simply, "Thank you, Church." Even those without faith knew, if only for a moment, what part prayer had played in gaining them political freedom.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most important movements of the twentieth century, which has brought millions into recovery from a horrible addiction, began with prayer in Jesus’ Name.
  • Habitat for Humanity, which is providing homes for millions who would otherwise have no places to live, began when a couple, made desperately unhappy by their financial success, on the verge of a marital crack-up, prayed for guidance.
Every worthwhile, life-changing endeavor at least since God revealed Himself to Abraham four-thousand years ago, has begun with desperate prayer to the God of ancient Israel, the God we know in Jesus Christ!

The world we face is full of challenges too big for any of us to handle in our own strength. We need to remember something: When we work, we work; when we pray, God us, through us, for us.

Let’s pray, then roll up our sleeves to do what God wants us to do, and see how God works!

*James 5:16, Contemporary English Version (CEV)

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