Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Prayer (Part 2, Reaching Up, Reaching In, Reaching Out)

[This was shared earlier this evening during midweek Lenten worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

Hebrews 4:16
Matthew 7:7-8

During these midweek Lenten services, we’re considering what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

You and I are called to be disciples of Christ in His Church, not members of a club that confers membership privileges, as though the Church were some religious version of Sam’s Club or the Rotary.

The term disciple is the English translation of a word used in the Greek of the New Testament to describe people who are followers of Jesus. That Greek word is mathetes, which translated at its most literal means student.

In first century Judea, when Jesus walked the earth, it was the custom for rabbis, teachers, to collect groups of students, or disciples, who would follow the rabbi as he taught and interacted with people from place to place.

This method is what Jesus used with His disciples to help them to grow into active participants in the Kingdom of God, which is ultimately what we’re called to be Christ’s disciples.

Remember how Jesus taught the disciples?

First, Jesus allowed them to observe Him as He preached, taught, brought healing, and cast out demons.

Second, Jesus would send the disciples out in groups of two, providing the disciples with mutual support and accountability, empowering them to duplicate His ministry in His name.

Third, Jesus brought His students--His disciples--back to reflect together on what they had learned from doing what they had previously observed Jesus doing.

At the end of His ministry on earth, after He had died and risen, as He was ascending to heaven, Jesus gave His disciples one last directive, a command we call the Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:19-20: “...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…”

The disciples were to replicate Jesus’ ministry repeatedly and empower others to do the same. The students were to become teachers. The disciples were to make more disciples.

And Christian disciples--right up to us today here at Living Water--have the same commission, to make disciples one life at a time time, person to person.

The fortunate thing is that we don’t do this in our own power! Jesus promises us in Matthew 28:20: “...I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

And at Pentecost, Jesus would send the Holy Spirit to His Church. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of God, is the One by Whom Jesus uses disciples like us to make disciples.

I bring all of this up by way of background for tonight’s topic: prayer.

Jesus taught the disciples to pray after they observed how regularly He Himself prayed. They knew that prayer was important to Jesus. So, they asked Jesus to teach them to pray.

Now, Jesus’ disciples were religious people. I’m sure they had prayed before. But maybe in observing Jesus, they saw that prayer is more than what they’d previously thought it was.

So, Jesus gave them a pattern for prayer, what we call the Lord’s Prayer.

He also taught them: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7-8). This wasn’t a blank for self-centered prayer; Jesus elsewhere speaks of prayer needing to be offered in His name, meaning praying in ways that are consistent with the will and the character of God.

But what Jesus was saying to His disciples, including us, is that whatever is of concern to us is a concern to our Father in heaven.

And we should humbly and honestly lay our whole lives before God when we pray.

Personally, I usually spend time in the mornings praying to God. But I also pray to God all day long, in what some people call the "chink" in my schedule: between appointments or events, while preparing to do something, or when thoughts cross my mind.

I often pray things like: “Lord, grant that I will do nothing to dishonor You, but only glorify You by what I say, who I am, and what I do.”

Or, “Lord, give me the right words and the right silences in this meeting, in this visit, in this counseling session.”

Or, “God, protect my family and me from all danger and harm. Protect our characters and our reputations.”

Or, “Lord, help the MSM students or the First Communion students to know and love You more each day.”

Or, “Lord, give me the words You want me to speak in this message.”

“Jesus,” I prayed Sunday before last, when I was reeling from sinusitis, strep throat, and meds, “get me through the morning so that I call attention to You and not to myself.”

Paul says that disciples are to “pray without ceasing.”

Hebrews 4:16 tells Christ’s disciples: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

Here at Living Water, we summarize the life of discipleship and the mission of our church in three components:

  • Reaching up to God; 
  • Reaching in to our sisters and brothers in Christ through mutual care, study, and accountability; and
  • Reaching out to make new disciples of Christ through our witness and service in Christ’s name. 

But in truth, prayer is involved in all three of these elements of Christian discipleship.

In prayer, we reach up to God in surrender, worship, praise, and supplication.

In prayer, we reach in to pray for the needs of our congregation as a whole, for the entire Christian Church, and for our fellow disciples.

And no effort at reaching out to others to make disciples will have any impact unless we pray before, during, and after every encounter we have with those outside of Christ’s Church, who need the salvation and new life that only comes from Jesus. (My favorite place to witness for Christ these days is the deli counter at Kroger. Boar's Head meats are very popular, so there's lots of time for conversation.)

How we pray and what we say when we pray is not nearly important as that we pray and that when we pray, we come with both humility about ourselves and confidence in the grace and mercy of the One to Whom we pray.

And even when our confidence in God is battered or shaky, as happens to all of us, those who pray in Christ’s name will nonetheless find an utterly dependable God Who loves them passionately and totally.

We take comfort and power from God’s promises voiced through the apostle Paul in Romans 8:26-27, another great passage in what I think is the greatest chapter of the whole Bible: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

Jesus has taught we who are His disciples to pray. The prayer He has taught us shows us how to pray, with intimacy, confidence, concern for others, and repentant hearts.

But even when we find prayer difficult, whenever we lay ourselves before God’s throne of grace in Jesus’ name, our Teacher, our Lord, prays for us and with us. That’s a very comforting thought for me!

And at our most confused moments, the Holy Spirit takes our jumbled thoughts and emotions brought to God in the name of Jesus, and turns them into prayers that will eventually, inevitably, and eternally, work for the good of all who love Him.

Pray...about everything and for everyone!

That’s our privilege and our duty as disciples of Jesus Christ.

More on reaching up, reaching in, and reaching out next week.

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