Praying Earnestly Manuscript

    TEXT:  Acts 12:1-19

     

    My earliest memory is of my 3rd birthday.  I remember it so fondly because it was to be such a big celebration.  Cake, ice cream, and a party with friends.  What 3 year old boy could want anything better?  Little did I know that this birthday would be like no other, and like all the rest to follow.  You see, one of my birthday presents that year was a baby brother.  A cute, cuddly, bundle of joy.  That ruined my birthday and ends up sharing my special day each and every year.

     

    The bad taste has about left me.  I take some consolation that I had 2 birthdays (even though I can’t remember them)  to myself and poor Mark has yet to have one by himself.   Garth Brooks sings a song about the best answers to prayer are the ones that were a “no”.  I echo that sentiment, even though I dare not sing the tune.

     

    The sermon series we are in is entitled “When God gets out of the box” and is a study of ten chapters in the book of Acts.  During my study this week, it was not readily apparent when God was ever in a box about prayer.  Scripture is replete with what seems to be contradiction when it comes to this ever important spiritual discipline of prayer.

     

    Let’s review a few of the major passages about prayer and see the contradiction that abounds.

     

  1. We see Moses in Exodus 32:14 beseeching God to not destoy the Israelites for their lack of faithfulness and Scripture tells us that “God changed His mind.”  Want to talk about the power of prayer.  Changing God’s mind.
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  3. In the same breath we realize Job’s plight and how he suffered mightily under the weight of God’s hand being removed.  Even fervent prayer and fasting could not bring relenting.
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  5. Or what about King David beautiful request and  for forgiveness which he received as recorded in 2 Samuel 12 and the resulting loss of his firstborn with Bathsheba even after much “begging” of God.
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  7. Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Praying  so hard that he sweated blood to his heavenly Father to let this cup pass.  Wanting to hear that there was another way, but it was not so.  All of this on the heals of Jesus telling his disciples to ask, knock and seek and that God will receive, be opened to, and find.
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  9. Paul tells the church in Corinth that he had a “thorn in the flesh” and three times he prayed that God would take it away to no avail.  All of this while Paul tells the church in Thessalonica to pray without ceasing.
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  11. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective James tells us in James 5.
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    And this bring us to our passage this morning.  A tale of two prisoners let’s call it.  In a few short chapters, it seems that the church has gone from “finding favor with all people” (Acts 2:47) to being persecuted by the Roman government as they sought the favor of the  Jewish people.  How quickly you can go from being “in” to “out”.  There is a sermon in there somewhere.  The politicians in the room understand what I mean.

     

    Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, and ruler of Judea arrests James and has him put to death by the sword.  Agrippa found so much favor from the Jews from this one act that he decides that arresting Peter would be a wise move.  He not only arrested Peter, but to ensure his remaining in captivity, Herod assigned sixteen guards to keep watch in order to assure his safe delivery to the trial.

     

    Okay, do we have the image in our heads?  The story begins to turn in verse (5) as the writer tells us, “but while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him.”  The word that most of the translations have is earnestly meaning, ” strictly in an extended way; hence eagerly, fervently, earnestly”  The mental image is speaking from the heart while the arms are extended.  It is a raw and emotional manner of communicating.  Part humble begging, part expectant waiting, part overwhelmed.  Think Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane with blood streaming done his face and you get a picture of praying “earnestly”.

     

    The writer wants us
    to know that this is the defining triggering event that changes the course of this narrative.  The prayers of the faithful are about to be answered in a mighty and powerful way.  But let’s wait just a minute.  I called this passage a “tale of two prisoners” just a few minutes ago.  What about James?  I can’t imagine a scenario where the same type of praying wasn’t happening for him to be released.  He was a beloved disciple, an apostle, a special friend of Jesus and an eye witness to the resurrection.  Certainly the church cared about him just as much as Peter.  And yet, there is not “but” in his story.

     

    And so in lies the tension in prayer.  Results.  How can the same group of people pray for two people with such a drastic difference in outcomes?  Are we to simply assume that outcomes are purely by chance and therefore prayer has no impact upon them?  That flies in the face of the rest of the passage and many other passages such as James 5 and Exodus 32.  Or do we extrapolate this narrative and say that prayer is effective 50% of the time or some other ratio?

     

    I think this tension about results is a major reason why we don’t pray.  How often would you work out if your chances of getting fit were not well quantified?  Would we stick money in the stock market without a determination of increase in value?  Let’s face it, we are a results driven society.  The buzz words just from my personal bookshelf are obvious.  Execution.  In search of excellence.  Pay for performance.  Performance enhancing drugs.  7 habits of highly effective people.  Less is more leadership.  The one-minute manager.  Barney goes to the Zoo.  But when it all stops, do we even know who we are or more importantly who God is? 

     

    We tend to be practical theologians.  We determine who God is by how our life turns out.  A tough stretch in life and we begin to think that God is a deity who doesn’t care, can’t help, or is punishing us.  A great stretch of life and we say God is blessing us, He is powerful and mightily holds the keys to the Kingdom.  Based on results, last August was a terrible time in the life of our church which concluded with the crash of Flight 5191.  But we cannot say that God left us.  No, rather than leaving us, we must trust that these events are being used in a way that bring glory to God.

     

    Most Christians, when asked, will admit to feeling inadequate in their prayer life.  I believe that our felt inadequacy is created by a misdirected emphasis we put on prayer results.  In order to become an effective  praying people, we need to stop the merry-go-round of results based theology, get off, and begin looking for another paradigm.  A paradigm of prayer that transcends results.  One that is focused on the character of God and not His perceived efficacy.

     

    Prayer will take on a different life when we realize that it is more about a relationship instead of results.  Think about Adam and Even in the garden.  God walking with them.  God talking with them.  They had a real relationship.  That is what God intends for us as well.  He wants to hear from us.  He waits to hear from us.  He initiates the contact if we will simply listen.  Do you have a friend who you love to spend time with?  Can’t wait to have dinner with or talk on the phone to or see at some social function.  You got that way through spending time with one another, shared experiences, and sharing each others burdens.  That is what prayer is all about.  It is our ability to share time with the Creator of the Universe.  To have a conversation.  Speaking and listening.  Not focusing on what He can do for us, but focusing on who He is to us.

     

    Prayer also takes on a new life when we realize that we are called to persistence instead of performance.  Jesus told his disciples and us today that the key to prayer is persistence.  Any good relationship takes time and effort.  Jesus said that we should keep asking, keep seeking, and keep knocking.  He told two parables about prayer in particular that emphasized this notion of persistence. One of a widow and a judge and the other about a friend asking for bread in the middle of the night.  Paul continues in the vain when he tells the church in Thessalonica  to “pray without ceasing”.

     

     

    And this brings me to my final point about prayer.  Prayer takes on a whole new meaning when we focus on our earnestness and not His perceived effectiveness.  It is our earnest prayer, the kind with our heart wide-open that pleases God.  At times, I think that the church has made prayer out to be a special art form prac
    ticed by only the most skilled.  In the end, we have pushed people away from prayer instead of inviting them closer.  Let me go on the record this morning saying that whether we pray aloud, or on our knees, or on the street corner is not the issue.  Sometimes we get hung  up on “how” we pray and feelings of inadequacy overtake us and we simply do not pray.  God wants to hear from us.  He does not care where we are or how we say it.  None of us truly knows how to pray anyway.  In fact, Romans 8:26 says:

     

    And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for a)we do not know how to pray as we should, but (b)the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;

     

    This indicates to me that God “reads” the desires of our heart.  Words are just our way of expressing what is in the depth of our hearts.  God does not need these words, just our open and receptive heart.  Do you see then how little it matters if we “know” how to pray? 

     

    Let’s stop praying what we think God wants to hear from us.  What others want from us.  Let us open our hearts with our proverbial arms extended wide and share with God our deepest needs, wants, concerns, fears, joys, and praises.  That my friends is what God longs for from us.  No pretenses, just raw emotion flowing from our heart to God.

     

    I said it last week and will reiterate it again.  One of the keys to our spiritual growth is prayer.  We cannot kid ourselves into thinking that simply knowledge or what Wesley called mental ascent will grow us closer to God.  It is a relationship.  It is an experience.  It is our very life.  I believe that our prayer life will begin to take on new meaning when we remove the focus from what God is doing for us and rather place the focus on our relationship we are building, our persistence in praying even when it seems to not be “working”, and our earnestness in sharing our heart with God.

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