Sermon: Giving Up OUR Prayers For Lent: Praying From Alpha To Omega
Scripture: Revelation 1:8
Date: March 11, 2018
I read this week about what I guess is one of the latest “self help” programs designed to insure a good future. It is called your Mastermind Council. The idea is that you assemble a small group of the best minds that you know and that they take whatever information, and aspirations and dreams that you share with them, and they advise you concerning the future path you need to take to realize those dreams and aspirations. And so your future is plotted through the consensus of your mastermind council. And in this way, we can realize a prosperous, and fulfilling future. As long as you have chosen well for your mastermind council. But as is often the case with these self help programs, I wonder if the only one realizing a prosperous and fulfilling future is the person who came up with this program and has no doubt written a book about it. But as I read about these mastermind councils, I couldn’t help but wonder who my Mastermind Council might consist of.
For instance would you include family on your mastermind council. Your spouse? Your children? Perhaps your parents or siblings. Or do they have too much of a vested interest in my future, even at many points share in my future to really be objective? Or I have a covenant group I meet with nearly every week. Are they the equivalent of my Mastermind Council? Probably not, because while we spend a lot of time talking about the future certainly, we tend to focus on the future as it applies to all of us, not just me. Or should my cardiologist be on the mastermind council, after all he has an important role to play in my future. However, he often dashes my hope of a joyful, fun filled future by talking about healthy diet and exercise. He might be too restrictive to be on my mastermind council. I don’t know that I want to face a future of fruit and vegetables and exercise. Or maybe I already have a mastermind council. Perhaps it is the Bishop and Superintendents. Their deliberations have a lot to say about my future, at least for the foreseeable future. But the problem with them is that they have to juggle decisions concerning many futures, of both individual pastors and churches that are filled with many more people, and so sometimes my future must take a back seat when placed in a bigger context.
And then there is the question of how many need to be on the Mastermind Council and how often will they get together. You see I kind of envision my mastermind council fitting around a table at Five Guys, deliberating my future path with me. If I had my way, my Mastermind Council would be fueled by hamburgers and fries in the hope that they would envision a lot of that in my future. Now it doesn’t take a mastermind to see you thinking, as fascinating as all this is, what has it got to do with prayer. Well, I’m glad you asked. Last week we talked about how God is a multidimensional God who wants to interact with every dimension of our lives. And so we need to give up our one dimensional prayers that see God only working in the big things of our life. Those that have to do with life and death kind of moments because our multidimensional God wants to be present with us in our everyday moments of life. Nothing that happens in our life is too small for God to care about. Last week I talked about some of the dimensions of our life from which our prayers emerge.
And so I talked about how when we pray then we need to look back at the Cross and the redemption it brings to our sin filled lives. And then we need to look up to our Heavenly Father and place our worldly concerns into the heavenly realm. That the circumstances and conditions that can overwhelm us in our earthly lives, are only temporary and fleeting when viewed through the lens of eternity. And then third when we pray we need to look inward and see Jesus dwelling in us. And finally, when we pray we need to look around at the needs all around us and simply pray, “Father use me” and He will. Praying from all dimensions of our life.
So if you missed it and want to catch up, check it out at stlukeumc.org/sermons. But this morning, I would suggest that there is an additional dimension from which we pray. And that is, as we pray, we need to be looking forward. We look forward and pray with our future in mind. Because while we humans often get bogged down with the past, and it can become a great burden for us, God is all about our future. In fact, when we pray, He wipes the sleight clean. It’s as though the indiscretions of the past never happened. While there is some confusion about who said it first, there is great truth in the words: I do not know what the future holds, but I know God holds the future. When we pray we leave the past behind and give our future to God. We need to give up our prayers that seek to hold on to the past and even bind us in the present, and take on those prayers that open us up to the glorious future that God has planned for us. Remember what He said to Jeremiah?: For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. And Paul is talking about this forward looking dimension of prayer when he says this to the Philippians, some of whom were thinking that the trials they were experiencing meant that God had abandoned them: I am confident of this, that God who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Too many of us, when we pray, get stuck in the past. I said last week, that when we pray, we start with the Cross. Look back at the redeeming work that Christ did for us on the Cross. We are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. But sometimes in our prayers we get stuck at the foot of the Cross, and never really make it to the other side. So while it’s true that Christ took our past to the Cross, He didn’t stay there long. His prayers took Him down from the Cross to an empty tomb. To new life with only the future ahead. And He offered that new life to us in the process. You see when we look forward when we pray, several things happen.
First of all, we acknowledge that our future is not ours to plan. When we pray looking forward, we give our future to God. We let go of the things of the world that bind us, and accept the abundant life that Jesus offers. But sometimes that’s hard isn’t it. It’s hard to let go of our yesterdays and today and move blindly into tomorrow. With nothing but faith to drive us forward. Many of us would rather hold on to even the difficult circumstances of our past then through prayer truly embrace an unknown future. The greatest problem I have with these Mastermind Councils I talked about earlier is that they are based on the idea that it is our task to fashion our future out of our human understandings and even misunderstandings in the world. But when we pray looking forward we turn our future over to the ultimate mastermind council. The Holy Trinity. God in three persons. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You see, I think the greatest barrier to belief, to faith, is our unwillingness to trust our future in God’s hands. To pray from the dimension of looking forward. Perhaps, that’s true, because we don’t believe that God really has a plan for each person’s future. Much less our own. When difficult times come we start to believe that we are truly on our own. That there really isn’t any hope that our life can be any better then it is. Rick Warren writes this: “The more you pray looking forward and study scripture the more confident you will be in life, no matter what may come. Because ultimately, as a child of God, your Heavenly Father has already rigged the system (on your behalf). God created you for and made you for and wants you to accomplish, what He wants you to be in your life.” When we pray looking forward and not behind, we claim the great plan that God already has for each one of us.
And secondly, when we pray looking forward we see that there is nobody that loves us and wants more for us than does God. We know that, because He was willing to take our past and even our present to the cross. To establish us as persons of unlimited worth and potential, by paying the highest cost possible for us. Let’s think about that for a moment. Why would Jesus have gone to the cross to pay the price for our old life – our past and our present – if He didn’t know that God had a much better life planned for us. A future of great joy and fulfillment. A life of unlimited blessing.
One of my favorite stories of scripture is the story of Jonah. It is an illustration of this unlimited love by which God plans our future. Remember God calls Jonah to go and warn the Ninevites supposedly of their impending doom because of the cruelty of their earthly lives. But Jonah knows that God’s real intention is to use him to save the Ninevites and he wanted no part of it. So he ran away and God had to use some extreme measures (including a giant fish) to convince Jonah to go to Ninevah. And when he finally arrived in Nineveh, Jonah approached his task with a great lack of conviction. But still the Ninevites hear him and repent and God spares them. And poor Jonah goes and sits under a tree and sulks because he says: When you first called me to go, I told you that I knew what you were up to. I knew that you are such a loving and compassionate and gracious God, that you even have a good future planned for the Ninevites. And now that my enemies are saved, I don’t want to think about a future with them in it. So just go ahead and kill me now. You see no matter how hated by our enemies we are or how much we are loved on this earth by parents, or children, or spouses, or even friends, there is none, other than God who can promise us a future of unlimited joy. No one who can promise us eternity. No one loves us like God loves us, unconditionally and forever. Because our love for each other is not truly unconditional and it is finite, it has a beginning and an end because it is confined to this world and our life on this planet. When we envision a future for our loved ones, we can not see beyond our worldly life or theirs. Only God’s love is truly unlimited, and eternal in the Heavens. When we pray looking forward we see life without restraints, without limits because it is a life that is planned for us out of God’s unlimited, all encompassing love.
There is so much that I could say about prayer that looks forward, about prayer with a view to eternity. But I only have time for one more.
Prayers that look forward are prayers without ceasing. Recently people who are not really active in a church were asked if they ever prayed and if they did when. And most of them responded that they prayed when a baby was born and they prayed when someone was dying. The beginning and the end of life. In Biblical terms the Alpha and Omega but rarely in between. And why. Because they can’t envision a God being active in a person’s life in the in-between times. He helps us get in this world and He ushers out but the rest of our lives it’s up to us. But you see when Jesus tells the John of Revelation that He is the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end, He doesn’t mean that that He is just there at the beginning and the end of a persons life. No, I believe that Jesus uses those terms to mean that He is present from beginning to end. His presence in our lives and therefore His relationship with us is continuous, ever present, never ending. When we look forward in prayer we see a God who is always there, always working on our behalf, always pulling us towards the good future that He has planned for us. When we pray looking forward we see that we always belong to God and that God always belongs to us. His love for us never stops – so neither should our prayers. But most of us only acknowledge his presence on occasion. At the Alpha and Omega, maybe in church, maybe at the supper table. We need to give up our occasional prayers and offer prayers that are continuous, without ceasing. In the course of his ministry, Paul had some tough appointments. But I figure that Paul was a Methodist because he kept riding the circuit. A circuit rider. He moved from place to place. His longest appointment was in Ephesus. He served there for about 3 years. And though he loved the Ephesians, it was a tough appointment. Ephesus was such a cosmopolitan city – a cross road of the world that there was much to distract the Ephesians. Paul was constantly having to call them back and when they asked how to overcome the wandering spirit within them, Paul wrote this: Pray in the Spirit at all times with all kinds of prayers, asking for everything you need. To do this you must always be ready to pray and never give up. And always pray for all of God’s people. So what does he mean to Pray in the Spirit. It means that our prayers should come out of and in response to Jesus’s presence within us which is continuous and transcendent through every circumstance and dimension of our lives. Paul goes on to write that we should pray with all kinds of prayers – prayers that look back to the cross and prayers that look up to Heaven and prayers that look inward to Jesus in us and prayers that look around at the world because when we look forward in our prayers we can not envision a time when God is not there, will not be present with us. And so whatever may come, God wants you to talk to Him about it. One pastor writes: In the book of Psalms, there is a prayer for every emotion and situation known to man. There are complaining prayers. There are crying out prayers. There are comforting prayers. There are clarifying prayers. There are courageous prayers. There are confessing prayers. There are celebrating prayers. There is a prayer for every emotion and every circumstance. If you want to know what continuous prayer looks like then start by praying the psalms. Get a pocket size book of Psalms and carry it with you always and pray through it in all times and circumstances. You’ll discover that there are no circumstances that you will experience that was not experienced by a writer of one of the Psalms. So one way to start prayer without ceasing is to read and know and even memorize the Psalms.
And then schedule regular times of prayer throughout the day. Daniel is an example of one who prayed without ceasing. No matter what situation he found himself in, he started with prayer. And it was not his last resort. It was his first thought. In Exile from His homeland, in the court of a foreign king, in the Lions Den, and the Fiery furnace, His first inclination was to pray. Talk to God about it. And in addition to that the Bible tells us that no matter where he was Daniel knelt three times a day in formal prayer. Morning, noon and night. King David writes in Psalm 119 seven times a day, I praise you. The early church understood the power of regular prayer. I came across an interesting historical progression that the early church adopted as their own. When the Romans conquered the known world, including Israel, they built a Forum in nearly every major city they conquered. And in each forum they would build a bell tower. (Show picture one) And 6 times a day, the bell would be rung at the same times each day. The first bell would be the signal to the Roman legion to start work at about 6:00 AM, which became known as the first hour or the prime hour. Then the second bell would ring about three hours later and was known as the third hour and on and on throughout the day. Every three hours. So when you read in scripture that something happened at the third hour or the sixth hour, that’s what it’s referring to. But here’s the thing. The early Christians began using the bells as a call to prayer. When the bells rang, they would stop whatever they were doing, wherever they were, and pray. Two things happened over time. As the Roman Empire declined, the monks in the monasteries adopted the practice of ringing bells as their own. They built bell towers in the monasteries (show picture 2) and rang the bells as a periodic call to prayer throughout the day. Then as Christians began to build churches, they would include bell towers and adopt this practice. (Show picture 3). Even today Catholics have what they call the liturgy of the hours which emerged from this ancient practice. And here is the really amazing thing. Clocks were eventually developed in order to continue this practice – so that the Christians would know when it was time to pray throughout the day. In fact the Latin word for Clock is CLOC – which means bell. And people started talking about “taking time to pray.” Praying without ceasing means taking time to pray throughout your day. With the advent of cell phones we have the perfect opportunity to replicate the liturgy of the bells. Set your cell phone to ring several times throughout your day and when the signal goes off, take some time to pray about the situation you find yourself in at that moment. Schedule times throughout your day to pray.
And then finally we pray continuously when we understand prayer as a running conversation with God. Another way to think about it is that your prayer never ends. Rick Warren describes it this way: You just keep a running conversation with God. You never end the prayer. You don’t say, “Amen”. You just keep talking. When something comes up, you talk to God about it. It’s like breathing. You don’t think about breathing. You just do it. If you did not breath, you’d die. (Think of) prayer as spiritual breathing. Prayer is to your soul (and your relationship with God) what breathing is to your body, and it needs to become as natural so you don’t even think about it. You just do it, or your soul will die. No matter what you are doing, take time to pray. Paul says to the Ephesians: “Pray on every occasion as the Spirit leads.” And to the Thessalonians he is even clearer. He says: Never stop praying. When we look forward in prayer we will not see a time when prayer is not a part of a loving relationship between God and His children. When prayer is for the Alpha and Omega of our lives and every moment in between. Now I don’t know how it is with you but I fall far short in my prayer life. Often times prayer is the last thing I do. We need to give up our occasional prayers and replace them with prayers that never cease, never end. And so the invitation this morning is to come to this altar and give up your occasional prayers and begin to pray your life forward, leave the past behind, and begin today a life where prayer never ceases. Pray from Alpha to Omega and in all times and places in between.