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(008) Philippians IV: Prayer – In, Through, and Among Us

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Philippians IV: Prayer – In, Through, and Among Us

Philippians 1:19

November 18, 2007

·         Welcome on this Sunday before thanksgiving.

Last week I almost got whiplash trying to look at all of you from side to side and up and down, so I have move the podium onto the stage. Plus I want this table to protect me in case anyone goes postal.

Today we are continuing our study on Philippians, so let turn to 1:18. It is at the bottom of page 830 in the pew Bibles.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. Philippians 1:18b-19 NIV

And that is as far as we are getting today. I’ve slowed down to one verse. But it’s not my fault!

Earlier this week, I got into a discussion on prayer and it really got me thinking, so considered dropping Philippians for a week, but changed my mind and decided to stick to the series.

But then I read the passage for the sermon and was struck by the fact that Paul basically gives the Philippians equal billing with the Holy Sprit.

·         He says that “through,” the Philippians’ prayers, he will be delivered – they are the means of his deliverance.

I realized that I must not grasp the power of prayer, not the way Paul does, and decided that I had to camp on this verse and study prayer, if just for my own sake.

·         This study has dramatically adjusted my perspective on prayer, specifically because of one ten-word verse

So today, we are going to focus on prayer and what God wants to do in, through, and among us by prayer.

Delivered from what?

But first, let’s look at the rest of the verse:

Paul says that he knows that he will be delivered. As you recall, he was in jail facing the capital charges of promoting an unsanctioned religion.

It sounds here like Paul is sure he will be found not guilty. But in verse 20, which we will study next week, it’s clear that he doesn’t know if he will live or die.

Paul is actually alluding to something Job said in the OT. As you may remember, Job was a righteous man that God allowed to suffer greatly, and he didn’t understand why:

Though [God] slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance... Job 13:15-16 NIV 

·         Like Job, Paul isn’t looking to the earthly courts, but the heavenly one.

He knows that he will not be ashamed when he faces his Lord, because he is confident that he will continue to preach the Gospel and be true to Christ.

·         And so he rejoices even in the midst of suffering.

Good grounds for certainty

Q: But how can Paul be so sure that he will stay the course?

1. The Philippians’ prayers

2. The help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ

The second one makes sense: Through the help of the Holy Spirit, here called “the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”

But the first one is surprising, especially since Paul puts it first: He is depending on the prayers of the Philippians, and the word implies that it’s in the same way he is depending on the Holy Spirit.

·         Not to the same degree, but in the same manner.

·         Think about that for a second – Paul is depending on them.

My problem with prayer

Perhaps this is a bit of a “no-duh.” But I am speaking from where I am at and prayer – specifically prayer that calls God to act – has always been a difficult for me.

Q: Why is it so hard for me to understand?

I’ll get to in a second, but because of my make up, the less I understand something, the harder it is for me to embrace it.

I think this is true of all of us; otherwise when our parents used to tell us “Because I told you so,” or “Because I’m the mommy, that’s why,” we would have found that satisfying.

Q: It wasn’t for me, was it for you?

Q: Does it work with your kids?

·         I have found that that it is easier to do something with conviction when I believe in it with conviction.

So I am driven to better understand prayer, so I can believe it with greater conviction.

I am not saying that we should only do or believe things we understand 100%. Most things have to be taken on faith to some degree. That does not mean we must accept things without thought or mechanically follow directions.

God finds great joy in watching us dig and grapple with things we don’t understand.

It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. Proverbs 25:2 NIV 

·         Today we get to be kings and search out prayer!

This sermon is not exhaustive I apologize in advance because I will skip many of your favorite Scriptures and neglect many key points about prayer. My focus is on prayers that asks God to do something. 

·         My goal is to simply explore what God does in us, though us, and among us, as believers, using these prayer.

What is prayer?

Of course prayer, in the broadest sense, is simple talking to God, and there isn’t anything to difficult about that – no forms, no rituals, no set programs. Just talk.

·         Just don’t do it out loud, during a psychiatric evaluation. Aside from that, it is pretty straight forward.

There several specific types of prayer:

  1. Adoration: Proclaiming love and wonder for who he is.
  2. Confession: Confessing sins to God.
  3. Thanksgiving: Expressing gratitude for all he has done.
  4. Petition: Pleading with God to act.

All of these should be components of our prayer life. Any one practiced to the exclusion of the others will be dysfunctional.

·         Adoration without confession makes for a mystic faith without holiness.

·         Confession without thanksgiving makes for a joyless faith.

·         Thanksgiving without petition makes for an inactive faith.

·         Petition without adoration makes for a man-centered faith.

But that last type of pray, petitionary prayer, has difficult for me: Why would an almighty, all-knowing God want to hear from us before acting?

·         Isn’t praying like a 3-year old advising the president?

·         We’re just not quite on the same level as the Almighty.

Jesus taught us many things about prayer:

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:7-8 NIV

Jesus doesn’t answer what I consider a pretty obvious question:

Q: If he already knows, why do we still have to ask?

Most of the time, I’m pretty sure that I’m praying for the wrong thing, so I hope God ignores me.

·         As near as I can tell, Scripture never specifically says why we should pray, but it’s clear that we that we should pray.

It does, however, give us bits and pieces that allow us to see some of God’s purposes.

·         As a starting point, we can all agree that God does not need our prayers.

He is a debtor to no man. He is the Sovereign Lord, all things are in his hands. So when tells us to pray, it is for our benefit, not his.

·         I believe that God uses prayer to work in, through, and among us as believers.

In us

Perhaps the most important thing God does through prayer is what he does in us. God could easily remove prayer from the equation and handle it all by himself.

·         God doesn’t need prayer, we do!

Did you ever watch the movie “Shadowlands”? In it C. S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, says, “[Prayer] doesn’t change God.  It changes me.” 

A life of earnest and faithful prayer will change us in many ways. Here is a partial list.

1. Fosters Authenticity

All prayer is first and foremost about our relationship with God. No relationship can survive without communication. But for prayer to be real, they must be an authentic, genuine expression of our heart.

Authenticity is what Jesus modeled when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion:

[Jesus] fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Matthew 26:39 NIV

Q: Do you think Jesus honestly thought there might have been another way?

I don’t think so – he knew exactly what had to happen. He knew there was no other way, but he desperately wished there was. He was honestly expressing how he felt, what he wanted, even though he knew he couldn’t have it.

Q: In contrast to that, how often do we say what we think God wants to hear, instead of genuinely expressing how we feel?

Prayer is the last place that we should hide our fears, pain, or even selfish desires.

·         In prayer, God prefers our authentic humanness to our artificial holiness.

One great example is the psalmist who wrote “Blessed is the one who dashes Babylon’s infants against the rocks.” It’s a horrible verse, but it vivid expression of the psalmist’s pain as he witnessed the destruction of Israel.

·         I don’t think God is endorsing infanticide, but that he allows his people to speak so honestly says a lot to us.

When we are honest in our prayer, even expressing our falleness, it brings our wrong motives and our wrong desires into the light where God can begin to deal on them.

·         Again, this can only happen when we follow Jesus’ example of honest and authentic prayers.

2. develops trust

Looking again at Jesus’ example, we see that he didn’t stop at being authentic:

My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will. Matthew 26:39 NIV

With that one short, simple sentence, Jesus reconfirms His trust in God’s wisdom, love, and purpose.

The Psalms are full of laments and complaints against God, and some of them are very harsh. One goes so far as to accuse God of lying. But they all back to an expression of praise or trust.

·         They basically say, this really sucks, and don’t understand. But I trust you.

Honest, gut level prayer involves a certain risk – God may say “no” when we need Him to say “yes” the most. Sometimes His refusals will seem cruel and unloving.

·         Our perception of God goes from theoretical to very concrete.

·         We must decide if God doesn’t care or if we trust him to do what’s best.

If we believe that He is loving and knows best, we will trust that He will always act in our best interest. Some times we will understand what God is doing and why, but some times we won’t.

Consistent prayer teaches us to trust God’s character even when we don’t understand his ways. And the more we trust God’s character, the more our faith will grow, because we will better know the One we put our faith in.

expands Understanding

But here’s the cool thing: As we learn to trust God’s through prayer, our understanding of his wisdom will expand.

·         A lifetime of answered and unanswered prayer teaches why God responds the way He does.

As a parent, I know that every time Grace or Sarah asks me for something, it is an opportunity to teach them, regardless of whether I say yes or no.

When they ask to watch that stupid Barbie movie for the 100th time, I tell them: “TV is bad for our brain, just like sugar is bad for our body.” When they ask for candy, I just reverse it.

·         Fortunately, they haven’t picked up on the circular reasoning. 

We don’t always know what to ask for, but God teaches us by how he answers our prayers.

Q: Have you heard the saying that God answers our prayers in one of three ways: Yes, No, or Wait?

I think there are actually four answers:

1.  No       (Pretty much means no)

2.  Slow     (Wait because the circumstance aren’t right yet)

3.  Grow     (Wait because you’re not ready yet)

4.  Go       (The timing is right and it’s in his will)

And the more we see how he answers our prayers, the better we will get at asking for things that are his will.

Our prayers go from, “Lord, please get smelly, old John fired,” to “Lord, help me show your love to John, even though he is smelly and grumpy.”

increases Dependence

Finally, perhaps the biggest thing God has done in me through prayer has been to show me how much I need him. Prayer is an act of humility – it admits that we are not able to do it all alone.

·         Prayer increases our dependency on God.

The more we pray, the more we rid ourselves of the illusion that we are in control. In my own life I have noticed a direct correlation between my desperation and prayer life.

I always say that the reason I don’t pray as much as I should is because I don’t have enough time. But strangely enough, when I am really desperate about something, I have no problem finding some time to pray.

·         Time is not the real issue – self-sufficiency is.

·         When I think I have everything under control, I don’t pray.

So that is just a short list of some of the things God does in us though prayer: Authentic, trust, understanding, and dependency. All of these things for the goal of helping us know him better and growing closer to him.

·         But God doesn’t just use prayer to work in us, he also works through us.

Through us

Petitionary prayer is our chance to partner with God. It’s not a 50-50 partnership, it’ not even a 99-1 partnership, but God delights in working with and though us.

·         Our Father prefers to work though us rather than do something by himself.

We are the body of Christ. Here on earth, God works through us. Broken and fragile vessels that we are, God prefers using us over using angels.

·         That is a wild thought.

I am sure all of you have seen how little kids love to help with any thing. Their help is usually anything but. It typically doubles the amount of time it takes to accomplish the task.

Q: Have you ever had to clean up after children who have been cleaning up?

The goal isn’t efficiency. There are two goals that we have: 1) to build relationships, and 2) to see our children grow up, and  become healthy, functioning adult.

I believe that our Father has the same goals. Through prayer, we grow closer to God, as I’ve said, and we get to grow up by partnering with him.

This still doesn’t completely answer the question “Why does God have us partner with him?”

Q: If we are preparing our children for adulthood, what is God preparing us for?

I have no solid answers, only guesses. I like to say that the Bible is comprehensive, not exhaustive – it tells us everything we need to know, but not every thing we want to know.

Here’s my guess: In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that we will judge the angels. Perhaps heaven will be where our real works begins and God is currently God has been preparing us for that

Prayer changes things

So here is the thing that really blows me away: God adjusts his actions, based on our prayers.

Q: Does that sound right to you?

It seems like I shouldn’t be allowed to say that. James says:

You do not have, because you do not ask God. James 4:2 NIV

We don’t have because we don’t ask. There are things that God is willing and waiting to do, if we would only ask. There are some things God won’t do if we don’t ask.

·         This is it – the ten word verse that hit me like a 2x4.

Of everything I read and studied for this sermon, this one verse is the one that hit me the hardest. I’ve always understood that God works in us by prayer and we draw closer to him through it.

·         But I didn’t fully grasp that prayer moves God to do things he would not otherwise do.

That is just amazing, unbelievable. The Lord God Almighty has chosen to move or still his hand based on his creation’s request.

Let me be very clear: God’s ultimate will and purpose will be accomplished with or without prayer – he’s not dependent on us.

·         But Scripture makes clear that his immediate will is more flexible and open to change though our prayers.

God doesn’t need permission

I’ve always believed that God answered prayers, but I’ve downplayed the idea that God might not act if we don’t ask.

I had to think about that and ask myself why. I realized that it was in response to some false teaching I’ve heard that basically says that God needs our permission to act.

When I was at Youth With A Mission, I heard a strange little teaching that went like this:

1.  When God created the earth, he gave authority to Adam.

2.  When Adam fell, Satan was given that authority.

3.  When Christ died he took it back and gave it to believers.

4.  Therefore God cannot act unless we give him permission.

·         Really solid theology.

While that is an obvious extreme, and by no means an official YWAM teaching, I have also seen more subtle versions.

For instance, think back to the 2000 presidential elections with all of its recounts, when we first learned the meaning of “hanging chads.”

During the recounts, a friend forward me an urgent e-mail from a well-known Christian leader who basically said that “God’s man” (i.e. the Republican) had not won was Christians were not praying enough.

·         I replied with a real snotty e-mail asking if the angels were doing a recount of the prayers.

When the Bible says that God acts in response to our prayer, it does not mean that he cannot act if we do not pray. 

·         But as the saying goes, the pendulum swings, and I overreacted in my theology by underemphasizing the power of pray.

Paul’s prayers

Paul, on the other hand, was a man who fully understood the value of prayer. All of his missions’ trips were surrounded in prayer. He prayed before he arrived, during his visits, and after he left.

·         In everything he did, Paul relied on pray, both his own and the prayers of others.

When Paul says “pray for me,” as he frequently does, he means it with an intensity and sincerity I’ve never felt.

When he tells the Philippians that through their prayers, they are partnering with him in ministry, he isn’t just being gracious. He really means it.

·         As I begin to believe and understand how much God chooses to partner with us, I’m starting to take prayer more seriously.

This understanding of prayer is literally revolutionizing my prayer life, as well it should. Wayne Grudem, author of a great systematic theology said:

“If we were really convinced that prayer changes the way God acts, and that God does bring about remarkable changes in the world in response to prayer, as Scripture repeatedly teaches he does, then we would pray much more than we do. If we pray little, it is probably because we do not really believe that prayer accomplishes much at all.” Wayne Grudem

·         Ouch and bull’s-eye, in one shot.

Wrong prayers?

Given the immense power of prayer, it makes sense to ask:

Q: Is it possible for us to pray for the wrong thing?

I mean, if God answered all of your prayers, who would you be married to? I would be married to my 5th grade crush. So yes, we will pray for the wrong thing all the time.

Q: But will God answer a prayer that is detrimental?

Being a father, I can’t imagine that God would give into our stupid request, any more than I would give Grace my razor blade when she asks to play with it.

One exception: I am inclined to think that if we consistently and rebelliously ask God for something we know we shouldn’t, he may eventually give us our way.

In Exodus, God finally gave in the Israelite’s whining and gave them quail, even though it was to their own detriment.

·         But all and all, I don’t think God is so cruel as to answer all of our prayers.

I also believe that he goes beyond our clumsy and mistaken words and answer the true prayers of our heart. Even if we get the words wrong, or the specifics, he will answer our heart desires that are in line with his will and character.

·         You can never go wrong earnestly and expectantly praying for God to do his will.

We should add our hopes and desires, and it’s even okay to speculate about how he might do it. But in the end, our greatest desire should be that God’s kingdom come and his will be done.

PRAYING for god’s will

I have been told by some Christians that we shouldn’t prayif it is your will,” because that demonstrates a lack of faith. I think that it’s kind of ironic to say that we shouldn’t pray as Jesus taught us to pray:

This, then, is how you should pray: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:9-10 NIV

So I disagree the teaching that we should not say, “if it is your will.” However, there is a kernel of truth in it:

But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. James 1:6-8 NIV 

·         Praying “if it’s your will” can either be a cop-out or humility.

To presume that we, from our finite understanding, could know exactly what to ask for is arrogance. So I think it is crucial that we approach God with humility.

So God delights in working through us, and has given us the supreme privilege of moving his hand by our prayers.

·         So we should pray boldly, expecting God to act, while trusting that he will do what is right and best.

Among us

God not only works in us and through us by prayer. He also works among us as a body.

Paul viewed the prayers from his churches as the best gift they could give. Their prayers meant more to him than any donations. Prayer is an incredible gift God has given us that allows us to help anyone anywhere, regardless of distance or resources.

·         When we can do nothing else, we can pray, and that is enough.

That’s not to say that prayer is an excuse for not helping in more tangible ways. But when we cannot, we always have prayer.

As we pray for each other, we not only move God’s hand, we also move our hearts closer together.

Prayer must continue to be a foundational part of this church, not just for what God does in and through us, but also because of how it can bring us together. As Paul says in Romans:

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Romans 12:15 NIV 

Prayer is the most effective way for us to share burdens and joys.

Pray where you are

So to close, here are some specific challenges I want to leave you with, especially if you are “prayer-challenged” as most of us are. They are intentionally simple steps:

1.  Find 10 minutes today to pray by yourself. Pray for specific things for you, your family, your friends, this church, and our country.

2.  If you are married or have Christian roommates, pray over your dinner and add on to your prayer for five minutes to pray for someone outside of your house. Maybe do this when you tuck your kids in.  

3.  If you are not already part of a small group, consider joining one and making sure prayer is a part of it. Or, if you are a guy, you are also welcome to join our Monday night prayer meeting.

4.  Finally, notice that there is a place for prayer request and praise reports on the “Communication Cards.”

If you have a need or an answer to prayer that you want to share with the entire church, please write it down and place the cards in the offering basket and we will pray for them at the end of service.

 

 

Prayer:

Father, thank you for the gift you have given us in prayer. What an awesome privilege and responsibility it is. Please help each of us take that seriously, and to pray consistently in our daily lives.

·         Do your work in us with prayer, helping us become more authentic with you, trust and understand you more, and become more dependent upon you.

·         Do your work through us, as we partner with you, eagerly expecting you to work in response to our prayers.

·         Do your work among us, as we bind our hearts together through prayer. 

Benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14 NIV)

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  Amen.


The following sources were used in preparing this sermon:

“Romans (15:30-33): Errors of Prayers” a sermon preached by Bruce Wersen of His Place Community Church (www.hisplacechurch.com) on 3/4/07.

“Jesus’ Greatest Hits: The Friends at Midnight” a sermon preached by Bruce Wersen of His Place Community Church (www.hisplacechurch.com) on 8/12/07.

Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem, pp. 376ff.

Essentials of Evangelical Theology by Donald G. Bloesch, pp. 57-58.

“Prayer” by W. B. Hunter, in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Hawthorne, Martin, and Reid, editors, pp. 725ff.

Word Biblical Commentary (Vol. 43): Philippians by R. P. Martin.

Letters to Malcolm – Chiefly on Prayer by C. S. Lewis.

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