The Importance Of Prayer
From time to time we get to watch important state functions. Perhaps it is a royal wedding, the funeral of an important person or some other such function. One of the things I have noticed at such occasions is that there are a whole bunch of people who are asked to perform supporting roles. For example, the guards who accompany the official vehicle or the uniformed people who carry the flags. I remember the memorial service they had in Washington a short while after September 11 when the president of the US attended. I watched the honor guard which carried about four different flags. They were very precise in their movements and careful in all they did. They knew they had an important supporting role to play.
Can you imagine how exciting it would be to be chosen for such a role? You would be excited about the honor that would be yours to be asked by important people to do this task. You would be a little nervous about the importance of what you were being called to do because you would want to do it well.
Have you ever realized that you have been called to a very important supporting role by none other than God himself? It is an essential task, an important task and God himself has invited you to do it. What is that task? It is the task of prayer.
This morning, I would like to begin a three week series on prayer. I hope to encourage all of us to see just how significant the work of prayer is and to realize that God has called us to it. I hope to encourage and challenge all of us to take the work of prayer much more seriously as we are engaged in God’s work here on earth.
I. God’s Invitation
When you read the Bible, you soon realize just how comprehensive God’s invitation to prayer is. This morning, I hope to challenge you with the power of God’s invitation to us to pray.
A. Invitations To Prayer
An invitation is, by its nature, an opportunity which allows us to participate in something special, usually something we want to participate in. The invitation to prayer is like that. In the depth of our need in this world, the maker and sustainer of the universe has invited us to approach Him with all of our needs. I have chosen a few verses from different parts of the Bible which give us this invitation.
In II Chronicles 7:14 God tells his people, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” In a time when Israel had wandered away and was on the verge of desperate need, God invited them to humble themselves before Him and pray.
The Psalms are a great prayer book and in that prayer book we have the invitation in Psalm 32:6, “Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found…”
Later, in the prophets, Israel is told in Isaiah 55:6, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”
The New Testament continues this invitation. Philippians 4:6 encourages us at times when we do not know where to turn, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Hebrews 4:16 also extends the wonderful invitation, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
We have been sent the invitation from the God of all to pray to Him.
B. Commands To Pray
I received an invitation to a banquet which is taking place in a month or so. I do not intend to go to that banquet. Invitations have an optional element to them, we don’t have to respond to the invitation. The invitation to pray, however, is not something we can take or leave. Prayer is so important that God has even put it in the form of a command.
Particularly in the New Testament we have many statements which make it clear that God expects us to pray. Let me share just a few with you.
In Luke 18:1 we read, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” This command comes from Jesus himself to all of his disciples.
As the church, in the days following Pentecost, the apostles gave leadership and basically did all the work. As the church grew, it became obvious that they could not continue to do it all and some things began to be neglected. In Acts 6, the young church appointed deacons to look after some practical matters. The reasoning was that the apostles did not want to neglect what was their most important role in the growth of the church and that was to pray and to preach. Prayer was seen by them as essential for the life of the church.
Throughout the letters in the New Testament, we have many direct commands to pray. Let me read just a few of them.
Romans 12:12, “Be … faithful in prayer.”
Ephesians 6:18, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
Colossians 4:2, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”
I Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.”
I Timothy 2:1, 8, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone … I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.”
I Peter 4:7, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.”
Does God expect that we will pray? That seems pretty obvious.
C. Examples Of Prayer
We are further encouraged in prayer by the many Biblical examples of what happens when we pray. We could easily spend the rest of the morning looking at one story after another of God’s response to believing prayer, but let me point to just two stories to show God’s power in answering prayer.
One of my favorite Old Testament stories is the story of Elijah and the contest with the Baal prophets. The story begins with a prayer. God tells Elijah to pray that it will not rain and the drought begins. After three years, God once again comes to Elijah and tells him to set up the contest with the Baal prophets. After a whole morning in which the Baal prophets do all they know how to try to get a response from their gods without any success, Elijah prays a simple prayer and fire comes down from heaven and destroys the sacrifice, the wood, the altar and the water. In a powerful way, God responds to the simple believing prayer of Elijah. After the Baal prophets are killed, God once again tells Elijah to pray, this time for rain. Seven times Elijah prays for rain and soon there is a downpour and the land flourishes again.
In the New Testament, the book of Acts provides many examples of God’s work in answer to prayer. As God begins to establish his church in Jerusalem, it is his desire that the gospel move beyond the confines of the Jewish world and to the Gentiles as well. In Acts 10, we are told that Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea was a man who was interested in the things of God. The Bible tells us that he prayed regularly. At the same time, we read about another man praying. Peter was in Joppa involved in ministry there. Around noon, Peter was up on the roof of the house he was staying in and he was praying. Now here we have two men who are praying, each of them interested in God’s leading. What happened? Some very powerful changes. Peter changed his mind about the uncleanness of the Gentiles and Cornelius changed his mind about his hope and found salvation in Jesus Christ. These are the kinds of things that happen when people pray. God begins to act and His will is done and His kingdom is built and people are changed and situations are changed.
If we are not yet convinced that we must pray, let us look briefly at the prayer life of Jesus. If Jesus the Son of God thought it important to pray, how much more should we. Jesus did and we can find many passages which tell us how often Jesus prayed. Again, let me just introduce you to a few.
In Matthew 14:23, after the feeding of the 5000, Jesus got alone to pray. In Matthew 26:36, Jesus’ prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. In Mark 1:35 we read that Jesus got up early in the morning to pray. In Luke 5:16 we learn that Jesus often went alone to pray. Luke 6:12 tells us that Jesus spent the night praying.
II. God’s Limitation
The Bible is clear and powerful. God invites us to pray, God commands us to pray. When people pray, God answers and the example of Jesus impresses on us the importance of prayer. I know that you all know this. This is material that we have all heard before. My hope is that the shear volume of verses that speak about prayer will have an impact on your life and your commitment to prayer.
But I have an important question which I would like to ask. How seriously do you take this invitation?
I was once a part of a board. I had looked forward to what I would be able to contribute as a member of the team on this board. The call for a member on the board had been urgent and when I was asked, I took my role seriously and believed I would be able to do some important work. As I began to attend meetings, however, I soon found out that my role was minimal. The work of the board was being done by one or two people and my role was only to attend meetings. Even there, I could contribute very little. I was soon discouraged and did not think my involvement worth it.
Perhaps you have been invited to participate in a work project. The call for workers goes out with great urgency and you come to believe that your participation is essential. When you get there, however, you discover that the project is so poorly organized and there are far more people than are needed that you don’t really feel as if you have anything to contribute.
I wonder if that is how we feel about prayer. We have this great invitation to prayer and we know that the Bible is quite clear about the importance of prayer and yet, when we pray, we don’t really feel as if we are contributing anything. We may think that nothing seems to happen when we pray. We may think that God is sovereign and he will do what he wants anyway. Such thinking leads us to become discouraged about praying because we do not really believe that our prayers contribute anything significant. We know we should pray, but it doesn’t seem to us to have any real value and so we pray a little, but we don’t really pray much.
How important are our prayers?
A. Biblical Stories
Several stories in the Bible show the importance of our prayers.
In Exodus 32:1-14, we have the story of the golden calf. Israel had met God at Mt. Sinai and they had received the ten commandments. As Moses went up the mountain to receive more of God’s laws, the people became restless and forgot about Moses and asked Aaron to make gods to lead them. Aaron requested their gold earrings and made the golden calf and they began to worship this golden calf after the manner of the pagan nations. God alerted Moses to this travesty and in Exodus 32:10 God says, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
Did God really want to destroy Israel? After he had invested so much in these people, was he now really intent on getting rid of them? The response of Moses was to pray for the people so that God would not destroy them. We read in verse 11, “But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “O LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?” As a result, God did not destroy the people.
This is an interesting passage on prayer. What is happening here? Why did God tell Moses about what was happening at the foot of the mountain? Was it so that Moses would know or was it so that Moses would pray? I do not believe that it was God’s will to destroy his people and I do not believe that God changed his mind about destroying them. I believe that it was God’s will to restore his people, but he needed someone to pray for them. It appears that God needed someone to pray so that he could do what he willed to do, which was to forgive and restore his people. Psalm 106:20-23 suggests this interpretation. There we read, “They exchanged their Glory for an image of a bull, which eats grass. They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea. So he said he would destroy them— had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them.” It seems that God needed someone to stand in the breach, to pray for his people. It seems that God wanted Moses to pray so that he could act in response to the prayers of Moses.
Such a perspective makes our prayers very important. It should cause us to ask, what is God asking me to pray about? What work of prayer is necessary for me so that God can accomplish his will on earth.
We are not used to seeing our prayers as that important, so let us examine some other verses which illustrate the same thing.
Earlier I told you the story of Elijah and the contest with the Baal prophets. At the beginning of that story, God told Elijah what his will was. He told him that he would send rain on the land. At the end of the chapter, Elijah told Ahab that it was going to rain. Now after this, Elijah should probably have gone to put shutters on his house or bought a rain coat or a canoe, but he did not do those things. He went to the top of Mount Carmel and faced the sea and began to pray. Seven times he sent his servant to go and look to see if there were any rain clouds building. The first six times there was nothing and so Elijah went back to prayer until it rained. Have you ever wondered, if God had already promised that it was going to rain, why did Elijah need to pray? Once again, we see that God chose to act in response to the prayers of Elijah. Once again we realize that our prayers are important if the work of God is going to be accomplished.
I hope a third story will reinforce this concept in our minds. Back in Exodus 17:8-16 there is the story of a battle. Israel is still in its wanderings in the wilderness. She has not yet come to Mt. Sinai. In the course of their travels, they meet up with the Amalekites. A battle is going to happen. Joshua goes down and leads the Israelite troops in the battle, but up on a hill top nearby, Moses is lifting his hands to God in prayer during the battle. After a while his arms get tired and he puts them down, but they notice that as soon as he does, the Amalekites begin to win. As soon as he begins to pray again, Israel wins. As time goes on, he needs help and Aaron and Hur hold up his arms so that he can keep praying all day. At the end of the day, Joshua has overcome. But where was the battle really won? Was it won by Joshua or by the prayers of Moses? The memorial altar that is built to remember this event is to remind the people that “hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord.” The real battle was won in prayer.
From all of these stories, we learn that God acts when people pray. This makes our prayers very important. Why are our prayers so important?
Could it be that God does not know what to do unless we ask for some specific thing? I hardly think that is the case.
Sometimes we say that prayer is important because it changes us, but that is not what is happening in any of these stories. In all of these stories, God’s work is done as and only as God’s people pray.
In the book “Intercessory Prayer” the writer suggests one reason why this may be so. He reminds us that at creation God gave people dominion on the earth. Since he has given us this dominion, he has chosen to limit his actions to what we permit on the earth. God chooses to work on the earth only as we yield the dominion he has given to us, to Him by asking for him to work in the world. This is one possible interpretation and it may be the correct one. Whether or not it is, it is clear that our prayers do make a difference. In fact, John Wesley said, “God does nothing on the earth save in answer to believing prayer.” The stories from the Bible which we have looked at illustrate this truth.
The difficulty we have with this way of looking at prayer is that it seems to diminish the sovereignty of God. Yet when we understand that God has placed this limitation on himself, it becomes acceptable. Does it mean that God cannot act unless we pray or that he will never act without our prayers? I would not go so far as to say that, but I think it is quite evident that God has chosen to act in response to the prayers of his people. Since we have seen that this to be true, it becomes clear that our prayers are very important.
Why pray? Because God has invited us to pray and even commanded us to pray. Because our prayers matter since God has chosen to act in answer to the prayers of his people.
Since it is so important to pray, we need to ask ourselves some important questions.
Am I spending adequate time in prayer by myself? If prayer is that important, is five minutes a day really enough time spent in prayer?
When we do the work of the church, we are tempted to do the work. How seriously do we take prayer as an important part of doing the work? As teachers, do we pray for the children in our class? As committee members, do we pray for God’s guidance? How much do we pray for the Sunday morning service?
For years we have thought about what to do about a building project and we are finding it hard to make a decision. I believe that direction and consensus will only come when we submit ourselves to God in prayer and ask Him to give us wisdom and direction so that whatever we build can contribute to the growth of his kingdom.
Some of you are praying for wayward children. I truly and deeply encourage such prayer and commend those who have committed themselves to do this. It is only as we unite in prayer for these people that God will work powerfully in their lives. Last spring, one name of a wayward child was placed on the prayer team list. In fall, God answered that prayer by bringing that child to Himself. Let us keep on praying and adding more names to this list.
How much are we as individuals and as a church praying for those who are doing the work of God in missions? Are we praying regularly for Peter & Anne Kroeker, Elvira Friesen, Chris & Revita, Ray, Karen and others? What would God do if we prayed more regularly? There is a group going on a short term mission project next week. Will we pray that God will use their work to build his kingdom?
If we are concerned for the spiritual growth of our children and ourselves, if we desire the kingdom of God to grow in Rosenort and beyond, we must bend our effort to deep and consistent prayer.
God has sent you an invitation to a very important work. Will you take it up?