Holiness, Me and the Church – Part 9

The Prayer of Faith

Based on a sermon from Sunday 24th July 2022

James 5:13-20

Since Easter we have been studying the Epistle of James, who is writing to Christians and teaching them what it means to be a mature Christian.  First, we’re to be patient when we find ourselves in testing times.  Second, we’re to practice the truth at all times, and thirdly we’re to have power over the tongue.  We’ve also looked at how we need to have and use Godly wisdom – where our deeds, words and actions are in tune with God’s plan and purpose for us.

Last week we looked at patience in suffering; Christians who are being oppressed.  He urges us to stay patient as we wait.  The day of the Lord, the very same one that our oppressors should be dreading, is one we can look forward to.  It will come.  The Lord is standing at the door and is ready.

In today’s section James focusses on prayer, including that we are to pray and praise God (James 5:13).  Prayer is certainly a high and holy privilege.  Think on this: as God’s children, we can come freely and boldly to His throne and share with Him our needs! 

“Is any of you in trouble?” (v13).  As God’s people going through life, we will endure difficulties that are not the result of sin or the chastening of God.  What should we do when we find ourselves in such trying circumstances?  Well, we’re not to grumble and criticise those who appear to be having an easier time of it (James 5:9); nor should we blame the Lord.  Instead, we should pray, asking God for the wisdom we need to understand the situation and use it to His glory (James 1:5).

No doubt about it, prayer can remove affliction.  But prayer can also give us the grace we need to endure troubles and use them to accomplish God’s perfect will because God can transform troubles into triumphs, as we read in 4:6 “He gives us more grace”.  Jesus prayed in Gethsemane that the cup might be removed, and it was not; yet the Father gave Him the strength He needed to go to the cross and die for our sins.

James indicates that we don’t go through troubles at the same time:  “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (James 5:13).  God balances our lives and gives us hours of suffering and days of singing.  The mature Christian knows how to sing while he is suffering.  (Anybody can sing after the trouble has passed.)  God is able to give “songs in the night” (Job 35:10).  He did this for Paul and Silas when they were suffering in that Philippian jail.  “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and sang hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).

As praying and singing were important elements in worship in the early church, so they should be important to us.  Our singing ought to be an expression of our inner spiritual life.  Our praise should come from the heart (Eph. 5:19) and be motivated by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18).

I do not think that James gave us a blanket formula for healing the sick.  Over the course of my Christian journey I have, with others, prayed for the sick, and sometimes God has given healing.  But other times, He has not seen fit to heal the person.  I remember praying for one person and they received healing, then praying for someone else and they did not!

In verse 15 James states that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.”  This does not refer to the faith of the sick person, but to the faith of the people praying.  We need to realise that God heals, faith doesn’t, and all prayers are subject to God’s will.  It is also important to realise that our prayers are part of God’s healing process.  That is why God often waits for our prayers of faith before intervening to heal a person.

Christ’s death on the cross has made it possible for us to go directly to God for forgiveness (5:16).  But confessing our sins to each other still has an important place in the life of the church.  So if we have sinned against an individual, we must ask them to forgive us.  If our sin has affected the church, we must confess it publicly.  If we need loving support as we struggle with a sin, we should confess that sin to those who are able to provide that support.  If, after confessing a private sin to God, we still don’t feel His forgiveness, we may wish to confess that sin to a fellow believer and hear him or her assure us of God’s pardon.  In Christ’s kingdom, every believer is a priest to other believers (1 Peter 2:9).

So, the practical lessons from this section must not be overlooked.  For one thing, disobedience to God can lead to sickness.  This was David’s experience when he tried to hide his sins (Ps. 32).  Second, we never sin alone, for sin has a way of growing and infecting others, including the church!  Third, there is a great healing (physical and spiritual) when sin is dealt with, (See Proverbs 28:13)James is being tough here.  In essence he is saying, “Make it a habit to confess your sins to each other”.  So, do not hide sin or delay confession, because our most powerful resource is communion with God through prayer.  The results are often greater than we thought were possible.  Because God’s power is infinitely greater than ours, it only makes sense to rely on it – especially because God encourages us to do so.  Prayer power is the greatest power in the world today.

But how often have you thought that your prayers won’t be answered, or haven’t been answered because you feel that you are not good enough to be in God’s presence and ask?  We look at Biblical characters like Elijah and say, of course God answered his prayers, he was after all a prophet of God!  But listen again to what James says… “Elijah was a man just like us,” (5:17).  In other words, he was not perfect; in fact, right after his glorious victory on Mount Carmel, Elijah became afraid and discouraged and ran away.  But he was a “righteous man,” that is, obedient to the Lord and trusting Him.  God’s promises of answered prayer are for all His children, not just for ones we may call the spiritual elite.  Elijah prayed in faith, for God told him He would send the rain (1 Kings 18:1).  It has been said that prayer is not getting man’s will done in heaven. It’s getting God’s will done on earth (Robert Law).  Elijah was not only believing in his praying, but he was persistent.  “He prayed … and he prayed again” (James 5:17-18).

James concludes his letter with a challenge to his readers: make an attempt to bring back those among you who have wandered from the truth.  He refers to people who were once part of the Christian community but have lost their way.  Perhaps James has in mind believers who became spiritually weak.  Perhaps these were never true believers in Christ, at all, but merely part of the community.  In either case, they’ve wandered away after false ideas.

James doesn’t address how we might accomplish this rescue, only that we should try.  Even reaching out to someone who has wandered from God’s truth, with grace and compassion, is sometimes enough to bring them back into the community.  However we reach out it should be made with great love and concern for their souls.  James is not speaking of condemnation, judgement, or arrogance. He’s speaking of a sincere interest – a loving effort – to help someone else.

So these final verses that close out the letter are encouraging those who believe in God to show it.  This is most readily shown by praying in response to every circumstance.  We should pray for ourselves, praise God, and invite the spiritual leaders of our churches to pray for us when we are sick, or spiritually weak.  Healing will follow; sins will be forgiven.  We should confess sins to each other so we can pray for strength for each other to overcome sin.  Prayer works; God hears and responds.  If we really believe this is true, our behaviour will reflect it.

James’ letter is a very practical one, it’s emphasis is on faith in action.  God calls every believer to serve with compassion and grace, and to live in obedience to His commands.  When we do this, we are able to love one another.  When we show such love we are bringing glory to God as we show that heaven is here on earth.  All of this helps to draw people to Christ so they too find God’s amazing love for themselves.

In a nutshell, James’ letter encourages us to believe in God, place our faith in Him, and place our trust in Him.  Such belief, faith and trust needs hands and feet if Christ’s church is to grow here, and these hands and feet are yours and mine!

Living thoughts

This is an opportunity to spend time alone with God.  The more time you spend with Him the more you will get to know Him as He reveals more of who He is to your heart, soul and spirit.  This time will be personal and wholly unique to your faith journey with Him.  Re read the Bible passages above and the sermon before considering these questions…

Digging into God’s word

This brings us to the end of our study of James. His emphasis has been spiritual maturity. This would be a good time for us to examine our own hearts to see how mature we really are. Here are a few questions to assist you:

  1. Am I becoming more and more patient in the testings of life?
  2. Do I play with temptation or resist it from the start?
  3. Do I find joy in obeying the Word of God, or do I merely study it and learn it?
  4. Are there any prejudices that shackle me?
  5. Am I able to control my tongue?
  6. Am I a peacemaker rather than a troublemaker?
  7. Do people come to me for spiritual wisdom?
  8. Am I a friend of God or a friend of the world?
  9. Do I make plans without considering the will of God?
  10. Am I selfish when it comes to money? Am I unfaithful in the paying of my bills?
  11. Do I naturally depend on prayer when I find myself in some kind of trouble?
  12. Am I the kind of person others seek for prayer support?
  13. What is my attitude toward the wandering brother? Do I criticise and gossip, or do I seek to restore him in love?

God doesn’t want you to just grow old—His heart is for you to continually grow in spiritual maturity.

Prayer Response

Lord, we praise you for your straightforwardness.  You make it plain to hearts that want to know what you are saying and foolish to those who just want to fight you.

We thank you for the power in Christ we have to choose peace even when peace is not offered from others.  We always have the choice of how we will react and if we will choose to sow peace or harshness.  May we believe your truth and put it into practice: “A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word provokes anger.”

Give us the strength, wisdom, and courage to sow in peace so we can reap a harvest of righteousness, which reflects your divine character.

In the One who was tortured for our sins, yet still asked for us all to be forgiven, realising we didn’t know what we were doing – Amen.

All Saints

Based on the reading from St John 11:32-45, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

Have you ever felt as if God had let you down, had withdrawn His protecting arm from you? Even the question seems foolish, because we know the answer before we ask it. I know many who have walked hospital corridors with loved ones and seen their prayers go seemingly unanswered. As a parent I prayed earnestly for my son John’s healing, but to no avail.

How many times have you said, or heard it said; “Look, if prayer is the answer, why don’t I get an answer to my prayers? Why doesn’t God speak?

Why doesn’t He at least offer an explanation? Why is He so silent?” This is a common experience for us.

Before we pronounce judgement against the silence of God, we must remember that God’s knowledge is greater than our own. He knows both the beginning and the end of the road. We know only the beginning, and the part we’re traveling on now. So who are we to assume that we know what is ultimately best for us?  You see God may seemingly deny what we ask in order to give us something better. This I believe is a point we can take from our Gospel reading.

Lazarus has fallen ill, and his sisters, Mary and Martha, sent a message to Jesus that their brother was ill and that Jesus should come quickly and heal him. But Jesus dawdled and dallied around for three days. So Lazarus dies. When Jesus finally arrived on the scene Mary rebukes Jesus: “If you had been here, our brother would not have died. But you didn’t listen to our prayer.”

But wait, they didn’t realise that God, through Christ, had passed the miracle of healing to display the greater miracle of resurrection from the dead.  And this is so, even though the people who are sitting and mourning the death of Lazarus have seen God’s power on display through the miracles and signs Jesus performed. They have seen him perform astounding healing miracles and Mary, at least, firmly believes that if Jesus had been there when Lazarus was ill, Jesus would have been able to heal him.

But even she has not yet grasped the fullness of what Jesus is capable of, while some of the others who are keeping her company are openly sceptical. They see Lazarus’ death as a sign that Jesus’ power is either waning, or perhaps was never as great as people made out. Perhaps, they guess, Lazarus was too seriously ill for Jesus to heal him. Perhaps Jesus really isn’t all that special.  Certainly, Jesus seems very vulnerable and shaken as He faces this death of a friend. In this He is not different from the rest of us in feeling the awful separation.

Although He speaks to Mary with absolute confidence, and acts decisively, still we are told that He is “greatly disturbed”.  But His sense of loss does not prevent Him from trusting in God and acting for God. Even Martha and Mary, two of Jesus’ most ardent supporters, do not believe that He can do anything for their brother now that he is actually dead.

Already, the processes of decay are starting, and Martha and Mary expect nothing from Jesus, except that He will share their grief.  And, indeed, He does share their grief, but not so strongly that He loses touch with God.  This is a key truth – no matter what was before Jesus He never lost touch with His heavenly Father.

Moved and saddened as He is, He steps up to Lazarus’ tomb and calls his friend back to life. And instantly, Lazarus responds. This is, after all, the voice that called all creation into being.

It is hard not to envy Jesus with His power to bring His friend back to life. How we have longed to be able to do the same for someone we love. But Jesus tells Mary that He is doing this so that she — and all the watching crowds — “would see the glory of God”.

That is why Jesus calls Lazarus back from death, not because He cannot bear to be without him. You see Jesus knows that soon enough He himself will face the dead, and that His ordinary human relationships will change for ever. But in the meantime Lazarus is alive again to show the power and glory of God.

Mary and Martha believed that death was the end, but Jesus showed them that there is no end to a life lived in love of God. This is the glory of God.  This is the very nature of God that God is life and that nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from the overwhelming life and love of God.

So the Christian belief in life after death is a belief in the never-ending vitality of God. It is not a sentimental and unrealistic desire to maintain unchanged our precious human relationships, but a realisation that our love for each other mirrors in a small and imperfect way God’s love for us and his creation.  Therefore, we can trust our God absolutely with those we love as well as with our own life.

Living thoughts

We’re now in a season of remembering, so we will do something different this week. Instead of Digging into God’s Word you’ll have an opportunity to remember those who have gone before us. Maybe you would like to have a candle to light. Why do we on such occasions light a candle in memory of a dear departed loved one?

Lighting a candle is a prayer:

When we have gone it stays alight, kindling in the hearts and minds of others the prayers we have already offered for them.

Lighting a candle is a parable:

Burning itself out it gives light to others.  Christ gave himself for others. He calls us to give ourselves.

Lighting a candle is a symbol:

Of love and hope, of light and warmth.  Our world needs them all.

A Service of Light

We remember before God those whom we love and light a candle to symbolise the light of Christ which eternally shines and brings hope. Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’

You O Lord are my lamp – You turn our darkness into light

With you O Lord is the well of life – In your light shall we see light

Jesus Christ is the light of the world – A light no darkness can quench

Light a candle in memory of a dearly departed loved one.

Prayer Response

Jesus, Son of the Living God, you summoned your friend Lazarus from death to life: raise us at the last to full and eternal life with you.

Hear us, risen Lord, our resurrection and our life.

Dear Heavenly Father, thank You, Lord for loving me and reminding me of Your Truth. Help me keep my eyes on You, especially in times of fear. May I remember that You can use all things for my good and Your glory. Give me a heart that trusts, and take away the desire to lean on my own understanding. Thank You for Your protection, provision, and presence!

Hear us, risen Lord, our resurrection and our life.

Father, I want to live in the shadow of Your wing. When life is hard, and I don’t know what to do, help me remember that You are with me and that I am never alone. I cannot live without You. I cannot face tomorrow without the promise of Your presence. Today I choose to walk and live under the protection of You, The Most High and only true God.

Hear us, risen Lord, our resurrection and our life.

The Lord’s Prayer: A Model of How to Talk with God

Regardless of how long you have been a Christian I’m sure that you have wondered how to pray.  Jesus’ disciples asked him this same question (Matthew 6:5-15).  His response was The Lord’s Prayer.  But this prayer isn’t intended as a prayer to be recited repeatedly (see Matthew 6:7).  Instead, Jesus is telling us how to talk to our heavenly Father.

This teaching from Jesus on prayer begins by setting the right framework.  When we begin to engage in a conversation with God, we need to remember who we are talking to — the Creator of the universe who cares for each one of us.  He knows how many hairs there are on our head! (Luke 12:7).  Along with this we need to recognise that God is to be set apart and revered (“hallowed be your name”).

Next, we need to recognise that God wants to be intimately involved in every part of our life.  Even though we may sometimes feel that our daily needs are not important enough for God to bother with.  Often I have heard people say that they don’t want to bother God considering all the suffering in the world.  That is a scheme of the enemy: to think that God doesn’t have time for us, and that if we pray He won’t be listening because He’s too busy doing stuff that is way more important.

In Jim Carey’s film Bruce Almighty he plays the character Bruce who thinks he can do just as well as God.  God hears of this and meets him, giving him his powers to prove that he is doing the job correctly.

As time goes on, Bruce realises that he is hearing voices in his head.  He re-encounters God, who explains that the voices are prayers, meant for God, and that he must deal with them.  He gets swamped with all the prayers people offer to God.  It is too much for his human nature to respond to!

Bruce’s experience is not how God is.  He cares intimately for each one of us and if we believe in His infinite love then we have to believe in His infinite capacity to listen, hear and understand all our needs.  That’s why Jesus taught each of us to pray that His Heavenly Father’s plans will be worked out in our life (“your will be done”). 

What is the practical implication of this in our life, “your will be done”?  Think of a parent/carer bringing up a child.  When Anna started to crawl we had to be aware of what she was doing, where she was heading and very often we had to warn her that what she was about to do was dangerous.  In this she learnt to yield to our voice and commands, so when she heard us warning her, she knew she had to respond because there was good reason to do so.  It is the same for us.  As God’s children created in His image, He is calling us to yield to His will and follow His commands, because there is good reason to do so.  They are beneficial to our health physically, emotionally and spiritually.  That’s also why we bring before God even the most mundane matters of everyday living (“give us today our daily bread”).  God is always in the detail.

Next we need to look at our sin.  Because sin creates a barrier between us and God and between us and others, God wants us to admit what we’ve done wrong (“forgive us our debts”) and He then instructs us to forgive those who have wronged us (“as we also have forgiven our debtors”).  Matthew 6:14 and 15 underscore the importance of forgiving those who have hurt us.

14For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

If you are like me, you may well think that Jesus is being harsh here!  These two verses give us a startling warning about forgiveness: if we refuse to forgive others, God will also refuse to forgive us.  Why?  Because when we don’t forgive others, we are denying our common ground as sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness of sin is not the direct result of our forgiving others, but it is based on our realising what forgiveness means.  You see, God does not forgive us because we forgive others, but solely because of His great mercy.  As we come to understand His mercy, however, we will want to be like Him.  Having received forgiveness, we will then want to pass it on to others.  The simple truth is this, those who are unwilling to forgive have not become one with Christ, who was willing to even forgive those who crucified Him (Ephesians 4:32; Luke 24:34).  Out of the two it is easier to ask God for forgiveness, than it is to grant it to others.  What Jesus is wanting us to do is that whenever we ask God to forgive us for sin, we should ask ourselves, “Have I forgiven the people who have wronged me?”

Finally, God wants us to live free from the painful consequences of sinful choices, so we pray “lead us not into temptation”.  We say this not because God tempts people to sin, but because we need His help to avoid temptation.

Understand this truth: God doesn’t lead us into temptations, but sometimes He allows us to be tested by them.  This is exactly what He did to His Son Jesus.  He led Him, by the Spirit, into the wilderness where He was tempted by Satan.  Satan is real, he is not symbolic, and is constantly fighting against those who follow and obey God, so as Jesus did, and as His disciples, we should pray to be delivered from any trying times and for deliverance from Satan (“the evil one”) and his deceit.   As testing times and temptations will come we need to be alert and ready for it.  Satan’s role is to try and get us to live his way, or our way, rather than God’s way. 

I am not unlike you: as a Christian I struggle with temptation.  Sometimes it is so subtle that I don’t even realise when it is happening to me.  When temptations seem especially strong or when you think you can rationalise giving in, consider whether Satan may be trying to block God’s purposes for your life, or someone else’s life.  But remember this truth that we need to know about temptation – temptation itself is not a sin!  We sin when we give in and disobey God.  Knowing and remembering this truth will help us to turn away from temptation.

Another truth is this: God has promised that He won’t allow any of us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).  Ask God to help you recognise temptation and to give you strength to overcome it and choose God’s way instead.

The Good News is this: we can believe all that Scriptures teaches about how we are to respond to God’s will and plans for us through Jesus because God cares about us and listens to what we have to say.  As our heavenly Father, He occupies a place of great power, and He listens, hears and does answer our prayers.

The essence of all prayer is communication with God, offered to Him from a sincere and contrite heart through His Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We can never pray too much, all God asks is that we do it and mean what we say!

When we get a good handle on our personal and private prayer then we will be better equipped to engage in other types of prayer which we will explore on other occasions

Living thoughts

Why not write down your thoughts as you ponder these questions.  Perhaps you could share your reflections with others.

Digging into God’s Word

  1. Can you identify the following types of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer?

Praise, petition, intercession, and confession to God. (Matthew 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4).

2. Can you write prayers of praise, petition, intercession, and confession to God?

3. The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t include a prayer of thanksgiving. Look at the following verses and describe a prayer of thanksgiving.

  • 2 Samuel 22
  • Psalm 63
  • Luke 1:38
  • Luke 22:39–44
  • Romans 12:1
  • Hebrews 10:1–25
  • Hebrews 13:15–16

Digging deeper into God’s Word

How do the following verses teach us to remember when prayers seem to go unanswered?

  • Psalm 37:3–9
  • Isaiah 55
  • Habakkuk 3:17–19
  • Luke 18:1–8
  • James 4:2–3
  • 1 John 5:14–15

Prayer Response

Dear Heavenly Father, thank You, Lord for loving me and reminding me of Your Truth.  Help me to keep my eyes on You, especially in times of fear.  May I remember that You can use all things for my good and Your glory.  Give me a heart that trusts, and take away the desire to lean on my own understanding.  Thank You for Your protection, provision, and presence!  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Father, I want to live in the shadow of Your wing.  When life is hard, and I don’t know what to do, help me remember that You are with me and that I am never alone.  I cannot live without You.  I cannot face tomorrow without the promise of Your presence.  Today I choose to walk and live under the protection of You, The Most High. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Soaking in the Holy Spirit

John 17:6-19

How many of us have travelled down single-track narrow country lanes only to come face to face with an articulated lorry.  You think, “what on earth is this doing down here?”  There are many stories of lorries getting stuck down routes unsuitable for them.  Most of them probably caused by the driver obeying the instructions of the SAT NAV taking it on the “shortest” route!

You also hear of car drivers who have carried on into muddy fields, or down near-impassable and treacherous tracks, obeying the electronic voice despite the fact that this looks nothing like Acacia Avenue, or wherever they are heading.  Indeed, there’s a field in Gloucestershire where, famously, the farmer regularly has to rescue stranded car drivers with his tractor.  Of course they have been led, or perhaps misled, there by their satnavs.

Many people do find satnavs really helpful, and they have their place in today’s motoring, but a satnav can be no substitute for the overall picture.  If you’re going somewhere unfamiliar, there’s really no substitute for getting the map out and “exploring” the landscape on paper, trying to “inhabit” it, so that you really get to know the area, and let the route and terrain sink into your awareness.  Otherwise you end up blindly following the route, having no clue as to where you are in relation to where you’ve come from.

 Today’s Gospel reading is a complex passage, set in the context of some dense theology.  Jesus is commissioning his disciples to continue His mission after He is no longer with them.  Elsewhere in this great prayer His focus is on unity.  Here, it is on truth – the beautiful truth of God’s word.  The passage repeatedly refers to God’s word – a reference both to Jesus himself, as well as to the word of life for the world which Jesus offers and embodies.

Jesus is unique because He is distinct from the world.  He is the overview!  As His followers, we are to be distinct from the world, offering a clear overview of who Jesus is.  As Jesus revealed the character of God, so are we to reveal the character of God.  This will put us at odds with the world.

Yet at the same time, Jesus speaks God’s word into the world.  The first people to understand this are the disciples, and it is up to them to carry that into the world.  They will be able to do this, because as we heard in our passage from John’s Gospel, God will immerse them in the truth and protect them.

It may seem surprising that John does not explicitly mention the Spirit in this passage, but the work of the Spirit is implied throughout.  In verse 17 Jesus prays; “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”  Sanctification means “to make holy”. To sanctify is literally to “set something apart for a particular use in a special purpose or work and to make holy or sacred.”.  In the Christian context this involves being “immersed” in the Spirit.

I believe this is also seen vividly in our first reading, when Peter stood up among the believers and declared that what had happened to Jesus was by the Holy Spirit.  In this Peter was speaking the truth of God’s word.

So in these verses Jesus is asking God to immerse the disciples with the Spirit and His truth in such a way that it is soaked into them so that they become living words of truth.  This then gives us an overview of who God is!

Being soaked in this way means that we will naturally walk and speak the truth of God’s word.  We will become like walking maps, knowing how to walk in God’s ways and showing others the way of truth.

In this week between Ascension and Pentecost, our minds are directed towards the coming Holy Spirit, which is about to be poured upon the fledgling Church.  As we await His arrival, our task is to understand what it will mean for us to follow Jesus in the power of the same Spirit that anointed Him for His ministry.  This will mean bringing God’s word of grace powerfully to a needy world, and may also mean suffering for the sake of truth.

So how can we use this text to help us in our preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit?

Well, for one thing, we can allow ourselves to soak in the word of God, by reading, and so learning and knowing scripture.  The daily application of God’s word has a purifying effect on our minds and hearts.  Scripture points out sin, motivates us to confess, renews our relationship with Christ, and guides us back to the right path.  At times this seems like a chore, a bit of a drag… well at times it does to me!  But it is so important to immerse ourselves in Scripture.  It is such an important lifeline.

There is another way we can soak in the Word of God; through prayer, praise and sacrament.  In other words, through worshipping the one true God every minute of every day.  Our whole life should be an act of worship – because all that we do should bring glory to God.

The prayer initiative “Thy Kingdom Come” gives us an amazing opportunity to do this, as we pray for those who we long to experience the love of God for themselves in a personal and meaningful way.  Praying is an awesome tool that God has given us.  It has the power to transform situations, to transform lives, to transform the atmosphere from hostility to acceptance, peace and love. 

Prayer helps us to explore and inhabit our landscape, it can be our SATNAV so that through the power of the Holy Spirit we really get to know our area, and all its needs!  Without the prayers of the first disciples praying “Thy Kingdom Come” we would not be here today.  The Jesus movement would have died out when the first disciples died. 

I implore you to commit yourself over the coming week to pray for your neighbours, family and friends so they too come to know Jesus personally for themselves.  But don’t stop there, commit to praying also for our communities.

The “Thy Kingdom Come” website has plenty of resources available to guide you through this in a powerful and mighty way.  Google “Thy Kingdom Come” and you will find it.

As we pray, we will naturally recommit ourselves to the life of the body of Christ here in this place.  You see, prayer draws us together and it is together that we are called to make God’s word of love known.

So this prayer found in John 17 is not only for us to be formed together around the word of God, but also for our community, for our friends to also be formed together around the word of God.

Let’s do this over the coming week as we, like the first disciples, wait together for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  This is a week to pray daily for the Spirit to come and soak us, our friends and our communities again in the truth of God’s most wondrous and beautiful Word.

Alleluia, Christ is risen and ascended!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Living thoughts

Read John 17:6-19 slowly, several times.  Let the words sink in as they speak to you. 

  • What strikes you the most? 
  • What challenges you the most? 
  • How do they speak to you of God’s love for you?

Gracious God,

in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ,

you have given us eternal life

and glorified your name in all the world.

Refresh our souls with the living streams of your truth,

that in our unity, your joy may be complete. Amen.


Spirituality of Fund-raising Part 6

Prayer and Gratitude

Today we’re looking at prayer and gratitude.  Prayer is essential to a Christian and needs to be learnt as a discipline as we grow in our daily walk with Jesus.

There have been many occasions when I have known the importance of prayer in my life, no more so than when we were experiencing difficulties with the challenging behaviour our oldest daughter Rachel was exhibiting as a teenager!  We didn’t know where to start.  Actually we didn’t know how to pray, let alone where to start!  Eventually I realised that we should ask God how He wanted us to pray.  That was what we He was saying to us – “Ask me how to pray”!

When I did this He gave a clear and simple strategy and vision: praise Him for Rachel.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Anything more would have meant that I was overstepping the boundaries He was clearly setting out for us.  Anything less would have been an act of rebellion toward God.

We really didn’t want to do this, because her behaviour was testing us to the limit.  But when we got on board with God’s vision and strategy for how He wanted us to deal with, and pray for Rachel we gradually began to see a positive change.  So much so that Rachel herself, after about three months, asked us what we were doing because she could see that we had changed and that she also could see that she herself was changing for the better.  When we confessed what we were doing, because God had told us so, she did stomp off, but we were undeterred!  We’d got in the habit of praising God for her, so we held on and remained obedient to the vision and strategy God had given us.  He was true to His word.

Praying in a disciplined way, the way God had commanded us to pray, meant that we went from hostility and suspicion to hospitality and greater love for Rachel.  We were grateful for Rachel in a new way.  We had a new attitude of gratitude toward Rachel.

I know we weren’t praying for money with Rachel, but we couldn’t have done this if our security base in God wasn’t strong, so how do we become people whose security base is God and God alone?  How can we stand confidently with rich and poor alike on the common ground of God’s love?  How can we ask for money without pleading, and call people to a new communion without coercing?  How can we express not only in our way of speaking but also in our way of being with others the joy, vitality, and promise of our mission and vision?  In short, how do we move from perceiving fund-raising as an unpleasant but unavoidable activity to recognising fund-raising as a life-giving, hope-filled expression of ministry?

For us, with Rachel, prayer was the spiritual discipline through which our hearts and minds were converted from hostility and suspicion to hospitality and greater love for Rachel.  Our thoughts and attitudes about her were reoriented toward God, and not self.  So, with regard to fund-raising the same principle applies; prayer is the spiritual discipline through which our mind and heart is converted from hostility and suspicion to hospitality toward those who have money.  Gratitude is the sign that this conversion is spreading into all aspects of our life.  From beginning to end, fund-raising as ministry has to be grounded in prayer and undertaken in gratitude.

Prayer is the radical starting point of fund-raising because in prayer we slowly experience a reorientation of all our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others.  To pray is to desire to know more fully the truth that sets us free (see John 8:32).  It helps us discover the truth of our identity in Jesus.  For us with Rachel, God’s truth was to praise Him for her.  So, prayer has the power to uncover the hidden motives and unacknowledged wounds that shape our relationships.  As we praised God Barbara and I had a lot of confessing to do in regards to the mistakes we’d made in bringing Rachel up.  The Good News of prayer is that it allows us to see ourselves as God sees us.

Prayer is radical because it uncovers the deepest roots of our identity in God.  In prayer we seek God’s voice and allow God’s word to penetrate our fear and resistance so that we can begin to hear what God wants us to know.  And what God wants us to know is that before we think or do or accomplish anything, before we have much money or little money, the deepest truth of our human identity is this: “You are my beloved son.  You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased” (see Luke 3:22).  When we can claim this truth as true for us, then we also see that it is true for all other people who claim this to be true for themselves, regardless of who they are, and what we think of them.  God is well pleased with us, and so we are free to approach all people, the rich or the poor, in the freedom of God’s love.  Whether people respond to our fund-raising appeal with a “Yes,” a “No,” or a “Maybe” is less important than the knowledge that we all are gathered as one on the holy ground of God’s generous disposition toward us.  In prayer, therefore, we learn to trust that God can work fruitfully through us no matter where we are or who we are with.

So, God commands us to be grateful; it is for our benefit, not His, that we are.  If you list out the ways God has loved you – He saved you, redeemed you, made a way for you, has forgiven you, lives in you, is transforming you, welcomes you into heaven, – we will be reminded of the magnitude of His love for us.

Hebrews 13:15 says,

“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name.”

In this context, what is confession?  It is acknowledging and recognising God’s hand at work, which in turn requires looking for the places where God is at work.  It’s easy to go through the day focused on self; what I am trying to accomplish, overcome, or fix?  A posture of gratitude keeps my thoughts focused on God and what He is doing in me and around me.  It reminds me that I am not alone.

Gratitude is all about paying attention.  It’s a habit of noticing, and responding to what God is doing.  Becoming continually God-focused and grateful takes practice.

As our prayer deepens into a constant awareness of God’s goodness, the spirit of gratitude grows within us.  Gratitude flows from the recognition that who we are and what we have are gifts to be received and shared.  Gratitude releases us from the bonds of obligation and prepares us to offer ourselves freely and fully for the work of the Kingdom.  When we approach fund-raising in a spirit of gratitude, we do so knowing that God has already given us what we most need for life in abundance.  Therefore, our confidence in our mission and vision, and our freedom to love the person to whom we are talking about donating money, do not depend on how that person responds.  In this way, gratitude allows us to approach a fund-raising meeting without grasping neediness and to leave it without resentment or dejection.  Coming and going, we can remain secure in God’s love with our hearts set joyfully on His eternal Kingdom.

Living thoughts

This is your opportunity to spend time alone with God.  The more time you spend with Him the more you will get to know Him as He reveals more of who He is to your heart, soul and spirit.  This time will be personal and wholly unique to your faith journey with Him.

Read again the two passages from Scripture, (Psalm 100 and John 5:18-23), and let them speak to you afresh in the light of giving, stewardship, fund-raising as ministry and developing an attitude of gratitude.  As God speaks to you, why not write in your journal what you sense God is saying to you.

The benefit of writing down your thoughts helps you to check them against Scripture, and then plants them more firmly in your heart and mind than just simply thinking on things.

Please consider these questions based on this week’s sermon:

  1. How do we become people whose security base is God and God alone?
  2. How do we move from perceiving fund-raising as an unpleasant but unavoidable activity to recognising fund-raising as a life-giving, hope-filled expression of ministry?

Go into a quiet place and invite God to show you how He wants you to respond this question.

As you ponder on it why not write down your thoughts and share any reflections with others.

Prayer Response

Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous;

teach me to serve you as you deserve,

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labour and not to seek reward,

except that of knowing that I do your will.

Amen.

St. Ignatius Loyola

Church discipline

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will bebound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven. 19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

Who understands verse 19 of our Gospel passage to mean that if you and someone else agree about something here on earth it will be done for you by God?  For a long time, I thought that if I asked for something of God and someone else agreed with me then it would be done for me by my Father in heaven.

As I have journeyed with Christ over many years I have grown to understand that God doesn’t quite work like this!  I can’t give Him a shopping list of wants or desires, even if I have found someone who agrees they are good for me, or good for others. 

Actually such an understanding of verse 19 is completely wrong.  This verse can so easily be taken out of context, because it is tied up with the verses that come immediately before it.  Which are all to do with church discipline. 

Here, Jesus is teaching His disciples, who became the Apostles of Christ, the first leaders of the church, how brothers and sisters in Christ are to deal with those who sin against each other.  Therefore, verse 19 is all about discipline.

So how is church discipline to work? If a professed Christian is wronged by another, they are not to complain of it to others.  In other words, they are not to gossip, as too often is done.  Instead they are to go to the offender privately, and state kindly the matter.  This should resolve things.  But Jesus knows that because of our human frailty it won’t always work like that.

So if the first approach does not work you are to take one or two others along with you.  These are not necessarily eyewitnesses of the sin, but those who can testify as to how the attempt at reconciliation goes. If the reconciliation fails, we are to treat them as an unrepentant sinner.

Paul commanded the Thessalonian Christians to observe this principle, saying, In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

The church is to relate to the rebellious person as an outsider, a person of no faith, – spiritually dead.

Therefore, we have to understand three things about this teaching of Jesus…

  1. That it is for Christians, not unbelievers
  2. That it is for sins committed against you, and not against others
  3. That this is how we are to resolve conflict in the church, not the community at large.

It would be difficult to resolve issues between people using Christian principles, if they don’t subscribe to such concepts.

The first recipients of this Gospel were Jews, and this would have reminded them of passages in Deuteronomy, concerning the law.  Deuteronomy 17 and 19 speak of 2 or 3 witnesses gathered to testify in court.  The witnesses were necessary to establish a case in court.

So we need to know our Scripture, because when you read these 6 verses from Matthew chapter 18 we find that this whole chapter is about Jesus teaching His disciples how they should handle situations of interpersonal sin and conflict.  These instructions from Jesus immediately follow His parable about the lost sheep (which emphasises restoring someone who has gone astray) and precedes the parable of the unmerciful servant (which is about being willing to cancel and forgive an outstanding debt). The themes that are present in these 6 verses are forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation with a brother or sister in Christ who has sinned against you or who has gone astray.

Therefore, when two of you agree, or have the same mind, feelings, and opinion, about the sin that has been committed, and if forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation has been achieved between the parties involved, whatever you ask of God in this situation will be done for you.  This teaches us that as Christians we have a responsibility to maintain the welfare of God’s church in a wholesome and life-giving way.  For such a way brings unity.

Our first reading from Act 1 shows the church putting these words of Jesus into practice.  The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15: 1-29 is another illustration of how the early church dealt with conflict.  And the common factor in these examples is prayer.

So to resolve conflict, prayer has to be at the centre, but those who pray must be gathered together in the name of Christ, for this means that they are doing three things:

  1. Trusting that Jesus is interceding for them
  2. Praying in a way that their words are not utterances of the natural but of the spiritual person
  3. Asking in entire, total submission to the will of their Father in heaven

If these three things are not there then such prayers are like the prayer of the sons of Zebedee, when their mother asked Jesus if they could sit at His right and left hand in Heaven.  Because this was not the will of God it would not be granted.  As followers of Jesus they would get to heaven but what they set their hearts on would not be granted (Matthew 20:20).

Praying in accordance with God’s will is so important, for when we do, our requests will be granted by our Father in Heaven. whether we pray as individuals or as a church.

Of course, this is to be understood with some restriction.  The request must be reasonable, good in itself, expedient for the petitioner; the prayer must be earnest, faithful, persevering and in line with God’s plumb line truth.  If such conditions are satisfied, the desire will be granted in some form, though, perhaps, not in the way or at the time expected.

So in all our proceedings, including church discipline, it is essential that we seek direction in prayer; we cannot prize too highly the promises that this brings us, because Jesus ends this teaching with a blessing, saying that He will always be with us.

Based on a sermon first delivered on Sunday 6th September 2020

Overcoming fear

Luke 22:39-46

Have you ever been caught up in moment when you’ve agreed to buy something and you suddenly panic and think “have I got enough money to pay for this?”.  This may be something you’ve felt when you’ve gone to the supermarket.  The trolley is full to over-flowing, but have you enough to pay for it?  Perhaps you like to go to auction houses and bid on items that you collect and the bidding spirals upwards and you cannot keep you hand down!

That feeling of panic can incite fear into the depths of your very being.  You may well think, “What am I doing?” At times our human nature doesn’t always know when to stop.  It can be like trying to stop a large ship, it can take miles.  So, can I pay the bill?

The Lord Jesus is just like us.  He is fearful as to his human nature; “Take this cup away from me but let not my will but your will be done” (Luke 22:42).  These words are a source of encouragement, a source of hope, for when we are in fear we can recall that the Lord himself in his humanity faced fear too; fear far worse than any we will ever face.

But He is not like us for He has a choice.  Even when He says, “I am He” as he is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane (John 18:5) this invocation of the divine name causes the soldiers to fall on the ground in terror.  They thought that they had come to arrest a meek peasant, but instead in the dim light they were confronted by a truly majestic person.  Often we have no choice in our suffering, but the Lord has both the means to escape suffering – one angel is terrifying while a legion would be overwhelming – and the grounds for escape, for He, unlike us, is totally innocent of any wrong-doing.  Death has no jurisdiction over Him, yet death is lingering in the shadows.

But Jesus is treated as a criminal. He willingly takes the cup of suffering that we deserve, the cup of God’s judgement on our sin, and He freely drinks it for the love He has for us.

My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Where does sorrow and suffering come from?  From sin.  From our sin.  Yet Jesus is sinless!  Is it from this moment in the Garden that Jesus starts to feel the weight of carrying our sorrow and our sin to the cross?  One thing we do know for certain is that as the man of sorrows Jesus is acquainted with any sorrow and suffering that we too go through.

So Gethsemane shows us that Jesus is a man of sorrow.  Gethsemane also shows that Jesus is a man of prayer.  What is prayer?  Well one thing I think that these verses tell us is that prayer is a confession of weakness!  Think about it.  Godly prayer is a recognition that we are totally dependent on our Heavenly Father.  When we know this,  we see our weaknesses, and led by the Holy Spirit we want to confess them so we can be rid of them.  But Jesus was also God so why did He need to pray?  Well, Philippians 2 gives us a clue: He humbled himself becoming a servant.  I still find praying on my own very hard.  Over the years I have improved, but there are times when I feel ashamed at how weak it is.  We can learn so much from Jesus and his constant prayer, but at times we feel daunted to pray.  Are any who are reading this in trouble, in fear and suffering?  Maybe you’re facing death?  Then like the Lord we must ask for help, for in our weakness we are made strong.

Your will be done” (v42), which is of course a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer; the will of the Father was that Jesus would be the sacrifice for our sins, a sacrifice for my weaknesses and frailties.  He alone can pay the bill.  We are bankrupt.  But how much must we be conformed to Him as He prayed that God’s will would be done.  He is a man of prayer.  His prayer is the prayer of faith and so must ours be.  He shows obedience to His Heavenly Father in suffering and so must we.  But this can be very, very, hard to do.  I don’t think it’s wrong at all to pray that God would relieve us of our suffering, but it may be that He will not, or at least not for a time.  And this is very hard to accept.  I know from my own experience, particularly when our 11-month old son laid in a coma in a hospital bed.  Having had corrective heart surgery which had been successful seven days later he got an infection which led to his death.  At times Barbara and I felt bewildered, and found praying at all, let alone praying “let not my will but yours be done” so difficult to do by ourselves, but the Spirit helped us and the knowledge that many people were praying for us also sustained us.

Hugh Martin a 19th century Scottish Minister said this, “Be in prayer beside the Saviour, mingling your crying and tears with his: when Jehovah looks on his anointed, he will lift on you the light of his face.”  (book “The Shadow of Calvary).  This urges us to join the Lord in Gethsemane, and so go the way of Christ, which is the way of the cross – the way to death.  For in death we find life!

We must go down into the Jordan to come up into the promised land and “Jordan’s river is chilly and wide”.  But the Saviour bids us follow in his footsteps.  He has paid the bill which was our bill and which we can’t possibly pay, and He has drained our cup of suffering and He will ferry us safely to the other side.

I’m going to close with words from a song by a Christian rock band called White Heart, which I believe encourages us to do as the Saviour bids and follow in His footsteps of suffering.

And the river will flow
the river will flow
through all the times of your life
the river will flow
and the river is love
the river is peace
and the river will flow
through the hearts of those who believe

So put your hand in mine
oh, put your hand in mine
and let us all go down
and kneel by the river’s side
we’ll cry our tears of joy
cry our tears of pain
we’ll let them fall down from our eyes
to be washed in the sacred stream
even the secret tears
buried in our memories
let them all be swept away
to the depths of the endless sea.

Based on a sermon first delivered on 16th August 2020

Getting to know Him

Mark 4:35-41

What’s our biggest problem as Christians? I suggest it is this: that we don’t know God enough, we don’t trust him enough, we don’t love him enough and that we don’t pray to him enough.  But this is not a new problem and in a strange way, we should find that encouraging.  For another group of Christians had the same problem – Jesus’s disciples.  Remember they were with the Lord himself for three years and their general slowness should encourage us that God is patient and loving and always seeking to draw us nearer to Himself. 

Jesus knew exactly what was coming.

Why do I say He knew what was coming, what was going to happen?  Well, first of all He only ever did what He saw His Heavenly Father do in Heaven.  Secondly He just knew what was going to happen next, he knew what people were thinking and going to say next.  Thirdly – A few weeks ago I spoke about “The Just in Time God” – He turned up at the appointed time for His birth, and at the appointed time He meet the widow of Nain.

So Jesus knew exactly what was coming – He knew there was going to be a storm. He deliberately placed His followers in harm’s way.  Being close to the Lord is no guarantee of a trouble-free life – rather the reverse!

Perhaps we should look at this time of Covid-19 in terms of trusting that God knows what He is doing, despite the suffering and disruption we are seeing and experiencing personally.  My life experience has clearly shown me that God does lead us into suffering so that He may show us more of Himself.  Twice I was made redundant when I had a young family, our son died at 11 months old, our older daughter put us through the ringer due to her mental health issues, I had a prolonged illness that meant I was off work for a year.  And I could go on!  Such things are often seen as situations sent to cause harm, but I believe God has meant them for good.  The uncertainty, the difficulties for my family, the pain, the frustrations, and fear, were all there, but it was a joy to know that God was utterly with me.  It was wonderful to know the joy of being involved in the Lord’s work, of seeing Him at work in and through those situations. In fact, these circumstances have given me many opportunities to share my faith.

Where is the ultimate place we see evil turned to good?  When we stand at the foot of the cross. The devil and all the forces of hell meant it for evil, but God used it for our good.

I am sure the disciples did all the things that experienced sailors would do when the “furious squall came up” – turn the boat into the wind, trim the sails, head for shore, bail out the water. But they didn’t do the one blindingly obvious thing that we as readers with hindsight should have done – ask the incarnate God who was right at hand for help.  Even when they did ask,  they did it in desperation and used rough words: they said, “Don’t you care?” (v38).

How hard it was for them to pray!  How small was their faith!  How hard it is for us to pray and how small is our faith!

Corrie Ten Boom said, “When a Christian shuns fellowship with other Christians, the devil smiles. When he stops studying the Bible, the devil laughs. When he stops praying, the devil shouts for joy.”

And Charles Stanley said, “If satan can get you off your knees, nothing else matters. He doesn’t care what happens then.”

Instead of thinking “It’s too hard to pray” let us be encouraged to pray.  Do you see how kind the Lord is towards the disciples, how patient; yes, He reproves them, but He is always doing so out of a love so deep that it has no end.  God is so kind and patient towards us despite all our serious shortcomings.  Psalm 103 v13 says “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those that fear him.”  God sees all the things that are wrong with us – our laziness, our weak faith, our lack of love, our secret sins, our cold hearts and our prayerlessness, and what does he do?  He is full of what the Bible calls in Hebrew Ches-ed (Chesed) which the Reformers of the sixteenth century translated as a “loving-kindness full of the attributes of grace, benevolence, and compassion”.

Out of this loving-kindness comes amazing divine power!  Billions and billions of molecules are rearranged and suddenly there is a dead calm.  Winds may drop but a storm-tossed body of water takes a long time to drop.  In a second all is quiet, all is still.  Such is the power of the divine word.  It utterly transforms their circumstances.

What is the disciples’ reaction?  They are even more afraid!  What’s the answer to fear? More fear!  Psalm 111:10 says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom“.  In Mark’s gospel this is early on in Jesus’ ministry.  The disciples have seen Jesus teach with an authority they have not experienced and heard before.  They have seen Jesus heal people, again things they have not seen before.  You would have thought that they would have fully realised that they were in the presence of an awesome person.  But through this incident in their life it begins to dawn on them who this ordinary-looking man asleep in the boat is.  When they left the boat they knew him more than when they got in.  Isn’t that what we need?  To know the Lord more, to love him more, and to pray to him more.  For as the Puritan preacher Thomas Goodwin says, “The person who knows Christ best is the person who will pray best.”

So how are you going to get to know God better?

Prayer:

Lord God, you know that we are in the midst of such dangers and that we cannot always stand upright because of the frailty of our nature: grant us your strength and protection to support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations so we get to know you better, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

Based on a sermon first delivered on 9th August 2020

Fasting and prayer

Fasting and prayer

Photo by Joseph Greve on Unsplash

In a nutshell, fasting is defined as voluntarily going without food in order to focus on prayer and fellowship with God.   But… you can pray without fasting, and fast without prayer.  Yet when these two activities are combined and dedicated to God’s glory they reach a fuller effectiveness.

One thing to make clear at the outset; prayer and fasting is not a time of manipulating God into doing what you desire.  No, it is simply forcing yourself to focus and rely on God for the strength, provision, and wisdom you need, by being open to His prompting, guiding, and His voice.

History is filled with stories of those who have fasted. Martin Luther, John Wesley and Charles Finney all saw the Lord impact their generations and they were all men of fasting and prayer.  It was Smith Wigglesworth who said, “If the Spirit of God is not moving, I will move the Spirit of God.”

So fasting and praying is about losing “the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free…” (Isaiah 58:6).

Fasting and prayer: what the Bible says…

The Old Testament law specifically required prayer and fasting for only one occasion, the Day of Atonement, known as “the day of fasting” (Jeremiah 36:6) or “the Fast” (Acts 27:9).  Moses fasted during the 40 days and 40 nights he was on Mount Sinai receiving the law from God (Exodus 34:28). King Jehoshaphat called for a fast in all Israel when they were about to be attacked by the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chronicles 20:3).  In response to Jonah’s preaching, the men of Nineveh fasted and put on sackcloth (Jonah 3:5). Prayer and fasting were responses in times of distress or trouble, as we heard in our first reading from Joel (Joel 2:1-2 & 12-17).

There are also other occasions recorded in Scripture.  For instance: David fasted when he learned that Saul and Jonathan had been killed (2 Samuel 1:12).  Nehemiah had a time of prayer and fasting upon learning that Jerusalem was still in ruins (Nehemiah 1:4).  Darius, the king of Persia, fasted all night after he was forced to put Daniel in the den of lions (Daniel 6:18).

Prayer and fasting also occurs in the New Testament.  Anna “worshipped night and day, fasting and praying” at the Temple (Luke 2:37).  John the Baptist taught his disciples to fast (Mark 2:18).  Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before His temptation by Satan (Matthew 4:2).  The church of Antioch fasted (Acts 13:2) and sent Paul and Barnabas off on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:3).  Paul and Barnabas spent time in prayer and fasting for the appointment of elders in the churches (Acts 14:23).

Fasting and prayer: Required or Recommended?

As you read the Word of God you’ll find that it does not specifically command believers to spend time in prayer and fasting.  Yet, at the same time, prayer and fasting is definitely something we should be doing, because Scripture shows us that when we take our eyes off the things of this world through prayer and fasting and focus our thoughts on God things begin to change miraculously.

Fasting should always be limited to a set time because: not eating for extended periods will be damaging to the body.  Scripture also shows us that fasting is not a method of punishing our bodies and it is not be used as a “dieting method” either, for we are to spend time in prayer and fasting to gain a deeper fellowship and discipleship with God.   Simply put, by taking our eyes off the things of this world through prayer and biblical fasting, we can focus better on Christ.

As we heard in or Gospel reading (Matthew 6:16-18) Jesus declares:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Did you notice that Jesus said twice “When you fast”, not “If you fast”!  This implies that there is an expectation for followers of Jesus to fast.

Prayer and Fasting – What Does It Accomplish?

I need to be clear here that spending time in prayer and fasting is not automatically effective in accomplishing the desires of those who fast.  Fasting or no fasting, God only promises to answer our prayers when we ask according to His will.  1 John 5:14-15 tells us,

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.”

In the prophet Isaiah’s time, the people grumbled that they had fasted, yet God did not answer in the way they wanted (Isaiah 58:3-4).  Isaiah responded by proclaiming that the external show of fasting and prayer, without the proper heart attitude, was futile (Isaiah 58:5-9).

So I believe that fasting and prayer are key components for turning the tide of anything we face, because it helps to bring us back into line with God’s plumb line truth, for when we walk in His truth we are going to be asking in accordance with His will.

Think what happened to Jesus in the wilderness after His baptism.  After 40 days He was tempted.  We may be surprised at this, after all Jesus had just spent 40 days focusing on God, His heavenly Father.  Why was He tempted then?

I think this shows us that temptation may come as a surprise but sin is not an accident.  The devil was coming to tempt Jesus, but He was ready for Him.   He was prepared with the Word of God, His sword and with 40 days of fasting and prayer (Matthew 4).  

Is there a temptation you are facing right now?

  • Feeling sorry for yourself, and self-pity?
  • feeling anxious and worrying?
  • The lust of the eyes?
  • Being offended and holding grudges?
  • The pride of life?

Most temptation falls into these categories. But whatever it is, there is a pathway to victory through fasting and prayer.

We cannot stop temptation from coming, but when it does come, we can walk in God’s supernatural power to overcome it through a lifestyle of fasting and prayer.

To me an important thing about praying and fasting is that we are to only do it to bring honour and glory to God. If we are asking for something that is not honouring to God or not God’s will for our lives, God will not give what we ask for, whether we fast or not. You see, we learn God’s will for us when we grow in His wisdom, and God promises to give us wisdom when we ask.  James 1:5 tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”

As we journey through Lent together may we use the Lent sessions to help us grow in understanding and wisdom about the spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting, so that we all grow in God’s wisdom and all the benefits that will bring us.

Ash Wednesday, 6th March 2019

Readings: Joel 2:1-2 & 12-17 and Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-21