Sunday, September 18, 2016

Bringing Our Prayers into Focus - James 5: 13-10

 James 5: 13-18
Last week, we discussed three principles of prayer.
1. Prayer is not talking to God, but being with God.
2. Know Who we are talking to—recognize God’s power and goodness
3. Prayer requires full stop concentration.  Casual prayers are good, but prayer which focuses our entire being is what brings God’s power.

Let’s discuss prayer as focus. When I was a boy (about 1960) my father bought our first color television set. It seemed then like the ultimate in consumer technology. But when we first turned it on, it was a mess. It was like we had three pictures—one red, one yellow, and one green.
On the front of the TV, beside the volume and tuning were three more dials. These dials controlled the three projectors inside the picture tube that created all the colors. If they were aligned correctly, you had a nice color picture, but they were not, it was all fuzzy and weird--three different versions of the same picture. You had to fiddle with the buttons until they all lined up so you could have a color picture.

Prayer is something like that. Effective prayer requires having three images lined up correctly—our image of God, our image of ourselves, and our image of the person or situation we are praying for. If any of these images are off, then our prayers will become confused. But when they are lined up correctly, our prayers are powerful. When our picture of prayer aligns with God’s revelation of His will, then we may ask whatever we want. 1 John 5: 14-15 says, “ And this is the confidence that we have towards him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”  If the image of what we want, lines up with the image of what God is sending us, then we can have the answer.

The expression of God’s ideas is called “confession”. Confession literally means “to speak with” or to “agree.” Confession is when speaking in agreement with the mind of God. It is both believing and saying the truth. If we just believe it and are afraid to say it, then our confession loses power. But if we both believe and say the truth, then we have confessed it.

There is power in a confession. If you confess to a crime, you are going to jail. If you confess your love to a woman, then you had better get married. If you confess Christ in church, then you can join it. If you deny that confession later, then you will likely be put out of a church. If you confess to yourself that you cannot do something, then you likely won’t do it. But if you confess that it is possible for you to do something, then you have a chance for accomplishing it.
In prayer, confession takes two forms. First there is negative confession, which is to agree with God that we are a sinner, and have done things wrong. By confessing our sins, we admit we need help. Then there is positive confession, which is acknowledging God’s sufficiency and power to do what we cannot. Confessing our sinfulness is to get the right image of ourselves. Confessing His promises is to get the right image of God.

Confession of sin has always been (until recently) an important part of prayer and worship. It is usually done early on in our prayer time. We see this in the Word in 1 John 1: 8-9, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Confession of a sin is not required for forgiveness, but for cleansing. There is no requirement in the Bible that every sin we commit must be individually confessed before it is forgiven.  We have too many sins for that! God doesn’t expect total recall of everything we have done wrong before He grants forgiveness. The blood of Jesus covers all our sins, past present and future. But confession is necessary to overcome the power of sin over us. We cannot expect God to deliver us from an addiction or a bad habit unless we acknowledge that the sin exists.  You can’t break a smoking habit unless you admit smoking is hurting you, or break off an adulterous affair until you admit the affair is wrong. If you think you have not sinned, John says you have deceived yourself. As long as you are living in deception, sin has power over you. If you think you don’t need God’s help with a problem, then you will not get it.

In James 5, it doesn’t say just to confess your sins but to confess your faults as well. We may not be intentionally sinning when we deal with personality flaws, blind spots, and honest mistakes, but we should confess them anyway. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but He does expect us to acknowledge our faults and mistakes. A student who already thinks he knows everything is a poor student. A person who thinks they already have the answers is not going to seek God’s will. We must hold a true picture of our imperfections if we are to stay in focus with a perfect God.

When you come before God, come before Him with your hands in the air in an attitude of surrender. You can’t fool Him by looking innocent. You must acknowledge your faults to Him, with complete honesty and openness. Otherwise, the Devil will use our faults to undo the good we do. If we are lazy, then our good intentions will amount to nothing. If we are prideful and narcissistic, the Devil will use it to make us closed-minded and insensitive. If we are stubborn, then he will destroy us through unwillingness to change. Without an honest acknowledgement of our sins and faults, prayer becomes more about defending ourselves, and not about advancing the Kingdom.

James and John agree that we should confess our faults not only to God, but to one another. We really don’t like that part! Confessing sin in private is hard enough, but why would God ask us to confess to others?  No one can come to God in serious prayer without humility, and no one is humble who is not just honest with God, but before others. It isn’t necessary to confess to everyone, but there ought to be some Christian brother or sister with whom we can be completely honest, who can pronounce the forgiveness of sins over us in Christ’s name.

We confess the image of God by celebrating who He is, and what He can do for us. Positive confession is standing on the promises of God. Negative confession leaves us helpless, but positive confession restores our hope.

In order to confess God’s promises, we have to know them. That is why it’s almost impossible to pray without a Bible in our hands. God’s Word reminds us of Who He is, and what He has done.  
When we get the right picture of ourselves and God, then we bring the third part into focus, which is the object of our prayers. Now we are ready to pray for others. This is not as easy as it sounds.
One mistake people often make when learning how to pray is that we make long prayer lists and just read them to God. How can we pray fervent, effective prayers (as James tells us to do) for people and situations when have no burden or relationship with them? I have known true prayer warriors who did, who kept a long list of fervent needs, but these people prayed for hours, not minutes. They walked so closely with God and had such a love for others that everyone on their prayer list was a personal concern. Until we come to that place, it is better to pray for one or two people passionately than a long list of people casually.

To be effective in our prayer, we should also be specific. Elijah prayed for a drought and got it, then prayed for rain until it came. The elders of the early church prayed for the sick until they were healed.  These prayers produced tangible results, so that people could rejoice in Him. Don’t just pray for a person in general. Set objectives in prayer, and pray for them. If you don’t get what you prayed for, then ask God to show you why. If we don’t set goals in prayer, then we don’t know if we get results.
But how do we know what to pray for? If we confess our faults, we must recognize we don’t and we can’t. We don’t have solutions for all the world’s problems. There are many problems in people’s lives that we cannot know the answer to. But if we line our thoughts with God’s thoughts through reading the word and confession of that Word, then we ought to have some sense of what God wants for others. This is not always easy, but as we learn to see people from God’s perspective, we have a better idea of how to pray.

A rich, prosperous, and healthy life is something God’ wants for us, but it is not His main desire. He would rather see us poor, broken, and persecuted if it will lead us to inner peace and real spiritual strength. We may want to be healthy, wealthy, and famous, but first He wants us to be godly first. When God doesn’t do things our way, we get mad at Him for not listening to us. We really should be wondering why we are not listening to Him.

At first, we often pray for the wrong things.  But as we learn God’s will we can become clearer in our prayers for others. When our prayers line up with God’s will, then our prayers will have great power.
How clear is your focus?  As we come to rely more heavily on Christ, and listen to His voice in the Word and in prayer, we start to understand His will better. Then our prayers become the same as His will, and great things will happen. When we understand who we are in relationship to Him, then God can help us focus our attention on how to pray for others.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Are you a Mary or a Martha? - Luke 10: 28-42

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10: 38-42

The story of Mary and Martha isn’t liked much by most Christian workers I know. That’s because a lot of Christians think it’s unfair. 

Imagine the scene. Two single women suddenly have at least thirteen important guests show up at their door—Jesus and His disciples. Imagine what needs to be done! They have to clean house, prepare for dinner, make sleeping arrangements, decorate the house, cook meals—and tend to their every need!  All of this without any advanced warning that they were coming. It was a huge undertaking, and had to be entered into without warning. 

The two women are of very different temperament. Martha is the take-charge woman. Almost every man or woman in the church in a leadership capacity is a Martha. Some of them do it by necessity, others do it because they enjoy being in charge. Without Marthas the church would not survive. They are the ones who run everything.

But then Jesus arrives and while Martha is preoccupied with the arrangements for dinner, her sister Mary does nothing. Instead, she sits beside Jesus at his feet, and listens to Him. 

Martha sees Mary there, and loses her temper with Jesus, because Jesus won’t tell Mary that she should be helping with the arrangements. This is typical Martha behavior. When guests drop in the most important thing is how much food goes on the table, how clean the house is, and how comfortable the place looks. It’s how much effort you put into entertaining. Martha is convinced that serving Jesus is all about action. It’s about getting up and getting busy. Jesus ought to know that the most important thing in the world is how much we serve in the church.

One way to spot a Martha is to look at their attitude for worship. Marthas believe that worship is just a pep rally for the big game. Prayer is just talk--they want to get on with the real work. The Christian life is like a rescue mission, and prayer is just the radio where we get instructions. What’s really important is the mission, not the talk. That’s the way Marthas think.

They aren’t wrong. The work of the church is important. Spreading the Gospel, teaching the children, feeding the poor, fellowship, church maintenance, worship practice, sound systems, etc. are important and valuable things. 

But as Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season, and a time to ever purpose under heaven.” Jesus really isn’t saying that Mary is better than Martha, for sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus is just saying at that moment, what Mary is doing is more important. He doesn’t love Mary more than Martha, as Martha seems to think, nor is He saying that Martha is bad. He is simply saying that Martha has got her priorities wrong at that moment. There is a time for cooking and cleaning, and there is a time for sitting and loving. Martha has been serving so long, she doesn’t know when to quit and just appreciate Jesus. 

Worship is work. Worship takes time—focused, concentrated time that cannot be given to anything else. Worship—both public and private—is not something that we should do in order that we can go do something else, even something good. It has value in itself, just as time spent with a sick friend or in the company of someone we love has value, simply because it does. It is a basic value which must not be consumed with concentration on “larger” tasks. It is a time for being in God’s presence, not a means for doing Godly things. There is a season for activity, and there is a season for listening and waiting. Wisdom lies in keeping the two separate, and in knowing when to be silent and when to get busy.  When we are in the season of work, we work. When we are in the season for worship, we worship with the same concentration we give to work.

How many times does Jesus actually come into your house? What if Jesus came to your house only one time in your life, and you were busy in the kitchen the whole time He was there? What if, instead of asking the important questions of life, you could only ask Him how he liked his steak cooked?  What if Jesus was talking and all you could see was that the floor underneath His feet needed vacuuming?  What a waste of an opportunity—to look at worldly things, when Jesus is right before you! 

I am convinced that when it comes to prayer, the biggest challenge we have is slowing down. That’s because we are mostly Marthas at heart. Our attention is naturally drawn to worldly things. We see what we are used to seeing in our busy lives. It requires great effort to learn to stop thinking about the world and to refocus our attention.

This process of refocusing is called meditation. The word meditate really means to pay attention or concentrate. Marthas finds meditation hard, because their minds are always busy. They can’t just be, because they are too busy doing. But meditation requires us to be still in the presence of Christ. They are too busy with the peripheral business of the church to have any real relationship with Christ. They are God’s servants, not His companions. Meditation calls us to drop what we are doing and just be with Jesus.  

The reason we become Marthas instead of Marys is that we are convinced that our tasks are more important than our relationship to Jesus. We think we are “special” so the words of Jesus to spend time at His feet don’t apply to us. We are convinced that the things we are doing are so important that we don’t have to obey the rules. We see ourselves like caterers at a party. Everyone else might be enjoying themselves, but that’s only because we are taking care of everything for them. We are the exceptions to the universal call to sit down and have a good time.  We think that our serving up munchies at the party is more important than the party itself, and that if we don’t do it no one will have a good time. When he says, “Come and dine,” he doesn’t mean us.

But that’s not what Jesus means. We are as important as everyone else. Jesus holds a dinner, and asks the servants and butlers to sit at the head table with Him. If the dinner plates don’t arrive in the correct order, who cares?  Jesus would gladly serve us, before he would allow us to be just servants.

Underneath this story is some great wisdom about prayer that we need to know. Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to be a “Mary” sometimes, instead of always being a “Martha.”    

1.       Prayer isn’t talking to God. Prayer is being with God.

Our biggest mistake in prayer is that we talk too much. It’s hard for God to get a word in edgewise. A good friend is a person who listens. An even better friend is one who does not expect us to say anything at all. Around such a friend we are free to be silent.

Think of prayer as being on a date with God.  Does it matter where you go, just Who you are with.  In prayer, we spend time in God’s presence so you can have a deeper relationship with Him.

2.       Prayers is knowing Who we are with.

We would not address a king casually. We should treat Him with great respect. If He says, “Sit with Me” then we sit. God is not our “good buddy in the sky” nor is He a stern and unforgiving judge. He is an all-powerful being who loves us and wants us to spend time with Him.

3.       Prayer requires “full stop” concentration.

I was in a hurry one day to get home. I turned right on a road at a “T” shaped intersection. To the left, a construction crew had shut down the street, so right was the only way to turn. As I hurried down the street, I saw the blue lights of a policeman in my rear view window. I had no idea what was wrong. 

“You didn’t stop at the stop sign.” He said.

I argued with him. There was no traffic coming from the other side. The stop sign wasn’t needed, since no one could be coming from the left. Besides, I slowed down to a “rolling stop”.  Surely that was all I needed to do!

“No,” the policemen said as he wrote out the ticket. “Full stop at a stop sign, even if it there is nothing coming. There is no such thing in the law as a ‘rolling stop.’”

We think that prayer will calm us. Often it doesn’t, because we aren’t really praying. Our minds haven’t come to a full stop. They are still worrying, planning and fuming about our problems. We can’t look at God and look at the world around us at the same time, not without some preparation. 

The Psalmist says, “I have composed and quieted my soul.” Another way of saying that is, “I’m at full stop.”  Being attentive and open to God requires that we stop listening to the voices around us. We stop so we can listen to the voice of the Spirit. 

When we worship in private or in public, put out of our minds the problems of the day and practice mindful concentration on Christ, His presence, and His love. Don’t rush to speak or to act, but set everything aside for God’s sake. We can do nothing about our worries when we are praying, and when we are worrying, we cannot think about God.  Meditation on God is the act of recognizing Who He is, and that His presence is among us. 

Revive us again! - Psalm 85: 4-6

Psalm 85

This week we began a month of prayer. Now some of you may wonder—why a month of prayer?  Why spend extra effort praying for one month? What do we hope to accomplish? Whenever prayer is suggested, there are always some people who think of it as waste of time. They believe we should be doing something more practical, like cleaning the church, knocking on doors, or advertising. But there is nothing more practical than prayer. Nothing is more essential to the growth and health of a church than a concerted effort in prayer. Without revival, the church perishes. Without the Spirit, there is no revival. Without prayer, and the right kind of prayer, the Spirit will not come, and all our efforts to build the church ultimately come to nothing.

The Psalmist prays, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? This implies three things to be true. (1) That at more than one time in the past, God has revived His people.  (2) That prayer for revival brings revival.  (3) That when revival comes, the church will rejoice in God.

The Holy Spirit does not manifest Himself in the church as a steady stream, but as a succession of waves, like breakers on the seashore. Sometimes the Holy Spirit seems powerful and strong. Other times, we can hardly feel Him. 

The strong times are when revival comes among God’s people. The church flourishes. These are times of great increase to the church, often accompanied by signs and wonders. But these times do not last forever. At other times the Spirit seems to barely move. These times are not outside of God’s plan, but are actually part of it. They are times of resting and organizing. These times are hard and discouraging, but they are as much of God’s plan as times of revival. But in time, when revival comes again and the church goes forward. This is the way it is, and the way it has always been.

There are seasons of the Spirit in the Old Testament. He was active in the time of Abraham and the Patriarch, but these days were followed by four hundred years of captivity. He was active in the time of Moses and Joshua, but then came the period of the Judges, when the Holy Spirit only showed sporadically. He was active in the days of King David and Solomon, but after that fell into division and apostasy. 

Jesus promised the Spirit would permanently dwell with us, and so He does. He came at Pentecost, and the church was literally on fire. Then persecution scattered it, and division weakened it. Even so, the church grew, as the Holy Spirit continued to bring awakenings and revivals in various places.

Throughout history, the power and presence of the Spirit was more or less noticeable, depending upon the season. When the Spirit was manifest, the church grew. When the Spirit dimmed, the church fell. The Spirit ebbs and flows. There were great Spiritual revivals in the Fifth, Tenth, Thirteenth, and Sixteenth Centuries. But there the growth Islam, the folly of the Crusades and the inquisition, as well as wars between Christians quenched the Spirit, and the Spirit’s presence dimmed for a time.     

Officially, in America there were three Great Awakenings that were mighty waves of the Spirit— one at the end of the 17th Century, one at the end of the 18th Century, and one in the middle of the 19th Century. Contrary to what some may think, America is not nor ever will it be a Christian nation. But within this nation, the Holy Spirit has moved mightily many times. This has given the American experience a uniquely Christian perspective that until very recently was part of our culture. That Christian influence is fading today, but another Great Awakening could bring it back in almost an instant.

These waves of the Spirit have struck much closer to home than we think. The ARP Church was built on revival. The activities of the Puritans in England were also a revival of the Holy Spirit, as were the preaching of the Erskines. That wave continued in America for many years, and led our Spiritual ancestors to settle this area. In 1803, Revival broke out at the Old Waxhaw Presbyterian church in Van Wyck.. More than two thousand people traveled weekly from all over this area to attend a little country church. This revival had a great effect, all denominations and people worshipped together as one. But by 1806, the revival had cooled, and factionalism prevailed. But our denomination was the product of a wave of the Holy Spirit.

The last half of the Twentieth Century saw several waves of the Holy Spirit in the 1950’s through the 1980’s. After World War II, churches were planted in large numbers. One of them was Rogers Memorial. By the 1960’s this wave of church planting had subsided, but a wave of renewal began--the charismatic. This move was (and still is) controversial, but there can be no doubt of its influence. In the 70’s and 80’s the Jesus movement grew out of the charismatic movement and thousands of idealistic young people found Christ and revolutionized the worship and music of the church. More importantly, they brought revival to youth across the country.  By the 1990’s that movement disappeared, but it left behind the megachurch movement and contemporary Christian music. The styles of worship we enjoy today are the direct result of those movements of the Spirit, and many of our modern church leaders were saved during that time of revival.  

Now, let’s look at this church. Rogers Memorial was the center of a move of the Holy Spirit in the period of 2001-2005, when the Pointe ministry was going strong. This church was instrumental in bringing hundreds of decisions for Christ. The size of the church more than doubled in that time. This was not the result of good planning, talented leadership or bold planning, but was a true move of the Spirit. The success of the Pointe and the power of the Pointe was not in how it was organized or the talent of the people involved. It was in the power of the Spirit, and how God used them. 

But like all movements of the Spirit, it was a wave, not a tide. Now in 2016, three quarters of those involved have left the church and gone elsewhere. Half left before 2009, and another half of those left before I began preaching here in 2012. Once it seemed that everything here was growing, now for four years we have struggled to survive.

It is human, I suppose, to seek to understand what may have happened from a human perspective.  Certainly there is enough blame to go around for everyone, just as there is credit to be given out for our successes. But when we do either, we miss the overall pattern, and we frankly offend God. God is in charge. He is the bringer of revival. The waves of the Spirit not a work of the flesh, but part of God’s appointed time.   

The revival you once experienced did not happen because of your efforts. It was a wave of the Spirit, and it crested and fell, like all waves. When a wave comes, we should enjoy it, but we should also not fool ourselves into thinking that we can hold the wave forever. When it comes, our sand castles crumble, and we must start again.

Is there any way of predicting when a wave of revival will come?  Predicting revival is like predicting earthquakes. We cannot know for sure, but we can observe the conditions that bring it. Revival comes when we are desperate for it. He doesn’t send revival when we are happy and content, or when everything is going our way. God sends revival when we are burned out, fed up, and tired. 

I have read that when a tsunami is coming, the first thing anyone on the shore notices is that the water begins to recede from the shore. The beach is exposed for hundreds of feet. People can sometimes be fooled by this into walking out father on the exposed shore line. Then when the giant wave appears, it drowns them. So it is with revival. Before revival comes dissatisfaction. People wonder—where did the Spirit go? Often, they start to blame each other. Little divisions get big as the Spirit seems to recede. The Devil seems to have a field day, planting doubt and discouragement in our hearts. Things seem to be falling apart.

This time of dissatisfaction is followed by a season of prayer, repentance, and confession, as people humble themselves before God. All our plans for self-revival have failed. The programs that once sustained us seems to have fallen apart. It’s time to quit trying to fix ourselves and to recognize we need God in our lives. 2 Chronicles 7: 14 says, “If my people who are called by My name will humble themselves and pray, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land.” There is no revival without sincere, honest repentance and humbling. 

The voice of pride says, “I know how to fix this!” The voice of humility says, “God, You have to fix this!” As long as we cling to the lie that we know what is best, the Spirit will not come. Only when we humble ourselves before God will He make things right. The leaders of the church must begin this by setting an example. 

That’s where we are today. We have been in a desert place for a long, long time. But there is a whiff in the air of water. It may be that another revival is coming. All my life I have prayed to be there when a great wave of the Spirit comes. We can do nothing to straighten out the church, but this one thing we can do--we can humble ourselves and pray.

There are those who argue again that we should be giving ourselves to advertising or programs, that we should be trying to adjust this or that, to clean up the church and rebuild old programs, and so we should. But that’s just building barrels to catch the rainwater when the floods come. We don’t need more barrels, we need rain. We don’t need the superficial work of people, but the mighty work of the Spirit.

This church has been blessed by revival in the past, and we need it again. But it doesn’t come from better music or bigger programs. It must be revived by the power of the Spirit. 

I ask you to join me this month in the one activity that can prepare the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit, joining together in prayer. Prayer works when it is from the heart and full of passion.  Prayer can bring revival.

In the church where I was ordained, there was an old farmer named John Creel. There was drought that lasted for several months. The church held a special prayer meeting for rain. John came, and brought his umbrella. When they left that prayer meeting, it was raining. Only John was prepared.
Let us prepare for revival today, by humbling ourselves and seeking the power of the Spirit. We need to pray for revival in our church and in our country.  Not only do we need to pray but we also should bring our umbrellas. Only by the grace of God can we receive.