“It’s not that important for the church to pray”

If I preached a sermon with this title the reaction would no doubt range from puzzlement to horror!

Of course we know it is important for the church to pray, it’s just that we don’t always translate what we say we believe into action.

Why is it so important for a church to pray?

Firstly, it is an apostolic requirement.

Paul and Peter urged early Christians to pray. Paul instructed Timothy to teach the church to pray for those in authority (1 Timothy 2.1), making it a matter of first priority. He commanded the Colossians to devote themselves to prayer (Colossians 4.2). As the end approached Peter counselled the church to be alert so that you may pray (1 Peter 4.7). Prayer was a major driver in the life of the early church. We have no reason to believe that somehow God has reduced its importance.

Secondly, praying people take seriously the reality of spiritual conflict.

Paul ends his teaching on spiritual spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6 with a call to pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests (v.18). There is a real spiritual battle going on and prayer is a major weapon in our armoury.

Thirdly, praying people reshape the world.

That might sound like a bold statement. However you only have to look at the experience of an Abraham, a Moses, the Lord Himself or the early church to see the world shaping potential of prayer. One story that illustrates this perfectly is found in Acts 12. Peter was in prison. The church prayed. And the Holy Spirit did some jail breaking. Peter is miraculously delivered and by the end of the chapter Herod is dead. I’d call that changing the world! And all because the people prayed!

Jesus once told a story about a persistent widow (Luke 18). Luke explains that He told the story to show that people should always pray and not give up (v.1). The Living Bible expresses it like this: “One day Jesus told his disciples a story to illustrate their need for constant prayer and to show them that they must keep praying until the answer comes.”

Let’s keep praying until the answer comes.

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It’s your story too

I happened to mention in a sermon recently a BBC documentary on the life of Napoleon. The blank stares revealed that I had just outed myself as a BBC2 watching history geek. I am hoping that such a revelation is not as damaging to whatever street cred I had left as I originally feared.

Anyway, I had discovered something about Napoleon which helped to explain why he was the driven, successful leader that he was – until Waterloo , of course.

When Napoleon was at school, like other boys his age, he read about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. A couple of centuries ago, the great military leaders of the ancient world were held up as aspirational figures. For most people who had this kind of education, even if they admired these kinds of conquering heroes, they ultimately had little bearing on the way they lived their lives.

But not Napoleon. When he read about Caesar and Alexander, he was more than inspired. He decided that he would become an Alexander or a Caesar. Their story would become his story. And the rest, as they say, is history.

When you look at the great spiritual movements in the Christian church, past and present, you are effectively looking at a group of people who have read about Jesus and the apostles and decided that the stories written in the Bible are their stories too.

Sometimes we approach the Bible as if it’s a text book or an instruction guide for life. Whilst the Bible does guide us and instruct us, it is much more than a spiritual maintenance guide. It is much more than heaven’s answer to a Haynes’ manual!

In the Bible we find the story of God at work in and through human beings throughout history, and ultimately in the person of Christ. The story however, takes a whole new shape when the Holy Spirit comes and fills the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Luke, in Acts 1, talks about the things Jesus began to do and to teach (v.1). And then he goes on to record what Jesus continued to do through His Spirit-filled disciples.

Jesus is still at work. He is still teaching. How? Through followers filled with His Spirit. When we read the book of Acts, we can stand back and admire what God did through the disciples. Or we can say “That’s my story too” and allow the amazing things God did almost two thousand years ago to shape our expectations and fuel our faith.

God invites us to live a whole new story. And the good news is He gives us His Spirit to enable us to do just that. And the other piece of good news is, you don’t have to watch BBC2.

God’s got your back

I’ve heard it said and I’ve heard it preached – in fact I might even have preached or said it myself: “There is no armour in Ephesians 6 for your back, because you are not expected to run away.”

Well, that is only partly true. You are supposed to stand. But it is untrue that there is no armour for your back. When Paul said “Put on the full armour of God”, he had in mind the armour worn by a Roman soldier. One of the pieces of armour was a metal breastplate. The breastplate worn by a Roman soldier not only covered the soldier’s chest, it also covered his back.

Paul says that Christians need to put on the breastplate of righteousness (Ephesians 6.14)

The righteousness that Paul refers to here, is the righteousness that is given to us through faith in Christ. When we came to know Christ, a spiritual exchange took place. He received our sin and we received the righteousness of God (see 2 Corinthians 5.21).

One of Satan’s main lines of attack is that of condemnation. He tries to bring up our weaknesses and those areas where we are still battling the flesh. He wants to control the way we think about who we are and how God sees us. Knowing that God sees us as righteous is a killer blow to this particular enemy tactic. Our hearts – and that includes our emotions – are kept protected by a healthy, biblical understanding of who we are in Christ.

But what about our back? Why even complicate things by talk about our back?

Firstly, sometimes in spiritual warfare, as in physical warfare, the enemy sometimes strikes from behind.

Satan can and will use our past as a weapon. He hits us hard with things that have happened or things that we have done, which we know and he knows we can’t change. Our righteous standing before God is more than adequate defence against that assault.

Secondly, sometimes Satan ambushes us. An ambush is a totally unexpected attack. Totally unexpected things happen in life. We walk into work one day and find ourselves caught up in a conversation about issues we didn’t even know were issues. We receive an email with bad or negative news or even a personal attack. Those are spiritual ambushes. The difficulty with an ambush in physical warfare is that it takes by surprise those under attack and the confusion it creates can stymie an effective response. The same is true when it comes to spiritual warfare. That’s where the righteousness of God kicks in. However serious the attack, our relationship with God is still intact. When you’re ambushed, the best response is to remember the righteousness that is yours through Jesus.

Thirdly, there is another way in which the enemy attacks from the behind: betrayal.

The words we often hear at communion, “On the same night that Jesus was betrayed”. On the night that Jesus took His final steps toward providing healing for all mankind, He was betrayed.

Betrayal is one of those words and experiences that is packed with emotion. Just take two seconds and say “Betrayal” and then monitor how you feel. In some ways betrayal is the ultimate ambush. The long term impact can be seriously damaging to emotional and spiritual health. How does the breastplate of righteousness protect us in this particular attack?

Betrayal has the power to damage us – short term and long term. It can cause us to temporarily or indefinitely lose our sense of identity, or as one therapist put it, having your accurate reality denied. The breastplate of righteousness protects our identity.

However, healing the wound of betrayal doesn’t just come about through holding on to our sense of identity, it also entails forgiving the betrayer. Note that it is the betrayer we forgive, not the act of betrayal. Because of we have been forgiven by Jesus and made righteous in Him, we have the spiritual resources to extend forgiveness to others. In so doing we not only free them, we free ourselves. The breastplate of righteousness not only to protects who we are in Christ, but also enables us to repel Satan’s attempt to try to make us become what we are not.

When you face a deadly enemy it’s good to know you have a rearguard. Righteousness, the righteousness of God is our rearguard.

Psalm 139.5 says: “You are all around me, behind me and in front of me.You hold me safe in your hand” (NIRV).

God’s got your back.

Changing the narrative

If you were an alien from Mars who had just landed on planet earth last Monday, you could be forgiven for thinking that the biggest threat to the future of the world was Sepp Blatter and the evil empire of FIFA. If you had arrived the previous Monday, it might have appeared that David Cameron, Nicola Sturgeon, whoever the next leader of the Labour party is, Nigel Farage or some other political eminence grise, was just as lethal as Herr Blatter.

In fact, the really deadly action is taking place in the developing world and the Middle East, in the shape of largely unreported atrocities.

It all depends on what is reported and how it is reported. And that is what shapes the news and our perception of what is really important. Narratives come and go. Politicians, journalists and broadcasters change the narrative all the time.

When we read through the book of Acts we find that there is someone who is continually shaping and changing the narrative. No, I am not referring to Dr. Luke. I am referring to the Holy Spirit. Just consider these examples for a moment.

On the day of Pentecost, He changes the narrative. Edgy disciples are transformed into empowered disciples. They grow from one hundred and twenty to over three thousand – in one day!

In Acts 8, Philip goes into the spiritual twilight zone that was Samaria, and finds an overwhelmingly positive response to his message. Then the Holy Spirit moves him on to the road to Gaza where he leads a chancellor of the exchequer to Christ and almost immediately finds himself translated to Azotus!

The Holy Spirit changes the narrative again in chapter 9. This time the church’s number one enemy gets converted!

And so the story of the young church unfolds, with the Holy Spirit changing the narrative again and again.

It’s might be easy to think that the Holy Spirit is only interested in the big stage, big picture narrative of Acts.

However, when we turn to Ephesians 5 and Paul issues his command to be filled with the Spirit, the immediate application is that of every day life in the home and at work.

The Holy Spirit is able to – and wants to – change the narrative of our every day lives. He provides an ongoing supply of fresh power for every challenge we face. He brings about and enables us to take opportunities to share our faith. He fills our lives with joy. He gives us the ability to be a positive influence on those around us.

The Holy Spirit is not just interested in changing the big picture narrative along the lines of God’s purpose. He is also concerned with the narrative of your life. With changing you. And with enabling you to be a person of His influence on the people around you.

If you think your narrative, your story needs changing, why not ask the Holy Spirit to write some new headlines in your life this week?