James 2:14-17 and Matthew 26:36-46
(Quoted scripture is New Revised Standard Version)
A woman, age forty-one, wrote first about her conversion as a Jewish believer in Jesus, and then of a daunting trial she faced, breast cancer that had spread to lungs and liver. Sometimes she would pull away from God completely, but then writes, “after sulking in silence for a period of days or weeks, I would come back to God slowly and reluctantly, a pout still on my face, but recognizing that I didn’t know how to live apart from God.” She agonized over how to pray.
“What is the point of praying for something to happen? I can understand the point of praying as a means of simply trying to establish communion with God. But why should I pray for someone to be healed or for my husband to get a job or for my parents to come to salvation. I pray for others because I often feel helpless to do anything else, and I cling to the hope that maybe, just maybe this time it will matter.” (page 75)
We’ve all had these questions about prayer. Does prayer really make a difference; to God, to us?
This sermon series is based on Philip Yancey’s book: Prayer, Does It Make Any Difference? In the book Philip writes that a physician friend of his learned he was investigating prayer and told him he would have to begin with three rather large assumptions: (1) God exists; (2) God is capable of hearing our prayers; and (3) God cares about our prayers. “None of these three an be proved or disproved,” his friend said. “They must either be believed or disbelieved.” (page 79)
As Christians, we believe in Jesus as the Son of God, the Savior of the world. As Christians, we believe God exists, God is capable of hearing our prayers and God cares about our prayers. As a Christian, I think the best reason to pray is because Jesus did.
Jesus prayed early in the morning to gain strength for his earthly ministry, for the battles he faced. (Mark 1:35). Jesus prayed all night before he chose the 12 disciples from the many who were following him. (Luke 6:12) In the Gospel of John 17, Jesus prays that what he is going to go through would glorify his Father God, he prays for his 12 disciples and for future disciples that may come to believe through their words; you and me. When his disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, he taught them what we have labeled The Lord’s Prayer. (Matthew 6:9-14)
Over and over again we see Jesus, the Son of God, turn to His Father God, in prayer. Some of Jesus’ prayers went unanswered, as the prayer he prayed in Gethsemane. ‘Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:36-39) Jesus returned to Peter, James and John and finds them sleeping, and then goes again to pray to His Father. “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ (Matthew 26:42)
Jesus’ prayers for not having to suffer the crucifixion, went unanswered, still he prayed from the cross as he was crucified, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) And then a prayer of desperation, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) And finally a prayer of submitting to God’s will, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) Then God’s Only Son, a part of God himself, died to pay the punishment for the sins of all mankind.
Why pray? Because Jesus did. Why are some of our prayers unanswered? If some of Jesus’ prayers were unanswered, why then should we expect all our prayers to be answered?
In his book, Philip Yancey writes that from his experience, he can identify three stages of prayer. The first stage is a simple childlike request for something we desire. Think about the blind man in Luke 18:41, “Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus restored his sight. (page 107)
The second stage of prayer, on the same level with the first stage, is keeping company with God, meditation. (page 107) I encourage you to spend time in quiet mediation because I have found that when I do, it changes me. I become more aware of God’s amazing love and grace. I gain strength and peace to continue to serve God and the people God puts into my life. Quiet meditation away from the chaos and anxiety we face every day is a ‘must do’ if we are to remain confident in our faith. If it worked for Jesus, it will work for us.
What that meditation time does is bring us into the third stage of prayer, the stage Jesus reached after a long night in Gethsemane, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ (Matthew 26:42) Yancey writes, he has become convinced that the phrase, “Your will be done” belongs at the end of his prayers. He continues, he has learned that God has ordained prayer as a means of getting God’s will done on earth, not ours. (page 109)
Eugene Peterson writes, “Be slow to pray, Praying puts us at risk of getting involved with God’s conditions…Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, — and when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back.” (page 109)
Which brings me to what God wants. I believe God wants us to partner with Him in building His kingdom here on earth. In my reading the Bible through each year, I use the daily reading plan from Our Daily Bread; some Old Testament and some New Testament scripture each day. I’ve just finished reading the last few chapters of Exodus, in which God is instructing Moses how he wants the traveling tabernacle constructed and who he wants to do which task. God names specific people with specific talents to do specific jobs. Each of us has been given specific talents as well. I believe God gives us these talents to be used for building His Kingdom here on earth.
I agree with Philip Yancey when he writes, “In prayer we stand before God to plead our condition as well as the conditions around us. In the process, the act of prayer emboldens me to join the work of transforming the world into a place where the Father’s will is indeed done as it is in heaven. We are Christ’s body on earth, after all; he has no hands but ours. And yet to act as Christ’s body we need an unbroken connection to the Head (of the body). We pray in order to see the world with God’s eyes, and then to join the stream of power as it breaks loose.” (page 124).
James tells us today in 2:14-17. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So, faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead.”
Jesus tells us in Matthew 25, what we do for those in need we do for Him. Wherever Christian missionaries have traveled they have left behind a trail of hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and schools. (page 125) To preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ without being the hands of His body, is to preach God’s kingdom without God.
When Joe and I were on vacation in Mexico we were also engaged in some mission work in Mayan villages. My brother Mike and his wife Cecilia have begun attending a church in Paa Mul, a residential community about 15 minutes north of where they live in Puerto Aventuras on the Yucatan Peninsula. The church is engaged in mission work with the Mayans. Pastor Doug and his wife Darla have built a Bible Park, which includes an outdoor worship venue, a school, and eight-foot high walls enclosing the park with pictures telling stories from the Bible. Murals from Creation to the Baptism of Jesus have been painted by a young Mayan man. A picture is worth a thousand words! They are in the process now of building a swimming pool to attract the children and youth, because just as in this country drugs and alcohol are stealing the young people’s lives. You are familiar with the phrase, ‘If we build it they will come.’ Pastor Doug is counting on this truth.
There is also a group, mostly from Canada, some of whom attend this same church, who are going into Mayan villages and installing simple cement block stoves which vent the smoke outside. The Mayan women cook on open fires in their simple houses, which may be made from thick sticks, or cement blocks. The smoke is not vented outside and there is a lot of respiratory illness in the women and the young children. Bringing in a simple block stove with a smoke pipe which vents the smoke outside is helping the women and the children to breathe better and to be healthier.
This group is also installing water tanks which enable water hoses to be run to all the homes in the village. During the week the Mayan men leave the village to work construction in towns sometimes hours away. They stay in the towns they are working in, which means the women are in charge of everything at home. One of the things they have to do is to haul water from the nearest cenote. A cenote is a deep clear clean natural water hole resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. This group pumps the cenote water into an elevated tank, which then is gravity fed by hoses into the homes.
The other thing this group is doing is offering scholarships to the children and youth to attend school. They understand they cannot change the older generation, yet they can educate the younger generation, so they can have a chance at a better life.
Prayer does make a difference. It makes a difference in each of us as we build our relationship with God. It makes a difference in the way we view our world and the way we view our lives. It makes a difference in how we live our lives as well. When we spend time in prayer, Near to the Heart of God, it will make a difference in our life.
Next week we’ll explore whether prayer can change God’s mind. Malachi 3:6 tells us, “I the Lord do not change.” And yet we read in Hosea 11:8, God says, “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” Does prayer change God’s mind? We’ll see.
Pastor Rosemary DeHut
References: Yancey, Philip (2006). Prayer: does it make any difference? Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan.