I want to begin this sermon by asking you two questions.
What is the good life? And how do we get it? What, in your opinion, is the good life, and how are you going about getting it?
The reason we need to answer these first is that our answers to these questions fundamentally shape and fill our attitude to life and therefore to prayer.
Whether we realise it or not, we are orientating our hearts, our energy, our time, our daily routines, our talents, our money and even our prayers around getting whatever we think the good life is.
If we think that the good life is thrills, like the guy behind me or a nice house, good job, a photogenic family, good schools for our kids, plenty of leisure time, and no stress, illness or tragedy, then we will pray for and put our energies into those things.
We have often said, if you want to know what a person really believes and is living for, don’t listen to what they say they believe, look at their bank statement.
The same is true of prayer – if you want to know what someone thinks the good life is don’t listen to what they say – look at their prayer life.
Think about your praying or perhaps your lack of prayer over the last couple of months, what does it tell you about your priorities?
Christians often say that Jesus came to give us life and life in all its fullness and yes, Jesus did say that in John 10:10, but he meant something very different to what we think he is saying.
In bringing us the full life, he turned all our assumptions about the good life on their heads.
You see, the context of that passage is Jesus talking about how he is the good shepherd and how we are his sheep. Now, think about that for a moment, what is the destiny of a sheep? It’s to be prepared for the dinner table. The destiny of sheep is not to live for themselves, but to serve the agenda of the shepherd.
Our natural instinct is that the good life is get, get, get for ourselves and our loved ones and especially in liberal democracies like ours, we all feel, myself included, especially entitled to have everyone serve our ambitions.
But Jesus says, the good life is give, give, give. He said in Matthew 16 that anyone who wants to keep his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake will gain it and more back.
Paul picks up the same theme in 2 Corinthians 5 when he said that Jesus: died for all, so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
How could we ever, possibly have this attitude? The only way a self-giving life like that becomes desirable, let alone possible, is because Jesus has already given us everything he could possibly give us. The shepherd has already laid his life down for the sheep.
Romans 12:1 says that in view of this incredible kindness from God, that we are to be living sacrifices, not grabbing and getting, but offering ourselves up to God for whatever it is he would wish from us.
The relief in al that is that Jesus is not a God who is looking for minions, he is a God who is looking for those who will become like him, filled to the brim by the Spirit like he is, and overflowing with love for the Father and for the world.
A love that expresses itself most clearly in self-sacrifice.
If we are prayerless in our daily lives, or we only call on God when we want something for ourselves, our family or our friends, then what evidence is there, that we have been raised to a whole new kind of life in Christ.
At best, we haven’t experienced very deeply what Christ died to give us, at worst our confession of Christ is a lie and we are deluding ourselves.
It’s when our definition of the good life starts transforming into the same as Jesus’ that prayers, and our spirits, start to come alive.
So what is prayer? At its simplest definition, it’s talking to God.
The thing about simple definitions is that they are at the same time, both helpful and misleading. It’s helpful because it’s true, when we pray, we talk to God, and he talks to us, supremely and authoritatively through the Bible, but not exclusively so.
However, the definition is misleading because we talk in different ways to different people depending on our relationship to them. I talk one way to Elli my wife. I will talk a very different way to Evie my 7 month old daughter. I will talk a different way again to my father, to my colleagues or to strangers.
This doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it just means that the different relationships in my life take different forms of conversation and routine. Elli will not thank me if I start talking to her as I talk to Evie.
Jesus is not my wife, my child or my mate, so I don’t talk to him in any of those ways. I address him as the Lord of the universe with worship, awe, reverence, gratitude and honour for who he is and what he has done, but also with simplicity and confidence because whilst he is the ruler of all things, he is also my older brother in family of God and has given me access to the heart of God the Father.
Secondly, the Bible speaks of Christians reigning with Christ, but what does that mean? It doesn’t mean sitting on a throne perched in the clouds and staring into the middle distance.
Reigning with Christ looks like the picture behind me – the Council of Elrond from the Lord of the Rings. (See here, part 1 and part 2.)
Just like Elrond in the Lord of the Rings, God has his council. In Psalm 82 we read: God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.
In Psalm 89, we read: who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?
God ruled over the world of the Old Testament through angels and supremely through an enigmatic figure known as the Angel of the LORD. It was angels who would go to and fro across the earth and then come to council and talk to the Lord about what they had seen and he would give them missions to fulfil. For examples of this, see Job chapter 1 or Micaiah’s vision in 1 Kings 22.
But when Christ ascended into Heaven and sat down at the right hand of his Father, the work of the angels was over and in Revelation 4 we see them laying down their crowns of authority, symbolic of the great hand over, when the church would, as it were, pick up the baton and carry on where they left off.
For angelic rule was only ever a temporary measure.
God’s intention was always that men and women would be the ones who sat on his council. In Genesis 1 we read that God made humanity to rule creation with him, but when we rebelled against God, we disqualified ourselves not only from fellowship with God but also from our place on his council, ruling creation with him and were placed in spiritual quarantine until Christ came.
But through Christ and his cross, God has not only restored our fellowship with God, but he has restored us to our position of reigning with him on his heavenly council. That is why we read in Revelation 5:9-10: And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you [Lord Jesus Christ] to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
The church is a new people, the children of God gathered increasingly out of every nation as the gospel goes forth. Through Christ, we have been gathered into not only into the family of God, but also the heavenly ruling council of God to talk with him, to know his mind, to bring to his attention the things that are going on in his world and asking what he will do about it and what he wants us to do about it.
It’s by this process, spending time in the council of God, in prayer, and the obedience that flows from it, that we grow in maturity and live lives that are useful and pleasing to the master and see the world filled with the transforming love of God.
Jesus talks about this participation in the divine council another way, he says in John 15: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
Through Christ, God has brought us into every aspect of his heart and his life and he wants us to join him in making the plans he has for the world a reality.
Our reigning with Christ is made meaningful through prayer.
Prayer is the process by which we reign with Christ and grow in Christ.
At this point a clarification is helpful. If you have been around Christians long enough, you may have heard some of us say that we are sons and daughters of the king. But what does it mean to be a prince or princess in this heavenly dynasty?
To be a son or daughter in our culture tends to mean that we sit around whilst our parents run ragged trying to find ways of keeping us entertained and out of trouble or danger, but that is not the way the Bible ever views children of royalty.
Privilege is never the justification for indulgence or passivity. It is always the opportunity for gratitude and service.
In the bible, being a child of a king, means not only taking our place on the heavenly family sofa, but also taking our place on the heavenly council.
And on that council, we have three distinct roles which are inseparably woven together. We are all at the same time, sons (and daughters), subjects and soldiers. If we over or under-emphasise any one of these three roles, we won’t be like Jesus in our praying.
Firstly, princes and princesses are sons and daughters. We have the incredible privilege of being able to draw near to God in prayer.
Being made in his likeness means we can understand and enjoy him in a way that no other creature can.
Being close to him means we can talk to him as our loving father sharing with him all our hopes and fears, our disappointments and successes, and everything that our lives consist of. Jesus said to his disciples in John 20 : “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
But princes and princesses are also subjects in the king's court and servants in his service. They carry the king’s authority and are expected to serve the king and the kingdom in whatever is needed.
So we also come as subjects to be given jobs to do, realms to oversee and responsibilities to discharge, whether that be in the church or in our family lives, our workplaces or whatever and we are to be as faithful and obedient as we can in those places we serve him.
This is why Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 17:10: “when you have done everything you were told to do, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Sons and daughters are also subjects and servants, and we do well to remember that, lest a dark spirit of entitlement starts to overtake us.
Finally, less so historically for princesses than princes, we are called to be soldiers. In days of old, battles were not fought by a professional military who were paid, trained and deployed by the government, but by common people, like you and me and they were led into battle by the king and his sons.
The bible says that our battle is not one fought by physical force with guns and planes or with political manipulation and trade agreements, it is a spiritual battle waged with the spiritual weapons of the bible, prayer, faith and obedience.
Through this spiritual warfare, the children of the king, defend this spiritual kingdom from attack and dismemberment by forces that would love to see it destroyed for ever, and they also enlarge the borders of this kingdom transforming places of darkness, ignorance and evil into places of light, wisdom and purity.
When the disciples returned from what was the first ever mission trip, rejoicing at all that God had done through them – Jesus summed it up saying in Luke 10: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
With great power comes great responsibility. Through Christ, we have a privileged place in the palace as princes and princesses of the king, but that goes hand in hand with having a place of duty on his council as subjects or servants and as soldiers.
Here at Reading Family Church we have a mission statement that says we want to bring the kingdom of God to Reading and beyond. As princes and princesses of the king of Heaven, that mission statement only becomes a reality through the joy and the hard graft of our prayer.
To reign with Christ is to pray.
Now, all that said, here are some practical pointers.
Firstly, whatever else you take away from today remember to be yourself with God. He knows you and me better than we know ourselves, that is supposed to be a liberating truth to help us open up to God, not a scary one to shut us down.
God loves us dearly, and wants to hear what we have to say, so we don’t need pretend with him or think that we have to put on a special voice for him when we pray. We can just talk to him.
Of course, being yourself looks different at different times. Me talking and being myself at the age of 10 looked very different to me talking and being myself now at the age of 38.
At the tender age of 10, I was terrified about the possibility of nuclear war and the hole in the ozone layer, so my prayers included these things.
Being ourselves will change over time, but the principle of honesty, openness and simplicity in praying should never become absent.
Secondly, talk and listen to God, conversations are a two way process so listen to God as he speaks to you from the pages of the Bible. Listen to him for inspiration as you think about the words he has spoken, he may drop a thought into your head or an image. In all my 32 years as a Christian, I have never audibly heard the voice of God, I would imagine there are a few in this room who have down the years. Talk to him about what you think he is saying to you.
Thirdly, seek first the Kingdom. This is taken from something Jesus said in Matthew 6. What Jesus was saying was make the focus of your prayers mission of God. When we put God’s mission first we are honouring God.
The amazing thing about that is that as we make God’s concerns our main concern, he makes our concerns his concern.
As we look out for God’s priorities in prayer, he covers our back providing all we need, although not necessarily all we want.
What is God asking you to do, and encouraging you to trust him for?
Fourthly, faithfulness first, feelings second. If we are honest, sometimes, the reason we don’t pray is that we can’t be bothered or we don’t feel like it.
But feelings are never to be the basis for our deciding whether do anything, let alone whether we pray or not.
If I rang up my boss and said I don’t feel like working today. I’m not coming in. Then my boss would rightly say, well I don’t feel like paying you either, in fact whilst we’re at it, I’m, not sure I feel like employing you either.
Yet, somehow, we often fob our Heavenly Father off with excuses that we would never dare use to the people in our everyday lives.
Of course feelings do matter, but they come in second place to faithfulness. When we put faithfulness above feelings, we are not being hypocrites. We are doing the right thing and honouring the God who loves us and serving the world he loves.
As we exercise faithfulness in prayer, there are some things we pray about because we care about them, other things we pray about because God tells us to, but the curious thing about that is that with time, I have found as I have prayed, is that I start to care about the things I pray about.
The reason we pray is not just because it changes situations, it’s because it changes us.
Fifthly, quantity, quality and content do matter. There is a tension here. We are to be ourselves with God and come to him honestly and openly, but God wants to grow us in the practice of prayer, he uses prayer to grow us to maturity. So as we grow in our relationship to God our prayer and our praying will change over time.
Content does matter, if it didn’t, Jesus would never have taught his disciples to pray and given us what we now call the “Lord’s Prayer.”
Quality matters too, we can’t come to God any old sloppy how. We can only come to God because of and through his Son, Jesus, that is why you so often here Christians say the phrase "in the name of Jesus" when they pray. Moreover, in Psalm 66 David says that if he had cherished sin in his heart, then God would not have listened to his prayer.
That’s not because God is grumpy, but because he wants to sort out our hearts before we can move on. It isn’t that we have to get everything right before we talk to God, but just think sensibly and respectfully about who we are talking too and what he has asked of us.
And quantity matters, one example is in 2 Corinthians 2 where Paul says that he was delivered from death due to the prayers of many people.
Now of course we cannot go applying a formula to prayer that says if you pray "this much", then you get "this much" answer from God. Prayer is not a business transaction.
But it is by our persistence and our volume of prayer that we demonstrate to God and to ourselves that we really want something and it is in that process that God matures our hearts to the point that we are ready receive what we are asking for.
Sixth, model your prayers on Bible prayers. The Bible is full of prayers, use these to guide your own praying for yourself and for others. For example, one of my favourites is Eph. 3:16-19 why not turn to it now.
When I pray for you by name, this is the kind of thing that I am praying for you. If I know of an outward circumstance in your life, a job situation or something I may remember to pray for that, but my main desire is to pray the solid gold of prayers of the Bible like this over you so for example:
I pray for ______that out of your glorious riches you would strengthen him/her with power through the Spirit in his/her inner being, so that Christ may dwell his/her your heart through faith. And that , being rooted and established in love, he/she may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that he/she may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Try it now like I did above, pray those verses over someone!!
Isn’t it good, don’t you feel like you’re doing something meaningful. God is not ignorant of our external circumstances, but when you pray, try to avoid spending too much time praying for external circumstances of people and pray for the growth and maturing of their hearts in God, then whatever the external circumstances, they will be secure in the love of God and able to overcome whatever trial they are facing.
The other benefit about praying Bible prayers over people is that they help you to get the right balance between worship, thanksgiving, confession, and asking God for stuff. Left to our own devices we often spend too much time waffling on in one area. Modelling our prayers on the bible help us to avoid these imbalances. As I pray that Ephesians 3 prayer over people, I often find myself worshipping God for how awesome he is. I can’t help it.
Seventh, praying with God by yourself commands a blessing from him. Jesus says in Matthew 6 that when we prioritise quality time with God in prayer on our own we are rewarded. Praying by ourselves to God is the proof to our hearts and to his that we aren’t just going through the motions with everyone else, it means that we want to be there with him and for him alone.
Now, as you leave the meeting this morning, the host team will drop into your hand a little handout I have created so that depending on how much time you have available you can make some time to pray.
If we have time to pee, we have time to pray. If we have time to watch TV, we have time to pray. If we have time for Facebook, we have time to pray. If we don’t have time to pray, it’s because we don’t think it’s important enough.
I say that not to heap up condemnation on us, but simply to bring a reality check because, we always make time for the things that are important to us.
No one has ever told me I am a legalist if I eat three meals a day or try to sleep 7 hours per night. No one. Yet, if I say I try to pray every day, some Christians look at me all funny!
Regular praying is not legalism, it is like eating and sleeping, it’s a healthy routine that brings life. We know how to feed our bodies, do we know how to feed our souls?
In 1 Thessalonians 3, Paul said he prayed night and day for the churches, This doesn’t mean that he was constantly praying, it means he would have begun and ended the day in prayer.
All down history, Christians across the world have made it a priority and given themselves to starting and finishing the day in prayer.
How much time we spend in prayer will depend on how much time we have, how tired we are etc, but committing our days to God before we walk out the door and committing them again to him before we flop into bed are so helpful to in keeping our hearts soft and responsive to God and the handout you will get on your way out will give you more on how to do this.
Over the course of the week, my rule of thumb is to try and do the morning and evening times of reading the Bible and praying, if I am pressed then it will just be a prayer before I run out of the door.
Saturday is a day for review of the week thanking God for what he has done and praying for what is yet undone. Sunday is a day of rest as I gather with the people of God to worship and celebrate together.
The other thing to say is that if we have lifegroup during the week, then that meeting becomes my evening time with God, I wouldn’t then expect to spend more time with him after that.
Pray with others. My morning times are by myself with God, unless Evie has awoken early, then I have to have one eye on her as I pray and read the Bible whilst she plays and eats things. But in the evening, Elli and I have started doing this together and our aim is that as Evie grows, she will participate increasingly in this with us. If you are single, why not pray with your housemates or find someone who doesn’t live too far from you who you can pray with – men with men, women with women.
Elli and I also meet up once a week to pray with Simon and Kat Starling who live down the road from us. We pray together for this community of Whitley.
Then of course there are our church wide prayer meetings and this week we have our week of prayer to kick of the new term, more about that in a minute.
Use technology – that could be as simple as a pen and journal where you write down what you think God is saying and what you pray to him as a result. You can then look back and see answered prayers.
I also use the Prayermate app which sounds fancier than it is. It’s just the equivalent of an old card index system by which you can organise the things you pray for. I have about 20 lists each of which vary in length and I pray for one thing off each list each day. That might sound like a lot, but it isn’t. I probably spend a maximum of about 30 seconds on each item which means it takes about 10 minutes. I’m not waiting to be caught up into a third heaven vision before I start praying, I am just getting on with the task of trying to faithfully do what the master has asked me to do.
I then review and update those lists once or twice a year to keep them up to date which takes about an hour or so.
Think about the physical position of your praying. If I lie down on the bed or sit on a chair, I find mind wanders or I nod off. I tend to get passive. So instead, I try to stand, kneel or pace up and down. That way, I find I stay more focussed and when I am moving, it helps me to feel more engaged.
Finally, fasting. Fasting in the eyes of the world is a ridiculous thing. How on earth do you achieve anything by depriving yourself? But in the Bible, fasting is a way of emptying yourself, on one level quite literally, so you can be filled with what only God can give – the Spirit of life. When God sees that we want what he wants to the point of denying yourself, again, his heart is moved to hear you. Again, it’s not a formula, it’s not this much fasting for such and such an answer, fasting is an attitude of heart.
If you have never fasted before, why not try skipping a meal one day in the week and giving yourself to prayer. You may feel like you are dying but you aren’t. If 12 year old Muslim boys and girls can go without food from sunrise to sunset during July as part of Ramadan, then surely I can skip a meal to pray. Muslims do Ramadan for the sake of pursuing an idol, who cannot save. How much more should we seek the face of God and his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, knowing that he will hear and answer us.
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