Monday, February 27, 2017

February 26, 2017 The Power of Prayer: Paul's Prayer Advice

This morning we conclude our series of messages on prayer, and as we do, I want to remind you that next week’s message, while not specifically about prayer, is an addendum to this series, as it is about healing, which is one of the most common topics of our prayers.  That message will be a summary of some of what I have come to believe, after 35+ years in ministry, about healing.  It is a message that is not a medical or scientific approach to healing, but one that is pastoral and theological.

This morning, as we conclude our series of four messages about prayer, we come to Paul’s Prayer Advice.  We solicit advice about many things.  We turn to trusted advisors for financial advice; how we should manage our finances and for advice about investing.  We turn to others for advice about the many facets of family – for advice on marriage, advice about child-rearing, advice about relating to parents and siblings.  We turn to others for vocational advice.  Any others you can think of?

But what about advice on prayer?  How often do we solicit prayer advice?  Does it sound strange to say we should seek out advice about prayer?  Why not, though?  And if you seek advice on prayer, why not seek that advice from a spiritual giant?  For advice about prayer this morning, we will turn to such a person, and that is Paul.  Paul, by virtue of his circumstances, is obviously a person of great spiritual stature and his spiritual strength is powered by his prayer life.

At the time of writing his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul was imprisoned in Rome.  Paul had been taken to Rome because he was appealing a conviction that had been handed down first by local authorities and then wound through a series of appeals, first to Felix – who was a Roman governor – and then by Festus, the replacement for Felix, and then on to King Agrippa.  Paul then exercised his right, as a Roman citizen, to take his appeal all the way to Rome, to Caesar himself.  Agrippa agreed that Paul had not done anything that deserved either imprisonment or death, and that he would have been set free had he not appealed to Rome (Acts 26:30-32), but Paul was determined to get to Rome, one way or another, even if it meant going in chains as a prisoner.

Imagine those very dire circumstances in which Paul found himself, as we read his words from Philippians 1:3-11 –
I thank my God every time I remember you.
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy
because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,
being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,
10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

In this passage, Paul offers several very specific pieces of advice about prayer, four of which we will consider this morning.

1.  Pray with Gratitude. 
Verse 3 – I thank my God every time I remember you.

I love that verse.  It is one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. 

What is truly amazing in this passage is that Paul, in spite of his circumstances, could express a sense of gratitude. At some point after arriving in Rome it became clear to Paul that not only would he not be set free, but that he would be executed.  Considering such a plight, it would be easy to assume that Paul’s prayers would be full of entreaties to be released from prison and for his life to be spared.  Amazingly, that was not the case.  I would be praying for myself and would seek to have everyone I know praying for me!  How is it that Paul can be grateful when he finds himself in chains and knows his execution is looming on the horizon?

One of the reasons why Paul is able to express gratitude is because of the people God has placed in his life.  In verse 3 Paul very specifically ties his gratitude to people – I thank my God every time I remember you.  Paul is grateful in a general sense – for all the gifts in his life – but at this moment he is especially thinking about the people God has placed in his life.  All throughout the book of Philippians we find Paul expressing his gratitude for people, a few of which are 1:18-20.  2:12-18.  4:1.  4:1-11. 

When it comes to the church, we can never forget that the ministry of the church rests in large measure upon the personal, that is, the way in which we deal with people.  The church is an institution – and a very large one at that, and the institutional side of the church is important, because the structure of the institution makes so much of the work of mission and ministry possible – but it is founded upon the personal.  People will come to a church because of a program, or the music, or the preaching, but they will stay because of the personal.  People are bonded to a church because they form relationships there, they find support there, and they find care in that church.  Sometimes, though, people are disappointed, and that comes when the personal side of the church stumbles or fails.  It is important that we build a strong structure that will support our ministries but we can never forget the importance of the personal touch.  We must welcome people who come through our doors and into our building.  We must introduce ourselves to them and connect them to the fellowship of our church.

It is the people to whom we are connected that give us reason to pray with gratitude.  It was the people God had placed in the life of Paul that made it possible for him to pray with gratitude in the midst of such difficult circumstances.  Who are the people God has gifted into your life?  Thank God for them.  Express your gratitude for them and to them.

2.  Pray With Joy.
Verse 4 – In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.

In spite of his dire circumstances, Paul’s attitude was one of joy.  In fact, reading through the book of Philippians one could easily assume that Paul was writing under some of the best circumstances possible, rather than the challenging ones in which he found himself.  It would be easy to assume, because of Paul’s positive attitude, that he was writing under a palm tree, on a beach, with his feet in the sand, rather than as a prisoner under guard.  To say, in verse 4, for instance, that I always pray with joy, is an amazing statement for him to make, especially when we consider his circumstances.  But Paul would not allow his circumstances to dictate either his attitude or his response to his circumstances.  Time and again, throughout Philippians, Paul speaks of his own joy and that we ought to be joyful as well.

As with gratitude, there are many references to joy throughout the book of Philippians.  There are so many references to joy and a spirit of joy so infuses the book that it is sometimes referred to as the book of joy.  Again, isn’t that amazing, considering the circumstances?

4:4 is an example – rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!  Has anyone else sung the song from that verse?  If I sing it, you probably won’t recognize it.  Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!  Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice!  I learned to sing that song as a young man in church and at church camp.  We would sing that song in the mornings at camp, to get us awake and enthusiastic for the day (and sometimes overly enthusiastic, much to the chagrin of our counselors).  We still teach that song at church camp, and sing it in the mornings to get the students awake and enthusiastic (and sometimes too enthusiastic, still to the chagrin of the counselors).

Jim Fegenbush came by the office the other morning and he groaned as he sat down in a chair.  He said his arthritis was bothering him, but he would be thankful for his arthritis because it meant he had a leg and a foot.  Isn’t that classic Jim?  Now there’s a joyful perspective!

It does not minimize anyone’s difficulty, struggle, or other hardship to acknowledge there is joy to be found in any circumstance.  Paul says, even in the midst of his terrible ordeal that I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength (4:11-13).  To not acknowledge joy and some good in even the most difficult of situations can just break us down.  For Paul, in his circumstances, it was a matter of emotional, psychological, and spiritual survival.

3.  Pray for Increased Love.
Verse 9 – And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more.

One certainty of Paul’s circumstance is that he was given a focus upon what matters most – whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things (3:7-8).

When you confront your mortality, as did Paul, it puts things into perspective.  Now, personally, I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of living each day as if it were our last.  It’s just not practical.  Technically speaking, you can’t live every day as if it were your last, not for any length of time, because you’d probably lose your job for starters.  Stay home from week every day this week, living each day as if it were your last, and see what kind of reaction you get from your boss.  When your boss calls, asking where you’ve been, try using the excuse that you are living each day as your last.  Yes, boss, I am at Disney World. Nest week I’ll be in Hawaii.  Work?  But I’m living each day as if it were my last. What we are called to do is to remind ourselves of the importance of adjusting our lives to those most important matters that are often pushed aside by the sometimes tyrannical urgency of the less important matters of life.  We know that love is the core of life, but we always need to be called back to that truth.

4.  Pray for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Discernment.
Verses 9-10 – in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

Paul really possessed an amazing faith, for a couple of reasons, I believe.  He was, first, an amazing individual.  Second, he really worked at his faith.  And, third, as he writes in II Corinthians 12:9, …he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness," Paul understood how much he depended upon the power of God rather than his own power. 

One of my first seminary classes was called Spiritual Formation.  I didn’t know what that term, spiritual formation, meant, but it’s simply a specialized way of referring to the process of gaining spiritual growth and maturity through a concentrated effort.  We should be working at our faith and growing in faith, always.  Sometimes, people will approach me with a desire to make a public statement about a renewed commitment to their faith.  They will say something along the lines of I know so much more now than when I made my first commitment to faith when I was in the 5th grade.  Wonderful!  You should know more now than you did at an earlier stage of life.  This shows your faith formation is working well and continuing to provide you with a growing, vibrant, and healthy faith. 

I have been very blessed to have people in my life to whom I could and can turn for wisdom and discernment.  I trust their guidance and their opinions.  I have been blessed with teachers who gave me some level of knowledge that has helped to enrich my faith.  And I have learned that while it is important to search the depths of theology, we must allow God to speak to our hearts, for it is there that we find the “heart” of our faith.

When I was in seminary, one of my professors related that idea to us one morning.  Dr. Harold Songer was a New Testament professor and brilliant teacher.  He was one of the most interesting people I have ever heard speak.  I could walk into his class utterly exhausted, barely able to hold my eyes open, and yet could sit and listen to him for a 90-minute class and hardly blink.  His lectures were interesting, riveting, and no matter how tired I might be, I could listen without so much as an eyelid drooping.

One morning, Dr. Songer came into class and began his lecture.  It was apparent that something was agitating him and after only a few minutes we found out what it was.  He stopped teaching and said this to us – I went to church this weekend to hear one of my students preach.  I have to say that I wasn’t very pleased.  It was as though he was trying to show me how much he knows.  I didn’t need to know how much he knows; I already know it, and I probably taught him a lot of what he knows.  I didn’t want someone to speak to my head; I wanted someone to speak to my heart.  Do not try to impress your congregation with what you know.  Don’t speak to their heads; speak to their hearts, because that is where we build faith.

Dr. Songer was right, I believe.  We need some knowledge, obviously.  There is a time and a place to provide the background and context to a Biblical passage, even in a sermon.  Paul, obviously, was at times deeply theological – read through the book of Romans and you will quickly discover that truth.  But here in the book of Philippians we find Paul speaking to the hearts of those to whom he wrote, and that is why it is such a profound little book.  We think about and mull over certain concepts and facts with our heads – and that is necessary – but our faith is formed in our hearts.  Paul is speaking to our hearts to provide us with advice about prayer.  We can tuck away that advice in our heads but it really takes root in our hearts, and there it will grow, and there it will enrich our lives and our faith in immeasurable ways.

And we can take that as great advice, because it comes from Paul, who certainly knew a thing or two about prayer, and his advice still makes all the difference. 

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