A bar opened in a small town just across the street from a church. Not even a little pub where one could order a beer with their sandwich; but a bar in the most shady sense of the term. One of those places that stayed open half the night, had a dubious clientele, and whose patrons stumbled out the door at closing time. The church’s members were, understandably, concerned. But since the bar wasn’t violating any local ordinances, there was little they could do about it. So, they decided to hold prayer meetings hoping that the power of their prayers would put an end to the establishment. After several prayer meetings, one night there was a horrible thunderstorm. Lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground. Being aware of the church’s complaints and having heard about their prayer meetings, the owner of the bar filed suit against the church. A local judge agreed to hear their arguments. The bar owner’s attorney claimed that the church was responsible for the destruction of his client’s property. The lightning was deemed an act of God and they had certainly invoked the name and the power of God for that very purpose. The attorney for the church claimed that the accusation was nothing short of ridiculous. The church could not be held responsible for what had occurred. After considering their statements, the judge rendered his decision. The role of the church in the bar’s destruction was uncertain. What was, however, quite clear was that the bar owner had much greater faith in the power of prayer than did the church members.
Prayer is, at times, a mysterious thing. This morning, during the Sunday School hour, I met with our youth who are going through confirmation and, together, we talked about the topic of prayer. When one joins a United Methodist Church – which our confirmands will do in a few weeks – the first promise one makes to that local congregation is to support the church with one’s prayers. So if, as is generally the case with “lists,” one assumes that that which is of greatest importance is named first, one could conclude that there is no greater or more important action in which we could engage on behalf of Trinity Church than to pray for this church. Now I know that some of you do that. I hope that most of you do that since, as I said, that is a promise we make when we join the church. But what should we pray? And, how should we pray? We may be tempted to pray that time will magically roll back to 1950 when nearly everyone went to church and church growth was like shooting fish in a barrel. Should we pray, specifically, that God will bless us with lots of children and young families and with people with lots of interest in volunteering and new members who are generous givers and skilled leaders?
Well, as I mentioned last Sunday, in these weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost, we’ll be looking together at scriptures from the Book of Acts so we can see how the practices of the early Church are reflected in the promises we made when we joined Trinity. This morning’s scripture from the Book of Acts reveals something interesting about the prayers of the early Christians. My reading from Acts picked up, really, in the middle of the story (which is rather lengthy) so I need to backtrack a bit to give us some context.
Acts is the story of the Church’s beginnings. As the gospel of Luke presented to us the ministry of Jesus; the book of Acts presents to us the ministry of Jesus’ followers. Once the Holy Spirit is poured out on Jesus’ disciples, they are filled with the power to proclaim the good news of Jesus. Devout Jews, the disciples continue to carry out the practices of their Jewish faith. One day Peter and John are attending afternoon prayer at the temple when they encounter a man who has been crippled since birth. He is begging for alms from the worshippers who, he trusts, will be in a generous frame of mind. But Peter and John have little in the way of financial resources and so they give the man something of much greater value. They heal him by invoking the name of Jesus. The man is overjoyed. He creates quite the stir and a crowd begins to form around Peter, John and this man. Having gained their attention, Peter uses this as an opportunity to preach and so – since nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd – it soon also draws the attention of the religious leaders who are none too happy about what they are hearing and seeing.
Now, a quick aside to make better sense of this story: Although Israel was under Roman rule in the first century, Rome governed from a distance. It was the Jewish high priest and other religious rulers who maintained law and order on a daily basis. Rome wanted their tax money and Rome did not want any trouble. If there was trouble, Roman troops would descend and march their dirty little Gentile feet all over the holy city of Jerusalem. No one wanted that – neither the Romans nor the Jews. Now Jesus, this simple Galilean rabbi, had created quite a stir and his crucifixion had not put an end to the matter. Now his followers are stirring up the crowds as well. So the religious authorities arrest Peter and John and toss them in jail for the night, likely hoping that it would dampen their evangelistic zeal. But it doesn’t. They also preach the gospel of Jesus to the religious leaders who sense that they are in an awkward bind here because this man they’ve healed just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut either. So they decide to release John and Peter with a warning that they’ll find themselves in even deeper trouble if they keep with us kind of behavior, all this Jesus-talk. But their threats fall on deaf ears. Peter and John make clear they are not about to stop.
And that is where this morning’s scripture reading picked up. Released from prison, Peter and John head back to join the other disciples to inform them of their imprisonment and the interrogation and threats they’ve been subjected to. This is awful – it’s scary and humiliating and dangerous… and so, one might expect them to join together in praying for God’s protection. One might expect them to pray that the religious leaders would lighten up and leave them alone. One might expect them to pray for ministry to be a little easier and not so controversial. But that is not at all what they pray. And what they do pray provides a lesson for us and a pretty good answer to my earlier question of what and how should we pray today for Trinity United Methodist Church.
Their prayer in a nutshell is this: make us bold. Make us bold while you continue to do what we trust you will do as a God who heals and performs wondrous signs. So, for whom are they seeking change? Well, although I’m sure they’d be delighted to have the authorities leave them alone, that is not the change they’re focused on. No, the change they seek is a change in themselves; that they might be emboldened; that they might be more courageous; that they might be willing to risk even more than they are risking now. Wow; that’s crazy, don’t you think? If you ask me, you have to already have a pretty ample supply of boldness to pray for more under those kinds of circumstances. So, how does that happen? Well, their desire for boldness and courage comes from a place of confidence in God and in God’s Word.
1) Notice, first off, that their prayer begins by acknowledging the power and sovereignty of God. Friends, when we face threatening people or circumstances, we need to remind ourselves that nothing and no one is as powerful as God; the one who created all things, including those things that seem, to us, to be threatening or discouraging. Folks, if we do not believe in the sovereignty of God, we will spend our lives crippled with fear and our ministry will be over before it’s even begun. We can’t succumb to fear because God is ultimately more powerful than anything we fear. But how do we develop that kind of confidence in God’s sovereignty and power?
2) Well, through the study of scripture. Notice, in the next part of their prayer, they quote an Old Testament scripture. They are not surprised that their preaching about Jesus has gotten them in trouble because scripture makes clear that there will be opposition to God’s Messiah. They’re not shocked by what’s happened. It’s something they expected. But they couldn’t have known all that without knowing scripture. And the same is true for us today. If we don’t know scripture, we won’t have any idea that being a follower of Jesus is tough work. We’ll expect it to be easy and when it’s not, we’ll be tempted to just bail. We won’t know how to respond when it gets tough. But, if we’re well-versed in scripture, then difficulty doesn’t take us by surprise, and we can rest secure in the knowledge of my immediately previous point – that God is sovereign and nothing that threatens us is greater than God.
3) But what I find most shocking about their prayer is that (as I’ve already mentioned) they do not ask for things to get easier for them. They don’t ask for God to change everyone else. They ask God to begin by changing them. Their concern is not with the opposition they’re experiencing. They already know opposition is coming because of point number 2… scripture tells them that’s just how it goes. So their concern, their prayerful desire, is that God strengthen them in their witness despite opposition. They want God to help them speak the gospel word with boldness. Friends, far too often, if something is a struggle for us, we want God to remove the struggle, don’t we? I admit it; I generally do.
If following Jesus is hard, we pray for it to be easier. If engaging in ministry is hard, we pray for it to be easier. If connecting with our neighborhood is hard, we pray for it to be easier. If growing the church is hard, we pray for it to be easier.
We want others to change so it will all be easier. But what about us? What if we were the ones to change? What if we changed the way we pray? What if we began to pray for God to strengthen us and to deepen our commitment; to give us eyes to see opportunities to share the message of Jesus with others; to give us boldness in the midst of difficulty?
4) And there’s one final thing to point out in their prayer. They ask that God equip them to speak with boldness while God heals and performs signs and wonders. They pray: “Grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness while you… While you… Once again, I refer back to point #2. When we know scripture, we know both who God is and how God behaves. When we know what God has been doing throughout history, it emboldens us. God has been caring for his people since time began. For millennia, God has been building up his kingdom. For 2,000 years, God has been equipping his Church. And if all that has been going on for all that time, why would it end now? Hmm? As human creatures, we tend to worry about all kinds of things. And as church members, we worry about our church. But friends, God’s got this. He’s got it. We don’t need to put together a “to do list” for God. God has been caring for this church for a very long time and he’s not about to stop now. And so, perhaps our prayers need some tweaking. Perhaps, we don’t so much need to tell God what we want God to do as we need to be bold in asking God what we need to do. Perhaps our prayer needs to be: God grant to your servants here at Trinity to discern boldly, to serve boldly, to give boldly, AND to speak boldly.
Church, we are in the midst of our vision process. For some of us, that’s exciting. For some of us, that might be a little scary. We want to know what our consultant is doing. We want to know what the Vision Team is doing and what the church council is doing. [Question needs to be:] What am I doing? What are each one of us doing? Most of us have heard that Ghandi quote, “Be the change that you wish to see.” Change begins with each of us. If we’re going to make a change in our community, if we’re going to make a change in our city, it’ll begin with a change in us. It’ll begin with us praying, “God, grant us to speak your word with all boldness.” It begins with our prayer…
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