A group of young people on a summer’s mission trip to the party Island of Ibiza asked the local Anglican priest what the prayer needs of the Island were. Ibiza was in the middle of a really bad drought, so the priest asked them to pray for rain… like in our bible reading from James today… they prayed for rain and they were very surprised when minutes after they had stopped praying Ibiza was hit by a very unseasonal thunder storm. In fact they later discovered that it hadn’t rained so hard on the Island in July since 1976. Coincidence? Answer to prayer? Anyway the English press got hold of it and it became a big media story. “God Squad claim first miracle on Ibiza” The leader of that group Pete Greig… says it’s one of the glory stories that Christians like to tell.
However Pete Grieg is honest enough about prayer to have written the book ‘God on mute’ about a real life struggle with his faith as he was woken one night by his wife who said “Something is wrong, I can’t feel my legs” which was the start of a five year battle with a brain tumour and an ongoing struggle with a severe form of epilepsy. And it seems that God was silent and Prayer ineffective.
When we pray we find ourselves between these two extremes. There are times when I am surprised by just how awesomely God answers prayers and others when I have found myself with a friend or parishioner in desperate need crying out to God and it seems that the doors of heaven are shut.
In scripture we are invited in all situations to pray. Jesus tells his disciples in the passage we had read in Luke’s gospel to always pray and to never give up. The passage we had read from James seems a practical outworking of that. If we are in trouble we should pray, if we are happy we should well pray, sing psalms, if we are sick we should pray, and gives some specific instructions about a way of gathering the Christian leadership and community together to do that. If we have done wrong well we should pray we should confess our sins and get it sorted. ’ Have you noticed how people wander around with their cell phones out these days focused on the screen in constant communication with other people over the mobile networks and Internet. We are invited to have that same connectivity with God. But not in a way that shuts out the world, that puts us in danger of stepping out in front of that bus, or at the expense of the real life face to face relationships but that brings the world and those relationships into contact with a God who cares, who hears and who acts. RVG Tasker says ‘the habit of prayer should be, and indeed is one of the most obvious features which differentiate a Christian from other people.” Our heavenly father extends to us a standing invitation to draw near to God, which no experience of joy or sorrow and no conditions of prosperity or adversity have any power to cancel.”
In light of that great invitation I want to go through some nuts’n’bolts of praying for someone else, praying for people in times of need. Some of those nuts’n’bolts will be very practical and some of them will be very theological. This part of our churches season of prayer, as a parish council we have identified prayer as one of eight key areas we need to work on to help our church be an authentic, vibrant sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on the journey. So let’s work through a series of questions about praying for people.
The first one is Prayer actually effective? Does it make a difference or does it just make me feel better that I’ve been able to do something with my concern.?
Scriptures answer is that Pray is effective it changes things. In the passage we had read from Luke today Jesus says that the effectiveness of Prayer is based on the very character of God. He tells an interesting parable of an unjust judge, who tries to ignore the case of a poor insignificant widow. The encouragement for us is that God is not like that, he good and loving and just and is quick to see his people get justice.
James provides us with a very practical example of the effectiveness of prayer. Elijah had prayed and it had not rained for seven years and then he prayed again for rain, and a storm front rolled in over the Mediterranean Sea.
What happens if I you don’t receive an answer right away? Does it mean that God has not heard my prayer?
The classic answer to that is that God always answers Prayer. We have to deal with the fact that it maybe ‘no’ or ‘not now’ or not in the way in which we had thought it should be. Our reading in Luke comes at the end of a block of Jesus teaching about the last days, the consummation of the kingdom of God, and Jesus parable in it finishes with Jesus asking when the son of man comes will he find faith on earth. It is only in this long term eternal perspective will we see how God has answered all our prayer. The call to us, the invitation for us is to live in the meantime trusting in and drawing near to God, to pray and never give up. Roy Christian says that he believes that God answers every prayer for healing, for some it is by healing, others it is that they get a new sense of God’s presence and peace in the midst of suffering and other times that prayer is answered in death. For a person to go and be with Christ, in a place of no more suffering, no more pain and decay, because as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, in Christ’s resurrection death has been swallowed up in victory. Peter Grieg’s wife Sami has the last word in his book God on Mute’ and she writes of where she has come to in her own prayer life… she says “I don’t always understand God’s ways in my life, but I’m absolutely certain that he can be trusted.”
God will answer my prayer only if I’m good enough? Or if I have enough faith and I doubt that I do?
In James we hear the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective, and we might think it’s refereeing to those rear and wonderful super spiritual saints…right…wrong… The gospel of Jesus Christ is that we have all been made righteous through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. We are made right with God. In the same passage we also hear that we should confess our sins to one another, we re all flawed and broken. If we waited to feel good enough for God to respond to our prayers, I don’t think I’d ever get round to praying, would you… But Christ died for us, he took away the stain of our sin and invited us in… as loved family.
I have a friend whose daughter is terminally ill, we often prayer for her in our services. I wrote to my friend asking if there was any way I could help…”his reply was “not really, except if you know a doctor who has a cure for this kind of cancer that would be great”… I didn’t have the faith to write back and say ‘we’ll I know the great physician and I’ll ask him”, but I prayer for my friend’s daughter every day. I don’t know if my faith is big enough in that situation. In Luke the parable that Jesus tells has two names ‘ the parable of the unjust judge’ and the parable of the persistent widow’. The answer to this question comes in those two. Our faith when it comes to pray is in what we know of the character of God. It’s not the amount of our faith it is the one in whom we have put that faith. Secondly the widow in the story is poor and powerless, she is amongst the least in her community, yet she is persistent and her case get heard. WE may feel in that same position, powerless, helpless… but if we draw near to God and are consistent and persistent that is the main thing.
Now in James, we see that he encourages people who are very sick to call the elders together to pray. Does this mean that there is something special about elders? NO…the elders represent the whole community praying. In the end if someone brings and issue or a problem to you, in the sovereignty of God you just may be the very person whose prayers and help and compassion are needed in that situation.
Do I need to say the right words? Are their formula's to how we should pray?
Paul Ashman is the vicar at St Matthias and at the life course on Thursday he spoke on ‘how does God speak to us through prayer’. One of the things that spoke to me from what he said is that when we pray, God wants to hear from us, God wants to hear from you. Yes there are great liturgical prayers and psalm which help us pray, but in the end its about God simply wanting a relationship with each of us. Where we are real and honest. The other great thing is that when we pray we don’t pray alone, God has sent his Holy Spirit to dwell in all who believe and the holy Spirit it tells us in Romans 8:26 helps us in our weakness to pray. Our bumbling words may just be beautiful in God’s ear. Our articulate cries and sighs of compassion and care may just resonant with the heart of God.
But just a couple of tips, it’s always good to know who we are praying to. We are not simply calling off into the universe we know who God is, so we pray to God. We know that we can come to God because of Jesus Christ, in fact Jesus invites us to pray in his name. It does not mean we have to slavishly say ‘in Jesus name amen at the end or it won’t find the right address. But it is good to remember that it is because of Christ’s life death and resurrection that we are able to come to God in prayer, that we know what God is like, that we can ask as children of a good and gracious Father.
What if I pray the wrong thing? How do I know what God’s will is in any given situation?
That is a tricky one. The answer to that is really that God’s will is not some hidden secret agenda, Christians do not believe in fate, we are a gracious people not fatalistic. The answer is we do know what God’s will is. In the first section of 1 Timothy Chapter 2 Paul urges all kinds of prayers to be given for all people. For kings and rulers because God desires is that we live in a peaceful and just society. Then he says to pray for everyone because God’s desire is that all may come and know Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour. God wants everyone to come to a saving knowledge of him, to know his grace and grow to Christian maturity. In all situations as we looked at last week that is what we should be praying for people. Secondly we know that Jesus prayed for people to be healed that sickness and death are a result of a fallen and broken creation so it is right that we pray for the one who has conquered sin and death, to deal and elevate its consequences.
When I pray for someone in a ministry situation I also think it’s important to listen. To listen to what the person has to say, as it gives you directions as to what to pray for, but also to listen to the Holy Spirit to give direction in what to pray. For me that might come as a word in my mind, that small still voice, or a bible passage will come to mind. I was praying for some pastors on Thursday wrestling with the death of a friend and having to take the funeral and the laments of the Psalms came up, where people poured out their sorrow to God, but which are also such strong declarations of faith in God. So I used that as a basis for praying for them. That they would be able to grieve and pour out their pain and sorrow to God but also to hold on to that deep faith in God and be able to share that as they ministered to others at the funerals.
let me finish by saying… Prayer is like most other things in life you get better if you practise. So we are going to stop now and I am going to invite you to break into little groups of about three or four, and share with each other one thing, one person, one situation that you would like the other people to pray for or join you in praying for. Then I’m going to invite you in that group to pray for each other. In fact why not simply pray for the person to your left in that group. And will you commit yourself to praying for that person and that situation for the week to come.