This Sunday, I get to preach in a sermon series on prayer.
The Christian playwright Murray Watts tells a story of how in his early days in the profession he was waiting at a bus stop with his fellow playwright and actor Paul Burbridge. Fed up with waiting for a bus to come, they decided to pray for one. While they closed their eyes and prayed, a bus came … and went past. Watts says that has always been a reminder to him of Jesus’ words to ‘Watch and pray.’
So how do we pray when it comes to intercession – that is, praying for human need? Our passage gives us some answers, but some of what it says doesn’t always correspond with the way we typically pray, either on our own or in Sunday services. It may be that these verses provide a corrective to the ways we often pray.
There are three questions I think this text will help us with. They sound obvious questions with obvious answers, but I’d like us to pause and hear the answers that are actually given, rather than the ones we would give us a reflex response.
Firstly, how do we pray?
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone (verse 1)
What do you make of these different words Paul uses for prayer here? ‘Supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings’ give us a range of prayer.
Supplications are usually prayers for ourselves. Some of us are reluctant to ask God for things for ourselves. Perhaps we think it’s selfish or greedy. Maybe you’re like me and when you were a child your parents didn’t have much money, so you got used to the idea that with your earthly parents you asked for little or nothing, and then you transferred that over to your relationship with your heavenly Father. In my case, it took some special experiences of answered prayer in my early to mid-twenties before I could begin to feel confident that I could ask God for big things for myself in prayer. I’m still careful and wary of my motives, especially when I want to ask for something I think I will like. Habitually I make major purchases a subject of prayer, and if it something that appeals to me – such as a new computer – part of my praying is to ask God to show me whether this is something I really need or whether I am just lusting after the latest technology. I certainly prayed before buying the iPad you have seen me using lately.
Prayers [and] intercessions probably go together. These are our requests for others. When we intercede, we are the go-between person, connecting those in need with God. It is a priestly role, representing human beings to God. However much some of our other Christian friends may call some of their ordained people ‘priests’, the New Testament sense is that all Christians are priests. We have the privilege of representing people to God, and representing God to people.
If that’s the case, then intercession is a privilege. We are invited into the throne room of God with our prayers for others. Yet if you’re anything like me on this one, sometimes the regularity and even the monotony of intercession make it dull. The sense of privilege gets worn away over time. So let’s pause for a moment and remember what a remarkable privilege it is. As the old hymn writer put it:
Large petitions with thee bring
Thou art coming to a king.
And linked with that sense of privilege, let’s note that the last word used in the ‘how’ of prayer is thanksgivings. Is this something we overlook, too? Intercession is linked with gratitude, because God answers prayer. Oh, I know we sometimes struggle to see the answer, and we often have to wait for him to do something, but answer he does and when he does it is only right to bring our thanksgivings as well as our requests.
This is something that Knaphill has tried to build into its practice of prayer. The church has a prayer chain. If someone has an urgent need of prayer, it is circulated around the people on the prayer chain and they will pray. But we also ask the person requesting prayer to let us know what God does in response to those prayers, so that we can report what happened and give thanks to God for all he has done.
Probably the only area of weekly public intercessions that includes thanksgiving is when we thank God for the departed in Christ. That’s good, but there is so much more to thank him for, when we consider all he has done for us in response to our prayers.
Secondly, who do we pray for?
for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions (verses 1b-2a)
How many of these people are Christians? Few indeed. We are to pray ‘for everyone’ – and Christians are a minority. We are to pray ‘for kings and all who are in high positions’ – well, in the days of this letter very few Christians held high office. But we seek the same amount of blessing for those who do not know Christ, or who are yet to know Christ, as for any Christians in need. It is the job of the Christian as part of mission to bless the world. We are not simply to rail against the aspects of life that we do not like, even if there is a place for a prophetic word against sin. We are also to bless those we believe to be outside the kingdom of God. It is like the days of Jeremiah. When some of the population of Judah was carried off to pagan Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Jeremiah wrote them a letter, in which he told them to bless the place to which they had been taken (Jeremiah 29).
So can we ask ourselves, how can we bless the world where we live? Much of that will of course be by practical action, but it needs to be done on a foundation of prayer. Are there neighbours or colleagues we are praying for? Do our friends know that if they are in trouble, we would be willing to pray for them? Think: what might happen if your friend suddenly realised that Jesus had shown up in her life?
But as well as the general everyone, let us also think about the specific kings and all who are in high positions. Now we often pray for such people in our public intercessions. We pray for the needs of the world, we pray that rulers and governments will act with justice and for the sake of peace. All of that is good and I would not wish to stop it. However, Paul has other things in mind.
Note how this is linked with the reference in the next verse to ‘God our Saviour’. Not only is it true that God is our Saviour, Paul is reminding Timothy that these kings and rulers are not saviours. Some of them expected to be acknowledged as saviours: think of the claims to divinity by Roman emperors, for example. This, then, is prayer that puts things in perspective – God’s perspective. Today we have other people and forces in society who want to claim that they can ‘save’: think of the inflated promises made for consumer goods, to take one example. Intercessory prayer that remembers God is our true Saviour dethrones these idols from their pedestals.
We need to dethrone these pretenders to the throne of God in our own lives, of course, and it is also a vital task for Christians to pray that idols will come crashing down in society. In that respect, is it too irresponsible to wonder whether the financial woes of the last five years have at least in part been a bringing down of false economic gods that have wrongly laid claim to our worship? Does prayer not begin to clear the ground, spiritually speaking, for what God wants to do in truth and love in a society?
And that leads to the third and final question: why do we intercede?
Again, it probably seems like there is an obvious answer. We want things to get better. We want people to be healed. We want to see justice and peace.
Well, yes indeed to all those things! They can all be signs of God’s kingdom, and therefore such prayers are consistent with the Lord’s Prayer, where we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for his will to be done on earth as in heaven. But Paul goes further:
so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (Verses 2b-4)
The part about leading ‘a quiet and peaceable life’ is probably there because the early Christians were a small and insignificant group of people, often not from influential strands of society. They could not hope to make a big political difference in their culture – and remember, it wasn’t a democracy as we know it, anyway. The best they could hope for was the chance to live undisturbed by persecution. Millions are the Christians today for whom that is also true. They need our prayers.
Beyond that, the ‘why; of prayer goes to another kingdom of God theme: the spread of the Gospel. ‘God our Saviour … desires everyone to be saved,’ says Paul, and he goes on in the remaining verses to talk about the key rôle of Jesus as mediator between God and humankind. Paul wants Christians to pray for those in authority so that the climate will be right in a society for the unfettered spread of the Gospel.
Now there are certainly Christian traditions that pray regularly for the Gospel to reach more people at home and abroad. The trouble is, it’s not one of our strengths. You rarely see anything like that alluded to in official liturgical intercessions, and it doesn’t always come naturally to our lips when our preachers construct extempore intercessions, either. It has slipped off our radar – which is all the more strange when you consider how concerned we become about the decline in church attendance and membership. Wouldn’t you think that one thing we would want to pray for was for more people to start following Jesus Christ and becoming part of his community, the Church? This is something we need to recover.
Certainly we need to lead by example by including this in our weekly public intercessions, and – I would suggest – in our Thursday morning prayers here. But then we also need to follow through in our own private devotions. I don’t know what you include in your private prayers at home – I hope you do pray regularly! One thing we could include is a list of people we know who do not yet know and follow Jesus. Should we not be consistently praying for such people, that the Holy Spirit will be at work in their lives to show Jesus to them?
It is said that the famous evangelist D L Moody had a long list of people he prayed for. By the time of his death, all but two of them had found Christ. I wonder whether he went to his death sorrowful about those two.
If so, he needn’t have despaired. After he died, both of them became disciples of Jesus.
Friends, the question of people becoming committed Christians is a spiritual issue. It will not be solved simply by adopting a programme or a set of techniques. It needs to be handled spiritually, and that at very minimum means prayer.
In fact, what of value does happen in the kingdom of God without prayer? Let us commit ourselves to it.
‘Ello. I wish to register a complaint.
Anyone who ever followed Monty Python’s Flying Circus will soon recognise those words from the famous Dead Parrot Sketch. John Cleese’s character Mr Praline has bought a Norwegian Blue parrot from a pet shop but it proves to be dead. The pet shop owner says, “He’s not dead, he’s resting.” Exasperated, Mr Praline eventually declares the animal to be “an ex-parrot”.
The Dead Parrot sketch came back into my mind as I re-read Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. A friend of mine rewrote it as The Dead Church Sketch. So for the part of the sketch where Mr Praline complains that the parrot is not moving and he is told that the parrot has been nailed to its perch, we instead hear the excuse that the congregation has been nailed to the pews.
In Ezekiel 37 the prophet encounters a vision of a ‘Dead Church’, or Dead Israel to be more accurate. A Dead People Of God. He is taken back and forth among the bones to make it clear that the people of God in exile in Babylon are ‘dead’. Spiritually dead.
The vision is appalling and offensive. You didn’t leave dead bones out in the air: the Jewish custom was (and still is) to bury the dead within a day or two of the death. And contact with dead bodies made a Jew ritually unclean, so to leave them out like this for so long increased the number of people who would be made unclean by coming near them.
More offensive than the implications for Jewish ritual law is the message of the vision: the people of God are dead.
Somewhere among our struggles for the future of Church is a similar fear. Declining church numbers. The lack of under-40s. Does The Future Have A Church?
The historian Callum Brown said in his book The Death Of Christian Britain that he could envisage the disappearance of Christianity from this nation. Ten years ago Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor spoke of our faith as having been ‘almost vanquished‘.
We’re beginning to look like a pile of dead bones out in the air.
Might we turn on to Ezekiel again and see whether God might bring a similar message of hope in the face of devastation to us?
Three times God tells Ezekiel to prophesy. The first occasion is this:
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
To dead bones comes the promise of life. Life will enter the dead by the breath of God, that is, his Spirit. It’s the same word in Hebrew for wind, breath and spirit. Just as the Spirit brooded over the waters at creation and God put his breath in the man so that he might have life, so to have new life – spiritual life – requires the breath or Spirit of God.
Somebody once said that if the Holy Spirit were taken from the Church, ninety-five per cent of all activities would continue just the same. Was that person right? Instead of defining the Christian life as life in the Spirit, we have defined it by busyness and by whether the church has a full and varied programme of activities.
In my last circuit the ministers had to give reports to every Circuit Meeting on the ‘new initiatives’ in each of our churches. Healthy church life was
measured in new programmes and projects, not in signs of the Spirit. Eugene Peterson says,
Along the way the primacy of God and his work in our lives gives way ever so slightly to the primacy of our work in God’s kingdom, and we begin thinking of ways that we can use God in what we are doing. … [I]t turns out that we have not so much been worshipping God as enlisting him as a trusted and valuable assistant.
[Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, p 124.]
The Old Testament calls God the Helper of Israel. Some English translations of the New Testament call the Holy Spirit the Helper. But this should not be taken to justify that subtle shift from utter dependence upon God to regarding him as an accessory. When we treat the Spirit of God like that, we end up as dead bones.
Ezekiel calls us, then, to receive the life of the Spirit and stop depending upon our dead ways of doing church and being Christian. We fill our empty lives with busyness and possessions, when the only fullness that will satisfy is the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Some will object and say that throughout the Old Testament the Spirit was only given to certain people and at certain times. In our era, living after Pentecost, the Spirit has been given to all who believe and we who have faith in Christ have already received the Holy Spirit. In response I offer a favourite story.
The evangelist D L Moody was once taken to task for the way he preached on Ephesians 5:18, where Paul says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’. Moody pointed out that it could be translated, ‘Continue to be filled with the Spirit’, and accordingly encouraged his listeners to be filled again with the Holy Spirit.
Afterwards, a minister berated him, saying, “I received the Holy Spirit at conversion. Why are you telling me to be filled with the Spirit again?”
“Because,” said Moody, “I leak.”
Have we leaked the Spirit? Are we living by faith in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit? How many of us can honestly say, “Yes”?
The second prophecy. Ezekiel sees some movement:
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
‘But there was no breath in them.’ Devastating. That which the bones most desperately need – breath – is still absent. What next?
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
‘Prophesy to the breath.’ And if the breath is being summoned prophetically by Ezekiel, then we have here something like that ancient prayer of the Church, ‘Come Holy Spirit’ (‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’), so often used at ordination services. In our terminology, Ezekiel is praying, “Come, Holy Spirit.” It’s an ancient prayer that has come back in popularity in the last twenty years or
so, largely thanks to the late John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement.
Again, certain people will object. They will again say we are living in a post-Pentecost world where the Holy Spirit has been given and is already present. Why say, “Come, Holy Spirit” when the Spirit is here anyway?
Because we are distinguishing between the general presence of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s particular actions and interventions. We are not simply seeking the general presence of the Holy Spirit, but the manifest presence. We need to experience the Spirit at work in our lives and in our midst. Dry bones need to know that the breath is coming into them.
But how do we know when the Holy Spirit has manifestly come? In the Book of Acts there seems to be a common denominator of bold speech in the name of Jesus. It may be the gift of tongues, it may be preaching, it may be courageous testimony.
Other occasions in church history have seen obvious signs that the Spirit was at work. We think of Wesley having his heart strangely warmed and also the dramatic effect upon listeners to his preaching as they sensed the gravity of their sin before God and their need of salvation. We saw it a few years ago with the dramatic phenomena of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’.
There are, then, clear signs in history of the ‘manifest presence’ of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit also comes quietly, and it is not for us to choose whether the mode of his coming is quiet or dramatic. The ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – his work in us to produce Christ-like character – is a slow process, just like the growth of ordinary fruit. There may be few outward, visible signs when this work begins or continues.
What matters is that we are open to God to do his work in and through us as he sees fit, and not be limited by our restricted vision, our fears or our prejudices.
We recognise that we need the Spirit’s empowering, and refuse to be complacent. The Holy Spirit may be ‘the Helper’, but he is not our ‘Santa’s little helper’. He is one Person of the Trinity. When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” we are saying, “Come, Holy Spirit, in whatever way you see fit, and to do whatever work you see fit.”
Can we pray that? We need to.
The third prophecy:
The story so far: Ezekiel has seen the deadness of God’s exiled people. He has firstly been summoned to prophesy their need for the breath or Spirit of God. Secondly he has prophetically called on God’s Spirit to fill them.
But what now? The loss of hope still needs addressing. It’s no good bringing God’s people back to spiritual life if they are still left in their sense of despair. So this is how the vision concludes:
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am theLord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
Ezekiel addresses ‘the whole house of Israel’ and he brings them good news. Their new life in the Spirit will involve being placed on their own soil again.
But for that to mean something for us as Christians, it needs translating. Although Christianity has continuity with the Jewish faith, it does not share the promise of physical land.
Our inheritance is both now in Christ and future in heaven. If the Spirit of God places Christians ‘on their own soil’ now, it may or may not indicate a revival of Christianity in our land. But it will mean renewed confidence in Christ. It will mean a sense of hope about our faith that goes beyond the personal hope of glory. It will mean being positive about Christ rather than forever being on the defensive. It will mean boldness to speak of Christ even when we might face opposition, because we know the Holy Spirit will give us the words. It will mean finding ways to live for one another and not for ourselves, as the Early Church did soon after Pentecost, in defiance of our consumerist culture. It will mean the Sermon on the Mount becoming a lived-out reality now.
Are we seeing these things now? How do we measure up? For however far we fall short of these signs of the Spirit, that is the indication of how much we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
So let us pause. If we are not showing all the signs of life in the Spirit that Jesus would wish us to then now is not the time to rush on. Let us stop and drink from the rivers of living water that he gives us.
Perhaps you’re like a guy called Charlie. He worked in a laboratory. After a Christian meeting he asked the visiting speaker this question: “It says of the early disciples that people took note that they had been with Jesus. How come no-one says that about me?”
The preacher prayed with him. Nothing spectacular happened at the time.
But a few days later, one of his work colleagues said to him, “Charlie, what happened to you the other night? You’re a different kind of Charlie.”
For those of us who want to be a different kind of Charlie, this is the hour. Come, Holy Spirit, breathe life into us. May we be planted in the soil you have prepared for us.
 Deuteronomy 33:29; Isaiah 41:13-14; Hosea 13:9
 Where others say Comforter, Counsellor or Advocate – John 14:15, 25; 16:7.