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.
I’m thinking of writing some guidelines for those who lead prayers of intercession in church. I have a few ideas of my own – range of themes to cover, overall length, how to signpost the prayers since most people will have their eyes closed, seeing them as representative of the congregation’s prayer life rather than exhaustive, etc. But before I get to this task I thought I would ask you, O noble blog reader, what you would include in any such document.
Suggestions are welcome below.
Depending on the appropriateness of the final content, I may post the document here on the blog.
There’s a useful post called Leading a Church in Prayer at Leadership Journal, by Kevin DeYoung. Any Worship leader, preacher of minister would benefit from reading it. What do you think of DeYoung’s advice? What would you add?
Three times a year, I need to meet some people in London. I have a standing arrangement to travel with someone to that meeting. We catch a train together from Chelmsford station.
One of those meetings was due on Wednesday. I arrived at the station, and bought my ticket. My friend was not in the ticket hall ahead of me. That was unusual, but I was early. I climbed the stairs to Platform One. We nromally catch the 10:40, but I was so early that I got to the platform just before the 10:27 service. In the absence of my friend, I let it go.
But he wasn’t there for the 10:40, nor the 10:46. I kept looking down the stairwell from the platform. No sign of him.
With the 10:58 imminent, I rang Debbie to get my friend’s office number and called him there. While doing so, the 10:58 came and went. That was the last train that would get us to the regular appointment in London on time. Eventually, someone from reception found my friend, who told him that the meeting had been postponed for a fortnight. (I had not received an email telling me of this change.) Despite all my waiting, my friend was not coming. I returned to the ticket hall, explained the situation, received a refund and came home to reshape my day.
Waiting is one of the great Advent themes. We wait, wondering whether the Messiah will come. The Jewish people waited for centuries. They are still waiting.
We who believe the Messiah did come and that his name was Jesus are also still waiting. We await the appearing of the Messiah who promised to return. We have been waiting for two thousand years.
People mock us for it. In 1975, I loved the song ‘I’m not in love’ by 10cc.
I went to buy the album it was on: ‘The Original Soundtrack‘. Some of the content shocked me, not least a song called ‘The second sitting for the Last Supper’.
It contained words that deride the Christian hope:
Two thousand years and he ain’t come yet
We kept his seat warm and the table set
The second sitting for the last supper
Isaiah 64 speaks of waiting – waiting for the God who has not shown up. How do we live with the need to wait? Isaiah cries out to God in terms of the need to remember. What do waiting, Advent-hope people ask God to remember, as they struggle with the waiting?
Remember Your Works
Here’s the problem: the prophet longs for God to come down in mountain-quaking, fire-making, enemy-quaking mode (verses 1-2). After all, he’s done it before (verses 3-4), so why not now? All is quiet on the God front, and that isn’t good. You’ve parted the Red Sea, sent fire from heaven when Elijah asked for it, helped your people in battle and many other things: why do you seem to be so inactive now?
And don’t Christians feel similar at times? We think back to the wonders performed by Jesus and the apostles. We remember an angel rolling away a stone for women to see that God by his Spirit had raised Jesus from the dead. We recount church history, with its highlights of revivals like the Wesleyan one, where preachers could thunder on Sunday and politicians would then resign on Monday. We see church growth in other parts of the world, but decline in the West. And like the prophet, we think, God you have done these things in the past. You are even doing them elsewhere on the planet today. So why not here and now?
This, then, is part of the tension that comes when we are in a ‘waiting’ phase. It is something that turns us to urgent prayer. We know that God has a track record. We know what he is like, because we know what he has done in the past. And we plead with him to renew his mighty works today.
The late Pope John XXIII knew this approach to prayer. He gave this famous prayer to Catholics:
“Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen”
Naturally, I wouldn’t go with the Mary language, nor to a lesser extent with the Peter language. But when he begins that prayer with the words, ‘Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost’, then I hear the kind of Advent waiting that turns into passionate intercession.
And I suggest that is one of the things to which God calls us this Advent: prayer from the heart. Prayer where we don’t just moan all the time about the state of the world – we’re too good at that as Christians – but deep, meaningful prayer, because what really matters is for God to work as he has done in the past. Not necessarily in the same way – it would be presumptuous of us to expect that – but with the same intensity.
A waiting time need not be idle time for Christians, especially not waiting-for-Jesus time. This Advent, let us remember God’s works and turn that remembrance to prayer as we wait.
Remember Your Ways
Next, the prophet recognises that those who remember God’s ways do what is right, but when there is a sense of God’s absence, it is easier to do wrong (verses 5-7). It’s almost as if we bring the childish attitude of trying to get away something if we think no-one’s looking to the spiritual life. If we think we are waiting around for an absent God, who knows what we might do? It’s as old as Eden, where the serpent speaks when God is not walking in the garden.
Turning waiting time into idleness is a way of fertilising the ground for sin. Maybe the classic biblical example of this is King David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The text of that story tells us that it happened at the time of year when kings normally went to war. While I’m not trying to justify war in noting that detail, the thing to be aware of is that David was at home instead, idling away his time, when he saw Bathsheba bathing naked. From there came adultery, the murder of his lover’s husband and the death of the baby that was conceived.
But what about the positive side, that those who remember the ways of God ‘gladly do what is right’ (verse 5)? The way to cope with the waiting time is to remember God’s ways. What is God like? What do we know of God’s character? What are God’s traits? If we had to give a character description of God, what would we say?
I hope we might come up with a list that recalls how the ways of God are the ways of love, holiness and sovereignty, of grace, mercy and justice. And if we want a clearer picture of these ways in action, we need only reflect on the life of Jesus, who said that if we had seen him we had seen the Father.
So if just thinking about the qualities of God is too abstract, think about the life of Jesus. Then imagine how we would behave if he were physically present. I know many people didn’t behave well in his physical presence on earth, but some of that was to do with not believing his claims to be the Son of God. We might fail like the disciples did, but the gist of the issue is this: what will we do with the waiting time?
If we use it for idleness, the end result is most likely sin. If instead we meditate on the character of God, our motivation may well be different. I am not recommending we become frantic with church duties, but I am saying that remembering the ways of God will give us focus and direction for holy living as we wait for the coming of God.
And that makes Advent rather like Lent – which, historically, it has been for the Church. The Advent waiting time is a preparation time that includes penitence for our sins. It is about purification for the coming of the King. Advent preparation is less about tinsel, trees, presents and daily chocolates than about holiness. It’s what we do when we use the waiting to remember the ways of God.
Do Not Remember Our Wickedness
So far, we’ve thought about two appeals for us to remember God, and their consequences. Remembering God’s works leads us to intercessions; remembering God’s ways motivates us to holiness.
But what if the boot were on the other foot? Do we want God to remember things about us? Isaiah 64 says, no! In fact, we want God to forget rather than remember. It would be so easy for God to remember our sin, and Isaiah is forthright about it. Yet he appeals to God on the grounds that we are his people and so God is the potter and we are the clay: God can mould us. Therefore, he pleads, may the God who can mould and remake us not remember our iniquity forever (verses 8-9).
So if Advent waiting calls forth prayer and holiness from us, it also leads us into God’s mercy. The Advent season leads us up to the extravagant sign of God’s mercy: the gift of his Son. In four weeks, we shall see mercy in a manger. Graham Kendrick imagines Mary looking down at her newborn son in his song ‘Thorns in the straw‘:
And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky
A thorn in the straw. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Advent is leading up to these things. We are waiting for the mercy of God in Christ. For in Christ God will choose not to remember the iniquity of his people.
And we extend that into the present and future. In a day when we wonder about the future of the church, we affirm that we shall wait prayerfully for the God of mercy. When we wonder about the future of our society and of the world, we wait prayerfully for the God of mercy.
Indeed, the two earlier responses come into play here as we long for God’s mercy in Christ for ourselves, the Church and the world. One is that – as I have just said – we wait prayerfully. We bring ourselves, the Church and the world to God in prayer as we seek mercy. We confess our sins. We even identify with the sins of others, as Christ did on the Cross and as biblical saints did to a lesser degree in prayer. Daniel, for example, identified even with the sins of earlier generations as he interceded for the people of God. Waiting for the mercy of God means praying.
But it also means holy living. We can’t wait passively for God to come with mercy. We can’t just pray and put all the responsibility onto God, as if to say, ‘It’s your fault, not ours, if the church or the world goes down the tubes.’ We anticipate the mercy of God for the world by holy living, which is not severe living but a merciful lifestyle itself.
There are those Christians who pray and do not act. They become hyper-spiritual, substituting vivid imagination for the word of God. They become harsh towards the world.
And there are those Christians who act and do not pray. Cutting themselves off from the source of spiritual fuel, they dry up and become harsh towards the church.
Neither of these groups reflects the merciful God for whom we wait at this Advent season. Intercession and holy living are the ways in which we wait for the God of mercy.