When you take out your prayer list a little later on in the service, you’ll notice there’s some heavy stuff on there. There are a lot of people with a lot of hurt, of various sorts, and a lot of challenging things going on. We say, “It never rains but it pours”; Richard Adams, in the novel Watership Down, writes that the rabbit version of that proverb is “One cloud feels lonely”; but however you want to say it, we do seem to have a lot of spiritual clouds overhead, and a fair bit of rain coming down just at the moment, even if the day outside is bright. Throw in the fact that our income is currently well below our outgo, such that we’re burning through a lot of our savings just to stay afloat, and even though it’s summertime, the living ain’t easy. I’ve even had a few people apologize to me, as if I should have had the right to expect a church with no issues and no problems. I just keep telling them, there aren’t any of those, and I had no such expectations; but I won’t deny the stress, and I won’t pretend to be unaffected by the challenges we face.
I will, however, tell you this: if when you think about this congregation, and you consider its future, you look first at those challenges, you’re facing the wrong way. What is first relevant to this body and to where we’re going isn’t that we have some difficulties to overcome, it isn’t that we have some limitations holding us back, it isn’t that we’ve taken some hits lately; what’s relevant is that it’s God who’s leading us there, and God who’s going to get us there—not in our power, not in our strength, but in his.
Now, I’m not saying that to minimize the challenges; they’re real, and we have to take them seriously. To take one example, I don’t think it’s news to anyone that one of the great strengths of this church is its musicians, or that one of the key people in that respect has been Chara Sonntag. I’ve been in a lot of churches in my life, and the odds that you’ll ever find another church pianist who contributes as much to the worship of the people of God as she does are really pretty low. You may find people who have an edge technically, or in experience, or in some other facet, but when it comes to making a real contribution to the worship of the church, you probably won’t. God led her here for a time to bless this church—and hopefully her, too, and her family—and now he’s leading her on into the next phase of ministry he has for her, and he’s leading us on as well. But here’s the key: God is still leading us. He knew Chara would move on in his time, he’s been planning for it, and he will work through that to accomplish his purposes in and for and through us, just as he works through everything else that happens.
All of which is to say, pick a challenge, any challenge: no matter what it is, the most important thing we can do in response is the same. Whatever concerns you most, stop and think about it for a minute. Got it fixed in your mind? Good. Now listen to me: God knows about it, and he has planned for it in his plan for us. There is nothing we face that has come as a surprise to God, and nothing that he isn’t big enough to overcome in and through us. The God who led the Israelites through the Red Sea and the children of Jacob out of exile is plenty big enough to lead us through whatever hardships we might face. All we have to do is follow where he leads, and we’ll get to the other side.
In other words, as we try to figure out how to lead this church, how to grow this church, how to deal with the rough times, and how to build on our strengths, our focus shouldn’t be on us and on what we can and can’t do—our focus needs to be on God, and what he intends to do, and wants us to do, because this isn’t our church, it’s his church. Which means we need to begin by adding another layer to our prayers as a church; on top of the praying we do that’s all about caring for and supporting one another, which is a critically important part of the life and work of the people of God, we also need to pray in ways that focus us on God and how we’re a part of his plan. As Tim Keller, the senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, puts it, “the one non-negotiable, universal ingredient in times of spiritual renewal is . . . kingdom-centered prayer.”
Which raises the question: what do we mean by kingdom-centered prayer? We’ll be talking about that over the next few weeks, looking at some of the specifics; at its core, though, kingdom-centered prayer is all about flipping our perspective. When we pray, we tend to ask God to get in on what we’re doing, to bless our plans and help us accomplish what we want to accomplish. As good as our ideas and intentions might be, that sort of prayer is, in a very real way, us-centered. Kingdom-centered prayer, by contrast, asks God how we can get in on what he’s doing, what our place and our part is in his plan, and how he wants us to contribute to what he’s going to accomplish. It’s about recognizing that our work is not redemptive, and that our work doesn’t build the church; only the work of God in Christ through his Holy Spirit does that. That’s why, without a kingdom focus, all our work is fruitless, because it’s only our work. With that, anything is possible, because in God, all things are possible.
You can see that in our passages this morning. Nehemiah—he’s risen to a position of great influence in the Persian empire (the cupbearer was a trusted senior aide to the emperor), so as an individual, he’s doing fine; but his people aren’t in such good shape. The exile is officially over, and some of the Jews have gone back to Jerusalem to re-establish their nation, but things aren’t going well, and the odds are heavily stacked against them; any outside observer would tell you the fragile new community re-rooting itself in Jerusalem is probably doomed, and sooner rather than later. Or how about the disciples in Acts 4—not such a small band anymore, since they’ve made lots of converts, but they’re still a tiny minority facing all the weight of the Establishment, which has already shown itself more than willing to do anything to crush them. New religions spring up all the time; most of them go nowhere, especially if the authorities are willing to bring the army down on their heads. Seen any Branch Davidians around lately?
The world looks at these sorts of situations and says, in the cynical old line, “the race goes not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet”; but what Nehemiah and the early disciples show us is that when we pray boldly and God moves in power, all bets are off. This isn’t, however, just a matter of boldly asking for whatever we want; prayer is not magic, nor is it a means of manipulating God. Rather, the boldness of Nehemiah and the apostles was rooted in their knowledge of God, and in the fact that they were focused on him, not on themselves. Specifically, they were rooted in the fact of God’s presence—that God was with them in their circumstances, and that the God who was with them had the power to overcome those circumstances, and had faithfully promised to take care of his people—and they were focused on God’s kingdom, not their own, on accomplishing his purposes, not their own. If we pray that God will do what he wants to do, that’s a prayer to which he will always say “Yes”; and if we re-member that God is always at work for our good, it’s a prayer we can offer gladly. As such, these prayers can and should be models for our own.
In particular, I think there are three things worth noting here. The first is an awareness of the significance of our sin and of the holiness of God. It might seem strange to you that Nehemiah confesses the sins of the whole nation, since he was clearly a godly and righteous man; whatever other Jews might have done, it wasn’t his fault. It wouldn’t, however, have seemed strange to him at all; the blessings and sorrows of the people affected the whole people, and so the sins, and the faithfulness, of the people were everyone’s concern. We see this same concern in Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9, and for the same reason. Both men understood that the sins of the nation were getting in the way of God blessing his people, because those sins were opposed to the blessings and purposes God had for his people, as sin always is; they understood that in asking for his blessing, they needed to begin with confession. Our boldness in prayer doesn’t rest on our own worthiness, because we aren’t worthy, and we need to recognize that; rather, it rests on God’s character, on his faithfulness to his people whom he loves, and on the grace he has shown us in the past and continues to show us. Thus, prayer which is truly God-focused begins with humble confession of our sinfulness and our need for his grace.
Second, we can see in these prayers a deep desire that God should glorify himself in his people. Part of this is a great love for the people of God. Nehemiah doesn’t just pray “Bless me,” or even “Bless me and my family and friends,” as we so often do; he doesn’t even ask God to bless all the righteous folks and leave the rest alone. Instead, he prays that God would bless all his people, that he would forgive all of them for their sin and bless them all in the land of Israel which God had given them. He loves his people and he wants to see them prosper, and he wants to see God receive the glory for that. We see this same desire for God’s glory in Acts 4. Jesus’ disciples don’t pray that God would protect them, nor do they pray for vengeance on the people who killed Jesus and threatened them; instead, they pray, “Consider their threats and”—what?—“enable us to preach even more boldly.” In other words, “God, don’t let threats scare us into backing off even a little bit—give us even more boldness and even more power to preach the truth right into the face of these threats; and what’s more, do great miracles through us so that everyone can see we’re preaching what you want us to preach.”
Third, these prayers rest on an absolute confidence in the power of God. You can see this in Psalm 2, which the disciples reference in their prayer in Acts 4: the nations hatch their various schemes, and the peoples of the earth plot together to defeat God and his people—and God just laughs at them. Originally, this psalm was referring to the one God had anointed as king in Jerusalem; ultimately, it applied to Jesus and his enemies. In each case, the point is clear: no matter what anyone might come up with, God will not be defeated, and neither will his chosen ones. The apostles pray with complete confidence, not that God will keep them safe—that’s not what they’re after—but that if they ask him for power and boldness to proclaim his word, he’ll give it, and he’ll back it up. Individually, they didn’t all find the same degree of what the world considers success; some were greater than others, and some were killed young, while others lived long lives. As a group, however, God answered their prayer with power as they went out to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to all the world. Our existence testifies to that.
As Nehemiah prayed, as the apostles prayed, so God wants us to pray: fixing our eyes on him, focusing our attention on his kingdom, and trusting him for his faithfulness. If we look at our problems, it’s easy to start to wonder if we can overcome them. If we look at our abilities, we end up trying to solve our problems in our own way, in our own strength, for our own benefit. But if we look at God, if we seek his face and put our trust in his power and his faithfulness to us, then we put ourselves in position for him to work in us—and when God works in us and through us, anything is possible, far beyond what we could possibly imagine for ourselves. So I would encourage you again, as I have before, to be praying for this church, as Nehemiah prayed for Israel, as the apostles prayed for the early church, that God would glorify himself in us. If you signed up to pray for an hour a week, please continue to be faithful in doing that; if you haven’t, please find a time to do so each week; if you need a sheet to guide you in praying for the church, please let me know and I’ll get you one. Whatever you do, please pray for this church; it’s the only way we’ll ever be the church God wants us to be.