Without Ceasing

(Deuteronomy 6:4-7Ephesians 6:10-20Philippians 4:4-7)

In 1949, on the island of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland, the leaders of the local presbytery of the Free Kirk of Scotland grew so worried about the way things were going that they issued a proclamation to be read in all their congregations lamenting “the low state of vital religion . . . throughout the land,” declaring, “The Most High has a controversy with the nation,” and calling on everyone to pray that God would call the nation to repentance. In one parish on the island, the parish of Barvas, the message took root with a pair of sisters in their eighties. The sisters encouraged their pastor to pray together with the elders and deacons, and promised that they would pray twice a week from ten at night until three in the morning. So the minister and lay leaders prayed twice a week in a barn—no word on whether they stayed up until three AM—and the sisters prayed in their home; they did this faithfully for several months, in which nothing happened.

During this time, a request was sent to an evangelist named Duncan Campbell, asking him to come to Lewis; he declined, because he was scheduled to speak elsewhere. God had other ideas, however, and his commitments were cancelled, freeing him up to go to Lewis. The result was a spiritual explosion, as revival swept the island, transforming it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Where once the jail was full and the churches nearly empty, the situation reversed itself—the churches were full to overflowing, while the jail was shut up for lack of use, because there was no crime. It was a remarkable time, and over the years, many have praised Campbell for it; but as he himself said more than once, it wasn’t his preaching that brought revival. Indeed, many who came to Christ during that time never heard him or anyone preach; there were stories of people waking up out of a sound sleep under the conviction of God, dropping to their knees by the side of the bed and praying, and of farmers working out in the fields suddenly feeling their hearts moved by the Holy Spirit. No, this was no pre-planned preacher-driven event; rather, the roots of that revival were to be found in the faithful, persistent, believing prayer of those two sisters, and of those who prayed with them; they were certain God would answer them, and refused to stop until he did.

That is stubborn prayer. It’s the approach to prayer which Jesus tried to develop in his disciples, and it’s part of what Paul is talking about in our readings this morning. It’s the spirit we see in Jacob when he wrestled with God at Peniel—he was clearly out of his weight class, but he would not let go until God blessed him. He hung on for dear life, through his exhaustion, through the pain in his dislocated hip, through the screaming ache in his muscles . . . through it all, he hung on until he had nothing left but determination; and as the night was ending, God blessed him. We don’t often think of Jacob as a model for anything, but in this, he is; he’s a model for us in prayer.

That may seem strange to us, because we aren’t taught that way; and some might be wondering, “Isn’t that selfish? If God tells us ‘no,’ are we allowed to just badger him until he gives in and gives us what we want?” Certainly, that could be true, if we’re praying selfishly; but remember what we’ve been saying about kingdom-centered prayer. First, it’s focused on God, and arises out of a desire to advance the work of his kingdom on this earth; such prayer leads us out of selfishness, not into it. Second, it’s driven by a longing to stand in the presence of God; as we talked about last week, the fundamental request of kingdom-centered prayer is “God, let me see your face. Teach me to live my life in the full awareness of your presence.”

Now, let’s think about that for a minute. What does it mean to be in someone’s presence? Most particularly, what does it mean to be in the presence of someone you love? If you’re sitting with someone, stop and think about that for a minute. It means you know they’re with you; it means that it doesn’t take any effort to talk to them; it means you hear them when they talk to you; it means you’re open to them, available to them, and they’re open and available to you. It means that even when you’re not talking to them or specifically thinking about them, you know they’re with you, and so they’re involved in some way in what you’re doing; their presence connects them to you. Even if you aren’t having a conversation, conversation is always possible, and comes naturally; and even your silence can be its own form of communion.

That’s what our life with God is supposed to look like; that, I believe, is what it means to pray without ceasing, as Paul commands us in 1 Thessalonians 5. That’s what it means to pray at all times in the Spirit, as he says here. It’s not a matter of talking all the time, by any means; the silence and the listening are as important for us as the times when we talk. The key, rather, is to be in what we might call a spirit of prayer, by the Spirit of God, such that we are aware of and attentive to God when he speaks, and that conversation with God flows naturally out of whatever we’re doing—that whenever we have something to say, whether something that’s bothering us or something that gives us joy or a question that’s puzzling us, it’s perfectly natural for us to turn and say it to God, just as we would to anyone else to whom we’re close.

As you can probably guess from this, I don’t agree with those who say that it’s un-spiritual to pray for your own wants and needs. In fact, I’m always kind of surprised to run into that attitude, though I shouldn’t be—it’s common enough. In my last church, I had an elder sit in my office and argue that position, angrily and at great length; he firmly believed that if you could do anything about a problem, you shouldn’t be praying about it, because it was your responsibility to get out there and fix it yourself. He then argued, further, that if you had created the problem, you had no right to ask God to help you fix it, because it was on your shoulders. I bit my tongue and didn’t point him to the numerous psalms in which David and other psalmists do exactly that. When he told me that God helps those who help themselves, though, I did remind him that that isn’t Bible, it’s Ben Franklin. (All I got in return was a blank look.) That elder was an extreme example (as he tended to be, actually), but there are a lot of people who think that way. I don’t, though, and for good reason: I don’t because Paul doesn’t.

Look at Ephesians 6:18: “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Then in Philippians 4:6, Paul says, “Don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Notice: when? “on all occasions”; we might also say, “at all times.” About what? “Everything.” And then look at those words: “prayers . . . petitions . . . requests”; those are words about asking for things. They’re words about telling God what we need and what we want and expecting him to provide for us; they insist to us that God wants us to do that, and indeed that he expects us to do so.

Why isn’t that selfish? Well, in the first place, what’s the foundation for our requests? Our relationship with God. We don’t go to him just as someone who can give us stuff and demand that he do so; this is not just another consumer transaction. Rather, we talk to him as someone who loves us and whom we love in return, and we tell him what’s on our heart, including our needs and our desires, because he cares about us and he wants us to tell him. We don’t just ask in order to get what we want—we also ask in order to deepen our relationship with God. When we approach him in that way, it’s not a demand for services, it’s an expression of our dependence on him, and an act of trust. It’s an act of trust that he can in fact give us what we ask for, and that he does actually want to give us good things. That can be hard, because there are times when trusting him is hard, and times when we don’t want to admit we need him; but in all circumstances, whether good, bad, or whatever, we are called to do so, and asking God to meet our needs is an important discipline in learning to do so. I think for most people, refusing to ask isn’t really about being more spiritual—that’s just a cover; I think it’s really a matter of pride.

In the second place, people who ask of God selfishly do so in a spirit of entitlement; they believe they deserve to get what they want, and regard it as nothing more than their due. By contrast, Paul tells us to pray in a spirit of thanksgiving, which connects back to the command, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” This doesn’t mean simply to thank God in advance for the things he will do for us, or even to thank him for the things he has already done, though both are important; rather, this is to be our basic attitude in prayer, and in all of life. This too is a recognition that we are completely dependent on God, that everything comes to us as his gift; this is the truth that James captured when he said, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” Because of this, because of God’s goodness and generosity to us—yes, Paul assures us, even in the midst of our suffering—gratitude is to be our fundamental response to life.

Thus, whatever our circumstances, in a grateful spirit, we are to bring all our requests—our wants, our needs, our concerns, the deepest desires of our hearts—all the things which lie at the roots of our anxieties and fears, as well as those anxieties and fears themselves and everything to which they give rise—into the presence of God, trusting that he’ll take care of us. We don’t do this because he doesn’t know what we want, or need, or fear; we don’t pray for his sake, we pray for ours. We do this as a formal, deliberate acknowledgement of our dependence on him, and to give us the assurance that he knows what we want, what we need, because we have told him. Perhaps most importantly of all, we lay our requests at God’s feet because doing so draws us closer to him, and focuses our minds and our hearts on him; and so doing, it involves us in and connects us to the work he is doing in and around us.

Third, if our prayer is truly kingdom-centered, then it keeps us aware of the bigger picture, which we see in Ephesians 6; we understand that we don’t just pray that God would bless us, or that he would bless others, so that we and they would be happy and fulfilled and healed and free from pain and could go on to enjoy our lives. Rather, we pray for our needs and the needs of others in part because each of us is involved, individually and as part of the church, in the great struggle which is the inbreaking of the kingdom of God into this world. The kingdom is resisted, both openly and subtly, by the forces of the prince of the powers of this present darkness, and so Paul tells us that we need to be armored up and armed to deal with that resistance; and the foundation of that is prayer. We pray for our needs and wants, and for the needs and wants of others, so that we might be strengthened, and so that opportunities for the enemy to undermine us or weaken us would be closed off. And because the enemy is always looking for ways to do that, and the spiritual struggle we face is continuous, so too we must pray continuously. Ultimately, as we do so, we find that it trains us to depend on God, and to use the gifts that he’s given us not on our own initiative, but on his; and it prepares us, as the Rev. Tim Keller put it, “to have our hard hearts melted,” to have the barriers in our lives torn down, “to have the glory of God break through,” so that we may see his glory in our lives.

This isn’t something you can learn how to do by having someone tell you, or by reading a book; the most I can do, or anyone can do, is point you in that direction and invite you to do it. We can only really learn this by doing it—by asking God to teach us to live in the awareness of his presence, so that we learn to be in prayer throughout everything we do, and by setting aside time just to pray, for focused conversation with him. We can only learn to trust him with the things that are on our hearts by trusting him, by praying about them whenever they weigh on us; we can only learn to listen by listening. That’s why stubborn prayer is so important—it’s not about wearing God down, breaking down his resistance; it’s about wearing our egos down, breaking down our resistance. It’s not so much about storming the gates of heaven as it is about letting heaven storm us.

Coram Deo

(Exodus 33, Psalm 27, Ephesians 1:15-23)

Exodus 33 begins immediately after the first great national sin in the history of the people of Israel, which is recorded in chapter 32. Moses had been up on Mount Sinai, meeting with God, receiving the Law; unfortunately, he was up there so long that the Israelites got restless. Restless people tend to do stupid things, and they were no exception; they talked Moses’ brother Aaron into making them an idol, a golden statue of a cow, that they could worship and pretend it was the Lord. That might seem odd, but golden cows are safe, and this God of theirs had already proven himself anything but. Their action, of course, infuriated God, who judged them harshly for their sin. (Aaron, who had allowed the whole thing, escaped judgment despite offering perhaps the dumbest excuse in recorded history; when Moses took him to task for his actions, Aaron’s response was twofold: one, “Don’t blame me, blame them, they’re wicked people,” which is bad enough, but then two, “They gave me the gold, I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” Honest, that’s a direct quote from Exodus 32:24. “I didn’t make the calf, it just happened!” Reminds me of some of the excuses I’ve gotten from my children.)

After this, God told Moses to tell his people, “Go on up to the land I promised Abraham I would give you, and I’ll send my angel before you, but I won’t go with you, or I would destroy you on the way; for you are a stiff-necked people.” At that, the people went into mourning, and Moses began to plead with God to reverse this decision, for the sake of his people, and for Moses’ sake. Notice the reason for their concern. It’s not that God won’t bless them—he’s still promising to give them the land, and victory over the people who currently live there, and all the good things he’d already said he’d give them; it’s that he’s refusing to go with them. He’s keeping his presence from them, promising only to send an angel with them to do all this rather than going with them to do it himself.

The NIV calls this statement “these distressing words,” but the English Standard Version is blunter: they’re “disastrous.” God’s blessings are nice, but having his presence with them means far more; that’s what sets them apart from the other nations as his people. Without that, without God going with them, they were no different from anyone else, either to themselves or to any other nation. Thus when God says in verse 14, “Don’t worry, Moses, I’ll still be with you and give you rest,” Moses responds, “That’s not good enough. Either go with all of your people, or don’t bother.” Nothing else will do—not for Moses and not for Israel, and ultimately, not for God, either. After all, what would it do for God’s reputation to lead his people out of Egypt and then leave them in the desert? In response, God says, “All right, Moses—for your sake, I’ll do as you ask.”

At this point, Moses does something extraordinary. You can understand why he does it—he’s probably giddy with relief, for one thing; but more than that, God had just made him a promise, and he wants confirmation, and so he asks, “Show me your glory.” This might not sound like a big request, until we remember that Moses had been spending considerable time with God on the mountain—he was up there for eleven chapters of Exodus before the Israelites decided they’d rather worship a golden cow; he’d seen quite a bit of God, in fact, and now he’s clearly asking for something more. He’s talked with God, he’s seen demonstrations of God’s power and glory; now he wants to see God.

And God says, “I can’t do that, because you wouldn’t survive it. No human being can see my face and live.” God is infinite, and we’re finite; he’s perfectly holy, and we’re sinful. The gap between us is great, and the attempt to cross it, to experience the full reality of the infinite God, is simply more than we can bear. And so God tells Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name, Yahweh; I will put you in a crack in the rock and cover you with my hand while my glory passes by, then I will remove my hand, and you may see my back; but my face you shall not see.” Now, I don’t know what this looked like to Moses; I’m not sure what exactly God meant by his “back”; but what’s clear is that God told Moses, “I won’t show you my face, but I’ll show you who I am; I’ll reveal my character and my goodness to you.”

That would have to be enough for Moses, and for everyone else; but the desire for more, the desire to see God face to face, persisted. We see this in Psalm 27, which is a psalm of David—which is valuable to know with this psalm, because David, like Moses, was one of God’s special servants, someone who got as close to God as it was possible to get. The Lord truly was his light and salvation, his refuge and stronghold; he’d had armies encamped against him more than once, and evil men working overtime to kill him, and he’d learned that as long as he was on God’s side, he had nothing to worry about. He was unquestionably a man who could write a psalm like this and mean every word.

Out of David’s great confidence in God comes great loyalty and devotion, which we see in this extraordinary statement in verse 4: “One thing I have asked of the LORD, this one thing will I seek: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.” Psalm 84 makes a somewhat similar statement—“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! . . . Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere”—but this takes things to a whole new level. It’s not that this is the only thing David wants—this psalm is, after all, a prayer for victory over his enemies—but this is his one thing: it’s his focus, his primary concern, his primary desire. It’s what he wants to order his life and make sense of everything else; his prayer is that he would live his life as much in the presence of God as if he were always in the temple offering worship and sacrifice to God.

Now, trying to keep that focus is hard, and it was hard for David, too; but at the core, his great desire is to experience the presence of God. There are two reasons for this. The second one mentioned is “to inquire in his temple,” which is to say, to seek guidance from God for his decisions; he wants to live in God’s presence in order to come to know and do what God would have him to do. He understands that we can’t make godly decisions with any sort of regularity if the only time we spend with God is an hour a week on Sunday mornings. But as important as this second reason is, the first is more striking: “to behold the beauty of the LORD.” This is starting to get into the same territory as Moses—it isn’t quite the same, but David’s moving that way: he wants to see God.

That comes out in full force in verses 8 and 9: “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, O LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” It’s a prayer that can’t be fully answered, but still, the longing is there. And it should be—it means a lot to be face to face with those we love. I discovered just how much during my last semester in college, when Sara went off to Scotland, to Aberdeen. (In that case, not only could I not see her, I couldn’t even hear her voice, since I couldn’t afford international long distance rates.) I learned then that there’s a degree of real intimacy and knowledge in talking with someone we love face to face, in the openness of their facial expressions and body language and the immediacy of reaction; we can know someone more fully face to face than at a distance. David wanted to know God in that way.

These texts are the backdrop against which Jesus tells his disciples, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip was probably studying to be a rabbi, so he knew all this stuff; but when Jesus said that, he couldn’t help himself, and he burst out, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” He knows they can’t—he knows how God answered Moses, and no doubt he expects much the same response— and so maybe we may hear in Philip’s plea an edge of disappointment, that ultimately Jesus can’t quite give them what he’s promising.

Jesus responds with gentle exasperation: “Philip, haven’t you been paying attention all these years? Have you been with me this long, and you still don’t know who I am?” And then this staggering, world-shaking statement: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” No one could see God and live; we could not leap across that chasm and even hope to survive the jump; so God crossed it from his side. The glory, grace and truth of God were too much for our eyes, until the coming of Jesus; when he came to earth, God took on a human face and allowed his people to look him in the eyes; and through those eyes, and through his words, and through his actions, his glory, grace and truth shone unveiled and undimmed. As John put this point earlier in his gospel, at the end of his prologue, in 1:18, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” We cannot see God and live—unless God makes it possible; and in Jesus, he has, and we have.

This is why we can pray as we do. We don’t have to approach God behind a veil of smoke, because Jesus made a way for us. We see God’s face in him and do not die because he took that death, and every other death, on himself; he came down to us, and through his death, resurrection and ascension he became the way to God. We in our sinfulness still could never survive the sort of revelation Moses wanted, but in the words and deeds of Jesus recorded in the gospels, and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, we can see God in ways that he never could; in worship, in study and in prayer, God invites us into his presence to seek his face, as David longed to do.

That’s why the church could adopt the motto Coram Deo, which means, “in the presence of God”—because that’s where we as the church are supposed to live. That’s the key to kingdom-centered prayer. It’s not the subject—I hope I didn’t give anyone the idea last week that praying for our needs or the needs of others can’t be kingdom-centered, because it can, if our overall approach to prayer is focused on God and centered on the work of his kingdom. That approach and that focus are the key, that though we pray for ourselves and others, our prayer is fundamentally about God and concerned with his will. The foundational prayer is that of Moses and David: God, let me see your face, let me live each day in your presence, consciously aware of your presence. It’s not about trying to make God do what we want, but about letting go of such efforts—letting God be God and ourselves just be his children—and seeking to know him as he is. This isn’t something that just happens; seeking means looking hard and earnestly, and it takes intention, concentration, and thought. It takes real effort and commitment, not because God’s trying to hide from us, but rather because there’s a part of us that’s always trying to hide from God; to seek God’s face, we need to fight that down and consciously bend ourselves to his will. So let’s concentrate on seeking God’s face this morning, the face of Jesus our Lord, in the presence of his Holy Spirit, in song, in the confession of our faith, and in prayer.


(Nehemiah 1, Psalm 2; Acts 4:23-31)

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.