Sunday, December 30, 2018

Large Requests

In our Bible studies we’ve been looking at Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church. In preparing for that, I bumped into a favorite doxology. It connected with a desire of mine to have one more sermon on prayer. Here’s the doxology.

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20–21 [NASV]

Obviously, there is a lot going on here. But the thing that I want you to notice is how this doxology starts.

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think,

Paul is praising God for His power to act, His power to do. And he ties that power to our prayers, our asking. What impresses me here - and what I want to impress you - is that our God is able not just to grant our requests, but to go beyond our requests, to do far more abundantly beyond the things that we ask and even beyond the things that we might even think to ask. This is something worthy of doxology.

So, what do I want you to do with this? It seems to me that this is an invitation to make large requests of the God we worship, very large requests.

I want to stress this because it seems to me that Christians these days tend to be too timid when it’s time to pray, to make requests of God. The tendency is to make what I will call ‘small requests’ of God. But why should that be, in light of this ‘far more abundantly beyond’ that Paul wrote about? It seems to me that we are encouraged to make large requests of God.

What I’d like to do today is help you to believe the part of the Gospel that is in the Scripture that is before us. I want you to believe that God really is able to do more, far more, than any small request. And then, I want you to act on that belief. I want you to make large requests.

The way that I’ve decided to do this is to offer to you a list of things that you might ask of the Father, a list of what might be large requests. None of these is anything exotic. A large request doesn’t have to be a dramatic request. But it is a request that will stretch your faith a bit.

It may be that none of my suggestions fit your situation. Fine. Then, create your own large request. And then, present it to the Father.

Here’s a bit of Scripture that explains why I think this is important.

The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. James 5.16

The Church in America will do a better job of advancing the kingdom of God when it learns to make large requests.

Now, on to my list.

Here’s the first suggestion. Pray to grow in wisdom.

I think that it is fair to say that most Christians pray for wisdom only when there’s some crisis moment confronting them. And the bit of Scripture that they often appeal to is this from James.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. James 1.5

That’s a great verse, and it’s certainly right to ask for that wisdom when you’re in the midst of some crisis. What I’d like to do, however, is to rescue it from being used only in those crisis moments. I’d like you to see this growing in wisdom as a regular part of your life.

Let me remind you of the definition of wisdom. It’s understanding God, other people, the situation and yourself. A quick read through the book of Proverbs will support this definition. Today, I’m only going to talk about one of those. I’m going to talk about understanding yourself.

Few people, these days, understand themselves at all well. They don’t ask and answer some rather important questions. What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? What are the ruts that I let my life fall into, and why do I let that happen? What are the idols of my heart that I appeal to in different situations? How do I respond to bad news? These are questions that really need some clear answers. If you don’t understand yourself well, your life will be filled with confusion.

There are quite a few benefits to understanding yourself. Here’s just one. There is a certain calmness that you will enjoy when you understand yourself and how you are responding to what’s going on. It is easier to be a faithful disciple when there is this calmness about life than when life is spinning in and out of control.

So, make a large request of the Father. Ask for wisdom. Ask for answers to those questions I mentioned. Ask for the ability to understand yourself better and better. Ask for that kind of wisdom so that as your life makes more sense, you can do a better job of living well as Jesus’ disciple.

But don’t expect the Father just to zap you and - presto changeo - you’re amazingly wise. He uses means. So, maybe your prayer should include the request to be given the discipline to pursue those means. And the means that God uses includes things like quiet reflection and deep friendships. The first is about having honest conversations with yourself, and the second is about having honest conversations with someone who knows you well.

Bear in mind in all of this that, according to what Paul wrote, the Father will surprise you with how wise you will become. But that will happen only if you ask Him to act.

Let’s move on. Here’s something else to ask the Father for: endurance. I mentioned this quality a few weeks ago. I want to build on what I told you then.

Life is hard. And it’s not uncommon for us to see someone’s life stalled on the side of the road. They’ve encountered something that stopped them in their tracks because they had nothing left to deal with it. There wasn’t sufficient endurance.

To endure includes being able to absorb those problems and keep going. To be sure, there will be those times when you keep going in pain and with tears. This is not a call to live without honest emotions about the evil that you encounter. It is a call to understand that there will be some hard days, and some days that are even harder than that. But notwithstanding the difficulties of life, we are called to keep going.

Let me explain why this is important. We are a people who are on a mission as Jesus’ Church. Each of us, pursuing our respective callings, has an important role to play when it comes to that mission. So, we need to be able to take the hit and keep going. We need to be able to fulfill our part of the mission. We may be limping for a while, but we need to continue. Endurance.

I mentioned in that previous sermon that the kind of endurance that we are called to is patient endurance. I want to mention another qualifier of this endurance: joy. The endurance that we are called to is joyous endurance.

Now, please remember that there is a big difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is based in the situation. There are situations that are so very pleasant, and we are happy in them. And thanks be to God for those situations. But happiness fades away when those pleasant situations end. However, joy doesn’t fade away. And that’s because joy isn’t rooted in a passing situation. It is rooted in Jesus. Remember what we’ve been commanded.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Philippians 4.4

Please note some important words here. The first is ‘always’. The command is not to rejoice just when the situation is good and pleasant. We are to rejoice always. The second is a phrase that explains how you can do that: ‘in the Lord’. Your rejoicing is in Jesus and in what He is doing. And He is always doing something. It may not be clear to you what it is that He is doing, but He is always up to something. And that something has to do with His plan to conquer the world with the Gospel. So, even as we struggle with some hard situation, even as it really hurts, we can still rejoice. Jesus is at work in that hard situation, using that hard situation. He is doing something that will result in much good. We can always rejoice in that.

Sadly, many of us have been taught that rejoicing is for when life is good. And we have been allowed to mope when it isn’t. If that’s you, then here’s a request to present to the Father: ‘Make me want to rejoice in what Jesus is doing, and to do that when life is good and when it is horrible’. Ask for this so that you can endure in the way that Jesus calls for, a joyous endurance. Ask for this so that you can do your part in accomplishing the mission.

The next item on my list is boldness. But that’s a church word. So, let me translate it. Pray for fearlessness. Note the assumption of that word. The assumption is that there actually is something to fear. And let’s face it. There is plenty to fear, plenty that is out to get us. So, from one perspective, it seems right to fear. But what does Jesus say?

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10.28

The only thing for us to fear is God Himself. And if we fear Him, there is nothing else that we will fear. Ask for fearlessness.

Let’s go back to that church word, ‘boldness’. There’s more here that will help. There’s another way to translate the Greek word behind ‘boldness’. Listen.

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. Hebrews 10.35

That helps. What is boldness? It’s confidence. When a person is confident, he will be fearless. But everything depends on why that person is confident. All too often, a person is confident because of what he thinks of himself. ‘I can do this. There is no reason to be afraid. I can take care of this.’ In one way or another, that way of dealing with life, being confident in yourself, will fail. But being confident in the Father - that’s different. That kind of confidence is based on who He is for you and what He promises to you. Being confident in Him because of those things always works because your Father always comes through.

So, here’s the large request I’m suggesting. Ask the Father to make you bold, confident, fearless, but only because of your reliance on Him. And what will help here is understanding yourself, understanding the things that you currently fear.

Now, one more. And you’ll need to ask for this if you’re going to ask for any of the others. You need to ask for a growing faith.

Sadly, faith and its companion verb, believe, have been re-defined by the world. In doing that they have eviscerated the word of any real meaning. ‘Faith’ has become this vague feeling that’s supposed to encourage you. ‘Believe’ has become a word that stands all alone - and likewise means nothing.

But that’s not what Christian faith is. Faith is not a feeling. It’s an act. It’s trusting the promises of the Father, someone whom you consider trustworthy. And believing never stands alone. It always takes a direct object. You believe what the Father has told you.

So, faith is trust in the Father for the things that He has promised. And it’s important to tie your faith to those promises. Faith doesn’t come to God with a list of things that just seem right. Faith is always rooted in what the Father has said in the Scriptures and is a response to that. The examples of large requests that I have mentioned are tied to what God has promised in the Bible. Many Christians become confused with their prayers because they don’t remember this, and they ask for things that the Father never said He would do.

Timid prayers, with their small requests, are the result of a timid faith. You will need to believe the promise of what Paul wrote, that your God can do exceedingly abundantly beyond, if you’re going to make any large requests. And you will need to believe that promise more as you continue to make those requests. And I say that because every step forward, every improvement granted to you because of any of those requests, will be met by more resistance, more opposition. And that means that you will need to have more faith, a surer faith, a bold, confident faith, so that you can make even larger requests.

But again, the Father will not just zap you with more faith. It is something that grows, bit by bit. And one way that it grows is when you respond to the situations that come your way with however much faith that you have. The Father sees your efforts at believing Him and responds by blessing you with more faith. So, in each situation believe His promises as well as you can, and remember what happened to that father who was honest with Jesus and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief’.

So, what have I done this morning? I’ve called on you to believe a part of the Gospel. And the part that I’ve called you to believe is the part that says that the God we worship is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think. I think that the only way to show that you do believe this part of the Gospel is by making large requests of Him and then being amazed when He exceeds even those large requests.