“WHAT IF?”

II CHRONICLES 7:1-4; 8-14

APRIL 1, 2012

 

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            A while ago I began wrestling with one of those “What if” questions -- you know the kind I am talking about.   What if gas prices hit $5.00 a gallon?  What if Israel attacks Iran?  What if the report is bad?  What if Dancing with the Stars is not renewed for another season?  

            But this “what if,” is even bigger.  What if there are some things God will not do until and unless people pray?  Did you get that?  What if there are some things God will not do until and unless people pray?  Think about it.  God acts through us, God depends on us all the time.  God acts through our deeds of mercy, God acts through our efforts at reconciliation, through our expressions of loving kindness, and through the cups of cold water we offer in Jesus’ name.   God acts through us and depends upon us all the time.

            So it shouldn’t be such a long leap in our mind to think that God may be as dependent upon our praying as God is upon our acting.  It's a mystery, yet scripture offers some convincing evidence that God is as dependent upon our praying as God is upon our acting.  There's a marvelous story in the book of Exodus, the 17th chapter.  It was Israel's first battle as they confronted the Amalakites.  In this first battle Joshua commanded the army of Israel, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went upon the mountain to pray.  It was a dramatic battle and it was a see-saw of a battle.   At one time it would appear that Israel was winning, and then the Amalakites.  Then Israel; then the Amalakites.  Then Israel; then the Amalakites.   And  the 11th verse of the 17th chapter reads as follows, Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.  Do you see?  It wasn’t just the soldiers on the field, but the intercessors on the mountain made the difference. 

            So back to the question.  What if there are some things God will not do until and unless people pray?  Beyond the Israelites and the Amalakites, we have two classic examples of this in the bible - one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.  In these two classic examples we see conditions being laid down that we are to meet in order for God to act effectively in our lives and in the world.  The classic example of it in the Old Testament comes from what we read earlier.  Solomon dedicates the Temple and God shows up in a way that would make our Fourth of July celebrations pale in comparison, and then Solomon puts on a festival for seven days, and people come from all over, and after the seven days hooping and hollering the people go home with smiles on their faces, saying, “That was the best time I’ve had in a long time.” 

            Then after everything quiets down, after all the people have gone home, God comes to Solomon in the middle of the night and says, If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways - note, those are the conditions -  Then, says God, Then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land.  In other words, if you do these things, including pray then I will act.

            The classic example of it from the New Testament comes in the 15th chapter of John from Jesus' great metaphor of the vine and the branches.  In that metaphor Jesus gives us a condition to meet before God will act.  Jesus says, If you abide in me, and my words abide in you - those are the conditions - If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, then he says, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.    

            So, if this is true ... which it appears to be ... that there are some things God will not do until people pray, then that leads us to an implication and an invitation.  First, the implication:  If there are some things God will not do until people pray, then we must become bolder in our praying. 

            You may have noticed that I often quote a man named William Barclay.  Let me tell you a little bit about him.  In 1933 William Barclay was ordained in the church of Scotland.  Then after serving as a minister for thirteen years he began lecturing at the University of Glasgow.  He became a professor of the New Testament, and while at the University of Glasgow, he decided to dedicate his life to "making the best biblical scholarship available to the average reader.”  The eventual result was the Daily Study Bible, a set of 17 commentaries on the New Testament.  They became best sellers.  Pastors, including yours truly, continue to read them today.  If you want to work your way through the New Testament, understanding the historical context and background of the New Testament scriptures, I can’t think of a better resource for any Christian, lay or clergy.

            Anyway, Barclay in one of his commentaries lists three conditions people must have in their prayer life.  First, he says, prayer must be constant.  He says that it is from daily prayer that we find daily strength and holy guidance.  Second, he says prayer must be unselfish.  He says, “We must learn to pray for others as much as we do for ourselves.”  And third, he says prayer needs to be bold.  He says, “No beating around the bush.”  He says, “Be the prayer warrior God has called you to be.”

            Barclay got all that from his study of Jesus, even the part about boldness.    Remember the parable?  Jesus said there was a friend who needed some food for some guests who arrived late, so he came to his friend at midnight and began to knock on the door.  Jesus said, “Though he will not get up and give him bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs”  (Luke 11:8).  Boldness is an essential quality in prayer. 

            If God will not do certain things until we pray, then we need be bold in our praying.  We need to ask God to wrap God’s arms around people, around our church, around situations, around our world, especially because God promises to answer our prayers.

            Speaking of praying, I heard of a traveler going through China who visited a temple where the people were making paper mud balls, wadding them up, and throwing them at an idol they were worshiping.  If the mud ball stuck to the idol it meant that the idol would answer their prayers.  If the mud ball didn’t stick it meant that their prayers weren’t answered.

            We can be bold in prayer because we have a God wants us to ask ... ask and you shall receive, knock and the door will be opened, and a God who answers prayer.  In fact, God will answer every prayer we pray in one of four ways. 

            First, there is God’s direct answer to our prayers.  We ask God for it and, boom, we get it right on the spot. That happened to Elijah.  You may remember the story.  Israel was suffering under an evil king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, so to make matters tough for them, Elijah boldly asked God to shut up the heavens so there would be no rain.  And boom, it happened.  A great drought came over the land making it difficult for Ahab and Jezebel to make ends meet.  Elijah received a direct answer, and sometimes we receive a direct answer.

            Other times we receive a delayed answer.  We pray and the answer doesn’t come right away, it is delayed.  Abraham experienced that when he prayed for a son. Trudy received a delayed answer when she prayed for suitable spouses for our children.    Sometimes the people they were dating seemed like good choices to us, but God didn’t and in the case of our son, God really took awhile to answer Trudy’s prayer.  He was 35 before he got married.  Sometimes we receive a delayed answer. 

            Other times the answer is not direct, and it’s not delayed, it’s different than what we expected.  We ask God for one thing and God gives us something else.  Years ago I prayed for a wife, thinking it would be someone I had broken up with, and low and behold it wasn’t.  Instead, it was better.  It was Trudy.  Sometimes God answers our prayer in a different manner than we expected God to answer.

            Then sometimes it’s not direct, it’s not delayed, its not different, it’s denied.  Sometimes we ask God for something and God’s answer is no. Paul asked three times to have his thorn in flesh removed.  God’s answer to Paul was no.  That’s one of the hardest answers to receive.  At least, it is for me.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve prayed for people to be healed of something, like Sue Hutto of her cancer, and that doesn’t happen.  Actually, it does.  Sue no longer suffers from cancer, but I prayed that Sue be healed of her cancer here on earth so we could have her around longer, but my request was denied.  Some day I’ll know why I received so many “no’s” as answers to my prayers, but that will have to wait until I reach the other side.

            When we pray we receive direct answers, and delayed answers, and different answers, and denied answers to our prayers, but God answers everyone one of them.

            That’s the implication - now for the invitation.  If there are some things God either cannot or will not do until people pray, I want to invite you to pray about the future of our church.

            Most of you know that we have entered into a discernment process concerning the future of our congregation.  We have embarked on a journey to discern God’s mind and heart concerning our future here on 36th street in Bellevue.  In so doing, we have reflected on our past.  Many of you participated in our Conference on the Past held in conjunction with our Ice Cream Social, as we celebrated God’s faithfulness to us over these past 117 years.  At the gathering, we came up with certain things we want to hold onto as we move into the future and certain things we want to let go of in the future.

            Then last November we had a Conference on the Present where we looked ways in which the outside world is pressing upon us, in both good and bad ways, and we reflected on our current strengths as a church.

            Now, we are moving into the final phase of the Journey.  We’ve dealt with the past, we’ve pondered the present, and now we turn to the future by listening to what God is calling us to be and do in the years ahead.  And we begin by boldly asking God what God wants for us in the future.  Note, it’s not what we want, it’s what God wants for us. 

            And to make this happen, we need to have as many of you who are willing, to begin putting into practice what we have learned in this Lenten Series on prayer.  We hope all of us, and at least most of us, will establish a rhythm of prayer.  We hope most of us will practice the presence of God throughout the day, and we hope most, if not all of us, will listening to God a central part of our prayer life.  And now we hope most of us will boldly ask, “God, what is it you want us to do and be in the years ahead?  We know you want us to be faithful and fruitful in our ministry here, and what will that entail?  What will that look like?”

            Will you join me in doing that?  Will you enter this final phase of our discerning process by boldly asking God what does God want for us in the days ahead and then listening for God’s answer?

            What if God wants to do something remarkable through us?  What if our best days are ahead of us and not behind us?  What if God really takes this prayer stuff seriously?  What if the well being of our community of faith depends on our prayers? 

            What if?  What if?