It is good to be back with you after spending a month away on a sabbatical. I have to tell you how appreciative I am for your graciousness in allowing me to withdraw from all of my normal responsibilities so that I could be still for a while to be renewed and refreshed by being in the Lord’s presence.
I have learned many things in the past month. The lessons have been rich from the time I have spent in study and prayer. This morning I want to share with you the most powerful of the lessons the Lord has taught me. I have been so anxious to share this insight with you because I am convicted in my heart that God has opened my eyes to this insight for us as a church and not just for me.
At the beginning of the sabbatical I felt a strong leading from the Lord to dig deep into the Minor Prophets and see what God would uncover there for me. Reading the prophets every day has left a lasting impression on my heart as God has shown me some themes that run through each of their lives as they spoke to the people of their day. Let me share these themes with you before we dig into our Scripture for this morning.
* God, in His infinite grace, chooses to reveal Himself to the people to draw them into relationship with Himself.
* God showers the people with the blessings of His presence and His provision for every area of life. He promises to Shepherd them, love them, and protect them.
* The people are made aware of God’s goodness and it stirs their hearts.
* The every day cares of life, their own sin-nature, and the surrounding influences of society begin to wear down their zeal for the Lord and they begin to slip away.
* God sends His judgment to discipline His people and to seek to turn them back to Himself. Once His discipline is exacted, He waits for them to cry out in prayers of repentance and submission to His will.
* When matters grow most desperate the people drop everything and cry out to the Father for His help.
* God responds to their cries of prayer in grace, because of His love for His chosen people, and He brings them back, rescues them from their destruction, and restores their relationship to Himself.
If you take the time to read the Prophets you will find these themes running through each and every book. As you read, you may be overwhelmed with a combined sense of elation and frustration from one page to the next. On the one hand, it is so exciting, so inspiring, and so encouraging to see God’s grace shine so brightly. My friend, God is so faithful, He is unwavering in His infinite love for His people. The faithfulness, love, and constant care of the Father for His people should move us to the depth of our soul because it is not just the people long ago whom God loved and cared for – His love, salvation, and abiding presence are still at work today for those who will cling to Him in faith.
On the other hand, the stories of the prophets are so frustrating, almost agonizing to read. In story after story in Hosea, Joel, Zephaniah, Malachi, and the other prophets we see how easily the people forget about God and the constancy of His love and salvation. These stories were so frustrating for me to read and pray through because the judgment of God upon the people, their exile to foreign lands, and the desperation they felt in feeling so alone and unable to do anything about their situation did not have to happen. God desired, He yearned, for intimacy with His people, but they chose to walk away and make their own way through this world.
The stories are agonizing when you stop to pray through these stories and realize that they are us. Who among us can honestly say that we have not known the goodness of God? Who among us has not felt His divine hand of grace sparing us from certain disaster? Who among us has not known of His mercy that pardoned us when we knew a guilty verdict was certain? Who among us this morning has not experienced our world coming apart at the seams only to have the Father knit us back together with cords of lovingkindness? Oh, we know the goodness of God, we’ve tasted of His grace, we’ve felt His comforting hands, we’ve seen His deliverance, we’ve heard of His salvation, but we’ve walked away to chart our own course, set our own path, and dictate our own destiny–only to find that our wisdom was foolishness and our road to happiness and success was nothing more than a dead-end.
It doesn’t have to be this way my friend. God has come to us, He has invited us to walk with Him, talk with Him, fellowship with Him in an intimate relationship that will transcend and far exceed the intimacy we can share in any other relationship. God has opened the door for you and for me, but we must step through the door and respond to His call to receive the salvation He has won for us through His son Jesus’ death and glorious resurrection. Jesus is the Door that leads to the Father, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 NIV)
There are so many proposed ways for us to experience the fullness of God these days, but Jesus did much more than make a proposal, He is the propitiation for our sins, the Forgiver of our failures, and the Door that leads to the Father. He is our pardon. He is our peace.
As I think about the Body of Christ today, those who have recognized their need for the Savior and have responded to God’s voice calling them to Himself, I see some disturbing evidence that things are not as they should be, that things have not changed that much from the days of the prophets of old. I am convinced that so many of us who claim Jesus as Lord of our life are living defeated lives because we are failing on two fronts. One, we have neglected the deep study of the Word of God. We rarely, if ever, open God’s Word unless we are in a crisis and in desperate need of help. Second, we are prayerless people. Prayer is the umbilical cord of intimacy with the Father. Prayer is the lifeblood of the believer. Robert Murray McCheyne once said, “What a man is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing more.” The great theologian and father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, wrote, “If I should neglect prayer but a single day, I should lose a great deal of the fire of faith.”
The fire of faith will begin to dwindle and slowly, even unnoticeably, die before our eyes when we neglect sweet fellowship in prayer with the Father. God’s people in the days of the prophets didn’t purposefully slip away from the intimacy offered by God, they slowly faded in their faith. I can testify to this matter in my own life. I do not settle in my heart one day, “I’m going to turn my back on God and do my own thing.” I’ve seen in my own life, how, when my prayer life grows cold and stagnant, my walk with God becomes weakened, fragile, and far less than God intends for me.
This is not only true for us as individual followers of Jesus, but it is true for churches as well. There is no power supply for a local church as effective as prayer. Church leaders can attend the best church growth conferences in the nation, they can implement the finest programs that money can buy, they can do demographic studies to find their target audience and then build their ministry to meet the needs of those targeted, but in building a church that seeks to win the lost to Christ, disciple people so that they can grow up in their salvation and experience a strong daily walk with the Lord, none of these can compete with an army of humble men, women, boys, and girls on their knees in prayer.
The story is told of five young college students who were spending a Sunday in London many years ago. While in London they decided to go and hear the famous preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. While they were waiting for the doors to open, the students were greeted by a man who asked, “Gentlemen, let me show you around. Would you like to see the heating plant of this church?” They thought the man was rather odd since they really had no desire to see a heating plant on a hot July day. They didn’t want to offend the stranger, so they consented. The young men were taken down a stairway, a door was quietly opened, and their guide whispered, “This is our heating plant.”
To the surprise of the young men, they saw 700 people bowed in prayer, seeking a blessing on the service that was soon to begin in the auditorium above. Softly closing the door, the gentleman then introduced himself. It was none other than Pastor Spurgeon.
E.M. Bounds once said, “What the Church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use-men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men-men of prayer.”
The great people of faith who have gone before us give us wise counsel. If you want to walk consistently with God, if you want to experience the power of God in your life and in your church, then you must pray. There is no substitute for prayer. Work is not a substitute. Programs are a not a substitute. A college education is not a substitute. Influential friends are not a substitute. Management expertise is not a substitute. Money is not a substitute. Charisma and charm are no substitutes. Prayer moves the heart of God! Prayer leads to a consistent, intimate walk with God!
I was invited to attend a meeting of several different ministries that work with kids this past week at the Sportsmen’s Club. It was so inspiring to hear the stories of how God is using the ministries of Young Life, Student Venture, The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth For Christ, and others to reach kids for the Kingdom of God. I was deeply touched to meet a piano teacher from Classen High School for The Performing Arts and to hear how two mornings a week student-led prayer and Bible study are taking place in her classroom at the public school. I was blessed to meet the Principal from Jackson Middle School and to hear his heart concerning his “ministry” of reaching kids who are being subjected to gang violence and now the Mexican Drug Cartel. He told us that those who work in the drug cartel are taking some of his Hispanic children right out of their homes and telling their parents, “You can’t go to the Police because you are illegal aliens.” They keep the kids over the weekend to use them and abuse them and then drop them off at school on Monday morning. This principal is allowing churches and Christian ministry groups to come into his school to help his students. I heard about all of the work that is going on the name of Christ around our city and I was blessed. I am deeply grateful for all of those who are laboring in the fields of Oklahoma City to share the Gospel with every person of our city.
In the past couple of days I have been thinking about that meeting that touched me so deeply and at the same time working on my study for this morning. Thursday morning God impressed something upon my heart that stopped me in my tracks. There is so much ministry going on in the name of the Lord. The Body of Christ is working overtime to win lost souls to Christ, but once a person accepts Christ as their Savior it seems like things grind to a halt. As I weigh the evidence I see that far too many folks have grown stagnant, stale, and bland in their walk with the Lord. There are far too many Christians in our city who are not experiencing the power of God that is available to be more than overcomers, more than conquerors. There are far too many followers of Jesus who are being beaten up, battered, and bound by Satan, the one who is powerless over the lives of God’s people who walk intimately with the Father. Why is this so? I am convinced that what we are seeing today is what went on the days of the prophets. It is this blandness, this stagnation, this lack of prayer leads to our slipping away from God.
The same principle held true in Joel’s day, Zechariah’s day, Jonah’s day, and in the days of all the prophets. The people were hot with passion for God because they became acutely aware of His majesty, glory, and grace. With the passage of time the majesty became mundane, the glory lost it sheen, and God’s grace was regarded as ordinary. The people went on their way and did as they pleased with no regard for God, with no desire to seek His will, and no passion for His presence.
It was only when their world began to crumble that they would turn back to God. God was their 911 in times of disaster, but only an afterthought at other times. We can see how the people, even in times of crisis, were more prone to ponder their circumstances than they were to cry out to God. Most often God initiated the idea of their turning back to Him. He put the words on the lips of the prophets to call the people to return to God, to cry out for the Father’s help. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I am talking about. In the first chapter of Joel we read,
12 The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree-all the trees of the field-are dried up. Surely the joy of mankind is withered away. 13 Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar. Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you who minister before my God; for the grain offerings and drink offerings are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. 15 Alas for that day! For the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. 16 Has not the food been cut off before our very eyes-joy and gladness from the house of our God? 17 The seeds are shriveled beneath the clods. The storehouses are in ruins, the granaries have been broken down, for the grain has dried up. 18 How the cattle moan! The herds mill about because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep are suffering. 19 To you, O LORD, I call, for fire has devoured the open pastures and flames have burned up all the trees of the field. 20 Even the wild animals pant for you; the streams of water have dried up and fire has devoured the open pastures. (Joel 1:12-20 NIV)
God first moved upon the hearts of the priests in Joel 1, but in the second chapter of Joel God called a sacred assembly for all of the people to seek God with all of their hearts. The call of God was so urgent that the groom and bride were encouraged to cut short their honeymoon in order that they might come into the presence of the Lord, the children were called to come into the presence of the Lord, the elders of the city were to come, and even the babies who were having dinner at their mother’s breast were called by God. That’s an urgent call my friend! Let’s read beginning in the 15th verse,
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. 16 Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. 17 Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the temple porch and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” 18 Then the LORD will be jealous for his land and take pity on his people. 19 The LORD will reply to them: “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully; never again will I make you an object of scorn to the nations… 32 And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:15-19; 32 NIV)
Isn’t God good! The people who had strayed didn’t have sense enough to come before the Lord of their own initiative, but God loved those who had walked away from Him so much that He led them back to Himself. He is so faithful even when we are unfaithful! Paul wrote to Timothy and said, 13 “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13 NIV)
The prophet Jonah gives us an incredible picture of God’s desire for all people to know Him in the most intimate way. We’ve all heard the story of reluctant Jonah who ran the other way when God called him to go to Nineveh and call them to turn from their wicked ways so that they may seek God. There is a good reason Jonah ran my friends. For Jonah to go to Nineveh was like calling one of us to go to Iraq or Iran, or for someone living in the 1940″s to go to Nazi Germany. The Ninevites were hated, they were despised, they were the scum of the earth to Jonah, but God loved them and He earnestly desired that they turn their faces and their hearts to Heaven.
Jonah finally did go to Nineveh. Let’s read from Jonah 3, and find out what happened.
3Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city-a visit required three days. 4 On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:3-10 NIV)
Jonah was seriously hoping for the downfall of Nineveh. He said, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” While Jonah was anxiously awaiting the overthrow of Nineveh, God was anxiously awaiting the repentance of the Ninevites. Jonah tells us, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” Wow! What did they do? How did they do it? What turned God’s heart from discipline to delight? Look back at the Scripture and you can find the answer. They fasted, they urgently called upon God, and they turned from their ways. They made seeking God and His will priority number one in their lives.
I would encourage you to read God’s Word from Genesis through Revelation and see if you can find even one place where God turns His back on those who earnestly seek Him with their whole heart. When people make seeking God the number one priority in their life, God glories in their passionate pursuit. God delights in our seeking Him. He delights in our calling Him “Father” and then acting like a child who is head over heels in love with his or her daddy.
While I was away from the office, I took time one day to take Annie to the zoo. We had the best time seeing all of the animals, talking about who painted the brightly colored fish, and watching the baby gorilla pester his mother. After we left the zoo and headed home I asked Annie, “What did you like the best?” She said, “I liked the wolves best.” I didn’t even remember seeing wolf, but sure was glad that Annie enjoyed them. I don’t know if there is a wolf at the Oklahoma City Zoo, but I could have easily missed them because I had my eyes fixed on my child. There wasn’t an animal in the place that captured my attention or my heart like my little girl. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the baby gorilla, I enjoyed seeing the rhinoceros, and I was amazed at the grace of the dolphins, but I was basking in the warmth of my daughter holding my hand, sitting on my lap, and reaching up to me to carry her when she was tired of walking. I had the time of my life knowing that Annie wanted to be with me.
I love my children and I am thrilled when they want to be with me, but my love pales in comparison to the love the Father has for you my friend. My deep desire to enjoy moments of intimacy with my kids is nothing like the yearning the Father has to see us long to be with Him in sweet fellowship.
God has impressed upon my heart a renewed commitment to encourage you to desire for Him to stir within you a deep, insatiable desire to be with your Father in the intimate fellowship of prayer. I know that many of us are uncomfortable with prayer. I’ve spoken with many couples who never pray together because it is uncomfortable. I know many people who will not pray out loud become they are uneasy. I want you to know that you do not have to stay where you are my friend. If you desire for your prayer life to take on a richness and depth that you’ve never experienced before then God will honor the desire of your heart if you will but seek Him in prayer.
For many folks right now the question going through your mind is, “How? How can I learn to pray and experience the presence of God?” Great question. I want to give you some suggestions.
First, pray and let God know that you know your prayer life is not what it should be or what you want it be. God honors honesty and He can stir your heart for prayer like nothing else. Second, find a prayer partner. Find someone who can be a mentor for you, someone who has seen God move in their prayers, someone who seeks God diligently in prayer, someone who longs to know God more and more. There are many folks in this church who are prayer warriors who would be thrilled to pray for you, and with you, that God would move in your prayer life. Third, keep a record of your prayers. Some call it a prayer journal. Mark who you are praying for and how you are praying. Write down the things God is showing you in prayer. Review the journal from time to time to see God moving in your life. Last of all, each Sunday night we have an hour set aside to be still in the presence of God and to seek Him in prayer. We call this opportunity the “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” There are six Sundays until Easter and I want to offer an urgent plea to everyone here this morning to stand up and make a commitment. Will you commit to God this morning to set aside everything that would keep you away from meeting with Him each Sunday night at 7:00 pm and join me for the next six Sundays? I will promise you that if you will do this for the next six Sundays you will begin to see God move in your heart and stir your soul in a deep way.
The answer to the problems of the people of the prophet’s day and the answer to our up and down walk with the Lord is found on our knees. God has put us together in a family of faith so that we can draw from one another, hold each other accountable, and walk together as we seek the Lord. We desperately need each other if we are going to see our prayer life blossom.
In one region of Africa, the first converts to Christianity were very diligent about praying. In fact, the believers each had their own special place outside the village where they went to pray in solitude. The villagers reached these “prayer rooms” by using their own private footpaths through the brush. When grass began to grow over one of these trails, it was evident that the person to whom it belonged was not praying very much.
Because these new Christians were concerned for each other’s spiritual welfare, a unique custom sprang up. Whenever anyone noticed an overgrown “Prayer path,” he or she would go to the person and lovingly warn, “Friend, there’s grass on your path!”
I need you to let me know when there is grass on my path. I need you to join me in prayer seeking the heart of God for our lives, our church, and our community. I need you to join me in prayer for the sick, the lost, the broken, those who are going through heartaches and despair. I pray that you will join me this evening at 7:00 pm as we seek the Lord together.
If you have never asked Jesus to forgive you for your sins and to cleanse you with His precious cleansing blood then I want to urge to do so today. It will be the beginning of a brand new life for you my friend and it will be the gateway to a deep, intimate fellowship with the Father that can only come through heartfelt prayer.