In the ancient Arabian folktale, Aladdin, Aladdin is the lazy son of a poor Chinese tailor. After his father’s death, he meets a magician who says that he is Aladdin’s uncle. The magician convinces Aladdin to go after a beautiful lamp that is hidden in a cave. When Aladdin gets the lamp he refuses to give it to the magician. The magician becomes furious and seals the cave, leaving Aladdin to die. In despair Aladdin cries and wrings his hands, bringing forth a genie from a ring the magician had given him. The genie frees Aladdin from the cave and soon discovers that the lamp also produces a magic genie when it is rubbed. The genies grant Aladdin his every wish, and he eventually becomes immensely wealthy and marries the daughter of the sultan. Aladdin is able to overcome every foe with the power of the lamp. All wonderful children’s tales have a happy ending and Aladdin goes on to live a long, happy life and succeeds the sultan to the throne.
The story of Aladdin is so wonderful and entertaining that Walt Disney grabbed the story and made a hit movie that graces the homes of millions of Americans with small children. I was wondering this past week while I was studying our Scripture in Matthew 6, “What would happen if God showed up and told you, ‘I want to give you three wishes, whatever you ask I will do.’” What would we wish for? What would you desire if you could have anything that you wanted? That is a scary thought isn’t it? I mean, we all talk about having what we want, but if we were really given the opportunity to see our dreams come true, what would we wish for? What would you ask God for? Would my wishes reflect what God desires for my life?
I think I can say with confidence that what the average American would desire would be to have more money, a happy marriage, compliant, well-adjusted children, good health, the alleviation of all of our troubles, the absence of pain, a long life, and endless happiness. Probably most church folks would ask for the same things. I want us to examine “first things first” this morning and seek to determine what would be on God’s list for our lives.
It is important for us to take the time to seek what is on God’s heart, because His list should drive and shape our prayers. We should not be praying for what we want, we should be praying for God’s will to be done in our lives.
Jesus said, in Matthew 6:25-33, that the things of this world, our concerns for what we want in life, should not capture our hearts. What should fascinate us, serve as the focus of our prayers, and finalize our priority list are the things of the Kingdom. We must keep first things first as we seek God in prayer. Follow along with me as we read Matthew 6:25-33.
25″Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 28″And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-33 NIV)
Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel strikes at the heart of our lists of things we desire most in life. What Aladdin’s magical lamp would provide for most Americans, would in most cases have no resemblance to the list Jesus would most desire for us. You can see from looking at Matthew 6, the human heart has not changed one bit. We spend so much time worry about life and the things of this world that we lose sight of what truly matters. What has captured our hearts also captured the hearts of those in Jesus’ day and that is why He encouraged them to seek first things first.
We are not the first to be misled, misguided, and misinformed. Since sin walked onto the scene, the human heart has been out of focus. We’ve been seeking after diamonds and gold while dismissing the voice of God. We’ve been seeking after cheap, imitation, parking-lot designer clothing while robes of righteousness are offered, we’ve been seeking after good health while holiness is neglected, and we’ve been seeking after palatial palaces of bricks and mortar while homes of grace and godliness are passed by. We’ve been seeking for our pain to be alleviated while we turn our backs on God’s purposes for our lives.
I have come to the conclusion that the only way out of our predicament, the only way to discard our wish lists of toys and trinkets is to allow Jesus to take His seat on the throne of our hearts and then continuously, earnestly, and passionately seek God’s will for our lives each and every day. In case you’ve missed it to this point, we are continuing our focus on prayer this week. The Lord is continuing to challenge my prayer life, to examine my prayers, the content of my prayers, and I feel compelled to share with you what He is teaching me.
Only God can change our hearts. He alone can remove our hearts of stone that seek after the things of this world and give us a heart of flesh that seeks after the things of God. J. Vernon McGee once said,
What is your ambition in life today? Is it to get rich? Is it to make a name for yourself? Is it even to do some wonderful thing for God? Listen to me, beloved. The highest desire that can possess any human heart is a longing to see God. (J. Vernon McGee in Feasting on the Word. Christianity Today, Vol. 37, no. 7)
We’ve gotten our priorities all confused my friends. So many college students today are choosing careers based upon how much the job will pay, what it can provide for them in life, rather than seeking God’s purposes for their lives regardless of what that path pays. So many adults are consumed with the thought of being happy while they give no thought at all to being holy. So many people are wondering why they can’t seem to find happiness, why there is so much pain, while neglecting the passionate pursuit of God’s purpose for their life regardless of their circumstances. Dr. Larry Crabb once said, “Whenever we place a higher priority on solving our problems than on pursuing God, we are immoral.” (Larry Crabb in Finding God. Christianity Today, Vol. 38, no. 6)
For us to pursue God we must keep first things first. Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things will be given to you as well.” We seek things, not God. We seek our comfort, not God. Things can never give us direction in life. Things can never comfort us in a lasting way. Things can never instill within us the wisdom we need to understand our predicaments and possibilities. Things are just things, but God is God.
So often we get so focused on what we want and we convince ourselves that what we want will alleviate everything that troubles us, what we want will make us happy. Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet how do we find freedom from what we want? That is a great question! A question that Jesus was confronted with when He prayed in the Garden. Jesus knew what lay ahead, He had a clear vision of the cross — its pain, its shame, and its suffering. He wanted the cup of suffering to be taken away and yet we find Him praying. What does He pray? Take a look at Luke 22:39-44.
41He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42″Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:41-44 NIV)
How did Jesus find His way beyond what He wanted at the moment? He sought God. Jesus said, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” If you and I truly want to find our way beyond our own wishes and wants, our own desires for the toys and trinkets that this world has to offer, then we must seek God first, last, and continuously.
I know that is not a popular teaching in the church today. I am fully aware that the popular trend among churches today is to meet people’s needs – help them feel more fulfilled, become better moms and dads, husbands and wives, help them increase their earning potential and boost their bottom line, help them feel better about themselves, and help them achieve the happiness that everybody is longing for in life. I know these are the popular topics that are filling Sunday school classes and pews all across our nation; the problem for me is that I simply can’t find the basis for the mad pursuit of these topics in God’s Word. The Bible certainly has something to say about all of these topics, God desires that we be good husbands, fathers, employees, mothers, sisters, etc., but the way to achieve this is not by focusing on become “better,” but to focus on God. God’s Word is filled to overflowing with godly counsel on a far greater need than al of these – and that is seeking God. John Fischer once wrote,
As the church today gets more and more hip–more and more need-oriented, responding to the buttons that people push in their pews–I find myself longing for more of a historical faith. I find myself not wanting to have everything explained to me in simple terms. I’m not even sure I want all my needs met as much as I want to meet God, and sometimes I wonder if he’s really interested in the noise of our contemporary clamoring. Like my dog who can’t seem to get anywhere because he keeps having to stop and scratch his fleas, I wonder if we are so busy scratching where everybody itches that we aren’t taking anybody anywhere significant. (John Fischer in “Longing for Something Old” (Covenant Companion, Oct. 1992). Christianity Today, Vol. 37, no. 5)
My dear friends, our greatest need is to seek God with all of our heart. We need to spend time in prayer seeking to learn what God’s will is for our lives, what He is doing in the midst of our present circumstances, and where He is leading us. We need to spend time in prayer allowing the Lord to teach us about His character, His love, His justice, His mercy, His grace, His mighty power, His majesty, and His sovereignty over all things. This is what we truly need in life. Nothing apart from seeking the Lord with all of our hearts will give us the security, rest, and joy that every person longs for in life. When we seek the Lord, when we long to be in His presence, then we will find that He begins to change us. The things that use to matter most, lose their power over us. The plans that we have pursued with fervency and passion lose their grip on us so that we might pursue the plans that God has for us. The troubles that use to unravel our souls are put into His divine perspective and we learn that nothing happens apart from His knowledge.
Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. One of the most widely experienced emotions common to all people is loneliness in the midst of trouble. When we go through troubling times we feel so alone, we have no energy to do anything, and we wonder if God has even forsaken us. The Psalmist went through the same emotions that we go through and yet he experienced a different outcome when he sought the Lord. Take a look at Psalm 77.
1 I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. 2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. 3 I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint. Selah 4 You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. 5 I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; 6 I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired: 7 “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? 8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? 9 Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” Selah 10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.” 11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. 12 I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. 13 Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? 14 You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. 15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah (Psalm 77:1-14 NIV)
Did you notice the change? It didn’t come with a simple “Heavenly 911″ prayer, the Psalmist sought the Lord and God began to remind him of His mighty ways. His soul was troubled and our souls are troubled. He wondered if God had forgotten to be merciful and we wonder if God has forgotten to be merciful? He thought maybe God’s promise had failed for all time and we wonder if God’s promises have failed as well. Then something marvelous happened in the midst of his seeking God – He remembered the deeds of the Lord. He meditated on all of God’s works and then the Psalmist said,
13 Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? 14 You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. 15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
What a beautiful turn of events! How I long to see that same transformation happen in our own lives. I will assure you that apart from seeking the Lord in prayer and allowing Him to speak to us through His Word and through time spent in His presence you and I will never see that kind of transformation take place.
Prayer changes things. Prayer changes us. So often, when I am out of fellowship with God and neglecting Him in prayer, I find my life begin to head into left field. I am not sensitive to His Spirit, I hurt people without even trying, I neglect the things of God, I miss opportunities to minister to someone is who needing help, and I begin to feel depleted and drained. Prayer draws me into the will of God and shows me where I have gone wrong. God reveals to me His plans for me and then gives me the desire to walk in His will. The Psalmist once again shows us how this is not some new phenomenon. Take a look at Psalm 119.
57 You are my portion, O LORD; I have promised to obey your words. 58 I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise. 59 I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. 60 I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. 61 Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. 62 At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws. 63 I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. 64 The earth is filled with your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees. (Psalm 119:57-64 NIV)
What motivated the Psalmist to turn his steps towards God’s will? What moved the Psalmist to not delay in obeying God’s will? What stirred the Psalmist to give God praise and thanks for His righteous laws? What enabled the Psalmist to see that the earth is filled with God’s love? The answer is quite evident. When he sought the face of God with all of his heart these revelations came to him.
There are many today who do not feel worthy to seek the Lord. They feel that their lives are such a mess or that they have neglected the things of God for so long that surely God would not have them come to Him in prayer. My friend, I want you to know that there is absolutely nothing that you have ever done that God has not been fully aware of. He sees our deeds, He knows that our hearts are wayward, He knows that we are sinners, that is why He gave His Son to die for our sins. Jesus didn’t die because we were good people, He died because we are sinners to the core of our souls. Souls without hope apart from God acting on our behalf.
This past week we had a luncheon for several different churches when a lady spoke up and told us about an experience she had recently. She ran into a man in the grocery store and God opened a door for her to witness to him. She invited him to something they had at the church on Wednesday night. The man told her that he hadn’t been to church in years and because of this he didn’t feel right about going to church with her. She said, “He didn’t feel worthy to even go on Wednesday night, much less Sunday morning.”
Oh how I wish that dear man could understand the love of God! I wish that man could realize that God is yearning for him to lift his face to heaven and cry out for the Lord. I wish he could realize that he comes from a long line of sinners going all the way back to Adam, and that God delights in sinners coming home. I wish he could know the story of Manasseh, an evil king who sought the Lord and saw his life change. For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Manasseh let me catch you up on the story.
Manasseh was raised in royalty, the son of Hezekiah, one of the great kings of Judah. Manasseh, even though he was raised in a godly home turned his back on God when he took over the throne at age 12. He reigned as king over Judah for fifty-five years (698-643 B.C.), the longest reign of any king in Judah. His reign as king was a horrible time for the nation as Manasseh led the people away from God. A systematic and persistent attempt was made to banish the worship of God out of the land. There is an old Jewish tradition that says Isaiah was put to death during Manasseh’s reign (2 Kings 21:16; 24:3, 4; Jer. 2:30), having been sawn in two in the trunk of a tree. Manasseh has been called the “Nero of Palestine.” You can find Manasseh’s story and a description of his detestable practices in 2 Chronicles 33:1-10. Let’s read it together.
1Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. 2He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. 3He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had demolished; he also erected altars to the Baals and made Asherah poles. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them. 4He built altars in the temple of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, “My Name will remain in Jerusalem forever.” 5In both courts of the temple of the LORD, he built altars to all the starry hosts. 6He sacrificed his sons in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger. 7He took the carved image he had made and put it in God’s temple, of which God had said to David and to his son Solomon, “In this temple and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my Name forever. 8I will not again make the feet of the Israelites leave the land I assigned to your forefathers, if only they will be careful to do everything I commanded them concerning all the laws, decrees and ordinances given through Moses.” 9But Manasseh led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites. 10The LORD spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. (2 Chronicles 33:1-10 NIV)
Manasseh did all of this evil and then one day the king of Babylon, Esarhaddon, overtook him. Manasseh found himself led through the streets with a ring through his nose. His power was gone. His arrogance has vanished. He was in a position to hear from God. Let’s read what happened.
11So the LORD brought against them the army commanders of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh prisoner, put a hook in his nose, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon. 12In his distress he sought the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. 13And when he prayed to him, the LORD was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD is God. 14Afterward he rebuilt the outer wall of the City of David, west of the Gihon spring in the valley, as far as the entrance of the Fish Gate and encircling the hill of Ophel; he also made it much higher. He stationed military commanders in all the fortified cities in Judah. 15He got rid of the foreign gods and removed the image from the temple of the LORD, as well as all the altars he had built on the temple hill and in Jerusalem; and he threw them out of the city. 16Then he restored the altar of the LORD and sacrificed fellowship offerings and thank offerings on it, and told Judah to serve the LORD, the God of Israel. (2 Chronicles 33:10-16 NIV)
When Manasseh turned his face to God and sought the Lord he found God present that very moment. There wasn’t a probationary period due to Manasseh’s heinous sins. There wasn’t a waiting period because of his devilish deeds – God was there to show Manasseh what he had done, and what God was doing. Chronicles tells us that God was moved by the prayer of Manasseh. My friend, God is moved by your prayers and mine as well. Won’t you lift up your eyes to the King of kings this morning? Regardless of your circumstances or situation, won’t you confess your need of Jesus and invite Him to come into your heart as your Lord and Savior.
We desperately need to seek God with all of our hearts this morning so that we can learn of His ways and allow Him to reveal to us His purposes for our lives. Call upon the Lord and watch Him work in your life!