Monday, July 24, 2017

Pray Hard!

Pray Hard- The Persistence Quotient
July 15/16     1 Kings 18: 41-46, Luke 18: 1-5

            Today we continue to dream big and pray boldly through this exciting sermon series called the “Circle Maker.” Throughout the month of July, we’re asking God to deepen our faith and explode our prayer lives like never before. And today we’re going to learn that our big, bold prayers and dreams are not something we just dream once and let it go, but something we continue to pursuit until we feel confident that we have broken through into the heart of God. And it’s possible to do that.

            History books tells us that October of 1879 was a monumental moment for famous American inventor Thomas Edison, and really, for the world. That’s the month he watched a carbon-based filament successfully burn for 13.5 hours. That pivotal moment gave birth to the rise of the incandescent light bulb, a source of energy and power that we still use today. It was a great moment that changed history, a victory that birthed more opportunities because of longer lasting light! But what the history books won’t tell is what when on behind the scenes leading up to this day. For 14 months, Edison and his team looked for ways to improve on the work of others (Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, but he did build on the vision of others). They tested over 6,000 possible filament solutions and put in a lot of sweat equity that created tension among people who were striving for the same thing. But with every failure, Edison and his team kept going. They kept striving. They continued to persevere until finally the realized their dream. And after that day, Edison had this to say about the accomplishment: "Before I got through," he recalled, "I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material." Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."

            I love the phrase “ransacking the world,” because it puts some teeth to the idea of determination. I can almost see Edison scouring the countryside for anything that might become his missing ingredient! It also reminds me of the old adage, “Hard work pays off.” That’s no secret; we know the value of hard work. Hard work is what gets the job done, and the job is never done until you’ve put in a lot of hours. Some experts claim that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to hone a craft, to become a master at your calling. 10,000 jump shots to shoot like Stephen Curry and Michael Jordan. 10,000 vocal lessons to sing like Julie Andrews. 10,000 hours in a hot kitchen to become a world-class chef. But here’s something else I want you to consider: just as hard work pays off, so does prayer. Praying hard and praying long pays off!

            I’ve had some well-meaning people tell me over the years that we should simply pray once and leave it in God’s hands, almost as if to suggest that to pray again for the same thing reveals a lack of faith or trust in God. But I don’t buy it. Nor do I think Jesus buys it. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the story of an old persistent widow who bugs the heck out of ornery judge as a means of teaching his followers how to pray and not lose heart. Out of desperation for justice (because she probably had no other means of survival!), the widow keeps knocking on the judge’s door until he finally relents. He knows she won’t give up until he answers the door, and her persistence finally pays off. “I’m going to answer this door and give her what she wants,” the judge said,” or else she will wear me out!”

            One of the first things I notice in this story is not how it ends, but it how it begins. It begins with the widow’s desperation. This is where all bold and courageous prayers begin. They begin with desperation, with passion, with a sense of holy restlessness, and desperation leads to rugged determination. We don’t know what type of justice the woman was seeking, but it meant the world to her, and she was going to wrestle with the judge until she got was she believed was rightfully hers (and what she couldn’t live without). I wonder what dream makes you restless? I wonder what you seek with desperation and passion? Maybe it’s a friend who needs to know friendship with God or a ministry you want to succeed. And I wonder if you’re willing to wrestle with God until you have it! Sometimes that’s what prayer looks like: it looks like a “refusal to give up” wrestling match. The OT tells the story of Jacob, who was a man desperate for God’s blessing. He wanted a new life, a new chance, and as the old story is told from Genesis, he wrestled with God throughout the night seeking God’s blessing. “I will not let you go,” Jacob cried out to him, “until you bless me.” That was Jacob’s way of saying, “I’m serious this time. I mean it. I’m not leaving until I have more of you!” And God blessed him.

            Sometimes I think our prayer lives are marked by missed opportunities because we leave God too soon, or at least we content ourselves with waiting for God to make the first move, when all along God is patiently waiting for us to take a serious step in His direction. But revival historians will tell you that every great revival has started because people began to gather and pray and refused to give up. Instead of saying “If God wants revival to happen, it will happen,” men and women and children wrestled with God and said, “Make it so! Bring revival. And God did. Several years ago, Joanna and I endured a devastating experience that left our hearts broken and our faith close to being shattered. But yet we believed God was not done with us. We began to cry out and to pray, asking God to bless us once more. And during an evening service at church camp, we felt God calling us down to the altar to wrestle. And as we wrestled with God in prayer, all of the sudden we felt a hand on each of our shoulders, and a woman began to pray for us. Then she looked at us and spoke these words: “I believe God has heard your prayer and will bless you again.” Our desperation led to determination, which led to blessing. And I’m so glad we didn’t give up. Praying hard requires persistence. You’ve got to keep going!

            If anyone knew what it was like to wrestle with God and struggle with faith, it was the old prophet Elijah. A few centuries before Honi’s prayer, God promised to send rain to Elijah and the Israelites during their time of severe drought. Believing that God would fulfill His promise, Elijah sent his companion, Ahab, to look out over the sea for any sign of rain. But nothing came. So Elijah continued to pray, and again, Ahab had nothing new to report. This went on for 6 days, but Elijah persisted. Finally, on the seventh day, Ahab came back and said, “ There is a cloud rising up from the sea.” And soon the heavy showers arrived. What would’ve happened if Elijah had quit praying on the sixth day? What would’ve happened if he had given up?

            It’s easy to give up too soon. 6,000 attempts of finding the right carbon filament took a lot of perspiration, but I’m so glad Thomas Edison didn’t lose heart, because the next attempt changed the world. It’s easy to quit praying after 6 days because God doesn’t respond quickly enough. I know how hard it is to wrestle with God and lose heart. When people don’t show up, it’s easy to throw in the towel. When plans do pan out the way we thought they would, it’s easy to doubt our ability and even God’s goodness. When prayers go unanswered, it’s easy to think we’ve somehow failed God. But truly, the only way to fail is to take our ball and go home. We’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to keep praying! So let me ask you: Who will dream your dream if you don’t? What will happen to your ministry if you walk out the door too soon? What will happen to the faith of the next generation if you and I don’t go the distance? And it’s possible to keep going because of God’s promises.

            You ever wonder how Honi found the confidence to pray and not stop until it rained? Maybe it’s because he knew Elijah’s story and God’s promises. Or why Jesus felt like he could share a story about a persistent widow breaking through to the heart of the judge? Maybe it’s because he knew Jacob’s story and God’s blessing.  Or why Jesus confidently set his face towards the Cross and didn’t blink? Maybe he recalled the story of dry bones coming to life again in Ezekiel. The Bible is filled with God’s promises to bless, to bring life, to make new again. And it’s those promises that keep us going, because if God makes promises, he keeps them. Not just for one generation, but for us all. Just listen to some of these: Isaiah 40: 29: “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” James 1:5: “If you lack wisdom…ask God…and it will be given to you.” Matthew 11: 28-29: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Philippians 1: 9: “And God will supply all your needs out of his glorious riches.” Romans 10:9- “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

            These are just a few of the thousands of promises God gives. And God is faithful. If God promises it (and if we believe His word is timeless and true) then we can be confident that He will provide. So if you need help praying hard and persisting in prayer, grab your Bible, remember who God is, and ask him to reveal His promises to you. And then circle them and stand in them, believing that just ask God remembered His promises to Abraham, Jacob, Elijah and others, He will remember His promises to you. What promise do you need to circle today? What prayer do you need to keep on praying? What dream do you need to relentlessly pursue? Keep on dreaming. Keep on circling. Keep on standing on the promises of God. Amen.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Becoming a Circle Maker

Becoming A Circle Maker       July 1 and 2, 2017
Scripture: Mark 10: 46-52

Today we begin a new journey called The Circle Maker. This is a 4 week series on prayer, but even more than that, it’s a 4 week series that stretches our walk with Christ and invites us into a deep and bold faith. (You can check out more of this awesome book/sermon series here: You can also join us for a 4-week small group experience beginning Tuesday, July 11th at 6:30 at the Koffee Shoppe.)

There’s a story of an old Israelite sage named Honi that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Honi, who lived several hundred years before Jesus, was famous for his prayerful heart but especially for his prayers for rain. And that served him well during an extremely dry season in Jerusalem. It was a time of drought, the type of drought that leaves behind a wake of devastation. Animals were dying; people were suffering; the wells were all dried up. And so was the faith of the people. It had been a long time since the people had seen God move in mighty ways. All they had was a distant memory of a God who existed in stories and legends. But there was one, a man named Honi, who still believed.

As the story is told, Honi takes his staff and slowly begins to draw a circle in the dirt, then as he is standing in the circle, he cried out these word: Lord of the Universe, I swear before your great name that I will not move from this circle until you have shown mercy upon your children.” The boldness of the prayer shocked those who heard. Honi’s confidence was unlike anything they had seen. And then they felt it. A raindrop. Little by little, small raindrops began to fall. But that wasn’t enough for Honi. “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill cisterns, pits and caverns.” As the prayer ascended, the rain fell harder and harder until it was a torrential downpour. But Honi remained in the circle. Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of Thy favor, blessing and graciousness.” And the downpour transformed into a steady summer rain that had the effect of not only raising water levels and filling up the cisterns, but raising up faith and filling up the spirits of those who just a day before were discouraged and defeated. It was a prayer that, some say, saved a generation of people. And that’s why this story has been passed down from generation to generation. You won’t find this story in the Bible, but what you will find is a powerful reminder of what one prayer can do.

Now, we know that prayer is important. I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue that point. But what you might be surprised to discover is that our prayers are important to God. One of the principles we see throughout Scripture is that bold prayers honor God and God honors bold prayers. Now, we need to think more about this, because there are those who might think it’s not right to be bold with God. In fact, there were those who chastised Honi for his aggressive praying. How dare he think he can talk to God that way! And we might feel that way too. We don’t want to come across as prideful or arrogant or somehow offend God. But in the Scriptures, we actually see Jesus inviting us to pray like Honi, to pray prayers that are both bold and specific. Ask. Seek. Knock. Why? Because these prayers honor God! Think about it for a moment. When we pray with boldness, we are making a statement of faith. When we pray prayers that only God can answer, we are essentially telling God, “Nobody can do this but you. Not me. Not anyone. Not the government. My trust is in entirely in You!” We might even say that the only way to offend God is to either not pray at all or to pray prayers that are so small we don’t really need God to intervene. We ask boldly because we believe God can do it. And when we move in this courageous way, when we draw this circle, God’s heart is stirred to pour out blessings on his people and God gets the glory. When something happens that can only be explained by God, guess who gets the glory? God gets it! So if I were to ask you right now, what is one big bold ask you have for God? What would your answer be? You need to draw the circle.

There’s a story in the Gospels about a man named Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus lived in Jericho, which is a place where God once answered an amazing prayer. A thousand years earlier, God had his people march around the city walls 7 times and the walls came crashing down. God delivered this mighty city into the hands of his people. They kept drawing the circle, knowing that the only way this city would be taken would be by the hand of God. And it happened. With a loud shout, the walls came tumbling down. Now as Jesus enters Jericho, there’s another wall that Bartimaeus has been trying to knock down since his birth: his blindness. Bartimaeus caught wind of Jesus’ passing and began to cry out, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” And there were those around who tried to hush him up. Why do you think he’d bother with you? He’s not going to listen to you. He has more important things to do. But he kept crying out. He kept circling. Finally, Jesus made his way to the man asked this all-important question: What do you want me to do for you? You see, the man was genuinely seeking mercy, but Jesus asked him to get specific. He already had mercy. The moment Jesus looked his way was a moment of mercy. But Jesus called him to go deeper. What do you want me to do for you? I want to see again!

I don’t know exactly how they answered that question, but I do know that we stand on the shoulders of those who have prayed such big, bold, courageous prayers. Over a hundred years ago, there were those praying that God would make his mark in our Blairsville area. And God moved in the hearts of men and women to start churches that we have called home for the last 150 years or so. Your place of worship and your opportunity to gather like this is the culmination of somebody else’ s prayers and dreams. And those prayers are still being answered when people walk into these doors. And just a few years ago there was a group of people that began to circle those with no church home, and out of that dream Connect Church was born. There were a lot of walls that had to come crashing down in order for this to happen, a lot of bridges were required for people to get on board with this dream. And God answered that prayer. When I think of the people who have come to know Jesus because of our Parish and Connect Church, I remember a group of people who years ago began to pray boldly and began to dream, believing that God wanted this even more than we did.

We need to remember that God is a bigger dreamer than we are. He is waiting for us to call out to him; he’s waiting to answer and bless and give, because that’s his nature! God is for you! And even more than that, God is for that which is life giving and holy. So when we pray bold prayers that honor God, glorify God and seek to grow God’s kingdom, God doesn’t hesitate to answer those requests. Listen to these words spoken by Jesus: What father would give his son a stone when he asks for bread? What father would give his child a snake when she asks for a fish? God is a good father who loves to bless his children. He doesn’t always answer in the ways we think he will, but his answers are always better than even our best thoughts. So let’s circle back around and ask that old Bartimaeus question: What do you want God to do for you?

This might seem like a selfish question, but it’s not. It’s a statement of faith; it’s a desire see God build his kingdom in you and his kingdom all over the world. Now, we’re not talking about God helping us to win the lottery or giving us a private jet (that’s a surefire way to recognize that our prayers really aren’t about God). We’re talking about prayers that build God’s kingdom and bring him glory. So what is your Jericho? What is the dream you want God to fulfill? Who is the person you want God to redeem? What is the miracle you want to God to deliver? Maybe you have a friend who you think needs Jesus. You need to circle that person in prayer. Maybe there’s a ministry that God has placed in your heart, but you’re not sure where to begin. You need to circle that ministry in prayer. Maybe you want to go back to school or get out of out debt or save your marriage. You need to circle that in prayer. And as you do, you need to put God on your calendar. And what I mean by that is to find an intentional place and time where you will meet with God to march around those prayers. I long for us to be a generation that doesn’t shy away from praying for big things. I long for us to be the type of people who believe God can do more than even our wildest imaginations might suggest. And I long to be part of a church that commits to praying boldly and courageously.

Over the next five weeks, I’m inviting you to deepen your faith by praying big, bold, courageous prayers. Today you’ve been given two items to help you pray intentionally. The first is a small stone that you carry with you. Scripture tells us that God is our Rock, our Fortress, and our Cornerstone. I want you to go home and write down your God-given dream on this stone and carry it with you wherever you go. When your hand brushes against the stone or your eye catches sight of it, take that as a Spirit-inspired prompt to pray. The second item is a half-sheet in your bulletin where you can make a personal prayer commitment. On that sheet you’ll find a circle. Write your big, bold prayer request in that circle and then drop down and fill in the blanks and establish a meeting time with the Lord. Make a covenant with God to meet with him and pray every day. Friends, God responds to hearts that yearn for Him and turn to Him. So for the next few weeks, let’s call out to God like we’ve never called before and lets give God a chance to be glorified in amazing ways. Amen.