Prayer Is the Heartbeat of the Church (Acts 1:12-17, 21-26)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Italian painter Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry….”

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. (New International Version)

So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? And what do you do when you have a problem or challenge?

Good old American ingenuity, the Protestant work ethic, and fixing things is the reflexive response of many people. In the belief that we can solve anything, what typically gets left out of the equation is seeking God’s presence and power in order to rightly discern next steps.

But that wasn’t the response of the earliest church. When faced with their small numbers and a large mission to accomplish, they prayed. They more than prayed. They continually got together, just to pray. Prayer was the air they breathed. The believers understood they needed God (not simply to rubber stamp their plans) for moving forward in mission and ministry.

Christians need the vision and imagination that can only come through consistent daily prayer. Otherwise, they will not choose wisely and find themselves in a quandary of their own making.

Imagine not having to purchase what you need the most today.

Maybe you’re in a real pinch. Your financial budget isn’t budging. Perhaps you’re wondering what items you need to do without for a while. It could be that the bills aren’t all getting paid. Or maybe you’re concerned with how in the world you’re going to buy Christmas presents for the family.

Imagine having all the love you need today without working to earn it.

Maybe you have a strained relationship. It might be that you’re hurt from a marriage or a love that has gone sour. Perhaps a friendship is on the rocks, or a family member won’t talk to you. You’re wondering if it will ever be better, wondering if love will find you again.

Imagine continually having a church experience of being full of the grace of Jesus, the love of God the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe your church has a legalistic bent. Perhaps the church is withdrawn into cliques and special interest groups. It could be that the Spirit hasn’t shown up since 1959. You’re tired, weary of the chronic sameness and status quo of a stagnant place.

For all these things, and so many more of life’s problems and situations, there is good news… really good news!

Prayer is the currency to what you need most, the means of receiving and giving love, and the path to a gracious and powerful Christian and Church life.

Prayer is the heartbeat of the church. The promise of prayer still stands. God gives. We receive. But we must ask!

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you. I have appointed you to go, to produce fruit that will last, and to ask the Father in my name to give you whatever you ask for. (John 15:16, GW)

Sometimes God just gives without us asking. That’s great. Yet, God wants so much more for you and me and our faith communities. God longs for us to be vitally connected to Christ, and that connection happens through prayer. We can bank on the answers to our prayers when we:

  • Stay joined to Jesus (John 15:4)
  • Let Christ’s teachings become part of you (John 15:7)
  • Remain faithful to Christ’s love for you (John 15:9)
  • Obey Jesus (John 15:10)

Imagine having your will align with the perfect will of God.

Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered. (John 15:7, CEV)

Perhaps you are skeptical. You’ve prayed a long time with nothing happening. You’re discouraged and feel like prayer doesn’t work, or that something is wrong with you. 

There is a mysterious and mystical aspect to prayer that we will never quite understand. However, I do know that Jesus didn’t put a timetable on the answers – they will come when they come. And they will come. 

Maybe we’ll discover that what we want and need the most is to let God’s will and way be done in us, no matter what it is. Perhaps the point is to change us, and not always to change our circumstances.

We have an incredible privilege; we get to ask, without having to buy answers to prayer.

We don’t have to do backflips to get God’s attention. We simply ask. 

We don’t have to try and work to earn God’s favor. We don’t have to draw up detailed plans like some sort of architectural design to see a fruitful, loving, and powerful church. We just ask and remain closely connected to Jesus. 

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming of this day in peace. 

Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. 

In every hour of the day, reveal your good and holy will to me. 

Bless my dealings with all who surround me. 

Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that your will governs all. 

In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. 

In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all situations, no matter what, are sent by you. 

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. 

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of this day with all that it shall bring. 

Direct my will; teach me to pray; pray you yourself in me. Amen.

 –A Prayer from St. Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867)

Learn the Lesson of Christ’s Coming (Matthew 24:23-35)

“He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” Apostles’ Creed

Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’—do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather.

“Immediately after the suffering of those days

the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
    and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (New Revised Standard Version)

I live in the upper Midwest of the United States. The summers can be brutally hot and humid. The winters can be incredibly frigid and full of snow. Having worked with college students for many years, every Fall there’s always at least one international student, or a student from the South, that has never experienced a Midwest winter and snow. 

I can tell them over and over again that they need a sturdy winter coat before the snow flies. But, having never known sub-zero and sub-freezing temperatures, it’s difficult to imagine such cold when the weather is currently warm. I, or someone else, usually have to help them get a suitable coat. And even then, they shake all winter and never take their scarves off.

It might be difficult to imagine that someday Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead. Having never been through an apocalypse, it’s hard to imagine that everything will change.

That’s why Jesus told his disciples to learn a lesson from the fig tree (fig trees were abundant in ancient Palestine). When you see the tree beginning to change, know that something is about to happen. The tree will become altogether different than how you see it now. 

Sometimes, even for myself who has lived through so many hard winters, it is incredible to know that the weather and landscape as it is right now will be completely different in January and February.

The trees, the grass, the mountains, the valleys, the waterways, the oceans, the sky, and the earth won’t last forever – as it now exists. Yet, the words of Jesus Christ will endure for all time. 

Whenever circumstances are a particular way for so long, of course it’s hard to believe that seeing everything as it is right now is not how it is going to be forever. However, know that a time is coming when it will all cataclysmically change. If we are attentive and alert, we will be ready. And we won’t be left out in the cold with no warm winter coat. 

We are to be ready for Christ’s return. That means taking off the old clothes of fear, insecurity, hopelessness, and hate, and putting on the new clothes of righteousness, peace, and love in the Holy Spirit. 

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (Ephesians 4:22-25, NIV)

Concerning the great change that is about to occur with the entire earth changing…

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:11-13, NIV)

Learn the lesson of Christ’s coming. Winter is nearly here. Are you ready?

O God our King, by the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, you conquered sin, put death to flight, and gave us the hope of everlasting life. Redeem all our days by this victory; forgive our sins, banish our fears, make us bold to praise you and to do your will; and steel us to wait for the consummation of your kingdom on the last great Judgment Day, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Tension of Advent (Hebrews 11:32-40)

What else can I say? There isn’t enough time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. Their faith helped them conquer kingdoms, and because they did right, God made promises to them. They closed the jaws of lions and put out raging fires and escaped from the swords of their enemies. Although they were weak, they were given the strength and power to chase foreign armies away.

Some women received their loved ones back from death. Many of these people were tortured, but they refused to be released. They were sure they would get a better reward when the dead are raised to life. Others were made fun of and beaten with whips, and some were chained in jail. Still others were stoned to death or sawed in two or killed with swords. Some had nothing but sheep skins or goat skins to wear. They were poor, mistreated, and tortured. The world did not deserve these good people, who had to wander in deserts and on mountains and had to live in caves and holes in the ground.

All of them pleased God because of their faith! But still they died without being given what had been promised. This was because God had something better in store for us. And he did not want them to reach the goal of their faith without us. (Contemporary English Version)

God has entered history through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In this season of Advent, Christians everywhere enter a time of anticipation, waiting, and hoping. Advent is meant to stir our awareness of God’s actions – past, present, and future.

During this time of year, we need to feel the tension between what is and what is yet to come. Christ has come, in his first advent, to seek and save the lost. And yet, not all things have reached completion. Our deliverance from sin, death, and hell has been accomplished through the cross of Christ; yet this salvation isn’t here in it’s fullness. That will come when Jesus returns in his second advent to judge the living and the dead.

Which is why today’s New Testament lesson is perfect for the Advent season. It captures this awkward tension between already having something but not yet possessing it. It’s the tension of the Christian life. Celebration and hope are practiced together because we rejoice in what is, while confidently expecting what is not yet.

Throughout every era, people of faith have lived with the rubber band existence of feeling the extreme stretch without being broken by the pressure. Our spiritual ancestors didn’t break because of their hope. And the persons mentioned by the author of Hebrews inspire us to join them on this journey of perseverance until the promises of God are fully realized.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah all defeated large armies with just a few people because their robust faith melted circumstantial fear.

David, Samuel, and the prophets proclaimed truth, justice, and righteousness, knowing there would be adverse circumstances to speaking up and out.

People overcome dark times, establish what is just and right, gain what is promised, and do incredible things because they are looking beyond the present here-and-now of their difficulty to see something better. They know that their actions now will connect to better times ahead.

That’s what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did in the face of overwhelming heat in a fiery furnace. It’s what Moses, Elijah, and David did by escaping the edge of the sword. They all refused to be thwarted in their mission and purpose for the world.

There were those who willingly endured torture and death rather than get sidetracked from their purpose. They were able to do it because they truly believed that their suffering and death was not the end of it. Better days were ahead and not even death could stop it.

This tends to make our own proclivities toward giving up when things are hard look really wimpy. Far too many folks have their focus in the wrong place – trying to change circumstances and other people – instead of focusing on simply being faithful to what God calls us to do.

We likely won’t have to undergo joint dislocations, torture racks, crushed bones, catapults, thumbscrews, branding irons, and a hundred other devious devices for trying to make a human’s spirit break.

Yet, we are presently enduring the subtly evil machinations of gaslighting, emotional manipulation, mental torture, spiritual abuse, and a hundred other sinister ways of attempting to break our will and commitment to what is right, just, and true.

The present awful consequences mean little whenever we’re able to connect what we’re doing to our coming heavenly reward. If the faithful people of the past could live and die in faith, no matter the circumstances, so can we.

Someday, everything will be made right by God. And when that day happens, we will experience it together as one people of God – all the believers of the past and us together. Right now, this present moment, the saints who have gone before us are patiently waiting for us….

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may all rise together to eternal life, through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Cyber-Monday Is (Not) My Master (Romans 6:1-11)

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (New International Version)

Not many Christians can quote these verses of the Apostle Paul to the Romans, even though they encapsulate the heart of Christian theology about God, humanity, and sin. Maybe that’s why so many people have their own alternative story:

So what do we do? We get on-line and do some shopping, that’s what we do!

Should we keep on missing out on sales so that the great market economy keeps on slashing prices, so I have to compete for what I want? I should hope not! If we’ve left Black Friday, where sales is sovereign, how can we avoid Cyber-Monday? Or didn’t you realize what kind of price cuts are going on?

You were baptized into the ultimate deal. When you signed up for those holiday sale alerts, you left that old country of brick and mortar sales behind; you’ve entered into the new country of one touch shopping—a new life in a new cyber world!

That’s what baptism into the market economy means. When we are immersed into the ways of the savvy shopper, we are raised up with a whole new credit line! Each of us is raised into a light-filled computer screen world so that we can see where we’re going in our new sales-sovereign country.

Could it be any clearer? Our old way of a newspaper coupon clipping life was nailed to that old printing press, a decisive end to that miserable life—no longer captive to the mail carrier’s showing up at the mailbox!

If we get included in the on-line list, we also get included in those life-saving sales. We know that when the price drops it will eventually rise again. But never again will the end of the sale have the last word. The sale’s been brought to us; we don’t have to go to it. Think of it this way: physical stores and newspapers speak a dead language that means nothing to you; Cyber-Monday speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word.

Cyber-Monday. It’s no wonder Americans keep creating new holidays centered in sales events. After all, the impulse to shop runs high in most Westerners. Shopping can quite easily move from necessity to compulsion. Before you know it, we can be consuming without much restraint. 

On-line shopping, especially, is just so darn easy and can trigger the brain just as much as any addiction. There is often a very thin line between justified shopping and sinful rationalization of consumption. So, how do we say “no” in the face of competing choices? Whatever besetting sin is in our lives, how do we put it aside and rid ourselves of it? 

One of the practical ways of approaching this answer is to read Romans 6, not from a generic standpoint, but make it very personal. In other words, it could be quite helpful to make all of the pronouns personal and name the specific sin when sin is mentioned. For example, it could look something like this:

“What shall I say, then? Shall I go on shopping so that grace may increase? By no means! I died to shopping; how can I live in it any longer?  Or don’t I know that I am baptized into Christ Jesus and, so, am baptized into his death? I am therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, I, too, may live a new life.”

You can put your own besetting sin or struggle into the text: 

“If I have been united with him like this in his death, I will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For I know that my old self was crucified with him so that shopping or gossiping or lying or overeating or alcoholism or legalism, etc. might be done away with, that I should no longer be a slave to shopping – because I have died and have been freed from the compulsive and obsessive need to shop.”

I think you get the idea. We are to count ourselves dead to all the addictions, compulsions, and activities that we use to replace the finished work of Christ. Instead, we are to reckon ourselves dead to it but alive to God in Christ. 

The struggle against sin comes down to daily affirmations of faith that we belong to God through Jesus – and not to some other master. Yes, the daily work of spiritually affirming our identity might seem mundane, but it is quite necessary to achieving practical victory.

Lord God, as we begin this season of Advent, grant us grace for seeking your kingdom first; and our fiefdom of self, last. Rather than spending more money and expending more worry, help us invest our time and treasures, talent and tears into your just and right way of life. Free us to love and serve others with joy, with the same generous love and sacrificial care you lavish on us. Amen.