Five Marks of a Christian: Prayer (Mark 1:35)Pastor Jon Truax, October 1, 2017
Part of the Five Marks of a Christian series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
Five Marks of a Christian: Prayer
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
In honor of Charlene’s 50 years of membership here at SHCC, I gave her the opportunity to pick some hymns this morning. She selected Amazing Grace, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, and Blest Be the Tie That Binds. That reminded me of a story I once heard about a pastor trying to increase the offering. One Sunday morning, he challenged his members to give a little extra. He said that whoever gave the most would be able to pick three hymns. After the offering plates were passed, the pastor noticed that someone had given a $100 bill. Extremely grateful, he wanted to thank the generous person before the whole church and asked who had donated the amount. A quiet, elderly widow shyly raised her hand. The pastor asked her to come to the front. Slowly she made her way up. The pastor then told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much and invited her to pick three hymns. Her eyes brightened as she pointed to the three most handsome men: "I pick him, him, and him!"
We are in the middle of a series called, “5 Marks of a Christian.” These are characteristics that were at work in the lives of Jesus and His first disciples, and should be present in today’s generation of Christians as well. Each Sunday we are getting a colorful card to help us remember that week’s scripture verse. I hope you are keeping your cards! You’ll want to be holding on to them throughout the series. So far we have heard about the qualities of “Joy” and “Forgiveness” that should be evident in every Christian’s life. Today we are talking about “Prayer.”
Do you believe that a Christian’s life should be marked with prayer? I think almost all of us would agree with that. We know that Jesus repeatedly led the way in prayer, teaching His disciples the Lord’s Prayer and often going off by Himself to be alone in prayer with His Father. In fact, this morning’s scripture is precisely an occasion when we see that in the Gospel of Mark: Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. If Jesus, the very Son of God, knew that He needed times of spiritual refreshment through prayer, how much more do we, His followers, need to also live lives of Prayer?
Christians ought to be a praying people, and our churches ought to be praying churches. We all know that, we all believe that, we all say we want to be doing that. The problem is, that’s usually as far as we get. Good intentions, not enough action. Lest you think I’m picking on you, let me be the first to confess my own struggles in this area. Prayer has not come naturally to me. I have had to learn over the years to pray, and I still have a ton of room for improvement. But I will tell you this: My relationships with my wife and with God were strengthened when Debbie and I began the daily practice of sharing a prayer together a number of years ago. Also, praying before each meal was something that didn’t just happen, but had to be intentionally pursued. That’s a great habit to get into. I firmly believe that blessed food tastes better!
One of the marks of a Christian is prayer. How could a Christian NOT pray? Well, a lot of Christians “pray”, they just don’t pray with any passion, conviction, or power. At one church I served, we had 600 names on the membership list…an average of 350 in attendance at worship…over 50 participating in Bible studies…and yet only 2 faithful saints in the weekly prayer group! What’s wrong with that picture?
Why don’t Christians take prayer more seriously? Do we not truly believe in it anymore? Do we forget that we are a people who live by faith, not by sight? Are we unaware that we live in a spiritual world, and that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms? Why do we assume that we don’t need to be in daily communication with God to get the most out of our relationship with Him and to accomplish His will?
The early disciples picked up on the example of Jesus by their daily practice and consistent teaching on prayer. The book of Acts is filled with prayer, as are the letters of the apostles. For instance, here is Paul writing in Colossians, according to the Living Bible “Don’t be weary in prayer, keep at it; watch for God’s answers and remember to be thankful when they come. Don’t forget to pray for us too, that God will give us many chances to preach the Good News of Christ for which I am here in jail. Pray that I will be bold enough to tell it freely and fully, and make it plain, as, of course, I should.” I think Paul would certainly agree that Prayer is a mark of the Christian life!
There was once a little old Christian lady who lived next door to an atheist. Every morning, this lady would come out on her porch and pray, saying, “Praise God for this glorious day. Thank you, Lord!” Her next-door neighbor atheist would then come out on his porch, taunting her, “Go back inside, lady. There is no God! You’re wasting your breath.”
However, one morning was different. The old lady came out and began, “Good morning, Lord! Thank you for this beautiful day!” But then she added, “God, I’m in need. My social security is gone and I’m out of food.” The atheist heard her prayer and decided to have a little fun. That night, he bought a big bag of groceries and left them on her doorstep. The next morning, he woke to find the woman out on her porch, jumping up and down in delight, praising the Lord. “Thank you, Lord, thank you! You provided me the food that I need!”
“Hold it right there!” the atheist shouted to her. “You are a fool! I bought that bag of groceries for you – not God! There is no God!”
The lady simply smiled and prayed even louder, “Oh, thank you, Lord! Not only did you give me groceries - you made the devil pay for them!”
There is power in prayer. Maybe you have heard the saying, “When we work, we work. But when we pray, God works.” It is also said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, knew the power of prayer. He expressed his belief in prayer by saying, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” Almost every Christian can share a story of a prayer being answered.
But sometimes it’s hard to maintain that kind of faith in prayer, isn’t it? Every Christian also seems to able to share a story of a prayer that went unanswered. It is possible to lose faith in the power of prayer, especially so when we have prayed long and hard over things that never seem to come. Whether we are praying for a miracle, or for a healing, or for a decision for Christ, or for a relationship, or for a new opportunity, after a while, unanswered prayer can seem to mock us like that atheist.
It’s difficult to accept, but it is a fact of the Christian life that God doesn’t always answer “Yes” to our prayers. Sometimes He may answer, “Not yet”, and sometimes He even answers “No, that’s not in keeping with my will.” But that is no excuse to give up on prayer! We must remain hopeful and watchful!
Paul, the man who continually urged the church to be at prayer, himself had a troublesome issue, which he called his “thorn in the flesh”. On 3 separate occasions, he prayed that God would remove this thorn from him. But each time the Lord answered him, “No. My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
This thorn would have been a perfect excuse for Paul to give up his belief in the power of prayer. But he didn’t. God’s answer of “No” did nothing but re-energize him for the proclamation of the Gospel, and he set his mind toward using whatever weakness he had for the glory of the Lord. Paul never once gave up on prayer, and neither must we.
If you don’t know where to begin when talking to God, how about starting with thanksgiving? God wants to hear our gratitude. There is an old legend about how God sent two angels into the world, each bearing a large basket, to gather His people’s prayers. One angel was to collect requests in his basket while the other was to receive expressions of thanksgiving. When the angels returned, one of the baskets, the one holding the petitions, was full to overflowing. The other basket, containing prayers of thanksgiving, was practically empty.
Expressing our thanks to God is a frequent theme in the Bible. Psalm 103:2 says, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” Paul writes in I Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Most of us would say that we feel thankful. But how often do we express our thankfulness? It is important here to make that simple distinction. There is a difference between feeling grateful and expressing thanks. The classic teaching on this is found in Luke 17 with the story of the ten men healed of leprosy. How many of those men do you think felt tremendous gratitude in their hearts as they walked away from Jesus, completely healed of their incurable, repulsive, and socially isolating disease? There’s no question about it – all ten of them must have felt grateful. But how many of them actually came back, threw themselves at Jesus’ feet, and expressed their thanks to him? Just one.
In this story we also catch a glimpse of Jesus’ emotions about this. He is moved, first to disappointment by the men who felt gratitude but didn’t take the time to express it, then to satisfaction by the one who did come back to say thanks.
In our prayer life, we need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Prayers of thanksgiving should come around a lot more often than just late November. The neat thing about being thankful in prayer is that naming and appreciating what God has done in response to your prayers can energize you for what you continue to pray for!
It is important not to be an ingrate! In one small town, the local post office received a letter addressed simply, “To God”. Not knowing where to deliver it, they forwarded it to the local Community Church.
The pastor read it at the next consistory meeting. “Dear God,” the letter began, “I hate to bother you, but my family is having a really tough time of it right now. The rent is two month’s overdue, my wife is expecting, and our car just broke down. Please send us $1,000 and I promise I won’t ever bother you again.” The pastor read the man’s name and one of the deacons recognized it. “He lives right down the street from our church,” she said. “This might be a good way to witness to him and show him that we care.” It was decided to take up a special offering from the church, and $800 was raised. They wrote out a check and promptly sent it to their neighbor in need.
Months passed with no word of thanks or even acknowledgment. Some time later, however, the post office sent the church another letter addressed to God. It turned out to be from the same man. This time, the letter read, “Dear God, I hate to bother you again, but I just lost my job, our car was totaled, and our new baby is in the hospital. Please send me another $1,000 so I can get these creditors off our backs. Thanks again. P.S. Please send it to me directly this time. Last time you sent it through the church down the street and those dirty crooks kept $200!”
I don’t know about you, but I feel like after having talked about the mark of prayer, that it would be a good and healthy thing to actually spend at least a few moments in prayer together, reflecting before God on how we can be earnestly watchful in prayer, on how we can express our heartful thanksgiving, and on how we can demonstrate our compassion and concern for those who remain outside His kingdom, especially as we prepare our hearts for communion...
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