Monday, 17 March 2014

A time for the church to bend its knees

On Christmas Day 1992, I started going to a little thatched church, deep in the African bushveldt, the Church of St John the Baptist at 24 Rivers near Vaalwater in the Waterberg region of South Africa. After twelve years I married and moved to the Church of St John the Baptist in the United Kingdom, but we returned to the Waterberg this January and were able to attend seven Sunday services and several other activities with my old friends who make up the community at the little church. 

Here is the latest sermon from Shane Dowinton, chairman of the congregation:   

'A couple of weeks ago we had a wonderful weekend at our church where we got down to the nitty gritty of worship. We got deep into the why, when and how of being a worshipper in all aspects of life and we learned that when we worship God we are somehow drawn into His presence.

What an amazing thought, that the God of the universe would allow us to draw near to Him through humble acts of worship. Yet as followers of Christ we do have this incredible mystery that a transcendent God, the creator of all things, the author of all life, a God beyond our wildest imaginings, actually desires relationship with man which also makes Him an imminent God. That word imminent relates to the word Immanuel a prophetic word for Christ which literally means God with us. The very nature of God is both beyond our understanding in its enormity and yet near enough to know each one of us personally in relationship.

Now, last week we had a period of 40 hours of prayer and fasting where we saw the Lord work in wonderful ways. We joined with the nation of South Africa for three hours of that time petitioning God on behalf of our country. It was a time of intercession.

Tying the two weekends up seemed like a logical thing to do today since worship and prayer go together from God’s perspective, so I’d like to unpack that concept a little by looking at the purpose and means of intercessory prayer.

I spoke about prayer last year too, but I concentrated on the relationship aspect, that before anything God wants a relationship with you and that prayer is the dialogue that marks that relationship. Today though, I want to look at another aspect of prayer; the fact that through the incredible access and relationship we have with the Father, we are able to join him about his work. It’s incredible and wonderful to have a close relationship with your Father but it’s another level of maturity altogether to be allowed to join the family business.

I’m going to use the word intercession quite often this morning so, first off, I just want to explain what that means in this context. Intercession literally means to stand in the gap, to stand in between two parties, and in the context of prayer it means that we petition the Father on behalf of others. We might do that at a relational level praying for healing from sickness. We might stand in the gap as we did when we prayed last weekend for South Africa, we stood on behalf of the country before God asking His forgiveness for our disobedience as a nation, for not having Him at the centre of our government, our society and our families and we asked, on behalf of this nation, that God would intervene, that He would show grace towards us (undeserved favour) despite us. We can also intercede at a global level asking for God’s mercy on certain nations or world powers or situations.

To begin with, I’d like to give an example of someone from scripture who will demonstrate what intercession is all about and I decided that a great picture of it is found in the story of Esther. It’s an odd book found in the Old Testament that actually never even mentions God but is filled with types and representations of God and is filled with good teaching. It’s a bit long to read as a prelude to a message so I’ll read an abbreviated paraphrase by David Pawson to put us in the picture.

The Jews are in exile in Persia, assimilated into the culture but far away from Jerusalem and home. During these 70 years of exile certain Jews have risen to positions of power, Daniel is one, he became prime minister under several Babylonian kings and here in this story we find Esther. Esther was young and beautiful and queen to the most powerful king in the world, Xerxes. But just like a good Mills and Boon novel she has a secret that could mean her death; she is Jewish in a society that hates Jews.

Xerxes rules over a kingdom that stretches from India to Egypt and he decides to have a bit of a bash for all the important people in that kingdom as a team building exercise I guess. At the end of the conference he decides to show off his wife Vashti but she refuses to come so he decides after some counselling, to get a new queen. After a prolonged beauty contest, including a year’s worth of beauty treatments, Esther becomes Xerxes favourite.

Esther is a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin and the cousin to a man called Mordecai, he’s a good guy. The bad guy in the piece is a man called Haman who hates the Jews. The tension in the story mounts when Haman, who is an important official in the Kings court gets a law passed so that everyone in the kingdom must worship the king. Mordecai refuses and angers Haman who goes to the king accusing the Jews of insubordination and lack of respect for the king. He manages to get Xerxes to order the entire annihilation of the Jews on a certain date.

When the Jews find out they’re mortified and decide to fast and pray. Mordecai sends a message to Esther that she has to speak to the King to stop this or it’s tickets for Israel. Actually what he says is that it may be that she was brought to the kingdom for such a time as this which is the one line we know well from Esther!
In those days it wasn’t easy to pop in and see the king and Esther hadn’t been invited for 30 days. If she turned up unrequested it could mean her death. Thankfully, the king was pretty fond of Esther and she was allowed into his court but he also granted her a generous request “Up to half of the Kingdom”. She asks if the King and Haman would join her for a meal.

Haman, meanwhile had started to think of the fruits of his evil and had a giant 50 foot gallows erected in his garden just for Mordecai.

The night before the banquet the king couldn’t sleep so he reads a few of his old diaries. He discovers that Mordecai had saved his life from assassination years before and had never been rewarded. So he makes arrangements for Mordecai to be paraded around the city in fine robes on a beautiful horse by…you guessed it, Haman. Talk about stirring the pot!

At the banquet Esther plucked up the courage to speak to the king about her people. When the king heard that Haman was behind the evil plot he gets Haman impaled on the pole he had designed for Mordecai and the Jews are saved. It’s a staggering change of fortune and in fact the Jews are given licence to attack their own assassins!

It’s an amazing story, not least because it’s true. But imagine, if this hadn’t happened there would be no Jewish people at all, after all the Persian Empire stretched over most of the known world at that time. And if the Jews had been destroyed there would be no Jesus. So, quite important really.

It’s a great story, full of tension and excitement. Heroes and heroines, good guys and bad guys, and the right Holywood ending – happily ever after.

Now what on earth does that have to do with intercessory prayer?!!

Let’s start with the cast.

  • There is a powerful king over a broad and powerful kingdom. He holds life and death in his hands. He is revered, a ruler to be feared, and getting close to him is not easy.
  • Yet he has a relationship with a beautiful bride, his queen, who he loves dearly.
  • There is a very real enemy who is bitter and vindictive and hell bent (sorry about the pun) on destroying his enemy.

I’m sure you are getting the characters in place now; Jesus is the king above all kings. He has the power and the authority to intervene in all things relating to his people and his kingdom. Queen Esther represents the church, the bride of Christ, beautiful and prepared for her King.

The enemy, of course, is Satan who ironically also held the most important place in the court of God before his aspirations for power caused him to be cast out of God’s presence. There is even a foreshadowing of his powers being stripped from him as Haman is forced to lead Mordecai on a victor’s horse paraded through the streets as a reward from the king. “..having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them triumphing over them by the cross.” Colossians 2 v 15 Haman also does what Satan does before God, that is, he accuses God’s people before him, he tries to tell the Father that we are rebellious and unworthy of his attention and deserving of destruction.

If that is the cast then the plot ought to ring truths for us also and it does. As God’s people are assimilated into a culture not their own and subject to all that is imposed by it, so the church of God resides in the world. We are in the world but not of the world.

We have an enemy whose lies, deceit and desire to destroy are aimed directly at us. He accuses us before the king and we face his attempts to destroy us constantly.

However, through Christ’s sacrifice at the cross we have access to the King; he loves us and hears us when we call to him. His blood has redeemed us and we have the rights to enter his courts.

“We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” Hebrews 10 v 19-20  

We have favour beyond what we could reasonably expect. Esther was offered up to half of the kingdom before she had even asked anything of Xerxes, we as the church are given the keys to the whole kingdom, and Jesus said the gates of Hades will not prevail against us [his church]. [Matt 16 v 18] And although it might seem harsh that the prize for the Jews was to turn on their own assassins, there is a parallel for us as the church. Jesus said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” [Matt 28 v 18] The church is ordered, not to defend its walls but to attack the walls of Hell.

The king loves his bride, in relationship with the king we are loved and prized. We have been chosen and prepared with oil and fragrance, the oil of the Holy Spirit and the fragrance of Christ. The preparation that draws us into his favour is done by his Holy Spirit; it is in relationship that we find the King disposed to our requests.

Prayer that brings us into God’s presence.
In our worship workshop we saw that there was a process by which we can come into God’s presence, it is known as the tabernacle. It was ordained by God and implemented by Moses into the life of the newly formed Israelites.  The Tabernacle had only one entrance called “the Way” through which the people were allowed in. There was a sacrificial altar, a washing laver, there was Shewbread and there was a lampstand. These objects symbolise the sacrifice of Christ, the washing in the blood and the Word, the bread of Christ and the Holy Spirit being the oil, the fire and the light within us. And then there was a censor of incense whose smoke rose into the Holy of Holies, the place that represented God’s presence, and this symbolised our worship and our prayer.

As these images demonstrate in the natural we can take them to be truth in heaven.
Revelation 8 verses 3 – 5 says  “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightening and an earthquake.”

This passage gives us a clear picture of the prayers of the saints, that’s us by the way, offered to God and returned to earth with great power. It’s clear that our prayers reach the throne of heaven, the highest and most Holy of places and that they carry power, they reach the king.
When Jesus asked us to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he meant exactly that. We are to pray heaven here on earth.

Our original and unchanging mandate.
As I said at the beginning of this message we were designed to be in relationship with God from the outset of creation. We were made in God’s image so that we could communicate with Him, we have a family likeness, we are spiritual beings, and we were given a role. Genesis 1 v 28 says “God blessed [Adam and Eve] and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”

We were always meant to bring Heaven to earth. Sadly, in Eden we flipped God’s agenda to our own. In a tragic twist to the story, a story where we would be intimately caught up in God’s purpose for the world, we were literally and easily talked out of it. Instead, we desired the wisdom of God without the person of God; we rejected the relationship with Him in order to have the perks of power on our own agenda.

When I was pondering this thought, I realised that the Eden story is a powerful picture indicting my prayer life. Have you ever made the mistake of seeing God as a vending machine, or a genie in a bottle? Have you ever gone to God with your list; your map for the perfect future, with your plans and agendas, I know I have. It’s a reflection of Eden; we reject the relationship and use it for our designs. God always intended our relationship with Him to bring about heavenly results. Our prayer picture was always too small!

Thankfully, Eden isn’t the end of the story. God didn’t give up on us; in fact, He has never stopped pursuing us because His purpose is the same. He wants a relationship with us and He wants us to be a part of His redemption plans for our world. We are still meant to bring heaven to earth.

God invites us into relationship with Him but He goes further than that, He invites us into the family business, to deliver the redemptive acts of His kingdom to a damaged and floundering world. He asks us to partner with him in prayer, to seek him and His purposes for this world. He promises to reveal unsearchable things to us, to effect great and impossible things.

“His [God’s] intent was that now, through His church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In Him and through Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”   Ephesians 3 v 10-12

The family business is way bigger than we could imagine. Our prayers effect not just our natural world but also the heavenlies, we have power in our prayers to give wisdom to rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm.

Remember Jesus’ words “What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, what you loose in heaven will be loosed on earth.” They must be important, he said them on at least two occasions. [ Matt 16 v 19, Matt 18 v 18, ]

Samuel Chadwick once said, and I have no idea who he is!
“The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayer less studies, prayer less work, and prayer less religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray.”

How serious are we about prayer? Are we content to restrict our prayers to a 100 metre radius; are we happy with a kilometre or ten kilometres even? Or do we want to be caught up in heavens plans? Are you stirred this morning to take up your place in the family business? Do you see the authority and power that you have been given through Christ and in Christ? Do you want to bat on the front foot, get a few boundaries for God, or are you content to defend the stumps and play out for a draw.

I’m challenged by prayer, and I know how poor my prayer life is! I want to be caught up in prayer that changes things. I want to be in the family business and I’m prepared to start as the gardener. I just know that my prayer life is sadly lacking and because that is so the church is defending not attacking. If you feel like I do I want you to say amen when I pray this prayer.

Lord Jesus, we want to be caught up in the plans and purposes of heaven. We confess that our prayers are weak and powerless so often and we repent of that. Prepare us, Lord, for greater things; give us a thirst for you and your designs. Anoint us Holy Spirit to prayer that glorifies God; saturate us in the fragrance of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cry out to you in his name, teach us the great and unsearchable things of the Father that we might effect your Kingdom’s work here on earth and in the heavenlies. 

Lift this humble church to become a vessel of great treasure, heavenly treasure filled to overflowing with living water. Make us a city upon a hill, a light that cannot be quenched for you. Stir up our prayers, Lord, so that you would be seen here, found here, sought here. May we be the light and flavour that is so desperately needed here on earth. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

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