Pray with Joy

Joy Dock

Philippians 1:4 “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel…”

We don’t feel joy every moment of every day, but the fundamental reason to have it never goes away. Paul says that he prayed with joy, in spite of the problems, because of his partnership in the gospel with these Christians in Philippi. We can break that reason into two parts.

First, they had a partnership in the gospel. The message of the gospel, the good news it promises, doesn’t change. For the believer, who is always saved, always forgiven, always loved, always God’s child, always a citizen of heaven, always having everything work for his good, there is always a reason for joy. This is true even in the most difficult situations.

Some loved one dies unexpectedly and too early. But we know the believer is in heaven. We know God will not forsake us now. We may be ill, without a job, struggling to survive, living in the stress and strain of bad relationships. But God does not change, his promises do not fail, and all the treasure he has given us does not diminish. We still have reason for joy.

You see, the same message we share and distribute never stops applying to us. Every time we tell the story, we get to be refreshed in its promises to us. The more we focus on the gospel, the more we are filled with confidence that our sins are forgiven, our guilt is lifted, our future is secure, and our current circumstances must be serving us. The gospel never ceases to be a source of joy.

Second, Paul prayed with joy because of their partnership in the gospel. God has not left us alone to spread the faith. Our Christian mission is not a solo project. He has united us to others who share our faith and mission.

For just about any interest you might have, you know that it is more enjoyable when you can share it with someone. Maybe you like reading. Reading a book is something we generally do alone. It’s often better if you don’t have distractions. But if you liked the book, you get more enjoyment out of it if you can find someone else who shares your interest. You want to discuss it and promote it.

Our gospel partnership is more than just a hobby. In the gospel we have discovered the meaning of life. It is the secret to a life that never ends. In the gospel we have discovered life itself.  The greater the number of people who share our faith and join our cause, the greater our joy. Because we have been given each other as partners in this great good news, we have reason to pray with joy.

Pleading Prayers

desperate

Philippians 1:4 “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel…”

Our word “prayer” is a little generic. We could call what Paul was doing on behalf of the Philippians “pleadings.” His requests contain a note of urgency, almost begging God for his help. What was it that gave Paul’s prayers such an edge?

We might sum it up with three “P’s.” The first “P” was prison. As Paul wrote these words, he was a prisoner in Rome, waiting for his trial before the emperor. That meant Paul needed the prayers of the Philippians. But urgent prayers were needed for more than Paul’s personal welfare. This could also affect his gospel ministry. Is there anything more scandalous than a pastor going to prison? We are not unfamiliar with clergy scandals. They make it hard to reach new souls. They convince some Christians to leave the church. Paul was innocent of any wrongdoing, but were the Philippian’s unbelieving neighbors going to understand? And what might the threat of imprisonment do to the people who were already members of the church?

For the Philippians, there was poverty. By and large the people who joined this church had barely enough to support themselves. They had so little to support the gospel work the Lord had given them. But they turned out to be a model congregation when it came to the matter of Christian giving and generosity.

A third “P” was persecution. Paul had spent a night in jail in Philippi before being forced to leave town. Later he urges the Philippians to stand firm and contend for the gospel “since you are going through the same struggles you saw I had” (1:30).

Our challenges aren’t exactly the same, but they aren’t completely different, either. Sharing our faith isn’t going to land us in jail, at least not yet, but our message is still counter-cultural. Our beliefs about the sanctity of life, human sexuality, the origins of the universe, inappropriate language, the dangers of money and things, and respect for authority still inspire hostile reactions. The central tenants of our faith–that we are so utterly sinful and spiritually dead that God had to send Jesus to do 100% of the work to save us–do not find a welcome reception. People want to believe that they are basically good. They think they may or may not need a little spiritual help from time to time.

This all poses a temptation, doesn’t it? We would like to tone down our more distinctive Christian beliefs. We want to fit in instead of stick out. Then what happens? To quote Jesus, we become like salt that has lost its saltiness. We don’t make a difference. As one astute observer noted, “The church that marries the spirit of this age will find itself a widow in the age to come.”

We may not live in poverty, but we also feel the pinch of fewer resources than we think we need. That poses temptation, too, doesn’t it? We don’t want to support a losing cause, so we give less than we might. We don’t think we have enough for ourselves, so we pull back from doing the work God has given us. We start blaming. We blame the irresponsible, spendthrift leaders who want the church to live beyond its means. We blame the stingy givers who aren’t very good stewards. It can all too easily begin to pull our gospel partnership apart. Then the gospel suffers.

If God has brought us to the end of our resources; if he has surrounded us with unrelenting persecutors; if there is nothing more we can do but pray, then he has placed us in the perfect position. In order to help us, God must bring us to the end of ourselves. When leads us to the place where we can see no help for our souls but Jesus, then he leads us to put all our faith in Christ and his perfect life, his sacrifice for sin, and he saves us. When God let the Apostle Paul be troubled by his thorn in the flesh, and he could do nothing to get rid of it but pray, then he had to rely on God’s power, and God’s power alone. Paul came to see that when he was weak, then Christ’s power rested on him. Then he was strong.

And when the obstacles we face drive us to our knees in urgent and constant prayers, and there is nothing more we can do but look to him for help, then God’s power can rest on us and our mission. God will answer our prayers to bless our partnership in the gospel.

A Good Steward

Globe Give

1 Peter 4:10 “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”

“Faithfully administering God’s grace” is a little free in its rendering of Peter’s words. The Greek reads more literally, “a good steward of God’s grace.” As much as this wants to emphasize what you do, it wants to describe who you are even more. When you use your gifts to serve, you are a God’s steward, a good steward who cares for God’s gifts the way he intends.

Stewardship is not a new concept to most of us. In the household of a wealthy man, the steward was the master’s most trusted servant. He was the manager to whom the owner could entrust everything else he had. Joseph was the steward in Potiphar’s house. Joseph was responsible for overseeing and taking care of everything Potiphar owned.

It comes as no surprise that God asks us to trust him. No being has ever proved more trustworthy than our Lord, who still loves us even when we have despised him, graciously saved us from our sin, and faithfully provides for us every day. What’s not to trust? Peter is right when he says two chapters earlier, “The one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (2:6).

It beggars belief that God should trust us as his stewards. But that is exactly what he does. And the trust he has placed into our hands affects more than the smooth running of a home or the success of a business. How we use his gifts to serve others, whether we use his gifts to serve others, can affect the eternal fate of the souls he died to save.

Just the same, you and I are his stewards, servants of the living God into whose hands he has placed gifts for service to his kingdom. No king has ever claimed a higher title, no celebrity has ever claimed a higher honor, than the one that God has graciously entrusted to us. We are stewards of God’s grace, and that trust is one that ennobles you and me.

Sometimes we need some straightening out on this whole concept of serving. Jesus once delivered an attitude adjustment to help his disciples understand who they were, and who they should aspire to be, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We are the servants of the Servant, who gave his life to serve us. Use his gifts, then, to serve each other.

Use Your Gift

Gift For You

1 Peter 4:10 “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others.”

Peter’s words include you, and me–every one of us. He is not referring to some special class of Christians. Over the years, I have run into people who thought that Christianity was for a special kind of person. They say, “I’m just not into all that morals and Bible study stuff,” as though Christian faith were a hobby some of us use as a pleasant distraction, and not God’s revelation of himself and how all people relate to him.

Are we tempted to use a similar excuse for not taking a more active role in serving? “The pastors and lay leaders are interested in all that stuff. It makes sense for them to sacrifice their evenings, and weekends. They have made a choice to put less into enjoying the good life. Getting involved in church is for people like that. But that’s not me.”

But if you still have a pulse, then “each one” still includes you. No exceptions. We can no more exclude ourselves from serving others than we can exclude ourselves from believing God’s word. Opting out poses a serious danger to our faith.

What, then, do we do? Remember, we have received gifts. “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others…”

It will help to understand Peter’s word for “gift.” It describes the results of God’s grace. This is what happens when God shows his undeserved love to people. At the end of this verse, Peter talks about God’s grace in its various forms. This grace has given us life-changing gifts. We need to keep this in mind when Peter tells us to use our gifts to serve others.

Think about the big gift God has given. Someone was once impressed that my father gave me a car. I have to admit that was a big gift worth thousands of dollars. I know other people whose parents have given them an entire house!

I don’t know anyone who has ever offered to give away the only Son he had, at least not the way God did. He didn’t give his Son up for adoption to a nice family that was going to give him better care than he could. He gave his Son to a world he knew was going to abuse him, because he knew that this was the only way he could rescue that world.

Jesus gave the world the purest life of love ever lived. He traced every detail of God’s law in his ministry of mercy. It was a privilege that people got to see it, and we get to read about it in action. But God did more. He gave the credit for that life to you, as though you were the one who lived it, as though it were your very own.

God did still more. After three years of selflessly loving people, Jesus gave control of his life over to his enemies. They pinned him to a cross with iron spikes, hanging him there until he died. He died in place of us, not so much like the soldier who jumps on the grenade to spare his friends (though he certainly claims us as his friends). He did something unheard of. He was like a soldier who jumps on the grenade to save his enemies. Paul says in Romans 5, “…when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son…” Jesus’ death prevented us from having to die and go to hell for our sins. It satisfied God’s justice. It gives us peace with God. It gives us life that will never end.

Someday, when Jesus returns, once more God will amaze us with his selfless giving. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them,” Jesus promised the crowds one day (Luke 12:37). If it weren’t enough that he already lived and died for you, Jesus is waiting to return just so that he can serve you more.

God’s grace, as Peter points out, has various forms. This is also seen in our talents and abilities. These are not just skills we have developed. They are gifts–gifts of the God who does all this to serve us; gifts that we have received because our Lord is so full of grace. He has heaped on each one of us one gift after another and made himself our servant in time and in eternity.

Can we, then, come to any other conclusion than the one Peter makes? “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others.” How could we do anything else?

A Glorious Inheritance

Last Will

Ephesians 1:18 “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you man know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.”

God has riches waiting for you, glorious riches in heaven. This is your inheritance, your “new-birth” right as God’s children. That sounds good. It sounds great. But it may seem a little vague. Have you ever noticed that when God describe heaven, he usually talks about the absence of the things we don’t like here? It is the place with no more sorrow, no more pain, no more hunger, no more tears, no more sin, no more death. But when it comes to describing what heaven is in a positive way, even God himself seems to be at a loss for words. Later in this same letter Paul says that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. And heaven is one of those things that defy human words, because it is more than our little brains are even capable of imagining.

So Paul tells us it is the riches of a glorious inheritance. What do “riches” mean to you? Is a millionaire rich? Is a billionaire rich? Do we even know how much that really is? If a billion people made a human tower, they would stand up past the moon. If you started counting from one to a billion, it would take you 95 years to finish. If you found a goldfish bowl large enough to hold a billion goldfish, it would be as big as a football stadium. A billion seconds ago it was 1979. A billion minutes ago the Apostle John was still alive. A billion hours ago our world hadn’t been created yet. (A billion dollars ago was only about 6 hours ago at the rate dollars are spent in Washington D.C.)

Of course, the riches of heaven aren’t measured in dollars. And a billion is something we can imagine, as we have just demonstrated. The riches of our glorious inheritance far exceed all this, more than we can even imagine. And yet, it is not more than we can hope or believe. Another place Paul writes the Corinthians, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him–but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” Maybe human words can’t describe it. Maybe our minds can’t fully picture it. But God’s Spirit has still revealed it in a way that our believing hearts embrace and long for. He makes it possible to see that our future is full of glorious riches now, and know we will live in them forever.

God doesn’t wait for volunteers. He has found us and called us to receive his gifts by faith. Doesn’t that calling speak to our situation now? I am more than the graying, middle-aged has-been with poor eyesight and a funny Minnesota accent the world sees. In Christ I am far richer than the world’s super rich, because all the treasures of heaven belong to me. Don’t we, then, have confidence for our life now as well as the life of glory to come? This is our calling. See it. Believe it. Let it change your life.

Called to Hope

Tunnel Light

Ephesians 1:18 “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you…

If God has called you, that makes you a special person. When I receive a call to serve a new congregation as their pastor, God is telling me, “I haven’t forgotten about you. I still have a special purpose for your life. I have singled you out to serve me, and I want you to think about what that means for a little while.”

Most of you who are reading this haven’t been called to be pastors, but God has given you an even more important and more fundamental call. He has called you to be his children by faith. He has singled you out to know him as your dear Father, to see his Son Jesus become your real brother, to discover the ultimate act of love for you in Jesus’ death on the cross, to receive forgiveness for all your sins, to be free from every guilty burden that has weighed on your soul, to live each moment of your life under the smiling face of a gracious God, and to know that it all only gets better after you die.

In short, he has called you to hope. You may not look any different after you have been called to faith. You don’t stretch up several inches after the guilty burden has been removed. You aren’t suddenly immune to all the world’s dangers, and the grass doesn’t turn gold beneath your feet. Yet somehow, the world looks different. Your life looks different. Everything that happens looks different. To borrow a turn of phrase from the movie The Santa Clause, it’s not that seeing is believing. Rather, believing is seeing. By bringing you his gospel, and calling you to faith, God has given you hope.

God’s hope makes all the difference, because God’s hope is certain. Everybody wants a better future. That’s why politicians try to inspire a sense of hope in their political campaigns. That’s why people from so many parts of the world bring their hopes for a better life to America. But hope that is built on human calculations and planning and projections is nothing more than a wish, because we neither know nor control the future. It is a dream that offers comfort, but it may be nothing more than an illusion.

The hope to which God has called us cannot fail. No one else controls God, but God himself controls the future. He does exactly what he pleases, and he never changes. If he makes a promise, he always keeps it, and nothing can stand in his way. If he says he forgives our sins, he does–every time! If he says he will give us eternal life, he does! We are living in it already! The hope we have in him is the only hope that comes with an absolutely unbreakable, unfailing guarantee.

Do you know what that means? It means that Lutheran Church father C.F.W. Walther was right when he said, “Der Christ ist ein optimist.” I’ll bet you can already translate the German. “The Christian is an optimist.” We know that the future is good. For those God has called, both fists full of his promises, even the parts of the future that are bad are good. We have certain hope! This hope frees us from anxiety. It makes us patient as we struggle through more difficult days now in anticipation of what lies ahead. At all times, in every circumstance, we have hope because God has called us to be his own.

The Eyes of Your Heart

heart candle

Ephesians 1:18 “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you…”

Have you ever seen the movie National Treasure? In the movie, in order to read clues hidden on the back of the original Declaration of Independence, clues that lead to a treasure hidden by America’s founding fathers, the hero of the movie, Benjamin Gates, needs special glasses with colored lenses invented by Ben Franklin. Without the glasses, all you see is parchment.

In order for us to understand what is really going on in the world, we need God’s clues. But we can’t see them at all without his special “glasses,” if you will. That’s why the Bible often describes our natural spiritual condition as “blindness” or “darkness.” We just can’t see. That’s why the Lord gives us his gospel and calls us to faith. Even then our vision is often blurred by our own sinful nature. That’s why Paul prays that our hearts may be enlightened so that we can see the hope to which God has called us.

Are you aware of the darkness of which I am speaking? You and I still have to fight it in our own lives. It creeps into our thinking in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. If you became deathly ill and suffered from chronic pain with no way to find relief, and your family was coming apart at the seams, and then you lost your job, and one of these sink holes you hear about on the news from time to time opened up right under your house and swallowed it whole, and you learned that your home-owners insurance policy specifically excluded loss or damages from sinkholes, what would you conclude?

You might start wondering what you ever did to make God so mad. You might even start to question his fairness. Your faith in his goodness and love might be seriously shaken. And you would be wrong. That is the unenlightened thinking of spiritual darkness. That’s your sinful nature talking, and it is a serious threat to your faith.

If you are like me, your first thought would not likely be, “How deeply God must love me to go to such lengths to loosen my grip on this world, and to teach me that there is no heaven on earth, and to leave me nothing on which I can rely except him alone, and to give me this opportunity to know his all-encompassing love even better.” To us, the parchment looks blank, and the darkness makes it impossible to see. For this, we need to put on the special glasses.

We need eyes of faith looking through gospel lenses that interpret everything in the light of Christ’s cross and God’s promises. Then we can conclude with Dr. Becker, “In this way the children of God learn to know that God is nearest just at the moment when he seems to be farthest away. At the time when he seems to be most angry, when he sends them afflictions and trials, they know him best as their merciful Savior. When they feel the terrors of sin and death most deeply, then they know best that they have eternal righteousness. And just when they are of all men the most miserable, they know that they are lords over all things.”

Prayers, Power, and Love

Prayer-Elderly

Mark 1:40 “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’”

After Jesus’ own prayer, the Lord’s prayer, this is as fine a prayer as you will find in Scripture. There are many things here worth emulating in our own prayers.

The man with leprosy’s demeanor and posture reveal the sincerity and humility of his prayer. He doesn’t mumble half-heartedly through something he memorized or read. Don’t get me wrong. There is a time and a place for memorized or written prayers. They can teach us what to pray. They make it easier to pray as a group. But it is also easy, and you know this, to stumble into the pitfall of putting our minds and hearts into neutral and coasting through the words without paying attention to what they say. Then we aren’t praying at all.

This man is begging Jesus for help, pleading with him. His heart and mind are engaged as well as his lips. He is on his knees acknowledging Jesus’ greatness and his own lowliness. He is not exercising a right he has earned or a favor he is owed. He is certainly not barking orders to an inferior. He is on his knees, the proper place for sinful servants like us when seeking our Master’s mighty love.

The words of the prayer, too, are an admirable example of humility and faith. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” “If you are willing.” He will submit to whatever Jesus determines is best. If Jesus’ decides it is best for him to carry this cross of leprosy longer, he will not argue, even if it kills him. It is a refreshing contrast to so many prayers which seem to have as their aim pushing God off his throne and seating us there, dictating acceptable terms to him, holding him hostage to our whims and limited view.

Nor is this surrender to Jesus’ will any indication of doubt that Jesus has the power he needs to help. “You can make me clean.” That is faith. That is complete confidence in Jesus’ power. Maybe that seems easier when the living, flesh and blood Jesus is standing right in front of you with examples of his miracle working, mighty love all around you. When we pray, we need to believe that Jesus is not just the imaginary friend we talk to because it makes us feel better. We need faith and confidence like Paul wrote the Ephesians, “He is able do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

Now Jesus demonstrates the mighty love that inspired such a prayer in the first place. “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured” (Mark 1:41-42). Jesus was filled with compassion. It’s more than an intellectual concern. It is a visceral and heartfelt response to the leper’s miserable condition.

Jesus may allow us to feel pain in our lives when he thinks it will serve us. But don’t think that he is indifferent to our suffering. Especially, don’t imagine that he finds some pleasure in it. He is filled with compassion. He gives our hearts all the more reason to respond to his mighty love with prayer.

Then he gave this healing his own special “touch.” “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” You probably know that leprosy was contagious, incurable, and that it made a person spiritually and ceremonially “unclean.” You can imagine the crowd that was watching wincing, holding their breath, shocked as Jesus’ hand reached forward and made contact with this leper’s skin. But this simple act underlines his love all the more.

Jesus saw a man who had not experienced human touch in who knows how many years. They say that orphaned infants who do not receive regular touch and affection from their care givers have actually died from lack of affection. Jesus didn’t have to touch him to make his leprosy go away. He could have simply given the command. But he gives the man this gift as well. He touches the untouchable, because he is concerned about the whole man–heart, mind, faith, as well as body. He gives what we don’t even know to ask—still more reason to respond with our prayers for his compassion.

Finally, he demonstrates the power that accompanies his love. “Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cured.” The healing was complete and immediate. He who created the universe, united God to his own creation in a human body, and raises the dead doesn’t break a sweat. He isn’t even challenged by driving a disease like leprosy from a body.

We can be sure that our prayers for his compassion will never be too much for his power or love, either.

Jesus’ Mercy Never Tires

Hands black and white

Mark 1:29-31 “As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand, and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.”

This day was a Sabbath, and Jesus had already spent a full day teaching in the synagogue. From my own experience, I know that after a full morning of preaching and teaching, there is nothing I want more than a nap on Sunday afternoon. On this day, you might expect that Jesus was ready to hang it up.

But Jesus’ mercy never tires. When they tell him about Peter’s mother-in-law, he doesn’t hesitate. He goes to her and makes her fever disappear. And it’s not like it is when your fever breaks, and you feel lazy and listless for another day. She gets up and serves the meal. In his mercy, Jesus relieved her pain, immediately and fully.

Do you note that her condition was a fever? Luke tells us it was a high fever, but he was not raising her from the dead, or curing an incurable disease, or restoring sight or crippled hands or feet–the kind of life altering or life ending conditions that generally cannot be changed. She had a fever. Have you ever had a fever? Didn’t come and go?  Yet, this family didn’t consider her condition too unimportant to ask for Jesus’ help, and Jesus didn’t consider himself too busy or too tired to help. He made the fever go away. His mercy never tires.

Do you remember when the mothers brought the babies and children to Jesus for his blessing, and the disciples tried to shoo them away? They thought that Jesus was too busy. They considered these children too insignificant for Jesus to give them his attention. Do we do to ourselves what those disciples tried to do to those children? We consider our troubles too small, ourselves too insignificant, and Jesus too busy to bother him with our little pains, heartaches, and concerns. Then we are stunting our prayer life. We are letting Satan use a false sense of humility to place an obstacle between us and Jesus’ love. We are standing in the way of our own faith, and denying ourselves the help he wants to give us in his mercy. “Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus says. He doesn’t put any conditions or qualifiers on how much, how serious, or how often.

Jesus’ mercy for us never tires. But maybe you are thinking, “Then why doesn’t he? Why doesn’t he give me some relief? My heart is broken. My body is falling apart. My life is miserable. Where is his mercy?” To which I say: “Trust him.” This is not the place to let your experience be the judge. His word, the example we see here from his life, is a better indicator of his love than what you feel. Trust his promises.

If today it seems as though he is not relieving your pain, then remember that he always gives us what we ask for, or he gives us something better. Hasn’t he promised that his Father gives only good gifts to those who ask? Maybe your present pain contains a gift that you haven’t discovered yet. Hasn’t he promised that no one who gives up houses or family or fields for his sake will fail to receive a hundred times as much or to inherit eternal life? Hasn’t he promised that you will have much trouble in the world, but take heart; he has overcome the world? Hasn’t he promised that the gift of his kingdom alone–the gift of living under him as your Lord and Savior by faith now and by sight in the life to come–is like the treasure hidden in a field, or the one pearl of great price that is worth giving up everything else in order to possess?

Jesus has not grown tired of showing mercy to you. Sooner or later, whether in this life or the life to come, he will relieve your pain, too.