Sunday, January 17, 2016

Praying in Colossae

Good morning, brothers and sisters! “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Colossians 1:2). We've been starting off the year strong, haven't we? Two weeks ago, we talked about revival – the new life of God sown among us. Last week, the bishop was here to remind us of the importance of community, and how we need to gather to encourage each other to acts of love and good works. And now this morning, I'd like to suggest that in these twelve verses we've just read from Colossians 1:3-14, Paul teaches us volumes about prayer.

First, Paul teaches us about the purpose of prayer. To whom are we praying? When it comes time to turn to a source beyond this world for help, when it comes time to humble our hearts and kneel and beg, are we looking for assistance from Thor? From Ganesh? From Apollo? Are we trying to wheedle a favor out of a generic god who lives to indulge our fantasies, who makes no demands on our lives? Or, on the other hand, are we begging abjectly from a stern god whose heart yearns to torment us, to make life miserable for us for the sake of his sadistic viewing pleasure? 

None of the above. Paul reminds us that when we pray as Christians, we're praying to “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Colossians 1:3). We pray to a God who makes himself known in relationship – a God who reveals himself in and through the historical and present presence of Jesus, whose character we know, we read, we experience for ourselves. He's a God who loves us enough to send his Son, the greatest treasure of eternity, to be a sacrifice to redeem us. That's not a god who thirsts for our misery; that's not a stern tyrant who rules by capricious whim. 

And he's a God who led his own Son to the cross because of how seriously he takes the state of our world. That's not a heavenly Santa Claus who forgot his naughty list when he took a wrong turn at Albuquerque! That's not the god of the most pervasive American religion, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which cloaks itself under the Christian name in so many of our churches. Nor is it the god of many religions, a god reachable by many roads. We pray to a God made accessible by his Son: no one comes to the Father except through him (cf. John 14:6).

And for whom are we praying, first and foremost? In a way, if you wanted to take the Lord's Prayer as an example – and the Lord's Prayer is just an outline on how to hit the right bases in the right order when we pray together – who's the first person for whom we pray? Is it you? Is it me? No, actually. In the Lord's Prayer, the first person for whom we pray is the person to whom we pray: God – when we pray that God's name would be sanctified, set apart; that he would reign as king; that he would accomplish all that he desires on earth among human society, just as he does in heaven among angelic society (cf. Matthew 6:9-10). 

But Paul understandably skips past that here. For whom are we praying, after that? Paul is praying for the church; he's praying for the saints; he's praying for believers. Not believers individually – like he prays for Epaphras' tired and bruised feet from hiking from city to city to bring Paul a message, and then for Apollos' sore and strained voice box from preaching and debating for hours and hours, and then for Luke who caught something from the last patient he doctored, and so on. No, Paul prays for the believers collectively – as a whole, as a community-within-a-community. All the other stuff comes later, in a rightly ordered prayer.

And to what end are we praying for the believers? For just themselves, so that they can enjoy all God's blessings, so they can meet up once a week (or less, if they've got hunting trips to go on or if there's a solitary snowflake on the lawn), savor as much of God as they can consume, and then go home to live their own private lives for their own private benefit? Is that what Paul has in mind as he's praying for them? 

If you think that, you may need to get to know Paul a little bit better. Paul prays for the church, prays for believers, so that they can do something with what God gives them – and that something isn't just for them. It's for the world. It's for their neighbors who don't yet believe, who haven't encountered the faith-fueling grace of God that saves. It's through the church community for the as-yet-unchurched community.

If you were here to hear our bishop preach last Sunday – and if you weren't, you really need to watch the video – you might remember him saying toward the end of his message: “This community then has an impact on that community that's outside these walls.” You might remember him talking about how, if we've experienced the love of Jesus, then we must live out that love with the people around us – at the grocery store, at Turkey Hill, at the fire hall, soccer practice, dance class, anywhere we go. 

And that's not just in a private capacity. We need to go as the church, as a believing presence tied together by our relationship ties that run straight through Jesus, so that we can bring the saving, redeeming, restoring goodness of God to transform the world, starting all around us here. We pray to God the Father through Jesus his Son by the Holy Spirit for the church for the sake of the world. That's Paul-style prayer! And that's how God invites us to pray.

Second, Paul teaches us about the persistence of prayer. Prayer is not something you can do and get it over with. Prayer is not a milestone, a daily chore to cross off your to-do list. Prayer is a lifestyle. So often, we complain about God not seeming available for a relationship with us during the ten minutes or so we pray over the course of an average day. But how available are we to him during the other 1430 minutes of the day? Paul says that he prays this kind of prayer “always” (Colossians 1:3), that he has not ceased praying this prayer from the first moment he had the information available right up to the time the letter's being written to tell the Colossian Christians all about it (Colossians 1:9). 

Maybe you were here two weeks ago, when we talked a bit about Jesus' story of the widow and the unjust judge – how the widow unrelentingly pestered the judge for justice, and how God will be even more eager to answer our persistent prayers. And yet so often, we pray once and move on. But I believe that if we intentionally drenched this church in prayer – prayer to God through Jesus by the Spirit for this church for the sake of our community – then if we persevered, we might just see this drenched church be flooded by the Spirit until our cup runneth over and the whole neighborhood be swept up with glory.

And third, Paul teaches us about the priorities of prayer. How does Paul start out his prayers? Does he start with, “God, please do this, please do that”? No, he doesn't. Have any of you men in the congregation ever come home from work after your wives, and you immediately asked her what's for supper within the first minute of being there? Not exactly a recipe for success, was it? And that's because leaping straight from invocation – “Hi, honey, I'm home” – to petition – “Food, please!” – isn't really relational. It isn't treating your spouse as a person who's had a day of her own, with its own struggles and trials and joys and stories to tell. It's treating her as a background character in your own day's plot, or worse, as functionally just a machine or a tool to get what you want. We do the same thing with God, though: treat him as a tool or as a background character, while we're the hero of our story.

The way around that is to postpone petition, to demote it, make it secondary in importance. Between invocation and petition comes another step: praise, thanksgiving. That's the stuff relationships are made of. It shifts the focus away from ourselves, from our wants, and recognizes that our lives are not a one-man or one-woman show. Try it in your marriage: spend more time in praise than petition. Try it in prayer: thank God, praise God, see God as the star of the show. That's what Paul does. After he names God as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he immediately starts sharing what he's thankful to God for.

And logically first among those things, Paul is thankful for salvation. I mean, just look at the way Paul describes it! “The Father … has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12-14). Isn't that amazing? We were in the clutches of the power of darkness. But God the Father swooped in, reached down, rescued us! 

The Israelites of Moses' day weren't the only ones with an exodus. We were led in our own exodus out of the power of darkness. And he reached down to do that through Jesus Christ. Through him, God bought us back from our chosen slavery; and all our sin has been canceled out, blotted away, erased, forgiven. But God didn't pull us out, give us the thumb's up, and walk off. He brought us into something new, made us citizens of his Son's kingdom, and even assigned us a portion of the inheritance. Out of darkness, into the even stronger light. It's new, it's revival! Praise God! That's how to start a prayer.

And then Paul is thankful for what he sees going on in the Colossian Christians' lives as well (Colossians 1:4-5). He praises God when he sees that they've got faith in Jesus Christ – they trust Jesus, they depend on Jesus, they publicly confess Jesus. How often do we mention that in our prayers: “Lord, thank you for the faith that they have in Jesus”? Paul praises God when he sees that they've got hope in the heavenly promise – not a promise of going to heaven, which is a very minor theme in the Bible, but hope in all the things that God has stored in heaven like a warehouse, to be brought down to make everything new when Jesus comes back. Heaven is the Lord's “rich storehouse” (Deuteronomy 28:12), where we invest our treasures (Matthew 6:20), until God raises us from the dead, glorifies us in renewed bodies, and brings all those treasures with him to dwell with us in a new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:3). 

Because the Colossian believers trust Jesus, they cling to that hope – that all God's promises, everything stored up in heaven for them, will last. They persist in that hope, and Paul thanks God when he sees it. How often do we mention that in our prayers: “Lord, thank you that they hold fast in hope to your promises of what awaits us”?

And Paul praises God when he sees that they have love for “all the saints,” for all the believers – not just the ones in Colossae, not just the ones in their little house church, but the ones in far-off cities, in distant lands; the ones who are Jewish, the ones who are Greek, the Roman ones, the Egyptian ones; the ones who think like them, and the ones who think in different ways while still adhering faithfully to the same gospel. But the Colossian Christians love them all. That's not something you could say about the Corinthian Christians, who broke up into warring denominations at the drop of a hat. The Colossian Christians, though – their love is the stuff of Christian unity. And their love isn't just a warm, fuzzy, theoretical thing; it's active. They actively seek to live in the best interest of the whole church, starting in their own little community but by no means stopping there.

To be like the Colossian believers, we'd have to show active love for our brothers and sisters at Pequea Presbyterian Church, and First Baptist Church of Pequea, and Meadville Mennonite, and at Limeville United Methodist, and Petra Christian Fellowship. We'd have to love Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Lutherans, Brethren, Anglicans. We'd have to show active love for American Christians, and French Christians, and Nigerian Christians, and Chinese, Syrian, Russian, Iranian Christians. We'd have to show active love for Christians who don't speak English, Christians who can't read or write, Christians who yearn to read the Bible but don't yet have one, Christians who need a place to stay, who need food and clean water, who need rescue from danger. Because that's the kind of love that the Colossian Christians had. They had their faults, sure – they were tempted by strange teachers with bizarre ideas, they needed to be refreshed with instructions – but in their brighter times, they had “love for all the saints” (Colossians 1:4). And Paul thanked God for that. So should we, when we see it or hear it.

And finally, Paul thanked God for what he saw God doing with the gospel. The good news about Jesus as Lord and Savior and King wasn't just written down in a book and put on the shelf. It wasn't debated over a dinner table for a moment before the topic switched to sports. The good news was bearing fruit! And it wasn't just bearing fruit in Colossae, among this little cluster of believers. It wasn't staying inside their church walls. The good news was “bearing fruit and growing in the whole world (Colossians 1:6)! The gospel had been spread, set free, unleashed! “The word of God is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9). The Colossians weren't trying to chain it, to keep it to themselves. They were out running after Jesus, following the Spirit as it breezed through streets and alleys, across hills and valleys, over the river and through the woods to the homes of any who needed to hear the best news ever! And people heard, and people believed, and there was flourishing and fruitfulness. Praise God! Thank God! Paul sure does – he praises and thanks God.

It's only after all that, and because of all that, that Paul finally turns to petition. Notice how church-centered, how kingdom-minded, all of this thanksgiving has been. And what he asks God for is no different. Paul prays for about five or six things that the Colossian believers are going to need to be a kingdom-minded church, a mission-minded church – and any church with its mind elsewhere is a failing church. 

First, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would be “filled with the knowledge of his” – God's – “will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9). They need to know what God wants. They need to have a clear idea of who God is, what God is like, what God is doing, where they fit into God's story, and how to navigate it. That's something that only the Spirit gives, so Paul asks God to go ahead and fill them with it. But the Colossians need to be open to it – studying the word, listening to it proclaimed, thinking together, putting it into practice by stepping out in faith.

Second, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would be “made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power” (Colossians 1:11). Paul isn't looking for a weak, feeble church. He also isn't looking for a church that thinks they can do it all on their own. He isn't looking for a church that's despondent, nor a church that's impressed with itself. The Colossian church needs to be reliant on and receptive of God's strength – and so does each believer. Depend on him – let his strength be magnified in your weakness, and grow strong in his strength.

Third, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would “be prepared to endure everything with patience” (Colossians 1:11). Later on, he exhorts them to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). Patience is something they must choose to have; it's also a gift that Paul can pray God to give them. They're going to need it. They live in a rough world. They might be hassled for being Christians. They might be excluded from civic life. Their children and children's children might be imprisoned or even executed for living out their faith in the public square. And in their own lives together, or their lives as households, hardship might come as the devil and his minions try to dissuade them from pressing on; or, sometimes we go through trials precisely so that we can be made stronger, be purified through God's discipline. So from all sides, there's a lot the Colossian believers might have to endure. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the most famous German pastor executed by the Nazis, once said, “No one has to go through so much anxiety and fear as do Christians. But this does not surprise us, since Christ is the Crucified One, and there is no way to life for a Christian without being crucified.” Bonhoeffer was right: the life of the church means lugging a cross through the valley of the shadow of death. For all that, the Colossians need patience. In our own day, we need to be able to endure everything with patience. Like Paul, we can pray for each other and for our whole church to be equipped to do just that.

Fourth, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would have a spirit of thankfulness – that, even in the midst of all the things they might have to endure, all the laments over their culture's wayward ways, all the suffering and illness and shame and persecution, through it all might shine joy and gratitude – “joyfully giving thanks to the Father” who brings them through it all into salvation (Colossians 1:11-12). Their thankfulness and their joy does not depend on worldly circumstances. It doesn't come and go with the chemicals in their brains. It doesn't wax and wane with the phases of the moon or the changing of the seasons. It doesn't fall to pieces when their bodies shrivel, when friendships fade or careers crumble. It does not hinge on who governs their province, or even which emperor sits on the Roman throne. Through it all, Jesus is king. Paul's prayer is that their joy and gratitude would be anchored unchangeably on heaven's throne, where the Lamb joins Divine Majesty.

Fifth, Paul prays nonstop that these believers would live in a way that follows God's design and God's desires – that with the knowledge God grants them of his will, they would latch onto it and use their God-given strength to “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Colossians 1:10). Faith isn't meant to be an inert thing, entombed in the mausoleum of our hearts. Faith is meant to live; faith is meant to work. We aren't saved by those works – but we are saved for them, and one day Jesus will reward us in accordance with them. When you know what God wants you to do, and you've got God's Spirit living the life of Jesus in and through you to give you power to do it... what's holding you back? Lead a life worthy of being written down in God's own autobiography – one he can read with a smile. That's Paul's prayer for the church.

And what's the end of it all? What do the believers need this strength for? Why do they need to press on with patience? What kind of life is at the heart of God's will? What is it that's pleasing to him? We come back full circle: Sixth, that “you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). Fruit and growth – that's what the gospel does when it spreads successfully to receptive hearts, minds, bodies, souls, neighborhoods, tribes, nations. 

That's what Paul is ultimately praying for. That's his rendition of, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (cf. Matthew 6:10). And not his alone – he always says 'we' here, because the letter is from Paul and Timothy, and with them a whole community of believers who are caught up to God's throne in a shared life of prayer. We know that the Colossian church leader Epaphras, who taught the Colossians the gospel and then came to join Paul and bring him news about how well it all went (Colossians 1:7-8), is part of that prayer life: “He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills” (Colossians 4:12).

I know I'd like to be your Epaphras – teaching, working, praying, rejoicing because of how avidly you take to the gospel of the kingdom. I want to see Pequea EC be filled with the kind of prayer that Paul models here, and to receive the blessings he prayed down on the Colossian church. Do you want that? I want that – I want to see the grace of God leap and bound as revival shakes us awake. And there's no way to get that without prayer, without gathering for prayer, without committing ourselves to prayer. 

I know some of you were able to make it to the prayer meeting we held earlier this week. I know for my part, I think that was in many ways the best prayer meeting I've attended in quite some time, because everyone there prayed like Paul, like Timothy, like Epaphras. We prayed for this church; we prayed for our community; we prayed for the gospel to bear fruit. And the Spirit of God made himself known. 

That's the invitation I want to give you. Let's continually “devote ourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving,” praying that God would open doors for us to share his word and to “declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:2-3). Because God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is faithful to his people's faithful prayers. Amen.

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