Numbers 14:1-35, The power of intercessory prayer (10/12/2009)
The UMC Membership Vow –
When we join the United Methodist Church, we vow to uphold it with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Where does that come from? Did the bishops get together for a brainstorming session, or what? It turns out that there is a sound Biblical basis for each one of these promises. In this study we will look at five scripture texts – out of dozens that could be chosen – that support the UMC emphasis on each one.
Numbers 14:1-35, The power of intercessory prayer
Mark 11:11-24, Prayer is effective and powerful.
Luke 18:1-8, Keep praying and never give up!
James 5:7-20, Pray for all reasons.
Luke 11:1-13, The Lord’s Prayer
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Moses was one of the all-time great pray-ers, so great that "the LORD knew him face to face" (Deuteronomy 34:10). Because he had a right relationship with God, he was especially effective at intercessory prayer. Even the most effective intercessory prayer isn't going to save you from the earthly consequences of your actions, however.
When God took the children of Israel out of Egypt, he wasn't able to take Egypt out of the children of Israel. In Egypt, they had been enslaved, forced into heavy labor, and killed. In the wilderness, all that started to look pretty good to them. When God guided them to the borders of the Promised Land, they whined that they were all going to be killed in the battle to take it. God decided to start over with Moses, as he had with Noah.
In today's prayer, Moses never says that the people haven't sinned and been a thorough pain in the neck, but he does argue against the plan to kill them all. He suggests that it would make God look weak in front of the other nations, when the whole idea was to impress them with his reality and his power (Exodus 9:16). Moses confidently reminds God that it would be out of character to slay these people, when really he is "slow to anger, and plenteous in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression." He begs God to pardon them.
God decides that Moses is right, and he does pardon the Israelites and spare their lives. But remember what I said about the earthly consequences of your sin? God says to them, "You had such little faith in me that you wouldn't go into the Promised Land when you had the chance. Now that chance is gone. You said you would all die in the wilderness, and you are right!" Even the most powerful intercessory prayer can't retrieve a lost opportunity to do God's will.
Mark 11:11-24, Prayer is effective and powerful. (10/13/2009)
You've heard about the agnostic who prayed, "O God, if there is a God, please save my soul, if I have a soul." And probably you've also heard about the dyslexic, agnostic insomniac who lies awake at night wondering if there is a dog. The problem these folks have is not disbelief, it's doubt. They lack confidence in God's power to deliver on his promises. This is exactly the same problem we saw with the children of Israel in the wilderness, so it isn't confined to agnostics.
Now, those of you who've been around for a while know that I am not a very good pray-er
. Personally, I never doubt God's power, I just doubt his willingness to grant my request. My prayers tend to go like this: "O God, I know you're there. If, you know, you might have the time? I'd sort of like for thus and so to happen? But if it's not convenient, it's okay, I understand." Jesus says this sort of request is not going to be granted! (See also James 1:5-7.)
Obviously, you could be absolutely convinced that your request for a good smiting of your no-good neighbor will be granted, and you would still be wrong. And God no doubt (hee hee) makes allowances for people like me who think too much and pray too little. Nevertheless, our overall prayer motto should be, "If you pray for rain, carry an umbrella."
Luke 18:1-8, Keep praying and never give up! (10/14/2009)
Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the Temple and looked around at everything. It was already evening, so he went back out to Bethany with the Twelve.
The next morning they left Bethany, and he was hungry. Seeing a leafy fig tree from a ways off, he went to see if anything could be found on it. Going up to it, he found nothing except leaves, because it wasn't time for figs. He said to it, "Never again will anyone eat fruit from you!" His disciples heard this.
They went into Jerusalem. Entering the Temple, he began to throw out the buyers and sellers in the Temple, turning over the tables of the moneychangers and the chairs of the dove-sellers. Plus, he wouldn't allow anyone to carry packages through the Temple. He started teaching, and he said to them, "Isn't it written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves"? *
The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and they sought a way to destroy him. They feared him, however, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
When it was evening, they went back out of the city. Passing by the next morning, they saw the fig tree withered right down to the roots. Remembering, Peter said to him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed is withered!"
Jesus said to him, "Have faith in God. Truly I tell you that whoever says to this mountain, 'Be raised up and cast into the sea,' and doesn't doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will happen for him. For this reason I say to you, whatever you pray for and request, believe that you have received it, and it will happen for you."
* Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 56:6-7 and Jeremiah 7:9-11.
Today's scripture has two things to say about prayer. First, Jesus tells us to keep on keeping on in prayer: a petition that isn't granted today may very well be granted later because of our persistence. (Providing, of course, that it is within the will of God, doesn't cross the will of another person, doesn't change the past, doesn't excuse you from the inevitable earthly consequences of an action, and doesn't very often violate the laws of physics. See Sometimes the answer is "No."
But Jesus also talks about another important reason that our petitions are granted: to increase our faith. One of your fellow-readers, Daryl L., had this to say about yesterday's study tip: "Long ago, Anita and I were in a Bible study group, where one of the ladies said she was now praying that she'd stop being surprised when her prayers were answered. I thought that was something we could all use a good dose of." This is so true. By now, most of you are convinced that I am a real person in part because your suggestions help determine the course of this bible study. Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and religious philosopher of the 17th century, said, "Why has God instituted prayer? ... To impart to his creatures the dignity of causality." (Pensees, #930) When we pray for something and it happens for us (per yesterday's passage), we have cooperated with God in determining the course of history. But even though we have seen our prayers answered, will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?
James 5:7-20, Pray for all reasons. (10/15/2009)
Jesus told them a parable showing that they ought to always pray and never give up. He said, "There was a judge in a certain city who neither feared God nor respected people. A widow in that city came to him saying, 'Vindicate me against my opponent.' He didn't want to for a while, but eventually he said to himself, 'Even if I don't fear God or respect people, this widow is giving me a lot of trouble. I will vindicate her, because otherwise she's just going to keep bugging me about it.' "
And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unrighteous judge says. Won't God vindicate his chosen ones who call to him night and day, when he patiently endures them? I say to you that he will vindicate them, and quickly. Even so, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
Whatever your circumstances, James says, you should pray. It's interesting that James begins and ends his letter with the importance of patient endurance and prayer. The last verse is particularly interesting: if we bring a sinner back to the right path, we will sosei psuchen autou save his soul from death. I was reading a commentary the other day that said this means, save his physical life from the earthly perils of a sinful lifestyle. Although I don't want to be too dogmatic about this, I think that's right. We usually read the words sosei save and psuchen soul/life with the idea of eternal salvation in mind, but normally in the Bible it just means to preserve one's physical life. People who live sinful lifestyles have shorter life expectancies than people who live Godly lives – this is well documented. So if you can – through a combination of prayer, example, and encouragement – draw someone back from that path, you will save his life.
Luke 11:1-13, The Lord’s Prayer (10/16/2009)
We taught our kids from earliest childhood that there is no point in arguing about facts: just look them up. Consequently, we all have a tendency to grab reference books at the least provocation. Mostly we want to prove that the reference-grabber is right and the other person is wrong, although we are all reasonably gracious no matter how it comes out.
Last Friday evening, our youngest came home from a business trip and announced that in future he does not want to be routed through Kansas City International Airport. Naturally, this led me and my husband to sing him several verses of "Kansas City, Here I Come." Unfortunately we could not agree on the words. Our youngest has probably never heard the song in his life, but this did not stop him from weighing in with an opinion. So I looked the lyrics up on the Internet, and (somewhat to my surprise) there are two versions. We each correctly remembered the version we had learned.
There are two versions of the Lord's Prayer in the Bible, one in today's passage from Luke's Sermon on the Plain, and one from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 6). Some scholars have assumed that the two sermons were actually just one, reportedly differently, and they have invested a lot of angst and inks in "reconciling" them. I wrote a paper in 3rd-year Greek comparing the two, and it appears to me that they are in fact reports of two different occasions (just like it says!). I think Jesus taught the prayer in two slightly different forms, and Luke and Matthew each correctly remembered the version that he had learned. Notice that Jesus says to use this prayer when "you all" pray, and all the pronouns referring to the pray-ers are plural – it is intended for communal use in the church. The ending of the prayer that we all know, "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen," is not in the best manuscripts of scripture; the very early church added it to the prayer.
After teaching his disciples this prayer, Jesus reiterated his instructions to be persistent.
Now, while Jesus was praying in a certain place, when he stopped, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, like John taught his disciples."
He said to them, "When y'all pray, say,
|Father, ||Our Father who is in heaven;|
|Hallowed be your name;||Hallowed be your name;|
|Your kingdom come;||Your kingdom come;|
| ||Your will be done,|
| ||as in heaven, so on earth.|
|Grant us each day our daily bread;||Give us today our daily bread;|
|And forgive us our sins,||And forgive us our debts,|
|For we ourselves forgive ||As we also forgive our debtors.|
|everyone who owes us us a debt;|
|And lead us not into temptation||And lead us not into temptation, |
| ||but deliver us from evil.|
And he said to them, "Who among you has a friend and goes to him in the middle of the night and says to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a trip has come to me and I don't have anything to put in front of him.' And he answers from inside, 'Don't bother me. The door is already shut, and my children are with me in bed, and I can't get up to give you anything.' I tell you, if he won't get up and give him something because he's his friend, he will get up and give him whatever he needs because of his persistence!
"And I say to you: ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and the one who seeks, finds, and it is opened to the one who knocks. What father among you, when his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? Or will give him a scorpion if he asks for an egg? If y'all who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
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