Gospel praying - Colossians 1:9-14
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One of the many rewarding things in working through Tim Chester’s ‘One True Story’ over advent is the use of the different prayers which appear at the end of each meditation. And some of those prayers are really wonderful. I have been particularly moved by the prayers of Henry the Eighth’s last wife, Catherine Parr-they are so deep and rich. But of course not everyone can attain such heights in prayer.
Here is a prayer I came across a while ago which might resonate more closely with some of us:
‘Dear Lord... So far today, I am doing all right. I have not gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or self- indulgent. I have not whined, complained, cursed, or eaten any chocolate. I have not charged on my credit card. However, I am going to get out of bed in a few minutes, and I will need a lot more help after that. Amen!’
We can learn a lot about a person from the way they pray. We discover where their spiritual priorities lie, what moves them and makes them tick. In some ways listening in on a prayer is like listening in on any conversation, it provides a glimpse into the nature of the relationship, in this case, the relationship which exists between that person and God. How they communicate with God reveals to some degree the quality of the relationship, is it deep or shallow; formal or fimiliar? But also by listening to someone who really knows how to pray (that is pray as the Bible tells us how we should pray), then we can learn how we should pray too.
And if you want to know how to pray biblically and what to pray for, you would be hard pressed to find a better passage than the one we are looking at this morning in Colossians 1:9ff. As Paul opens his heart to these young believers we are left in no doubt what motivates and shapes his praying-it is the Gospel. In fact there are four aspects of Paul’s prayer life which flow from the Good news of Jesus Christ and which should characterise our praying.
First, there is Gospel gratitude. Did you notice how Paul’s praying begins with thanksgiving because of the way God through the message of the Gospel actually saves people? It is there earlier in v 3, ‘We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you.’ And so Paul goes on to say in v 9 ‘For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you.’ Now Paul has never met these people, they were converted through one of their own- Epaphras, but that doesn’t matter, all he needs to know is that they are Christians and that is sufficient for him to commit himself to praying for them. Did you notice what he says- that he has never stopped praying for them? Whenever he sets time aside to pray-these believers are in his mind’s eye has he lifts them up to God’s throne. There is this close link between thankfulness and prayerfulness. In his great kindness God has saved these folk through the Gospel and Paul is over the moon with that thought- the Gospel fruit is sprouting up everywhere including the Lycus valley where these people live. And that Gospel activity on God’s part is matched by Gospel prayer on Paul’s part. This is one of the means God has given whereby the Gospel actually spreads and bears fruit by people praying for it to do so. We are not to complain to God that people aren’t being saved if we are not praying for them to be saved.
And so this Gospel praying by Paul is not a matter of mere grind but gratitude.
Martin Luther would often quote the Latin proverb, ‘Nothing ages more quickly than gratitude’ and sadly that is true. What is it that characterises a new believer? Isn’t it a sense of wonder at what has happened to them, an astonishment of this remarkable new relationship they now have with God? But by the same token what is it that far too often characterises the older Christian? Is it not cynicism- a Stoic pressing on which is lifeless and joyless? Paul refuses to let that happen to him and he doesn't want it to happen to these believers either. And the way deep joy and fresh gratitude will be fed is by a constant reminder of what God has achieved by the Gospel as we see in verse 12ff, ‘giving joyful thanks to the Father [why?], who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ This is the miracle of miracles that God through the Gospel message is able to take people who are enslaved to Satan and sin, set them free and lift them into an entirely different realm altogether- the kingdom of light in which all sins are forgiven. Leave the Gospel behind and you will eventually leave joy behind or you will try and substitute it with some cheap imitation.
So let me tell you about Ben. Ben worked on a cotton plantation in the Deep South during the early part of the 19th century. He was born into slavery, he knew nothing else. He had seen his father beaten, his mother raped and both occurring by the same man-the white plantation owner. When he grew older he too married and had three beautiful children. But he knew they too would one day be slaves. For Ben it was one long dark night, never day. And that darkness became all the more intense when the slave owner decided to sell his wife and children to another plantation owner. And despite the pleas from the broken hearted children and the screams of his wife, he was powerless to do a thing about it as they were dragged away and thrown on to the back of a wagon never to be seen again. But then came the Civil War when the lives of thousands were yielded up in the bloodiest conflict the United States had ever known, with more Americans dying in that war than in all the following wars added together- 600,000 dead. Then one day, the declaration was made-he was free with all the other slaves. Free to find his wife and children, free to choose his work, free to walk the streets without molestation-at least in theory- word he may often have uttered but now he could experience-freedom. Now do you think that Ben would ever be short of praise and gratitude to Abraham Lincoln? Do you think that as he reflected on those dark lonely days as a slave, he would ever want to go back to them and live as if his new found freedom was an illusion? Of course not! Well, similarly, Christians have been set free from a far greater tyranny and deeper darkness and at a far greater cost-a freedom purchased not by the blood of soldiers shed on the battlefield but the blood of God’s own Son shed on a cross. And just as Ben had to learn to adjust and use his new found freedom aright and needed help in doing so, Christians need to learn to adjust to their new freedom and realise what is true of them, so… they need praying for. Could I just pause at that point and ask whether you do that? We have a number of new believers here- are you praying for them? More to the point are you praying this for them? Because they need it.
Which brings us to the second aspect of Paul’s praying- Gospel thinking: v9b ‘We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives.’
One of the questions an earnest Christian will understandably ask is: ‘What is God’s will for my life?’ And it is a question which arises out of a right motive -wanting to please the one who has saved them. And you know some folk do come up with the strangest answers to that question. There was one man who was quite convinced that God’s will for him was to work as a missionary in South America. So he told this to his Christian friend, who gently enquired why South America of all places? Well, he explained that he had been eating a chocolate bar while he was praying, and he suddenly realized it was full of Brazil nuts and he took this as a sign of God’s guidance. His friend’s only thought was ‘Thank goodness it wasn’t a Mars Bar!’ That is not the sort of knowledge of God’s will that Paul is praying for, it is something for more important and down to earth. Actually, the way this verse could be translated is, ‘asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will which consists of all spiritual wisdom and understanding.’ In the Bible spiritual wisdom is that ability to apply what you believe to day to day life; to have the discernment to do the right thing at the right time. In other words to engage in right thinking about God, Jesus, the world, which leads to right living in the world. That is what Paul is praying for here.
Now it is so important to appreciate the place of the Christian mind in all of this. Wanting to be open to God’s will is not about feeling goose bumps. Paul talks of ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’, ‘understanding’. It is obvious really. If you are going to have a personal relationship with someone and ensure it grows then it is essential that you get to know the other person- what are their likes and dislikes, their plans and purposes. You will want to know the sort of things which please them and avoid the things which upset them. I remember buying my first birthday present for Heather soon after we started going out. Being the in incurable romantic I am, I bought her a book of poems by Keats, never having bothered to find out whether she liked poetry or not- (she doesn’t as it happens) but she sweetly accepted it anyway. If I had bought her a book on compost I might have made a better impression! Well, if we are going to please God, then we have to have knowledge of the kind of things which please him, we have to understand of the basis and nature of our relationship with him, that it is one of grace, not religious works, and have the wisdom to apply that knowledge, which all comes through the Gospel do you see?
And the practical nature of this wisdom-thinking Christianly and so acting Christianly- is borne out by the third aspect of Paul’s praying- Gospel living -v10 ‘And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way; bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.’
Do you see what the goal of Paul’s prayer is, as should be ours? It is not that we should have a quiet life-peace, profit and prosperity-that is what the world wants. It is to live a life ‘worthy’ of Jesus, literally walking worthily of Jesus-pleasing him in every way- bearing fruit in every good work.’ This is God’s will for your life and mine, that we be different in that we become more like Christ. You know the Christian student should in principle be radically different from the non-Christian student in very practical ways such as handing in assignments on time, producing work of good quality, exhibiting a level of honesty and integrity not commonly found amongst others. Why? To please the tutor? Not primarily, but to please Christ-that is what the text says. The Christian father or mother should in principle be significantly different to their non-Christian counterpart. Why? Because they look at things differently. They now have the wisdom to see what the Bible teaches-that children are not commodities obtained for our pleasure, but bearers of God’s image entrusted to our care. And so it goes on-the Christian doctor, the Christian homemaker, the Christian teacher, the Christian shop worker now live as if God is concerned with every aspect of their lives; how they speak, what they watch, how they work.
This is why Christ has saved you if you are a Christian, not just so you can go to heaven when you die but that you might glorify him on earth while you live. And when this happens it is so astonishing that non-Christians just have to sit up and take notice.
There was a lovely Christian woman called Joyce Page. Joyce worked as a secretary in an office but every day as she left her office at lunchtime, she took her peanut butter sandwich and visited the local prison. ‘Sometimes we have a worship service.’ she says,’ or ‘a time of testimony or singing or an in-depth Bible study and discussion.’ When she has finished, she is back in the office working till five. Now I guess for many, meeting with prison inmates every day in the middle of a hectic work schedule would simply be too much of a chore. Joyce sees things differently: ‘For me it is a real answer to prayer,’ she says, ‘You see, I don't have time to go after work-I have six children of my own that I’m raising by myself.’ Bearing fruit in every good work means sharing Christ’s love even when it is inconvenient and tiring and, not surprisingly says Paul, this leads on to a growing knowledge of God’. Don’t complain that you don’t know God if you are ignoring his Word-the two work in tandem. The more you know of God the more you will live a life pleasing to him and the more you lead a life pleasing to him then more you get to know of God and the more you get to know of God the more your life pleases him, it’s a never ending circle do you see? It’s not just a matter of stuffing our heads with Bible truth, its putting that truth into practice.
Now you may say this is a pretty tall order-and so it is. In fact left to ourselves it is plain impossible. That is why Paul goes on to the fourth aspect of his prayer, praying for Gospel power -v11 : being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.’ Let me ask: Where is God’s power to be seen today? Big Christian jamborees? Impressive miracles? Enthusiastic singing? No. The glorious might of God which provides all power is supremely found in Christians enduring and being patient. That is the miracle -that you become a believer and keep on being a believer come what may. And so difficult is this because of the opposition of the world, the flesh and the devil that it takes nothing less than the whole power of God to sustain you. When Paul speaks of Christians having great endurance and patience the picture is of the kind of stamina and fortitude that gets under a great weight, like a log or a stone, and carries it on without dropping it, refusing to give up. Now it has to be admitted that these are not the sort of virtues which our culture extols are they? What is the representative drink of the affluent west but champagne-lots of fizz, giving you a pretty good buzz but having no nutritional value for the long haul. We live in the age of the instant not the constant.
I have been a Christian long enough now to have seen the difference. I have known those who have been like fire rockets, they flare into the sky with an impressive display only to plummet down to earth like a burnt stick. Some used to belong to this congregation. They have sung of their love for Jesus with an intensity which would move you to tears. But they never sought what Paul prays for here-patience and endurance. For them the means of fortifying such qualities -Bible study, regular church attendance, witnessing, prayer were seen as too much of a drag. And yet this is where the power of God is to be found-says Paul. But those who have taken this seriously have been able to face whatever life has thrown at them-whether it be unemployment, sickness, bereavement, divorce, persecution and have done so with a deep joy in the midst the tears- giving thanks to God the Father-v12.Why? Because they know they have a faithful saviour who has rescued them at great cost and nothing, nothing will be able to rob them of that inheritance.
So here then is a model for and a challenge to our praying. Could I ask: will you pray for each other like this? Will you pray for me like this, because I try to pray for you like this? We all need gratitude arising out of the Gospel, a way of thinking shaped by the Gospel, a way of life directed by the Gospel and empowered by the Gospel and it will be through Gospel praying that they will be made real.
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