Prayer and proclamation - Acts 4:23-31

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 11th March 2001.

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The scene is an old Spanish mission station in the middle of a desert. Tumbleweed is blowing around, and the odd dog is lying in the dust. Standing in front of it is a monk with a tonsured haircut, wearing a coarse brown robe, which makes you itch just looking at it, with a piece of rope around the middle. His hands are clasped prayerfully in front of him, and he looks meek and fragile, unworldly, unsophisticated, and undernourished, probably from fasting. He stands before two big horses, and sat on those horses are the Lone Ranger and his trusty companion Tonto. The horses look ready for action with their flared nostrils and hooves pawing at the ground. The Lone Ranger and Tonto have their guns drawn, and their faces are fixed in grim determination. The monk says: "I want to go with you." "You’re a brave man, Father," the Lone Ranger replies, "but it may be dangerous. You had better stay here where it is safe." "But I want to help," the monk says. "I suppose you could pray," replies the Lone Ranger. And at that moment, his great white horse rears up on its hind legs and with a wave of his hat and hearty "Heigh Ho Silver-Away" the Lone Ranger and his trusty companion disappear into the distance to wrestle with danger and the forces of evil, while the monk is left to pray in safety. Now be honest, who would you prefer to go with? The Lone Ranger and Tonto, or the monk. Well of course for me it’s the Lone Ranger every time, because that’s where the action is!

And I guess that is what many of us often feel about prayer. It seems so weak and helpless on the face of it. It certainly doesn’t look like that is where the action is. We’d much prefer to be doing things than spending time in prayer. And there is no doubt that in our increasingly busy lives, prayer gets squeezed. But when we turn to look at this early Christian church, we discover something else. Prayer for them was right at the heart of their corporate lives, their life together as a church. And they were one of the most exciting churches ever! And that is what we are studying this morning, this first church’s prayer life. We get a snippet of what it was like in Acts chapter 4, our passage for this morning. Now this is an incredible chapter. If we had time we would read it all. But let me fill you in on some of the details. Peter and John have been arrested for healing a cripple and for teaching the crowds about Jesus. But when they are brought before the authorities, they give such a good account of themselves that the police don’t know what to do with them. So they let them off with a stern warning, and a threat of physical violence. But when they go back to their church family they pray this prayer that will we look at together. Now on the face of it, that is a very strange thing to do. It looks so weak. If I was them I’d be tempted to get a few mates together and take the fight to the authorities, rather like the Lone Ranger and Tonto. But they don’t. They pray. And the reason is because they are a God centred church. They know the secret of success and that is to humble themselves before their God and pray. Now in our impatient, active, pushy society, we have much to learn from this first church. For in the Bible the real action is where people are praying. When the tough gets going, the people get praying! So let’s turn to this great prayer that this God-centred church prayed and we’ll discover three things. This church had…..


1) God Centred Priorities

2) God Centred Understanding

3) God Centred Request

1) God Centred Priorities

So the first thing we discover is that they had God centred priorities. Have a look at verse 23: "On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests had said to them." Now the beautiful thing about this verse is that we discover that the leaders went straight back to their own people after they had been released from prison. This church was obviously so loving that they felt right at home among their fellow Christians. These people had become their spiritual brothers and sisters, their new found family. That in itself is a challenge! And it was in that loving family environment that these leaders told what had happened. And what was their gut reaction to this news? Verse 24: "When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God." So their gut reaction was to pray! They didn’t form a committee, they didn’t write a letter of complaint to the Chief Superintendent. No, they prayed. And notice that this was something the whole church were involved in. They raised their voices together. And it showed exactly what their priorities were.

You see, in their gut reaction they showed where they believed the real authority and source of power was. They knew that they must humble themselves before their God and commit this situation to him. They showed their utter dependency upon God for everything. Now it is pretty clear when we read scripture that God expects his people to pray. Jesus assumed his disciples would pray and he taught them how to do it. He said, in the sermon on the mount: "When you pray…" not "if you pray". And Paul asks his supporting churches to pray for him. Paul himself gives many models of prayers he prays for people he is concerned with. We’ll be looking at one of those next week in the evening service. Now we don’t know the mechanics of how God answers prayer. We are just told that he does. He really does use human prayers for his work. Someone has said that when we stop praying, coincidences don’t happen! And time and again in scripture God answers the prayers of his people, and he expects his people to pray to him. In fact, one writer has suggested that prayerlessness is actually a sin, because we are effectively telling God that we can handle things on own by our attitude of not praying. But not this church. They know that they must pray. Prayer was right at the heart of all they did as a church together. They put prayer at the top of their church agenda. And it revealed their God centred priorities.

You may have heard the story of the Russian Christian who was being chased by a big black bear. And as the bear was getting closer he could feel the breath on his neck, so he shouted out to God: "Lord, if it is possible, please put a Christian thought into this bear's mind." Just at that moment, the Christian tripped on a log and fell and was concussed. The bear came up to him, picked him up gently in his claws. And raising him heavenward he said, "For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful." Well that Christian knew what was the right thing to do. His reaction was the right one. He prayed.

And the question that we need to ask ourselves is whether prayer is our natural reaction. Is it our natural reaction as a church? Because our attitude to prayer reveals our priorities. If it is something we cannot be bothered with, then it shows we are content to live life our way, with never a thought for God and his ways. We show we are self sufficient. One of the meetings I enjoy most here at St. John’s is our fortnightly prayer meetings. They are great times where we as a body gather together, like this early church, to pray and ask God to strengthen us for the fight, to be at work in all that we do. We are showing our dependency on him. We are showing that we want to live with God’s priorities. Now often I find prayer hard. Sometimes I’d much prefer to watch the football on a Wednesday night. But we must battle hard against our natural desires and put God’s priorities first. So do join us if you can. That prayer meeting is one of the most important meetings we have. And what about our own personal lives? Again we need to ask whether prayer is taking a back seat. Well let’s learn this first lesson from this early church. Prayer for them was an absolute necessity. It was top of their church’s agenda. They raised their voices together to God in prayer. And it revealed their God centred priorities.


2) God Centred Understanding

But then secondly we discover that they had a God centred understanding. A God centred understanding of what? Well God himself! Notice who it is they pray to in verse 24. They pray to the sovereign Lord. In other words, they knew the God to whom they were praying. They understood this amazing truth about him that he is sovereign, and it radically affected the way they prayed and what they prayed for. Now God’s sovereignty means all God’s majestic and kingly qualities, his ability to rule and to direct the universe as he wants. He is the God who is control, he is the Lord and no-one can thwart his plans. And the early church knew they were praying to a God like that.

First, they saw that he was Lord over creation. Verse 24: "You made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them." God exercised his amazing rule and authority even over the very creation itself. There is nothing that God does not control. Now the interesting thing about this verse is that it is a direct quotation from a prayer that had been prayed several hundred years before. It came from a prayer of King Hezekiah who was king over Judah in Isaiah’s time when Jerusalem was being threatened by the Assyrians under King Sennacharib. Isaiah tells the whole story in chapters 36-38 of his prophecy. And when Hezekiah heard about the news of the impending attack by the Assyrians, he prayed to the Lord, and he started off by praising God for his sovereignty, his lordship over creation. In the face of a massive invasion and a seemingly no win situation, Hezekiah prayed to the only God who had the power to help in that situation. And what happened? The Assyrians were miraculously destroyed and Jerusalem was spared. And it was to this same powerful God who ruled the heavens and the earth and everything in them that this first church prayed, facing a similar no win situation with the authorities against them. They too trusted in God’s amazing sovereignty. And so if this God ruled the heavens, then he would certainly make quick work of any human rulers. Do you see how comforting this doctrine is? This God that we believe in is so incredibly powerful it’s almost incredible. And when we pray we are speaking to this powerful God.

On the 20th August 1977, Voyager II, the inter planetary probe launched to observe and transmit to earth data about the outer planetary system, set off from earth travelling at 90,000 miles an hour, faster than a speeding bullet. On the 28th August 1989, that’s over ten years later, it reached Neptune, some 2,700 million miles from earth. Voyager II then left the solar system. It will not come within one light year of any star for another 958,000 years, give or take ten years. In our galaxy there are 100,000 million stars like our sun. And our galaxy is one of at least 100,000 million galaxies. Makes you feel small doesn’t it, but also incredible privileged and special! And the writer of Genesis casually mentions that among other things God made the stars. It is mind-blowing stuff isn’t? Do you understand who you are praying to? That first church did. He was the sovereign Lord, the Lord of creation.

But he’s also the Lord over history. Verse 25. In its prayer this church includes a quotation from Psalm 2. And it was well known that this Psalm was a messianic Psalm, in other words it was a psalm which talked about the Messiah, Jesus. And they quote from it. Incidentally it is interesting to note that this church recognised that God was the ultimate author of scripture, even though David wrote the Psalm. Did you notice that? The Holy Spirit spoke through the mouth of David. So what did David say? Well he said that "the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain. The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One." And sure enough that was what happened. When the Messiah did come, he was conspired against. And this church see in Jesus’ crucifixion a fulfilment of this Psalm. The rulers and the kings and the nations and the people are all seen in real life. There’s Herod, Pilate, the Gentile Romans, and the people of Israel. And the amazing thing is that it was all part of God’s plan. Verse 28: "They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen." So there were these people thinking they had got rid of this pest Jesus, when all along they were doing exactly what God had planned in eternity. God is never taken by surprise. No-one can thwart his plans. He is in control of history. Oh yes, men will be held responsible for their actions. They have done terrible things, but they will never get one over on God. He is the sovereign Lord of history. And in the verse 4 of Psalm 2, just after these quoted verse here, the psalmist writes that "the One enthroned in heaven laughs at [these rulers who oppose God], he scoffs." There they are shaking their puny fists at God, and he just laughs at them. You cannot outsmart the God of the universe, the God of history itself.

Do you see now why this church were so bold in their prayers, why the first thing they did was to pray. Because they knew the God they prayed to. They had a God centred understanding of his sovereign power. Now let me ask, when we realise that God is like this, so awesomely powerful and supreme, how can we not pray? And should we ever doubt that he will fulfil his purposes? Let’s think for a moment about the situations we face. Take for instance Project Newland. There are so many barriers in our way to the completion of that project. The enemy would love it if that building never took shape because it’s being built for gospel purposes. But do you think God cannot answer our prayers for its completion. Of course he can. He can overturn any barrier for his gospel purposes. So let’s pray in confidence that he will. Or what about some the most difficult situations in our lives. Do we believe God is sovereign there too? Again, let’s remember who we are praying to! Remember this church’s prayer. Now God doesn’t always answer perhaps how we would like him to, but we can be absolutely guaranteed that his purposes for us are the absolute best. And we can trust him completely. Why? Because he’s the God of creation and the God of history. Nothing can thwart his plans. And that’s what this church had. A God centred understanding of God himself. And it led them to pray with confidence.


3) God Centred Request

But then lastly we come to what they actually prayed for and we discover a God centred request. Verse 29: "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." Now what would you have prayed in this situation with the authorities breathing down our necks? "Lord, come down in judgement upon those who oppose you and us?" Maybe. "Lord, please stop this persecution that is happening." Probably. But would you have prayed for boldness to speak out? Insane isn’t it? Apart from the fact that it is right! "Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness." What was the most important thing that could have happened in Jerusalem? The most important thing that could have happened was that the gospel would be preached, despite the suffering. And so this early church prayed for exactly that. They were praying in line with what they knew God wanted and what would bring God and his Son glory. They knew that was the most important thing. They didn’t pray with selfish agendas, they prayed with gospel agendas, God’s agenda in line with God’s revealed will. They know full well that they were to preach the gospel. So, they prayed, Lord give us the boldness to do it. Equip us for the task you have given us to do. And I think the reason they prayed for signs and wonders to happen was that they were authenticating signs of the power of the gospel. In the Bible miraculous signs are often clustered around big events of revelation like the time of Moses, Elijah and Elijah and Jesus and the early church. They are if you like big sign posts to what God is doing. But even at these times, the word of the gospel is by far the most important thing. And today that should be our main emphasis as it was for the disciples, however much you may believe these things happen today.

But let’s see how God answered their prayer. The meeting place is shaken, a sign of God’s presence, and they are filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God boldly. Now notice something important here. They are not given a package with a label on it entitled ‘boldness’. Rather God himself is at work in them. That’s what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 5 that this is to be an ongoing experience, that the more we grow as Christians the more Christ-like we become, and the more we walk the Spirit’s way. We need a work of God’s Spirit to equip us to serve him. Very few of us are natural evangelists. Each of us who is a Christian has the Spirit of God in us. So we need to pray that he would equip us and embolden us for the task.

Now how often do you pray prayers like that? I wonder sometimes if the reason some of our prayers are not answered is because we are not praying the right things. If you examine the prayers of scripture, they are always praying things which will bring God glory, rather than enhancing the good of the pray-er. Studying the prayers of Paul is an excellent way to see the sorts of things we ought to be praying for one another. Paul’s requests like this church’s were always God centred requests. How about ours? If we are honest, how many of our prayers are self centred?

I read this prayer recently written in the 18th century by a man called John Ward of Hackney. It's a classic example of man-centred praying: "O Lord, thou knowest that I have nine estates in the City of London, and likewise that I have lately purchased one estate in the county of Essex; I beseech thee to preserve the two counties of Essex and Middlesex from fire and earthquake; and as I have a mortgage in Hertfordshire, I beg of thee likewise to have on eye of compassion on that county. As for the rest of the counties, thou mayest deal with them as thou art pleased. O Lord, enable the bank to answer their bills, and make all my debtors good men. Give a prosperous voyage and return to the Mermaid ship, as I have insured her." Hardly praying for God's glory is it? How would our prayers stand up? Let’s take a leaf out of this church’s book, and pray God centred requests.

Well having looked at this prayer of that early Christian gathering, where would you rather be? In the saddle next to the Lone Ranger, or back at the ranch praying. Well I hope you’ve caught a glimpse of why being back at the ranch is actually more exciting. Because we are praying to the God of the universe, and the one who holds the very keys of history. Does that excite you? It did these people. They had God centred priorities, having prayer at the top of their agenda; they had a God centred understanding of God and his sovereignty, and they prayed God centred requests, not wanting their own glory but God’s. May God enable us to pray more like this.

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