Keep Praying

I am an avid reader. I particularly enjoy reading stories about how the human spirit can overcome magnificent odds, such as Will Steger’s book, North to the Pole; Richard Bass’ book, Seven Summits, about climbing the highest mountains on the planet; Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place; and Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer about the perseverance of Dietrick Bonhoeffer facing the Nazi regime. I am presently reading a new Metaxas book, Seven Men and Secrets of Their Greatness.

We have an inspirational story in today’s text. It’s about Nehemiah, who was an ordinary, but highly motivated person. Nehemiah persevered against insurmountable odds of his day to accomplish an amazing goal.

Nehemiah was a second generation Jew. His family had been dragged from Jerusalem to live in a foreign land under the Babylonians. Now the Persians were in power, and Nehemiah, who had gifts of leadership, had worked his way up to the position of the king’s cup bearer. His job was to taste the king’s food and wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.

Nehemiah’s heart broke when, in the year 425 B.C., he heard a report that the walls of Jerusalem were being torn down and the town was being overrun by enemies. In fact, the Bible says Nehemiah sat down and wept. Eventually he gathered up the courage to ask the king of Persia for permission to rebuild the wall. The king agreed to let him go and gave him authority to purchase supplies to put the wall up. So Nehemiah traveled on a donkey to Jerusalem, which was 800 miles away.

When Nehemiah arrived, he found the city to be every bit as bad as what he had heard. One evening he went out to personally assess the damage. The next day he called a meeting with some of the locals and explained what God had put upon his heart to accomplish. So the people agreed to go to work.

Rebuilding the city wall was not like putting up a gate or a wall around somebody’s garden. It was a huge project, almost impossible. Many of the people laughed at Nehemiah and his workers Ð folks like Tobiah and Sanballat, enemies of the Jews who saw this as a threat to their positioning in the territory. They ridiculed and laughed at them and tried to discourage them. But their ridicule didn’t stop the workers, and as they continued to work on this wall, the ridicule soon turned to concern, hatred, and scorn. Then they began to organize armies and threaten to march against Nehemiah and his people. Nehemiah ended up organizing his own army of people who worked with one hand on the sword and the other holding a brick. The opposition spread rumors and threats and tried to get them into trouble with authorities in Persia. They even tried to kidnap or assassinate Nehemiah.

Not only were there problems to overcome on the outside, but problems also existed on the inside amongst the people themselves. Rich people were taking advantage of the poorer people and were at odds over the injustices taking place. People were starving because they couldn’t afford to pay the cost of that wall. Each time, Nehemiah would step in and keep the project going. In the end, the wall was built and dedicated in 52 days. It was an amazing accomplishment.

The tendency in a story like this is to look at Nehemiah and wish one could be more like him. God gave him a vision, and he developed a plan and put it into action. He was courageous and spoke his mind, a great leader and organizer. He treated his workers with compassion and was a real example of perseverance. But Nehemiah himself would say the glory belongs to God. “When all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.”

This amazing accomplishment is a testimony to the power of God at work in his praying people. He empowered Nehemiah as a leader to carry out his purposes. God is the real hero who poured out his strength, his wisdom, and his perseverance into an open heart as it turned to him in prayer. And amazing things happened. God gave him the vision and a call. When Nehemiah heard about the destruction in Jerusalem, he fasted and prayed in the presence of God. Then he consecrated himself to the task at hand as he confessed his own sinfulness and the sinfulness of his own people. God gave him a call. When he approached the king weeks later, he knew he was backed by the power of prayer. He was not alone, for God was beside him. When the king asked what he wanted, Nehemiah prayed to the Lord about the words to use before the king. The king listened to him and gave permission for him to go tackle the project.

Then, when Nehemiah reached Jerusalem, he handled each obstacle with the power of prayer. God gave the strength and was faithful in every challenge. And the finished product was a huge wall erected after only 52 days. This is a story of the hand of God working through a praying, willing servant.

This story serves to awaken us to the faithfulness of God when his people catch a vision or a passion for the kingdom, then entrust themselves to God’s leading in prayer. Nehemiah’s heart was broken by a demolished wall, so he turned to the Lord for help. God provided everything needed: vision, opportunity, strength, and perseverance to carry it out; assurance to keep him courageous, words and wisdom to inspire others.

This story reminds me so much of Jesus. Jesus prayed to his Father for strength and wisdom to face the ministry of the day. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was on his knees asking for God for strength to carry out the mission that had been breaking God’s heart Ð to save his people from their sins.

What task has God called you to these days? Do you know someone who is broken? Do you know of a project that would honor God? Maybe a church has lost its sense of purpose and is shrinking. Maybe something in the community is destroying people’s lives, and God is tapping you on the shoulder. Perhaps it is time to get on your knees and ask God to open your eyes to a real purpose for your life. God can use anyone, even a cup bearer like Nehemiah, to do supernatural things. Perhaps all you need to do is to look up and see the brokeness all around you. If so, then ask God to use you. You will be amazed at what He can do!

Jeremiah Lanphier lived in New York City in the 1850s, days of great tension when the shadow of war loomed over America: Strikes, depressions, struggling banks, long jobless lines, and violence in the streets. It was in this setting that Lanphier accepted a calling as a full-time city evangelist. He walked the streets, knocked on doors, put up posters, and prayed constantly, but all to no visible result. As his discouragement increased, Lanphier looked for some kind of new idea, some possibility for a breakthrough. Reasoning that New York was a business town, he thought maybe the businessmen would come to a luncheon. So he nailed up his signs and called for a noon lunch in an old Dutch church on Fulton Street. When the hour came, he sat and waited for people to arrive. Finally, a single visitor arrived, then several minutes later, a couple stragglers peeked through the door. A handful of people had a nice meal that evening.

The following week, 20 men attended, then 40 came the third week. Men were getting to know each other by this time and agreed to come for food and prayer every day. Before long, the building was overflowing and the luncheon had to move. But the most intriguing element of the Fulton Street Revival, as it began to be called, was its ripple effect. Offices began closing at noon for prayer. Fulton Street was the talk of the town with men telegraphing prayer back and forth between New York City and other cities. Other godly meetings were launched in New York, and other cities started their own franchises.

The center of the meeting was prayer, and it was okay to come late or leave early as needed. Men stood and shared testimonies. These revival meetings were about working class businessmen, who wanted to share the things of God. Some historians even call the Fulton Street Revival the third great awakening because it lasted for two years and saw as many as one million decisions for Jesus Christ. It all began with one man who had a broken heart for people, for his city, and believed in the power of prayer.

It is amazing what God can do.

Show Us the Father

A good friend of mine told an interesting story a few days ago. One of his friends was wrestling with the fact that a couple relatives, who were very young, had recently died. He had sought counsel from those close to him, but none were able to help. So he asked my friend how he coped when his wife passed away.

My friend told him, “When my wife died, I mourned and cried, especially when I was alone. To this day, I am still very lonesome for her. I don’t think you ever really get over the loss because life changes so. But, because I am a Christian committed to the Lord Jesus Christ, I am assured of my heavenly home because Jesus Christ died for our sins, was raised for our justification, and promises us a heavenly home. So, although I miss my wife, I know that she died trusting in Jesus, and I find my peace in knowing she is at home with God. I just have to wait out these few years before I will go there too.”

Hearing that, his friend said, “Well, that’s good for you, but we are not a religious family. We have to somehow work that out for ourselves.”

That man can work and work and work, but he will find no peace until the Holy Spirit touches his heart and he is assured of a heavenly home waiting for all who trust him.

Today is Pentecost Sunday. Our text refers to Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had just told his disciples that he was going away to prepare a place for them. Philip later replied, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Then Jesus told him, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” Philip was from Bethsaida, the same town as Andrew and Peter. They probably knew one another growing up. He was a disciple of John the Baptist, and while he was in the wilderness listening to John the Baptist preach repentance and watching people being baptized, he met Jesus. Later on, Jesus called him to be one of his disciples, and Philip became a real part of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus loved him and trusted him beyond all description.

One day, when Jesus was preaching to 5000 people, it was late in the day. Jesus wanted to send the people home with a full stomach, so he asked Philip where they could buy bread to feed them. Philip told him, “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” But then Andrew found a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish. Philip then became a part of Jesus performing this great miracle when 5000 people were fed. Jesus used him and watched his faith grow.

Philip was also present the night Jesus was betrayed. He had some important roles, even though his name is not as important as some of the other disciples.

Jesus continued in his conversation with Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ÔShow us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”

Jesus was pointing to the coming of the Holy Spirit, which is what we celebrate on Pentecost Sunday. The Holy Spirit, when he comes into a person’s life, makes it fresh and new. He directs us in life, and we have an entirely different direction from when we were walking by ourselves. The Holy Spirit guides us and comforts us when life can be difficult. He empowers us when men seek to destroy us. He is a part of our lives in an ongoing sense of the word.

On that first Pentecost Sunday, when all had gathered in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit came as tongues of fire and landed on the heads of the disciples. The disciples then began to speak in tongues (other people’s languages). Peter stood up and said, “These men are not drunk as you suppose.” He then went on to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even though they could have crucified him any minute. He was no longer a coward, for the power of the Spirit was strengthening Peter. Three thousand people confessed faith in Jesus Christ that day, and the church was established. Each of Jesus’ disciples, save Judas, became a new person in Jesus Christ, for even though they believed in Jesus Christ before Pentecost, the Gospel was now very personal and new. Philip and the rest were new individuals in this Kingdom-of-God work the Lord had called them to do.

That work continues to this day, friend. Many people are Christian, but don’t have the closeness to the Savior he wants them to have. Those people can become strong followers of Jesus to voice his message throughout the world.

Many years ago, I and another friend attended a conference on the Holy Spirit. Oswald Hoffman, the speaker of the Lutheran Hour, and Billy Graham were co-chairs of this conference. My friend and a fellow pastor was much older than I and had been in the ministry for about 40 years.

When we came to the end of the session, Oswald Hoffman announced that we were going to close the conference with prayer. Then he asked us to choose a prayer partner, so I naturally asked my friend to be my partner. We prayed together with thousands of people in that auditorium, and when we were done, my friend embraced me and said, “You won’t believe this, but first, now, I have really met the Lord Jesus! First, now, I have a power I did not have before, and I have a direction I did not have before!”

This happened right in our time Ð not 2000 years ago Ð as I was sitting beside him Ð not in another part of the world. This man had been in the ministry for many years. He preached the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday. He preached salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. But now he was a changed man, for he had a love that I had never seen in him before.

Afterward, we ate some lunch and went out to watch the Twins play a ball game with another one of our fellow pastors. At that game, my friend told him, “You know, today I have first met the Lord Jesus!” He said it so often that our fellow pastor asked him to wait until the ball game was over to talk about it.” But he couldn’t stop.

A few weeks later, a neighborhood friend and member of my friend’s church asked me what happened to the pastor at the conference. I told him we had some good sessions on the Holy Spirit, and then, after prayer, the pastor said: “First, now, I met him!”

“You mean he wasn’t a Christian before?” the neighbor asked.

“No, he was indeed a Christian before, but now he has a power and a strength he didn’t have before.”

The neighbor responded, “Well, some people in our church feel he is a little bit too pointed. I just wonder what will come out of it all.”

“Nothing, but good,” I said. “You will experience new life in your church if you just let that pastor lead you and guide you.”

I had the privilege many years later to bury that fine pastor, and at his funeral I told the story of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in his life.

On Christmas we get the Savior; on Pentecost we get the Holy Spirit and the power to believe. Through that power, we can understand Martin Luther’s words in his catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe on the Lord Jesus or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel . . .”

My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will have an opportunity to call you through the gospel as you spend time in the Word. The Holy Spirit works through that Word and will take you along the way like he took Philip and all the rest along the way.

It is true that we cannot believe in Jesus or come to him without the Holy Spirit calling us. So we pray that those who are good, strong members of the church and respected by all, but have a minimal faith, may have the opportunity to know, beyond all doubt, that Jesus is your Savior who walks with you all the way until he sees you in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I’ll Be Praying for You

During my time in the ministry, I had times when I would say to my wife as I left the house that morning, “This is going to be a hard day.” Perhaps a young person was to be buried that day, or I had a very difficult counseling session ahead of me. My wife would always reply, “Just remember, Homer, I’ll be praying for you.” How she lifted my spirits! I went forth through that day knowing I had a friend in my wife who was praying for me.

Today, however, it is Jesus who is saying, I am praying for you. This is almost more than we can understand, but with the Holy Spirit’s help, we will do our best. In John chapter 17, Jesus first prays for himself, then for his disciples. He then prays for all believers Ð including you and me. This is where our text is picked up. Jesus’ prayer is called the High Priestly Prayer. Jesus is not only praying for his disciples living in his day, but also for those living far beyond their day. Two thousand years have passed since the day he prayed that prayer, and he still prays for us very sincerely, day by day, minute by minute.

Just stop and think of it: Jesus Christ is praying for us! He is praying that we may be one, that the Father may be in us and us in him, and that we may know each other as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. He wants the believers in Christ Jesus to be knitted together in true unity so the world can see they are different. They walk with others, work and play with others, even witness to others, but they don’t elevate themselves above others. However, they are different from others because they have become one in Christ Jesus.

This prayer has a tremendous message for us today. Jesus is keeping us before the throne of grace.

When we were born, we were created in the image of God. He wanted us, he needed us, and he wanted to be in fellowship with us. We have a mind like he has, a will like he has; we can make a decision like he can, and we are eternal like he is. We will continue to live in fellowship with him as long as we walk closely with him.

But then sin came into the world and passed through every man. God could no longer have anything to do with us, for we became sinners. Therefore, he set up his plan of redemption: he sent his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to pay the price for the sins of the world on the cross of Calvary. Through Jesus’ glorious resurrection, he defeated sin, death, and the devil. Through him, we are united in his kingdom, which is known as the true Church, the Una Sancta. That Church is bound in a common faith in the Savior.

I am very thankful to live my years on this earth in the kingdom of the United States of America. I don’t know of any place I would rather live than right here, for we have the opportunity to learn about our Savior, be fed according to his Word, and attend our churches. Yet, I am even more thankful to be a part of the Kingdom of God. It may have its differences, which cause it to divide into denominations, but the Church is one.

To put it another way, let’s say a man is planning to build a factory in a community of around 4000 people and he wants to employ 200 or 300 workers. Since he is a Christian and wants to live in a town with a good school system and good, strong churches, he searches out the number of church members in the community. What he learns is this: In this town of 4000 people, 500 belong to the Roman Catholic Church. Of those, 400 are believers in Christ Jesus. The Methodist Church has 700 members, of which 400 are believers in Christ. The Baptist Church has 300 members, of which 250 are believers. The Lutheran Church has 600 members, of which 300 are believers.

Not everyone who belongs to the local church is also a part of the Universal Church, which is made up of those who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. So in this particular community, 2100 people belong to the visible church, but only 1350 are members of the Invisible Church Ð God’s Kingdom. I become a member of the Kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ, not by joining an organization on a particular Sunday morning.

Christ is praying for his Church Ð those who have faith in him Ð in his prayer. He is praying for them to be one with him. We can be one with others around the world, regardless of our age, and we can have the joy of meeting our brothers and sisters in Christ in many ways and in different places.

I met a brother in Christ once when I was invited to give the opening prayer at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas. As I opened the convention in prayer, I uttered some very simple words: I asked God to bless the convention and the choosing of the officials who were to be responsible for our land. I also asked Christ to come into our midst and make us one. Then I said, “We pray this in Jesus’ name.” Afterward Senator Howard Baker shook my hand and said to me, “You are my brother in Christ.” I will never forget those words. He was a very important leader in our land who reached out his hand in fellowship that day. We didn’t know each another and our pasts were different, but we were brothers in Christ Jesus. That is a marvelous oneness. I met a new brother that day Ð he, a Presbyterian, and I, a Lutheran, but we were one Ð for we had a common Lord and Redeemer.

In 1874, an evangelist by the name of Ira Sankey wrote the music to these words:

“I have a Savior, He’s pleading in glory,

A dear, loving Savior though earth friends be few;

And now He is watching in tenderness o’er me.

But O that my Savior were your Savior, too.

For you I am praying . . .”

Jesus is praying for us, friend. As he prays for us, and the Holy Spirit comes to us in a new way on Pentecost, we ask that he enter our hearts and draw us closer to him, and closer to one another.

For that, Ira Sankey prayed, and for that, we also pray today Ð that we may be one. Grant that it may happen and we may sense the power of being a citizen not only of the United States of America, but even more a citizen of the Kingdom of God that will have no end.

Peace to You

Linda has a life full of regret from the painful choices she’s made along the way. After learning she was pregnant, she had an abortion. To this very day, whenever she sees a newborn, it just makes her sick within.

My friend Bob is on a cancer journey. He never realized how sick a person could get from chemotherapy. But what really causes him anguish is wondering what will happen to him when he dies. He reasons that he’s lived a good life, so things are good between him and his maker. But he still wrestles with that question.

Ron is experiencing a loneliness he just can’t seem to get past. His wife passed away not too long ago. Now he can’t sleep, he can’t focus, and he can’t get started. He feels like he is running around in circles. He gets up and leaves the house, but he can’t be gone very long before he has to go home because he is so lonely.

Stan describes himself as a jigsaw puzzle missing a few pieces. He senses a sort of incompleteness like something is missing and out of sync. He has everything he could want, but something is still missing.

All these people have one common denominator. They need peace in their lives. What does their situation have to do with Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem? It has everything to do with it.

First of all, note the crowd’s words as Jesus rode into town: “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” It is almost an echo of the angels’ announcement at the birth of Christ Ð the Prince of Peace. However, this crowd had a different sort of peace in mind as they cried out. They were looking for a political peace. They wanted another king like King David who could drive the Romans out and make the kingdom of Israel a world power again.

The people’s praises were something that would be said of a new, conquering king. They were looking for peace.

Jesus staged this scene to make a point. As he rode into town on a donkey, he was reminding the people of a prophecy in Zechariah where the long-awaited savior king would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, a symbol of peace. When the leaders of the religious establishment told him to be quiet, he responded with a prophecy from the Old Testament about stones and a warning of what’s to come. He was claiming his authority. Jerusalem was going to be torn down. Those were words of judgement on Jerusalem.

Then Jesus challenges the system. Just like a king who rides into a new community and cleanses it of any desecration, so Jesus acts in that role by cleansing the temple telling them, “You have made it (my house) Ôa den or robbers'” (Luke 19:46). Then he began to teach the people the things of God that make for peace.

What was the response of those who didn’t want to hear him? You are disturbing the peace, Jesus. Tell your followers to be quiet.

There was a misunderstanding amongst the crowd as well. They believed they had a king who was going to give them peace by overthrowing their oppressors in battle. The opposition decided he was causing too much trouble and should be eliminated for sake of the public peace as well as their own. So they began to devise a plan to get rid of him. Their plan came to an unpeaceful conclusion on Friday when they broke into Jesus’ peace in the garden. Jesus did not fight back; he was nonviolent. But they put him before a court where he was found guilty and then nailed him to a cross with a sign over his head that read, “King of the Jews.”

After Jesus was out of the way, the opposition felt they could now get back to their peaceful routine. But little did they know that on that cross, their real enemy Ð not their political enemies, the Romans Ð was being taken on. Jesus carried out his heavenly Father’s plan. Sin, death, and the power of Satan would not have the last word. In fact, after he rose on Sunday and he met the disciples in an upper room, his first words to them were, “Peace.” Then he showed them his hands, his feet, and his side. Again he said, “Peace.” They remembered how he was crucified the night before, and he told them, “Peace I give to you. Not as the world gives, but as I give.” Jesus Christ came to disturb the peace not for our peace and quiet, but to give us his peace. His suffering, death, and resurrection were done in order that we could have peace with God. So that Linda, Bob, Ron, and Stan could receive forgiveness for their sins, peace within, and peace with God.

Jesus Christ is still riding into town today, knocking on the doors of people’s hearts, still looking for a hearing and for acceptance. He wants to give us the peace that only he can give. We receive that peace by surrendering to his care and leadership, and by placing our absolute trust in all that he’s done for us. Jesus’ peace is not peace and quiet for our lives, but the peace of his presence, guidance, and promises in all circumstances.

Not only does Christ want us to surrender in order to receive that peace, but he also invites us to copy him. On the night before Jesus was crucified, he was praying in the garden, garnering all the peace from within he would need to take on the enemies he would face that evening and into the next day at the cross. The Apostle Paul discovered that the peace of God will guard our hearts and our minds, as we read in the book of Philippians.

Jesus wants us to not only surrender to him and copy him, he also wants us to emulate his prayer life. He wants us to believe that he really does know what makes life work. He wants us to find great wisdom that comes when we forgive our enemies and find peace in letting go of bitterness. It is a heavenly peace. He wants us to find wisdom in turning the other cheek after someone has taken a swat at you, as we hear him say, “Trust me. Trust my words enough to do what I direct you to do so you can have the peace I have come to give to you.”

The Prince of Peace has arrived in this world. He rode into Jerusalem that day and really disturbed the peace. Why? So you and I can receive his everlasting peace.

Peace to you this day: the peace of Jesus Christ. May it be in your hearts and in your minds as you place your trust and your obedience into his hands.