Keep on Praying

The famous evangelist, Dr. Billy Graham, once said, “When I am asked to list the most important steps for an evangelistic mission, my reply is always the same Ð three things: ÔPrayer, prayer, and prayer.'” He then goes on to say, “Prayer is crucial in evangelism. Only God can change the heart of someone who is in rebellion against him. No matter how logical our arguments or how fervent our appeals, our words will accomplish nothing unless God’s Spirit prepares the way.”

Prayer was a priority for Jesus as well. Even though his ministry lasted only three years, he was never too hurried to spend a few hours in prayer. He began and closed each day in communion with his Father. It was an absolute necessity.

So Jesus’ disciples made a request of him: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Notice. They didn’t ask Jesus to teach them to preach, or do miracles, or even to be wise. Consequently, Jesus gave his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, which serves us well as a pattern for prayer. In it he tells us to turn to God as one of his disciples. Talk to him as your Heavenly Father who loves you. Tell him how you want his name to be hallowed and held up as special, especially in this world. Talk about his mission, and ask him to make you receptive to serving him. Turn to him with your needs for provision, and ask for pardon from your sins as we pardon others who hurt us. Ask God to protect you and save you from temptation and evil.

Then Jesus gave them some theology to live by, which is where I want to spend most of our time today. Jesus teaches them about the God who hears their prayers and is good and faithful. He begins by describing the scenario of a man who receives an unexpected visitor in the middle of the night. Societal hospitality demanded visitors should be fed. However, he was out of bread, so he went to his friend down the street and calls out to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves. I’ve got a friend who showed up unexpectedly and I need to serve him a meal.”

Imagine this friend responding in a rather grumpy way, “ÔDon’t bother me now. The door’s bolted, and my kids are asleep. I can’t give you anything.’ Jesus continues with his story, “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

He then goes on to say, “So I say to you, Ask and you will be given, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened.'” It’s as if Jesus is saying, if you can expect a friend down the road to give you bread in the middle of the night, surely you can rest assured that your Father in heaven, who loves you so much, will treat you with more respect and faithfulness than even the best of friends. He is far greater and more faithful than any friend you can possibly have. Rest assured that, when you turn to him, he will answer your prayers.

Jesus then repeats: ask, seek, knock. Everyone who asks, everyone who seeks, everyone who knocks. Keep on knocking, keep on asking, keep on seeking. Your Father knows what is best for you and will answer with what is best.

He then offers up another picture. Imagine your child comes to you and asks for a fish. Would you give him a snake? If he asked for an egg, would you trick him with a scorpion? Of course, not. So then, if you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to you?

Followers of Jesus are God’s children, and they can be confident that their Father knows them and will supply their needs with what is best for them. In fact, our Heavenly Father gives his Holy Spirit to empower and guide them to serve as his disciple.

Sitting beside me at my computer, I have Martin Luther’s Sacristy Prayer, which reminds me to pray for power in my preaching. It reads,

“O Lord God, dear Father in heaven, I am indeed unworthy of the office and ministry in which I am to make known Thy glory and to nurture and to serve this congregation. But since Thou hast appointed me to be a pastor and teacher, and the people are in need of the teachings and the instructions, O be Thou my helper and let Thy holy angels attend me. Then if Thou art pleased to accomplish anything through me, to Thy glory and not to mine or to the praise of men, grant me, out of Thy pure grace and mercy a right understanding of Thy Word and that I may also diligently perform it. O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Thou Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, send Thy Holy Spirit that He may work with me, yea, that He may work in me to will and to do through Thy divine strength according to Thy good pleasure. Amen.”

I take that prayer seriously. Before each service in which I will preach, I ask someone to join me in asking God’s power to stir the Holy Spirit in me as I preach. When we ask, “Your will be done,” we know he will give us his Holy Spirit and God’s Word will be shared. As we face situations in life, he fills us up with himself.

We often use an old saying around our church that goes like this: God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!

That’s pretty much what Jesus is telling his disciples in the text. He is committing them to a life of prayer. He tells them what to ask for in the Lord’s Prayer, and then reminds them that the hearer of prayer makes it work. He is good and he is faithful. That’s the power of prayer at work.

Like a child confidently goes to his loving father, we can confidently go to our loving Father. He will answer Ð not always the way we want it answered but Ð with what is best for us.

One of my favorite Lutheran writers, Gerhard Frost, wrote a little sonnet called, “I Thank You, Lord” about his prayer life. It goes like this:

Thank you, Lord, for always answering prayer,

but not indulging my every petty, private give-me.

Thank you for winnowing and refining, vetoing and delaying, refusing and revising.

Thank you for being God and never less, for freeing me for wide horizons,

for protecting me from my limited vision and wayward will.

Thank you for foiling my every effort to unseat you and make myself king.

Thank you for keeping it safe for me to pray.

We have a Father who knows best. Jesus encourages us to keep asking, keep knocking, keep seeking. Keep praying the prayer he has given us. Whatever the circumstance, whether we need to make a decision or ask for forgiveness, daily bread, or for God’s will to be done on earth, pray. Pray. Don’t give into the temptation to skip prayer because you are too busy. It is the most powerful weapon God has given us against the evil one.

I once read that the biggest concern of Satan is to keep the saints from prayer. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil and mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray. Jesus tells us to persist in it. Keep on asking. Keep on seeking. Keep on knocking.

Jesus has drawn in this text the picture of a faithful friend and a loving Father. If that isn’t enough, consider the picture of a cross with the Son of God hanging upon it. Our Father saw our greatest need is to be safe from sin and death. Out of love he gave his all. He went all out to make you his child. That’s how good and faithful he is. Surely we can trust that kind of love in our daily walk with him as we serve him in this world.

It’s time to pray.

What Were They Talking About?

Today’s text finds Jesus visiting Martha and Mary in their home. Plans were being made for a large crowd of people who would want to listen to the Master. Mary sat at his feet while Martha worked about the house getting ready for this great event. Finally Martha came in and said to Jesus, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?”

Jesus then offered these great words, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” What do you think that Jesus and Mary were talking about that made them so involved in this conversation that they simply did not want to break away for anything? I don’t know; nobody knows.

If Jesus physically walked into your home, what would you ask him? I asked this question to some people (all Christian) who were sitting around the dinner table one evening. One lady, who is very committed in her faith and a lovely person, said, “I would like to ask him why it is that unbelievers are sometimes treated better than believers? My daughter and son-in-law have looked everywhere to find work, but are unsuccessful. I just can’t figure it out.”

Well, I imagine Jesus might bounce back with an answer like this: I never promised my followers that life would be easy. Christianity does not work that way. However, I understand that, because our loved ones are very close to us, we don’t like to see them hurting. So let me give you a couple of other ideas that will be good for them to pursue.

It is good to ponder the questions we want to ask Jesus. I wonder if we might already have the answers, but simply do not want to accept them.

Then the morning after that dinner discussion, a lady came to our apartment to do some housework. She is a very outgoing, confessing Christian, so I asked her my question Ð What would you say to Jesus if he visited your house? Her answer was a bit more philosophical. “I would ask what Jesus’ will is for my life. Can I serve God in a better way than what I am doing now?”

Those kinds of discussions can last for a long time. Jesus and Mary were having that kind of discussion in her home.

If Jesus were to visit my home, I would ask for more insight on some Bible passages. I’ve read them over and over again, I’ve preached on them over and over again, I’ve read commentary after commentary, but would still like to have more understanding about them.

One of these verses is John 8:32: “If you abide in my Word, you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Still I wonder, what is the truth? I read my Bible on a regular basis, and I understand the basics of the Christian faith Ð I am a sinner, but Jesus Christ came into this world to suffer and die as a payment for my sins. I know and experience every day how this truth sets me free, but is there more to it? Perhaps when we get to heaven, we will know more about some of these mysteries.

Another portion of scripture with which I need help is found in John 11, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus had been a great man of God, so the people were very sad when he died. When he had been dead for four days, Jesus returned to Bethany. Jesus saw how sad they were that their brother in Christ was dead and not going to be among them. He watched them weep and his heart was moved. Here John catches the emotion as he puts into the Gospel account, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

My question to Jesus would be, “Why did you weep? I know you love us. I know you are the Son of God and can do anything. Were you sorrowing for the people’s broken hearts? The emotional response of your love for us draws me closer to you, because you know when I really hurt, and you hurt with me. I know that when I weep, you weep also.”

The answers to these questions are not something we will know while we are on this earth, I am sure. They are questions I would like to ask Jesus someday when I sit in his presence. But while we are on this earth, there are things we can do to learn more about the questions we have.

¥ Become a good student of the Word of God. Study the Bible, learn what the commentators, who have a great deal of theological education, have to say.

¥ We can learn from one another. Join a Bible study with fellow believers. I am a great believer in organized Bible studies in the church.

I think if I were to go back into the ministry, I would try to have at least fifty Bible studies going on at the same time. Those groups could have long discussions on subjects such as Ð What’s going to happen to me if I die if I’m not a believer in Christ.

All we know is what Jesus said, that only those who trust him are going to be with him in heaven. “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the father but by me”(John 14:6). People often want to throw this passage out of their Bible. They want to believe every religion holds a way to the kingdom of God. However, the Bible says just the opposite.

Perhaps we can gain some insights from other people who have had experiences with death, bedside conversions, and all the rest that goes along with it. We find people who are very outspoken in their belief that nobody is lost. However, as they draw close to the day when they will see Jesus face to face, they begin to understand that he has taught differently, and life’s experiences help them change their understanding of salvation.

I have known and believed this for many years, but I experienced it in a different way not long ago when I stood by the bed of my wife and watched her breathe her last breath. I knew she was going to heaven, and I would not have her anymore. I have watched many people die, but this situation was different because she was my loved one.

What do you do about it? You accept it. That night my family and I had a word of prayer before we went home. We knew that our mother and wife was in the hands of the Lord, and we would continue to live and trust Jesus until that hour when we could join her.

You can’t get the entire experience in the theological seminary. It is something between you and the Lord. But we thank God that we have these experiences and can share them, because through sharing, we can help someone else take a better look at what will happen when they breathe their last. They can then ask questions, such as Ð What will happen I breath my last? What will my deathbed experience be? Will it be filled with anger that I was cheated out of a few years I could have lived if the doctor hadn’t made a mistake or that something had happened?

We don’t have all the answers, but we are seeking them. We seek them first from the Lord Jesus as he speaks to us in the Word of God. We go to Bible studies and ponder these great truths in order to have more light to share with one another. We share our experiences of how Jesus Christ carried us through a difficulty. Remember that St. Paul didn’t have all of the answers either. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).

That is what the Lord Jesus has to say to us today, wherever he meets us.

Hurting People

A hymn, written 150 years ago but still sung today, delivers a message we all need to hear. It goes like this:

“There is a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.

There is a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.

For the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind.

And the heart of the eternal is wonderfully kind.”

That hymn really catches the message Jesus is trying to bring us in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is a very popular part of the scriptures. In this parable, Jesus is not talking about the way of salvation. Instead, he’s telling us how a Christian should act regarding those who are hurting and in real need.

The Good Samaritan story has passed into folk lore. Today we use the term “Good Samaritan” when we think of helping those in need. We have a Samaritan nursing home, a Samaritan children’s home, and a Samaritan organization for other kinds of people who need real help. A Samaritan has come to be known as one who helps others in need. William Barclay has given us some good thoughts on this subject, and so I share them with you today.

As we look at the characters in the story, we first see the traveler. A person could look at him and think, “Well, he was in desperate shape. People certainly should have taken care of him. However, he really caused this to happen himself. He knew the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was infested with bandits, and anyone traveling the road needed to take real care. Most people did not travel alone, but with a group. But not this guy. Because he was so careless, it was really his own fault that he was beaten. And if he had died, he was the one who caused his death.”

Then we find the priest who looks at the man and says, “Oh my, the poor fellow. I want to help him, but I can’t because if I as much as touch a person like that, I will be unclean too. I have some appointments to serve in the temple.” Ceremony to him was more important. Serving as a priest in the temple meant he had to be there on time.

Then there was a Levite, who also served at the temple. He thought of safety first and passed on the other side of the road. This person has done things that caused himself harm; let him have what comes his way.

But then came a Samaritan who put ointment on the man’s wounds. He, too, might have had an appointment somewhere, but chose instead to care for this poor man in need.

We can assume the Samaritan was an honest man who had good credit, for after he had done as much as he could, he took the man to an inn to be treated further. He even paid the man in charge to take care of him and promised to pay any extra costs. The inn keeper must have known the Samaritan was an honest man, for he trusted him to be true to his word.

The Samaritan was willing to give his all to restore that man back to health. He was a man of action, not just words, and had mercy on the beaten man.

Then Jesus asks an expert in the law a question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

This is the point in our text that is before us: Millions of people are hurting in this world. Who is going to take care of them? Some have physical needs. We hear from our missionaries about the terrible need for food in certain parts of the mission field, especially in Africa. Some hardly have any clothes and no place to lay their head at night. And so we send people overseas to help those who were hurting get a better way of life. We give them food and clothing. We provide shelter for them. We help in any way we can. While we have not done everything we could do, the church has done a good job of helping those in need Ð not only in Africa, but also in our own neighborhoods as we provide clothing, food, and other resources. This is the burden and the task of the church.

Some people have money to buy their needs, but their needs cannot be bought. The facility where I live is a home for retired people, a beautiful home. We get fine food there. They watch over us. If we are sick, they care for us. If we get extra sick, they put us in another home so nurses and doctors can come more frequently and care for us. This has been done in one way or another by the church.

When I first came to Cedar Falls, we tried to find a place for the elderly in our congregation who were sick and did not know where to go. We tried to find homes for them that were very good and did not charge a considerable amount of money.

Soon we decided to build a home for the aged. When the institution was built, it was soon full of people, not just from our church, but from all over. Many of the residents were not even church people, but because Christ had told the parable of the Good Samaritan, we cared for them. Later another church did the same thing, and today we have many in our town caring for the physical needs of those who need it.

People have other needs as well, such as spiritual needs. Many do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. They do not know what’s going to happen to them when they breathe their last breath. No one has ever really talked to them about the way of salvation. That is the primary job of the church. These people are really in need. They may have financial needs, or they may be some of the wealthiest and best educated people in our communities, but they haven’t gotten serious about their faith. If you know a person like that, why don’t you talk to them? I think you’ll find they have some real concerns about death.

During these past few weeks, my family has experienced a real encounter with death. My wife went to her heavenly home. How good it was that as she breathed her last, she went to be with the Lord. The church has made it a top concern for many years that we are prepared to go to heaven.

Think of your friends who may have plenty of money to provide for their human needs, but do not know what will happen when their last day comes. This is the mission of the Christian faith.

We are thankful for the churches on the street corners telling the story of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and working to provide for our physical needs too. So we sing the old hymn,

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.

There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.”

Yes, even though we sometimes may want to set them aside, remember that our Lord has a special concern for hurting people.

Jesus’ Evangelism Program

Once in a while someone will ask what was the most exciting experience I had during my years serving as a pastor. I had many exciting experiences. We did a lot of building, and it was exciting to watch those buildings go up. On Wednesday evenings during the school year, I taught the ninth grade confirmation class. What a joy it was to outline the way of salvation for them and teach them what the Christian life is all about.

However, I would have to say the most exciting experience I had was watching the lives of people change when they entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I mean really change. Jesus taught that we were to proclaim the message of salvation to the world. It is a simple story Ð God has created us in his image, but we resisted, turned from him and sinned. Since God can have nothing to do with sin, he had to discard us for the time being. So he set up his plan of redemption Ð he sent his only begotten Son into this world to die on the cross of Calvary for our sins. Anyone who trusts Jesus as his Savior will be forgiven Ð no matter what the sin was Ð and he will go to heaven. This salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

I saw the great benefit of living and dying in that faith just a few weeks ago when my wife of 66 years passed away. We had often talked about our own personal relationships with Jesus, and hers was very, very strong. So, as she breathed that last breath and I held her body in my arms, I looked into her eyes, and she went to heaven. Our relationship in this life is over, but I have the joyful assurance that she now lives with the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven forever. And while we don’t have great details on what life in heaven is like, I pray that when I by grace reach my heavenly home, we will meet one another and know one another, for Jesus loves us and he died for us. This is our assurance.

We are to tell this message to others as we bear witness to Christ. What do we say to them? It is good to invite them to church, but more than that, give them the core of the gospel: You are a sinner, and you need a Savior. Jesus loves you and wants to be your Savior. Let him into your heart.

Our text today is very interesting, and I have taken the liberty to call it, “Jesus’ Evangelism Program.” Jesus told his followers what to say and how to say it. I am a sinner; I was created in the image of God. God loves me in spite of my sins, and so he came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered and died to pay the price for my sins on the cross of Calvary. If, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I receive Jesus Christ into my life and into my heart, then I belong to God forever. This is my assurance.

That is what we are to tell. We don’t have to tell about all the nice things happening in the church, such as a nice worship center with a beautiful organ or all the youth and adult activities happening. All of these things are good; however, our first priority is to be involved in evangelism training.

Many years ago, a friend of mine had a burden on his heart to tell others about Jesus Christ. So he began to examine where his congregation was, and then he developed two diagnostic questions:

¥ Have you come to that place where you know for sure, for sure, that if you died today, you would go to heaven? The most typical answer he would get was, “I hope so.” Most had not come to the understanding that they do not work their way into heaven, but instead they receive it through faith in Jesus Christ.

¥ If you were to die today, why should God let you into heaven? Most people would say, “Well, I’ve tried to live a good life. I sang in the choir and even taught a Sunday school class.” These are wonderful things. However, more than that, I hope you are part of a group that is sharing the gospel in evangelism training.

My friend was a man of great faith. He built a great evangelism program, and I can’t help but think that he received some inspiration from our text. He made a little booklet to help people make evangelism calls. His church grew and was filled with many gifted people. He shared this program with many of us who had never done anything like it. My wife, myself, and others went to classes they hosted, and as a result we had an evangelism explosion program in our church. Groups of people would go out with a trainer to share the gospel with someone in their home. Then they would come back a couple hours later and tell what happened. Sometimes the results were disappointing. But other times, the group had met a family who had never been asked those questions and wanted the assurance of knowing that, if they died tonight, they would go to heaven. So the family joined a Bible class that centered completely around the gospel of assurance. Nothing could quite equal the excitement of watching that happen.

One night I went to a home to invite the wife Ð not the husband Ð to come to church. I started right away with the question, “Do you know, Mrs. ÔSo and So,’ that if you died today you’d go to heaven?”

Her husband yelled from the other room, “That’s enough of that. I don’t want any of it in my home.” So I politely left.

One day the next week, feeling very bold, I went back out to visit the lady again. I invited her to come to a class we were starting on the basic truths of Christianity. Her husband again hollered from the next room, “She ain’t coming!”

However, when the first night of the class came, I was surprised to see this lady walk in with her husband beside her. He ended up sitting through eight of my lectures. When the class was over, I said to the class, “If any of you feel you would like to join the church and gain more information on knowing Jesus and having eternal life, we invite you to join the church.” The next Sunday, as we took in the new members, this woman’s husband, who had never been baptized, joined the church as a confession of his faith. As I asked him, “Lloyd, do you believe Jesus is your Savior?”, he couldn’t wait to answer, “You betcha!” God was at work.

What if I hadn’t gone to their home? What if there hadn’t been an evangelism program? That is how people come to know Christ Ð really know him in a close, personal way.

What was the most exciting experience during my forty-three years of ministry at Nazareth Lutheran Church? I had many, but watching lives being changed as they began living in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ was the primary exciting experience I had.