The Contest of Gods

1 Kings 18:19-39

Our message this week takes a trip to Mount Carmel in Israel and a contest of gods between Baal of the Caanites and Yahweh, the God of the Israelites and the prophet Elijah. It is the type of story that leaves us asking, What do we really believe? Where do we derive our security, our purpose, our motivation in life? Where is the pure object of our affection focused? I might also ask, Do you have any idols?

A doctor of theology was teaching world religion at a university and made a mission trip to India. While there, he met and befriended a local fellow who was a Buddhist. This man was very friendly and took the doctor around to see the sites and help him become acquainted.

One day he took the doctor to the Buddhist temple. When the doctor walked in, he was amazed at all the strange, peculiar statues lining the walls of the temple, each one representing a different god. Then he felt a little poke in his side, and his newfound friend gestured toward one of the statues saying, “See that one? You recognize it, don’t you? That’s your God!” The doctor of theology looked up to see a statue of Jesus on the cross – as if Jesus were just one god among all the other gods. In that man’s mind, though well intended, he believed you could be Buddhist and Christian. You can worship whatever god you want or as many as you want. We have often heard the phrase It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.

We live in a culture of time that says all truth is relative to the individual’s perception and conviction. However, I don’t believe this. Instead, I believe the God of the world, the God of life, has, in a beautiful way, revealed His heart and love to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. He went to the cross to bring us back into a relationship with Himself, even though we were sinners, and, by His resurrection, gives us eternal life. He invites us to repent, turn our hearts back to Him, and confess our faith in Him as our God.

At Mount Carmel, Elijah prayed this prayer: “Lord, by your power show that you are God and we are your servants. Turn the hearts of your people back to you.”

In our story, the Bible describes King Ahab and Queen Jezebel as the new champions of evil in their time. They not only promoted the worship of the idols Bael and Ashera, but they hunted down and killed God’s prophets in an effort to eradicate faith in Yahweh. They especially hated the prophet Elijah and searched every inch of their kingdom for him. They even threatened neighboring kings who might hide him. They treated Elijah like the number one criminal of the world and wanted him dead.

After three years of drought with God telling Elijah to hide from Ahab, now He tells Elijah to go show himself to Ahab. In the context of threat and danger, Elijah boldly walks into the palace and issues a challenge to Ahab and the priests of Bael to have a contest on Mount Carmel. May the best god – the real God, the God of power and glory – win. So the priests of Bael go first and offer their ox as a sacrifice. From morning till noon, they prayed. Louder and louder they prayed as they danced around the altar of sacrifice. Bael, hear us, they say.

Elijah begins to mock them. Is god meditating? Is he too busy, indisposed, on vacation? Perhaps he is sleeping. Cry out louder! They danced louder; they cut themselves with knives until they bled; and they hollered louder and louder. Nothing except silence was the response. This continued all day until Elijah stepped forward and poured barrels and barrels of water over the sacrifice. Instantaneously a firebolt from heaven consumed the ox, the wood, and the twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Even the water was licked up dry. Everyone fell on their faces in that revelation of God’s power and glory and shouted, “Yahweh is God! Yahweh surely is God!” Yahweh revealed Himself and accepted the sacrifice.

What can we take away from this story that is important for our faith today? First, it’s important for us to know God is jealous. The Scriptures say He is a jealous God – not in the sense of being petty or insecure or accusing in a negative sense. He is God who will not tolerate rivals among God’s people.

Bael and Asherah were the fertility gods of the Canaanites. The worship of those gods included sexual acts and the sacrifice of the people’s children! God said, No! I am jealous for you to be in a relationship of intimacy and love. I will have no gods before me. He was not jealous in the sense of a need to be the number one god of your priorities, or to be seen as your favorite god. God says NO gods are to be in His presence. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he quoted the Lord saying: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”

I like how Kyle Idleman in his book, GODS AT WAR, writes about our modern-day idols.
• He talks about the temple of pleasure where we make gods out of food, sex, and entertainment.
• I might add sports, our bodies, the pursuit of beauty, or long life.
• We also worship in the temple of power.
• We make gods of success, money, and achievement, fame, positions of influence and power.
• We worship at the temple of love and make gods out of romance, even elevating family members above God.
• And, of course, we make gods of ourselves.

Idleman writes that the guards at war clash for the throne of each person’s heart. The moment we make something more important in our lives than God, it becomes an idol.

Is it in our source of security? Is it the object of our passion and affection? Is it the purpose of our life? What motivates us day by day to live? Do we surrender our lives to its control? If so, it becomes our god, our idol.

Perhaps, subconsciously, we are unaware of things that have crept into our lives and become more important than God himself. So the contest at Mount Carmel is still relevant.

At Mount Carmel, God showed His power and glory in a raw, explosive, awesome lightning bolt of fire. He revealed Himself in a jaw-breaking moment flash of power. God showed Himself infinitely greater than all the gods of the Canaanites.

When we were kids, we used to say, “My daddy is stronger than your daddy.” A bit of an absurd argument. Maybe we could say Yahweh is stronger than your god – Bael – which is a foolish thing to say because those other gods don’t even exist. Not only are those gods not as strong as Yahweh or as powerful as Yahweh, they don’t even exist! The idols we tend to look to for purpose, security, pleasure, or purpose can’t give us life, can’t forgive our sin, can’t overcome death, can’t reconcile us to one another, can’t pour grace over our souls, can’t promise us eternal life. God instantaneously accepted the sacrifice Elijah offered and showed Himself to be God.

By the way, that, then, became a day when Elijah called all people to a fresh commitment of faith. If God be God, then follow Him. But if Bael be your god, then follow him. If God is God – even today – then stand up for the Lord, speak up for the Lord, confess your faith, renew your commitment of love and loyalty to Jesus Christ as God.

Did you know that in the book of Revelation, the harshest critique of the seven churches in the first three chapters of Revelation is reserved for the church of Laodicea. God said to them, “You are neither hot nor cold. You are lukewarm, so I spit you out.” Could it be that we have slid into indifference in matters of faith, and other things have become more important to us and hold a higher authority over us than God? Have we become lukewarm?

Elijah was not only courageous to stand up to Ahab and Jezebel under the threat of death, he was courageous to stand alone before 450 prophets of Bael and 400 priestesses of Asherah under the supervision of Jezebel the Queen. Today is still the day for us to decide where our loyalty lies. Who is your God? What do you believe about God? What do you believe about the purpose of life?

I also find it interesting that Elijah, before he prayed for God to accept the sacrifice, repaired the altar. Someone once asked the farmer, How did your cow get lost? The farmer chuckled and said, I suppose it was one tuft of grass at a time.

Could it be you have slowly wandered away from the loyalty of your heart to the Lord God, who has revealed His love to you in Jesus, God’s Son, our Savior? Today is the day for you and I to say, Jesus, you are my God, and I will serve you.

God revealed His power and glory on another mountaintop – Mount Calvary. It wasn’t awesome, raw, explosive power, but paradoxical power when the perfect and holy Son of God named Jesus was placed on a cross outside the Gates of Jerusalem. His bruised and bloodied body was nailed to a cross, and He hung suspended between heaven and earth until He could breathe no more. “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.” “It is finished.” God’s power was never more powerfully poured out, and His grace never flooded all human hearts more fully in the moment than when Jesus the Son of God our Savior gave His life on the cross. But there’s more.

On resurrection morning all of creation shook as Jesus the Lord of life who was dead was brought back to life to never die again. So God, in Jesus’ name, shows His power and glory by offering us eternal life.

Jesus is the God who saves, and the revelation of His power shows His love is beyond our understanding. Today I ask you to place your faith in Him. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

How to Have a 3 a.m. Friendship

2 Timothy  4:6-22

One of my all-time favorite movies comes on each year around the Christmas season. It is called, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart. The movie is about a fellow named George Bailey who, when things are getting so bad, wishes he had never been born. An angel comes and shows him what life would have been like in this world without him. At the end of the movie, as George’s friends are all rallying to save him from a financial crisis, Clarence, the angel, writes him a note. The note says, “Dear George, no man is a failure who has friends.” Clarence was right – to have a good friend is one of the highest delights of life.

We tend to refer to people as friends rather loosely these days. If you ask someone if they have a lot of friends, they might say, O yeah. I have a lot of friends. I have a lot of friends on Facebook. We may talk about acquaintances as friends sometimes. We may have work friends and church friends. Guys refer to their friends as buddies.

But do you have a 3 a.m. friend for when you’re alone in a dark time? Perhaps a crisis has hit, life is closing in on you, and you feel like your world is falling apart. Do you have someone you could call to be with you during those times? At our church we call those 3 a.m. friends – those with whom we have deep soul friendships.

Many people do not have that kind of person in their life, which is not surprising because there is so much loneliness in America today, especially among men. We have many barriers to developing true and lasting friendships.
• Pace of life. Distractions like television, the Internet, and video games.
• Mobility of life. People frequently move from job to job, from area to area.
• Isolation of life. We typically drive to our jobs and then drive home, close the garage door, and sit by ourselves in front of the screen each night.
• Cynicism of life. We distrust others and are reluctant to let our guards down.
• Busyness of life. We are too busy to nurture relationships. It’s hard to love someone when you are in a hurry.

The sad thing is, we are missing out on a deep soul friendship and a richer life. Everyone needs a 3 a.m. friend.

As a Christian, you might be thinking, I have the Lord God in my life. He’s my friend! I am glad you do! Yet, sometimes we need God with skin on.

I remember a story about a young girl who woke up in the middle of the night crying because of a bad dream so her mother went to comfort her. When her mother thought she was calmed down, she headed back to her own bedroom. But then the little girl cried out, “You’re leaving me? Don’t leave me!”

Mother responded, “God is with you.”

The little girl said, “Yes, but I need God with skin on right now.”

It’s true – sometimes we need God with skin on. We need a human touch in our lives.

We have always needed God with skin on, when you think about it. From Adam in the Garden of Eden to whom God said, “It’s not good for man to be alone,” to King David who surrounded himself with friends through the hard times and the good. Jesus himself valued friendship. He called the twelve disciples to travel with Him in His ministry.

The Apostle Paul experienced the same sort of need in our passage for today. Paul’s time of departure was coming soon. He was on death row in Rome without a get-out-of-jail-free card. He was far from the familiar, far from his homeland. Uncomfortable and chained to soldiers in prison, he was physically cold as well, for winter was coming and he needed his coat. He was also physically and spiritually hungry. Paul mentions he needs his books, which have been left behind in Troas (he wasn’t finished learning from the Word of God).

Mostly, Paul is feeling abandoned and alone. He had experienced the power of the Lord standing by him. He even mentions in our passage today how Jesus strengthened him as he stood trial before his enemies. But right now, Paul needs God with skin on. He needs his friends. We know Paul had many friends by the way he closed his various letters in the New Testament – he sent greetings to various individuals. He understood the value of friendship and support.

Paul needed a friend, then, in this letter to Timothy. But not just any friend; he needed his 3 a.m. friend, which would be Timothy. He is appealing Timothy in this letter: “Do your best to come to me soon.”

This was a big ask on Paul’s part, by the way. It was not very convenient for Timothy and would take some sacrifice. He would be putting himself out there for Paul, even risking his own life and freedom as he identifies with Paul as a friend in Christ.

The cost of time and energy needed to complete the trip were huge. Paul was 1,000 miles away and the trip would require a great amount of resources. Timothy would worry about his congregation, which had been giving him trouble. Would the church fall apart while he is gone?

“Do your best to come to me soon, Timothy,” Paul pleads.

Do you suppose Timothy came as Paul requested? I bet my bottom dollar he did! And here’s why: These two men shared a special bond. It was a deep friendship between an older man as the mentor and a younger man who is learning the ropes. They were soul friends. How did this relationship come about? How does this kind of friendship happen in one’s life? As you look through the entire letter of second Timothy, you find some helpful clues to consider for our own friendship building.

Deep soul friendships require being present or “with-ness” – sharing experiences. In chapter 3, Paul says, “Now you have observed my teaching, my faith, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my suffering, the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them” (II Timothy 3:10-11).

Paul and Timothy were together in good times and in bad. They traveled together on these missionary journeys and had many conversations and opportunities to observe one another as they served Christ together. They spent time composing letters to the various churches. (We see this as we look at Paul’s other letters.) They also stayed in touch when separated. This usually leads to something very profound and special.

I had a special friend like this. The former speaker for this radio ministry, Homer Larsen, and I traveled a lot together. He was my best friend. We traveled to preaching and evangelism conferences together. We spent a lot of time traveling together, and I am so much richer to have known him and shared life with him in this way. Even to this day, I feel the loss of him not being around.

I also have other individuals whom I would call my 3 a.m. friends. There is Rob whom I call on a weekly basis and talk to or text back and forth. There’s Dave. We socialize as well as serve together. We have a certain bond. If you want a deep soul friendship, you need to commit time and presence with someone.

Deep soul friendships involve self-disclosure. Paul and Timothy were transparent with each other. They knew each other’s personal history as well. Paul knew about Timothy’s mom (Eunice) and grandma (Lois). He knew what kind of father Timothy had. Timothy knew of Paul’s sordid past. Nothing was hidden from one another.

As we read Paul’s entire letter to Timothy, we find he openly shared his heart, his soul, and his affections. Paul doesn’t hide anything. He says, “I have run the race. (I’m dying.) The end of my race has come, and I need you here with me.”

As Paul encourages Timothy throughout this personal letter, it is apparent that Timothy has shared some of his own fears and weaknesses as a fellow minister. Paul knows his strengths and weaknesses, and he addresses those concerns in this letter. Deep soul friendships require a willingness to share your vulnerabilities with each other.

Deep soul friends share expressions of affection. Paul expressed tenderness, love, and care in this letter.
I’m praying for you, Timothy.
• I’m grateful to God whenever I remember you in my prayers.
• I’m constantly praying for you night and day.
• I long to see you, because you fill me with joy.
• I recall your tears. Perhaps Paul is referring to Acts 20 where he met with the Ephesian elders. Paul wept and they embraced one another as they said their goodbyes. Was Timothy in that group?
My beloved child. Paul refers to Timothy at various times with terms of endearment such as my son, my beloved.

Timothy knew Paul loved him and cared for him deeply.

Deep soul friendships have encouragement, affirmation. Paul spent a lot of time encouraging and affirming Timothy.
I believe in you.
• Let me remind you – you are called by God.
• You have a gift for preaching.
• God has great plans for you.
• I laid my hands on you at your ordination.
• I poured myself into you, entrusting to you the precious good news of Jesus, and now I’m asking you to guard the Good News and stick with it. You can, I believe, because you have the Holy Spirit living in you.

How is that for encouragement and affirmation?

Their deep soul friendship had trust. These kinds of friendships grow with trustworthiness. Paul described Timothy as one whom he trusted fully. In other letters he would say, “(There is) no one like Timothy who has a genuine care for your congregation” (Phil. 2:20). Timothy didn’t run when the chips were down on those travels with Paul. He stayed with him. They could rely on each other. “I am entrusting the Gospel ministry to you, all I have begun.” Paul said to him (I Tim. 1:18).

Deep soul friendships are grounded firmly in the Gospel, the promises of Jesus Christ. Jesus was their strength, their consolation, their common ground, their counsel to one another as they went through the ups and downs of life. They had an eternal friendship with Jesus at the center.

I came across a statement that says Jesus is the only totally reliable friend for sinners. He is the only flawless friend, and therefore the only friend who can make other friendships eternal. As much as you might love your earthly friends and family, they cannot rescue you from every evil deed and bring you safely into the heavenly kingdom. Only one friend can do that – Jesus Christ! He loves you! See what He did for you at the cross.

Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, Paul and Timothy would say to one another. A person truly is rich (and not a failure) with a friend or two like that in their life.

Two personal questions for you today:
1. Do you have a 3 a.m. friend, someone you can turn to, you can lean on, a 3 a.m. deep soul friendship?
2. Wouldn’t you like to be a 3 a.m. friend to someone? God wants that for you. Keep your eyes open to find friendship possibilities. God has provided them.

Jesus never intended for the enjoyment of His presence to replace the enjoyment of the presence of other Christians. He didn’t die on a cross to create isolated worshiping individuals. Instead, He died to create Christ-exalting friendships.

Where can you find those kinds of friendships? Where do I find a Paul? Where do I find a Timothy, or a Paula, or a Tamara to do life? In the church! The church is a good place to start. Get plugged in to the church in worship and in service with other Christians. In our congregation we have a small group Bible study ministry, which has been helping people make friends like this for the last thirty years. I am amazed at what is done in relationships in my own life as I’ve participated in these.

Not long ago, my wife and I drove five hours to witness an adoption. When we arrived, many of our church people were also present. I didn’t know they were coming and was surprised to see them. When I asked why they came, they said, “We were in a small group with this couple. We love them, and we’ve been praying for them the past year and a half as they have gone through this procedure. We wanted to see it happen now.”

Recently, I was doing a funeral, and some people came whom I didn’t expect to see. When I asked about their connection, they replied, “We are in a small group with this family. It has been a real blessing!”As they encouraged the family and shared their joy, they rejoiced with those who rejoice and wept with those who weep.

This is what God longs for you to have. It is what everyone needs – a deep soul friendship. May you have just that in your life. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

A Couple Good Reasons to Pray: The Early Church Did . . .

Acts 12:1-24

I recently heard someone say, “When all else fails, pray.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this phrase; maybe you’ve heard it as well. I have learned, though – and I have to be reminded again and again – that this statement is a very unwise way to operate in life. Prayer is not given to us to be just an alternative when all human efforts fail. It should a first step, not be a final option. It is a gift, a privilege given to us by our great God and is meant to be our go-to in all matters of life. Prayer is having a relationship with the Creator of the universe and connecting with Him. We were made and redeemed for communion with Him through prayer. It is an important part of the process of walking with God, growing in our relationship with God, and serving Him in this world.

Yet we sometimes struggle with prayer. Perhaps out of disappointment from past attempts, we set it aside. Maybe there’s a lack of discipline in our lives or just plain forgetfulness. Life is busy and we get distracted, making us all the poorer for it.

Our series theme is, “A Couple Great Reasons to Pray.” We are answering the question, Why bother to pray? Last week we learned a great reason to pray is because Nehemiah prayed, and God answered his prayer in a big way! Today’s message is because the early Church prayed. Today’s lesson is an exciting story set during a time of persecution and violence against the early Church in Jerusalem.

These were unhappy times. The country was suffering a famine. The Church was under attack not only by the Jewish population, but also by the government. Knowing of their dislike for Christians and wanting to improve his ratings among the Jewish people, King Herod had James, the brother of John, arrested and beheaded. This worked so well that Herod had another leader – Peter – arrested and scheduled for trial to be beheaded.

We find Peter sitting in prison, surrounded by sixteen soldiers. Things are in a bad way. The leadership of the Church is on the line. The future of the kingdom cause seemed to be in question. So what did the early Christians do? Did they panic and scatter? No. They gathered and prayed for Peter.

The night before Peter’s trial and execution, while the Church is praying for God’s help and an intervention, Peter is sound asleep. He was sleeping, but God wasn’t. Peter’s cell suddenly shown with a bright light. An angel poked Peter in the side, woke him up and said, Get up! Let’s go. Get dressed. Then three miracles occurred.
• The chains fell off Peter’s hands and feet. All sixteen guards, who were supposed to keep an eye on him, slept as Peter walked right by them. All the while, Peter thought he was just having a dream.
• The big iron gate opened all by itself and Peter and his rescuer headed down the street.
• When Peter turned to say something to his escape partner, the partner had disappeared. Peter, then, realized this wasn’t a dream. The Lord has rescued me.

Peter ran to the house church that had been praying for him and found the door locked. I imagine he can hear them praying inside. He knocked on the door and called out. A servant lady named Rhoda heard his voice as he calls out. She was so surprised and overjoyed, she ran to tell the others, leaving Peter standing outside the door. They say to her, You are out of your mind and out of touch with reality. You’re just seeing things. Maybe Peter is already dead and you are just hearing his angel.

Peter, in the meantime, kept knocking on Mary’s door. I imagine he was looking over his shoulder and sweating bullets by now. Surely a search party was out looking for him to arrest him again. Finally, the others listened to Rhoda; they went to the door and opened it to find Peter. Everyone was shocked to see him standing there, alive and well. Peter then told them how the Lord brought him out of the prison. Then he instructed them to tell James, the brother of Jesus, who was also a big leader in the church, and other believers as well so they might be encouraged and renewed by the thought that God really was with them and for them in all of this – even during dark times. Then Peter went on his way to do ministry elsewhere.

It is an amazing story! However, it is more than just a great adventure story saved for our entertainment, friends. It is saved for our edification as God’s people in Christ, part of His Church. It serves as a wonderful reminder of the greatness and faithfulness of the God to whom we pray. God does hear and answers our prayers. He is active in this world. He does not have a hands-off approach. As the hymn says, “This is my Father’s world.” He is in charge. His will be done. “That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

This episode is part of a bigger story. Earlier, Jesus had told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the power (Holy Spirit) to come from on high, and then “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He is telling them God has plans for this Good News to be spread all over the world. When the Church comes under duress by a king who thinks he’s in charge and tries to shut it down by taking its leader, Peter, captive, God steps in. At the end of the story, Herod dies and is eaten by worms. But Peter is alive, and the Gospel continues to spread to the ends of the earth. More and more, people come to trust in Jesus Christ.

When all is said and done, God has won. He always has, always does, always will. His purposes will not be thwarted. The Gospel – the Good News of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – will not be silenced. It just keeps going on and on. God loves His Church, and it is one of the themes in this story as He involves Himself with His people. This story is a picture of a faithful God who is in charge.

This story also encourages us to pray more boldly, anticipate God’s answers and be on the lookout for them. The praying Christians in this story are surprised when Peter shows up the house church, suggesting they weren’t expecting an answer to their prayer. Perhaps they just thought it was too impossible a situation. So when they hear that Peter is at the door, they respond, “You are out of your mind!” But they were again taught that our God is Lord of the impossible. He specializes in great escapes. Just look at the empty tomb on Easter. Jesus was dead inside the tomb. The door was opened, and He walked out.

Let’s not be too hard on them. We perhaps sometimes pray with low expectations, too. We may think, Sure, I can pray, but it probably won’t make any difference.

I am reminded of a story about a tavern that opened up on the main street of a little town in a dry county. The only church in the town organized an all-night prayer meeting in which the members asked God to burn down the tavern. Within a few minutes, lightning struck the tavern and it burned to the ground.

The owner sued the church, which denied responsibility. After hearing both sides, the judge said, “It seems that wherever the guilt may lie, the nightclub owner believes in prayer, while the church doesn’t.” Are we guilty of the same thing? Your prayers do make a difference.

John DeVries in his book, Why Pray? wrote about missions and the Church and the importance of prayer. He said, “Every praying Christian must understand that his or her prayers are not simply ‘support’ for various missions; they are the real work of mission. When done properly, they make it possible for the missionaries to perform the mop up operations. God has already done His work as He responds to prayer. He answers prayer in His own time and in His own ways. We need to simply keep praying and keep looking for those answers.”

The big thought for today then is, the same God who heard the early church prayers, rescued Peter, and saw to the spreading of the Good News of Jesus to the far reaches of the ancient world, is still able to do the unimaginable and the impossible. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

People of God, pray confidently, pray boldly, pray constantly. Do you know someone who is far from God and needs Jesus Christ in their life? Then pray. PRAY FIRST for an opportunity to witness, or an open door to have a relationship, or for someone else to be able to witness.

Do you know of a dark situation where evil seems to be winning? PRAY FIRST for the light of the gospel to shine in that situation, for God’s power to go to work against evil.

Do you know of a church that is struggling to keep its doors open? PRAY FIRST that God might revive that church with His Holy Spirit and bring it to life. Fan the flames with the gospel.

Do you have a pastor or a chaplain or another ministry that you want to see thrive for the cause of the kingdom of God? PRAY FIRST for God to use that individual mightily to His glory and His honor.

Do you want God to use you to build His kingdom in some way? PRAY FIRST for opportunities and insights on how God might want to use you.

Recently I came across an amazing story about the power of prayer in Christianity Today magazine. It was written by a lady named Brenda McNeil. She writes,

“I once met a brother from Ghana, West Africa who was completing his PhD in the school of world missions at Fuller Seminary. During one of his trips home, he attempted to share the Gospel with several people who lived in the community. Although they listened respectfully, no one turned to Jesus Christ. He later learned that they were intimidated by a witch doctor who lived nearby. The witch doctor kept a symbol of his authority hanging outside his home – a lattice basket filled with water that never leaked. My friend decided to pray that God would empty the basket. He stayed outside the home of the witch doctor and prayed all night that God would demonstrate His power. At some point, he fell asleep. The next morning he was awakened by a commotion – the basket was empty and the town saw a mass revival as people learned about the God who caused the water to come out of the basket.”

There had been a power encounter and God had won, just like our story today.

People of God, let us commit ourselves to be people of prayer as individuals, as churches. I believe the church can have so much more power to accomplish great things for God if we just were praying more. We need always to be remembering those assuring words of another early Christian named the Apostle Paul. Listen to these words he wrote:

“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us every thing else?” (Rom. 8:31).

Good question.

People of God, may we be known as a praying people, trusting in our great and loving God who answers prayer. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Pray First, Then Work Hard

A Couple Good Reasons to Pray: Nehemiah Did . . .

Nehemiah 1:1-11

Is prayer your first reaction or your last resort? Your first impulse or an afterthought? Some of us sometimes wonder if it is worth it. God knows what I need, so why should I bother Him? Someone else might say, I’ve been disappointed by prayer in the past, so why bother? Our answer to these questions is, because Nehemiah did. We read about him in his memoirs, which we find in our Old Testament. Let me give you some background . . .

It’s 444 BC (before Christ). The Persian empire is now in power and King Artaxerxes was its king. Israel had been in exile in Babylon for their disobedience to God for many, many years. But now, with the Persians coming into power, God sees to it that the first groups of exiles are allowed to return to Jerusalem where they would rebuild the Temple. However, the Babylonians had destroyed the entire city. Jerusalem had no city walls to protect it. The entire infrastructure of the city was in need of a redo.

Enter a Jewish fellow named Nehemiah. One day he asks his brother Hanani (who had just come from Jerusalem) how things were back home. Hanani says, Things are bad. The people are in great trouble and shame. They are being overrun. They have no defense against the enemy. Our nation could be on its way out. We are barely surviving.

Nehemiah is crushed by this news, and he weeps over his beloved Jerusalem. It is breaking his heart. The future of his people is at stake. God’s plan to use them as the blessing to the nations of the world (the light to the nations) could be at risk. Someone has to step up.

The first thing Nehemiah does is to go to his knees. He fasted and prayed for three months, and he waited for God to respond. Fasting is for focus as well as a sign of our penitence and our mourning over sin.

Look at Nehemiah’s prayer. He begins with reoriented prayer as he focuses on the greatness of God, referring to God as God of the heavens, great and awesome, a powerful One who is to be feared and keeps His covenant in steadfast love. He is faithful and hears my prayer. So hear my prayer.

After Nehemiah declares God’s greatness, he declares his own smallness as he moves into a time of confession. He acknowledges not only his people’s sin, but his family’s sin and his personal sin. God, I’m part of the problem here. I know you owe us nothing. So I come empty-handed confessing, seeking your forgiveness.

He also prays Scripture. Remember (a key word here), the word you spoke through Moses way back in the book of Deuteronomy, where you said, “If my people turn away from me, I will punish them. I will gather them and bring them to the place I have chosen to establish my name.” O Lord though they have sinned, they are your people whom you have redeemed. They delight in revering your name. They have rebuilt the Temple; they worship you; they still need your help, Lord. They need you to give them the peace you promised to establish them. So Lord, give success to me – Nehemiah, your servant – and give me mercy in the sight of the king. Use me to do Your will. Amen.

Chapter 1 ends with these words: “At that time, I was cupbearer to the king.” This was an very important position. The king trusted this person. The cupbearer had access to the king and influence. It brought all kinds of benefits. Nehemiah was cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia.

What happens next is amazing! Nehemiah fervently fasted and prayed for three months. One day the king, seeing the troubled look on Nehemiah’s face, asked him, “Why is your face sad?” Nehemiah explained his sadness and his desire to go back to Jerusalem and help his people rebuild the city. The king thinks about it, asks a couple more questions, and consults with his wife who was with him. Then he agrees to Nehemiah’s request. He also gives him letters of passport for safe passage, lumber and materials for the project, and an armed escort. Isn’t that something? Wow! Nehemiah’s prayer is being answered.

When he arrives, Nehemiah and his escorts take a night walk around the city. He examines the walls of the city. Then he sits down with the city officials and gives them a vision and a testimony of how God answered his prayer to come home and repair the city. The leaders buy into the plan and began work to restore the walls of Jerusalem. This battered little community, under Nehemiah’s leadership, eagerly and passionately went to work to restore their holy city.

As we read on in the story, we find it wasn’t an easy task by any means. Some days it seemed impossible. One thing I’ve learned along the way (you probably have too) is carrying out God’s mission is never easy. Nehemiah faced opposition from three men named Samballat, Tobiah, and Geshem who were fearful of losing political and economic control over the area. They didn’t want to see this wall go up and attempted to stop the whole project with a variety of tactics.
• They tried intimidation telling Nehemiah and the people, We’re watching you. You better be afraid.
• They planned an attack on the wall workers, but it was foiled.
• They tried using slander and lies. They spread a rumor about Nehemiah, accusing him of declaring himself a king.
• They tried to assassinate Nehemiah to visit them, by inviting him to visit them, but he refused to come down off the wall saying, “I am doing a great work. I cannot; I will not come down.”
• They tried character assassination. Through an inner person, they encouraged Nehemiah to seek protection in the temple behind closed doors, for he was about to come under attack. They thought that if he hid himself out of fear, his reputation as a leader would be ruined.

The devil was also at work in the form of greed among the rich nobles and officials among the Jews who were taking advantage of the poor. People were forced to hock everything to pay their interest and taxes, keep food on their tables, and work on the wall besides. It was almost impossible! Children were even being taken away as payment. They were just not making it, so they rightfully complained to Nehemiah.

Nehemiah goes after those rich people on the people’s behalf and gets them to give back what they have taken as well as promise to not take advantage of the poor any longer. Even in all of this, Nehemiah was doing this job for no pay. To top it all off, he dug into his own pockets to fund the workers who were ready to quit the project. The strike was averted.

Lo and behold, the wall is done! Completed after only 52 days. Miraculous!

Scripture tells us in Nehemiah chapter 6 that the surrounding nations were fearful, for they knew God had been at work. Hear these words: “And 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” (vs. 16). God is glorified before the nations!

A very amazing story, isn’t it! I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t made a movie of it yet! How does it apply to each of us?

Nehemiah is the last of the history books in the Old Testament. It is another chapter of God’s redemptive history that began back in Genesis 3 when God said He would crush the head of the serpent, and in Genesis 12 when He promised to make Abraham’s descendants a blessing to the nations of the world. God’s people had been disgraced, and they wondered if God had deserted them to make it on their own. Was this beyond His help?

The good news is, God did not desert His people. Instead, He sent a cupbearer of the king to put things back together again so His great redemptive plans could move on. God is faithful to His people. We see His faithfulness in the story today.

As I said earlier, this is a chapter in a much bigger story. It is a restoration project in the midst of a much bigger restoration project – the restoration of the world! Four hundred years later, a new cupbearer will enter the scene, this restored Jerusalem. He will pray in a garden before His crucifixion, “Father, take this cup from me.” He is talking about the cup of God’s wrath for humanity’s sin. Jesus would step down from His heavenly court to save and restore His people. He, too, would weep over Jerusalem and face all kinds of opposition and enemies as He ushered His rebuilding project – His Father’s kingdom – into this world. On a cross He will build not a wall but a bridge between God and humanity restoring and rescuing His lost people. They will mock Him and invite Him to come down if He was truly the Messiah. He was tempted to give up, but He didn’t. I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down, just like Nehemiah. God raised Him from the grave affirming the new covenant in His blood.

The story continues on. God continues His restoration through the Church – you and me – bringing others into His kingdom. He is slowly, but surely, moving us toward a new Jerusalem, a new heaven and earth at the end. Creation will be totally restored, and God’s work will finally be completed. That, my friends, is one of the great reasons to pray: God’s faithfulness.

This story is not so much about Nehemiah’s leadership and power (though we do learn some important things through his experiences). It’s more about God’s faithfulness and grace, that He gives us as a valuable tool called prayer, and that He answers prayer. This is a prayer-and-hard-work story. He doesn’t just the pray at the beginning of his memoirs, but all the way through the project. He prays for help, strength, training, and for protection as he says, “Remember, O Lord.” God accomplishes great things through obedient servants who pray and answer His call to serve.

This story is written for His workers, those who are in Christ – you and me – our God is unchanging. The same grace and strength is available to you and me as God’s workers in His field, as the Church in mission. He has an unchanging plan to restore His whole creation, to bless all the nations through His Son, Jesus. We are called a called people, empowered by His Spirit to serve out His purposes in bringing people to God’s kingdom.

Our takeaway from this Nehemiah story as missionaries, as servants of God working for the Lord Jesus Christ to bring people into His kingdom is simply this: Pray first and work hard. Amazing things happen with this combination in this order. Prayer, hard work, and God’s faithfulness got the wall built. Jesus operated the same way in His day-to-day ministry. Even before the trial and the cross, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane.

You might say, Well, that was Nehemiah’s time and Jesus’ time. But can those things actually happen today? Let me tell you a story.

In 2010, a group of eight people from two churches felt called to the Detroit Boulevard neighborhood of Sacramento, California, which was known as one of the most notorious crime-ridden neighborhoods in all of Sacramento. Each house in the neighborhood was a place of danger. Nonetheless, this group of eight decided to walk through the neighborhood and pray over each home for the presence of Christ to reign over violence, addiction, and satanic oppression. As they walked, they prayed and rebuked the demonic strongholds of addiction and violence. One of the eight, a former Sacramento police officer and gang detective, Michael John, reported that each time they prayed, they felt the weight of oppression become lighter. When a woman from one of the houses discovered they were praying for the community, she confronted them and asked for healing, and God healed her. The group soon started what they called Detroit Life Church in the neighborhood.

A couple years later, a local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, reported Detroit Boulevard had no homicides, robberies, or sex crimes and only one assault between 2013 and 2014. This neighborhood had been transformed by a small group of people who began their ministry by praying around houses, streets, and parks for the power of Satan to be vanquished. Kingdom prayer embodied is what it means to be faithfully present to His presence in this world.

When faced with overwhelming problems and odds, Nehemiah’s favorite position was the kneeling position. Then he got up and worked hard. May that also be said of us as individuals and as the Church of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer