Last Tuesday, I joined Pastor Ben, Jenny, Aunty Pauline and many other parish workers from other Anglican churches at the Parish Workers Fellowship Retreat in Malaysia. And I’m so glad God gave me the opportunity to be there. Because God showed up. God ministered to us. God encouraged us. God spoke to us, both individually as well as corporately. It was great.
But I want to share with you my thoughts and feelings as I went for the retreat. I went to the retreat basically telling God, “God, You have to show up. You have to do something. Because I can’t go on like this. I’m weary and tired. I’m discouraged. I’m disappointed. My life is out of sorts. Sin is eating away at me and I have no spiritual power. God, You have to show up.” And God in His grace and mercy, did.
The retreat focussed on two major themes: prayer and prophecy. And it was in those times of prayer, of waiting upon God that God showed up in a powerful way. Therefore, today I want to focus on prayer (because prayer undergirds prophecy anyway). So prayer. Confession time. They say that confession is good for the soul, but bad for the reputation, so here goes my reputation (if I had any in the first place!) Confession. You are going to hear today from a spiritual newbie in terms of prayer. I’m not trying to be humble. This is where I am at in my journey in prayer. But I want to grow. I want to my prayer life to deepen. I want to experience more of God. So, what I have learnt and experienced over the PWF retreat, I want to share with you. May it bless you. May it encourage you. And in this sermon on prayer, let’s begin in the best possible way. Let’s pray.
Prayer is key to our relationship with God. We all know it theoretically, but if we were honest with ourselves, practically, I think our prayer life is far from where we know it should be. And by prayer, just to clarify, I mean not merely mouthing off our requests to God. “God, I pray for a girlfriend who’s beautiful, kind, sweet, intelligent (intelligent enough to choose me, haha!)…” No by prayer, I mean having a conversation with God. Actually taking time to be still before God and listen to what He has to say to us. And He can, He does, He will speak. Today’s sermon text is from the book of Ezekiel 37:1-14. And from today’s text, I want to share with you 3 reasons why we really need to pray.
- In prayer, God reveals our corruption
- In prayer, God revives our condition
- In prayer, God restores our commission
1. In prayer, God reveals our corruption
Let’s read Ezekiel 37:1-2.
Ezek. 37:1 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. 2 He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry.
Who are you? What kind of person are you like? We all have an outer persona. An image we portray to the world. For some of us, we are so good at portraying that image that the image we portray is totally different from the person whom we know ourselves to be. That’s a problem. We are being inauthentic. A more negative way to say it is we are hypocrites. But there’s something worse than that. (Can anyone think of what can be worse?)
What’s worse is our own self-image (whom we think ourselves to be) is flawed. We don’t even know who we are. In other words, we are self-deceived. We either think too highly of ourselves or too lowly of ourselves. Oftentimes it’s an odd-combination of both. And God wants to reveal our corruption to us.
In the passage we read, the prophet Ezekiel was ministering in a period of great spiritual darkness in the nation of Israel. The people had broken faith with God, Jerusalem was destroyed, and they were in captivity. So God revealed to Ezekiel in a graphic manner a picture of the nation. A valley of bones. Very dry bones. In other words, long dead. Flesh rotten, bones exposed, bones dried up. Very dead. This was the condition of Israel.
In the New Testament, Jesus uses dead men’s bones to refer to a group of people. Who were they? The scribes and Pharisees. Listen to the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” Beautiful on the outside. Dead on the inside.
Question: are you and I like the Pharisees? They thought they were honouring God, they thought they were pleasing God in keeping all the laws and statutes. But they were not. Their hearts were far from God. Likewise, we can be doing all the right things at least externally: going to church, serving, even reading the Bible and praying. But our hearts can be cold. All these can be a mere duty and formality. There’s no heart, there’s no joy in God, there is no love for God. We do it because we get praise from people. We do it because there are friends. But we don’t do it because we actually love God. Beautiful on the outside. Dead on the inside.
Friends, in prayer, God reveals to us, our corruption. And He does so in love. That actually doesn’t sound very loving, but it is. Let me illustrate. Say you have been getting frequent headaches and you go to the doctor. He examines you and from his examination, he suspects something malignant. Something far more sinister than a common headache due to stress or lack of sleep. He suspects a brain tumour, possibly cancerous. Then he says to you, “Don’t worry about it. Nothing Panadol cannot solve.” He prescribes Panadol and sends you home. That’s not loving. He has possibly sent you to your death.
What would a good doctor do? Schedule you immediately for a scan. And let’s say the scans show up positive. What would a good doctor do? Schedule surgery. Chemotherapy/Radiotherapy/Strong medication. Whatever it takes to get you well. Will it hurt. Yes. Will there be side-effects. Yes. Why does he still do it? He wants you to get well. God is like that. God wants to reveal our corruption to us because He wants to deal with whatever it is that’s killing our spiritual life. He wants to deal with whatever is disturbing our relationship with Him. He does so not to condemn us, but to convict us, because ultimately, He wants to transform us and to give us life. We need to pray. [Pause to pray?]
This leads us to the 2nd point.
2. In prayer, God revives our condition
Story was told of a man named Bill. He was approaching mid-life and physically he was a mess. Not only was he going bald, but years of office work had given him a large pot belly. The last straw came when he asked a female co-worker out on a date, and she just laughed at him. “That does it,” he decided. “I’m going to start a whole new regimen.” He began attending aerobics classes. He started working out with weights. He changed his diet. And he got an expensive hair transplant.
In six months, he was a different man. Again, he asked his female co-worker out, and this time she accepted. There he was, all dressed up for the date, looking better than he ever had. He stood poised to ring the woman’s doorbell, when a bolt of lightning struck him and knocked him off his feet. As he lay there dying, he turned his eyes toward the heavens and said, “Why, God, why now? After all I’ve been through, how could you do this to me?”
From up above, there came a voice, “Sorry. I didn’t recognise you.”
Friends, God knows us. He recognises us. More than that, He also cares for us, He wants to do good to us and He has the power to do so. Coming back to the text, we see that the people of Israel actually recognised their condition. Ezekiel 37:11 Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.’”
The problem with God’s people was although they recognised their condition, they did not turn to God. They did not trust in God. They looked only at their circumstances and their own inability and they saw no hope. Do you identify? Perhaps you do know your current condition but you don’t believe God can do anything about it. Or you don’t fully trust God has your best interests at heart. And so you just do what you can, making decisions based on your own wisdom and understanding. Don’t.
God has the power and the desire to bring about good for His people, for you. Let’s read Ezekiel 37:3-10.
3 He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.” 4 Again He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.’ 5 “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. 6 ‘I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD.’”
Ezek. 37:7 So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.”’” 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
God here, in His power, through His Spirit, does a miracle. He makes a valley of dry bones come to life, forming an exceeding great army. And God tells Ezekiel, what I did here, I’m going to do for My people. Let’s continue to read in Ezekiel 37:12-14.
12 “Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 “Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. 14 “I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it,” declares the LORD.’”
If we give God the time and space to speak to our lives in prayer, we will hear God’s Word being spoken to us, God’s promises being revealed, and God’s power descending upon us to transform us. I’m not sure about the rest, but for me, the most precious part of the PWF retreat was the moments where we spent time to hear from God in prayer. I’d like to share something quite personal to me, which happened during the retreat. Now after I share this you may think, wah, Pastor Aaron has a prayer hotline to God, I must say this is not a common experience for me that I hear God so clearly. I wish it was and I want to make it a regular encounter. But I do believe God was gracious to speak and minister so clearly, to me, and I believe to us all, as we sought His face. The following is a part of a prayer conversation I had with God during the PWF retreat… (the speaker told us to pray to God what was upon our hearts, then still ourselves to hear what He said… Then record it down). I’m going to read out to you what I journaled.
Me: God, I’m disappointed. At how I’ve lived my life. My life is still marked with weakness and sin. Much darkness. I’m ill-disciplined. I’m an awful husband, negligent father, lazy worker. I feel as if years of my life have been wasted. More than that, I am not sure if things will get any better. I’m not sure if I could ever be changed.
God: I don’t need you to do anything for Me. I want you to be with Me. You can be changed in My presence. My presence is a holy presence. I will make you holy… Do you remember your wedding verse? I, Jesus, am making all things new (Revelation 21:5). I am still making all things new, even you. Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past. Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18, 19)…
In prayer, I heard the voice of God, the Word of God, the promises of God… and experienced in a small way, the power of God. Granting faith to believe that what He said, He will do. Fresh hope. Renewed vision. Has things changed dramatically since then? Nope. Yet, they have changed in a real way. I have been more conscious to seek God and hear from Him. To be encouraged by His promises. To seek to draw strength from Him. Temptations to sin still come, but I find greater sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s prompting me to flee temptation. I still get angry at people and situations but I also find in myself a quicker control of my emotions, a greater patience with people, and a larger capacity to love and serve my family. So how many of you desire a closer walk with God? How many of you want God to touch your life and transform you into the image of His Son? We need to pray.
Finally our 3rd point.
3. In prayer, God restores our commission
Dr. Helen Roseveare, missionary to Zaire, told this true story. “A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded, ‘Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won’t feel so lonely.’
That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, ‘If God sent that, I’m sure He also sent a doll!’ And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child’s sincere requests, and 5 months earlier He had led a ladies’ group to include both of those specific articles.”
Young people, the purpose of prayer is not only that God would reveal our corruption and revive our condition, but that having done that, God restores our commission. We probably kind of agree that prayer is not mainly asking God for things. There is nothing wrong with asking God for things: food, clothing, phones… good grades, a good job, future spouse etc. In fact, God delights that we would trust in Him for these areas in prayer. However, our prayer time should not be a time solely based upon what we want. Prayer is not a spiritual shopping list.
In the illustration I gave, we see God delights to provide; but He delights to provide in a manner that accomplishes His mission and gives Him the glory. And that’s why the Lord’s prayer begins, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” before it says “Give us this day our daily bread”. God’s provision is for God’s mission. That people would come to know Him and worship Him. We see the same theme in our text in Ezekiel too.
v. 6 “and you will know that I am the LORD”
v. 13 “Then you will know that I am the LORD”
v. 14 “ Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it”
We see God at work, doing miracles, in order that His people would know Him and worship Him. God has given us a task. It is nothing short of world evangelization and the discipling of the nations. And God has a specific role, a special task, for each one of His children. In prayer, we get connected to the heart of God and we hear from Him our commission for service. In prayer, we also request and receive the resources that will enable us to accomplish our task.
[Cruise Ship/Battle Ship video] Prayer is not only about us being able to enjoy ourselves eating and drinking on board a cruise ship; it’s also about us having the supplies to go to war on board a battle ship. When God answers our prayers and blesses us, do we ask ourselves is it only for us to enjoy? Or that those blessings were meant to be used on God’s mission.
Today, I want to challenge all you young people to pray something specific. Ask for God’s calling for your life. That must surely rank right up there in your priorities in prayer, because it should influences every sphere of your life. What job you take. Whom your spouse should be. Etc. All these decisions should line up with God’s calling for you.
In your calling, you may feel weak. Good, God delights to use weakness. You may feel inadequate. Good, God delights to use 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed the multitudes. You may feel dead. Good, God delights to revive and make us “an exceedingly great army” (v. 10). And that’s why we need to pray.
- In prayer, God reveals our corruption
- In prayer, God revives our condition
- In prayer, God restores our commission
What are some practical ways in which we can cultivate our prayer life? I’d like to recommend one tool and a few tips from the tool. Probably the best book on prayer I’ve read is this one by Paul Miller ~ A Praying Life. If you want to read one book on prayer, do get this one (I earn no commission).
So from Paul Miller’s book, I want to share some tips for how to cultivate our prayer life:
– Get to bed early. Your day starts not in the morning, but in the night before. The rest you get the night before heavily influences the day to come. The Hebrew notion of a day as evening and morning gives us this rhythm. (Genesis: And there was evening and there was morning, one day). So this applies whether you want to get ready for school, church, pray.
– Get up and get awake. Do what it takes to get yourself alert. A cup of coffee. A shower.
– Get a quiet, comfortable place. Anywhere where you don’t get disturbed. Maybe even take a walk. Just make sure you don’t get distracted.
– Get going. Start with 5 minutes. Start with a small goal you can attain rather than something heroic. You’ll find out quickly that time will fly. (And pray out loud. Not pray loud, but out loud. This helps your mind to focus.)
– Keep going. Consistency is the key rather than length. As you begin to get consistent, you will find that 5 minutes is too short. There’ll be so much that you want to communicate with God and that God wants to communicate with you that 15 minutes will quickly fly by. You’ll enjoy spending time with Jesus so much that you’ll want to continue.
Dear friends, prayer is the privilege of the child of God. It’s your privilege. The speaking God not only has spoken, and He wants you to hear His voice but He also listens — He stops, He stoops, He wants to hear from you. He stands ready to hear your voice. Christian, you have the ear of God. We call it prayer. Prayer is not optional for us. Prayer is our life source. I close with the words of Jesus in John 15:5, 6 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”
Singapore is in drought. Plants, grass are drying up, turning brown, dying. Without water, there is no life. Without prayer, there can be no life in a Christian. We must abide in Christ. And then we will bear much fruit, even in the midst of drought. But if we are not abiding in Christ in prayer, we can do nothing (not even a little… nothing!) Why? Because nothing that is spiritual, nothing that will last for eternity, can be accomplished without prayer and abiding in Christ. Even as we pray for rain to fall upon our land, we must pray for God’s Spirit to fall afresh upon us, to give us life. To raise up dry, dead bones. To make us an exceedingly great army of the living God who will live for His kingdom and glory. Shall we pray?