Devote Yourselves to Prayer

Christ Covenant Church
Rev. Marq Toombs
2 June 2019
Seventh Sunday of Easter

Series on Acts — To the Ends of the Earth

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Sermon Text: Acts 1:14

All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

Intro

Last year during Ordinary Time (Summer to Autumn) we walked through the Gospel of Luke. This year we will walk through the Book of Acts.

In Acts, Luke continues to tell the story of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and for the world. Only this part of the story is about the Church of Christ on mission in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Acts picks up where the Gospel of Luke left off — with the Ascension of Jesus — his rising up and being taken away in the clouds to sit at the right of the Father in heaven.

Today is Ascension Sunday, and I planned to preach on the Ascension. But along the way, my attention was drawn to something else. Since I preached on the Ascension just a few months ago, I felt compelled to preach on something else in the story today.

I must confess that I had a hard time writing this sermon, because the Spirit and the word were righting — working to right my wrongs, to correct my ways, to redirect my steps.

Tucked away in the story is this detail:

All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

So what? What’s so remarkable about this?

In context, we see that the Romans and Jews were still trying to make sense of Jesus’ empty tomb. For the past forty days, they have been spreading the fake news that some of Jesus’ disciples snuck past the soldiers and stole the body. That means the followers of Jesus are suspects of a criminal case.

And now, the one man they trusted to deliver them from evil has flown away and left them in the midst of their enemies.

Before he was lifted up, he told them to wait for the promised Holy Spirit to come upon them.

What was their response to all these things?

They responded by gathering themselves together and devoting themselves to prayer. They could have disbanded, but they banded together. They could have peaced-out, but they prayed together.

A few summers ago, when we were hit by a massive storm, and it seemed that all was lost, one of my old professors urged me to call a pastor he knew. I told him what we were facing. He shared a story from when he was a Methodist pastor. The leaders of the church he served spent hours arguing and debating about the best way forward. Finally, a man stood up and said, “Brothers and sisters, we need to stop and pray about all this.” To which someone said, “So, it’s come to this.”

Now, that’s an old preacher story, but the point holds true. For many Christians, prayer is the last thing we ever do.

In Acts, we see over and over again that prayer was their first response, not their last ditch effort.

They prayed for anything and everything. They prayed for leaders. They prayed for each other. They prayed for worship. They prayed at set hours. They prayed for healing. They prayed for courage. They prayed for the Holy Spirit. They prayed for salvation. They prayed for repentance. They prayed for forgiveness. They prayed for life. They prayed for rescue. They prayed for missionaries and mission work. They prayed for outreach. They prayed for comfort. They prayed for traveling mercies. They prayed for peace and protection.

They devoted themselves to prayer.

They gave constant attention to prayer and the prayers. For them, prayer was a priority one.

Confession: I am so weak at prayer. Even that is an understatement. My theology of prayer is much better than my practice of prayer. I am frequently reminded of this.

MMA story – “Brother, I pray for you every day. Every. Day.” I was convicted, cut to the heart.

Now, my flesh might boast that my Reformed doctrine and theology are truer and better than his charismatic spirituality, but the Holy Spirit and the word of Christ belie me. Truth be known, his practice of prayer is truer and better than my theory of prayer.

In a book on the Message of Acts, Dennis Johnson gets under our skin to the heart of the matter:

Our meager prayer lives, our anxiety, our dependence on novel techniques in evangelism, our hope in technology to solve spiritual problems, our doubt that loving discipline can restore wandering brothers or sisters to repentance and reconciliation–all these testify to our unspoken assumption that God’s real action is in the past and the future, but not in the present. We act as though Jesus wound up the church and then flung us out on our own when we say, “Our church can’t grow in this neighborhood,” or “What will become of us?”

In other words, he argues that, if we don’t pray we are functional deists. We believe that God is the source of all things — and perhaps the end of all things — but we don’t behave as though we believe God is involved at the moment, in the means, of all things.

Johnson goes on to ask:

Could any of these attitudes survive if we were convinced that God is present and at work among us? The presence of his power would dispel our discouragement. His authority would melt our stubbornness. His terrible purity would banish our temptation to compromise. Surrounded by his peace, we would laugh at our fears.

I have wondered more than a few times, “Can our cross-cultural church grow in skeetside?” “Can we make it another year — or even another month?”

The answer is — it depends.

No, if it depends on us and our skills and resources. Yes, if it depends on the Spirit of the Lord and his resources.

Imagine that band of disciples gathered in the upper room. They had nothing. No church building. No financial backing. No secure budget. No community influence. No sleek programs. No specialized staff. (Sounds like a church I know!)

Nothing and Nobody — except God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And each other.

And prayer.

They had everything they needed.

In all my years of ministry, in all the conversations I’ve had about what congregations need, and why people come and go, I can count on one hand the number of times anyone has ever said to me, “You know what this church needs? More prayer.” “What my family and I are looking for is a praying community.” (The vast majority of people say this or that church needs anything and everything — but prayer.)

No, prayer is not a priority for us. We live in a time when either preaching has pushed aside prayer or praise music has pushed aside preaching and prayer.

To be fair, off and on through the years, some of us have talked about prayer and the need for more prayer. We have even devoted ourselves to prayer from time to time in worship, MCs, and SS. But it’s a struggle for us. It doesn’t come to us as naturally as other things. It feels weird.

In many ways, we are like Flannery O’Conner, who wrote of her struggles to pray in her journal of prayers with transparency:

My dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside … Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?

I’ve asked the same things many many times. Push me aside; teach me to pray.

Another confession: I know that one of biggest failures — as a husband, a father, and a pastor — is this: I have failed to lead my people to pray with as much conviction and consistency as I should have done. I have not practiced it enough; modeled it enough; demonstrated it enough. I am painfully aware that I have failed in this.

But, with God’s help, and yours!, I hope to remedy that going forward.

I shared a link to a booklet by JC Ryle — A Call to Prayer in our fb group. I urge you with all your heart to download and read that booklet and take it to heart. It is strong medicine that we all need to take. As he says,

To be prayerless is to be without God, without Christ, without grace, without hope, and without heaven.

It is to be on the road to hell.

Ryle will encourage you to cultivate a life of prayer at home. But we must also cultivate a life of prayer together.

Notice again our sermon text: All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

The congregation gathered together in the same place for prayer — men, women, and children.

The congregation addressed and directed their prayers to God alone — not to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and not to Mary’s other sons, the brothers of Jesus.

The congregation prayed as the Lord Jesus taught them to pray. “Our Father, who is in heaven . . .” They also prayed the Psalms, which are the divine prayer book. Finally, they added their own extemporaneous prayers as well.

The congregation prayed for the presence of Christ and the power of the Spirit to come.

The congregation prayed and waited for the Lord to renew their strength; so that they should mount up with wings like eagles; and run and not be weary; and walk and not faint.

Recommended Resources / Helps

Prayer by Tim Keller

A Call to Prayer by JC Ryle

Book of Common Prayer 2019