The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached January 17th, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Member’s Ministry: Pray (1 John 5:14-15)
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. – 1 John 5:14-15
In 1883 a bright young man from London was invited to attend a prayer meeting held by the famed Hudson Taylor, the pioneer of China Inland Missions. The young man was in the midst of contemplating his own future and wondered whether or not the Lord would call him to become a missionary to China. But, upon arriving at the prayer meeting, the young man found Mr. Taylor to be somewhat underwhelming:
His appearance did not impress me. He was slightly built, and spoke in a quiet voice. Like most young men, I suppose I associated power with noise, and looked for physical presence in a leader. But when he said, “Let us pray,” and proceeded to lead the meeting in prayer, my ideas underwent a change. I had never heard anyone pray like that. There was a simplicity, a tenderness, a boldness, a power that hushed and subdued me, and made it clear that God had admitted him to the inner circle of His friendship. Such praying was evidently the outcome of long tarrying in the secret place, and was as dew from the Lord.
This last Summer, as we reflected on John 15 and the benefits of union with Christ, we reflected on this quote from Hudson Taylor: “It little matters to my servant whether I send him to buy a few cash worth of things, or the most expensive articles. In either case he looks to me for the money and brings me his purchases. So, if God should place me in serious perplexity, must He not give much guidance; in positions of great difficulty, much grace; in circumstances of great pressure and trial, much strength? No fear that His resources will prove unequal to the emergency! And His resources are mine, for He is mine, and is with me and dwells in me.”
God has promised to supply everything we need for life and for godliness; He has promised that if we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, then we don’t need to worry about our food and our clothes. He has given us every resource we need! And for Taylor, this brought about a radical kind of peace: “I am no longer anxious about anything, as I realize this; for He, I know, is able to carry out His will, and His will is mine. It makes no matter where He places me, or how. That is rather for Him to consider than for me; for in the easiest position He must give me His grace, and in the most difficult His grace is sufficient.” This is what is available for every Christian and one of the primary ways we can draw this blessed benefit up into our souls is through prayer. In prayer we pour out our hearts before God, and in God we find the resources we need.
We want to reflect on prayer today as we think about how the members of this church can fulfill the work of the ministry that God has given them to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all. As Samuel the prophet is making his farewell address to the nation of Israel, exposing their sin and charging them to uphold God’s Law. At this, the nation of Israel wails and laments their sin, but Samuel responds: “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way,” 1 Sam 12:23. Friends, far be it from us friends that we should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for each other. So, let’s consider the power and resource of prayer we have at our fingertips (and prayer closets) and how this can help the members of our church fulfill the mission of our church.
Let’s look at our text once again: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him,” 1 John 5:14-15.
This text tells us that: (1) God hears us, (2) God answers us, and (3) this makes us confident.
In the book of Genesis, Hagar is taken advantage of by Abraham and Sarah. The patriarch and matriarch of our faith lacked faith in God’s plan to give them a son, so Sarah forced her servant Hagar to bear children for her—a wicked thing to do. However, after Hagar became pregnant Sarah was inflamed with anger and jealousy and chased Hagar away. While languishing in the desert, the angel of the Lord appeared to a downtrodden Hagar and promised that God would care for her and her soon-to-be-born son, telling her, ““Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction,” Gen 16:11. The name “Ishmael” in Hebrew means: “God hears me.” Our God is a God who hears.
We all long to be heard. One of the great frustrations in relationships is when it feels like you are not understood, like the other person isn’t listening to you. This is especially true when the person who isn’t listening to you has authority and power over you. Children, doesn’t it feel frustrating when it feels like your parents don’t listen to you? One of the great frustrations of our political moment is that it feels like politicians—who hold this massive amount of power in our society—are disconnected from the people they are meant to represent. Imagine what it would be like if the mayor of our city were to knock on your door today and say, “I would like to hear what you have to say about this issue.” How shocking would that feel? You care about my opinion? My problems? Imagine how much more shocking it would be if it were the governor of our state? The president of our country? What would you do if the most powerful person alive today were to sit down and ask you, “Tell me what’s bothering you?”
But friends, in prayer we don’t simply have some fallible, fallen human being who has been elected to some temporary position of power whose plans and efforts can be flawed or thwarted who wants to lend us their ear. We have the omnipotent, infinite, omniscient, eternal God who rules as the sovereign Lord over the cosmos who hears us. It would be staggering for the president to stop by your house for lunch today because, ultimately, you aren’t important enough to matter to him, he doesn’t have the time for you. But that isn’t true of our God! Our God is not limited, He is the Lord of time, so His schedule isn’t too busy to listen to you pour out your pain, your trivialities, your joys, your frustrations.
But, most importantly, because a Christian has been united to Christ by faith, we now stand in Christ and are therefore now sons of God! So our prayers now have just as much right to be heard by the Father as Jesus’ prayers did—this is why Christians have traditionally closed their prayers “in Jesus’ name.” Perhaps something that is prohibiting you from prayer is the thought that you are not worthy or that because of your sins God shouldn’t listen to you. There is some measure of truth to that. The Psalms tell us that if we cherish iniquity in our heart, the Lord will not listen to us (Ps 66:18). 1 Peter warns husbands that if they do not live with their wives in an understanding way their prayers will be hindered (1 Pet 3:7). If you have excused your sin, decided to live with your sin, and justify it rather than repent and forsake it, then your heart and mind will be clouded and prayer will feel like you are pushing through a dark wall. But, if you have repented of your sins, acknowledged what they are, and asked God to forgive you, then your prayers are heard by the Father! Just as much as Jesus’ prayers were heard!
God Answers Us
1 John doesn’t merely say that God hears our prayers, but, “…if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him,” 1 John 5:15. If God hears us, we have what we have asked for. What an astonishing promise!
Do you know the story of Elisha at Dothan? In 2 Kings 6 a Syrian army is marching towards the city of Dothan where Elisha and his servant are staying. When everyone wakes up the city is surrounded by horses and chariots of a very, very powerful army. But Elisha is utterly unworried. His servant begins to panic, asking Elisha what they are to do and Elisha prays and the servant’s eyes are opened and suddenly he is aware that the mountains around them are filled with horses and chariots of fire, a heavenly army that far outnumbers the Syrians. Elisha prays again for the Lord to blind the enemy and the entire Syrian army is struck blind. Boom! God heard Elisha’s prayer and answered it. We read that story and think: That’s what I’m talking about! But, why are so few of my prayers answered like that?
Well, long ago, in that same city of Dothan, Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, arrives to check in on his brothers. When he arrives, however, they apprehend him, throw him into a pit, and then sell him into slavery, where he languishes and suffers unfairly for years (Gen 37). Same city, same God, but why in one does God immediately grant a request and shows up, but in the other He is totally silent and let’s His people suffer?
The clue is found in verse 14 of 1 John: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us,” 1 John 5:14. According to his will. So, what was God’s will for Joseph? Well, of course, it was through his suffering and difficulty that he was eventually exalted to the position of authority in Egypt whereby he was able to then provide his administrative help to prepare for a great famine, and thereby saved millions of lives—including the lives of his very brothers who sold him into slavery. Certainly Joseph prayed several times for God to deliver him from his trials, from his imprisonment, from his suffering, and as days pooled into months and months pooled into years, Joseph didn’t get the answer he wanted. But, of course, he had no idea what God was doing in positioning Joseph to be in the final position that he would arrive at. If God had simply granted Joseph’s request to be delivered early on, millions of people, including his own family and father, would have died.
This is why our prayers are not like a genie in a lamp where God automatically grants our every desire. Because God loves us, He grants us what lies in accordance with His plan. This is why Paul explains in Romans, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words,” Rom 8:26. Tim Keller calls this the “safety valve” of prayer. There are many times where we do not know what the right thing to prayer for is, but God’s Spirit helps us by interceding for us in our prayers. Keller explains, “God will always give us in prayer what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knew.”
George Macdonald, C.S. Lewis’ hero, once wrote a children’s story called The Princess and the Goblin about a young princess who lives in a castle that is surrounded by mountains filled with goblins. Above her room, in the tower of the castle, lives the princesses’ fairy godmother. The fairy godmother gives her a ring that is attached to an invisible thread that only the princess can see. The godmother promises that anytime she is lost or in danger she can follow the thread and it will lead her to safety. One night, the princess thinks she hears a goblin in her room. So, she quickly grabs the invisible thread and begins to follow it out of her room. However, instead of going upstairs to her fairy godmother, the thread leads in the opposite direction, out of the castle itself. The princess trusts her godmother, so she follows the thread up till it leads to the very cave where the goblins live. Terrified, she panics and contemplates going back, but realizes that when she attempts to go back the thread disappears. The only option she has is to go forward into the cave. Upon arriving in the cave, however, she finds it deserted and discovers that her best friend, a young boy, has been trapped by the goblins and is being held prisoner. She frees her friend and continues to follow the thread back to the castle and to her fairy godmother.
The moral of the story: sometimes God’s will for our life does not look like what we thought it would look like, and so often our prayers can look like they are simply going unanswered. But we need only to trust the thread of God’s will as it leads us forward and continue in prayer. And if you are struggling with how to trust God when it feels like there is no way forward, consider our Savior. The book of Hebrews tells us, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence,” Heb 5:7. Jesus’ life was a life marked by prayer, and He prayed with fervor “to him who was able to save him from death” and He was heard. 1 John just told us that if God hears us we know that we have the requests of what we asked. But was Jesus spared from death? Well, yes and no. When Jesus is praying the Garden of Gethsemane and asks the Father to take this cup away from Him, He closes by saying, “but nevertheless not as I will, but as you will.” But Jesus’ request to be spared is manifestly denied. Jesus’ “thread” led to the cross, to the ultimate death, where He would go to bear the wrath of God for the sins of His people. And because Jesus did that, no matter where God’s will guides us, we know that we will never have to face that kind of judgment—God’s thread will never lead us to the outpouring of his wrath upon us and the eternal destruction, so we can rest assured and trust Him.
But, Jesus’ thread also shot through the grave into the resurrection! Jesus’ was spared the finality and victory of death because He overcame them! So, He was spared ultimately from death, even if the victory came through death. So now, as we follow our great captain, we know that God’s will sometimes leads through scary, difficult places, but we know that the biggest, scariest problem has been dealt with, and we know that no matter what happens, on the other side of this life awaits resurrection hope.
So we pray with confidence.
How are we to pray if the future of God’s will for us is mysterious? We pray with confidence. We know that when God hears us, whatever we ask according to His will will be granted to us. This is why it so important to let God’s word guide us as we pray—look at how Jesus and the apostles prayed and use that as a template for how you ought to pray. We may not know precisely what God has in store for our lives in the future, but we know with certainty that it is God’s will that we grow in our sanctification, that we bear the fruit of the Spirit, that we be conformed to the image of Christ. There is no uncertainty about those truths, and those truths are the realities that will matter most in eternity. And we know that if those things are God’s will and we ask them of God, we will have what we have requested.
I ask great things; expect great things; shall receive great things. – “Voyage” from Valley of Vision