Church Under Pressure – The Best Kind of Prayer
Welcome and introduction
Call to Worship: Philippians 2:6-11
Song – Light of the world you stepped down into darkness (Here I am to worship)
Reading: 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13, 4:9-10
Message: Church under pressure (2) – The best kind of prayer
Would you like to go on holiday here? This is actually a beautiful city. But this is *Mostar (Bosnia-Herzegovina) 1995. This is the immediate aftermath of war. The damage was intensive – and there was still much of this evident when I first visited there in the summer of 2000. Lots of buildings were roped off because they’d not been cleared for anti-personnel landmines. For the same reason you had to stick to the roads and pavements when out in the countryside. I’m pleased to say that by the time of the last of my four visits in 2011 – with my wife Nwabs and a team from my previous church – things were much improved.
If you love Jesus, you can be sure there is one who is always laying roadblocks, booby traps and anti-personnel mines for you. Trouble will come – that’s never in question – what is always in question is what will rule? Will faith win the day? You see, we are destined for these trials. This is the appointed sphere of our discipleship.
Have you ever said something like – if only life was easier – if only I/we had more money – if only my family wasn’t so difficult – if only my work were less stressful and more enjoyable and fulfilling – then I would be a more committed Christian? But it’s not like that and never will be. We’re called to learn to live in Christ in the midst of life as it is, not to escape from all problems, even amidst all the added pressures these recent months may have brought.
There’s a sense in which in this world we live in furnished accommodation – and Satan is a part of the furniture. To ask for the banishment of Satan is to ask that earth become heaven. Timothy doesn’t report a great exorcism, where Satan has been thrown out of Thessalonica. Nor did he report that their circumstances had changed for the better, and that persecution and opposition had died down.
Paul is concerned to encourage them in their faith. He mentions their faith five times in this passage. You might think he would be more concerned about numbers – are they growing in numbers, are they declining? But Paul wants to know about their faith! If Paul were to write a letter to us at Crofton Park, what would he say? Is our faith strong in the midst of trials and temptations? Is our faith growing in spite of circumstances? Are we seeking to be blameless and holy when we meet Jesus?
Jesus said Satan is a thief, and that the thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy. What is Satan stealing and trying to destroy? Our faith. Why is he bent on robbing us of our faith? Without faith it is impossible to please God. If we don’t have faith, we don’t have anything. It’s all about faith, real faith – everyday faith. It’s all about being absolutely dependent upon God, trusting his plan in our lives.
We should never overlook the monumental importance of praying for others. I guess one of the dangers of prayer is it can be just asking for things and there is great value in praise and reflection, in seeking deeper communion with God for ourselves, as well as casting our cares on him. But prayer should never just become about me – or me and God. If we learn to pray like Paul, we must pray for others. Our praying should be shaped by a profound desire to seek what is best for the people of God.
When we pray for others, we may pray very legitimate and well-intentioned prayers for them, but do we pray the best kind of prayers? It’s good to pray that a friend will come through an operation or be cured of an illness, that they will get the house, car or job they have set their heart on.
But Paul’s primary concern was that the church in Thessalonica would fulfil God’s intention for the church. The ultimate reward for Paul’s ministry was not money, prestige or fame, but new believers whose lives had been changed by God.
And that was exactly what so encouraged Paul in the report from Timothy he’d been longing for about how the church at Thessalonica was getting along. Last week I mentioned how Paul commended this church, not because they were a cutting-edge church, growing rapidly and the ‘in place’ to be, but because they were a community rooted in God’s grace and love, committed to Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, bearing witness to the gospel, characterized by faith, hope and love, faithfully enduring because of their hope in the gospel. And that despite severe opposition.
So Paul prays with thanksgiving. This is basically gratitude, acknowledging God’s graciousness to us. Thanksgiving to God can be a form of testimony about God. When things are going well, it’s good to constantly remind ourselves why they are going well – it’s about God’s grace and goodness, rather than ourselves and our efforts.
When things are not going well, it gives us hope to remember that the God who has been faithful in the past will be faithful in the future. Giving thanks for someone can also have an important effect on those for whom we are giving thanks. By drawing attention to the Thessalonians’ spiritual growth, Paul is both encouraging them and humbling them, by insisting it is God who is to be thanked.
Paul prays that the Thessalonians might be strengthened through loving service to others. It seems he thinks this is the best way they themselves will be strengthened – through an increase in their love for others. He’s not describing just emotion or feeling. How will they gain strength to face their very real difficulties and challenges? Through serving others in love out of gratitude. There’s more than a little truth in the familiar parable about the man who whined about not having shoes until he met a man with no feet.
Paul prays for the Thessalonians in the light of the future. Paul lived his life in the reality of the second coming of Jesus. He urged the Thessalonians to do the same. He was awaiting the second coming of Jesus Christ when he will establish his eternal kingdom. Our culture is overwhelmingly orientated to immediate gratification and results. We need to pray that others might live in the light of eternity rather than the present – and praying this way will hopefully remind us to do the same.
Paul prays out of his own deep and sincere love for others. If we do not pray for others out of a genuine love for them, why not? Do we secretly despise them, hold something against them, are resentful and bitter, or view them as some kind of threat? Whatever the reason, it may call for personal repentance. *Jesus says that if you are praying and you hold anything against anyone, forgive that person (Mark 11:25). And serious prayer for others forces us to get serious with ourselves.
*Paul prayed that their love would increase (v.12) – you’re doing great, but keep it up. Don’t stop growing in your faith and love. We should never become satisfied with our spiritual growth. The moment we become satisfied we become stagnant and stop growing. When we stop growing, we start dying.
He prayed for love and unity. There is nothing more vital in our connection to Jesus than the condition of love toward him and each other – these are the greatest two commandments. Paul knew about the Thessalonians’ circumstances, their dangers and their suffering, but his main passion and concern for them was to seek and pray for their growth in love and their walk with Christ. How often do we pray really biblical prayers?
We’re called not just to believe. While your relationship with Christ is personal, God never intended it to be private. Holiness applies to the way we are with one another as well. You are connected to every other believer in God’s family and you will belong to each other for all eternity. To Paul, being a member meant being a vital organ of a living body, an indispensable, interconnected part of the body of Christ.
Remember that the church is God’s agenda for the world – *‘I will build my church and the powers of hell will not conquer it’ (Matthew 18:19). The church is indestructible, will exist for eternity and will outlive the universe. So the statement, ‘I don’t need church’ is a bit of an anomaly
Our holiness, our Christ-likeness is often worked out in the way we relate to other people – how we think of them and how we speak of them – both when they’re with us and when they’re not. Do we give people the benefit of any doubt, or are we quick to pass judgment on them or express a negative opinion?
People are accountable for their own behaviour and while we shouldn’t ignore unacceptable behaviour, sometimes we may need to understand where people are coming from – their history, what they’ve been through. Rather than thinking about how far they have to go, maybe we should think about how far they have come in spite of their hurts.
Christian morality is not primarily rules and regulations, but relationships – with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. God would never have told his people to forgive one another if he wasn’t willing to forgive us the moment we come to him in repentance and confession. He never would have told his people to strengthen one another if he wasn’t willing to strengthen you, and put you on a pathway that will help you make changes so you can live in purity. He never would have commanded us to love one another if that wasn’t available in unlimited measure. Today we are remembering Christ’s body and blood. Jesus was willing to back all that up by giving not just everything he had but his very self – for us.
So although it would have been good and beneficial for Paul to have been there in person, God still supplied the main need of the Thessalonians. There was a living, loving, caring, never forgetting, ever-present and totally sufficient God leading the Thessalonian church on in his purposes for them because he had their best interests – and above all his own glory – at heart.
Imagine an atlas where there is a map on England. A little further on is a map of Canada. On the Canada page there is a little insert of a tiny England, entitled, ‘England on the same scale.’ But what if it was the other way round? On the page with the map of England, there was attached a map of Canada, opening out fold upon fold, and entitled, ‘Canada on the same scale.’ That is precisely what praying Paul style – or Bible style – does.
Alongside ourselves, our situation, our needs, our problems, it opens up, fold upon fold, another picture – God on the same scale. We realize how great, lovely and wonderful he is! And how tiny we and our problems! Tiny, but not insignificant – simply overshadowed, protectively, caringly, and sufficiently by the hugeness and much grander purpose of our God.
*Reading: 1 John 2:28-3:3
Song – Who, O Lord, could save themselves (You alone)
He had no rights:
No right to a soft bed, and a well-laid table;
No right to a home of his own, a place where his own pleasure might be sought;
No right to choose pleasant, congenial companions,
those who could understand him and sympathize with him;
No right to shrink away from filth and sin,
to pull his garments closer around him and turn aside to walk in cleaner paths;
No right to be understood and appreciated;
no, not by those upon whom he had poured out a double portion of his love;
No right even never to be forsaken by his Father,
the One who meant more than all to him.
His only right was silently to endure shame, spitting, blows;
to take his place as a sinner at the dock;
to bear my sins in anguish on the cross.
He had no rights. And I?
A right to the ‘comforts’ of life?
No, but a right to the love of God for my pillow.
A right to physical safety?
No, but a right to the security of being in his will.
A right to love and sympathy from those around me?
No, but a right to the friendship of the One who understands me
better than I do myself.
A right to be a leader among men?
No, but the right to be led by the One to whom I have given my all,
led as is a little child, with its hand in the hand of its father.
A right to a home, and dear ones?
No, not necessarily; but a right to dwell in the heart of God.
A right to myself? No, but, oh, I have a right to Christ.
All that he takes I will give;
All that he gives will I take;
He, my only right!
He, the one right before which all other rights fade into nothingness.
I have full right to him;
Oh, may he have full right to me!
Song – When I survey the wondrous cross
Prayers of Intercession
Mission Prayer – Home Mission (Judith/Clement)
News and Information – Clement