Friday, September 20, 2013

Prayer and the Purposes of God

I wrote two different homilies for this Sunday, one based on the Epistle and the other on the Gospel.  I'll preach the Gospel and post that one later, but here is the one for Sunday's Epistle reading....

September 22, 2013: The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Timothy 2:1–8
Prayer and the Purposes of God

On September 7, 2013, 100,000 people joined Pope Francis for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world. Across the globe, millions more participated. It had seemed inevitable that the U.S. would launch some level of attack on Syria, but––dare we say, miraculously––Russia offered an alternative that has prevented a military strike. Is it coincidence that a day of prayer and fasting was called by the Church? Can prayer really have that kind of effect in our world?

Behind the words of this letter is a story. This story has a setting and characters––Paul and Timothy and false teachers in a congregation at long-ago Ephesus. Jesus said and did certain things to reveal God’s truth, and the apostles exercised great care to establish an accurate account of the facts and a right interpretation of their meaning. The words of this letter are part of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom within that story. Once we begin to see God’s wisdom in that context we can try to see what the Scripture is saying to us today.

A close look at these verses brings a focus on the subject of prayer. Prayer is a place where the presence of God and human activity intersect. One way God’s truth comes to us is through prayer. I say it again: prayer is a place where the presence of God and human activity intersect. So the work of prayer lies at the center of church life. The work of prayer lies at the heart of personal faith. Prayer undergirds order, both in the church and in the world-at-large.

God created people to have influence––even a measure of control––over what happens on earth. That’s one implication of humanity as special creation, in God’s image. When the Man and Woman disobey God they have a horrible effect on life in this world. Even today there is a sense in which people who disobey God are “praying” to the spiritual forces of evil (some do this intentionally; most do it in sheer ignorance), and this affects the world negatively. On the other hand, people who know God and desire to obey him exercise a good spiritual influence; when they pray according to God’s will, they “cooperate” with God in ways that give life in the world.

This kind of understanding can be found in ancient Christian writings. Theodoret (ca. 393–466) was a bishop who offered these thoughts: “The central purpose of prayer is the cultivation of that good order, peace and godliness that make the authentic practice of Christian faith possible, such that the peace represented in the union of united human and divine natures in Christ becomes manifest in the world.”

This is one reason Paul gives this call to prayer for the civil order. God’s people need to pray for people who have the role of civil authority in this world. As hard as it is for us to grasp the idea, God’s power and mercy and grace are released in a special way to intervene and even bless civil leaders when his people, exercising their God-given spiritual authority on earth, ask him to do this. There is a general good for everyone: that we may live peaceful and quiet lives... (2:2).

There is also a specific reason for Christians to pray for civil order, and it is tied into the ultimate purpose of God for this world: that the people he created to know him can best learn who God is and what he has done to fix this broken world. Here is the heart of God, given with full apostolic authority: I was appointed a herald and an apostle―I am telling the truth, I am not lying... (2:7). What is the heart of God? God... wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (2:4).

How can that happen? Remember that the context here is prayer. Again, prayer is a place where the presence of God and human activity intersect. We must always start with God, and the undergirding truth of who God is and what he has done is affirmed here: there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men (2:5,6).

So if God has done this through his Son, and if God desires the salvation of all, what more is there to say or do? Isn’t God Sovereign? Won’t God do what he wants to do anyway? Paul says that we are to pray! The Scriptures do not give us a neat formula for how prayer or salvation work. God does sometimes seem to sovereignly “grab” a person and save him. Other times there is a witness or a presentation of the gospel followed by a challenge for people to choose their response. Interwoven in this is the thread of human action on behalf of others―prayer. God has made it possible for his people to pray other people into salvation. We can pray so that the call of God on a person makes him unable to say “no.”

So here are two substantial things where the the prayers of God’s people work in our world. First, prayer releases God to work through the civil process of our world. Second, prayer enhances and expands God’s saving work through the gospel.

What do you expect when you pray? I confess that I am far too weak in this area. But... prayer does not depend on our understanding! The power of prayer is unleashed when we do it!!

Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us some specific things to pray for as he wrote to Timothy so long ago. May the Lord help us to be people of prayer.

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