In ancient Israel there was a man named Honi, which later generations also knew as Onias. You won’t find his story in the Bible but in some of the history of Israel surrounding the Bible, like in the Mishnah (a first/second century AD piece of rabbinic literature that captures some of the extra-biblical stories of Israel) and in the writings of first century historian Flavius Josephus. Many of the stories told by these early historians is fascinating, and the story of Honi is one of the more interesting and powerful.
Honi was known as a man who prayed and had a special relationship with God. His prayers were full-bodied, long, and persistent. Josephus, who was always skeptical of miracle workers, called Honi a “righteous man” who was “beloved of God” and whose prayers God was always answering in powerful ways. In the first century BC, Israel experienced a severe drought and the people came to Honi pleading that he might pray to God for rain. Honi prayed as usual but, uncharacteristically, nothing happened; so, he decided to double down on his prayers. Honi took his staff and he drew a circle around himself in the sand and stood within it and then he prayed this prayer:
“O Lord of the world, your children have turned their faces to me…I swear by your great name that I will not move from this circle until you have mercy on your children.” That’s a bold prayer. Who knows how long he would have to stay in that circle? We don’t actually know how long he did stay there. But the Mishnah says that at some point, it began to rain—first in little droplets, then with violence—so much so that Honi said to God, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness.” In other words, “not so much, Lord!” The story became legend, and Honi’s prayer was heralded as “a prayer that saved a generation.”
Have you ever prayed like that? I know that I haven’t, at least not very often. Like we surveyed at the beginning of the service, I’m pretty sure that I don’t pray too much—more likely, not enough. And I don’t know about you but often my prayers are about really small things in the grand perspective—healing for those who are sick, prayers of worry over little things…I even know someone who prays that might find a better parking spot at the mall. Yes, we should pray for healing for those who are sick and hurting, and we should give God our little worries, though I think God would probably prefer that we walk a little more from the car to the front door. The story of Honi, however, convicts me—do we pray big prayers? Do we pray in ways that reveal our confidence in the power of God to do anything? Do we take seriously Jesus’ invitation that whatever we ask in his name, he will do it? We need to learn to pray like we’re standing in a circle.
This was the concern of Jesus’ disciples as well. When they asked Jesus to teach them something did they ask, “Lord, teach us to preach?” or “Lord, teach us to lead?” No, their fervent request of Jesus, who was a master of prayer, was “Lord, teach us to pray—teach us to pray bold, world-altering, generation-saving prayers.”
After all, we know that God can do big things. In one of the most famous circle stories in the Bible, God tells Joshua to circle march the people of Israel around the fortress of Jericho for a week and then shout and blow some trumpets and the walls would fall down. Scripture doesn’t tell us how Joshua got this message, but I’m thinking it happened while he was at prayer. This isn’t good military strategy—indeed it must have looked ridiculous to the citizens of Jericho standing on the walls. But God delivered on his promises in a big, surprising, and powerful way when those walls came down. Wouldn’t you like to be able to pray like that? Wouldn’t you like to be able to see walls come down in your life, in the life of our world, in ways that reveal the power and glory of God’s kingdom? I know I would. The Bible reveals to us again and again a powerful principle: God honors bold prayers because bold prayers honor God.
But how does this work? And even more importantly, how does it not work? Let me be clear up front that we’re not talking about manipulating God here to get what WE want for ourselves. Many people think of God as something like a cosmic vending machine that spits out what we want if we just put in enough prayer quarters and want it enough. This is the problem with a lot of pop “me-ology” like The Secret and The Prayer of Jabez, as well as my one critique of Mark Batterson’s book, The Circle Maker. We’re using his book as a study in conjunction with our series and there’s a lot of good stuff there, but he sometimes implies that our primary focus is getting God to give us what we want. As I’ve said many times, the opposite is often true: God often punishes us by giving us exactly what WE want and what we think will make us happy.
No, the kind of prayer we’re talking about is praying for God to do what GOD wants to do in us and through us. As Jesus said, we can do even greater things than he did for God, but only if we’re willing to submit to God’s will. “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven” is an important part of the prayer Jesus taught us. It keeps us from selfish prayers, but it also invites us to expand our imagination for God’s kingdom. Jesus taught us to pray that the life, the power of the kingdom of heaven would invade earth and change it, and if that’s the case then our bold prayers invite God to bold action in and through our lives for the world.
So, then, how does this work? For that we turn to another wall-breaking story in the book of Acts—chapter 10. It’s a story of what can happen when two people pray circles around God’s will.
It begins with a man named Cornelius, who was a Roman centurion—a military commander—the kind of person that people in Israel loved to hate. And yet Luke tells us in verse 2 that “he and his whole household were pious, Gentile God-worshippers. He gave generously to those in need and [look at this] he prayed to God constantly.” Now, it doesn’t say how Cornelius prayed, it’s just that he did it constantly, consistently, powerfully. He honored God with his prayers given that we are told this only in verse 2, we know something big is coming because of his faithfulness in prayer. That illustrates one of the most important tenets of prayer: When you pray regularly, irregular things happen on a regular basis.
Now look at verse 3. “One day at nearly 3:00 in the afternoon he clearly saw an angel of God in a vision.” Now, has that ever happened to you? I can’t say that it’s happened to me. You have to wonder how long, how many years Cornelius prayed constantly—but “one day” God answered in a powerful way. I was asked a question on the men’s retreat last week: “What if we pray for something over and over and it doesn’t seem like God’s answering. How long do we keep praying for it?” I don’t know. But we pray constantly looking for that one day God will answer according to his will. We may pray so long that we forgot about what we prayed for in the first place, but God doesn’t forget. Our prayers have no expiration date. Look at the what the angel says next to Cornelius, “Your prayers and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to God.” Cornelius had spent time with God for so long that he had built a memorial to God—an offering of himself in prayer and obedience—and God remembered him.
I’ve known a few people in my life who’ve prayed like that. My mom prayed like that. She used to stick little notes in my lunchbox telling me she was praying for my day. I would see her at prayer at the kitchen table, and deep in prayer at church (and I knew that wasn’t the time to ask for gum). I really believe that I am the product of her prayers—her memorial to God. Too often we spend our lives building monuments to ourselves—houses, bank accounts, titles—but the memorials that last are those that are given to God. It’s amazing how many time in Scripture it says that God “remembered” someone and their situation—it’s not that God forgets, it’s that God honors the memorial of prayer and devotion given to him. Regular prayer builds a memorial to God that will outlast any other. It will even outlast us.
The angel tells Cornelius to send some men to get the apostle Peter, a Jew and one of the disciples of Jesus, and bring him back so that Cornelius can speak with him. Cornelius immediately dispatches two servants and one of his lieutenants, also a God-fearer, to fetch the apostle. Caesarea and Joppa are about 32 miles apart, but it might as well have been a world away. The wall between Jews like Peter and Gentiles like Cornelius was fixed and seemingly unbreakable. Jews were forbidden to go into Gentile homes because it would ritually defile them, not to mention eating anything that wasn’t kosher. The likelihood of Peter coming to Caesarea was virtually nil.
But look at verse 9—at noon on the following day, Peter was up on the roof of the house he was staying at and what was he doing there? He went up there to pray, which he also did every day. It was probably his regular custom to pray there. You know, that’s one of the keys to a consistent prayer life—having a set time and place to pray. I pray at 5:30 every morning in my study at home. It’s become my routine, and like Peter I’m hungry because I haven’t had breakfast yet. Where do you pray? Do you have a place where you commune with God? I was in England a few years ago and visited John Wesley’s house in London. One of the things that impressed me was that he had a room set aside just for prayer. In there was a little wooden kneeling bench, a Bible, a chair, and not much else. It was from that place, however, that a movement of God caught fire and changed thousands of lives. What could God do through you if you had a regular place to pray? It could just be beside your bed every morning or evening—anywhere. Where are you building your memorial to God?
Well, like Cornelius, Peter is praying in his regular place at the regular time, he has a vision. In this vision, however, heaven itself opened and a large sheet descended. Inside the sheet were a myriad of animals, most of which were unclean for Jews to eat, and a voice told him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” It’s an unusual vision, for sure. When Cornelius gets his vision, he immediately sends his entourage to fetch a Jew to his home, no questions asked. When Peter gets his vision, however—a clear command of God to violate long-standing rules about dietary laws—rules that God himself had previously given, what’s Peter’s response? “Absolutely not, Lord!” No way! He starts an argument with God, even after God gives him the same dream three times as a way of saying, yes, this is me, God, talking to you!
Anybody here ever gotten into an argument with God? I have. Prayer is often an opportunity to do that. But here’s the thing: If you ever win an argument with God, you will be the loser. You will miss what God wants for you because whatever you “win” is only for yourself. On the other hand, whenever you lose an argument with God, you will ultimately win. You will then be in God’s will and doing what he wants. When Peter’s dream is finished, there’s a knock at the door—three Gentiles asking for him to come with them to Caesarea. And if he didn’t get it before, the Holy Spirit prodded him again (v. 19), “Look! Three people are looking for you. Go downstairs. Don’t ask questions because I have sent them.” Peter lost the argument, went to Cornelius’ house, and the whole world won. The impossible became a reality.
Verse 25 is very simple, but it’s one of the most powerful verses in all the Bible: “As Peter entered the house…” As Peter entered the house of Cornelius, a wall was broken. Jews and Gentiles together would become part of God’s family. How many of you here are Jewish today? Exactly. Our gathering here in Monument, Colorado, would not have been possible had two men not been at regular prayer, in regular places, waiting for a divine appointment. They put themselves in the circle, and God answered in powerful and unexpected ways.
John Wesley called prayer “the grand means of drawing near to God.” It is essential to the Christian life, to the work of Christ’s church, and to our participation in God’s mission in the world. But as Mark Batterson puts it, “God won’t answer 100% of the prayers that we don’t pray.” Paul tells in Romans 8 that the Holy Spirit prays for us, but we are called to join in. Jesus said that without prayer that keeps us connected to him, the true vine, we will whither. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” he says in John 15. But with him, we can go even greater things than he did. We can bear much fruit for him and his kingdom.
Are we willing to put ourselves in a place to dream God’s dream for us and for the world? Are we willing to draw circles around those walls and barriers that get in the way? Are we willing to make the time, and find the place, to pray without ceasing?
I want to invite you during this next month to dedicate yourself to daily prayer. I know it’s a struggle sometimes. Believe me, I’ve been there. So many things vie for our attention—even many good things that we give our time to. But I have found that when I consistently give myself to circle time with God each day, I’m the one that changes. God meets me there—not in visions (at least not yet) but in his still small voice that speaks into my life and gives me lenses through which to the view the world the way he does. It’s there that I draw circles around the walls that keep me from being and doing God’s best.
But it’s not just individual prayer that matters. We are called to pray together, to draw circles around the big things God wants us to do and to be together for his kingdom. The church that dedicates itself to prayer both individually and corporately gets big dreams that we can’t accomplish on our own. The early church sought to save a generation in a dangerous world because its members devoted themselves to hearing the Word of God, to breaking bread together, and to regular prayer. We are a church in the midst of generation that needs saving as well. Just look around and it’s easy to see that there are problems that we cannot solve on our own. It’s very easy to play at church without God’s help—but a church that neglects prayer will never build a memorial to God. I want to call Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church to be a church that gives priority to prayer—a priority that begins with each of us.
Throughout this series we want to give you some tools, tips, and opportunities to begin a regular life of prayer or to deepen it if you already have one. Our daily devotions, blogs, and social media will focus on topics surrounding prayer. If you’re looking for personal guidance (and accountability) on setting up a regular prayer time, please give me or Joe a call. There are also several folks in our congregation who are prayer warriors who would love to help you. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter how you pray, it only matters that you pray. It’s a means of grace and when you draw that circle, God will meet you there.
We may never be rainmakers, but we can be great pray-ers!
The outline of this sermon was inspired by a lecture I heard Mark Batterson give at the UMC Large Initiative Conference at Mt. Pisgah UMC near Atlanta, Georgia in April of 2014.