So far in the “School of Prayer” we’ve talked about why we pray—that prayer is asking God to come through on his promises. We’ve talked about what we pray for, following the example of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets who “called on the name of the Lord” to crush the serpent through one of the offspring of Adam and Abraham; and the example of Jesus who prayed that God would accomplish this serpent-crushing work through his own life, death, and resurrection. Jesus also prays that his disciples would carry on this mission and do even “greater things” for the gospel. Indeed, this is what “gospel-shaped prayer” is all about.
A couple of weeks ago, we then talked about how we pray—we looked at the five prayers God always answers: prayers for forgiveness, for wisdom; prayers to know God better and to have the strength to live for God; and prayers for the spread of the gospel. These are gospel-shaped prayers that give us a contact for our asking “in Jesus’ name.”
Jason then looked at some of the ways in which we pray, namely “practicing the presence” of God. But one of the other things we need to discuss is when to pray. Sure, we often turn to prayer when there is a crisis, but God invites us to more regular times of prayer. The apostle Paul encouraged the Thessalonian church to “pray without ceasing.” It’s clear from his life and from the life of Jesus that daily prayer was essential to their mission and as important to their lives as breathing.
In fact, it’s clear that Jesus’ teaching and practice of prayer rubbed off on his disciples as we see in this week’s text. Indeed, this story is one of the shining examples of what happens when people pray regularly. To use Mark Batterson’s phrase: “When regular people pray regularly, irregular things happen on a regular basis.” When we pray gospel-shaped prayers, God responds in amazing and unexpected ways.
The 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.
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. One of the questions I am often asked is, “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, a wall was broken and the gospel unleashed—all in response to gospel-shaped prayer. Jews and Gentiles together would become part of God’s family. 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 make the time, and find the place, every day, to pray gospel-shaped prayers for you, your loved ones, your church, and the world?
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 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.
A little window into my practice: I like to begin each day by reading the Scriptures, because it allows God to have the first word in my day. I use the Moravian Daily Text lectionary, which takes you through the Bible over the course of a couple of years. I read part of a psalm, an Old Testament Lesson, and a New Testament Lesson. I then listen for the word God wants me to hear—a particular verse or word or phrase that leapt out to me as I read. And then I write that down in my prayer journal and use it to guide my prayers, which I write out every day (it keeps me focused). I have also begun to pray in the evening before bed, using the Examen prayer as a way of evaluating the day with God. Noon time prayer over a meal or fasting one meal a week also helps to focus my time. These are times that I schedule with God…and I need to schedule them. It’s the most important appointment of my day. It doesn’t really matter what kind of practice you use, it’s just important to spend time each day in regular prayer—not as an obligation, but as a way of asking God to advance his mission through you.
But it’s not just individual prayer that matters. 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 daily prayer.
Only when we pray regularly do irregular things begin happening on a regular basis!