Note: This is Part 6 of a series of sermons based on Pastor J.D. Greear’s study, Gospel Revolutions.
Part 1, Gospel Change
Part 2, Gospel Discovery
Part 3, Gospel Acceptance
Part 4, Gospel Approval
Part 5, Gospel Response
Part 6, Gospel Faith
Part 7, Substitute Gospels (Coming March 18, 2012)
Part 8, Gospel Depth (Coming March 25, 2012)
Text: John 15:1-8
In the aftermath of the recent tornadoes that devastated parts of Indiana, Kentucky, Alabama, and so on, Pat Robertson, of The 700 Club, made waves when he suggested that if enough people had prayed, the storms could have been stilled.
John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Michigan, and well known for his views based on Reformed Theology, took away something different from those same storms. Believing strongly in the sovereignty of God, because the tornadoes happened, Piper understands that they were the will of God. And as the will of God, no amount of Christian prayers could have turned them aside.
These are two opposing views of prayer. Robertson says that quantity of prayers could have changed the outcome of those storms. Piper indicates that God’s sovereign control is undeniable, and no amount of praying will change it.
What should we think about the effectiveness of our prayers? Is Pat Robertson right in his assessment? Is John Piper right? When we read verses like John 15:7, where it says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” how do we understand them? How do we understand them when facing natural disasters like tornadoes or tsunamis, plagues like cancer, events like the loss of a job, or terrorist attacks in schools or public places?
Earlier in John, in 14:13, the apostle records Jesus saying, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” In Matthew 7:7, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Or James 1:5-6, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting.” Perhaps doubt was the problem of those who were praying in Henryville and West Liberty as the storms bore down?
James closed out his letter with perhaps the most frustrating passage on the power of prayer. In James 5:13-18 the leader of the Jerusalem church wrote,
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
The accounts of Elijah’s prayers are recorded in 1 Kings 17 and 18.
If you find yourself frustrated at not having Elijah’s effectiveness in praying, you are not alone. In Mark 9, a father brought his son to the disciples for help. The son, we learn, had a demon that caused him to be mute, would send into convulsions, and made proximity to water or fire a life-threatening proposition. In Mark 9:18, the father tells Jesus, “So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” After Jesus cast out the demon and returned the healed boy to his father, the disciples later asked the Lord why they had been unable to cast it out. Jesus answered in verse 29, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
In Matthew’s account of the same demonic boy, Jesus further explains why the commands of the disciples were ineffective on this demon. He says this in Matthew 17:20 in answer to the same question, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus answered, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you."
So can we or can we not cast out demons? Can we or can we not calm storms? Can we or can we not heal the sick? Can we or can we not forgive the sinful? Can we or can we not move mountains? Do we or do we not have sufficient righteousness to accomplish the impossible by our prayers?
What is the Gospel Faith that gives us the kind of power that Jesus promises we can have, the kind of power that Pat Robertson believes could have stopped the March 2 tornadoes, the kind of power that can cure cancer, provide jobs, and evict demons? What is it that we as 21st century American believers are missing in our faith that makes our prayers so weak? Why is it our experience that mountains stay grounded, that storms remain destructively powerful, that family members and friends suffer? Why is it that we surrender to a reality that says we are powerless to do anything? Why do we accept a belief that says our prayers are not powerful? Why, when Jesus says, “nothing will be impossible for you?”
I think the challenge to our prayers is that we have forgotten three truths about prayer that we need to remember. And when we remember them, I fully believe that we can experience the kind of power in our prayer that Elijah tapped into when he stopped and then restarted the rain, the kind of power that Jesus promises and James describes.
I think we have forgotten in our praying one, what God wants to do, two, what God is willing to do, and three, what God is able to do.
First, what God wants to do. I quoted John 14:13 earlier, and I’ll repeat it here. There, Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” You see, God has some very specific interests that guide all of His work and actions. Those interests do not include your health, your bank account, or your reputation. God is primarily interested in one thing: His own glory. Jesus says that He will do whatever we ask in His name specifically so that God the Father might receive glory from God the Son.
The power of prayer is not some mystical access to an amazing vending machine that can dispense our any whim, whether they be miracles, healings, convenient parking spaces, beautiful postcard sunsets, or winning lottery tickets. Jesus answers our prayers so that He can bring glory to God the Father. That is the singular reason.
Everything that God does centers on bringing glory back to Himself. This is what God is interested in. Not your nest egg, not your hangnail, not even the tornado bearing down on your house. Don’t get me wrong. God is interested in these things. But He is not interested in these things unto themselves. He is interested in these things as far as Jesus, who is God the Son, can bring glory to God the Father through them.
If the glorifying of God is achieved better by cancer than by no cancer, then cancer it is. If it is achieved better by disastrous storms than by perfect weather, then storms it will be. It this is achieved better by suffering, hardship, sickness, disease, wounds, terror, or disaster, then so be it. God will be glorified. And everything He does is to bring glory back to Himself. In that sense, John Piper is right. For if what we pray for will in any way diminish the glory that God is able to receive, then it falls outside the scope of verses like John 14:13 and Jesus’ promise to grant us whatever we ask.
Lest you think that this means that God is selfish, mean-spirited, greedy, or some kind of cosmic bully, interested only in Himself, consider any of the accounts where people find themselves in the presence of God, and their resulting reactions. Adam and Eve in the Garden after eating the fruit. They stood naked and ashamed and refused to sully God’s presence with their knowledge of their nakedness. The people of Israel at Mt. Sinai were terrified by the goings on up the mountain. Job repented in dust and ashes when finally fully confronted by God, even though God never gave Him any kind of answers as to why Job had endured so much. Isaiah, in just a vision, considered himself dead for being in the throne room of God.
God is worthy of all of the glory that we can bring Him. All of it. No matter the cost. This is not a selfish or greedy God. This is just who God is, and what we will all recognize fully when every knee finally bows before God, and every tongue finally confesses that He is Lord, as every knee and tongue will ultimately do.
Our praying is only as powerful as it brings God the glory He deserves. When our prayers bring God glory, then they are righteous, holy, redeemed, and powerful. But only then. If our prayers do not bring God glory, then they will be empty and ignored. The powerful prayers of Gospel faith are prayers for God’s glory and nothing less. This is what God wants to do. This is when our prayers will be powerful.
Second, we must remember in our praying what it is that God is willing to do. To what lengths will God go in order to bring Himself the glory that is rightfully His? With what measurement can we sound out how far God is willing to go in answering our prayers that bring Him glory? There is only one measurement, and we read it best in Philippians 2 that describes the mind of Christ that is bent on bringing glory to God the Father. Listen to what Paul writes there:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
This then is the measure of God’s willingness to act in answering our prayers. The measuring rod is the cross itself. And the answer is, God will hold nothing back, not even His own Son. God will go to any length. God, indeed, will answer any request, He will do anything we ask that brings Him glory. If He is willing to send the Son to die on a cross, what would He withhold? Nothing! As long as the request allows the Son to bring glory to the Father, God holds nothing back. He will move mountains and calm storms and heal the sick and bind up the brokenhearted and restore two-fold that which was taken. God will go to any length, as He shows us in going to the cross.
What does God want to do? He wants to bring glory to Himself. What is God willing to do? Anything that accomplishes point one. He reserves nothing that accomplishes His primary objective.
When we pray remembering what God wants to do and remembering what God is willing to do, we are on the verge of the powerful prayers of Elijah and James that Jesus tells us in John will be able to accomplish even the impossible. But there is one more thing to remember.
That third is this: what is God able to do? Having a willingness to do something is a far cry from having the ability to do it. I could be very willing to hand out million dollar checks to everyone present today, but I do not have the ability to do so. Every check would bounce! So we must ask the question as we figure out powerful, answerable prayers: what is God able to do? What is the extent of God’s power?
Several portions of Scripture come to mind. There the bush that burned but was not consumed in Exodus 3. We could look to the terrifying display of the tenth plague that takes every firstborn son in the land of Egypt. We could look at water turned into wine, Lazarus back from the dead, or five thousand men, plus their families, fed by five loaves and two fish. More dramatically, we could look to Genesis 1 and the account of creation ex nihilo – from nothing.
There is a funny illustration told about scientists declaring boldly all the things that they can now accomplish based on what they have learned about the world. In the story, scientists have even garnered the ability to take dust and make life out of it. They come to God and proudly tout their ability to make life out of dust, and they challenge God to a demonstration of their equality. God agrees. Everything gets set up and the scientists are all ready for the showdown. The time comes, and they lift the cover off their tray only to find it empty. They accuse God: if we’re going to show you how to make life out of dirt, we need the dirt. To which God says: make your own dirt. That’s what I do.
Surely creation is a phenomenal act. But creation is undone in Genesis 3 by the wiles of the serpent who brings to the pristine Garden the debacle that is death. God, the creator of life, undone by its opposite: death.
This indicates where we need to turn to measure God’s power. God’s power is best measured by what we celebrate every Sunday, and particularly on Easter: the resurrection. This is God’s power: life from death itself. This is the measure of what God can do. Not just raise the dead so that they can live a longer life but still eventually die. But to defeat death so that it loses its sting, is emptied of its power. The one who accomplishes this really can accomplish anything.
As we pray, we need to remember what God wants to do. We need to ask in accordance with what God is willing to do. And we need to expect a response in accordance to what God is able to do in His power. So as we pray for God’s glory, we pray bold prayers that expect wondrous things not so that your relative can be healed, but so that Jesus might glorify the Father. We expect mountains to move, not so that we can have flat land, but so that Jesus may glorify the Father.
Pray then, in this way. Pray with a compassion that matches the cross. Pray with a power that matches the resurrection. And pray in the expectation that God will receive all the glory.
When we start measuring our prayers according to these reminders, our prayers will be transformed. We cease to pray for people on a prayer list. Instead, we pray for a list of people so that God will be glorified. We stop praying for the effectiveness of missionaries. We pray that missionaries might be effective so that God might be glorified.
Moses demonstrates this. In Numbers 14, the ten spies of Israel have just returned from exploring the Promised Land. Eight of them were highly discouraging while Caleb and Joshua were very encouraging. The people rose up and complained about the difficulties of taking the land, and they started to stone Joshua, Caleb, Aaron, and Moses. And this is where the story picks up in Numbers 14:10:
10 Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.
11 And the LORD said to Moses, "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? 12 I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they."
13 But Moses said to the LORD, "Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O LORD, are in the midst of this people. For you, O LORD, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now."
20 Then the LORD said, "I have pardoned, according to your word.
Moses appealed to God and prayed on behalf of the people according to God’s attributes and what would bring glory to His Name. That was the basis of the power of Moses that even allowed a man to change the mind of God. God responds to his prayer by relenting and by pardoning the people. This is powerful prayer. This is what we can do when we pray in accordance with these three principles. We can even change the mind of God, against what John Piper might preach. Moses did, and God – not Moses – received all the glory.
Pray powerfully. Pray, remembering what God wants to do, what God is willing to do in view of the cross, and what God is able to do in view of the resurrection.
Let’s pray now.