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Feb 19, 2017

True North | Prayer

True North | Prayer

Passage: Acts 10

Speaker: Jerry Deck

Series: True North

Category: Weekend Message

Like much of this sermon series, the hard part of preaching is coming up with a sermon that is not unreasonably long. It’s hard to speak briefly about subjects like worship and scripture and, of course, prayer is also something one could go on and on about. We could talk about prayers of praise or gratitude or confession or lament or, the most popular, intercessory prayers (where we pray for things like health and security and provision).

So, knowing that we couldn’t talk about all of these things this week I decided to focus in on this text in Acts 10 in which prayer plays such a key role. But before we dive into that specifically let’s quickly take a look at what’s going on in Acts 10. It’s clear in this story that God is working through his people in pretty remarkable ways: giving visions, shattering barriers, cultivating new relationships. The Spirit is alive in new and fresh ways. We see Cornelius, a powerful and important soldier (and a Gentile) who is experiencing God in an incredible way. We see Peter, someone who has known Jesus for a fair amount of time, being shaped by the Spirit in a way he could never have imagined. The church is clearly a living, breathing thing. Towards the end of the chapter the Spirit breaks out in a remarkable way before Peter can even finish his sermon (which is perhaps a sign that even the Spirit of God gets impatient at times with a lengthy sermon!). And then in the next chapter people from surrounding towns hear what is happening and become drawn to what God is doing and before you know it more and more people are being touched by the love and grace of Jesus. There is great vitality in the church and there’s little doubt that people felt and saw and experienced what it’s like when the Spirit of God is on the move. In times when it can feel that the church is struggling or when we wonder in our own personal lives why we don’t feel God at work more this passage can either inspire us or, if we’re honest, make us a bit depressed!

 

One of the questions then is why was the Spirit of God so alive then and what might we learn from that? Now, let’s be clear that we can’t manufacture the Spirit of God. I’ve seen people try that before and it doesn’t end well. But as we talked about a couple of years ago when we went through some of the spiritual disciplines, I do think there are things we can do to put ourselves in a better position for the Spirit of God to work. The analogy that I have borrowed and use regularly is the image of being on the shore and trying to get across a large lake. While we may not be able to conjure up a wind fast enough to carry us across the lake, we certainly can build a boat and put up a sail in the hopes that when the wind comes we will be ready to catch those winds and glide across the lake. In other words, what might these early followers of Christ have been doing that were constructing a sailboat so that they were ready for when the winds of the Spirit blew through them?

A couple of quick things that we can be reminded of is that the Spirit of God works when we put ourselves at risk, when we do things that we are uncertain of how they will work out and when we put ourselves in place we might prefer not to be. Peter tells the Gentiles that their meeting together is illegal, which means not only that they’re taking a great risk, but that Peter may not be all that certain yet that he should be there. Of course, he isn’t completely certain because he’s still trying to figure out the vision. When the three men come to get him we’re told that he’s still thinking about the vision, still wondering what to make of it. In church full of type-A people who like to have things figured out before we move forward, this might be a good lesson to us that we may need to move forward on things before we necessarily have it all figured out. Sometimes the Spirit just wants us to push away from the shore and to figure it out as we go along.

I also love how, early on, Peter asks the Gentiles who have gathered why they sent for him. In other words, he wants to know why he is there. This reminds me of several weeks ago when we talked about the importance of putting ourselves in vulnerable positions where we might say, “Now, why exactly am I here,” or even if we’re honest, “Why did I come here?!” It’s been great to hear some folks who have put themselves in vulnerable positions over the last few weeks in response to the call of the Spirit. Whether it’s going to a Great Banquet or joining a home group or inviting someone into your home or whatever it may be, frequently the Spirit of God will come alive most when we are willing to put ourselves in place where we are not in control and where we are not comfortable. 

But, today what I want us to focus on is how critical prayer was to allowing the Spirit to run rampant in their ranks. Cornelius, we are told, was a man who was generous and who prayed constantly. He had a vision at 3:00 and the reason we’re given the exact time is because 3:00 is a time when people typically prayed. So, we can assume that Cornelius was praying when God spoke to him. Then Peter, we are explicitly told, was up on the roof praying when he himself had a vision from God. I’m not sure either of them were expecting to have a vision from God, in fact we’re told that Cornelius was afraid and Peter (as we already mentioned) was somewhat confused by it, but, and this is critical, they both had put themselves in position to be interrupted by God.

In many ways this is perhaps a part of prayer that we don’t mention as frequently which is that prayer, while it can be many things (praise, gratitude, lament, intercessory) is also simply creating space where God can interrupt us and speak to us. It’s important to see that Acts doesn’t just say that Peter prayed, but that he went up on the roof, in other words, he got away from the noise, from the hustle and bustle, in order to create space for God. The truth, of course, is that yes God can and does speak in the middle of the chaos of our world and our lives and we can pray in the midst of all of that and certainly God can interrupt us in the midst of that. And yet, perhaps there are also more times than we might fathom, that God yearns to speak to us but we are too loud to even notice.

One of my favorite passages is from I Kings 19. The prophet Elijah is growing weary and wants to give up and so God, knowing that Elijah needs to be revitalized tells him to go stand on the mountain and that God would pass by him or show himself to be present in his life. So, Elijah went into a cave and waited for God. I Kings says:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

In this instance, at least, God was not in the noise of splitting mountains or breaking rocks or wind or earthquakes or fire, but in the silence. How often, I wonder, do we miss out on God because we do not create space for silence? How might the Spirit work through us if we were willing to build a boat that, at times, required silence before God? That prayer is not just talking or praising or beseeching. At times it is just…being…present.

So, what keeps us from creating space for silence with God? One obvious reason is because of the fact that we are busy. Really, really busy. This is something that we address from time to time and with good reason. We have to be able to create margin, so that we can be still and listen for God who, at times, speaks in the quiet and not in the noise of our lives. It’s a bit like the difference between when we drive through our neighborhood versus walking through it. Friday night, because it was so nice, we decided to walk to Bub’s rather than drive there and as we did we of course saw so many more things then when we drive. We saw an abandoned building that we got to talk about and found uneven sidewalks that we tripped over and heard birds chirping in the warmth, all things that we would have missed had we simply gotten in the van and quickly gotten to Bub’s. We discover new things, see new things, hear new things, experience new things when we slow down rather than driving by them with our windows up and our radio on. We notice things that are there, but we simply are going to fast to see them. What might we see and hear and experience about God when we slow down enough to notice what the Spirit of God is up to?

Many of us also wrestle with silence because we may have something in our lives that we’d prefer to not face and staying busy or keeping our mind occupied keeps us from having to do that. I shared the story a while back about driving around with my sister and nephew when he was just a few years old and how my sister would keep pointing out things that I thought were not all that interesting until I finally looked the opposite way of where she was pointing and realizing that each time she pointed out something on this side of the van that there was a playground on the other side of the van. She knew that if she could distract my nephew about what was going on over there that he would miss the playground and we would have the burden of having to hear his screams to go play. Many of us, most of us, perhaps all of us have burdens that we like to avoid like loneliness or insecurities or anxieties or relationship difficulties and if we can distract ourselves with noise, whether it be busyness or television or this or that then we don’t have to face them. So we stay away from silence, even silence before God, so that we can remain distracted, but in so doing we not only are avoiding honestly facing those difficult things we must face, but we may also be avoiding God and what God longs to do in us and through us.

But I also have wondered whether or not a part of the reason why we struggle with being still, with being quiet, with opening ourselves up to perhaps hear from God and be exposed to how the Spirit of God might work through us in remarkable ways, is because we are afraid of being bored. Maybe we’ve tried to be quiet before God and we got bored or maybe we just don’t even try it because we know that we’re going to be bored. I mean it’s easy for me to stand up here and say that we need to be less distracted at times, so that we can be open to being interrupted by God, but the truth is that while we all may nod we also like living lives of distraction either because we don’t want to face what’s going on in our lives or because we’re deathly afraid of being bored.

Let me be honest, at times I find prayer to be a bit boring. Now I realize that may sound strange coming from a pastor, so let me be clear. I can get into intercessory prayer where you are praying for something or someone and I count it a real honor to pray over or with those who are struggling and in need of a touch from God. But, for a long time I would try and sit in a place and be quiet and still and my mind would start wandering or I’d want to fall asleep or I just got tired of sitting there and then I would feel guilty and so eventually it would always just turn into a prayer of confession as I asked forgiveness for my boredom, which at least gave me something to pray for!

Boredom, as you know, is a cultural sin. We have headphones and video games that keep our minds distracted. We have satellite radio or Pandora so that we don’t ever have to get bored by sitting through a whole song we don’t like. When we’re standing in line someplace or when we’re listening to a long talk by someone, particularly a preacher, we pull out our smartphones and find something that will rid us of our boredom. Or maybe we’re at home and no one is around and we’re bored we can just turn on the television so that we can be distracted. None of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves, but they all can easily become things to fill our lives so that we aren’t bored and we can easily get seduced into thinking that boredom is not just a cultural sin, but is a true sin.

But then a few years ago an article I read introduced me to the idea that boredom is not a sin at all, but is actually really important. Research, on children and adults, has shown that boredom is critical when it comes to developing imaginations and creativity. That boredom is a necessary ingredient to cultivating creativity, new ways of thinking. Perhaps one could say that being bored is helpful in coming up with a vision for doing something differently. 

Now, am I saying that Peter was bored when he was up there praying? I don’t know that for sure, though we are told that at other times the disciples were bored enough with their praying that they fell asleep. And I’m not saying that Peter’s vision for something new was just a result of his being bored. But might not God have created us in such a way that it is when we are free of distractions, when we are in a place where there is nothing but us, our boredom and God, that he can finally begin to give us a new vision of what the Spirit longs for. I am saying that when we are continually entertained, distracted and going from one thing to another, it is more difficult for the Spirit to interrupt our lives and give us a new, bold vision for what God is doing. I am saying that when we intentionally put ourselves in places (like a roof of a building) to get away from it all, we might get bored, but rather than fleeing from that we should fully embrace it and ask how God might speak to us, not in spite of that boredom, but because of it.

Might the boredom that some of us feel when we create space to be quiet, be the sanding down of our boat, the threading of our sails, that prepares us to catch the vision, the winds of the Spirit? I know it sounds strange, but what if embracing the boredom that sometimes comes when we are quiet and still, did not cause us to slumber, but instead to wake up to the revitalizing, renewing and reenergizing power of the Spirit of God? Where might we go? Who might we meet? What new experiences might we encounter?

Why don’t we create some space this week to pray, to be still, to listen, to wait? What if we take just 10 minutes a day to stop our busyness, for some of us perhaps to face the playgrounds that we’ve been avoiding, or simply to take the risk of being bored. There’s no agenda, no guilt, no right or wrong way, just you being quiet for 10 minutes a day. Oh I’m not sure that you’ll have a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven with various animals on it, but perhaps your mind will be drawn to something that may just be the wind of the Spirit working. Perhaps something as simple as stopping and being still might allow us to experience God in a new way. Perhaps in being still we might sense a calling of the Spirit. And if you do, even if you don’t know exactly what it means or where it will take you, perhaps you can just begin walking or sailing and seeing where you end up. May we be still and may we feel the winds of God’s Spirit.