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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

June 26, 2016

Praying for Others

Exodus 32:1-14; Colossians 1:9-11

All too often we hear of friends or even family members who are going through a challenging time and are deeply concerned about themselves or one dear to them. Often, our first response when a friend tells us that she has been diagnosed with a serious illness is to say, “I will be praying for you.”  Or when someone we know loses a family member, we send a note or a card with words that provide assurance of our prayers for their comfort.  Or we hear of people’s lives impacted by floods in West Virginia, fires in California, acts of terrorism in far too many places, and we want to pray for them.

There are other times we pray for people who are not in any apparent crisis. We want to pray for our children or parents or other loved ones in a more general way because we cannot possibly think of all the potential dangers lurking on untrodden pathways before them.  We want to offer prayers to safeguard our loved ones from a problem or life crisis.  The verses from Colossians we are studying today teach us about how to hold others before God in prayer in the whole of their lives and relationships with God.

Paul is writing to a Christian community in Colossae after receiving news about the community from Epaphras, the founder of the community in Colossae and one of Paul’s fellow servants in the mission field. Paul received as good and welcome news the report of the congregation’s faith in Jesus Christ and of their love for all Christ’s followers.  The congregation’s growing faith is bearing fruit through their Christian acts of love.  But Paul also has reason to be concerned, for the young Christian community has been exposed to false teachings that Paul regards as leading them astray from the true Christian faith.

 Paul tells the community that they had heard from Epaphras of their Christian faith and their love for the saints, and they have not stopped praying for them.  Then Paul tells them the essence of those prayers, prayers that point them to God and seek to pull them closer to God.  Paul does not just tell the Colossians, “I have been praying for you.”   Paul tells them what he has prayed, describing the essence of their prayer requests for their spiritual growth and maturity.  

It is interesting to note what Paul’s prayers do not include. He does not pray for freedom from challenges, suffering, persecution or trials, or even for wealth, physical comfort, health or happiness.  Paul, writing this letter from prison, knows what it means to suffer persecution, hardship and physical discomfort for one’s Christian faith.   Yet, Paul does not pray that they be spared suffering.  He prays a prayer that may have inspired the advice given by the Episcopalian clergyman, Phillips Brooks:

“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.  Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers.  Pray for powers equal to your tasks.  Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.”

Paul is praying that the Colossae community will be so filled with the knowledge of God’s will and so strong in their Christian faith that they will bear fruit in the form of good works and endure everything with patience. Paul is praying that they will be a living miracle.

We can learn from Paul’s prayers about how to pray for others.

First, Paul informs the Colossians that he is praying for them and that he is praying often. In fact, Paul says “we have not ceased praying for you” since receiving news of their faith in Christ Jesus and of their love for all the saints.  Paul has enlisted his partners in ministry to offer prayers for them as well.  We can let people know we are praying for them and offer our prayers for others daily and even throughout the day as we go about our various activities.  We can ask others to pray as well.

Second, Paul tells the Colossians in the verses we studied last week that he and his colleagues always thank God for the Colossian’s Christian faith and love. We can begin our prayers for others with expressions of gratitude for the gift of prayer and for the positive attributes, qualities, opportunities and resources of the ones for whom we pray.

Third, Paul prays that the Christians in Colossae will know God’s will and receive spiritual wisdom and understanding. Paul goes on to pray that this knowledge and spiritual wisdom will lead them to live lives pleasing to God and bearing fruit through good works and growing knowledge of God.  Yet, lives pleasing to God are often not easy lives.  So Paul prays that they will be made strong with God’s strength and power and be prepared to endure everything with patience. 

 Paul’s prayer requests focus on God’s will for the community and yet, his prayers are far from specific on how the will of God should be accomplished.  Who among us is wise enough to tell God what should happen in our lives or the lives of others?  Paul is focused on the goal: a community of spiritually mature and strong Christians serving God faithfully together and patiently enduring hardships.

Paul’s prayer provides us with a form for our prayers for others and also about the people for whom we can pray. Paul has never visited the community he is praying for and probably the only member of this community that Paul has ever met is its founder, Epaphras, who has told Paul of the Christians in Colossae.  As we think of people to pray for, we are not limited to those closest to us.  Certainly, our loved ones, close family and friends will make our prayer list, and our friends may ask for prayers for their family and close friends.  We should probably add our enemies to our list as well, and ask that we will be willing to pray for our enemies and forgive them with God’s help and to receive forgiveness for hurts we have inflicted on others.  We can pray for the leaders of our country and our community, for those who serve our country in the armed forces and for those who seek to protect us and keep us safe from harm.  We can pray for the upcoming election of future leaders and for people impacted by tragedies we read or hear about through the news.

Yet, we may wonder if our prayers really make a difference. Can we, through prayer, change God’s mind, or change the person for whom we pray, or the course of human events?  Especially when we are tired or feel short on time, we may ask if prayer is really worth the time and effort.  Perhaps, if we pray a quick, “Thy will be done.  Amen,” our prayer will be good enough.

Prayer is a mystery, as is God and God’s divine will and how God accomplishes His will through frail human beings. Theologians seem to agree that it is important that we pray, but they do not all agree on how prayer works.  Some theologians believe that prayer changes the one who prays, while others believe that our prayers can change the mind and actions of God.  Still other theologians embrace both dimensions of prayer focusing on how God’s will and purposes for the world can be combined with our prayers to God.  The one who offers the prayer is changed even as God and His actions are affected by the prayers we offer.

One example of both dimensions is the account of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the evening before Jesus’ crucifixion and death, Jesus enters into a time of intense prayer.  He prays, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what You will.”  Jesus acknowledges that God can do all things, and yet, Jesus surrenders His will to follow God’s purposes and emerges from His time of prayer with resolve to follow God’s will. 

James Fenhagen explains prayer as “not something we do, but something the Holy Spirit does in and through us.  To say we ‘ought’ to pray is like saying we ought to breathe.”  Intercessory prayer is bringing before God another person’s needs.  Prayer is one of the most natural acts of human beings, especially when we are faced with a crisis or a matter of deep concern.  When a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness, we feel helpless.  We know we are in need of help from one wiser and far more powerful than ourselves.  Prayer to God is a natural response.

Our ministry of praying for others is possible only through Jesus Christ’s ministry of intercession. The Gospel of John tells us that on the evening before Jesus’ crucifixion, He assured His disciples that He would not leave them orphaned but would send to them the Holy Spirit to guide them into the truth.  Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, wrote that we do not know how to pray, but the Holy Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God.  We are also told that Jesus intercedes for us with His Father and is our mediator when we pray in the name of Jesus.  We do not need a human priest to intercede for us because Jesus Christ is our high priest.

In His last hours with His disciples, Jesus says that if we ask for anything in His name, it will be provided (John 16:23-4). Praying in the name of Jesus means we are abiding in Jesus and His words abide in us.  We are praying in accordance with the way Jesus would pray if He were with us on this earth.  We use His name with His authority and pray in unity with Jesus. We do not ask anything of God that Jesus would not ask if He were on this earth praying to His Father.  When we pray in union with Jesus, we are sharing in Jesus’ ministry of intercession and joining in the universal priesthood of all Christian believers.  

Reformed theologian Karl Barth believes that our prayers exert an influence on God’s actions. Barth states that God in His free grace “makes [believers] his partners and himself their partner” in such a way that He forges a “close link between their invocation and His answering, their action and His.”[1]

In his wonderful book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis discusses the effect of our prayers on the course of events.  Lewis rejected the premise that God acts only by general laws, for this would make our prayers meaningless.  Instead, Lewis sees the world as a great work of art in which every being makes in prayer a conscious contribution.[2]

I love the way the Anglican bishop William Temple describes the effect of our prayers, “When we pray for others, certain things happen that would not otherwise happen. Perhaps they occur as we expect, perhaps not….  When you stop praying, coincidences stop.”

We want to believe that our prayers can be used by God to help others, and there is much in the Bible to support this belief. In our scripture reading from Exodus, Moses, through prayer, was able to persuade God not to destroy the Israelites who had turned from God by worshipping a golden calf.  In his prayers of intercession for the Israelites, Moses reminded God of His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to multiply their descendants and give to them the promised land.  God heard Moses’ prayer and revised His course of action in accordance with His purpose and promises, and He allowed the Israelites to repent and return to Him as their God.

Jesus’ teachings on prayer include the example of a man who goes to his neighbor at midnight and persuades him with urgent pleading to awake from his sleep and provide food for a hungry friend who has arrived at his home while on a journey. Although it is inconvenient, the neighbor rises from his bed and gives him the bread he seeks for another.  Jesus is urging us to pray to God for another’s needs with the same urgency that this man pleaded for bread for his hungry visitor.  In the letter of James, the elders are urged to pray for the sick, for the prayer of the righteous person has great power in its effect.  The Bible teaches us that our prayers matter to God.

We have every reason to believe that God wants to hear our prayers and can use our prayers for good in the life of the one we are presenting to God. Our prayers may not be answered in the way we anticipate or hope.  In fact, our human eyes may never see the answers to our prayers for another.  We pray, instead, with the eyes of our faith that God hears and answers our prayers in His time and in His way.  God is not bound by time as we know it.  So we must trust in the absolute dependability of God.

Praying for others is a holy ministry and a privilege offered to every disciple of Jesus Christ. Everyone can pray for someone else, regardless of their age or physical strength.  People need our prayers and not just our family members and close friends.  We meet people every day who need our prayers and very few people will refuse an offer for prayer.  Paul Burns is a Presbyterian pastor who wrote a book entitled, Prayer Encounters, about simply offering to pray for someone he meets who has a need for a prayer.[3]  Paul describes encountering people he has never before met, who are concerned with some difficulty, such as illness, job loss, addiction, or grief, and his offer to pray in the moment of the encounter.

Early one morning, I was checking out at Walgreens and not many customers were in the store. I had seen the sales clerk more than once, and she knows that I am a minister in a local church.  She leaned across the counter and whispered, “Please write a prayer for me.  I suffer from depression, and please pray for my little boy.”  Inspired by the example of Paul Burns, I asked the woman if I could pray for her at that moment.  We drew closer across the checkout counter and I took her hand and quietly prayed for this woman and her family and her needs.  My prayers for her have continued even though I have not seen her for many months.  Whenever I walk into that Walgreens store, I think of her and offer a silent prayer.  Prayer draws us close to God and it also draws us closer to other people.  God is more powerful than any affliction, any weakness, anything we fear.

Our prayers for others, if they are sincere, can change us by making us more sensitive to other people and their needs. With the simple question, “How can I pray for you?” we open the door to draw closer to another human being, especially as we offer prayers for their concern in the days that follow.  Our prayers can move us to seek to help others with the very issue we are praying about.  After praying for better schools for the children of our community, we may find ourselves working on a solution to the problem.  When we pray for a friend who is undergoing treatment for cancer, we may feel a tug to offer to drive her to treatment or cook a meal for her family.  After praying for the homeless, we may find ourselves writing a check to support the ministry of Room in the Inn or Nashville Rescue Mission.  Often, God uses us in answer to our prayers.  Our actions become, in truth, prayers to God for the persons we are hoping to help.

We never know how God will use our prayers to touch a heart or change the course of a life. God must have a special heart for the prayers of a parent for a child, perhaps because they are so often prayed selflessly and earnestly, with intensity and perseverance.  Ruth Graham had a son, Franklin, who, in her own words, was making her pull her hair out.  Ruth prayed and she asked her close friends to pray that Franklin would surrender his life to Christ.  Franklin did become a Christian, and he began a path that led him to become the head of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Agency and the relief and evangelism agency, Samaritan’s Purse.

The example of a mother praying persistently for a child is a good example for all our prayers of intercession. John Calvin wrote, “We must repeat the same supplications not twice or three times only, but as often as we have need, a hundred and a thousand times….  We must never be weary in waiting for God’s help.”[4]  Jesus said to pray always and to not lose heart (Luke 18:1).

It is a gift to pray for another and it is also a gift to be prayed for by others. Sometimes we especially need to be the recipients of the prayers of others for us.  In his letters, Paul invited others to pray for him and for his ministry.  We may choose to share the reason we feel in need of prayer, or we can simply ask for prayers for a concern deep within our hearts.

Our church offers opportunities to pray in community and to seek prayers for ourselves or others. There are prayer request cards in the pew rack in our sanctuary for our officers’ prayer time.  A number of church members participate in an email prayer group.  When a request for prayer by our email prayer team is made to me or to Emily Eberle, we immediately send out an email with the prayer request and many people begin to pray for the concern.  I also send a monthly list of prayer concerns by regular mail which is perfect for those who do not use email.  A weekly email prayer list is part of the parish news sent to you each Wednesday on the congregational care connections page that is attached to the parish news.  Just click on the folded hands image on the parish news.  Please let us know if you would like to be prayed for or if you want to participate in one of these prayer communities.

Prayer is a way of living beyond our own small and often self-centered world and of remembering others and that we are never helpless or alone. We may not be able to enter the surgical suite and assist with the heart bypass surgery of a loved one, but we can pray for the surgeons and nurses and for our loved one.  We may not be able to travel to East Africa and labor with the Christian missionaries of Kenya or Rwanda, but we can pray for them.  We may not be able to protect the innocent from a violent act of terrorism, but we can pray for God to transform the evil of human hearts and to grant wisdom and guidance to those who seek to protect us from harm.  We are never beyond hope when we can offer a prayer.  We are never weak, but we are strong, when we pray in Jesus’ name.

If prayer is the door to the locked room beyond which lie God’s miracles, then Jesus offers to help us with the key. The key is earnest, selfless prayer in Jesus’ name, with faith that all things are possible for God.  Our prayer, in union with Jesus, becomes “yet not what I will, but what You will.”  Such a prayer, prayed with an open heart and open hands, may be the greatest miracle of all.

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[1] I. John Hesselink, “Karl Barth on Prayer,” in Karl Barth, Prayer, with Essays, (ed. by Don E. Saliers, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), pp. 84-85, quoting Karl Barth, The Christian Life, pp. 105-106.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, Inc. 1963), pp. 53-56.

[3]  Paul M. Burns, Prayer Encounters (WestBow Press, 2012).

[4]  Richard J. Foster, Prayer (Harper, San Francisco, 1992), p. 197, quoting John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), p. 683.

 

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