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August 22nd, 2010

Our prayers are too small.

Jeremiah 33:1-9

August 22, 2010

In His Hands

Friday, my “day off,” was a big e-mail day.  Sometimes I ignore e-mails all day on Friday – sometimes I have to because I’m involved in other things.  But Friday I found time to answer a lot of them.  It was one of those days where I’d answer one e-mail while three more came in.

As I wrote one e-mail, a pop up screen appeared with a message from a friend from the past. I thought our relationship was broken beyond repair and that nothing had come from a relationship into which I had invested much time and prayer invested.

But this is what the e-mail said Friday:  I just wanted to reach out to you and thank you for being my friend and Pastor during some very difficult years.  You inspired me to love and lean on God more.  I am a new person.  Even though Satan is mad and working harder than ever to discourage me, I am struck by the awesome power of God and his mercy on me.  When I feel like a bullet is the only solution, God has granted Peace!  IN HIS HANDS, ALWAYS…”

God has a way of doing what only God can do.  So keep praying.

To “pray the ridiculous” means to pray a prayer that, when others hear, they want to laugh.  “You must be kidding!”  It means to ask God to do what only God can do and what only God can figure out. 

Jeremiah 33:3 says, “Call to me and answer me and I will show you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

I love the story of how that verse in the Bible came to be.

Stupid purchase

Look at verse 1 of Jeremiah 33: “While Jeremiah was still confined in the courtyard of the guard, the word of the LORD came to him a second time.”  That raises a couple of questions.  Why was he in jail?  And, what did God say the first time?

Jeremiah was jailed for telling the truth.  Zedekiah, the final king of Judah prior to the Babylonian captivity, was trying desperately to keep the spirits of the people up while the enemy army had the city surrounded and was building siege ramps for a final assault.  Maybe God would give a great deliverance, as he had under Hezekiah and Jehoshaphat.  Maybe Egypt would come to their rescue, like Gandalf and his forces did in “The Lord of the Rings.”  And if none of that happened, Zedekiah had concocted an  escape plan for himself, his family, and his closest advisors.

From Zedekiah’s perspective, nothing was to be gained by having Jeremiah running around the city telling people to give up hope and surrender. 

In that circumstance, the Lord comes to Jeremiah twice.  In chapter 32 God says, “Jeremiah, I want you to buy a field in Anathoth.”  That’s sort of like Jeremiah being jailed down in the basement with an army that has already destroyed and occupied Catawba County and has battering rams ready at any moment to penetrate the sanctuary, having prophesied destruction of the sanctuary and captivity for 70 years, and God says, “I have a piece of investment property down on Fourth Street for you.”

As this word from the Lord came to Jeremiah, he surely remembered that twice before God had told him to buy something.  In chapter 13 he was told to buy a linen belt (13:1).  Then, as now, people covered their waist for privacy – but what you wore was symbolic and functional as well.  You could “gird up your loins” for work, battle, play, or ceremony.  A “linen belt” would have been a beautiful and expensive cloth, symbolic of luxury and leisure.

As soon as Jeremiah bought it, God told him to bury it in a rock crevice filled with mud.  The same people who had seen the beautiful belt would now see it decayed and ruined.  “These wicked people,” God says in 13:10, “who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the stubbornness of their hearts…will be like this belt – completely useless.”

Jeremiah was also told to buy a clay jar from a potter (19:1).  He was told then to smash the jar publicly and say, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired” (19:11).  God’s apparently not into careful investing for the future.

So when God says, “Jeremiah, buy a field (32:7),” Jeremiah probably presumes this will be another worthless investment – another object lesson in destruction.

Not exactly.  The point is different.  But the purchase is still ridiculous.

Jeremiah prays in verse 32:17, “Ah, Sovereign Lord…” Remember what “Ah” means from last week?  It’s a cry of pain:  “Ouch, God!”  He acknowledges God’s “greatness” three times in his prayer.  “You have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm.  Nothing is too hard for you” (17).  “O great and powerful God…” (18), “great are your purposes and mighty are your deeds” (19).  “Great” means large, loud, important, intense.

He follows in verse 24 by saying, “God, this is the dumbest thing you’ve ever asked me to do” (paraphrase).  The Babylonian army is surrounding the city, building siege ramps, getting ready for the final assault, just like you’ve said all along.  And now you want me to buy a field outside the city when neither I nor anyone related to me will be able to live there for two generations?

God’s answer in verse 27 is this:  Get your mind off your circumstance and put it on who God is.  “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind.  Is anything too hard for me?”

He goes on to remind Jeremiah in verse 37ff. that “the sword, famine, and plague” will not be the end of the story.  He will gather his people back to their land.  “They will be my people, and I will be their God….I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them.” 

Chapter 32 closes, “’Fields will be bought for silver, and deeds will be signed….because I will restore their fortunes,’ declares the LORD” (44).

Ridiculous!

And so we turn to chapter 33.  Jeremiah is still in the Jerusalem prison under heavy guard.  The word of the LORD comes a second time and says, “This is what the LORD says, he who made the earth, the LORD who formed it and established it – the LORD is his name: ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great (there’s our word again) and unsearchable things you do not know.’” 

“Unsearchable” is an interesting word.  When I first learned this verse in the King James Version, it was “great and mighty things.”  “Mighty” and “unsearchable” are two very different ideas.

The Hebrew word refers to a fortress – a walled city thought to be impenetrable.  (Jeremiah was in just such a city, which was about to find out it was not impenetrable, but that’s a different story.)  So “mighty” refers to the strength of the structure, but “unsearchable” conveys a different meaning – that of being inaccessible, mysterious.

Does God seem like that to you sometimes – both “great” and “unsearchable”?  You believe he is all-powerful, but he seems to be shut up in his fortress and you don’t know what he’s up to your life.

When God seems to be acting that way, Jeremiah 33:3 tells us, pray!

Verses 4-5 go on to reiterate what is to come.  Houses and palaces razed.  Siege ramps and swords fill the city with dead bodies – all because of God’s wrath toward the wickedness of his people.

But don’t stop there!  Look at God’s heart for his people in verses 6-9.  What is that God longs to bring out?

Wholeness (v. 6) – “I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security.”

Restoration (v. 7) – “I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before.”

Forgiveness (v. 8) – “I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me.”

Witness (v. 9) – “Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it.”

You can’t appreciate God’s heart without the context of Jeremiah’s plot.  Really, now, what would you be praying for if you were Jeremiah?  “God, please get me out of this jail.  Please send favor on the king and give him compassion.  Help him to listen to me.  I know it would please you for me to be out among the people telling them the truth.  But if that’s not your will, I just pray for somewhere softer to sleep and some better food to eat.  Or at least give me some peace in the middle of this situation.”  No one would fault you for praying that way.

What God had in mind was so far beyond Jeremiah’s plot in jail.  It was even well beyond the imposing and overwhelming threat of the Babylonian army getting ready to storm the city, kill its soldiers, and take its leaders into exile.

What God had in mind was the larger picture.  It was the future.  It was durable and glorious.  It was grace.  It was ultimately that the world might know him.

What God had in mind was so comprehensive that it would only be fulfilled by the coming of Christ – not just the first time but his second coming in power and great glory.  There is no way Jeremiah could have grasped the “great and unsearchable things” God had on his heart.

Our prayers are too small.

Big prayers

We are in the middle of a series of sermons here at Corinth helping us to think about what it means to be extraordinary Christians.  Christians who refuse to be ordinary serve the forgotten.  They love God’s Word.  They live the call – not just doing what they do for personal fulfillment, but out of a sense of God-driven purpose.

And they pray the ridiculous.  They pray the kinds of prayers that are big picture, “thy kingdom come,” leave-room-for-God-to-work kinds of prayers.

Here’s how ordinary Christians usually pray.  We have a need or a problem.  Somebody’s sick.  We are short on money.  We have a decision to make and we don’t know what’s best.

So we bring our immediate problem to God and ask him to fix it.  Now would be good.  And, of course, we get very disappointed – if not disillusioned – if God doesn’t use his unlimited power to provide or direct or change. Change things, change people, change me – but change something, God, and let me check this one off as “answered.”

We do not give God room to be either great or unsearchable when we pray.

A small group of men has been praying here in the sanctuary for several weeks now on Thursday mornings at 7.  When I say “small,” I mean sometimes one…and up to six or seven.  We were inspired by a group of women who have been praying for several years on Tuesday afternoons.

Mark Anderson is one of those men.  He’s also a member of our Spiritual Council.  I’ve asked Mark to share with me for a few moments about his heart for prayer.

Question #1: As you gather the men for prayer on Thursdays, what’s on your heart?

In the past we have gathered to pray at significant events, especially when we feel that we are under attack.  Some examples are:  after 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and most recently, when Chuck Moss was diagnosed with cancer.

These times bring us to our knees and we collectively say, “This is too big for us.”  And we thank God for being in control of all circumstances.

When we turn to God as a church body is pleases God, just as it pleased Him when His people turned to Him in biblical times.  But we have to guard our hearts so that we seek God, and not His blessings.

In the gospel of John that Jesus prayed “that they may be one as We are one.”  Jesus was in complete unity with the Father. 

The two main themes of when the men gather on Thursday mornings are for our church body to be aligned with God’s will; and for us to have unity, without division, bearing with each other, extending grace and forgiving one another.

We pray for those under attack:  the sick, our marriages and families, and the ministry teams of the church.  We pray for all the committees and bodies of the church to be humble and seek God’s will in all matters.  We always pray for Bob and his staff’s walk with the Lord, so nothing will impede their ministry here in this church and they will continue to allow God to work through them.

Question #2: What are some of the struggles for you in prayer?

I tend to be more consistent with prayer when I am under attack and experiencing trials in my personal life.  Sadly, when my life is most comfortable and without trial, my prayer life suffers.

I continually struggle with being self absorbed.  I tend to be self-centered and self-aware versus having Christ-awareness.  It’s hard for me to not focus on my needs, but Christ’s needs, and how He wants to use me.

When I pray, I have to fight to keep out chatter.  So many times in my prayer, which is a conversation with God, I am rude by allowing my thoughts to turn away from that conversation.

I am poor at praise.  In need to grow in my awe of God.  The Bible many times refers to this as fearing the Lord.  I need to be in awe of Him.  I need to better understand that He is unsearchable.  Job set an example for spiritual maturity when he said, “though He may slay me, I will trust in the Lord.”

Lastly, I struggle with seeking blessings instead of seeking the Lord.  I know that when I walk with Him he provides the gifts of the Spirit that I seek.  I need to continually seek Him, not the gifts that He provides.

 

One of the men who prayed with me this past Thursday says his teenage daughter’s typical prayer is, “God, help me to have a good day today.”  That’s not a surprising prayer for an adolescent.  Some of us never grow out of that.  We pray for all the things that would make life a little more enjoyable.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Bible does encourage us to pray for the sick, to pray for…well, for whatever it is that’s on our heart.  But ordinary Christians stop there.

I want to learn to pray bigger.  “God, what are you up to?  How can I partner with you?  What do you see that I don’t?  How can my life honor you?  What resources have you given me that I can use to bring you joy?  What can your greatness do that I cannot imagine?  What unsearchable, inaccessible vision of yours can I be a part of?”

“Father, restore and revitalize your church.  May we be one so that the world will know we belong to you.  Give us a passion to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  Grant us the heart of Christ for a broken world, more ready to welcome and struggle than to judge and condemn.  Create an unquenchable desire for holiness.”

As for those you love, pray consistent with the prayers of Jesus and Paul the New Testament: “Father, finish the work you started in them.  Let your grace be sufficient for their weakness.  May your truth transform them.  Fill them with the knowledge of Jesus. May they grasp the infinite love you have them.”

Big prayers. That’s how I want to learn to pray.  Amen.

One Response to Pray the Ridiculous »

  • Chorusboy says:

    Glad I can read your sermon Bob when I needed to be in contemporary with Beth this last week. Love your wife ? stuff – anyway I was longing to hear your sermon ” ..torn between two pastor’s feeling like a fool …” Ok ok no breaking all the rules here ?

    Great stuff ! Jeremiah has been a blessing to survey !

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