Jeffrey T. Howard
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
Sermon Acts 1:6-14 “Devoted to Prayer”
May 24, 2020
Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection he took his disciples to the Mount of Olives and ascended to heaven. The number forty in the Bible usually refers to the time of preparation. Moses prepared himself to meet God and receive the Ten Commandments with forty days of fasting. The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness preparing to enter the Holy Land. And Jesus prepared for his ministry with forty days in the wilderness. So for forty days Jesus was preparing his disciples for their ministry.
What is the ministry that the disciples were prepared for? It was to take all they witnessed into the world. But before they could do that they had to wait in Jerusalem and receive power from the Holy Spirit. For ten days after Jesus’ ascension they waited. What do you think they did for 10 days while waiting for empowerment? They prayed. We will get to this, but first let us pray.
Eternal Father, we come to you today as your disciples. We are waiting for the empowerment of your Spirit so that we may take our knowledge of your resurrection into the world. While we are waiting, please receive our prayers. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Acts 1:4 While staying with them, he (Jesus) ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
They devoted themselves to constant prayer. Jesus’ remaining disciples, some women, and his own family gathered back into the upper room to wait for the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the new empowerment that Jesus promised. They went there to wait and to pray.
Prayer was important to the leaders of the new church. They regularly went to the temple every afternoon for three-o-clock prayers. As the demands of the church demanded more and more of their time, deacons were ordained for pastoral care so that the leaders could continue devoting themselves to prayer. And new elders were ordained with much prayer and fasting.
Grace and I pray every day. We use the Daily Prayer App from the PCUSA. Each day we read to each other the scripture readings from the Daily Lectionary. We pray for our families and our churches. I pray for each person in the church by name using your portrait directory as a guide. And twice a week I send out, via email, a service of Daily Prayer and the scripture from the Daily Lectionary so that you may join us in prayer from the comfort of your home.
Since women and men first walked on the earth prayer has been a part of our lives. Our earliest ancestors sensed a mysterious power at work in the world. The nature of this power was dimly understood. But when famine or disease threatened to destroy their tribes they reached out to this power in prayer pleading for salvation.
Today all people sense this mysterious power beyond themselves. We reach out to it with our most intense needs and desires. When in trouble our natural response is prayer. Yet we live in an age when results matter. So when we pray we expect God to answer. And if God fails to answer or if the answer is “no” then we are profoundly disappointed.
Many people believe that praying is a way to get God to do something for them. Prayer somehow changes God. But as Christians we believe that prayer changes us. When we pray our hearts are changed. Prayer increases our self-understanding and molds us around God’s will. For Christians prayer is never centered on getting something rather it is always centered on God. Our goal in prayer is to have a relationship with God. This leads us to the first reason for prayer that our hearts may be filled with a “burning desire to seek, love, and serve God.”
Too often we put off praying because we are too busy or too tired. But these are just excuses. Since prayer is our way of conforming ourselves to God’s will, the failure to pray is really a form of resistance to God. When we cannot find time to pray we should realize that this is a sign of an inner conflict with God. The temptation to not pray must be resisted. Then as we pray we will experience a renewal of the sense of God’s presence in our lives.
As we pray we should make all of our needs and wants, all of our thoughts and feelings, known to God. This forces us to examine our thoughts and desires carefully. If you do not want to bring a thought or desire to God you should reconsider the appropriateness of that thought or desire. Our thoughts and desires may change radically in prayer. This leads us to the second reason for prayer “that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we would be ashamed to make God a witness.”
Prayer is closely tied to self-examination. This is why the Puritans who settled in American made self-examination a daily practice of confession. It forces us to take a new look at ourselves and consider what we are doing with our lives. Prayer changes us even if the change is undesired and unexpected.
When we think about our lives we often focus on the negative. We see what is wrong with ourselves and others. But in prayer we take a second look and notice all of the blessings that God has given us. This causes us to respond to God with thanksgiving. Our consciousness is freed from the negative. We are able to be thankful for the goodness of life even in the midst of our troubles. This leads us to the third reason for prayer, “that we be prepared to receive God’s benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving.”
Prayers of thanksgiving are an important feature of Black churches. Frequently people in those congregations respond with exclamations like “Thank you Jesus” and “Yes, Lord”. Their prayers are filled with praises of God. Gratitude fills their hearts helping them deal with oppression and discrimination that has lasted for generations. With prayers of thanksgiving we never take God’s blessings for granted. We recognize that God is the source of everything we have, and we recognize God’s blessings every day.
In prayer we perceive all that God is doing for us. As we respond in gratitude our hearts change. Then we realize how much God truly loves us, hears our cries, and desires our well-being. We begin to see answers from God for what we thought was unanswered prayer. We respect God’s “no” when we realize that it has been given out of love. And we develop the patience to wait for God’s answer in God’s own time. This leads us to the fourth reason for prayer that, “being convinced that God has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently.”
We all know that we should pray, but praying is hard to do. Everything around us tells us that prayer is unimportant. We ask, “How can God make a difference in a world that obeys natural laws?” We ask these questions because we forget who God is and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ who loves us and forgives all that we have done wrong. Even if we think that prayer may be useless it still affects who we are because in prayer we realize that we are God’s beloved. We are reminded of God’s grace. And we rekindle our sense of the mysterious and otherness of God.
Prayer brings us into a relationship where we can trust God, the creator of the universe. We also understand in prayer that Christ has joined us in our weakness. By praying in Jesus’ name we are reminded that he stoops down to lift us up to the presence of God. This act teaches us that we are dependent on God, and frees us from the necessity of depending only on ourselves. We set aside our busyness and our workaholic ways to do nothing, to set ourselves quietly before God’s throne.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, they already knew what prayer was. They had seen numerous examples in the Torah and in the Psalms. They already understood that God meets our daily needs, forgives us, and will initiate a new kingdom. What Jesus taught them was that they could approach God calling him “Our Father”.
So what have we learned today about prayer? First of all, prayer creates within us a “burning desire to seek, love, and serve God.” Second, we learned “that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we would be ashamed to make God a witness.” Third, “that we be prepared to receive God’s benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving.” And fourth, “being convinced that God has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently.”
In times past American political leaders have led us in prayer during crises. On September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush went to the National Cathedral in Washington DC and said this, “We are here in the middle hour of our grief. So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our nation's sorrow. We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who loved them.” In this time of the coronavirus our leaders have not led us to pray. Rather they tell us to stay at home and not go to church. Social distancing has replaced prayer as our national response to crises. I think we have lost an important part of what it means to be an American.
I urge you to pray every day. Select a time for daily prayer and honor God by always keeping that appointment. Read some scripture. Ask God any questions that you might have. Offer up your feelings and thoughts. And ask God for whatever you need. Bask in God’s presence and receive his kindness. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us with a burning desire to serve you in this world. Purge from us all thoughts that dishonor you. We thank you for all the ways you have blessed us. Fill our minds with thoughts of your infinite kindness. This we pray in you Son’s name in the power of your Spirit. Amen.