We are in the third message of our series The Circle Maker. The title of today’s message is Pray Hard. In standardized math tests Japanese children consistently score higher than American children

Pray like it depends on God and work like it depends on you

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Pray like it depends on God and work like it depends on you. Too many times we are willing to say Lord, this is hard. And we pray about it. And then we go home and sit on the couch. Let God take care of that. That’s not the picture I see in the Bible at all. You got to keep after it. You got to pray like it depends on God and work like it depends on you. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And there is nothing more desperate than praying hard. I don’t know what the injustice was that this widow faced but it got to her. It was a big deal to her. It was important to her, and she wanted to get justice, and she kept after it, she wouldn’t give up. The judge knew this about the widow. The question I have for you is does the Judge know that about you and me? That there is absolutely no quit in those people. They just keep asking, and asking, and asking.

I found a story this week that honestly kind of surprised me. I didn’t know this. So I’m going to tell you this story and it will interesting afterwards if you guys tell me if you knew this because I didn’t. This is an interesting piece of history. This happens after the American Revolutionary War; right starting in 1776 we got our independence, and before the Civil War. So in that timeframe in there is when this story happens. And not many people realize that in this time period America went through a season of just moral decay. Things got really bad. The population of the American new country at the time was about 5,000,000 people. Out of that 5,000,000 people 300,000 of them were confirmed drunkards. Fifteen thousand of them died every year from alcohol abuse. Profanity was of the just most shocking kind. Vulgar language that was just amazingly profane. For the first time in the history of the American settlement, some 300 years, women were afraid to go out at night. Bank robberies were nearly a daily occurrence.

What about the churches? How were they doing? The Methodists were losing more members than they were gaining. The Baptists said they had their most wintry season. I like how they put it so politely. We had a wintry season. The Presbyterians at their general assembly deplored the nation’s ungodliness. In a typical Congregation church, one example is Rev. Samuel Shepherd in Lennox, Massachusetts in sixteen years had not taken a single young person into his church. The Lutherans were languishing so they discussing joining with the Episcopalians who were worse off than they were. The Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York, Samuel Provost, had quit functioning. He hadn’t confirmed somebody in so long he figured he was out of work and took a different job. The Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, wrote to the Bishop of Virginia, James Madison, that the Church was too far gone ever to be redeemed. Voltaire alleged, and Tom Paine echoed that Christianity will be forgotten in thirty years.

Let’s take a look at some of the liberal arts colleges at that time. A poll taken at Harvard discovered not one believer in the entire student body. So they went over to Princeton, a much more evangelical place. There they found two. They only found five students who were not part of the filthy speech movement of the day. They held mock communions at Williams College. They put on anti-Christian plays at Dartmouth. They burned down the prayer room in Nassau Hall in Princeton. They forced the resignation of the president of Harvard. They took a Bible out of a local Presbyterian church and burned it in a public bonfire. Christians were so few on school campuses in the 1790’s that they met in secret like a communist cell. They kept their notes in code so that nobody could find them. And in case you think you know this is just one person being hysterical the church historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette, wrote: “It seemed as if Christianity was about to be ushered out of the affairs of men.” The churches had their back against the wall. What were they going to do? How did the situation change? It came through a concert of prayer.

In September 1857, a praying Christian businessman named Jeremiah Lanphier started a prayer meeting. He was in downtown Manhattan. He advertised in the local paper. Manhattan had a population of about 1,000,000 people. He advertised to all 1,000,000 in the paper. Six people showed up. The next week there was fourteen. The week after that there was 23. Pretty soon they decided that meeting once a week wasn’t enough, and they started meeting every day. Eventually they not only filled up the Dutch Reformed Church where they were meeting but they filled up the Methodist Church on John Street, and Trinity Episcopal Church on Broadway and Wall. In February and March of 1858, only four months later, every church and public hall in downtown New York was filled with men praying. The editor of the paper Horace Greeley, sent a reporter around to try and find how many people were praying. And the reporter with his horse and buggy could only get to 12 of the meetings in one hour, and he counted 6,100 men praying, and that wasn’t anywhere near all of them. The people began to be converted, ten thousand a week in New York alone. Ten thousand a week. I want you to think about that number. How long would you have to be at a baptism to baptize 10,000 people? The revival raced up and down the Hudson River, and up and down the Mohawk River, and so many people were being baptized that churches couldn’t hold them all. In fact, the Baptist went down to the river, cut a hole in the ice, and baptized the people in cold water. You’re on fire when you do that.

The revival reached Chicago and a young shoe salesman went to the superintendent of the Plymouth Congregational Church and said “I want to teach a Sunday School” and the superintendent said, “I have sixteen teachers too many, already. I will put you on the waiting list.” And the young man said “I don’t want to wait. I want to do something now.” Until the superintendent said well get some young men. Take them out to the countryside. Begin to teach them some of the stuff about the Bible. Get control of them. Bring them back and then we will start a class for you. So that’s what he did. He found some young men. He took them out to the shores of Lake Michigan. He taught them Bible verses, and some Bible games, and then brought them back, and started his own Sunday School. The name of the young man was Dwight Lyman Moody. You’ve heard of that name. That was the beginning of a ministry that lasted forty years.

The Trinity Episcopal Church in Chicago had 121 members in 1857; in 1860 they had 1,400 and that was typical. That same revival jumped the Atlantic. It went to parts of Europe, Scotland, down into Africa, and even over into India anywhere where they was an evangelical presence the Word grew. Why? Because one businessman decided to start praying. And they prayed hard. They prayed through. It made a difference. If you aren’t desperate, you won’t take desperate measures. And if you don’t pray like it depends on God, the greatest miracles remain out of your reach.

You know Honi that we learned about a couple of weeks ago was a lot like the young widow in the story that Jesus tells. They don’t follow protocol. You don’t draw a circle in the sand and tell God I’m not moving until you send rain. That is pretty unorthodox. Knocking on the judge’s door day and night until your knuckles are raw is pretty unorthodox. What does that tell us about God? God is not a God that is concerned about protocol. You don’t have to do things in a certain way for God. If that was true, when Jesus was here, he would have honored the Pharisees and the Sadducees but he did not. Who did he honor? The prostitute who washes his feet. The businessman who climbs his tree in his three piece suit. You just don’t do that. He honored the four friends who cut to the front of the line, go up on the roof, and cut a hole in somebody else’s roof. Jesus honored the woman who drove the judge crazy. The common denominator in all these stories is holy desperation. People that are willing to do something unorthodox. People who are willing to pray hard. They don’t care what anybody else thinks. The viability of our prayers doesn’t come about because we take 26 letters of the alphabet, and we combine them into certain words and phrases like abracadabra or open sesame. That is not what makes prayers work. Sometimes we listen to people pray and we say that person they pray so beautifully. Okay, maybe they do. I don’t think that is what impresses God. Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with a nicely worded prayer but I don’t think that that is what God is primarily concerned about. The Bible tells us in Romans that the Holy Spirit is praying for us, and he is making sounds that aren’t even words.

Open your Bibles with me to I Kings; I Kings, chapter 18. While you’re going there I want to give you the back story. This is the story of Elijah. This is another guy who can pray for rain just like Honi. This happens a couple of centuries earlier than Honi’s story but in I Kings, chapter 17 God send Elijah to go tell King Ahab it isn’t going to rain anymore. King Ahab has been leading the Israelites in a direction God does not want them to go, and God said I had enough, and sends Elijah to go tell Ahab it is not going to rain anymore. Now this is very interesting because Ahab does not believe God. He is fed up with God. He is not following God but when Elijah shows up and says it isn’t going to rain anymore, Ahab believes. And remember Elijah runs and hides, goes by the brook, and the ravens bring him food. The brook eventually dries up, and then he goes and stays with the widow, and as long as he is there, the oil and the flour don’t run out. It has been about 3-1/2 years and God tells Elijah go tell Ahab it is time. So they gather on the top of Mount Carmel with all the prophets of Baal and Elijah, and they have a big show down. You remember this story, right? The prophets of Baal make a big alter. They are going to pray to Baal to send fire down and accept their offering, and they go at it all day long, and Elijah makes fun of them. Elijah is the first trash talker we have in the Bible.

Then it is Elijah’s turn, and he makes an alter with stone. He puts the offering on it. Digs a trench around it. Douses it in water and before he is done praying fire comes down from heaven, burns up the offering, the stones, and the water. I don’t know I’ve seen a lot of fire. I’ve never seen a fire burn up stones before. Look what happens now. I Kings 18, verses 41. And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked. “There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.” The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”

It’s a pretty amazing story. Elijah tells Ahab to go and eat and drink because the sound of heavy rain is coming, and there is not a cloud in the sky. I have never once looked at an empty sky and said it looks like rain, right. Usually it needs to be black from horizon to horizon and then we go okay. Maybe it will rain now. And once again King Ahab, who does not honor God, does not follow God, believes and goes home to eat and drink because Elijah said it is going to rain. God promised the rain but still Elijah goes to the top of the mountain and prays for rain with his face between his knees. I don’t know about you but I’m not even sure I could put my face between my knees. He is prostrate praying for rain, and he tells his servant go look, and see if any clouds are coming. He comes back; nope. So Elijah prays some more and says go look. He says nope. Seven times this happens, and finally the servant comes back and says there is a cloud the size of a man’s hand. Now how much rain are you going to get out of that? And you know what Elijah tells his servant you better get off the mountain or you are going to get stranded up here in a rain storm. If I was the servant, I would have said yeah right, the cloud is that big. But it did rain and it rained quite hard.

Sometimes we give up praying because we don’t see anything that happens. We allow our circumstances to get between God and us instead of putting God between us and our circumstances. Right? We think this problem is too big, and it is between me and God instead of saying let’s put God between me and the problem. I wonder what would happen if Elijah would have quit praying after the sixth time. Guess it is not going to rain. Let’s go home. But Elijah doesn’t give up. There is no quit in him.

I wonder if Honi knew the story of Elijah. I’m sure he did. I’m sure he had read the scrolls and he knew. I wonder if Elijah was maybe a hero of Honi. And Honi said if Elijah can pray for rain, and God answers that prayer then maybe God will answer my prayer too. These stories are in the Bible with promises of how God comes through to give us encouragement to pray through. To keep after it. To pray hard. To keep going after it. These things that God promises are not just there because God likes to talk. They are there because they have meaning. They are there for us.

You’ve heard the old saying God said it. I believe it, and that settles it. Have you ever heard that? A couple of you. Now the rest of you have heard it. It’s an old saying. Here’s a fresh take on that old truth. God said it. I’ve circled it, and that settles it. There are a lot of promises in the Bible. By conservative estimates there are at least 3,000 promises in the Bible. We need to look at those promises and see which one God has put on your heart. Which one is God calling you to? Is it a promise of protection? Is it a promise of freedom from an addiction? What promise do you need? What promise are you claiming? In the video in our small group last week we saw about the young lady who wanted to start an orphanage in the Congo. God had called her to that. What is God calling you to?

Now those promises have to be interpreted intelligently and applied accurately no doubt about that. But how many of them have you circled and claimed? See I am going to give you a bit of advice here, and listen until I’m done. Stop reading the Bible. See the problem is that we read the Bible, and we have plans to get us reading the Bible, and we want to read the Bible in a year or we have to read a chapter a day or whatever our reading plan is. I do this. I am trying to read through the New Testament right now. But we get so caught up in reading the Bible that it becomes an item on our daily checklist. And all we do is say is number three on my list is I have to make sure I read my five chapters today or whatever; got it done. What’s next on the checklist, and we just read the Bible. The Bible is not meant to be read. The Bible is meant to be prayed through. Reading is reactive. Praying is proactive. So instead of just reading the Bible and saying I have to get through my five chapters today, and now I’m done, and off to the next activity of the day let’s take the time and start praying through the Bible, and not be so worried about whether we read our allotted number of chapters for the day. And let’s begin circling God’s promises.

Now those of you who know me know that this next bit is very difficult. Write in your Bible. I’m telling you this is so hard for me because I don’t like to write in books in general, and the Bible in particular is difficult for me to write in. So if you have a thing about that like I do, buy a notebook and write in the notebook. But write in your Bibles. Begin to circle the promises that God has put in there. Don’t just blast through and say I read my chapter today. Find the promise that God is putting on your heart, and put a circle around it or underline it or whatever works for you. Highlight it. Write it in your notebook, whatever works. We have to stop reading the Bible and start praying through the Bible. The Bible is a book of prayers and promises. It is meant to be prayed through and not just read through. I can’t predict when, how, or even if God will answer all your prayers but I can predict that God is waiting to hear from you. God is waiting to hear from each one of us to see if we are as persistent as the widow bugging the judge.

Let’s pray.

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