Prayer makes us strong

Good morning, Friends! Thank you all for coming today.

If you’ve been coming here for the last 6 weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about prayer. Prayer is the conversation we have with God. And there are many kinds of prayer.

We talked about the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus taught. We talked about quiet prayer, “waiting on the Lord”. We talked about music, and we sang a lot of songs, because singing can be a prayer.

Last week I said that prayer comes in many different sizes. We can pray for big things, the size of a mountain. And we can pray for tiny things, the size of a mustard seed. When we pray, often it seems like the biggest thing in the world for us. But in a way, for God, all prayers are the same size. God cares for us. God has all the resources of the entire world. God wants to help us. And God is always working to find the very best answer, in every situation.

Today I want to look at another idea about prayer. Prayer is something which helps to make us strong.

Many times, when we pray, we feel weak. We feel defeated and discouraged, and we ask God for help, because we know we’re not strong enough.

We always tend to treat prayer as our last, desperate resource, like a life preserver on a sinking ship, or like a parachute in a plane that’s about to crash. Prayer is the last thing we try. When nothing else works, you might as well pray!

I certainly don’t want to take that away from anyone who’s desperate and in trouble. When you’re in trouble, of course you need to pray! But it’s OK to pray, even when the ship isn’t sinking. Prayer is sort of like exercise. You exercise in order to be strong and healthy. And that’s my point for today: prayer helps to make us strong.

God is your Father, and Jesus is your friend. Of course you want to stay in touch with them! Why would you go away and forget about your best friend for years and years, and only call when you need them?

Friendship doesn’t work like that. You stay in touch with your closest friends. You call them often. You invite them into your home. You remember days that are important to them. You share the things that are important to you.

Don’t wait until you’re desperate. God is always willing to help. But let God share the good times, too.

Anyway. Today we’re going to read part of a letter that Paul wrote, when he was in prison. Paul, you remember, did not have an easy life.

In one of his letters, Paul says that he was flogged five times – 39 lashes with a terrible whip. Three times, he was beaten with heavy sticks. He was stoned. He was shipwrecked. He was imprisoned. He was adrift at sea. Paul was a survivor!

Paul spent most of his life traveling, and it wasn’t like hopping on a plane or driving from one city to another. He almost drowned while crossing rivers. He was in danger from bandits and outlaws. He was betrayed. He was in danger everywhere. He spent sleepless nights, hungry and cold.

He was stressed and anxious about the new churches he’d started. One time, he had to escape over a city wall by being lowered down in a big basket on a rope.

Now he was imprisoned, waiting to be tried for a capital crime. His enemies had accused him of sedition – speaking against Roman rule. Instead of trying to fight the charges in a hostile court in the Holy Land, Paul made the dangerous choice of appealing directly to the Emperor.

Nobody knew when the Emperor would get around to hearing Paul’s case. It was a poor chance, but it was better than no chance at all. Most people would have given up. But Paul didn’t. He kept on praying. And prayer made him stronger.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

My brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:4-13

When Paul wrote these words, he was chained hand-to-hand to a Roman soldier, night and day, so that he couldn’t escape. He wasn’t in a jail, but he was under strict house arrest for more than two whole years.

Was Paul upset by all this? He doesn’t seem to be. He couldn’t go to church, but some of his fellow Christians were able to visit him. He was able to write letters, including the one we heard today. What did he say?

He said, “Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always! Rejoice! Rejoice! Let everyone know how harmless you are, how willing you are to listen, how much you’ve experienced God’s mercy, how ready you are to pray.”

He said, “Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything.” We talked about that here last Sunday. If it’s bigger than you can handle, talk to God about it. If it’s too small to pray about, it’s way too small to worry abut. “Fill all your prayers with giving thanks,” Paul said, “and tell everything to God.”

He said, “God’s peace, which is more than anything you can describe, will guard your hearts and minds.”

That’s a really interesting phrase. Paul literally says that God’s peace will stand on guard, watching over you, watching over your heart and mind. God’s peace is your guardian. God is looking out for you. God isn’t trying to make things worse for you. God is surrounding you and guarding you with a peace that is so deep, and so strong, that words fail to describe it.

God’s peace – the peace that Jesus talked about – is lifting you up, supporting you, holding you safe, all the time.

Then Paul says, “My beloved friends, don’t worry about all the things that can distract you or throw you off balance. Don’t be put off by the dirtiness of the world. Don’t be sucked in by the black holes of fear and despair.”

He said, “Remember things that are true. There are so many of them. Remember things that are decent. Think about justice, not injustice. Remember things that are pure and refreshing. Think about things which are pleasing to God. Think about things which are excellent. Don’t think about failures. Think about things which are praiseworthy. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,” Paul says, “and the God of peace will be with you.”

And then, he says, “I have learned to be content.” He goes on to list the things which all of us know about, and spend so much of our time being afraid of. Having a lot, or having little. Plenty to eat, or going hungry. Rich in material things, or not knowing where the next meal is coming from.

We could all make our own lists of things we want, and things we’re afraid of. But Paul says, “I’ve learned the secret, wherever I am, and whatever is happening: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”

The last time we read this Scripture together, it was in the middle of COVID. We couldn’t meet indoors, because it was too dangerous. I don’t want to go back to the nightmare of those days. We remember them all too well.

The last Sunday we read this Scripture here, we were meeting in cars out in the parking lot. We put a cone in every other parking space, to keep people apart. Some people sat in chairs, out on the sidewalk. All the chairs had to be six feet apart, and everybody was wearing masks.

But in the midst of that terrible time, something beautiful happened. Paulo came, and sang and played his guitar. And the music flowed out, like a gentle breeze, to the whole neighborhood. It was such a blessing. Neighbors sat on their porches to listen. And then I stood out in front of the door of the meeting house, and read this same letter.

All of us know how important prayer was during those strange and terrible days. Nobody knew when it was going to be over.

We all prayed. I’m pretty sure all of us did. We asked God to protect us, and we asked God to help us make it through.

We are stronger, when we remember our times of trouble, when we thank God for saving us.

We are stronger, when we pray more often, when we open the door and let Jesus in. It’s OK to pray when you haven’t prayed for a long time. But it’s way better, when you pray and talk with God as often as you can.

Paul said, “I thank God every time I remember you! I always pray with joy in every one of my prayers for you, because you shared the good news from the first day I met you. I am confident that God, the one who started this good work among you, will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.”

“This is my prayer,” he says, “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and understanding, to help you know what is best, so that when Jesus comes you will be pure and blameless. Until that day comes, Jesus Christ will keep you busy doing good deeds that bring glory and praise to God.”

Later this month, the Olympic games are going to begin over in France. I’m sure people will be watching them on TV, all over the world. Paul talks about a different kind of contest.

Paul says, “I haven’t won the prize yet. I am not perfect. But Christ has taken hold of me. So I keep on running and struggling to take hold of the prize. My friends, I don’t feel I have already arrived. But I forget what is behind, and I struggle for what is ahead. I run toward the goal, so I can win the prize of being called to heaven.”

“Rejoice! Rejoice!” Paul says. “Be gentle with others. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything. Ask God for what you need, and give thanks. The peace of God which is beyond understanding will guard your hearts and minds. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen, and God will be with you.”

That’s the secret, Paul says. The Christian’s secret of a happy life. “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”

God gives us strength when we need it. God gives us courage when we’re afraid.

As I said right here a couple of weeks ago, “I will not be afraid to enter anywhere, where Jesus isn’t afraid to go.”

God helps us to stand when we’re tired. God helps us to get back up, when we fall and don’t think we can ever rise again. God helps us to hold back from making an angry response. God gives us the strength to forgive, because we know in our hearts how much we have been forgiven.

You know, when you’re facing a difficult job, or when you’re trying to lift or carry a heavy load, it makes a world of difference, knowing that someone is working beside you.

Jesus is always that helper. He’s beside you every day, invisible but totally present. If something seems too heavy to bear, stop and pray for a minute. And let Jesus help you.

If you’re facing something scary or painful, and you don’t think you’re going to make it, remember that Jesus has walked this same road before you.

There is nothing we bear, that Jesus hasn’t already borne, before us. He goes before us, he walks beside us, he shows us the way.

“I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”

Jesus stood up to temptation. Jesus knew what it is to be alone. Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.

Do you think there’s anything that happens to us, that Jesus doesn’t know about and understand?

You have a friend. You have someone who is stronger than you, to help you. You have someone who cares about you, who loves you more than you will ever know.

“If God is for us, who can be against us. If God has forgiven you, who can say anything against you? Nothing can separate us from the love of God – not trouble, not suffering, not hard times, not hunger, nakedness, danger or even death. . . nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (see Romans 8:31-39)

You are stronger than you know, because Jesus is beside you. Prayer makes you strong!

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