Talk To God - Ephesians 3
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Talk to God – 02.19.2023
[Ephesians 3:14-21 and Psalm 17:1-15]
A long time ago, couple thousand years ago, during the beginning of the spread of Christianity early African converts to Christianity were very earnest and regular in their private devotions. Each one of them in the village apparently had a separate spot in the woods, in the thicket, where he would go every morning to pour out his heart to God. They were so consistent with their devotional activity that over time, after going out and praying in the same place every single morning the paths to these places became well worn trails. As a result, if one of these believers began to neglect his prayers, it was obvious to everyone else. Everybody knew that person had stopped praying, because the trail became wild again. When that happened, and someone was forgetting to spend time with God each day, the other Christians would kindly remind the negligent one, “Brother, the grass grows on your path.”
Today is part three of our sermon series called The Shift. We are spending the month of February looking at the various pieces of membership, of being a part of the church and we are trying to shift our mentality to understand why we do what we do. Last week we looked at the practice of reading your bible, and we realized that reading our bible is about discovering God, about listening to God. Today we are going to talk about the other half of that conversation. One of the incredible things about our God is that he listens. The God who created the heavens and the earth actually wants to hear from you. He wants to communicate and connect with your heart. Alright, let’s get into it.
A couple years ago I was reading this book by Francis Chan – he’s a writer, speaker, curriculum producer guy and he loves Jesus a lot, which makes him one of my personal heroes. And in the book he sort of casually mentioned, “I had been praying Ephesians 3 over my church.” Like every day, he had been praying a prayer that he found in the book of Ephesians, praying while thinking about his church. Now, I love to pray for this church – I do it every week, but when I read that I couldn’t help but think – okay, what does this prayer say? And so I went and read it, and I loved it, and so for a season I did this as well – I prayed the prayer every day for this church – and I wanted to pull it apart to begin our discussion on prayer. Verse 14 gets us started, [read it] Well, now wait a minute – for this reason, for what reason? Well, usually when we start reading in the middle of a chapter, you can answer a lot of your questions by backing up a bit or reading the stuff after your selected scripture chunk. If we back up just one verse we see [read v.13]. So Paul has been telling the church in Ephesians about the struggles he’s been going through, and he doesn’t want them to lose heart. For this reason I pray – so that you will not lose heart. Right from the beginning there is power in praying for one another – it binds us closer together, not just to the God we are talking to, but also to the people we are talking about.
To take that even further, the practice of prayer builds empathy. Prayer increases our emotional capacity to care for other people. I do this all the time for married couples that come to me for counseling – in one of the early sessions I ask, “are you praying for one another?” Not praying together, although that’s nice too – but praying for one another. Do you spend time praying for your spouse? If you’ve never done it – give it a try. Start your day, or end your day just by spending a few moments praying for your spouse. Give thanks that they are in your life, pray for the things they are struggling with, celebrate the things they are happy about – just spend some time talking to God about your spouse. Verse 16 tells us, [read it]. That right there is a beautiful thing to pray about other people. I pray that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit. I want God to bless you in your heart, to increase your inner strength. Aren’t those beautiful words? And this is not limited to married folks – I have prayed those words about each of you. Prayer builds empathy between you and the person you are praying for. There’s a part in the gospels where Jesus tells us to pray for those who persecute us. Pray for those who hate us and hurt us. Pray for them, and there’s a reason that line is right next to the instruction that says love your enemies. Loving your enemies is so hard – but if you spend your time praying for them, you build empathy in your heart and loving them becomes easier. Prayer builds empathy.
We keep going and it says, [read v.17]. That Christ may dwell in your heart. Basically Paul is just paying, “I really want Jesus to hang out in your heart” and what this shows us is that prayer connects us to God. Prayer gives God a bigger place in our heart. The first part is about how prayer brings us closer to other people, but it brings us closer to God too. It’s the same effect. Praying for someone every day increases your love of them – so too with God. When you pray for your spouse, or your children, or someone in the church, or whoever – when you pray for them everyday, empathy grows – your connection to them grows and they occupy a bigger space in your heart. The same thing happens in our connection to God. When you spend time talking to God every single day, your connection to God grows and He begins to occupy a bigger space in your heart.
Verse 20, [read v.20-21]. Alright, now this verse is amazing – so let’s walk through it slowly. To him who by the power at work within us. God works, by the power within us. God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, gives us his power and then works through us. God is at work within us, and by that power God is able “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Just, think about that for a second. God, using human beings, can accomplish more than we could ever ask for, or even imagine. That’s insane! I can ask for a lot, I can imagine a lot of good things for this world, and yet God is able to accomplish even more than we can ask and imagine, AND he’s going to do it THROUGH YOU. And then it finishes up in verse 21, [read it]. God’s glory is found in Jesus Christ and in the church. Just awesome.
The good news for us this morning is that God is listening. I think that the idea of God listening to us is so obvious that we often fail to realize how incredible it is! Sometimes it seems like God is a parent and we are the teenager. And God is saying that thing that every single parent of a teenager says, “well, I’m here for you if you ever need to talk. I’m always available to listen.” And we say to God what every teenager in history says to their parents, “yeah, okay, whatever, thanks I will.” But we aint falling for that trap because we know that when parents say “I just want to talk” – it’s a trap, they just want to find out all the bad stuff we did so they can punish us. Because a lot of us looked at our parents when they said, “you can always talk to me” and what we heard was, “why don’t you voluntarily step into this confession booth and admit to me all your sins?” And so we, the wise teenager, say, “ahaha, nice try God – no thank you. I’m gonna go sit in my room and ignore you – see you next time I need you for something.” Huh, actually the metaphor of humanity as a teenager and God as the parent of a teenager goes pretty deep. Now, I should mention most of the parents I know communicate with their kids because of love, not because of some sneaky ulterior motive. But here’s where the metaphor falls apart – God already knows everything we’ve done. God is not like the parent of teenagers, because God is the all knowing creator of the universe. There’s no ulterior motive. God doesn’t gain anything by listening to us. There’s no new information coming into God’s ears. So when he wants to communicate with us, it’s not a trap – it’s not a trick to get us to admit something. That desire for communication is only about growing closer to us, having that connection grow. God is listening, and that’s for our benefit. So the next time your kid, or grandkid, your teenager is driving you up the wall because they won’t talk to you – maybe take a second and ask yourself, are you doing the same thing to God?
God is listening, and the response is so simple: talk to God. Open up that line of communication. Talk to God. Now, this is not going to sound very fancy or pastoral, but I want to be real with you about this. Growing up I always thought prayer was sort of awkward. When I was a kid, and I would pray – it just felt like I was talking to the wall. So I guess I just want to give you permission this morning, it’s okay to be awkward when you’re talking to God. Of course you don’t know how to talk to him, you’re just getting to know him. It’s the same way when you meet literally any new person, ever. You get used to the rhythm of conversation as you go. I feel like TV and movies have not helped us with this. I feel like movies and tv have sort of built up prayer in our minds, you know what I mean? How do people pray in movies? Either they’re in a group, like a circle with one person, the most spiritual person, spouting poetry like he’s freaking Shakespeare or what’s the other one? There’s one other version of prayer we get in media culture: The last resort prayer. Everything has fallen apart for the main character – their life is on fire in the background, or they’re in the hospital and they’ve just gotten the worst possible news and so they go to the chapel and throw things and yell at God. Like the only way to pray is kneeling in the rain screaming at God after surviving a car crash that killed all of your puppies. And I love those moments in movies because they are so intense, and it’s like finally they’re paying attention to God – but at the same time those scenes drive me nuts because that’s not what real life is usually like. You know what they never show? Somebody saying a quick prayer before having coffee in a coffee shop, or grabbing a friend who they know has been struggling and just praying with them right there in that moment. Praying a prayer in your car right before you get out and head into work. When they show children praying in movies they act like they’re little angels who are totally focused on that moment – that’s not what it really looks like. I love my kids, but when I try to pray with them before bed, it’s like trying to herd cats. Some nights they are totally focused. But sometimes it’s like “don’t get out of bed, we’re in the middle of praying, put the book down we’re trying to pray, don’t put that in your mouth, we’re in the middle of praying, you can play with your truck soon as we’re done praying, leave your pants on, we’re in the middle of praying.” Prayer is not always glamorous or poetic or even intensely spiritual – it’s just talking to God. God is listening, so talk to God.
My challenge for you today is simply to start the conversation. If the only time you pray is in this building, you are missing out on a deeper connection to God. Pray, every single day. I want us as a church to make a mental shift from rigid piety of muttering the same words every week with our eyes closed to an actual conversation with God. It’s not about tradition or ritual, it’s not about jumping through a hoop. It’s always been about growing closer to God. When I was in seminary, we went through the Psalms and they taught me all the different types of prayer. Now, personally I think the labels are a bit silly – because again, the goal is to start the conversation, not just label the hoops we jump through. But it is helpful to go through these. There are four types of prayer I want to put in front of you today. Lament, Confession, Thanksgiving and Praise.
Let’s start with Thanksgiving – thanksgiving is when we say thank you to God for something. Prayers of thanksgiving build gratitude in our hearts and so they are so important on a daily basis. If you’re ever feeling down or depressed or if you lack contentment in your life – try praying a prayer of thanksgiving every day. List all the stuff you are grateful for – it’s amazing how it shifts your heart. I should also mention, saying grace before a meal is a type of thanksgiving prayer, reminding us that even the food on the table is from God. So when you eat, give thanks for it.
Connected to thanksgiving is a prayer of praise. A prayer of Praise is really simple – hey look how awesome God is. What’s cool is that thanksgiving often leads to praise. Thank you for these amazing gifts in my life, hey you are really awesome God. Prayer of praise is like us complimenting God, worshipping Him by recognizing and realizing how glorious He is. I think one of the best forms of praise is appreciating the world around us. Like, “wow, the sky is really beautiful today – praise God.” OR “look at that amazing sunset, isn’t God amazing.” It teaches us to orient all the beauty and wonder around us towards the God who provides it.
Thanksgiving, Praise – and the third type of prayer I want to put in front of you is the prayer of confession. As you can probably guess – confession is when we come in front of God and admit when we’ve made a mistake. But here’s the crazy part, confession actually builds friendship. In our lives, when a friend does something that hurts us – a lot of us pull away from that person. But when a friend comes to us and confesses, and works on doing better – a lot of times those people are the ones we become the closest to. That’s why married people are often like best friends after years and years. They can’t run away, because married, and so they learn how to confess and forgive and that actually binds them closer together. Confession is admitting that we are not perfect, asking for forgiveness and receiving that forgiveness – and I recommend it every single time you screw up.
Thanksgiving, Praise, Confession and then finally lament. I saved this one for last because it might be one of my favorite types of prayer. Lament is basically just venting. Lament is like when we are mad about something and we just need to spout at someone for a bit. We don’t even necessarily need a solution, though sometimes that helps, but mostly we just want to express ourselves. Lament is the type of prayer that Christians are afraid of, and yet it’s also one of the most popular forms of prayer in the bible. Lament is when we say, “wow this is really terrible and I hate it and I want things to be different” and sometimes we feel like we’re not supposed to admit that. We feel like it’s improper to complain to God. And yet the bible is FULL of people crying out to God. In Israel’s history they cried out in slavery, they cried out in the desert, they cried out in exile, they cried out when they were upset. What I want you to realize is that there is a whole format of prayer specifically for complaining, for crying out to God when things are not as you hope they would be.
Now, here’s the coolest part – each type of prayer leads to another. If you are lamenting, groaning under the strain of some terrible thing, that can lead you to confession, which can lead to thanksgiving and then to praise. Or if you’re lamenting, and you’ve vented everything – maybe then you start to realize all the good things you have in life and it leads you to thanksgiving. I’m not happy about this stuff, but I’m grateful for what I do have. So the first part of my challenge is to start the conversation, explore the four types of prayer – start communicating with the God who is waiting with open ears.
I was in a men’s group years ago, and we were going through this curriculum on Rightnowmedia that was called “Common Man: Uncommon life” – and it was a study based on a couple of Navy Seals who were comparing what they learned in training with what we do in discipleship. They were describing they way their missions went. It was constant training. These Navy Seals would train and work out and shoot and gear up every single day, whether they had a mission or not. Then they would get an assignment, go out, do their thing, come back and the next day they were back at training again. It was fascinating to learn that at this level, one of the highest levels of military training – they had to shoot x amount of bullets every single day, they were required to go through all these exercises all the time. And the way the lead guy explained it, was that it was about muscle memory. You train every day whether you have a mission coming up or not so that when you are needed, when those instincts are called upon, you are ready. And in the study they compared spiritual practices to creating muscle memory. We read our bible, we talk to God, go to church, all this stuff – it’s not because something terrible is coming, but to build up that muscle memory so our instincts are sharp and ready for action. If you start the conversation and create a habit of talking to God every single day – when trouble comes, your muscle memory will teach you to reach for God, first.
By the standards of many Christians, I am not good at praying. I’ve been to churches where the pastor or even the lay-people – they are just so good at praying. They are so poetic, and almost lyrical, and it’s all off the cuff. Like they didn’t even write it down ahead of time. I’m not even poetic when I write it down. By the standard of rule-following or jumping through hoops, by all regular appearances - I’m not good at prayer. What I want to show you this morning by making fun of myself is that – it doesn’t really matter if it looks like you’re good at prayer. I love talking to God. It brings me closer to him and closer to the people I pray for. If you’re a great communicator, that’s amazing, that’s wonderful – start the conversation with God. If you’re like me, not a great poet or anything like that, that’s okay too – I have the same challenge for you too – start the conversation with God. God is listening. So talk to him. Amen.