Seize the Day!

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“When we get to heaven and realise all that prayer did on earth, we will be ashamed that we prayed so little.”

W.E. Sangster

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God is Able

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on December 19th 2018.

Ephesians 3:20-21

Introduction

At the beginning of the year the Moible phone giant, Samsung, launched a very clever tagline for its Galaxy mobile phones:

“Do What You Can’t” 

The company wants customers to realise that “Do What You Can’t” is what they do every day. They want it to be more than just a marketing slogan.

“Do What You Can’t”

This tagline has strong resonance in a truly Christian way of life. Two weeks ago we eavesdropped on the apostle Paul as he prayed for the Ephesians:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

It’s the constant emphasis of the New Testament, that strength for the Christian life comes by the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is evidence that we are truly the children of God (Romans 8:9). 

Flowing out of that it is the power of the Spirit in our lives that enables us to serve Christ in the world. 

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witness in Jerusalem , and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In other words, to ‘do what you can’t’ in your own strength and resources achieve. That reality is brought into even sharper focus with the doxology that we will reflect on tonight.

In verses 20–21 Paul’s heart is soaring in prayer, and he closes this first half of his letter with a magnificent expression of praise.

It’s a remarkably bold request. Having been incredibly bold to ask what he did for the Ephesians he goes on to affirm that God can actually do far more than he asks.

God’s ability is powerfully demonstrated by Paul in a blended expression which has seven stages:

  • God is able to work because he is neither idle, nor inactive, nor dead.
  • He is able to do what we ask, because he hears and answers our prayer.
  • He is able to do what we ask or imagine, for he reads our thoughts.
  • He is able to do all that we ask or imagine, for he knows it all and can perform it all.
  • He is able to do more than all we ask or imagine, for his expectations are higher than ours.
  • He is able to much more than all that we ask or imagine, because he does not give his grace by calculated measure.
  • He is able to do very much more, than all that we ask or imagine for he is a God of super-abundance. 

When you scan different translations of the Bible you will find expressions like, “immeasurably more,” “vastly more than more,” “infinitely more.”

This verse states simply that there are no limits to what God can do.

Such a God can answer prayer.

The infinite ability of God to work beyond our prayers, thoughts and dreams is, “…according to his power that is at work within us…” He works in us individually (Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith) and within us as a people (who are the dwelling place of God by his Spirit). It is the power of the resurrection, the power which raised Jesus from the dead, enthroned him in the heavenly places, and then raised and enthroned us with him. This is the power which is at work within the Christian and the church (Eph. 1:15ff)

1. “To him be glory…”

The Bible is full of statements about glorifying God. Our sole purpose, our basic reason for existence is to bring maximum glory to God. Scripture virtually pulsates with the mandate, “Glorify God!”

Romans 15:5-6

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

When we study the Scriptures we find that glory is used in two major ways. 

First of all, glory refers to light, the light of God’s presence, a bright shining light from heaven. This expression of the glory of God appears in Exodus 40:34 where we read, “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” The light was so awesome that no one could approach this place. The glory of God is the beauty and brightness of his character.

But when it comes to the primary goal of the church to bring glory to God, we are not talking about the brilliant light of God’s presence, his absolute perfection. We are referring to our calling as a church to magnify, exalt or elevate the Lord as we humble ourselves and submit to his wisdom and his authority. 

Let me try and illustrate this in the following way. When the church declares before the world the words, “Glory to God,” it’s like the Manchester City team lifting their coach on their shoulders having just won the league; or like a standing ovation you would give to a band or an orchestra after an amazing performance. That is what this doxology, this expression of praise to God is like.

We are lifting God up to the world and saying there’s no one else like him.

Let me be clear. There is in the heart of every child, teenager and adult the need and longing to sing a doxology. We may sing it with greater energy to athletes or rock stars than we do to God. But there is no denying that the doxology is there in every heart. We were made to worship and sing.  We were made to have a hero to brag about, namely, God. The is the most basic impulse in the human heart. And so the reality of doxology is just as common and understandable if you take your seat at a stadium or a theatre or if you take your seat in a church or cathedral.

The experience of having your heart soar in admiration to God depends on whether you have ears to hear and eyes to see that above and behind every admirable thing on earth stands the magnificence and beauty of God.

Paul’s admiration for God was overflowing. And so at the end of these three chapters he sings a doxology.

2. “To him be glory in the church…”

How do we understand that? Well again, let us try and look at it from this angle: To Frances McDormand & Gary Oldman be glory in the Oscars, to Bruno Mars be glory in the Grammys, to Mohammad Salah be glory in Anfield but to God be glory in the church. Go back to verse 10 for a second to see how Paul imagines the church as the theatre of the glory of God: “(God’s) intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places…”

The reason God created the world and called the church into being is so that he would have a sufficiently diversified yet unified system of mirrors with which to reflect the glory of his many-sided wisdom to the universe. Cartsbridge is a local expression of this universal church. Our goal, therefore, is to be a corporate and visible and audible doxology to God.

3. “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus…”

If the church is the theatre in which the principalities and powers of the universe are to see the glory of God’s manifold wisdom, then Jesus Christ is the embodiment of that wisdom and the main character in the drama played out in the theatre of the church. The way the church glorifies God is by simply providing a venue in which the work of Jesus Christ can take effect. Ministries like Alpha, King’s Club, Impact, tlc, etc. are opportunities to display God’s glory to the outside world.

4. “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations for ever and ever. Amen.”

The greatest men and women are only shooting stars in the night sky. They, like we, last for a couple of seconds and then are gone. But God is like the sun. And generation after generation he rises on the just and the unjust and never fades in his glory. “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to ALL GENERATIONS, FOR EVER AND EVER. Amen.”

…in all of history…through out all of eternity…To him be glory!

Conclusion

There is a phenomenon in hillwalking called a brocken spectre. It can appear on any misty mountainside or cloud bank. A brocken spectre is the magnified shadow of a hillwalker cast on clouds opposite of the sun’s direction. The person’s head is surrounded by halo-like rings of coloured light. It looks like an iconic saint’s halo. And the name given to those rings is a glory.

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God will be forever glorified. Nothing in time and eternity will change this reality. Having said that, it is the calling of the church to reveal his glory, to display his glory to the world around us. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

(2 Corinthians 3:18).

James, in his New Testament letter, says: “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). May that be never said of Cartsbridge Church.

Being Filled with the Fullness of God

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on December 5th 2018

Introduction

A few weeks ago Channel 5 ran a two-part documentary entitled ‘Michael Palin in North Korea.’ It was fascinating on many levels. However, what intrigued me most was his experience of crossing the border and his first encounters with the North Korean authorities.

At the border checkpoint he was asked for his papers and said on camera that one of the questions put to him during that time was, “Do you have a Bible?” Is that not incredible? Of all the things the authorities could have asked if had on his possession, they single out the Bible. This regime believes that the Bible is dangerous and a threat to their ideology. They will do all they can to keep it from its citizens.

I truly believe that the Bible is the special revelation of God to humankind. Because of that it carries a quite unique authority. Hence the reason some (e.g. the North Korean authorities) will do what they can to keep people from reading it.

However, as Christians we not only recognise its authority, we have come to appreciate its value and importance in living a life that honours God. We will see this more clearly in a moment. Before that, let us remind ourselves of our aim in reading and meditating on Paul’s prayers scattered through his letters.

“As a church, our aim is to reflect on Paul’s prayers in such a way that we hear God speak to us today and find strength and direction to improve our praying, both for God’s glory and for our good.”

As we continue to reflect on these prayers, let us ask the question:

What would church life look like, and where would God take us, if we prayed these kind of prayers for each other?

Let us now begin to reflect on Paul’s second prayer for the Ephesians (chapter 3:14-19).

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”

Paul begins his prayer the same way he began the prayer of chapter 1 that we looked at last time. In ch.1 he prayed for the Ephesians in light of the wealth of spiritual blessing that is ours in Christ. Having praised God for what he has done in Christ, he then prays that the Ephesians would know that reality. 

“For this reason…” Paul is led to prayer by the thought of the greatness of the grace of Christ in raising us to new life even though we were dead in sin (2:1-10). But not only that but also by uniting Jew & Gentile in the great household of God (2:11-22). In the light of these things he  now prays as he does. 

I have come to appreciate this little phrase, “For this reason…”, more and more as I have reflected on it. Paul based his prayers on a knowledge of God’s purpose. This gave him the authority to pray as he did. Timothy Keller in his book on prayer says that our ‘starting point for prayer must be immersion in God’s Word.’ Why? Because prayer is continuing a conversation that God has already started. That’s why Bible reading and prayer should always go together.

There are four requests in Paul’s prayer, each of which is inextricably linked to the others. One commentator wrote, “I like to think of Paul’s prayer as a staircase by which he climbs higher and higher in his aspiration for his readers. His prayer-staircase has four steps, whose key words are ‘strength, love, knowledge and fullness.’ 

Another writer said, “These four requests are more like four parts of a telescope. One requests leads into the next one, and so on. He prays that we will be inwardly strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit, which in turn, leads to a deeper experience of Christ. This deeper experience will enable us to get hold of the love of Christ, which in turn results in us being filled to the fullness of God.” 

There is incredible connection and development in Paul’s prayer. Therefore, let us climb the staircase or look through the telescope and appreciate something of this deeply affectionate prayer of Paul for the Ephesians. Consider his four interconnected requests:

1. Strength (3:16-17a)

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

These two petitions clearly belong together. 

It is the constant emphasis of the New Testament, that strength for the Christian life comes by the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is evidence that we are truly the children of God (Romans 8:9). Flowing out of that it is the power of the Spirit in our lives that enables us to serve Christ in the world. 

Acts 1:8 

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witness in Jerusalem , and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

However, in this prayer Paul asks God that we will know the power of the Spirit at a much more profound level: “… so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

There are two Greek words for dwell in the New Testament. One is weaker; it means to inhabit (a place) as a stranger…living away from home… a temporary residence.

The other means to settle down somewhere…a permanent residence. It’s this second word that Paul uses here in prayer.

The verb ‘dwell’ literally means ‘to settle down and feel at home.’ Christ was already resident in the hearts of the Ephesians. What Paul is praying for is a deeper experience between Christ and his people. He longs for Christ to settle down and feel at home their hearts – not a surface relationship, but an ever deepening fellowship.

The second step on our stairs or the next part of the telescope that we pull out is:

2. Depth (3:17)

“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people…”

Paul uses two pictures in this verse to communicate the idea of spiritual depth, and the two pictures are hidden in two words in this verse: ‘rooted,’ and ‘grounded.’ 

The verb ‘rooted’ moves us into the plant world. A tree has to get its roots deep into the soil if it’s to have nourishment and stability, and a Christian must have their roots deep into the love of God. 

 A perfect description of this ‘rooted’ life is found in Psalm 1:1-3:

Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

and who meditates on his law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.

A great commentary on this life is found in Jeremiah 17:5-8:

‘But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.

They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.’

One of the most important questions a Christian can ask is, “From what do I draw my nourishment and stability?” If there is to be strength in the Christian life, then there must be depth. The roots of our faith must go deeper and deeper into the love of Christ.

‘Grounded’ is an architectural term; it refers to the foundations on which we build. The most important part of a building is the foundation. Jesus illustrated that in his story about two builders, one of whom did not go deep enough for his foundation. When the storm came it fell with a great crash. The other house remained standing as it had its foundation on the rock.

Paul prays that believers might have a deeper experience of Christ, because only a deep experience of Christ can sustain through the storms of life.

He prays that we will have deep roots and firm foundations in the Christian life; that we will be like a well-rooted tree and a well-built house.

3. Understanding (3:18-19a)

“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”

The ultimate goal to which the Christian life must move is that we know the love of God in Christ, to know how he loved and loves, and to experience his love in loving him and loving others for his sake.

Paul prays that we grasp this love and have some idea of the dimensions of the redeeming love of Christ. Paul’s concern is that we lay hold of the vast expanses of the love of God. 

But there is a paradox here. Paul wants us to know personally the love of God ‘which surpasses knowledge.’ There are dimensions, but they’ll never be fully measured.

Paul never intends us to give detailed meanings to the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of Christ’s love. But what he does prayer is that we find expression of that love in experience, in joy and grief, in difficulty and in suffering, in ways too deep for us  to intellectually fathom, or for human language to ultimately express or explain.

Eugene Peterson, in the Message has Paul praying that we would know the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love

Reach out and experience the breadth!

Test its length!

Plumb the depths!

Rise to the heights!

We now arrive at the top of the staircase and our vision of what Paul is so earnestly prayers for is crystallised.

4. Fullness (3:19b)

“…that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

The climax of Paul’s prayer is that they might be filled with all the fulness of God.

Consider carefully what Paul ultimately prays for the Ephesians. The very highest he can pray for is that they will be filled with full indwelling of God. Of course, the eternal God can never be limited  to any or all of his people. However, Paul prays big! He prays that we will be conformed to God’s character and and reflect his life to others. 

Conclusion

Paul prays that the Ephesians will experience strength, depth, understanding and fullness in the Christian life. This leads Paul to offer a wonderful expression of praise…However, that will need to wait until next time!

Growing in the Knowledge of God

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on November 21st 2018.

General Introduction

Do you remember the classic children’s prayer that perhaps many of us prayed when we were young?

God bless Mummy, Daddy too,

God bless me and God bless you.

God bless everyone, God bless everyone.

God bless children here today,

God bless children far away.

There is something profoundly biblical about praying for God’s blessing on people. But there are Christians who, in many respects, never move beyond the level of this childhood prayer. Their prayer life is no more than paddling in the shallows while all the time there is an ocean’s fullness to explore when it comes to our relationship with God in prayer.

In light of this, we are committing ourselves to a devotional reflection on the prayers of Paul scattered through his many letters in the New Testament.

At the Prayer Academy a fortnight ago I said that Paul framed all his prayers in a spirit of thanksgiving. As we began to reflect on this, I made two primary points that are worth repeating when it comes to the content of Paul prayers.

One centres on the expansive nature of these prayers, summed up in the following sentence:

“Paul’s prayers are primarily centred on drawing Christians into a deep understanding of all that Jesus has accomplished for us through his death and resurrection and a dynamic and intimate relationship with God through the Holy Spirit.”

The other focuses on our purpose in reflecting on these prayers over the winter months:

“As a church, our aim is to reflect on Paul’s prayers in such a way that we hear God speak to us today and find strength and direction to improve our praying, both for God’s glory and for our good.”

As we move into the substance of these prayers, I want to encourage you to ask a simple question:

What would church life look like, and where would God take us, if we prayed these kind of prayers for each other? 

Tonight, we reflect on Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1. It is all about growing in the knowledge of God.

Introduction

The letter that Paul wrote to the Ephesians has been described as “the Alps of the New Testament.” It reaches heights of truth almost unparallel in the great second section of Scripture. From this unique vantage point we are able to look out on a magnificent vista, captivated by the whole sweep of God’s plan of redemption. In the first half of chapter 1, Paul takes us back to the infinite expanse of eternity, where we are introduced to God’s plan of salvation. A plan, we discover, that is centred on Christ and finds visible expression in the church of which he is head. 

Verses 3 to 14 Paul are really a great anthem of praiseone long sentence in the Greek language, almost impossible to analyse, in which each successive thought crowds in on the one before. 

This section of Scripture reminds me of the 2011 Oban Fireworks display. As the result of a technical malfunction, the entire display went up in 50 seconds! There is a similar experience for the reader of this paragraph. What should take volumes to unpack and explain ‘explodes’ in a single sentence!

We arrive at verse 15 exhausted! Paul now prays for the Ephesians in light of the wealth of spiritual blessing that he has just been writing about.

Our Christian lives will be enriched if we can learn from Paul. What Paul does in Ephesians 1, and therefore encourages us to copy, is both to keep praising God that in Christ all spiritual blessings are ours and to pray that we know the fullness of what he has given us. If we keep praise and prayer together we are unlikely to lose our spiritual equilibrium.

The essence of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Christians is found in verse 17. Paul prays that they would KNOW GOD.

On Friday, I attended the funeral service of a man whose influence and support in the early days of my Christian walk was considerable. His name was Jim Cadzow. The man who gave the tribute to Jim said of him, “Jim wanted to know God and to be known by God.” He was like Paul in that regard, who said to the Philippian believers that his life goal was to know Christ (Philippians 3:10). And here in this prayer Paul offers a similar request to God on behalf of the Ephesians.

It is vital to understand that this knowledge of God does not just happen as we acquire more information about God, read more books or listen to more sermons. It is knowledge that is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, this revelation only comes through a life that’s immersed in the Scriptures and absorbed in prayer. We get to know God by walking with him and living out all that he teaches us on that journey.

The language that Paul uses draws on the richness of the Old Testament’s teaching on knowledge. This knowledge of God is the knowledge of understanding and the knowledge of experience. It is the personal knowledge of God himself, which in the Bible always implies the experience of life in union and fellowship with God. There is no higher knowledge than the knowledge of God himself.

Paul goes on to bring together three great truths which vitally connect to the knowledge of God that he wants his readers to know in mind and experience. They focus on God’s call, inheritance and power. More than that, he prays that they may know the ‘hope’ of God’s call, the ‘wonder’ of his inheritance, and the ‘greatness’ of his power.

1. The Hope of God’s Call

“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” (Ephesians 1:18). 

God’s call takes us back to the very beginning of our Christian lives.

“…having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And he gave them right standing with himself, and he promised them his glory” (Romans 8:30).

But what did God call us for? His call was not a random or purposeless thing. He had a clear goal in mind when he called us. He called us to something and for something. It is clearly outlined in the teaching of the New Testament. It focuses on:

(a) Our relationship with God in Christ

God called us “to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6).

“We have been called by God to be his very own people” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

(b) Our relationship with fellow Christians

“Let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are all called to live in peace” (Colossians 3:15). God calls us to work at maintaining unity in the church.

(c) Our relationship with an unbelieving world

“To his you were called (suffering for doing good), because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…” (1 Peter 2:21).

The big picture view of this suffering is something that Peter goes on to explain:

“…the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” 

(1 Peter 5:10).

All of this was in God’s mind when he called us. It was a call to a completely new way of life in which we know, love, obey and serve Christ, enjoy fellowship with him and with each other, and look beyond our present suffering to the glory which will one day be revealed. This is the hope to which he has called you. Paul prays that our eyes will be opened to see it.

2. The Wonder of God’s Inheritance

Paul’s second prayer to God is that we will know “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (v.18b).

If God’s ‘call’ points us back to the beginning of our Christian life, then God’s inheritance points us on to the end, which Peter describes “…an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).

Exactly what it will be like is beyond our ability to imagine. Having said that, there are glimpses of what we can expect. We are told that we will ‘see’ God and worship him, that this exalted vision of God will be a transforming vision. John says, ‘when he appears we shall be like him…’ (1 John 3:2). Also, God’s inheritance will not be some kind of private party: an invitation to a select few.  John, again, talks about “…a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

For me, no one captures this better than C.S. Lewis at the end of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.’

“For us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

(C.S. Lewis – The Last Battle)

This is the wonder of God’s inheritance. Paul prays that our minds will be enlightened to know it.

3. The Greatness of God’s Power.

If God’s call looks back to the beginning, and God’s inheritance looks to the end, then it follows that God’s power spans the period of our life between those two realities. It is really on this that the apostle concentrates; for only God’s power can deliver all that is contained in God’s call and bring us safely to our final inheritance. Paul is convinced that God’s power is sufficient, and he accumulates words to convince us. He writes not only of God’s ‘power’, but also of “the working of his mighty strength”, and prays that we will know the immeasurable greatness” of it in us who believe. 

How do we come to know and experience the surpassing greatness of the power of God? God has given a public demonstration of this power in the resurrection and ascension of Christ (verses 20-23). Paul refers to three hugely important events in his prayer:

(a) God raised Jesus from the dead (verse 20a)

(b) God seated him in the place of honour at his right hand in the heavenly places, above all his competitors (v. 20b, 21), and has put everything under his feet.

(c) God put all things under the authority of Christ, and he gave him this authority for the benefit of the church.

These three truths belong together. It’s because of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and his authority over evil that he has been given headship over the church. The resurrection and ascension are the decisive demonstrations of divine power.

This is the greatness of God’s power. Paul prays that we will experience it.

Conclusion

As an Ayrshire lad, I always keep an eye out for how Kilmarnock FC are performing. I am sure many of you do not know this but they have won the Scottish Cup three times in their history.

In 1920, they beat Albion Rovers 3-2 at Hampden in front of crowd of 95,000 people. Jack Smith scored the winner with Willie Culley and Mattha Short scoring earlier in the game.

In 1929, they beat Rangers 2-0 at Hampden before 114,780 fans this time. Jock Aitken and Jimmy Williamson scored that day.

Kilmarnock would wait another 68 years before they won the cup again, this time beating Falkirk 1-0 in what was dubbed ‘The People’s Final’ in 1997. Paul Wright scored the only goal at Ibrox stadium in front of 48,953 fans.

Why am I telling you this? Over the years I have read one or two books about Kilmarnock and so have some knowledge about their history and achievements. I read about the 1920’s Scottish Cup final victories. However, the difference in 1997 was that I was actually there! My knowledge of that victory is coupled with personal experience.

Going back to my good friend, Jim Cadzow. It was said in his tribute that his knowledge of God was an experiential knowledge. His life was immersed in the teaching of Scripture and he lived it out and experienced it in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul prayed for the Christians at Ephesus.

I wonder, where would God take us as a church if this was our depth of prayer for each other? 

Developing an Attitude of Gratitude

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on November 7th 2018

General Introduction

Last week, a bottle was washed up on the tiny Hebridean Island of Canna. When one of the islanders picked it up, they realised it contained a brief note which read:

My Love Story

“I have a girlfriend. She is called Jody Gates and my name is George Kirkland. I hope you see this one day and I love you even though we were 4 when we met. I still love you now that we’re 9 now that we both go to Market Hill Primary School.”

Incredible! When you read that, do you not long for Jody to discover that George’s love for her is enduring?! He is now 9 and he has loved her since he was 4!

The ability for a written note, message or letter to move us, inspire us, encourage us is something that most of have experienced in life. A text message, an email, a letter at just the right time can bolster our flagging spirits and give us fresh resolve to keep going.

The letters of Paul are the first century version of our ‘message in a bottle.’ To be clear, they were not thrown by Paul into the Mediterranean with the faint hope that they would reach the countries of Turkey, Greece or Italy. They were carefully delivered to fledging Christian communities who learned about the inexpressible and unassailable love of God for them and for humanity at large.

We are going to dip into these letters in the coming weeks, reflecting especially on Paul’s prayers for the first century church. Our reason for doing this is so that we can align our prayer habits with his. We want to learn what to pray for, what priorities we should adopt, and what beliefs should shape our prayers. To that end, Paul gives us a clear and unmistakable example of how to pray and what prayer is really all about.

As we survey the prayers of Paul, they can be very helpfully summed up in one sentence:

“Paul’s prayers are primarily centred on drawing Christians into a deep understanding of all that Jesus has accomplished for us through his death and resurrection and a dynamic and intimate relationship with God through the Holy Spirit.”

If I could sum up the purpose of the series in one sentence it would be:

“As a church our aim is to reflect on Paul’s prayers in such a way that we hear God speak to us today and find strength and direction to improve our praying, both for God’s glory and for our good.”

Introduction

Tonight, we launch out into this series as we think about:

Developing an Attitude of Gratitude 

Thankfulness is a value that we seek to instil in our children from their earliest days and one that we teach them to express in their relationships.  

The theory behind this practice is the belief that children need to be taught to express gratitude and develop a thankful spirit. Parents understand that children learn to be thankful through the process of example, encouragement and repetition.

Why do we invest so much energy into this process? To lift us out of self-focused living into an understanding of the precious gift of life that we have been given. 

Those three qualities (example, encouragement and repetition) are embedded in Paul’s New Testament prayers and teach us a great deal about developing an attitude of gratitude. 

1. Paul modelled this attitude of gratitude

His prayers for six churches in the world of the first century are framed in spirit of thankfulness.

Read Romans 1:8-10 

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.”

Paul thanked God for the Christians in the city of Rome. It must have meant so much to the scattered Christian communities in the Roman empire that the church was established in the world’s capital city.

There’s something I don’t want you to miss here. Paul found reasons to give thanks for God’s people. His prayer here and his prayers for the other first century churches were deliberate, conscious and purposeful.

If you want to find a reason to be critical of people in this church or of the direction you perceive the church going in, then you will find it. 

Look at what Paul says here, “First, I thank my God…because your faith is being reported all over the world.” This is first in order, as if Paul says, I am going to begin my letter by giving thanks to God for the Roman Christians.

If Paul had a second point in mind, he never actually gets to it!

Paul’s example teaches us one vital lesson about life and faith. Look for a reason to be thankful first and very often the criticism that you plan to raise afterward disappears or is refined.

2. Paul taught Christians to cultivate an attitude of gratitude

Read Philippians 4:6-7

“Do not 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.”

This attitude is cultivated in prayer. It is one of the great passages in the New Testament which Christians in every generation have turned to for guidance and from which they have received encouragement and blessing.

Paul uses three different Greek words for prayer.

The word translated ‘prayer’ is perhaps a reference to general prayers, talking with God about the big things of life and society.

The word ‘petition’ could represent particular prayers. It might be talking to God about a specific matter, event or person.

The third word, ‘requests’, is really about detailed prayers.

This verse informs us that God is interested in the telescopic view of life, the big things, things at a local, national or international level. He calls us to pray about those matters. 

However, he also cares about the microscopic view of life, the minute matters, the details of our lives. And he equally calls us to bring those specific requests to God.

Paul says that all of those prayers, petitions and requests are to be offered and framed in a spirit of thanksgiving. Recalling God’s goodness and mercy in prayer will save us from being people with ungrateful hearts.

Worry and anxiety will be displaced and peace will garrison and protect your hearts and minds when we pray with thanksgiving.

Woven through these two central truths is a much more foundational reality – one that fully explains Paul’s thankful heart.

Put simply, deep within the heart of Paul resided a profound sense of gratitude for the grace of God that rescued him and set him free. In the best sense of the expression, Paul never recovered from the discovery of the gospel truth – “…the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). It was a spring within him that continually overflowed in thanksgiving and praise to God.

This understanding should unstop a spring in the hearts of every Christian that begins to overflow with gratitude that God would love even me! In every child of God, there should reside a profound sense of thankfulness for Christ and his work.

A week past on Saturday, 12 young lads from the ‘Wild Boars’ football team in Thailand spent the day at Old Trafford as guests of Manchester United Football Club. I am sure most of you know the backstory to the visit of this team. 

Following a training session on June 23 this year, the boys went with their coach to visit caves in the Chiang Rai Province of northern Thailand. A sudden downpour of monsoon rain flooded the caves that the boys were in, making it impossible to leave. That was the beginning of an 18 day ordeal for the boys and their families. 

Miraculously, on Monday, July 2, two British rescue divers found all 13 individuals alive on a muddy ledge in a dry air pocket deep inside the cave. 

What followed was a truly incredible rescue mission. A team of highly trained divers taught the boys how to dive and swim. Then each boy was tethered to a diver who also carried their oxygen tank. Very slowly they were brought to safety. Each boy’s journey to surface took about 8 hours. The entire team was rescued and the joy when they were all finally brought out was indescribable. 

Last Monday, they met the British divers who saved them at a special ceremony and one of the lads said, “It was great to see the divers again, hug them, and thank them in person. They gave us this new life.”

The debt of gratitude these boys expressed to the British divers is pale reflection of the immeasurable debt of gratitude that we should carry in hearts for the great rescue mission that Jesus undertook to set us free from sin to live in the new life of the Spirit.

Conclusion 

I believe, that as the children of God, we can learn from Paul. He has taught us to express gratitude and to develop a thankful spirit.

“When gratitude becomes your default setting, life changes.”

(Nancy Leigh DeMoss)