I have a dream! It’s a dream deeply rooted in God’s dream for the Body of Christ. I dream that we, as a church, would be everything God has called us to be … a loving family, a reaching family, a teaching family, and a training family! And we’re doing so well, but can’t we do better than this? With the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit, can’t we rise up and live out the true meaning of God’s dream for His people? I can see it happening right before my eyes, but we are not without our faults. We have our cracks and gaps that need to be repaired.
In Northern Kingdom of Israel, a wicked king rose to the throne; his name was Ahab. Now, Ahab married a Phoenician Princess named Jezebel. And like all Canaanites, she worshiped Baal and when she moved to Samaria, she brought her gods with her and soon, Israel was worshiping Baal too. In fact, Jezebel tore down the altars of Yahweh, but God had a prophet in Israel; his name was Elijah. And one day, on Mt. Carmel, Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal to see whose God was really God. Well, the prophets of Baal built an altar, placed a sacrifice on it, and began marching and chanting to Baal. But when Elijah went to Yahweh’s altar, it was in disrepair. So, before he could offer a sacrifice to God, he had to rebuild the Lord’s altar.
Brothers and Sisters, Paul encourages us: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and acceptable to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is – what is good, pleasing, and acceptable.” [i] Paul says we are to offer ourselves – mind, body, and spirit – to God as a living sacrifice. But how can we do that when the Lord’s altar is in disrepair, when we’re not fully living into God’s dream for His church? We must rebuild the Lord’s altar!
And where do we start? Where do we begin to rebuild the Lord’s altar so that our church can become a loving family, a reaching family, a teaching family, and a training family? We begin in prayer! Prayer has to be our first priority! When Paul wrote to tell Timothy how to be a leader in the church, he said: “Therefore, I encourage, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made for all men, for kings, and all who are in authority.” [ii] Paul could have said: “If I was you, I’d plan Sunday worship and Wednesday Bible Study. I’d visit more and look really busy doing the work of God,” but Paul’s advice was: “If I was you, the first thing I’d do is pray.”
Prayer! Prayer is communication with God, a private audience with the King of the Universe and the Creator of all things! Many think prayer is a chance to talk with God, but primarily prayer is an opportunity to quiet ourselves before God and listen to Him. It’s not so much a time for me to let God know what’s on my mind, as it is a time for me to hear what’s on God’s mind. Prayer isn’t me trying to persuade or manipulate God into doing what I want, but a chance for me to submit myself to doing what God wants.
What would it mean for us – as a church family – if prayer became a priority, If every gathering for worship, study, or business became first and foremost, a time of prayer, to seek to know the heart and mind of God? That’s where we start! We start in prayer! So, I’m encouraging you to prayer for our church, to set aside five minutes every day to pray for our church! 5 minutes a day at 5:55! And if 5:55 doesn’t work for you, pick a time and pray! Pray! Altar your prayers; present your prayers to God! Paul told the church at Philippi: “Don’t be anxious about anything, but bring up all your requests to God in prayer and petition, with thanksgiving.” [iii]
Pray! But when we pray, we need to pray in a certain way! Or … as we altar our prayers, we need to alter the way we pray! First, instead of focusing on me, we need to focus on God! Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, holy is your name.” [iv] Our prayers should always begin with praise and adoration. The Psalmist called upon the Lord, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” [v] Many of the traditional Jewish prayers begin, “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God Creator of heaven and earth, provider of all our needs, and lover of our souls.” In other words, our prayers should exalt the character and activity of God.
You see, we don’t fully realize this and we don’t always live into it, but you and I are in a loving, covenant relationship with God. “O how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.” So, we need to spend time loving God in our prayers. Tell Him that you love Him! Tell Him what He means to you! Focus on God!
Second, instead of proclaiming my goodness, we need to deal with our sinfulness. We are not the people God has called us to be. We are not the church family God is calling us to be. And we need to confess that to God, saying: “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have failed to be an obedient church; we have not done your will; we have broken your law; we have rebelled against your love; we have not loved our neighbors and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray and free us for joyful obedience.” [vi] Individually and collectively, there are things we do that are clearly outside of the will of God. And individually and collectively, there are things we fail to do that clearly place us outside of the will of God. And until we deal with those – until we repent, the church cannot move forward and fulfill God’s dream for us.
In Joshua, we read the story of the Battle of Ai. Now, just a few days before, Israel conquered Jericho. For six days, they marched around the city once a day and on the seventh day, they marched around seven times, and they blew their horns and shouted and the walls came tumbling down. Now, God told them: everything in Jericho belongs to me, but Achkan took some of God’s things and hid them in his tent. And when Israel went into battle against Ai, they suffered a great defeat and it was revealed that there was sin in the camp. And it wasn’t until Israel dealt with the sin among them that they could conquer and live into God’s dream for them. Confess your sins!
Third, instead of moaning about our limitations, we need to give thanks for what we have and what we are! You know the old joke: the family was headed home after church one Sunday and everybody started complaining. The sermon was too long; the choir sang off key; the organist was too loud, and on and on and on. And finally, Little Johnny spoke up and said: “Well, I thought it was pretty good for that dollar you put into the offering plate.”
The truth is: with all our challenges and shortcomings, we are a great church! We worship; we fellowship; we study; we reach out; and we serve. We have staff members and volunteers, clergy and laity, working together, serving God! We have a music team – a praise team, a choir, and handbells – to lead us in worship! Many churches our size don’t have a choir anymore and very few have handbells. We have Sunday School classes and small groups. We have ministry teams serving in various areas. We have committees to plan and lead our ministries. We are actively involved in social justice ministries at Good Sam, Tabitha’s Place, and Backpack Buddies! We’re blessed! And Paul reminds us: “Bring your requests to God in prayer with thanksgiving.” [vii] Give Thanks!
And finally, instead of asking God to bless us, we need to ask God to use us to bless others! Ask God to give us a heart for the lost and the hurting! Ask God to give us eyes to see their needs and ears to hear their cries! Ask God to help us use His blessings to make a difference in the church and in the world. Perhaps we can pray the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” Now, that’s a prayer! It’s one of the most selfless prayers I’ve ever read and it’s a great guide for our prayers. Petitions!
And so, I encourage you, brothers and sisters, when you think about all that God has done for you, offer your bodies to God. Altar your prayers! After all, isn’t that what we promised to do when we said: “I will be faithful to God and to First United Methodist Church and I will uphold it with my prayers, my presence, my gifts, my service, and my witness.”
[i] Romans 12:1 – 2 CEB
[ii] 1 Timothy 2:1
[iii] Philippians 4:6
[iv] Matthew 5
[v] Psalm 8
[vi] UMH, pg. 12
[vii] Philippians 4:6