Ordinary Names, Doing Extraordinary Work, and Persisting in Faith: Thoughts for a prayer conference

ImageJune 6, 2014
Listen to the start of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and Sosthenes, our brother, 2 to the church of God in Corinth, to those who have been consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be God’s holy people, with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord as well as ours. 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I am continually thanking God about you, for the grace of God which you have been given in Christ Jesus; 5 in him you have been richly endowed in every kind of utterance and knowledge; 6 so firmly has witness to Christ taken root in you. 7 And so you are not lacking in any gift as you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed; 8 he will continue to give you strength till the very end, so that you will be irreproachable on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 You can rely on God, who has called you to be partners with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Notice three things about this passage. 1) Ordinary names, 2) doing extraordinary work, and 3) persisting in faith.
1) The mere names are written more or less in the standard form used to start letters in the Roman empire period. We would say, Dear Friends.
Such an apparently mundane communication make this kind of writing seem hardly scripture-like. It is in koine common Greek. It has no high literary style. The words are not like a Plato or a Greek poet. Even Augustine had trouble reading this comparatively unburnished writing as scripture. Crude, not worthy, he thought before conversion. The words hardly seem like once and for all chosen words. Yet they are.
God used the language of the people to communicate. Koine Greek was the language of business and politics all around the Mediterranean basin, all over the Roman empire. How convenient.
God has become incarnated in human history. He condescended to meet us where we are. He is on our level. It looks ordinary. The supernatural is dressed  in jeans, as it were.
On top of that ordinariness, God has Paul include the name of his colleague, Sosthenes.
When I go to a meeting, one of my strategies for making sure the next meeting crew know I was there is to second a motion. Sometimes I even move one. Then no one can say I wasn t there or did nt do anything. My name is in the minutes.
I m not entirely sure why Sosthenes gets a mention. Other than to be like, another second witness to the truth. “In the mouths of two witnesses let everything be established.” That was the Jewish law. Or to underline that Paul is not an authority like the Lord Jesus; he is one of the apostles who were commissioned together and whose collective authority really comes from the one who called them. Sosthenes anyway is in the minutes. And I m glad he is. It is very humdrum. Very ordinary.
But Sosthenes is doing the business of God. Everyone for all time can see God used old Sosthenes to do work that would be looked back on as long as the present age goes on. He is just Sosthenes, but under the triune God he was given work to do that will last for ever. God works through the ordinary. He is not a high style God. He uses all kinds of people in all kinds of places. In fact high and low and middle you name it.
Your name as a praying person at this prayer conference is in the minutes. If not some official minutes or record of attendance, then the record of God. All agents of grace in their place. All pray-ers are Sosthenes-es. Recorded by God special to him.
2. Notice that a kind of blessing starts the letter, a kind of prayer. “Charis kai eirene.” This initial passage prefigures all the concerns of the letter. All the introductions to Paul’s letters, except maybe Ephesians, a circular letter, have this character. After you read the letter to the Corinth Christians you see why Paul started out the way he did. He is very curt with the Galatians, and you see why after you read the letter. Here in the first Corinthian letter you have a church which is way off base in its actual life. A man is living with his stepmother. There are issues with food from pagan temples. There is abuse of the Lord’s supper. They are tolerating people who downplay the resurrection. But: Paul commences by giving thanks to God for them.
If it were me, I m sure I would be less enthused. I would be thinking about all the hard work to get this outfit straight and it might not even take, my efforts might fail.
Paul knows this: the faith of these folks is the work of God, not any human effort. That believers exist in the middle of an idol-worshipping, sexually impure, port city in the Greek part of the Roman empire is a miracle. Each and every believer is a miracle. Remember  to buck him up evangelizing, Jesus appears to Paul and told him: I have many people in this city. These folks are Jesus’ people — even thought their life is not all it needs to be. Their lives need to match their confession of Christ. But they are on the way — in Paul’s optimistic take. The glass is half full. Paul keeps the big picture firmly in view. “I am delighted you belong to Jesus. I have not forgotten the occasion of your coming to faith in the first place and what a miracle it was. I have not forgotten the day you were baptised. I delight in you with the delight of the Lord himself.” We could all learn something for our church relationships from these few verses. So easily overlooked. So expressive of the gospel of Jesus Messiah the Lord of heaven and earth.
3. But notice thirdly, Paul does not neglect to urge them. Humanly he uses words to do God’s work. The Corinth Christians need to persist in doing good. If they hear his words and act, they will be displaying faith. Notice that “call on the name” in verse 2 is almost the same thing as their identity in the same sentence. “To the church of God in Corinth, to those who have been consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be God’s holy people, with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” – relying on the supreme authority — which is Jesus — is a sign of worship and submission. To pray is part of very identity of God’s people. Conversely, those who do not call on Jesus are not showing reliance on him. They are relying on themselves or on gods who really do not have the authority to make that difference.
In verse 8 Paul writes, “He will give you strength.”
This is a prayer conference. It takes an effort to go out of town, one more year to this prayer conference. Perhaps there was some competing allegiance, some family event, sports event, golf event, dancing for the stars event,  that you made a lower priority. I thank God for you doing the work of God in praying for God’s work in Asia. God is at work in you both to will and to do his good work. You still hear his voice. Let us, as long as it is still day, encourage one another. The work will last forever. Not many causes can say that.
Ordinary names, doing extraordinary work, and persisting in faith!


Long Term Prayer – June 6, 2014

“Teach us to pray.” The disciples must have seen something in Jesus their spiritual master, some quality which they wished they had. The request is recorded in Luke’s gospel (11:11-13).

I want to think about one aspect of Jesus life of praying and believing that might help us to press on in the good work of prayer.

Probably nothing stops praying like Job’s wife. You know what Job’s supportive spouse said. Job had lost everything in disaster after disaster, his children, his livelihood, his investments. On top of that he was afflicted with constant pain – malignant ulcers from the top of his head to the sole of his feet.

However, he still had his wife. She said, ‘Why persist in this integrity of yours? Curse God and die.’ More or less she says: Job, it is over. God is not going to reverse this situation. God is not going to do anything.” Her unbelief is a dramatic foil or backdrop to Job’s faithful determination.

However, the truth is this: What looks like God’s unfairness can really kick a praying person in the shins. It might seem like proof that God is really absent altogether.

Now Job is usually dated after the exile. No surprise that Israel’s faith went through the fire in the exile. I m not just talking about Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego who went through the fire that was hotter than hot. I’m talking about the Israel national project. Israel went through hades to get the Land of Promise. Yahweh said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country which I shall show you; 2 and I shall make you a great nation, I shall bless you and make your name famous; you are to be a blessing! They were redeemed from Egypt. After 40 years they entered the land which God had promised them. Whew. God was going to bless the world out of Zion, Jerusalem, joy of the whole earth where God had taken up residence.

But now, with the exile, Israel had failed. They lost the land. The gentiles razed the temple. Where were God’s promises now? Would God ever use Israel again? Had God moved on?

Books like Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, Job, and many psalms are dealing with this disappointment of the national hope. They are working out a way to understand how God can still be faithful, still keep his cast iron promises when the obvious basis of those promises is all over — it seems. How do you keep on praying when there seems like there is no hope. Job’s challenge is to keep the faith while those around him are unsupportive. Indeed, the whole book is Job figuring out in dialogue back and forth why God is letting this all happen to him. Job is figuring out how he can keep on praying and believing.

In our own time in North America, for many of us, the trend lines are heading down. Our churches are in trouble, many of them. Attendance trouble. Financial trouble. Change in the culture has been huge and sudden. Major denominations are not baptizing many of the new generation, the millennials. It is easy to believe that the trends are going to kill Christian churches as we know them. You could call it determinism. Nothing is going to stop this movie from playing forward – and one might say, “I don’t like what I see.”

In the long gap of 400 years between the last prophet and John the Baptist, in the time of silence, when the God of Israel said nothing, at the very end there are a couple of models of faithful pray-ers. Simeon is one. Here is Luke 2:25: Now in Jerusalem there was a man named Simeon. He was an upright and devout man; he looked forward to the restoration of Israel and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord, on YHWH’s Messiah anointed King of Israel that is. He was praying! Simeon is a man who trusted the God of Israel and the world to come through. After 400 years of nothing doing, silence, he is praying. Anna: She was eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. Simeon said, my eyes have seen the salvation 31 which you have made ready in the sight of the nations; 32 a light of revelation for the gentiles and glory for your people Israel. Anna began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem. Prayer has to allow God to do things his way.

When I attended a missions prayer conference in the late 1980s, a real life China Inland Missions missionary also attended. She was someone who had cause to think the work had been wasted. In 1953, if not before, the Communists expelled all missionaries. Less than 1% of the population of China were Christians – 750 000 Protestants and 3 million Catholics in 1949. Then followed more than thirty years of silence to the early 1980s. No one knew what if anything had changed. In 2014 as many as 130 million Chinese may be believers in Christ, according to The Economist magazine – as much as 10% of the population. Prayer has to allow God to do things his way.

For allowing God to do it his way, no model is better than Jesus himself. Scripture records this at Luke 22: He …left to make his way as usual to the Mount of Olives, with the disciples following. 40 When he reached the place he said to them, ‘Pray not to be put to the test.’ 41 Then he withdrew from them, about a stone’s throw away, and knelt down and prayed. 42 ‘Father,’ he said, ‘if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.’ 43 Then an angel appeared to him, coming from heaven to give him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed even more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. 45 When he rose from prayer he went to the disciples and found them sleeping for sheer grief.

What would it take to believe that God will raise you from death? What would it take to trust God to accomplish the work of saving a people for himself through total defeat, total weakness? What would it take to put your mission and your life in God’s hands totally? No one ever faced such a challenge.

Yet God raised our Lord Jesus from the grave. On the other side of faith in an impossibility came resurrection!

In this time, when God appears to be doing nothing – in North America anyway – Jesus is our model for prayer. “What will the Lord be up to?” What is God doing in the least evangelized part of the world? What new China, what new Korea, what new Iran is God working on? Believers have every reason to pray. Like Job we might have to work it out and see it through. Like Jesus. Like Jesus’ praying people in every era. May God get the praise for his faithfulness working in us.

Teach us to pray.