PRAYER AND FORGIVENESS

“When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins”.

Mk 11:25 NIV

Prayer is an important part of the life of a Christian believer. “Nothing will be achieved without prayer, as Mark signals elsewhere in his gospel. Prayer is the highest sign of faith commitment, since the time is most completely wasted if there is nothing in it. The other side of the coin is that for this very reason it is crucial to true discipleship.

Yet although ‘prayer changes things’ it is not an exercise in magic. It, like everything else in the disciple’s experience, has its proper environment. The ‘culture’ for prayer is the forgiving spirit. Since God’s forgiveness of us is the essential ground over which we approach him in prayer, a lack of a forgiving spirit on our part destroys the atmosphere in which prayer is offered and answered. So the line through faith and prayer to forgiveness is clearly recognizable” (D. English, The Message of Mark, p190).

We stand, that is to say, we live, under the grace of God. Stumbling, fumbling, and bumbling along we go, often unaware where we hurt people, or oblivious to the trouble we cause. But once we have committed our lives to Jesus and accepted his forgiveness, then we are “covered” by his grace. That means that when we unconsciously do or say something untoward or that is sinful, God wipes it out of any record against us. Being human we do sin, despite our best efforts to steer clear of wrong. He still accepts us, forgives us within his grace – and commissions us to witness, to care and to love in his name.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to accept your grace, to care and to pray.

BE READY TO FORGIVE

“My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’”.“And when you stand and pray, forgive anything you may have against anyone, so that your Father in heaven will forgive the wrongs you have done”.

Mk 11:25 GNB

One of our biggest problems concerns the grievances we nurse against people whom we regard as having done us some wrong. Sometimes we nurse these grievances for years. Some people never shed them. They take them with them to the grave. But they poison our souls. They can warp our thinking, not only about the issue in question but in a wide general sense. The phrase “bitter and twisted” expresses perfectly what hurts that we nurture can do to our inner peace of mind and harmony with God. They make us “bitter and twisted”.

Jesus says that is no way in which to go to God in prayer. He says, “Sort yourself out with God in the inner depths of your soul before you approach God in prayer. Before you make petitions and requests cast the bitterness out of your heart. Go to the person concerned. Tell them that what they did or said hurt you and that you have resented them deeply, but that now God wants you to forgive them. Ask them if they are able to accept your forgiveness. Relationships that have gone wrong are one of the most damaging and difficult causes of inner turmoil that we can have. They will distort our thinking, jigger up our emotions, and make us difficult to live with. They will make us irritable, bad-tempered and prejudiced, biased and miserable. Resentments are one of the major causes of depression. They make us less than mature, adult people. They bring out the worst in us and destroy our creativity. Healing comes through forgiveness.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to forgive those who have wronged me.

THE POWER OF BELIEVING PRAYER

“I tell you: When you pray and ask for something, believe that you have received it, and you will be given whatever you ask for”.

Mk 11:24 GNB

Many people have found their faith put to the test in prayer, taking these words of Jesus and praying urgently for something important. A pioneer missionary in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, William Shaw, illustrates this. The religion of the Africans constituted a challenge to the missionaries, and William Shaw had a duel of wills with a famous rain-maker, Gqindiva, whose help had been sought by chief Pato in time of severe drought. Shaw insisted that rain came from God, not from the rain-maker. The rain-maker replied that Shaw was hindering him from making rain. A serious situation now arose. Some of Shaw’s people believed that his word was stronger than the rain-maker’s; others were obviously sceptical of the power of the missionary’s God. Faced with Elijah’s predicament, he had no alternative but to appeal to God to vindicate the true prophet and expose the false. So he set apart a whole day for fasting and prayer and at certain intervals called the people together to petition God for the mercy of rain. The incident is best concluded in Shaw’s own words: ‘God was pleased in his infinite mercy to answer for himself. Just as the people were beginning to assemble for the evening service (the last for the day), drops of rain began to fall slowly … and at the time of its close, the rain was falling in heavy showers’. The rain-maker was discredited and the people called the downpour of many days ‘God’s Rain’” (H. Davies, Great South African Christians, p37, 8).

Have the courage of William Shaw. And pray believing.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to prove the power of believing prayer.

HAVE FAITH IN GOD

“Jesus answered, ‘Have faith in God’”.

Mk 11:22 GNB

ACatholic priest noticed one Sunday morning that a university professor married to a regular worshipper in his church had come to mass. As his wife had sometimes expressed concern about his professed atheism, the priest was surprised, but said nothing. This continued for quite some time and gradually the man thawed out. One day he even ventured some conversation with the priest. “Tell me” said the priest, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see you at mass these last few months. Has anything happened to cause you to change your mind?” The man replied, “Well, I decided it’s not a wise thing to argue with the examiner just before you write your finals”.

Having faith means different things in various contexts. Generally, it means believing that there is a God and that he works in various ways in a universe which he has created. Sometimes it can mean living a very God-conscious life of close personal communion with God. Then again it can mean accepting that God has a claim on your whole existence and committing everything you are and have to him. Sometimes having faith can imply that, although you are ill, you dare to defy the possibility that your ill-health may continue – or even deteriorate – and you insist that God will heal you, or that, having recovered, your recovery has been caused by God’s active intervention.

Many people believe that the growth of science has called into question all religious faith. The fact of the matter, in this modern world, is that six of the seven billion people on planet earth profess some kind of religious faith, despite the decline of organised religion in western society. Listen to Jesus – and have faith in God.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help my faith to increase.

ENMITY

“The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching”.

Mk 11:18 NIV

The number and variety of grounds for “picking a fight” are plentiful. People envy one another. They hold different ideas, believe different teachings, hold diverging opinions, and sometimes they are just plain jealous. And they bear grudges, stoking up resentments, and desire to get revenge. In some ways, Jesus was, in the teacher’s eyes at any rate, a “pretender to the throne”. They were the appointed teachers with official authority. But he had come along with a different approach. They taught what the official interpretation of the law said. He gave his own interpretation. He knew what God was like and said so. He gave his own line on the law. And the people flocked to hear him, making the official teachers jealous of his popularity amongst the people. And he made his teaching interesting and worth listening to by the stories he told. His parables were true to life – and the point he was making was always transparently clear. He gave them an idea of the Kingdom of God. And what he did bore out the message he brought.

So they started to plan. Not only was he popular. Because he was so different he was a threat to the tradition they taught. He threatened to turn things upside down. He had to be killed before he caused too much trouble. And before they lost too much business in the temple! He had healed people, taught them, befriended them, enlightened them – but they didn’t “get him”. And so they set the wheels in motion that led to Calvary.

PRAYER THOUGHT Lord, I pray for those who oppose Jesus today.

A DEN OF ROBBERS?

“My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’”.

Mk 11:17 NIV

It is frightfully easy for religious bodies to get side-tracked from their original and primary purpose. A large central city church decided to move to a new venue and erected a building several storeys high. The idea was to rent out some of the upper storeys and with the rents help to pay for the running of the church. Soon the senior minister was being badgered by one tenant after another to alter the terms of a lease, break down walls, cancel a lease, and so on. He said, “This new building has turned me into a glorified property manager”. The head office of another national church became so top-heavy with officials that it became difficult to see how it actually related to the congregations where the disciples of Jesus gathered. And bureaucracies of this size often develop internal career ladders of their own. Not all could be described as “Dens of Robbers” like the temple in Christ’s day. But the priests of the temple had lost all clear vision of what it ought to have been and what its real purpose was. That had been lost because “the business” had become all-dominant to the exclusion of its God-appointed calling. And some popular television “ministries” have become little more than money-making operations for the enrichment of the ministers concerned.

Christian disciples may be tempted to feel superior to the priests of Christ’s day and their temple racket. But serious thought needs to be given to much church life in the twenty-first century and searching questions need to be asked about the true purpose and witness of Christ’s church.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, bring your church back to its true purpose.

OPEN TO ALL

“My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations”.

Mk 11:17 GNB

The Old Testament story of the history of God’s dealings with the Israelite begins with the account of God’s call to Abraham. In it God promises to make the Israelites a great nation who will be a blessing to other nations. Along the way this promise was often taken to mean that God would give them special privilege, and that they would be superior to other nations. Gradually there built up a sense of “God for the Jews” and little attention was given to the Gentiles. Their experience in exile in Babylon, however, opened up a wider world. God was still God – even in a foreign country. And there began to dawn the sense that God would one day gather other people to Jerusalem where they would be able to worship him. When the second temple was built towards the end of the sixth century BC it was built in a segregated system. The inner sanctuary was called “the Holy of Holies” and only the High Priest could enter it. Then there was a court of the priests, a court of the women, then a much larger outer court of the Gentiles. It was in this court of the Gentiles that the buying and selling of the animals for sacrifice took place. And this was the part that was desecrated by the commerce to which Jesus took exception. It deprived the Gentile Jews of a sacred place for prayer.

When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost it directed the apostles to the wider world of the Gentiles for Christ. Christians must always jealously guard this universal embrace of Christ for people of all nations, genders and races.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, thank you for the world-wide love of Jesus.

A HOUSE OF PRAYER

“As he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written: My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?”

Mk 11:17 NIV

Church buildings evoke a variety of emotions in different people. A senior minister once said, “When you go into a church it should make you feel, ‘I want to pray’”. In most communities when a church is built the local people will have worked hard to raise funds to build it, and will feel, “At last! And it’s actually ours”, whatever it looks like. Nevertheless, there is something different. A service of opening will be held, and an act of dedication will be performed. That act of dedication will hand the place over to God. When that act is complete in one sense it will no longer be “Ours”. It will belong to God. The people “give” it to him. It will be a place of worship. Teaching of the Bible will take place. Funerals will be held. So will baptisms, Holy Communion, weddings, the training of the young in Sunday School, church business meetings, – and maybe fund-raising efforts such as fetes. But above all people will pray there. Some will go there privately to pray for family matters, disputes, or in times of sickness, bereavement or trouble. There may even be services of prayer in times of national crisis.

You can, of course, pray anywhere. But few people do. Make a habit of praying when you first enter a church for a service of worship. Pray for the minister and organist, or your own family, for the congregation, and especially for any who will be going to worship burdened by worries. Pray for the world, that healing and justice, peace and hope may flourish.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, make our place of worship a house of prayer.

THE ANGRY JESUS

“Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves”.

Mk 11:15 NIV

As children we grow up understanding that Jesus was “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. The picture is of a weak, loving, friend of the lost and the lonely. Many of us retain that image through into adulthood and find it difficult to balance it with the stronger, more robust picture of Jesus which this incident in the temple paints. Despite all that it symbolised in the Jewish faith, the temple was host to a racket. The sacrificial system required worshippers to come and offer lambs, sheep or doves in atonement for their sins. But they had to be perfect. Only the priests could certify them as perfect. And they only certified as perfect animals that had been bought there. And, yes there was a mark-up of significant percentages! Jesus was appalled. So he seethed with rage and drove out those who changed money – and they always added a cut. The sacrificial system was meant to enable people to get right with God – not to enrich the priesthood.

We might well cast around and decide where there are injustices in our day and in our society that Jesus would find obnoxious. We might ask ourselves whether he would keep quiet about them – or would he determine to wipe them out? Such things pertain not only in society at large. Some practices in many churches would not “pass muster” with Jesus either. Sadly, there are practitioners of the Christian religion who secretly see the church as providing them with an opportunity to feather their nests unscrupulously. They need to be disciplined in the name of Christ.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, purge your church of all evil practices.

JESUS THE JEW

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple”.

Mk 11:11 NIV

In World War II the thirteenth century Gothic cathedral in the English city of Coventry was destroyed by bombs. After the war steps were taken to build a new one and an architect by the name of Basil Spence was engaged to design the building and guide its erection. He wanted to put up a huge bronze sculpt of St Michael slaying the dragon from the Book of Revelation. He sought the help of the foremost sculptor in Britain, Sir Jacob Epstein. Epstein was delighted – he had never been asked to do such a sculpt before. Nervously, Spence asked him the cost, having previously asked around about a likely price. Epstein did his sums. He quoted an amount that was only half of what Spence had been fearing. When Spence presented this aspect of the building to the Cathedral committee there was a long, awkward silence. Then someone said exactly what Spence guessed would come. “But Epstein’s a Jew”. “Yes”, said Spence, “and so was Jesus Christ”. The committee agreed unanimously to Spence’s proposal and the magnificent sculpt is there to this day .

We often overlook the fact that Jesus was an orthodox Jew who observed the traditions of his culture. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem he went to the temple, the sacred sanctuary of Judaism. It enshrined precious hopes and beliefs of a whole people. And three times a year faithful Jews came from all over the Mediterranean world to celebrate one of the three great festivals – Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Jesus did not come to smash the faith of people. He wanted to fulfil, enrich and renew all that Judaism stood for – the love of God, his sovereignty and his salvation.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to cherish the traditions of the Christian faith.