Welcome to 2021.
So much has changed since our first Sunday in 2020. One of the more positive developments is that many of you completed a year of daily Bible readings in the One Year Bible.
We know that there isn’t anything magical about a New Year, but the marking of a new year provides an undeniable opportunity for reflection.
The unique moment of transition between years naturally opens up a window of self-reflection as think about our lives – windows that lead to important questions.
Am I as healthy as I want to be? Are my priorities in order and are my choices lining up with those priorities? Is there more that I could become or do?
These questions in turn lead to the making of resolutions and setting of goals. Not everyone is a fan of New Year resolutions, but without some sort of resolution, without goals to aim for it is very difficult to live life on purpose.
Without goals we easily give up what we truly want for what we feel like. There is often a difference.
Without goals we tend to avoid resistance, take the easy paths and succumb to the entropy of the universe.
Without goals we are shaped by our circumstances and external factors rather than by our convictions and values.
Without goals we risk losing what we value most for lesser goods.
Last year many of us set a goal of reading the Bible in a year. Some of us actually did that. More of us fell short of the goal but along the way read much more of the Bible than we have in the past.
That’s the real value of goals – not just the achievement, but the clarity that comes from self-reflection, the discipline gained from working against resistance and the passion that comes from living for a purpose.
We may not have a church wide Bible reading plan this year, but if you haven’t yet, I encourage you to find one for yourself. You may want to take another lap through the One Year Bible. This year Mandy will be working through it for the 23rd time.
I’m joining some friends in working through Ligonier’s Bible in a Year plan using the YouVersion Bible app.
This morning I want to talk about setting goals in another spiritual discipline – prayer.
We are in Colossians 4:2 this morning. Turn with me in your Bibles.
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
Of all the things we could use more of in 2021, prayer is probably near the top of the list. In this verse, Paul gives us three qualities to seek in prayer. The first is that we should
Be steadfast in prayer.
To be steadfast is to be immoveable, to be firmly fixed in a place or activity. Someone who is steadfast in prayer can’t be stopped in their prayer. Another way Paul could have said this is don’t quit praying.
To be steadfast in prayer is to be like . . .
We need this encouragement because
Prayer is hard.
I don’t know anything that has a greater impact in our emotional and spiritual lives than prayer. I don’t know any activity we can participate that can do greater good in this world than prayer.
Prayer sweeps away the stale air of anxiety, it snuffs out the flames of fear, it cancels out the noise of temptation, it opens us to the life-giving currents of the Holy Spirit.
Prayer changes things. There is a power in prayer to change hearts and circumstances.
I don’t know anything more important in our spiritual lives. And I don’t know anything that we neglect more.
It’s hard isn’t it?
We need to be reminded not to quit, because prayer is hard.
It is difficult to quiet our minds in a digital age. It’s hard to pray because all good things face resistance in this fallen world. It is difficult because its intangible – we can’t see God, we don’t see instant results when we pray, we don’t often feel change inside of ourselves as we pray.
Prayer is hard and prayer takes time.
We need to be reminded not to quit, because prayer takes time.
In prayer, God is building desire, he’s developing endurance and he is drawing us into deeper relationship. That means he will often leave us waiting.
I think that’s what Jesus was teaching us in his parables about prayer in Luke 11 and 18. In Luke 18 Jesus tells the story of a woman who harasses a judge until he gives her what she wants, “because she keeps bothering me”. In Luke 11 he tells the story of the man who has an unexpected guest and no bread to share so he knocks on a friend’s door at midnight and keeps pounding until his friend angrily answers the door.
“I tell you,” Jesus says, “though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.”
It may be that you have not yet experienced a breakthrough and an answer to your prayer, because God wants you to spend more time with Him. It could be that your answer is waiting behind long hours of prayer.
The question Colossians asks us is this – are you interested or committed in prayer?
Business consultant Ken Blanchard explains the difference in this popular quote:
“There’s a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses – only results.”
The second quality Paul tells us to bring into our prayer is to watchfulness.
Be watchful in prayer.
The word means to watch carefully so that some destructive calamity does not overtake you.
People have learned in recent times to be watchful of the spread of viruses. If you’ve had the joy of taking a Covid test, you have experienced watchfulness. A few weeks ago I drove up to the medical center to see large signs telling me to wait in the car and call a designated number. Eventually a woman in a hazmat suit came to my window to insert a swab that looked 5 feet long into my brain. I was then escorted into the facility, while prevented from touching or approaching anyone or anything in the building. Unfortunately I needed a bathroom by the time I was in the waiting room, the nurse laughed when I asked if I could use the facilities. They were very watchful at MedExpress.
My two oldest sons now have learning permits. Yesterday I had a brilliant thought that it would be good to take one of them driving at dusk on snowy roads so he could get some experience. About ten seconds into that drive I began to experience watchfulness. A parent who has sat in the passenger seat next to their student driver understands what it means to watch carefully for potential calamity.
Colossians 4:2 tells us that is a quality we should have in prayer.
Why is that? The Bible gives us a few reasons.
Here are a few of them that I’ve found.
A. Be watchful because you have an enemy that wants to destroy you.
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
1 Peter 5:8
The Bible tells us that the human soul is a soul under attack, that we are born into a raging war. The Bible tells us that you have an adversary and that he very much would like to destroy your life.
In my days of college ministry we used to play a game called assassin. It was a large group game played over many days. Each player was given the name of another player and the challenge was to strike the other player with a balled up sock. If you hit someone they are eliminated and you take the name they have and move on to that target. This goes on until there is one person left standing.
When you are playing assassin, you never know when you could be hit. You could be at the grocery store, you could be walking to class, you could be in the bathroom on your dorm floor. It was a game that required constant vigilance. Some took it very seriously, memorizing their targets class schedules, learning their routines and meticulously plotting attacks.
It’s not a big deal to be caught unaware playing the game of assassin, often you are so stressed out it’s a relief to be eliminated.
It’s something else entirely to be caught unaware in the war over your soul.
It’s not fun to lose your job because you were caught using pornography on a work computer. It’s not when your marriage is in shambles because you were ensnared in an extramarital relationship. It’s not fun to find yourself shaken out of a fog of distraction by the cries of the child you have just hurt in an outburst of anger.
Who knows what traps are waiting for you in 2021?
There is someone who has your name, who knows your weaknesses and the cracks in your character. He has laid his plans to catch you when you least expect it. Will you be ready?
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.
1 Peter 4:7
B. Be watchful because temptation abounds.
Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
C. Be watchful because your life and doctrine are vulnerable to infection.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
1 Timothy 4:16 (NIV)
Paul was watching over Timothy and paid careful attention to two things: his life and his doctrine.
I understand life to be character. He called Timothy to be aware of his character. If our enemy knows our weaknesses, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we did as well?
Our character is vulnerable and so is our doctrine. Our doctrine or our understanding of and commitment to the truths of the Scripture is vulnerable to corruption.
I have seen too many friends who pick up a book or check out a podcast and begin to absorb new ideas without taking the time to study the Scriptures.
Sometimes we forget what prayer really is. John Piper wrote that
“prayer is a wartime walkie-talkie, not a domestic intercom. God is more like a general in Command Central than a butler waiting to bring you another pillow in the den. Of course, he is also Father, Lover, Friend, Physician, Shepherd, Helper, King, Savior, Lord, Counselor. But in this fallen “world with devils filled,” prayer will function best when we keep the frequency tuned to Command Central in the fight of faith.” -John Piper
One more aspect of being watchful to consider in verse 2 – when we pray we should be watchful for answers.
Faith prays with expectation.
“It is atheism to pray and not to wait in hope. A sincere Christian will pray, wait, strengthen his heart with the promises, and never leave praying and looking up till God gives him a gracious answer.”
“There is no more blessed training in prayer than that which comes through being compelled to ask again and again and again, even through long periods of years before one obtains that which he needs from God.”
Let’s get practical for a minute.
What does it look like to make plans to pray?
1. Set aside specific time for prayer.
a. Longer time in the morning.
b. Alarm at different points in the day.
2. Set aside extended time for prayer
3. Make a commitment to participate in church wide prayer events
4. Make lists to guide you through distraction and remind you.
a. Lists of categories of prayer: A.C.T.S.
b. Lists of people.
Who should we pray for?
Pray for each other.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
Pray for political leaders.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.
1 Timothy 2:1-2
Pray for enemies.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Pray for laborers.
At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
There’s more than enough people and more than enough need in the world for us to spend many hours a day in prayer.
Who is this for? This is for everyone isn’t it?
Maybe you are not convinced about prayer.
Well, there is your beginning. Start with that – “God show me that you are there and show me how to pray.” That’s a great starting point for planning to pray in 2021.
Maybe you are young.
You think prayer is for your parents and for seasoned Christians. The Bible never makes that distinction does it? In fact the Bible tells us that Jesus was angry with those who held children back from coming to him. There’s a good chance you younger ones see things that others are missing and your prayer can fill in the gap.
I want to give a special challenge to men. Prayer is usually more intuitive for women. They are more gifted communicators than we are and are typically more empathetic. Women often need less encouragement than men to be steadfast in prayer.
Brothers I want to challenge you to rise above complacency in spiritual matters. To neglect prayer for your wife, for your children, for your brothers and sisters is nothing to be proud of. You were made for more than apathy. Rise up in your strength this year and pray.
Be steadfast in prayer, we watchful in prayer and finally,
Be thankful in prayer.
Throughout the Scriptures, prayer is associated with thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is a necessity in prayer because we owe everything to God and it’s a necessity in prayer because it reminds us of that fact every time we pray.
At the end of the day we have all fallen short in prayer. We are not alone. In the garden before he was arrested Jesus told Peter three times to watch and pray and three times Peter preferred sleep over prayer. Peter failed. And because he was not steadfast in prayer, because he was not watchful, he was caught off guard in the trap of the evil one and three times he publicly denied Christ.
Maybe you can relate to Peter. Maybe 2020 was a year of failure for you, maybe you found yourself caught by temptation.
Here’s the incredible news of the gospel: Jesus was not surprised by Peter’s failure. He knew it was coming and he made plans to pray for Peter.
Look with me at Luke 22:31
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
When Peter was sleeping, Jesus was praying for him.
What if I try to pray and fail?
Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
Jesus warned Peter to watch for temptation and pray. Peter slept and walked blindly into temptation and disaster. Jesus loved Peter, prayed for him and then died for his failures. When Peter understood this he was overwhelmed with Thanksgiving, turned back to the one he denied and learned to devote himself to prayer.
Don’t worry about failing. It’s inevitable.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown