Sermon: "The Power Of Praying Together"

Fourth in the "What Happens When We Pray" series.
Delivered August 7, 2005 by Rev. John Schmidt.
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

Theme: Praying together is no little thing--Lives are changed, people and relationships are healed and people come to know Christ.

audio The audio file of this sermon is available for download and listening in MP3 format.
Sermon Text: Matthew 18:19-20; Acts 1:14; Acts 12:1-19

I've been involved in small groups for the last 33 years. In the last 33 years probably with the exception of four to five years, every year Debbie and I have been in some kind of small group. And, with the exception of the discipline of having a regular time to study the scripture, and to pray in my person life, perhaps the most important single channel of blessing God has given me in my life has been being part of a small group. God has done all kinds of things there as we have studied together, as we have held one another accountable for changes in our lives, and God has also blessed the times that we have had as we have prayed for one another. We prayed about all kinds of things. We have prayed about minor health problems, problems at work and there have been lots and lots of prayers about the behavior of our kids. I mean it's phenomenal how much prayer goes up about that. And some of it has been five minutes of prayer as a group, and other times it's been much more than that. And God, just like Steve and Denise said, God has used these times of prayers in obvious ways.

About five or six years ago, we were part of a small group in Baton Rouge, and one of the people in the small group asked a prayer about their youngest son. Their youngest son wouldn't even go to the small group, to the youth group meetings. He had no connection with them and on Sundays when they had Sunday school for youth and all, he would sit out in the car in the parking lot and would not come in to the church. And so we started to pray for him and as we prayed his father got the idea I am going to try to get him to go to a summer event in Colorado where we are going to go hiking for six days, and then in exchange I will bribe him by saying that I will take him to a concert that he has been wanted to go to in Houston. And so he talked to his son about that, and he thought about it for a few weeks and finally decided yeah, I will do it. And so he went and we were delighted as we continued to pray that he went to this event and one of the unexpected results of that is when he went first of all his relationship to God blossomed. He also became friends with my son and now six years later he's best friends with our son and he's been such a good influence on our son and our son has been a good influence on him. He got involved in the student ministry. He got involved in the worship team and then he's now spent the whole summer this year, he spent the whole summer doing ministry to high school students even though he's leaving college, he is just about graduating. He spent the whole summer ministering to students. This was an answer to prayer.

We got a little boldness out of doing this, so we then decided to pray about another young man that was represented in the group. His problems were a little more complicated because he had gotten a scholarship to a wonderful school, but then ended by dropping out, and as he got out of school he got involved in drugs. He got in trouble with the law, and so we started to pray for him. We prayed for him all the time he was involved with the substance abuse classes. We prayed for him as he went before the judges. We prayed for him as he pulled piece by piece of his life together and now he is also playing with a worship group. His life has changed. He has gone back to school and he went to Russia on a mission trip and built a deeper relationship to God and a deeper relationship to other Christians as he did it. Step by step making deeper and deeper commitments, and we saw this happen as we prayed for him.

We prayed for some sick people too. I remember one time that in our group, one of the women in our group had a friend in New Orleans who was a physical education teacher and had gotten some kind of problem, a chronic problem that she was totally devoid of getting energy and could barely get out of bed, and this was going on and the doctors could not see any way to cure it. They were giving all kinds of treatment. We went down there to pray for her and just a few weeks later she came to our church up in Baton Rouge, because God had healed her and she wanted to find out more about Jesus Christ because of that.

Now these were just the answers that were very clear to us and dramatic to us, but there were a lot of smaller things that we were constantly praying about. The point is, is that prayer is not a trivial matter. It really changes lives. It's an important part of what we do and part of our experience together as Christians. God heals relationships, heals people, and draws people to himself. People become Christians because other people pray. Now Jesus talks about this. He talks about the incredible privilege and power in the presence of God, as he teaches about prayer in Matthew 18 and I just want to read to you two verses from Matthew 18.

"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in Heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them."

If you agree about anything, two of you, and ask for it, it will be done for you. The first thing that Jesus promises there, is an authority and power in prayer that when we pray and when we pray together, it's effective. It can change things. And then he says in the second verse, he promises God's presence with us, for where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them. We experience a power in praying together, and when we gather together to pray, we also experience in a special way the presence of God. Jesus promised this and then the disciples experienced both this power and this sense of presence as they had times of prayer together. In Acts, Chapter 1, it talks about how the disciples constantly met together for prayer. There is one verse that I just want to point to on our way to Acts 12 and that's where we will spend most of our time. In Acts, Chapter 1 it says this, Verse 14 talking about the disciples:

"They all join together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers."

So there is this characteristic of the life of the early disciples of gathering together constantly in prayer and in Chapter 12 of the Book of Acts, we actually get to see the prayer and the effect and how the disciples responded to it all, and I would like for us to go to that section of Acts, Chapter 12 and see their experience of God. Chapter 12 and I will begin at Verse 1.

"It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with a sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him."

Let's stop there for a moment. This is a serious time for the church, because one of the leaders of the early church has been killed and then another one of their major leaders, Peter, has now been put in to prison and Herod is expecting that he will be tried and then he will execute Peter as well, because this is pleasing the populus. So the church goes to God earnestly in prayer. They are not going naively thinking that oh, if somebody knows God, they are never going to have a problem. They know they have problems. They've got serious problems. They are being persecuted at this point. And so, they go to God earnestly in prayer and I think it is important to see what they experience as they go to God and bring their request before him. Beginning now at Verse 6:

"The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. "Quick, get up!" he said, and the chains fell off of Peter's wrists. Then the angel said to him, "Put on your clothes and sandals." And Peter did so. "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me," the angel told him. Peter followed him out of prison, but he had no idea of what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating."

Let's stop there. What was Peter expecting? Not really sure. We know that Peter was praying. We know that Peter probably anticipated that the church was praying for him. We know that Peter believed that God could answer prayer, but Peter is there in jail. We don't know how long, but it's the day before his trial now, and he has been sitting there in jail. There are 16 people between him and freedom. And so when the angel comes and says, "Get dressed. Let's get going," Peter doesn't even believe that is really happening. He is thinking that he is having a vision. Okay, God is showing me something right now, what do I learn from this? And it's only when the angel leaves, and he's there outside the prison a block or so away, that he kind of comes to his senses and says, hey wait. This is real. I'm out. So Peter didn't expect God to do what he did, when he did, the way he did it. But maybe the church was doing a little better at that point, because they were earnestly praying. Let's take a look: I love the honesty that we see in the Bible.

"When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying."

That's Verse 12.

"Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed that she ran back without opening it and exclaims "Peter's at the door!"

They had been praying for Peter. They know God answers prayer. It's the very last minute before the trial. Do they have the door open? Are they looking down the street to see whether he is coming? No. They are caught by surprise. Rhoda hears the knock and she is so excited that she runs back and leaves him at the door. But maybe the rest of the church does better than Rhoda. Let's take a look:

"Peter's at the door!", Verse 15. "You're out of your mind," they told her.

These are the faithful saints. I like these people, because they are like me and like some of you. I won't speak for all of you, but the ones I know, I speak for you. You are out of your mind. Strike one. God's going to answer. God is going to protect, but not this way. Let's go on.

"When she kept insisting that it was so, they said "It must be his angel".

Strike 2. Okay, Maybe something has really happened, but it's not Peter,

But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet.

Now that is so typical. When they do see him they are jumping up and down and they are screaming and slapping each other on the back, but he has to quiet them down because there is something that he needs to say.

Peter described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. "Tell James and the brothers about this," he said, and then he left for another place. In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him, and did not find him, he crossed examined the guards and ordered that they be executed."

That's a very serious result to the prayers of the church. Sometimes when we pray we think that to pray with faith means we have to know how God is going to answer and when and sometimes we have that insight. Sometimes somebody has a word of knowledge, a special insight, given by God that this is the way to go and this is how God is going to answer it. That was not happening in this passage. They knew God answered prayer. They were expecting an answer from God, but they had no idea how God was going to protect the church. Maybe they didn't know for sure that God was going to protect Peter, because James had died. Now maybe God would protect Peter, but maybe it be that he go through the trial and still be protected afterwards. They didn't know, but they knew that God answered prayer and so they continued to pray earnestly that God would act, and I think that that is the experience that we are called to as we pray together. We might not know exactly what God will do or how, we might not know every time that God is going to answer a prayer a certain way, but we still pray, because we are convinced that the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ has promised to answer prayer.

I remember that when we prayed for that sick woman as part of our small group experience, we drove 70 miles to New Orleans to pray for her. I remember we did that because we had a special sense of leading as a group, that God wanted to do something there. And I remember having enough concern about it that I would periodically ask a friend, you know how is she doing? Is she getting better? Because I was expecting God to do something. I was still absolutely amazed when she actually showed up at church. I was totally surprised. And that's what happens. If we are going to pray more together, how are we going to do that?

I would say that one of the easiest ways, and one of the most strategic ways is learning how to pray more as a small group. We have a wonderful opportunity to share with one another's lives and to actually join together there while we are assembled as a small group to pray together about these things. It's amazing how the insight and faith of one person in the group can affect the whole group as they prayed. These are the people that know the intimate details of our lives. These are people who are pulling for us. These are the people who will pray faithfully for us. Let's pray some of that together. We can use the Acts model prayer or anything else that helps us be serious about the opportunity to pray together. There are other times when we get together as a congregation, specifically for prayer. We have two prayer meetings on Wednesday, one in the morning and one in the evening and you are welcome to join those. There are opportunities to join together with other Christians to pray about this community, to pray about this church, to pray about your own needs. We also, following the services, we are having Stephen ministers available in the chapel to pray. So today is one of those days where if you want to pray with someone about a personal need, you can just leave the service and go over and pray with them after this service is over. And we will try to make that available regularly so that you can pray together with other people.

But, I would also like to invite you to one more event, which is happening in September. September 23, Friday night, the all night prayer vigil. We are going to begin with an hour of special prayer for children and family, 7 to 8 and then from 8 to 7 the next morning, we are going to pray together in groups. We are going to have a concert in prayer, a small group prayer. We are going to walk around the building and pray. We are going to pray about all the ministries; pray about the community. We are going to have worship music. We are going to have snacks available. This is not fasting and prayer, this is just prayer. Okay? Plenty of snacks available. Help us make it through the night. You can participate in all of it. You can just participate in part of it, but this is an opportunity for us to get before God at a critical time of the year when everything is starting to speed up and say, "God it's not because of us, it's because of you." And so that's another way that we can pray together and experience what God is going to do.

Now, the question is, if we pray together, what is God going to do? I don't know. In terms of specifics, I don't know anymore that these disciples did in this passage. I have a general sense of expectancy and so do other leaders in the church. But, exactly what God is going to do, we don't know. But I do know that God is going to answer prayer. I do know that God is going to change things. I do know that God is going to do new things and unexpected things that show us his love and his power. I am absolutely convinced of that. I have seen that happen and even though I don't know the exact shape of it, that is what we are looking for God to do and we can be part of that, as we learn together to pray. We have a great heritage at this church of prayer. We are just building on that. It's time for this generation to learn the lessons that other generations have learned. And we can do it. Now I want to read to you again Matthew 18, this promise from Jesus.

"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you asked for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven, for where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them."

The next time you have a prayer meeting together with some other Christians, be sure you leave one chair empty as a reminder that Jesus has promised to be there with us.

Let's pray. God, we thank you for your presence. We thank you for the answers to prayer that we have already seen in our lives. We thank you for the many ways that you have been faithful and so as we turn our hearts to the future, as we turn our hearts toward you, we pray that you will be leading us and teaching us how to pray. We thank you for every lesson that we have already learned. We thank you for the people around us who pray faithfully and we pray now that we will move forward in deepening our relationship with you. For we ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

© 2005, Rev. John Schmidt
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145