By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,

2 Timothy 3:14

“A year from now, will you be able to say that we spent more time with God than we did in the previous year?”  (Woerner, Prayer, 237).  This is why we are here.  We come to learn about God.  Yet even more than that, we come to be with God.  Can we start placing more emphasis on time with God than we do on learning about God?  This is a question that we have asked together in our book group as we finished up our discussion on Valerie Woerner’s book on prayer last week.  And this is also the question I want to focus on in our last message within the prayer series that we have been focusing on much of the year.  How are we to learn how to be persistent in prayer so that we can spend that time with God?  It is more than reading the Bible.  It is more than studying theology.  It is more than going to church.  Persistent prayer takes it to the step beyond, where things can really start to make a difference.

Last week, I had the privilege of listening to a sermon at the church I used to attend in Albany, New York.  There’s something special about listening to someone else’s sermon in person, when you do not get the opportunity very often.  For me, it is always an opportunity to grow.  Rev. Charles Rogers also talked about prayer, and how it is very difficult to keep praying when it does not seem that it is making a difference.  Lord, I prayed for many to be healed, and they did not.  Lord, I prayed for you to fix this situation, and it did not happen.  For what reason should I go on praying?  If nothing else, he says, it gives us a means to be with God.  It gives us an opportunity to share our grievances face to face, if that is what we want.  And secondly, it gives us an opportunity to love someone else through our prayer and be more deeply connected to them.  Prayer is an opportunity to love someone anonymously.  When you pray for someone, you are giving your whole heart to them.  God never wants us to give up praying for a situation because it connects us!  It connects us with Him, it connects us with the world, and it connects us with our neighbor.

Rev. Rogers also talked about keeping a journal.  It touched me that he did what I am also trying to do.  Your prayers for situations and for others do not need to be with folded hands and bended knees spoken aloud at the altar.  It can be in the form of writing in a journal.  He also noted that someday, perhaps his kids and grandchildren could look back at them and say, “Wow, he prayed for me;” “Wow, he had difficult times too, but it didn’t keep him from praying;” “Wow, he prayed for that person even though that person hated him.”  Our persistent prayers can be moving to someone else too.  Never give up praying for a situation.  It connects us to God, the world, and our neighbor in a way that nothing else can.

The books of Timothy are focused on helping a young Christian leader stay close to God.  Paul writes letters to Timothy; again, it helps to point out the power that a letter can have.  It can still have a profound impact on us today as we look to be God-reliant leaders in the world in which we live.  Paul tells Timothy, who has a general knowledge of the faith but who struggles like all of us, “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, … be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 3:14, 4:2-4).  Friends, that time is here.  That time has been here.  Many, even with whom we are connected, look to teachers to suit their own desires and do not want to hear a word about the sound doctrine that we call truth.  In a world such as this, we need encouragement to “continue in what [we] have learned and firmly believed” and trying to be persistent.  People will want to turn away; people will turn away, but, Paul persists, YOU are to continue to carry out your ministry fully.  Do not lose sight of your call because people turn away.

If you have not yet made it your goal to spend more time with God than you did in the previous year, I urge you to consider some of the benefits of persistent prayer that Woerner makes clear to us in her book.  They are extravagant benefits.  Here are just a few of them (Woerner, Prayer, 2021. 243):

  1. More focused prayer time.  The more we discipline our minds to pray, the more focus and depth we will experience in our prayers.
  2. A bigger passion for prayer.  The more we experience focused prayer over time, the deeper our passion for prayer will get because we’ll begin to see what’s possible.
  3. Less anxiety and more faith.  When our eyes are fixed on Jesus and our minds are stayed on God, we find perfect peace (Isa. 26:3).
  4. A deeper joy.  Even in the mundane moments, when we are in the presence of the Lord, we get to experience the fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11)
  5. Recognizing answered prayers.  When we’re praying consistently, we will see God answer prayers.  Looking back on these inspires us to keep praying with confidence.
  6. Living at the center of God’s will.  Through praying consistently, we’ll hear more from God and we will be better able to align our actions with what we hear.  And when we’re praying over a particular situation, like a job or a move, and receive direction from him, we will have hearts that are willing to obey.
  7. Deeper friendships with others.  As prayer becomes a bigger part of our lives, it naturally becomes a bigger part of our conversations and relationships too.  And friendships that are based on prayer are often deep and rich.
  8. Being a part of God’s kingdom work.  The more time we spend in prayer, the more we are available for God to use us for purposes bigger than ourselves, such as people’s hearts being turned toward God, justice and peace spreading in the world, and acts of mercy.
  9. Knowing God.  There are thousands of things we won’t know this side of heaven, but through a deeper prayer life, we can learn about God and experience him.  Knowing him is what we were created to do and where we’ll find the greatest fulfillment.

It is quite hard to sum up a series on prayer because prayer is such an integral part of our lives.  We are not done with prayer; we are only just beginning.  This focus has been to help us all realize how important prayer is in our spiritual lives.  In fact, if we do not pray, or if we do not pray frequently, we are not living up to our true potential as Christians.  We are not living the way God intends for us if we are not persistent in prayer.  We have reviewed why we pray, why we often do not pray (and how we overcome those barriers), things we can ask for in prayer (openness, equipping ourselves, search me, break me, grant me wisdom and courage, grant me listening ears), five necessary types of prayer (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and lament), what prayer does for us and how we know that God is the one we hear.  It is meant to help us explore prayer, understand prayer, certainly not be afraid of it, and to help us engage with it.  I hope and pray that this focus has enriched your connections with God this year, and for the years to come.  We have talked about all the tools, and you are equipped, so now do what you need to do.  Experience a deeper joy and live closer to God’s will by praying persistently.  God never wants us to give up on prayer.

Let me point out one final piece from our scripture today that is inspiring.  Right in the middle of Paul’s letter to Timothy, this is what we read: “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me.  May it not be counted against them!” (2 Tim. 4:16).  Is that a prayer?  “May it not be counted against them!”  Paul is recounting a difficult time in his life when all who he knew deserted him.  But he prays for their well-being all the same.  And what’s more, the prayer flows off his tongue in the middle of his letter, before he goes on to talk about how the Lord stood by him and rescued him.  Not only did he not give up and leaned on the Lord for his success, which is hard enough; he also prayed for the well-being of those who basically left him for dead.  It was not a reaction a couple chapters down the line; it was an immediate reaction.  That shows his persistent dedication to prayer and the love for his neighbor that counteracted any hate that had any chance of sneaking in.  A deeper love overpowers us when we are persistent in prayer, as we continue in what we have learned and firmly believed.  Do not lose this connection to God.  Briefly, in our gospel today, we see that the tax collector surely and simply called on the name of the Lord in prayer, rather than the Pharisee who focused on things of this world.  Prayer overpowers what is of this world.  Call, and God will be in the midst of you.  Pray, and the attributes of God will be yours more and more deeply the more often you pray.  Pray, and God will pour out God’s spirit, saving all who call on the name of the Lord (Joel 2:28, 32).  The one who prays is better off than the one who does not.  And the one who prays in humility is better off than the one who does not.  God is in our midst (Joel 2:27).  We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by confidently, persistently, and frequently engaging with Him.  As we pray, we will know God more deeply, we will connect with others more richly, we will experience peace more freshly, and we will be tools for God’s kingdom work more sharply.  May all honor and glory be to God!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Joel 2:23-32
2:23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.
2:24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
2:25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
2:26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
2:27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
2:28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.
2:29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
2:30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.
2:31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.
2:32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
3:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,
3:15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
3:16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
3:17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
4:1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you:
4:2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.
4:3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,
4:4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
4:5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
4:6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.
4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
4:8 From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
4:16 At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!
4:17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.
4:18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14
18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
18:11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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