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July 1, 2012

Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.  James 5:17-18

People who want to make a difference in the world must learn to pray. Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.” Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Prayer brings these two together. It is the means by which we bring the power and presence of Christ to bear on the realities that we face.

If you are a leader, you have probably found that prayer does not come easily or naturally to you. The reason for this is simple: Most leaders are activists by nature. We respond to a challenge with a plan of action. Leaders take initiatives. That’s what makes them leaders.

Prayer is not the natural disposition of the activist mindset

Pastors, counselors and missionaries often struggle with prayer. It’s easier to teach a Sunday school class than to pray deeply, personally and regularly for the blessing of God on the children you teach. It’s easier to run a youth program than to pray with faith and insight for the spiritual life and growth of the people in that program. It’s easier to lead a life group than to pray faithfully and perceptively for those who are in it.

Our title today is significant: Leaders plead the promises of God. Elijah is a great help and encouragement for all of us. We have seen him as the man of action. Today we see him as a man of prayer.

Remember where we are in the story: Ahab was the worst king Israel had known. He did more evil than all who were before him. He gave himself over to the influence of Jezebel, who launched a campaign of terror against anyone who spoke the Word of God.

Elijah confronted Ahab. He walked into the palace and announced: “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives… there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).

Three years passed without a drop of rain. Crops failed. Famine followed. It was a desperate time. God controls the weather. He sends the rain. It is a gift of His kindness. But when God’s people gave themselves to idols, He held back the rain.

We saw how Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.

He said to the people, “If the Lord is God, follow Him: But if Baal is God follow Him” (I Kings 18:21). Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call on their god to send fire that would ignite the sacrifice. They called on their gods but no one answered.

Then Elijah called on the Lord and He answered by fire. The sacrifice was accepted, and all the people said, “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God” (1 Kings 18:39).

God’s name was honored, but God’s people were still in great need. God had sent the fire, but now Elijah prays for rain. There is a wonderful glimpse of Christ here.

On the cross, He offered Himself as the sacrifice for our sins, but then He rose and ascended to heaven where He intercedes at the right hand of the Father, so that the blessing of God may fall on His people.

Seven P’s of Effective Prayer

Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.  James 5:17-18

We learn about Elijah’s prayer in two places in the Bible. The first is in 1 Kings 18, the second is in James 5:17-18, where God gives us further light on the story.

Putting these two scriptures together, I have seven observations from this story. All of them begin with the letter ‘P.’ I’ve put these into a sentence that I hope might be useful to you: Position yourself in private to pray what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence. There are seven ‘P’s’ in that sentence, and we will reflect on each of them.

  1. Position yourself in private to pray what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence.

Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel.  1 Kings 18:42

Think about what had happened: Elijah had called down fire from heaven.

The people were shouting “The Lord, He is God.” Elijah was the man of the moment. The crowd would have cheered him like a sports celebrity, if he had stayed with them. But Elijah pulls away from the crowd, and goes to the top of Mount Carmel to pray.

You find the same pattern in the ministry of Jesus. He has just performed a great miracle, healing the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. The whole town hears about it, and crowds gather. They brought all the sick and all the oppressed to Him.

Mark says the whole city was at the door (Mark 1:33). Jesus healed many.  But early the next morning, we read that Jesus departed and went to a lonely place where He prayed (1:35). Christ withdraws from the crowd and gives Himself to prayer. That is what Elijah did here.

Praying with other people is important, but there is a kind of praying that you can only do on your own. Lovers like to be alone together, and God who is the great lover of your soul wants time alone with you. Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6).

A.W. Pink points out: “shutting the door” means more than being alone…

“It also signifies the calming of our spirit, the quieting of our feverish flesh, the gathering of all our wandering thoughts, that we may be in a fit frame to draw near and address the Holy One.” [1] 

“Be still and know that I am God.” What do you know of this in your life?

Jesus says: “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret?” Do you do this?

This is important for all Christians and especially for Christian leaders.

Elijah calls down the fire, and then he prays for the rain. The Apostles said, “we must give ourselves to the ministry of the word and to prayer” (Acts 6:4). The public work of proclamation must be followed by the private work of intercession.

  1. Position yourself in private to pray what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence.

[Elijah] bowed himself down to the earth and put his face between his knees.  1 Kings 18:42

God always speaks with intent and with precision, and the Holy Spirit has preserved this vivid description of Elijah’s posture when he prayed. Picture him kneeling, with his head all the way down to the ground. The mighty prophet looks like a little ball before the Lord.

Again, this makes me think about our Lord Jesus. We are told that in the Garden of Gethsemane, “He fell on his face and prayed” (Matthew 26:39).

Most likely, He draped Himself over a large stone.

Different postures are appropriate for different situations in prayer. You can pray while you walk, and you can pray while you are driving, though it is good to keep your eyes open if you do!

The Bible does not mandate a position for prayer, but it often records the posture people adopted in prayer, which must mean that this has some significance. We talk today about “body language.” The posture of your body says a great deal about what is going on in your mind.

A friend spoke to me about this after a meeting one day. He said, “I was watching you in that meeting. You were moving in and out of the conversation. When you’re engaged, you lean forward. And when you lose interest, you sit back. I can read you like a book.”

Elijah’s body language is significant: It speaks of His total dependence on God and his intense seriousness before God. People had been dying in the drought. It has gone on for three and a half years. This prayer matters. Elijah kneels on the ground and puts his face between his knees.

In the church I served in London, it was the pattern for our leaders to gather on Sunday mornings, and for the best part of an hour we would kneel and pray for God’s blessing on the ministry and on the congregation. It’s become a pattern for our church board here to end its meetings with all the board members on their knees seeking the blessing of God.

I find that if I am to engage in prayer seriously, I need to make some time to get down on my knees and pour out my heart to God. It’s like saying “Lord, here I am again. I’m serious. I feel the weight of who you are. I feel the weight of what I bring to you.”

Some Christians have confused Christian praying with eastern mysticism.

The aim of Christian prayer is not the relaxation of the body. The aim is not to send your mind to sleep, but to waken it up. Elijah’s praying has an intensity about it. It is the holy work of pleading with God.

  1. Position yourself in private to pray what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence.

The word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying…

“I will send rain upon the earth.”  1 Kings 18:1

When Elijah prayed for rain, he prayed with confidence because he was asking for something that God had already promised. Faith is a believing response to the Word of God. The prayer that flows from faith has the same character.

God has given you an open invitation to ask anything of Him. But the freedom to ask anything does not come with a commitment from God to give all that we ask. Prayer is never a means of manipulating God into something He did not plan to do. That would be the worst kind of idolatry.

It is a great mistake to imagine that if we can muster enough faith, we can somehow strong arm God into getting what we ask. Many of us will know someone who was told at one time that if only they had more faith they would be healed. To say that is cruelty of the worst sort, adding insult to injury for a person who suffers.

Elijah prayed for what God had said He would do, so cultivate the practice of praying what God has promised. Here’s how you can do that: Use the Bible as fuel for your prayers. Pray with an open Bible, and as you read the Bible, turn what God says to you back to Him in prayer.

I was reading from Daniel 12:3: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” God wants His people to be wise and turning a person to righteousness is a work with never ending value.

There’s fuel in that to pray for people in different situations today. Tomorrow there will be something fresh in the Scripture that will provide fuel for your prayers. Engines run better when there is fuel in the tank.

Put some fuel in the tank before you begin the engine of prayer.

  1. Position yourself in private to pray what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence.

Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain.  James 5:18

Why should we ask God for something He has already said He will do?

If God has already promised, why pray?

The answer is that God decides not only what will happen, but also how it will come to pass. God determines ends but He also determines means.

The what is His promise, the how is our prayer. So, God’s promises tell us what we should ask for. A.W. Pink says…

God’s promises are ‘the mold in which our petitions should be cast.’ [2]

What God has willed in His promise will be done through your prayer. That gives huge significance to our lives and our ministries, and especially to our prayers. We are God’s fellow-workers (2 Corinthians 6:1).

  1. Position yourself in private to pray what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence.

He prayed fervently that it might not rain…  He prayed again, and heaven gave rain.  James 5:17-18

Elijah was very clear in what he asked for. Do you know what you have asked for after you have prayed? You ask God to help you. How would you know if your prayer was answered?

Jesus asked a man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51).

What would you say if Jesus were to ask you that question? You might have a request for someone you love, but if He pressed you and said, “What do you want me to do for you,” what would you say?

That’s a great question to talk about in your family, your Life group, or with your friends. And it is much more difficult to answer well, than you might first imagine.

Elijah knew what he wanted, and he was looking for the answer. Some folks find journaling helpful in being clear about what they ask, and in looking for the answer. However you do this, it’s important to be clear in your asking.

Many of you have large amounts of email coming in every day and you need to have a quick way of sorting it. I find it helpful to sort emails that need a response from the ones that are information only. Don’t offer prayers that are information only. Offer prayers that need a response. Almighty God has invited you to ask, so ask!

You are coming to a King

Large petitions with you bring

For His grace and power are such

None can ever ask too much. [3]

  1. Position yourself in private to pray what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence.

Elijah prayed fervently… James 5:17

Literally, that reads: “In prayer he prayed.” This is a Hebrew way of speaking. When Jesus told the disciples that He “eagerly desired” to eat the Passover with them, the words He used were literally, “With desire, I have desired, to eat the Passover with you” (Luke 22:15). Here you have the same form. There was life and energy in his praying.

It is easy even for the best Christians to fall into a spiritual drowsiness in which we pray with little faith, little energy and little desire. There is no power in that kind of prayer. Elijah’s prayer was different. He prayed fervently. What he asked for mattered to Him. He brought it before God with life and vigor—in prayer he prayed!

I often say my prayers but do I ever pray?
And do the wishes of my heart go with the words I say?

I may as well kneel down to gods of wood and stone,
As offer to the Living God a prayer of words alone.

For words without the heart the Lord will never hear;
Nor will He to those lips attend, whose prayer is not sincere.

Lord, teach me what I need, and teach me how to pray.
And do not let me seek Thy grace not meaning what I say. [4]

 

  1. Position yourself in private to pray what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence.

And at the seventh time, he said ‘Behold, a little cloud the size of a man’s hand is rising from the sea.’  1 Kings 18:44

Elijah prayed for what God had promised. He prayed with precision and with passion, but the answer did not come straight away. He sent his servant to look toward the sea for a sign of rain. The servant came back “There is nothing” (18:43). So Elijah says, “Go again.”

Get the picture: The prophet is praying. The servant is running—still nothing. Elijah says to the servant “Go again!” More praying, more watching—still nothing.

When you get to the fifth or sixth time, you get tired of praying and you get tired of looking. You may have prayed the 6th time or the 60th time or the 600th time. Jesus told his disciples that they should always to pray and not give up (Luke 18:1).

Elijah did not give up. When his servant looked the 7th time, he said,

“Behold, a little cloud the size of a man’s hand is rising from the sea,”

Then we read “in a little while, the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain” (1 Kings 18:45).

Position yourself in private to pray what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence. This kind of praying avails much! Lives were changed through Elijah’s prayer. Families will be changed, the church will be changed, you will be changed through your praying what God has promised with precision, passion and persistence.

Offer Yourself Before You Offer Your Prayers

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.  James 5:16

That doesn’t mean that Elijah was perfect—he wasn’t. At one time, he felt so low that he wanted to end his own life. Yet this man is held up to us as a model for our prayers, and we are told that He was righteous. How was he righteous? Matthew Henry says:

He who prays, must be a righteous man; not righteous in an absolute sense… but righteous in a gospel sense; not loving or approving of any iniquity. [5]

Over everything we have said about prayer, we need to write the words “In Christ.” Effective prayer only happens in Christ. It happens as your sins are washed. It happens as you hunger and thirst after righteousness.

It happens as God’s Spirit fills you.

God must accept you before He will accept your prayers. And He will accept you in Jesus Christ. The order is important: Offer yourself before you offer your prayers.

Ask Him to cleanse you. Ask Him to renew your heart. Tell Him you want to be done with the sin that clings to your life. Ask Him to clothe you with the righteousness of Christ and make you one of His own adopted children. Then in Christ, position yourself in private to pray what God has promised, with precision, passion and persistence.

Andrew Bonar wrote this encouragement to a friend:

O brother, pray. In spite of Satan, pray;
Spend hours in prayer. Rather neglect friends than not pray.
Rather fast, and lose breakfast, dinner, tea and supper –
and sleep too- than not pray.
And we must not talk about prayer – we must pray in earnest. [6]

 

[1] A.W. Pink, Elijah, p. 182, Banner of Truth, 1963

[2] Ibid., p. 184

[3] John Newton, from the hymn, “Come My Soul With Every Prayer,” 1779

[4] John Burton Jr., from the hymn, “I Often Say My Prayers,” 1850

[5] Matthew Henry, “Commentary On the Whole Bible,” p. 1228, Hendrickson, 1991

[6] Andrew Bonar, “Diary and Letters,” p. 129, Hodder & Stoughton, 7th ed., 1894

 

© Colin S. Smith

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