‘Prayer and authority’ is my title on this Palm Sunday evening, and the passage we’re looking at is Mark 11v20-33.
We live in a world in which there is desperate need for change for the better. If we’re going to be useful to God in changing things, then we need to learn to pray more effectively. If we’re going to pray in such a way that we see things happen as a result, then we’ve got to learn to live by the astonishing promise about prayer that Jesus makes in these verses. And we’ve got to have a clear understanding of where the authority lies to make things happen. That is also spelled out here.
So this is a key section of Scripture. There are four lessons for us to learn. Here’s number one. So:
First, WE MUST UNDERSTAND THAT JESUS REQUIRES HIS CHURCH TO GROW.
To understand verses 20-21, we need to back up a bit. So let me read from verse 12. This action takes place the day after that first Palm Sunday:
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig-tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no-one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. (v12-14)
Then the second instalment of this is there in 20-21. This is now the next day.
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig-tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig-tree you cursed has withered!” (v20-21)
What’s this all about? Some people seem to find this incident disturbing because they feel sorry for the poor fig tree. They think Jesus is being unjust to the fig tree. But we mustn’t lose sight of the obvious here. Fig trees don’t have feelings. Please don’t get hung up about the fig tree. What Jesus does here is a simple visual aid. So what are we supposed to learn?
One thing, clearly, is the power of God’s word. Jesus speaks a word to the tree and it withers and dies. Such is his authority. Here is direct evidence of Jesus’ total sovereign control. If we’re going to pray with faith, we must understand that power.
But there is more than that. A fig tree was an Old Testament symbol of Israel – of God’s people. If I speak about a red rose, a yellow bird, and a tree with a blue trunk, then if you’re into politics you’ll know that I’m talking about the Labour party, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. In a similar way, the fig tree represents the people of God.
What does Jesus look for on the fig tree? Fruit. A fruit tree that bears no fruit is useless and will be destroyed. God’s people must bear fruit. What fruit? The fruit of godliness and the fruit of growth. That was God’s purpose for his Old Covenant people, Israel. And it remains his purpose for his New Covenant people, the church.
So, let’s apply this directly to JPC. Jesus requires this church to grow in godliness and in numbers. And since it is God – and only God – who can give growth, then this growth comes by believing prayer backed up by believing action. This is not an optional extra. This is what we’re here for.
We’ve seen the beginnings of this. We too, as the pioneer missionary William Carey put it, “have within these few years been favoured with some tokens for good, granted in answer to prayer, which should encourage us to persist and increase” in prayer.
We’ve lived through a generation during which across the nation church attendances have halved. But we’ve seen God answering the prayers that he has put into our hearts. We were reminded during our 150th anniversary commemorations that back in 1982, David wrote:
We are praying for the church to double – to get to 1000 – by 1987. That prayer, says Jesus, will be answered if we believe ‘that we have received it’… We must pray and plan accordingly.
Well, maybe if we had prayed and worked with more faith, it would have happened sooner – only God knows. But, praise God, that prayer has been wonderfully answered.
Back in 1991 we prayed that God would provide us with £250,000 to buy and refurbish Eslington House. He did. In 2003 we prayed that God would give us £725,000 for 3 Osborne Road. He gave us £900,000. In 2005 we prayed that God would give us £1.6 million for what we then called the Gateshead project, which became Holy Trinity Gateshead. He gave us £1.3 million and reduced the potential costs by £300,000. Seven years on HTG is a church of 250 and they’re thinking about how they’re going to make provision for their large and expanding number of children.
These are surely what William Carey would call ‘tokens’ from God, which should ‘encourage us to persist and increase’ in prayer. We’re now praying that our Free School application will be approved and that we’ll be able to acquire the Jesmond Towers Estate for school, church and community use in perpetuity. Mountains need to move if that’s going to happen. And we’re praying that God will grow this church to 5000 over the coming generation, and that we’ll see another 5000 in churches planted from JPC – in this region, in this country and indeed around the world.
We have to ask ourselves whether we believe that God can and will answer these prayers. And if we do believe that, then we’ll need to exert ourselves. We’ll have to lay down our lives in the service of this vision. Only the Holy Spirit can make these things happen. But if we pray believing, then we’ll work too. And God will answer.
Jesus says to us: “Have faith in God”. William Carey picked up that theme and memorably expressed it in the two points of his sermon expounding Isaiah 54v1-3:
Expect Great Things; Attempt Great Things.
So first we must understand that Jesus requires his church to grow, then:
Secondly, WE MUST PRAY IN FAITH, EXPECTING GOD TO DO GREAT THINGS.
This is Jesus’ follow up teaching to the fig-tree miracle. It’s there in verses 22-24:
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”(v22-24)
This promise does not apply to self-centred prayer. This applies to prayer that is directed towards the glory of God and the fulfilment of his commands – not least the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. Have faith in God. Ask. And what you ask for will happen.
I am profoundly challenged by what Jesus says here in relation to my own praying. Surely here is the very heart of what we all need to learn: have faith in God; ask; and what you ask for will happen. I know that all kinds of questions arise in our minds when we hear that. Fair enough. They need thinking through. But we mustn’t let them distract us from that direct challenge, command and promise.
Dixon Hoste and the China Inland Mission are a great example of the kind of faith we need. Dixon Hoste was the second General Director of the China Inland Mission (now OMF). He took over from Hudson Taylor at the turn of the 20th Century. Let me tell part of that story, in the words of Dixon Hoste’s biography.
The Boxer Rising of 1900 will never be forgotten in the history of the China Inland Mission… before the terrible rising was eventually suppressed, fifty-eight members of the Mission and twenty-one children had been brutally murdered.
[But, through all this opposition and suffering…] The foundations so faithfully laid by Hudson Taylor and the early workers were being built upon. In 1905, after forty years of missionary work, there were 12,000 baptized members of the China Inland Mission churches. By 1910 that number had doubled, and by 1920 there were 52,000 in membership…
A sub-committee was appointed to make an estimate of the number of new workers that would be required to begin a further movement forward, and they came back with the report that one hundred and ninety-nine were needed.… so it was decided to make an appeal for two hundred new workers… Prayer was being made definitely for two hundred new recruits to be on their way to China before the end of 1931. What would be the answer of God?
D.E.Hoste well knew that a big thing was being asked… “It will involve perhaps the most tremendous conflict which we have yet had as a Mission,” he said, “and every part of it will need to be… steeped in prayer.”
The urgent necessity for prayer became apparent as the months passed… By the end of 1930 less than half the required number of new workers had sailed for China… just one more year remained... the answer was being delayed.
“We must have a day of prayer,” [D.E. Hoste] said. Tuesday, February 10th was set aside to be given up entirely to prayer that God would yet grant their request for the full number of two hundred new workers to be sent out before the end of the year… And God answered! … Although there were many disappointments and unforeseen hindrances put in the way of the recruits, by the end of the year two hundred and three new workers had set sail for China – the last party, six young men, leaving England on December 31st!
That sums up an account written in 1947. Three years later, in 1950, as it became impossible for foreign missionaries to work in China, all CIM missionaries were ordered to leave. And we know what has happened since. Last September there was a series on BBC Radio 4 called ‘God in China’. The presenter Tim Gardam wrote concerning the number of Christians in China today:
A conservative figure is 60 million. There are already more Chinese at church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe.
We must pray in faith, expecting God to do great things.
Thirdly, WE MUST BE DRIVEN BY THE GOSPEL OF GRACE.
This, it seems to me, is the point of what Jesus says next, in verses 25-26:
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (v24-25)
Finding forgiveness, and forgiving others, is at the very heart of the gospel that’s needed by the nations of the world. Wrapped up in forgiveness is the fact that we need to be forgiven; that our sin is against God; that atonement is provided; that we must have a change of heart; and that our experience of forgiveness must transform the way we behave towards others. Forgiveness is the gospel of God’s grace in a nutshell.
Faith and prayer is nothing without forgiveness. No amount of believing, and no amount of praying, will accomplish anything for the Kingdom of God if we are not living the gospel. Our praying must be directed towards the fulfilment of the Great Commission because we want others to find what we have found.
Our lives must be driven by the gospel of grace.
Fourthly, WE MUST SUBMIT TO THE DIVINE AUTHORITY OF JESUS
Take a look now at what happens when Jesus and the disciples return to the city. This is verses 27-33:
They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”
Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’…” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)
So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (v27-33)
Sometimes when we read the Bible we learn from seeing faith at work. We learn by example. But sometimes the Bible shows us what not to be like. And then we learn by contrast. This incident is one such case. And I don’t think it’s any accident that this follows hard on the heels of Jesus’ profound challenge to believing prayer. If we’re going to learn to pray, we have to be quite clear where the authority lies.
Or to come at that from a slightly different direction, if we’re going to pray effective prayers of faith, we must understand the nature of faith. The power of prayer doesn’t lie in prayer. It doesn’t lie in us. It doesn’t lie in the way we pray or for how long we pray or how passionately we express ourselves. The power of prayer lies in the Lord and Saviour to whom we pray.
Jesus asks the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders to tell him whose authority was behind the ministry of John the Baptist. Was it merely human authority or was it that of God himself? And when he does that, he’s really asking them to expose their attitude to his own authority.
If John’s ministry was from God, then Jesus acts with divine authority. If not, then Jesus is mad or bad. Which is it? They won’t answer Jesus, but their very hesitation and calculation is eloquent answer enough. They dare not say it because they’re scared for their own skins, but they deny that the power of Jesus is the power of God himself. When they question Jesus about the source of his authority, they do not want to know the truth, they’re challenging him. It would have been more honest if they’d simply said, ‘You have no authority to do these things.’
Now we read about these corrupt and faithless religious leaders and it’s all too easy to put ourselves on the other side of the fence and to scorn their attitude. They don’t grasp the divine authority that Jesus has. They’re afraid of what other people will think of them. They want to look after number one and protect their own positions.
But when we talk to Jesus in prayer, what’s in our hearts? Do we really know who we’re talking to? Do we understand that he created all things by his powerful word? Do we know that not only could he pitch a mountain into the sea with a flick of a finger if he so decided, but that he brought whole ranges of mountains into being with a word.
It’s not faith that matters. It’s faith in God. We pray. He has authority. We trust. He acts.
We must submit to the divine authority of Jesus.
We’ve seen God do amazing things in answer to the prayers he’s inspired in us. But for the glory of God and for the sake of the world for which he gave his Son, we need more. We need to grow in faith. We need to grow in the praying that flows from that faith.
Here is one very practical and do-able application. In this church, prayer goes on in all kinds of settings, at many different times, and in a wide variety of groups. One of those – and a very important one – is the Central Prayer Meeting. This generally takes place fortnightly on Wednesdays at 8.00pm in the church hall. The details of dates and times are on the back of the Programme Card. The next one’s after Easter, on April 18th. We sing, we hear some Bible teaching, and then we pray in small groups of half a dozen or so, for the church and the world.
Wouldn’t it be great if the church hall was heaving with people for Central Prayer Meetings? Many, I know, will have good and valid reasons why they can’t come – and that’s fine. We all need to be praying, but that doesn’t have to be at Central Prayer Meetings. However, many of us can come. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to pray out loud – you can join in the ‘Amens’. So if you can come, please do. Decide to make a habit of it.
Jesus used to ask people, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He still does. That’s the question that really underlies his challenge, command and promise about prayer here. As you look around at a world in need of Jesus, what do you want him to do for you?
“Have faith in God… whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” (v22, 24)