My Dear Friends,
Psalm 106 makes for salutary reading. It celebrates the Lord’s remarkable rescuing kindnesses to his covenant people Israel and details his people’s disdain of his great mercies to them. It is hard to take in the persistent cavalier behaviour of Israel in the glowing light of God’s repeated mercies in delivering them from their enemies and providing for all their needs in times of deepest trial. Tragically, the Psalmist tells us, “They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Saviour, who had done great things in Egypt”. If the Psalmist hadn’t written it, we wouldn’t have believed it. However, it is what the Psalmist now writes that is especially stunning: “Therefore he said he would destroy them— had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.”
God’s covenant people were on the edge of extinction. Their repeated wickedness so provoked the Lord that “he said he would destroy them”. Destroy them.
I have no intention in this letter to try and reconcile God’s revealed will and his secret counsel, or to spend any time discussing whether God actually changes his mind (“I the Lord do not change”). I simply want to notice with you how Moses “stood in the breach before (God) to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” Moses prayed and God’s holy and just wrath was turned away from his wayward, disobedient and unthankful people. Prayer effected a great change in the fortunes of God’s visible church in the world. Moses prayed.
John Bunyan famously wrote, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed”. In God’s great mercy, prayer truly is a means of grace. Not prayer per se, of course. It is not prayer, but God who makes the difference, who effects the change. But prayer, believing, intercessory, constant, pleading prayer, is one of the great means God is pleased to use to advance his kingdom and grow his church. One man prayed and a church-nation was blessed and preserved from God’s holy anger.
The visible church of God in our world is a pathetic shadow of what it is called to be. There are, thankfully, glorious exceptions. But generally wherever you look, unbelief, moral compromise, theological downgrade and social shallowness prevails. The church is so bent on relevance and modernity (the buzz words), that it cannot see just how pathetic it appears to onlookers. It is often little more than a religious mirror image of the world it is called to evangelise, mimicking its values, celebrating its causes. Yes, we can protest. Yes, we must proclaim. But first we must pray.
Above all we must pray concertedly as churches. The early Christians devoted themselves to prayer, together (Acts 2:42). Corporate prayer was woven into their lifestyle as Christians. Corporate, congregational prayer was not for a few especially enthusiastic Christians. The whole community of believers ‘devoted themselves to...the prayers’. It was inconceivable that truly converted people would not make every effort to be present when the church gathered to pray. The commitment to corporate prayer is underscored by the strength of the verb Luke uses, ‘devoted’. It was not merely a matter of turning up, of duteously doing what was expected. These early Christians ‘devoted’ themselves to the prayers. The verb signals the ‘religious’ commitment of these believers to the set times of prayer (no doubt arranged by the apostles).
We have no way of knowing the precise mechanics of the when, the where or even the how of these times of prayer. What we do know is that those who were added to the church (Acts 2:41) made the church’s times of prayer a non-negotiable priority in their lives, as much as God’s providences would enable them.
It is understood that family circumstances and work commitments may mean, at times, that the church’s set times of prayer have to be missed. But the fundamental issue is not the hindrances of providence, but the unconcern of our hearts and the distractions of ‘other things’, even good things. Perhaps by now you are saying to yourself, ‘Ian doesn’t realise how pressed I am, how many family commitments I have, how much I need time to spend with my wife, my husband, my children.’ Don’t I?
Life in general, and your life and mine in particular, is shaped by priorities, conscious and sub-conscious. We make time for what we think is important. For our first century Christian brothers and sisters, faced as they were with hostility and severe persecution, corporate prayer was a priority they prioritised. There is a manifest connection in the early chapters of Acts between the church at prayer and the church advancing in the power of the gospel. Gospel life is not neglectful of church prayer meetings.
With my love and greetings as ever