I am in the throes of planning and preparing our next church series in Acts. It looks like we’ll be starting sometime in May so, being a bit behind on my buffer, I have been working on the second sermon in series. Ordinarily, I’d like to have been a month ahead of where I am now. Alas!
I was particularly struck by one feature in the first chapter. Jesus has told the apostles to go and wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit. Following his ascension, they duly return to the city where somewhere around 20 of them get together and devote themselves to prayer. Principally, it appears, they are doing what the Lord commanded. They have gone back to Jerusalem to wait for the coming Spirit and have devoted themselves to praying for his arrival.
Later, when the little community of 20 or so people has grown to 120, Peter announces that Judas’ falling away has left them short by one. Having pointed to the scriptures that attest to the need for another to take his place and narrowed down the options to two potential candidates, the apostles devote themselves to prayer again on the grounds that the Lord has already chosen which would be Judas’ replacement.
Strikingly, in both these instances, there is a belief that the Lord has already determined something to be the case. In the first instance, the Lord has already promised that the Holy Spirit will come. In the second, there is a clear belief that the Lord has already determined who will replace Judas. Yet, in both cases, it did not lead to a laissez-faire fatalism. Both drove the apostles to prayer, asking God to make good on the things he has already promised or said will come to pass.
But why should they pray if God has promised to work already? If he’s already said it’s going to happen, why bother asking him to do it? As the apostle James tells us, ‘you don’t have because you don’t ask’. When the Lord wants to give us good gifts he drives us to prayer. When we pray and our prayers are answered, per Thomas Aquinas, we receive precisely what God had intended us to receive through them. The Lord puts it in our hearts to ask him for the things he wants to give and we receive exactly what he had intended for us.
The bigger question here is why doesn’t the Lord just give us the stuff he wants to give us anyway? One answer is surely that he often does! After all, ‘he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Mt 5:45). The Lord’s common grace is a daily reminder that he grants all of us good gifts every day, even those of us who pay him no attention whatsoever, let alone ask him for them.
But the other answer is that he wants us to consider where good gifts come from. If the Lord simply gave us everything without us giving any thought for him, it would be very easy for us to live our lives as functional Atheists. We would have no ‘need’ for God because we would presume all the good gifts we receive simply drop out of the clear blue sky. But when the Lord causes us to ask him for the gifts he wants to give us, it causes us to recognise from whence the gifts come.
Not only that but a lack of prayer indicates a faithlessness in the promises of God. When we pray for the things he has promised us in his Word, we recognise that God is both able and willing to give us what he has promised. If we don’t bother asking him to do the things he has promised, it indicates our indifference to the gift and/or our disbelief in the giver. But when we pray for the things he has promised to give us, moved by the Spirit to pray for them, we both recognise the giver of the gifts and show our belief that he is able to grant them to us.
Two related things that Jesus has told us to pray about is the advance of the kingdom and the need for more workers. He’s told us the harvest is plentiful and he has also told us to ask the Lord to send us more people to help bring it in. We can attest to the plentiful harvest in Oldham. We so often share the gospel in a spirit of dismay, believing that the world is so anti-Christ that nobody will even give us a hearing. And yet Jesus tells us there are people ready and waiting to respond to the gospel.
The Lord of the mission tells us the harvest is plentiful so we need to remember who it is that brings in the harvest. The work is the Lord’s and we need to pray to him to bring in those he wants to save. Likewise, he is the one who will ultimately send those workers he tells us to pray for as well. If we want people to join in the mission he has given us – to be part of a fruitful mission like the one we are seeing in Oldham – then we must ask the Lord to provide, perhaps especially because he has promised he will do so already.