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It’s always a real challenge to preach a sermon on prayer because for me, on a personal level, prayer is such a struggle.
And when I preach on prayer, one of the things I want to avoid is to draw examples from the spiritual giants in prayer: the likes of John Wesley and Hudson Taylor and Smith Wigglesworth, whose lives were devoted to prayer and God did great things through them. Because if you’re anything like me, you hear about those people in sermons and end up more depressed than before. I know I could never match John Wesley and get up at 4.00 in the morning to pray. I admire these great prayer warriors – but I don’t have their perseverance in prayer.
And perhaps it seems silly, but I don’t want to hear about these great people of prayer so much as the weak and frail and vulnerable pray-ers who struggle to remain faithful: and yet God still uses them and hears them and answers their prayers and gives them great victories.
Perhaps we are all weak in our prayers – but God still loves us and still honours us when we pray and he will bless our efforts.
And this passage from Exodus 17 gives us real encouragement. It’s an amazing story about how Moses dealt with the problem of the Amalekites who came to attack the people of Israel. If you want to follow this story with me, it’s on page 68 in the Old Testament in the pew Bibles.
Now if you’ve ever read these parts of the Old Testament, you will know that battles and wars were not uncommon amongst the nations and tribal people: Israel was pretty well used to physical attack from others. But the Amalekites were a different kettle of fish all together. The Amalekites were vicious beyond all words. They were tough and they were brutal.
The Amalekites were nomads, living out in the desert regions, and the way they survived was to attack neighbouring people and kill them and take their possessions and cattle and anything of worth. And so one day, they looked around them, and they saw the Israelites and they thought their luck was in: easy pickings, no problems here; one attack and Israel would be history.
And so, completely unprovoked, without any warning, as we read in verse 8: “Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim”. The Israelites probably didn’t know what had hit them.
And, actually, life can be like that for all of us: every now and again, without any warning at all, when it seems to be all clear sailing, life throws up a major battle for us. Maybe someone we lobe becomes ill and dies. Maybe we are made unemployed. Perhaps we contract an illness – or our marriage hits the rocks…
It happens, doesn’t it? Without any warning at all, our lives become blighted by a major catastrophe the size and might of the Amalekites. And we are left reeling in shock and distress and we look at the problem that faces us and we think: “How on earth am I ever going to cope with this one?” And we are tempted to think, “If I was a spiritual giant like John Wesley or Hudson Taylor, I’d be OK – I could pray my way out of this one…” But I’m not John Wesley. I’m not Hudson Taylor. I’m just me: frail, vulnerable, fragile me: tattered and torn at the edges, not knowing which way to turn.
Well, I guess that’s how Moses felt too.
But the way he handled the situation, and the example he leaves us here, gives us some direction on how to cope prayerfully with the crises we face in our lives today. And there’s three points I want to pick up from this passage.
And the first is this:
Moses put his crisis into perspective.
Have you ever tried one of those Magic Eye puzzles that look like a mass of coloured dots and you need to see them in a particular way to see the pattern emerging? But to see the pattern, you need to adjust the way you look at the puzzle. You have to look at the picture a certain way to see the pattern emerging.
And that is true of the crises we face in life too. Maybe you are facing a particularly tough situation at the moment and you are trying to find a way to deal with it but when you look at it, it seems just a big mess, utter confusion.
But if we want to see the real issue at hand in our lives, if we want to deal with our crises prayerfully, we need to do two things…
First, we need to make some practical planning.
In verse 9, Moses says to Joshua: “Choose some for us and go out; fight with Amalek tomorrow”. Now that seems to me an eminently sensible thing to do. The Amalekites are out there, ready to attack, so the logical thing to do is to prepare an army to defend. And so Moses takes Joshua to one side: not just any old military leader – we know from other parts of the Bible that Joshua was the best man for the job, the top military leader in Israel. And Moses tells him to make plans to sort the situation out.
Now there is a school of thought amongst some Christians that is scathing about making plans for the future. I have come across it many times in life, not least when those I loved dearest were suffering from a terminal illness and some Christians would say, “Don’t worry about doctors. Just pray. God will bring healing.”
Let me tell you what I think. If you are in a crisis at the moment, the lack of making proper plans is not a sign of godliness: it’s a sign of spiritual ignorance.
If your finances are in a mess: you need to do something positive about the situation.
If you are ill or someone you love is ill: you need to see a doctor.
The Bible does not condone lack of practical activity as a sign of godliness.
We are all called to take some degree of responsibility for our lives – and that is exactly what Moses did when he was faced with an Amalekite attack. He didn’t sit around waiting for a thunderbolt from heaven to wipe out the Amalekites: he sorted out his leaders, he sorted out his strategy, he sorted out his troops, and he got them ready for a counter-attack.
But that’s only half the story, of course. Because then we go on to read the rest of Moses’ words: “Tomorrow, I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand”.
Now this is where Moses and I have something in common. If I looked out over the desert and saw the Amalekites there, I too would have volunteered to get out the way and go and stand on a nearby hill. But the difference is that I am a coward and Moses was a man of action. You see, Moses knew that when facing the might and strength of the Amalekites, practical planning just wasn’t enough…
And when we face our crises in life too, practical planning just isn’t enough…
We need to back our activity up with some serious prayer: Moses knew that Joshua was the military man and that he, Moses, was the prayer man. So he goes off to pray whilst the battle commences.
But there’s something very important to notice here: that when Moses prays, he doesn’t do it from the front line but backs off some distance and goes up a hill to pray.
And this is where perspective comes into things. Because if we want to pray for a solution to the problems we face, we need to be prepared to back off a bit, try to distance ourselves a bit so that we can get a proper perspective. The secret to praying for a solution to a particular crisis in life, I think, is having the ability to stand back from the problem so that we can see things a bit more clearly.
Standing on the front line with the troops is not the best place to pray for the battle. Standing on a hill, some distance away, where you can see the whole game plan is a much better way to pray.
It’s a tough call but we need to find a little bit of space each day to distance ourselves from our problems so we can hear God’s voice more clearly. Praying in times of crisis is all about Perspective: practical planning, yes, but matched with a bit of distance, away from the tumult of battle so we can hear the still, small voice of God a bit more clearly.
So much for Perspective. The second example Moses gives us here is that he experiences real Power when he prays.
Verse 11: “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.”
The truth is – there is real power in prayer: it’s not some fairly-tale, it’s not make-believe, it’s not fate, or luck or co-incidence. When we pray, things happen: people are healed, situations are altered, churches grow, grief is dealt with spiritual battles are won.
Prayer is real. Prayer is powerful. Prayer works.
But for some mysterious reason that I can’t explain, the other side of the coin is true as well. When we cease praying, we inhibit the power of God at work in our lives.
But, as I said at the beginning, the beauty of this story is that it shows Moses not as a prayer warrior but, like us, as a frail, vulnerable and weak human being. Moses got tired – and his arms dropped but God could handle that – and what solution did God provide? Two wonderful companions – Aaron and Hur – to help him along. Verse 12: “But Moses hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side.”
To be honest with you, there are many times when my arms drop in prayer. And I cannot tell you how much I value the ministry of other Christians being Aaron and Hur for me: sitting me down and encouraging me to go on praying and go on walking with God when all I want to do, sometimes, is give up. And I know that some of you carry burdens far greater than mine – but let me tell you two things:
First, if you bring those burdens to God, he will lighten your load and give you the strength you need to carry on. Jesus loves each one of us so much, he longs for us to turn to him in prayer for help and he will never let us down.
Secondly, whatever cares and worries you are carrying today, this church is full of Aarons and Hurs who will help you carry the load. If we share our problems with each other, we will be sure to find support and strength from other people who will love you and accept you just as you are. We must not despise the love and acceptance which is on offer today from God and from each other.
So then, in praying for strength in times of crisis, we need to get a right perspective: planning for all eventualities, backed up with serious prayer – and we need to understand the power of prayer and the power of a community of Aarons and Hurs who will stand with us.
And finally, my third point, which we don’t have much time to unpack now, is the response of praise when we see our prayers answered.
Verse 13: “And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword”: not a temporary setback but total defeat.
And what does God tell Moses to do after this? Verse 14: “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it…”
When God answers our prayers, we need to remember his goodness to us. And what is important about living in community together is sharing our experiences of God answering prayers so that we can encourage one another with the victories that God has won in our lives. If God is answering your prayers, share the news with one another. Then, in our darkest hours, we can all remember and be encouraged.
And that encouragement will lead us to praise God, which is the only appropriate response to answered prayer: verse 15: “Moses built an altar and called it, ‘The Lord is my Banner’”. Answered prayer results in praise and praise builds the Kingdom of God.
So the lessons from this passage are clear:
Moses and the Israelites were facing an enormous crisis – bigger than anything they had faced before – and their prayerful response claimed the victory God had for them. Perspective. Power. Praise.
And the same is true for us today. What burdens do you carry this morning? What is the emotional baggage that weighs you down? Follow the example of Moses: put the problem into perspective, experience the power of God, praise God for his goodness. That is the way for us to live out our lives as new creations is God.
We need to rest in the promise that God has for us – whatever our personal situation, whatever Amalekite-sized problem we face. Moses’ final words in this passage, in verse 16, says it all: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation!”
That is God’s promise to each one of us this morning: that no matter how big your crisis, or the depths of your suffering, God will not allow you to be swallowed up by it. He fights for you each and every day and, in the strength and power of God, our victory over life’s struggles is secure.