Prayer [Part 2]

And when the song was raised in praise to the Lord, the house of the Lord was filled with a cloud. —2 Chronicles 5:13

We want to begin our new year of ministry in a spirit of prayer. Not that we are seeking prayer. We are seeking God. So we don’t want to plunge ahead in our own way. We want to do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way. Not in our strength but in his. Not so that we become a big deal but because he is a big deal. As we saw last week from 2 Timothy 2, that is not easy. Gospel advance is not easy. And that is why God said to us last Sunday, “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” We’re moving forward in his grace, praying his strength down upon us in all our weakness.

Now the first essential to prayer is praise to God. We need to learn that. The first thing we naturally do in prayer is ask God for something. It is not wrong to ask God for his blessings. It is right. But it is not first. When Jesus taught us to pray, he began, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). In other words, “Father, you love us, you adopted us, you are bending over to listen to us right now, and you are more ready to bless us than we are to receive your blessing. So our first prayer is about you. Hallowed be your name. May you be revered and honored and praised. May you be treated as you deserve to be treated by us and by the whole world. That is our supreme desire.”

Real prayer puts God first. Would you want to pray to a god who was so small that you came first? It’s a relief to be lifted up out of the emotional swirl of our self-focus into praising God. It’s humbling too. When we choose to put God first in our prayers, we notice how self-centered we are. One man put it this way:

Believers may not often realize it, but even as believers we are either centered on man or centered on God. There is no alternative. Either God is the center of our universe and we have become rightly adjusted to him, or we have made ourselves the center and are attempting to make all else orbit around us and for us.

What is the center of your universe? Our kids can’t be the center. Our jobs can’t be the center. Our moods can’t be the center. The essence of sin is just drifting from God-centeredness. We don’t do that intentionally. But we do. It’s natural. And it’s evil. Let’s be readjusting moment-by-moment, getting back into orbit around him, where he is honored and we are happy.

Therefore, the key to praising God is repentance – changing the subject in our thoughts moment-by-moment back to God in his grace. So already we see the primary barrier to a spirit of praise. In our world today there is so much anger at God. And there is always something in our lives to be negative about. If we wait until we’re satisfied with our lives on our own terms, we will never praise God. The barrier to praise is not the real life I have, and the secret to praise is not the better life I wish I had. The real barrier to praise is self-pity, and a spirit of praise is reborn in humility. That is not easy. We think we know better how our lives should go. We think we deserve our best life now. A consumer mentality has been beaten into us. It’s why we carry resentment, rather than praise, in our hearts. We can’t praise God when we resent him.

But the whole point of the gospel is to get us living by faith in the promises of God. Paul had a rotten life, at one level. He got beaten up everywhere he went. But he lived with a spirit of praise to God. How? He knew this life is supposed to be incomplete, disappointing and hard, so that God’s power could shine through. So he wasn’t demanding much of this life. He was surrendered to God, depending on God, looking forward to the promises of God. He said, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). In other words, “If my chance at happiness is here and now only, I am a complete loser.”

But the gospel turns our eyes to the future, about a gazillion years from now, and says to us, “There is your life, given to you freely, secured eternally, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over. And no matter what happens now, no one will ever take it away from you.” That future hope is why we praise God in the reality of our lives here and now. We trust him. We believe his promises. We cherish his promises. We prize his promises above some ideal, dream life right now that will never materialize anyway. That faith in the Word of God frees us from the dysfunctions of Self. And that faith is what God blesses.

Do we think God will pour out his power on unbelief? God would be unwise to pour out his power on a spirit of complaining and resentment. That would appear to us as if God were approving of an angry heart. That wouldn’t help us or honor him. God blesses the mentality of faith and trust and humility and wholeheartedness. The Bible says, “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). Jesus said, “According to your faith be it done for you” (Matthew 9:29). A spirit of praise is the inner health of faith becoming audible in our worship.

In our passage for today we see how God honors a spirit of praise among his people. Solomon built a temple, so that sinners could come near to God. The temple was a picture of Christ, through whom we draw near to God and find grace. So Solomon built that temple. Here in 2 Chronicles 5 he is dedicating it to the Lord. It was a great occasion. Everyone was there. They were filled with praises to God. And the Lord himself came down with his glory, as if to say, “Your worship pleases me. I put my power on your praise.” God is able to open the windows of heaven and pour out such blessing on us today. Let’s always be looking for that, always rejoicing in that, always open to that.

What then do we learn about praising God from 2 Chronicles 5? Three things. One, how our praise begins. Two, how our praise spreads. Three, what God adds to our praise. Let’s go to verses 11-14. They are one long sentence. You see how verse 11 breaks off with a parenthesis. Then a long parenthetical comment goes through all of verse 12 and into verse 13, where the original thought resumes. Then near the end of verse 13 we finally come to the main clause of this long sentence. So the structure of the text is two “when”-clauses (with a long parenthesis between them), and then the main clause: “And when the priests came out of the Holy Place . . . and when the song was raised . . ., the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud.” The two when-clauses stand out as the first two points I am making, and then the main clause about the temple being filled with the cloud is the third point.

How our praise begins

And when the priests came out of the Holy Place… —2 Chronicles 5:11

The priests had already finished their sacrifices out in the temple courtyard (verse 6). Then they finished their work inside the Holy Place. And then they came back out into public view.

Why does the Bible bother to tell us that the priests came out of the Holy Place? Why does the Bible tell us that they finished all their work and came out? Because the Bible is all about the finished work of Christ. Verse 1 starts the chapter, “Thus all the work that Solomon did for the house of the Lord was finished,” and here in verse 11 the priests finish their work, all of which prefigured Christ.

The focal point of the Bible is when Jesus says from his cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). What did he mean? He meant that his death paid for our guilt in full. He presented his sacrifice to God, and God received it. It is finished. The Bible speaks of that in many ways, because we have trouble believing it. Something inside tells us he did a lot, but there’s still just an inch left to go, and we have to close that gap with our own works. That’s what our thoughts tell us. We think as if we could go into the Holy Place and by our righteousness improve on what Jesus did. But Jesus went where we can’t go. He did business with God that we can’t do. Now the gospel shows him coming out of that Holy Place, because it is finished.

When you receive Christ with the empty hands of faith, your real moral guilt before God is over. He will never bring it up again. You are free and clear with God forever. And when all you can see is your failure and sin, God says, “Yes, it’s real. But it doesn’t matter to me any more. Someone Else already answered for it. Look to him, and you’re free of it.” The work of Jesus for you is complete in the sight of God, with no regrets, no if-onlys. He came out a successful Savior. He brought all your sin to the cross, and he left it all there. You do not need to add some touch-up work. We will never sing, “Jesus paid it almost all, almost all to him I owe.” The fact is, he shouted from the cross, so that we could all hear it, “It is finished, it is accomplished, it is completed, it is perfect, whole, unimprovable, satisfactory, ready, available, and completely free to you.” When you believe him, you start praising him. You don’t have to force it. You can’t help it. Our praise to God begins when we trust the finished work of Christ on the cross. And the freer you see it is, the more you’ll praise him. That’s how our praise begins.

How our praise spreads

…and when the song was raised… 2 Chronicles 5:13

Our praise spreads in three ways. First, the priests led the people into enthusiastic worship. It included singers, cymbals, harps, lyres and trumpets. They raised a song. They didn’t just sing a song; they raised it. They turned up the volume. They made it intense. Earlier in verse 13 it says they made themselves heard. They gave themselves strongly to the praise of God and didn’t hold back. In fact, verse 11 says that all the priests had consecrated themselves “without regard to their divisions.” What does that mean? Their work was organized. They were divided up according to a schedule. One division was on duty, while other divisions were off-duty. But on this occasion all the priests got involved “without regard to their divisions.” Nobody was off-duty. A Chinese Christian wrote this:

Members dare not merely stand by looking on, for none are so hurtful as onlookers. Whether or not we take a public part in things is immaterial; we must always be giving life, so that our absence is felt. We cannot say, “I don’t count.”

That’s the first way our praise to God spreads. A spirit of praise starts in the gospel, and it spreads as we all give ourselves to it passionately. You matter in the worship of God in this church. How you praise God matters to God and to everyone around you moment-by-moment. You are an influence. The only question is, What kind of influence? One thing we all know from experience – enthusiasm is contagious. The Bible sets the tone. Our moods do not set the tone. The Bible says, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 48:1; 96:4; 145:3). Not moderately but greatly. Moderate praise is unworthy of a great Lord. “Lifted up was he to die, ‘It is finished’ was his cry, now in heaven exalted high, Hallelujah! What a Savior!”

Some of us have never experienced what it means to praise Christ greatly, so that we make ourselves heard, like these priests. Some of us have never sung our heads off. That can change today. If Christ has forgiven all our sins, it should change today. I have nothing against white people. But we barely sing. Most middle class white people, when they sing, don’t want to make themselves heard. They hope nobody hears. And nobody does. But the Bible says, “It was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard.” If we hold back because of mere self-consciousness, we are treating the praises of God as if it were about us. We’re treating Christ as if he were not the center. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.” When we unleash great praises, it honors him, it’s a joy to us, and it spreads.

C. S. Lewis wondered, Why does God want us to praise him? What do we have to offer God? And in the back of Lewis’ mind was an uneasy feeling that maybe God wanted approval or even flattery. But then he understood. He wrote this:

I had not noticed that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” … We praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; praise is its appointed consummation.

God wants us to praise him not because he needs it but because it’s how the joy of heaven comes down to us on earth. It’s how that joy spreads from one heart to the next all around this church and out to our city, to the ends of the earth. Let’s make our voices heard. Christ will be honored, and we will be happy.

The second way our praise spreads, and the wave of joy lifts up more and more people toward God – that kind of high-impact praise is not only passionate and intense but also united. Verse 13 is even more emphatic in Hebrew than in English: “And as one it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison.” The instruments were in tune together, and so were their hearts. The Bible says, “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! … For there the Lord commands his blessing” (Psalm 133:1, 3). The Bible says of the day of Pentecost that the early church was in one accord and all together in one place (Acts 1:14; 2:1). Can you imagine how one of them would have felt if he had stayed home that day?

Christ has made us one. The old divisions of age and race and money – we can find so many reasons not to be one – but all those dividing walls Jesus broke down by dying for us all alike. He is creating a new community of praise in a world of proud aloofness. We display Christ by our united praise, swelling together into sweet volume. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The best, most beautiful and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other is by music.” It’s a foretaste of heaven. The Bible says that in heaven the redeemed sound like “the roar of many waters,” an outpouring of praise like Niagara Falls. One of the ways I am praying for us here at Immanuel in 2011 is that we will feel more and more freedom of heart to sing our songs and announce the creed and read the Bible with hearts unleashed to praise him with heavenly intensity as one, no one holding back. It’s wonderful. It spreads.

The third way the praise of God spreads and grows is when our praise is truthful. What were they singing here at the temple? “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” That is simple, gospel truth. What does it mean?

God is good, and nothing but good. There was a time when we didn’t believe that. We saw no beauty in God. We hated God. But it was our own fault. What A. W. Tozer wrote about malice toward people is what we all did toward God. We projected onto God our own darkness and blamed him for it:

Malice needs nothing to live on; it can feed on itself. A contentious spirit will find something to quarrel about. A faultfinder will find occasion to accuse a Christian [or Christ] even if his life is as chaste as an icicle and pure as snow. Good men are made to appear evil by the simple trick of dredging up from his own heart the evil that is there and attributing it to them.

We did that to God. We blamed him. We crucified him, and he still loved us. He still loved us, even in our evil. That’s when we finally broke. We saw that we are evil, and he is good. We’re no longer blaming him. We’re placing ourselves under the judgment of his Word and praising him for his goodness, because that is the truth.

And his steadfast love endures forever. He is good, and he will never stop being good. If he loved us today but might stop loving us tomorrow, we couldn’t even enjoy his love today. But the truth is, nothing will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. There is nothing but Christ between us and the weeping and wailing of hell, and he will never step aside and let us in there. He is preparing a wonderful place for us. His steadfast love endures forever. That’s a truth to spread his praises!

What God adds to our praise

The glory of the Lord filled the house of God. —2 Chronicles 5:14

Back in these Old Testament days, God drew near to his people by hovering over them in a cloud of glory. But the greatest revelation of his glory coming near was Jesus. And the Holy Spirit comes down today to communicate to us the presence and love and authority and glory of Jesus. It’s not something we take by faith. It’s something we experience. We become aware that he is with us. The Bible says of the early church, “Awe came upon every soul” (Acts 2:43). On this occasion at the temple, God powerfully assured his people that he loved their praises. He did not do this gradually. He came down so suddenly and completely, the priests had to stop their ministry. The weight of God’s glory settled on the people with overwhelming effect. I’m sure a reverent hush came over them, as everyone felt God and they all bowed down together in wonder.

There are churches bound up in a spirit of complaining. What a tragedy! Let’s be grateful God has spared us that evil, and we must pray he always will, because here is what God gives to churches who give themselves to his praise: his glory! He gives himself, and we become aware that the Lord is here. It is sacred and powerful, for his glory.

The truest work of this church is not the work of man. It is the risen Christ coming down through the Holy Spirit, putting his hand on us and saying, “You are mine!” There is nothing greater than the nearness of Jesus, the presence and immediacy of Jesus. When he reveals himself, we see our weakness and his power, our dependence and his all-sufficiency, he alone is glorified and we cannot say, “We did this,” but we all say, “Not to us, but to his name be all the glory!”

We seek and we expect the felt presence of the living Christ, for in seeking it we seek the Lord himself. How kind of him that the way there is not some tedious work of our own but the happiness of praising our great Lord greatly.