What Is Prayer?

We’re thinking through the Immanuel playbook. We have three winning plays so far. One, God has shaped every one of us to be a voice for Christ. Two, God has made us a community where everyone can be known and cared for in a small group. Three, God has given us the Bible, where we can see Christ from cover to cover. There is no way we can run those plays and not score a touchdown, and happily.

Now today let’s ask, What is prayer? The answer is, prayer is asking God for the great things only he can do. And anyone can pray that way. Here in Psalm 126, who are these praying people? Broken people, captive people, weeping people. Who are they praying to? The God who restores, the God who gives laughter, the God who does great things for weak people. We can pray this way, God will do great things for us.

Here at Immanuel we long for what only God can do. Randy Pope, a pastor in Atlanta – here’s how he says it: “We will attempt things for God so great that they are doomed to failure unless God is in them.” God loves that passion. It’s what he’s all about. The Bible says that God calls into existence things that don’t even exist yet (Romans 4:17). William Carey (1761-1834) was an ordinary man, a shoemaker. But he founded the modern missionary movement. He used to say, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”

Psalm 126:3 says, “The Lord has done great things for us.” Would you want anything less? When you were a kid and someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, did you say, “When I grow up, I want to be mediocre. I want a life that won’t count”? When we’re young, we have stars in our eyes. But as the years go by, some of that passion gets beaten out of us – like these people back here: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion . . .” (verse 1, NIV). Sooner or later we all find ourselves in captivity of some kind. We look around and wonder, “How on earth did I get here? Is this the life I’m stuck with now?” Psalm 126 tells us that God listens for the prayers of captives. God wants to set us free and give us our youthful enthusiasm back. You can be young at heart always. The Bible says, “He satisfies you with good, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5). Psalm 126 is about new beginnings – through prayer. In verses 1-3, we see God’s promise of renewal. In verses 4-6, we see what to do with it.

There is a question about the translation of Psalm 126. The psalm divides into verses 1-3 and 4-6. That’s clear. But the way the psalm is often translated, these two parts of the psalm seem contradictory. Verses 1-3 look back at the restoration of the Jewish exiles as an accomplished fact, and verses 4-6 look forward to their restoration as something they still pray for. Verses 1-3 say, “We were so happy over what God did for us.” Then verses 4-6: “God, would you do that?” So, have they been restored or not? There is something else here. Verse 2 says that the nations marveled at what God did. But they didn’t marvel. When Cyrus the Great let the Jewish exiles go home from 2 Babylon in the sixth century B.C., he wasn’t giving them special treatment. It was a general policy toward all his captive peoples. One more thing. The way verses 1-2 are often translated, the idea seems to be, “When God turned it around for us, it was so wonderful, we could hardly believe it. We thought we were in a dream.” But nowhere in the Old Testament is that verb “to dream” used to mean an emotional state. The psalm as it’s usually translated raises these questions. But there is another way to translate the psalm that gets around these problems – and shows us something new.

When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion (we are like those who dream),
then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they will say among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad. —Psalm 126:1–3

The key is the second line of verse 1: “we are like dreamers.” When we look at other uses of this verb “to dream” in the Old Testament, we realize that this dreaming is not like our concept of dreaming. This word for dreaming is almost always used for prophetic dreams, God-given dreams revealing future events. In Genesis 37 Joseph dreamt of the future. In Genesis 41 the Pharaoh dreamt of the future. In Daniel 2 Nebuchadnezzar dreamt of the future. So, here in our verse, the speakers are tipping us off as to the kind of statement they’re making. Let me paraphrase verses 1-3 like this: “When the Lord restores our fortunes, when God heals our brokenness, when God frees us from our captivity (we’re looking by faith into the future), that’s when our mouths will be filled with laughter. Right now our eyes are filled with tears. But we know that God has great things in store for us. The whole world is going to look on in wonder. And right now, as we savor God’s promises by faith, we are thrilled.”

The gospel puts deep into our hearts a yearning for what only God can do. The gospel stirs in us a dream that nothing in this world can satisfy. Never lose that dream. It’s the most alive part of you. Freud told us to find ourselves by digging up our past. Reality Therapy then came along and told us to focus on the present and bring it under our control. What the gospel reveals is a future that will fill our mouths with laughter. The gospel has a forward tilt to it, because hope is what keeps us alive. With a great future breathing great life into us today, we can face anything.

On April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered, Martin Luther King Jr. preached in Memphis. Here’s what he said:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

That’s the spirit of Psalm 126:1-3. The gospel takes us to the mountaintop of God’s promises. We look over. We see the Promised Land out beyond the disappointments and brutalities and stupidities of the moment. We see the great things God will do for us. When our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, it has the power to lift us above self-pity and refusal to risk and captivity to fear. He takes us into gladness right now.

And we can face anything.

How does that happen? We look at the gospel and by faith we see ourselves inside God’s great promises. We realize that one sentence is being written like a banner over our lives, in spite of our sin, in spite of everything. Here it is: “The Lord has done great things for us.” On the surface of our lives we see trouble and failure, but underneath there is a deeper, hidden narrative that really defines us. Do not let this world tell you your story. Their version is too small. It will kill your heart. Don’t even define yourself. Let the great things of God define you. Only he can satisfy you. When you think of his loving thoughts toward you, you are not dealing in trifles. His love for you is not a spare corner in his heart, like spare change for a homeless person. The love he has put upon you surges out of the inconceivably vast heart of God. How great are the thoughts of God toward you! What a great thing God has done for you in your salvation. Jonathan Edwards understood that:
The work of God in the conversion of one soul, considered together with the source, foundation and purchase of it, and also the benefit, end and eternal outcome of it, is a more glorious work of God than the creation of the whole universe.

Your riches in Christ are immense. Everything you desire is in his treasure – pleasures forevermore, rivers of delight, fullness of joy, and all of it forever, despite what you deserve, through the finished work of Christ on the cross. But if you are not in Christ, your dream will end up as big as a wide-screen TV where you can watch American Idol and Desperate Housewives and Dancing with the Stars until the day you die. And there’s your life – your one, unrepeatable, precious life. Then you go stand before God to explain that? But if your heart longs for more, Jesus Christ offers you great things – freely through his grace.

Will you renounce the fraudulence of the American Dream, and will you cherish the promises of God in the Bible? Will you say, “Yes, Lord, I choose you today”?

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. —Psalm 126:4–6

Now we know what to do with the promises of God. We turn them into prayer and work. Verses 5-6 teach us to roll up our sleeves and work and weep. Our very tears are the seed sown for a harvest of new life. And those efforts and tears will bring in a joyful harvest. But verse 4 teaches how to pray,”Restore our fortunes.”

Here is the gospel in three steps. One, God gave us everything. Two, we gave him grief. Then what did he do? Three, God gave us everything back again – and infinitely more in Christ. He humbled himself and came down into this world of our arrogance and failure. He took our guilt onto himself at the cross. It sank him down to death. But he rose up from it all with new life. And now his kingdom powers are re- entering this world and giving ruined people their lives back – anyone who will receive him. He deals in damaged goods. He restores. When all is lost, we can find him right there in our loss. When our lives fall apart, he puts them back together again. He is here, that we may live. And we’ve only begun to see what he can do. Everything will change by his kingdom power. We will change. We will never be the same again. Nothing will ever be the same again. The cure has begun. And he is coming again to destroy all evil and take us home forever. And why? Why is he restoring our fortunes? What is his motive? Is it because we’re worth it? No. It’s better. Do you know why he’s doing this? For the glory of it all. For the sheer glory of it. And that kind of person is the one who’s going to write the next chapter of your story.

Here’s what he wants you to do. Pray. Take his promises in the Bible and pray those blessings down. And if you’ve bungled your life, this is for you. God’s people back then squandered their opportunity. That’s why Psalm 126 is here. God meant them to be a blessing to the whole world. Then they drove into a ditch. Now, guess who coaches them in how to pray their way back? God himself. He gave us this prayer. He likes this prayer. He’s ready to answer this prayer.

The simile here – “like streams in the Negeb” – the Negeb is the desert south of Jerusalem. It’s a place of drought and barrenness. But there are rain storms in the Negeb that suddenly, surprisingly, flood that desert. Verses 5-6 remind us that joyful success comes through our own rugged work. We embrace the dignity of our work together. But verse 4 is a still more wonderful truth. God is able at any time to send a humanly 5 uncaused downpour of blessing, like torrential streams flooding the desert. Pray for that. If we don’t pray for it, how can we say we’re obeying his Word? Hasn’t he told us how to pray? Haven’t we agreed that we desire above all else what only God can do? Don’t we know how urgently our city and ourselves need a massive spiritual transformation in our day of strongly established idolatries and captivities that can be swept away by the sudden unleash of God’s blessing? Are we insulting God by our small prayers and low expectations? John Newton put it into a hymn:

Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such
None can ever ask too much.

There’s a story about Alexander the Great. One of his generals had a daughter who was getting married. Alexander offered to pay for the wedding. When the general gave Alexander’s steward the bill, it was enormous. The steward came to Alexander, showed it to him, and to his surprise Alexander smiled and said, “Pay it. Don’t you see – by asking me for such an enormous sum he does me great honor. He shows that he believes I am both rich and generous.”

We look within ourselves and see no hope. But God has so much more blessing for you, for me, our church, our city, this whole world. The Lord promises great things, things worthy of his great name, things great enough to make us glad. Let’s believe it, pray for it, work for it. And let’s never quit, never quit, never quit, because God keeps his promises.