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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: Prayers of the Heart

September 16, 2007

Galatians 4:4-7

These are interesting days in which we are living, not only as a nation but also as a church body. Our church family is experiencing a remarkable movement. I have no doubt in my mind but that God is at work here. I hope you can sense and see that, too. Dr. Henry Blackaby, in Experiencing God, says that God is constantly at work in the world around us. Our assignment is to pay close attention because when we see God at work, we know that He will invite us to be a part of what He is doing.

Certainly, the Lord has done that by providing many mission opportunities. We have received several e-mails from our mission team in Poland. All seems to be going quite well. Please continue to pray for them, for their safety, and for the effectiveness of the work they are doing there. The roof of the church in Romania, as you know, is under construction. We have provided the money for that construction. Before long, people will be worshipping in the city of Gheorgheni, worshipping in a church built on property we provided. God has been so gracious to us.

Just this morning, I received an e-mail from Dr. George Boltniew, Alexander’s brother. Many of you have seen the name of George’s wife, Helen, on the prayer list. She has been quite ill with cancer. This latest e-mail was one of hope and optimism. She has shown some improvement. Perhaps she will be able to walk again soon.

During the early service, I asked that a person volunteer to visit a nursing home. A man in his eighties just last week made a profession of faith in the hospital. I am happy to tell you that between the two services, two volunteers said they would disciple him. This new Christian will probably never be able to come to this Sanctuary, but he has accepted the Lord Jesus. He needs someone to guide and direct him as he grows in Christ.

Since the publication of my book When Grief Comes, I have had numerous opportunities for ministry to parents who have lost children, to entire schools that are grieving the loss of a young student, and to those with loved ones that died suddenly or maybe after a long illness. I have had opportunities to speak to other parents’ groups, teachers, and individuals.

It would be fair to say that a revival is taking place at Morningside. It is not an old-fashioned revival like the one some of you are accustomed to having. We have not invited a guest preacher or a guest musician. We are not coming to the church every night for meetings. I have never understood why we call that a revival. That experience is exhausting. I do not feel revived after going through all of that. The revival at Morningside is different. It is a quiet moving of God’s Spirit. I can certainly sense it, and I know that some of you can, too. This morning during the ordination of new deacons in the first service, many people who took part in the laying-on-of-hands said, “Pastor, I feel it, too. I know that God’s Spirit is at work here.”

This series of sermons on prayer has been very gratifying for me. The way you have responded is satisfying. I sense a refreshing wind of God’s Spirit. Whenever God is at work in an unusual way, as I believe He is now, many little irritations often accompany His work. It is as if during a marvelous picnic, gnats or even yellow jackets show up and begin annoying you. I have learned that this is just a part of the process. Whenever God does something significant in the life of a person or in the life of a group of people, such as a church body, the enemy begins to stir. Satan will do whatever he can to involve us in squabbles with each other. Please, we need to guard against that. We must understand that this is not the time for pettiness. This is not the time to resist the presence of God’s Spirit in this place.

I have been keenly aware of this movement this week. Just this morning, we baptized four people – one young man and three adults. Seeing these people come to the waters of baptism is very pleasing. Many, many more need to come and accept Christ as their Savior. We administer water in baptism, but nothing is special about the water. It comes out of the tap here just as it comes out of the tap in your house. It is not the quality of the water. It is not the quantity of the water. What matters is the change that occurs in the hearts of the people who are baptized.

The same is true of ordination. Seeing new deacons ordained and seeing the way God brings leadership into the life of the church is gratifying. We engage in the ancient ritual of the laying-on-of-hands. Our touch does not impart some special blessing to these people. It certainly does not impart any special power to them. It does signify, however, that this congregation has chosen them to live up to the name deacon, from diaconus, the Greek word for servant. They have been set aside as servants. The water and our touch are outward symbols of an internal grace, symbols of what God is doing in His church.

Tuesday was a significant day, the anniversary of 9-11, as you know. Tuesday was also just the day before a remarkable conjunction of events. The Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah started Tuesday evening. The first full day was Wednesday. This year, because of ancient ways of keeping calendars, that day was not only Rosh Hashanah; it was also the beginning of the Islamic celebration of Ramadan. I have never known these two celebrations to coincide at the same time as long as I have been aware of these events. I wonder if the timing is just a coincidence of the calendar or if God wants to call our attention to the fact that these are holy days for two of the largest faith groups of the world. These are holy days for us, as well.

We had a little shower of rain on Tuesday. At seven o’clock Tuesday night, several members of the Logos Writers came into the room and asked, “Did you see the rainbow?” I did not see it, but what a symbol the rainbow is! It has been a symbol of hope, a symbol of God’s presence, since the days of Noah. We have not seen a rainbow in Spartanburg in a long time, but one appeared that day, 9-11.

Perhaps for me, the most significant event that happened that same day was our staff retreat at a beautiful home with striking flower gardens. Butterflies and dragonflies were dancing across the top of those flowers. Before we ended that retreat, we took communion together. There, the bread and the cup are outward symbols of the presence of God, symbols of inner grace.

Yesterday, we had several weddings. Two young couples exchanged vows and rings, symbols of their marriage. They gave those rings to each other, saying, “I give you this ring as a symbol of my love and with all that I am and all that I have, I honor you.” God is present. He is at work in our midst.

The Scripture I selected for today is Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Galatians 4:4-7.

But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a child, God has made you also an heir.

Galatians is perhaps Paul’s earliest letter. It may be, in fact, the earliest writing of the entire New Testament. It is hard to tell which book – Galatians or I Thessalonians – came first. It is certainly one of Paul’s earlier letters. Paul writes this letter because rival missionaries have come to Galatia and told new Christians that they have mistaken notions. These missionaries began teaching that in order to be a Christian, a person must first be Jewish and the men must be circumcised. Paul says, “No, that is not right. That is the old law. At one time, we lived under that law, but God has done something different now. He has sent His Son into the world to show us a different way. We no longer live by that old law. Now we live by grace. There is just one Son of God, but God is putting together an adoptive family. Every person who knows Jesus Christ is included in that family of adoption.” Paul says that when you become a part of that family, something happens deep within you. Your spirit cries out, “Abba, Father.” Abba, of course, is an Aramaic word. It is the first word of The Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven.”

Jaroslav Pelican says that he never understood the meaning of the word Abba, though he had studied it and heard about it, until one day he was debarking a plane in Cairo, Egypt, years ago. As he walked down the steps of the airplane and across the tarmac, he saw a little boy running from the terminal, out across the pavement with his arms outstretched. The child began calling out, “Abba! Abba! Abba!” The Arab man walking behind Jaroslav reached down and picked up this little boy. The son started rubbing his father’s face, saying, “Abba! Abba! Abba!” It is the word for Daddy.

When Jesus used the word Abba in the model prayer to his disciples, hardly anything could have surprised them any more. Abba is a term of endearment. The Apostle Paul says that when we receive Christ Jesus, we become a child of God. We have a close relationship to God. He is not distant and unapproachable. He is like our daddy. Paul is describing here in these few words a close, intimate relationship with God. We are part of God’s adopted family. The prayers of our hearts are like the prayers of a child. They are child-like in so many ways, but the number one characteristic of prayers of the heart is intimacy with God.

Jesus is our model. Think of the time he went to the temple in Jerusalem at twelve years old. Mary and Joseph, unable to find their son anywhere among family and friends, are frantic. He has been missing for three days. When they find him, he is in the temple, talking to the elders. Mary and Joseph scold him, “Didn’t you know we would be worried?” Jesus answers, “Didn’t you know that I would be about my Father’s business?” At twelve, he had such an intimate relationship with God that he could identify that he was doing the business of his Father. The most remarkable verse in that entire exchange is the next. Scripture says that Mary and Joseph did not understand. I bet they did not understand. You would not understand either if your twelve-year-old said something like that to you. Scripture says that he went home with them and obeyed them. Luke 2:52 provides the only reference in the Scriptures about his adolescence: “He grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and men.”

We next see Jesus as John the Baptist, his cousin, comes to the Jordan River to baptize him. John is a stem-winder who preaches of hellfire and damnation. He rebukes people in the wilderness, calling the sinners a “brood of vipers.” Jesus comes to him and says, “I want to be baptized.” John, who does not like that idea, says, “You should baptize me. I am not worthy to untie your sandals.” Jesus insists on John baptizing him. At his baptism, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice spoke from the heavens, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

A similar occurrence happens on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus’ relationship to God was different. He had an intimacy with God that was never before known. Moses knew God as a friend knows a friend. Other prophets knew God very closely, but Jesus establishes a new way of knowing God. When Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, the life: no one comes under the Father but by me,” he is saying that other people could know God in other ways (John 14:6). Certainly, they could know Him as Creator, but they could not know Him in this intimate way except through the Son. He teaches us to pray, “Abba.” He prays that way according to Mark’s Gospel, even in the Garden of Gethsemane. This intimacy is the mark of the prayers of the heart. The scholar Joachim Jeramias says that nowhere else in all of Jewish literature is God referred to as Abba. The first time is in the experience of Jesus in the New Testament. The first characteristic of prayers of the heart is that they must be intimate.

Prayers of the heart come from within. The ancient mystics used to talk about prayer as a development. They said that at first we pray with our lips, then with our mind, and finally with our heart. These prayers are not external. They certainly are not just words we learn and say by rote. These prayers are not just thoughts. They bubble up inside us, coming from deep within us. The work of the Holy Spirit prompts them. We see these prayers of the heart reflected in the psalmist’s words, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O God my strength and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Prayers of the heart allow us to open our heart, allow us to express in just a child-like way the deep desires of our relationship to God.

A third characteristic of prayers of the heart is thanksgiving. I started this sermon with thanksgiving. We have so much for which to be grateful: those baptized this morning, those ordained, and the burning of the note. When you have a thankful heart, your joy multiplies and the stress of life diminishes. Dr. Hans Selye, who conducted the definitive work in the stress reaction, states that the single greatest stress reducer is an attitude of thanksgiving, a sense of gratitude of all of life. When we are grateful people, everything else falls in perspective. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness and all other things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). When you seek the kingdom of God first, when you have an intimate relationship with God, you cultivate a spirit of gratitude.

A part of gratitude means that we have tears. These are not tears of pain; they are tears of overflowing joy, tears of gratitude for what God has done. Sometimes, these prayers of gratitude break forth into what we might call holy laughter. Something just strikes us as funny. As often as not, we break into laughter about things that we take most seriously. We see them with a new irony. Have you ever been praying and experienced laughter? It is a gift from God. It is a mark of these prayers of the heart.

A fourth characteristic of prayers of the heart is silence. When you have a close relationship to someone, you do not have to talk a lot. Have you ever held a baby on your shoulder and felt that fuzzy little head, rubbing against your cheek? I have held children like that, five in particular. I have even gone to sleep, holding a child so close that I could feel him or her breathing. I could feel the heartbeat. Have you ever held your marriage partner, the love of your life, so close that you could feel the heartbeat? That kind of intimacy does not require words. Some prayers are too deep for words. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:26 that we do not know how to pray as we ought but that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with prayers too deep for words. God knows the human heart because the Spirit intercedes for us.

I want to read the words of two hymns that came to mind when I thought about this prayer of silence.

There is a place of quiet rest

Near to the heart of God,

A place where sin cannot molest,

Near to the heart of God.

O Jesus, blest Redeemer,

Sent from the heart of God,

Hold us who wait before Thee

Near to the heart of God.

There is a place of comfort sweet

Near to the heart of God,

A place where we our Savior meet,

Near to the heart of God.

There is a place of full release

Near to the heart of God,

A place where all is joy and peace,

Near to the heart of God.


I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,

And it told Thy love to me;

But I long to rise in the arms of faith,

And be closer drawn to Thee.

Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, precious Lord,

To the Cross where Thou hast died;

Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord,

To Thy precious, bleeding side.

Sometimes when we come to this kind of intimacy with God, we fall asleep, just like a child held in our arms. I used to feel guilty about doing that, but not anymore. The fifth characteristic of prayers of the heart is that they are prayers of rest. Absolutely nothing will silence your soul like a prayer of rest.

A father was resting in his La-Z-Boy recliner. His son came into the room and asked for the keys to the car. The dad said, “Sure, son. Be careful.” He handed the boy the keys. His teenage daughter came in and asked for a ten-dollar bill. “Sure.” He reached into his wallet and handed her a ten-dollar bill. Finally, his little eight-year-old came into the room and crawled up on his lap. “What do you want, young lady?” the father asked. The little girl answered, “Daddy, I just want to be with you.”

I know you have heard that story, but prayers of the heart are similar. The throne of heaven is not so foreboding. It is like a La-Z-Boy recliner. A Father who loves you so much is waiting to take you to Himself and give you a place of quiet rest near to His heart.

Do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior? If you have never accepted him, we extend that invitation to you today. It may be that God has laid other decisions on your heart. If that is the case, we invite you to respond to Him as we stand together and sing a hymn of invitation, “Living for Jesus.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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