St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 2nd August 2015
Reading – Exodus 17:8-16
I want to begin this morning by showing you a graph. It’s quite a simple graph, really. Ignoring all the other information on the slide, it is a projection of national Church of England attendance over the next 45 years. Following the black line we can see that in 2007 attendance was about 1.2 million. By 2015 attendance had fallen to about 900,000. On current trends, by 2060 it will fall still further to about 150,000.
Take a moment to take these figures in. If nothing changes, in the next 45 years attendance of Church of England services will have declined by nearly 90% over the past 55 years. That’s a pretty bleak statistic, isn’t it?
So why is the Church of England apparently in such steep decline?
Well, as always in such situations we can point to a number of different factors. We can blame our culture for abandoning any claim to being a Christian nation, for rejecting so much of the Bible’s teaching on marriage and the family, or no longer keeping Sunday as a special day of rest. We can blame our schools for no longer teaching about Jesus and for promoting other religions above Christianity. We can even blame the church itself for appearing old-fashioned and irrelevant, and tearing itself apart over what can appear the most minor and insignificant details.
But this morning I want to suggest the simplest and most basic explanation of all – that we are in a spiritual battle. Now I realise that it is perhaps not very Anglican to talk about spiritual warfare, and it’s not a subject we tend to mention that much. But the blunt reality we have to face is, that wherever the good news is preached, the evil one will be at work.
So, for example, in our Wednesday Evening Bible Explored groups we have been looking at Jesus’ teaching and preaching in the synagogues of Galilee. And what happens almost every time He sits down to speak? Someone with an evil spirit seeks to disrupt the service, shouting out at the top of his voice, as they recognise who Jesus really is. Or again, when Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, a place where, according to Acts 19, a number of believers used to practise sorcery, he tells us:
… our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:12)
Whenever the people of God gather in the Lord’s name, they will encounter spiritual opposition. That’s also a message from comes out from our passage in Exodus this morning. Now I realise that when we read about all these battles in the Old Testament, it’s very easy to think these are describing the sort of disputes about land that have been raging in the Middle East for thousands of years. But actually the point and purpose of such battles is to determine who God is and how He is to be worshipped.
So take this particular encounter. On the one hand there are the Israelites. They believe in one true God who is too pure for any human eye to see, a God who calls them to live holy and distinctive lives, a God who nonetheless calls them to love Him and come to Him in prayer. And then, coming over the horizon, are the Amalekites. They believe in a number of different gods, whom they worship as idols. They have no concept of a personal deity and believe the only way to please these idols is to engage in things like fertility rituals and sacrifice, even of their own children. If the Israelites lose this battle, then, it’s not just their own reputation that’s at stake. It’s also the Lord’s reputation, and whether He is the great, mighty God He has told them that He is.
In a sense, then, the Amalekites represent the spiritual opposition that believers have faced ever since in every generation. Now for us in the West we do not experience direct physical assault because of our belief in the name of Jesus, but it is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting that this is the reality for so many of our brothers and sisters around the world this morning. While it’s easy to worry about the Church of England, we must not forget our fellow believers in places like Nigeria, Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, to name just a few examples, where to follow Christ may well mean to die for Christ.
But just because the spiritual opposition we face is not as blatantly obvious, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that somehow it is less real. For a start, there is direct spiritual opposition from those who hold beliefs which are contrary and in outright competition to our own. Perhaps it is not so surprising that St Michael’s, and by association, St Barnabas struggle when there is a psychic shop just over the road, and a spiritualist church just round the corner. There is also the spiritual opposition that works itself through the scourge of drink and drugs. Surely there must be something demonic about the way beautiful lives are broken and damaged by all the poisons that their bodies absorb.
Then there is the subtle, yet nonetheless deadly, spiritual opposition of apathy and indifference, when people hear the wonderful good news of Jesus Christ and yet remain completely and utterly unmoved. The hardness of the human heart is a terrible disease, and there is nothing worse than people who cannot and will not respond to the offer of eternal life in His name. And beyond all that, there is the spiritual opposition of materialism and looking after number one. Because, although we do not name them as such, we still worship many different idols today, whether it’s earning as much as money as possible, or following the latest fashion, or simply keeping in with the crowd.
Let me repeat – whenever the people of God gather in the Lord’s name, they will encounter spiritual opposition. So how then do we overcome these hostile forces?
Let’s go back to our reading from Exodus:
8 The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. 9 Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” 10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. (Exodus 17:8-10)
Now just imagine for a moment you are one of the Israelites marching out to face the Amalekites. You are frightened enough realising you are about to face battle for the very first time, and that from now on you will be facing one hostile tribe after another. But not only that, your two leaders Moses and Aaron are nowhere to be seen. You are going to be led out by some young fellow called Joshua, who hasn’t yet even been mentioned in the history of Israel. It hardly inspires confidence, does it?
And what exactly are Moses and Aaron doing anyway? Well, they’re going to be well out of the action. While you are fighting for your life in the valley, they will be on the hill far above. And what they will be doing? They’re going to be praying. Good for them, you think. There’s no chance of them getting hurt that way.
Actually what this passage teaches us is an important lesson in prayer that is reinforced throughout the rest of Scripture. So, for example, we have seen in our Wednesday Evening group just how often Jesus retreated from all the pressures and strains of His ministry to pray. Indeed Mark tells us in our gospel reading that as soon as Jesus had finished feeding the 5000, at the end of an exceptionally long and busy day he went up on a mountainside to pray (Mark 6:46). Or again, when Paul tells the Ephesians about the spiritual battle they are facing, He commands them:
17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
The trouble for us, today, in our constantly busy world is that we always believe there are many more important things to do other than pray. Let me tell plainly, there are not! If you read any of the stories of the revivals which have happened over the centuries and which are still happening around the world, prayer has been key to the growth of the church every single time.
So, for example, how did revival happen on the Isle of Lewis in 1949? Well, two elderly ladies in their 80s, one of them completely blind, begin to pray. It was said at that time that not a single young person in the parish went to church or attended public worship. These two ladies, Peggy and Christine Smith, made this a matter of urgent prayer. They prayed and they prayed. They went to the minister and urged him to pray with the leaders of the church. The accounts do not record quite what the minister made of their request, except that the minister and the elders too joined in prayer. And the Lord mightily heard their requests.
The American author, Colin Hansen, writes in his study of revivals in general:
Often, at least a handful of faith-filled believers engaged in heartfelt prayer for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in order to experience revival. Sometimes they prayed for years before they saw revival. Others were driven to pray as a last resort. They had tried and failed to do ministry in their own power. They realised the task before them was too huge or that their efforts using various means and methods had failed. They finally acknowledged they could not continue to serve without the Lord’s blessing and power.1
And maybe one ray of hope for the Church of England is that when we take seriously the statistics and realise how much we need the Lord to move in power, that finally we will get down on our knees and pray. After all, the Lord has revived the church before. In the 18th century before the Wesleys came along, the church was even deader than it is today. And just look what happened! Maybe, just maybe, the Lord is testing us in our present age to see if we will once again pray.
However, just as you can’t fight a battle on your own, so you can’t defeat the spiritual opposition on your own. Look again at our reading and see the role that Aaron and Hur played as Moses prayed over the battlefield:
11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
Aaron and Hur were vital in supporting and quite literally upholding Moses as he prayed. That sounds an obvious point, but how often do we actually pray with the help and support of others? Too often I suspect we practice a kind of lone ranger Christianity, where we only ever pray on our own and where we face the spiritual dangers of each day alone and isolated. That may be all very well in the short term, but we all get tired and weary from time to time. How much better to get into the habit of praying with a friend or family member, so that when times of testing come, you are already used to sharing your burdens with them!
That is one reason, as I have said so many times before, and will continue to say again, small groups are so vital to the health of any church. The Methodist movement brought revival in the 18th century because of their method of meeting together in small groups to pray for one another and to read Scripture together. The great missionary movements of the 19th and 20th century was supported by small groups of people who met regularly to pray for those going into situations of often considerable danger. Prayer, you see, is the means by which we bear one another’s burdens, share one another’s hopes and fears and express our real care one for another. That is why the church that prays together is the one that stays together. It is our prayer for one another which in the end turns all our talk about the love of Christ into hard, practical reality.
As Paul writes in Romans 12:9-12:
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Our prayer and our love for each other are inextricably linked. So who then is called to pray? We’ve mentioned so far Jesus, Paul, Moses, and I know that many people think that somehow because they are not leaders they are not qualified to pray. They don’t know enough, they don’t know what to say, maybe they’re even a bit embarrassed about praying with other people. But then again, who were the people Jesus first taught to pray? Fishermen, a tax collector, a former terrorist. Jesus, you see, never divided His followers into first-class and second-class believers, the ones who have a special gift of prayer and those who do not.
Indeed when the Lord grows His church, He often uses the prayers of the humblest and the most unexpected people. He isn’t waiting to see that the words we use are polished or fluent. He is simply asking us to come as we are, with a willing heart – no matter whether we use many words or few, or indeed whether we use words at all. If you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour, then you can pray. Maybe you need some wisdom and some guidance from an older Christian, maybe you need the safe environment of a small group to learn how to pray, but you can pray. Indeed because the spiritual battle is so fierce and so urgent, no-one can afford to leave the business of prayer to other people.
That’s why over the next couple of months I want to call a special season of prayer at St Michael’s and St Barnabas. Every Wednesday there will be evening prayer at St Michael’s at 4pm, and the Bible Explored group at the vicarage at 7.30pm. On August 10th we will be uniting with our friends from other local churches at 22 Granby Street to pray.
And then, on 25-27 September churches of all denominations will be marking the National Prayer Weekend. The idea behind the weekend is very simple. In the weeks leading up to the weekend we will be going out into the community, asking our families, our friends, our neighbours, if they have any particular requests for prayer. We will gather these requests and pray for them during that weekend. We will be producing special prayer cards for people to fill in, and I have these little booklets about prayer from J.John for every church member to read and then to pass on.
So will you be involved? Yes, the statistics are right. If nothing changes, the future does look bleak for the church. But we believe in a God who has won us the victory through Jesus Christ and who promises us that through prayer we will overcome. So will you pray? With others, for others, so that His kingdom comes in this place?
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:10-18)
1 pp.182-183: A God-Sized Vision, Zondervan 2010.