There’s a line of teaching out there, and it’s been around for centuries, which says that prayer isn’t really about changing things on earth. Because God is sovereign and in control of everything, regardless of whether we pray or not, prayer is really about changing us and changing our hearts and helping us think and see things the way that God sees them.
Well prayer most certainly does that. But is that all that prayer does? Does prayer actually change things? That’s the question that we’re going to be exploring today. Does prayer change things? Does prayer actually move the heart of God and cause God to act? Any discussion about changing the world will have to include a discussion about prayer and specifically that question.
In the context of your involvement in a Church family we’re going to be asking what role does prayer have in the future of the Church. Is the future of your local Church already set in stone or will prayer play a powerful role in what God is going to do through the local Church? To answer such questions, we will be looking at the story of Moses from the Old Testament.
Moses lived during a time where the Hebrews, the people of God, were being oppressed. They had been enslaved in Egypt. So God appears to Moses one day and says He wants Moses to go to Pharaoh, and demand the release of God’s people – to demand freedom for the Hebrew slaves.
So Moses goes and God powerfully works through him to secure freedom for the Hebrew people. In that mighty event we now call the Exodus, Moses leads God’s people from captivity into freedom and off they head towards the Promised Land – the destination God had prepared for them.
Now this could have been a two week journey, but the people did not really get with the program at all and so they ended up wandering in the wilderness for many years – still heading to the Promised Land – but it was going to take a lot longer. At the point we pick up the story in Exodus today, God has summoned Moses to meet with Him on Mount Sinai. So Moses goes up to the top of Mount Sinai and meets with God. This is where God gives Moses the ten commandments.
This was not a quick chat by any means. Moses is up there for a long time – 40 days in fact. It’s taking much longer than the people down below ever expected. So they start wondering what’s up with Moses. He’s been gone over a month. Is he ever coming back? What are we supposed to do? That’s where we pick up the story:
Exodus 32:1 “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
Picture this if you can. It has only been a couple of months since God used Moses to miraculously free His people from decades and generations of slavery in Egypt. Years of oppression are over because this man Moses responded to the call of God and confronted Pharaoh and demanded the release of God’s people. Now here those very people are complaining about Moses being gone too long.
This is the man they trusted to lead them out of Egypt and into freedom and after just 40 days waiting for Moses to return they already feel like God has given up on them. They already feel like God has forgotten them. So they decide to make their own God!
Exodus 32:2-6 “Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt. When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”
So basically they take off all their bling, all their jewellery, they give it to Aaron who is like Moses’ right hand man and he melts all the gold down. They then create this golden cow statue and foolishly begin worshipping this made-made idol. They declare this cow to be their new god, this statue is the god that led them out of Egypt. After all that God had done, after all that Moses had done, these people turn their back on both of them and create their own God – just because they didn’t have the patience or faith to wait for Moses to return. Well back up on the mountain where God and Moses are meeting, our God Who sees all and knows all is very aware of the antics of the people down below. So He breaks the bad news to Moses:
Exodus 32:7-8 “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’”
I really love verse 7. God says, “Quick Moses, get down there because your people have corrupted themselves.” I can just imagine Moses gulping and saying, “Excuse me, God, my people? You say these are my people? God, these are Your people! Remember a few months ago at the burning bush, You appeared to me and said, ‘Hey, Moses, I want you to go and set my people free.’ These are your people.” But here’s God telling Moses, “Get down there now, your people are going crazy!” Then God gets really serious:
Exodus 32:9-10 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
God tells Moses these people are so rebellious, they are so filled with evil and idolatry that He can’t bear them anymore. He must judge their sin. God says He is going to destroy them and start from scratch with Moses. Now this is pretty heavy stuff. But look at how Moses responds to God.
Exodus 32:11-13 “But Moses sought the favour of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’”
So Moses begins to plead for the people of Israel, in spite of the fact that God has already decreed that He will destroy them for their sin. Moses pleads with God to change His mind and not destroy His people. Moses says, “Think of how this will look to the Egyptians, they’ll say you just brought them out here to kill them.” He reminds God of the promise He made to their ancestors – to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He begs God to not destroy them. He actually asks the sovereign God of the universe to relent – to change His mind and spare His rebellious people. And then the most amazing thing happens:
Exodus 32:14 “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”
God changed His mind in response to the pleas of His servant Moses. I want you to embrace the magnitude of this. God changed His mind in direct response to the pleading of Moses. Now before we get too excited here, there’s a verse from Numbers we need to also read.
Numbers 23:19 “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind.”
Who wrote the book of Numbers? Moses did. The same guy who pleaded with God and God changed His mind also wrote this verse which says God does not change His mind. Are you confused yet? Which is it? One verse literally says God changed his mind because of the pleas of Moses. The next verse literally says, God does not change his mind. So what do we do with this? Well a lot of people look at something like this and just declare they cannot trust the Bible – it’s full of contradictions.
However when we really dig in and look more closely, this is not a contradiction, but it does present a tension. This is an example of two truths being held together in tension. And we need to get comfortable with these kinds of tensions because the reality is, the Bible contains many. For instance, the Bible is crystal clear that God is absolutely sovereign over everything. But the Bible is also clear that as human beings, we have freedom, free will and choice. Those are not contradictions. Those are truths that are held in tension.
Another example would be the fact that during His time on earth, Jesus was absolutely 100%, fully human. But at the same time, the Bible tells us that Jesus was absolutely 100%, fully divine. It’s not a contradiction, it’s a tension where two important truths that are held together. The same is true when it comes prayer.
So what do we do with this tension where one verse of Scripture says that God changed His mind because of the prayer of Moses and another verse says God doesn’t change His mind? How can those two verses hold together? There’s a couple truths that I think may help us hold these two things together. The first truth that we need to understand is that God’s cosmic plan cannot change. God’s cosmic, eternal, sovereign plan cannot, does not and will not change. The Bible is essentially the story of God’s cosmic plan – the story of God’s plan for humanity and He had this plan long before we showed up.
The Bible tells us in Ephesians that before the foundation of the world; before the world was even created, God chose us and He loved us. His plan was to make us holy and perfect in His sight and He had this plan before the foundation of the world – a plan that would ultimately be fulfilled through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That plan was fulfilled right before the eyes of those early disciples and we read all about that in the New Testament. God’s cosmic, sovereign, eternal plan will come to pass – there’s nothing any of us can do to change that. That’s the first thing we need to understand.
The second thing we need to understand is that the process by which God brings about His plan can change. God’s sovereign, eternal plan will not change. However, the process by which God brings about that plan can change. While the outcome is set in stone, it seems at least from Scripture, that human agency and human choice and human freedom can affect the process by which God brings about His perfect plan. That’s what we see happening in this story with Moses.
God was not threatening to alter His cosmic plan. He was never once threatening and saying, “Okay, fine. I’m going back on my plan to send Jesus Christ for the redemption of all mankind.” He never said that. Instead, He just said He was going to change the process by which that plan is accomplished. He said, instead of going through all these Israelites He will instead get rid of them and fulfil His plan through Moses. God’s cosmic, sovereign, eternal plan would not have changed – merely the way He achieved that plan. Then Moses pleaded with God and He changed His mind. He relented.
So what does this mean for us today? It means that we need to believe that God literally uses our prayers to change the world. This partnership which God has established with us in Christ is something He takes very seriously. So seriously, that God can use our prayers to change the world. Our prayers make a very real, tangible difference in the process by which God goes about fulfilling His ultimate plan and purposes in the world.
When we look around us today there is so much happening which can cause us to lose hope and get trapped in a cycle of despair. On the world front we have wars and terrorism and global economic doom and gloom. In our own nation we are seeing a rapid departure from our Christian roots and the emergence of a pluralistic and increasingly anti-Christian culture. The foundational truths which have undergirded the Church for centuries are being discredited and, heaven forbid, even outlawed across our nation. We glance across the Church and see more and more liberal teaching which appeals to many itching ears and yet robs the world of the life-changing power of the gospel which can only ever be found in Christ and Christ alone. But then onto that rather dark and depressing canvas comes the hand of God once again writing the age-old promise of God:
2 Chronicles 7:14 “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
God has not withdrawn that promise and those words have rung out across history and into our world today. God will heal our land. God will address all the problems we see across our world and drive out all the evil which appears to be expanding unhindered and unchallenged. Furthermore, God has planned to do that in partnership with His praying, believing people. This is why prayer is as vital to the life of the Church as oxygen is vital to the life of a human being.
God will change the world through us, His people, as we draw near to Him in prayer and never stop crying out for His empowering presence to flow into us and through us so we may truly be salt in light in a needy world.