On Tuesday, we’ll celebrate another new year, but what will the year 2013 bring? For my daughter Lynn, it brings her 38th birthday. I’m not sure she is very much excited about that. Still, I remember her birth on the first of January 1975. There in Lindenwold Hospital, I proudly held that tiny baby girl close to my chest. Gosh, it seems like it was just yesterday. But the world feels so very different today on the cusp of another new year. The year 2012 surprised many of us, marred by horrific weather events, senseless crimes, bitter politics, a sluggish economy, and a boiling caldron of conflict throughout the Middle East. So, what is the year 2013 going to bring us?
I’m not a pessimist, despite all the talk about the “fiscal cliff.” I happen to think there are likely to be some good and wonderful things in the year 2013, should our Lord tarry His coming. And we’ll celebrate the kindness of our Lord in sending them our way. Maybe it will be another baby or grandchild. Maybe it will be a reconciliation and a life transformed by the power of Christ. Perhaps it will be a healing, as God restores a son or daughter, husband or wife to good health. Yes, we might even experience a spiritual awakening here in New England, a genuine revival. But, the Bible is clear. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation.” But then He added, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
How do we go about facing a new year without living in dread of the misfortunes that are most certainly going to be a part of it? How do we live so as to be encouraged by the one who said, “I have overcome the world?” May I suggest that for the believer in Jesus Christ, it is wrapped up in three words, words found in the Old Testament and the New, words employed by Nehemiah of old, by our Lord on at least two occasions, by the apostle Paul at least twice, and by the apostle Peter. “Watch and pray!” That simple phrase in just three words sums up the very key to living in triumph over anything we might possibly encounter in the next year. Let’s talk about it.
The phrase “Watch and pray” occurs with minor variation at least six times in the New Testament, and once in the Old Testament. So it behooves us to understand what is meant by the word “watch” and the word “pray.” The word watch, which is sometimes translated, “be alert” translates two Greek synonyms, both meaning to “stand watch” or “be vigilant in watching.” It might describe the kind of vigilance of a soldier or military officer on the lookout for the enemy at night, or a prison guard keeping an attentive eye on the prisoners in his care. The Hebrew term used in Nehemiah 4:9 has essentially the same meaning. But the watch to which the Bible calls us, is not simply a charge to look out for things, a call to simple alertness or awareness of our surroundings, but it is a charge to look out for certain things, clearly viewing them the way God sees them, in other words through the lens of God’s Word. It is not a vigilance merely of the physical eyes or senses to which we are called but a vigilance to the eyes of the soul, the eyes of our hearts and minds. We may take in information through the eye gate to be sure, but the eyes of the heart and mind must interpret the significance of what we observe through the lens of God’s wisdom as revealed in His Word. That is why the apostles of the early church said that, “We will give our attention [meaning their unceasing diligence] to prayer and the ministry of the Word [Acts 4:6].”
When I was in the sixth grade, I was having trouble in school. One of my problems was that I couldn’t read what was being written on the blackboard. As a result, the work I turned in was deemed unacceptable, and my grades suffered for it. It would be another year before my eyes were properly examined and evaluated for glasses. Once I had proper lenses, I could correctly interpret and see what was written on the black board. God’s Word serves the same function for us spiritually. There are things that God wants us to be alert for, things He wants us to see, but we won’t see them clearly absent the lens of His Word.
The second word we must reckon with is the word for prayer. In the New Testament, two synonyms are used in the phrase “watch and pray.” One word is the general word for prayer, that is for kneeling before God and addressing Him with our concerns. The other word, used twice, is much more specific. It is a word that suggests coming right to the point. It is not asking for food, but for bread. It is not asking for God’s provision, it is asking for a specific amount of money for a bill that must be paid. It is not asking God for health, but pleading with him for healing from a specific ailment.
In a sermon entitled, “The Two Guards: Praying and Watching” first delivered at a Thursday evening prayer meeting on the 24th of July, 1890, the famous preacher, Charles H. Spurgeon captured the force of the kind of prayer which is to accompany our watching. He said,
“Sometimes when we pray, I am afraid that we are not transacting business at the throne of grace; …Some brethren get up in our prayer-meetings, and say some very good things; but what they really ask for, I am sure I do not know. I have heard prayers of which I have said, when they were over, “Well, if God answers that prayer, I have not the least idea of what he will give us.”
…When I pray, I like to go to God just as I go to a banker when I have a cheque to be cashed. I walk in, put the cheque down on the counter, the clerk give me my money, I take it up, and go about my business. I do not know that I ever stopped in a bank five minutes to talk with the clerks; when I have received up my change, I go away and attend to other matters. That is how I like to pray;…”
” …There is a way of praying that seems like lounging near the mercy-seat, as though one had no particular reason for being found there. Let it not be so with you, brethren. Plead the promise, believe it, receive the blessing God is ready to give, and go about your business.”
To be sure, the kind of prayer to which Jesus and the Bible calls us is not just about making requests as if God were a blessing machine. But prayer certainly is about requests, and if there is something we need, something about which God has said we must pray, then we must be specific and to the point with God about it. This is especially true of the kind of prayer that is to be coupled with watching, the kind of prayer the Bible prescribes to aid and assist us in facing all of life’s uncertainties, to say nothing of those in the New Year ahead of us.
Now, I want you to notice how this little phrase, “watch and pray,” specifically addresses four challenges we may face in the New Year, or in any given day of the year. First, there is the challenge of the times in which we live.
I. Watch and Pray Concerning the Times in Which We Live. Luke 21:36
“Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able [lit. “may have strength”] to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:36
In the twenty-first chapter of Luke, Jesus is looking into the future beyond the cross and the resurrection. He speaks of world conditions that will signal the approach of His second coming as the Son of Man, to judge the nations of the world and to establish His rule over the earth. He speaks of wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, fearful sights and great signs from heaven.
While sincere Christians disagree about the order of the events to come, there is no disagreement that Christ is calling the church in every generation to readiness for His appearing, which will come suddenly and unexpectedly. Every generation of believers should live in this world as if Christ could return today, because Christ could return today, and one day it will be today! He wants us watching for the signs and indicators of His approaching. And, friends, we are two thousand years closer to the return of the Lord than the apostles who expected His return in their day. Unlike the Mayans who predicted that the world would end on December 21st, 2012 but didn’t, the prediction of Christ’s return is absolutely sure, though we do not know the day or the hour, but we are to watch and pray because it could be today, and one day it will be today!
So, we take careful note of the conflicts in the world, the apparent increase in earthquake activity, the famines in Africa, the threat of new and deadly strains of disease that are resistant to antibiotics, and on and on and on. And, even as we pray for those who suffer, we plead to our Lord to complete His bride the church, to bring to Himself all who would be saved, and to come quickly, and bring an end to the chaos of our planet. Then we ask God how to live in these end times in anticipation of His coming, so that we might make the best use of our time and resources for His glory and for the benefit of those our Lord seeks to save.
Are you actively watching and praying in anticipation of Christ’s imminent return? Are you asking God for wisdom in maximizing your usefulness for His Kingdom in anticipation of that day. We are not called to set dates, but we are called to readiness. Watch and pray! He may return for us this New Year! Second, there is the challenge of the trials we must endure.
- II. Watch and Pray Concerning the Trials We Must Endure. Nehemiah 4:9
“Nevertheless we made our prayer to our God, and because of them we set a watch against them day and night.” Nehemiah 4:9 NKJV
In the year 538 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia released the Jews from captivity and sanctioned their return to Jerusalem. With the blessing of Cyrus, over the course of the next hundred years or so, the Israelites set about to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. First, the temple was reconstructed under Zerubbabel, and later the walls of the city were rebuilt by Nehemiah.
In chapter four of Nehemiah, we discover that the progress of rebuilding the wall was not a simple one, because it was relentlessly resisted by two powerful political figures among the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, namely Sanballet the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite. These men resorted to a variety of tactics to stop the work. Initially, it began with ridicule, but soon they resorted to military force and planned to attack the Jews before they could close the gaps in the city walls. Nehemiah’s strategy to thwart the enemy was simple, he called the people to keep watch day and night, and to pray. They were not to hide or stop their work. They were to continue in the task God called them to do, but while they worked and while they rested, they were to watch and pray. One eye was to look toward the danger lurking around them, and the other eye was to a greater power, that of Yahweh, Jehovah God Himself, maker of heaven and earth. This vigilance kept them dependent on the One and only one sufficient to thwart the enemy.
In the world today, there are many who would silence our witness and work for Jesus Christ. We expect that from atheists, but sadly, sometimes the opposition comes from those who call themselves Christians, even clergy. Some resort to ridicule, but in many places in our world today, some resort to force, to imprisonment and torture and worse. Even in America, our freedom to express our faith in public venues is quickly eroding. We’re told that religion is a private matter and that evangelism, which is what we are called to do, is rude and invasive. How do we remain faithful to the task to which God has called us? Watch and pray!
We must keep watch on what is happening and appeal to God for openings and opportunities, and for Him to handle the opposition. Our weapons are not carnal, but mighty through God for the pulling down of strongholds [2 Corinthians 10:4]. But absent watching and praying, we will be silenced. To prevail we must watch and pray.
To the challenge of times and trials, we add a third, the challenge of temptation.
III. Watch and Pray Concerning the Temptations We Must Flee. Matthew 26:41
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Matthew 26:41
You recall the scene don’t you? Jesus and His disciples are in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus is going to pray in preparation for His death on the cross. He prays, but His disciples sleep when they should be praying. He awakens them from their slumber not once, not twice, but according to Matthew, three times!
Haddon Robinson one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English speaking world comments on that very scene:
“Where was it that Jesus sweat great drops of blood? Not in Pilate’s Hall, nor on his way to Golgotha. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he ‘offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save him from death’ (Heb 5:7). Had I been there and witnessed that struggle, I would have worried about the future. ‘If he is so broken up when all he is doing is praying,’ I might have said, ‘what will he do when he faces a real crisis?’ Why can’t he approach this ordeal with the calm confidence of his three sleeping friends?’ Yet, when the test came, Jesus walked to the cross with courage, and his three friends fell apart and fell away.”
There was a misplaced calm that overtook the disciples and caused them to slumber when they should have been watching and praying. Peter had said,
“Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” Yes, and confident courageous Peter lopped of the right ear of a soldier in the Garden with a sword. But where is Peter when Jesus is being interrogated at the house of the high priest? He succumbs to fear and is tempted to lie. He denies his Lord three times! Jesus who vigilantly watched and prayed in the Garden endured the cross, scorning its shame, and conquering death, sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus commands us to watch and pray so that we might not fall into temptation because of the weakness of the flesh.
Early in His ministry, Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation [Luke 11:4b].” Four times the New Testament commands us to pray so as not to fall into temptation. The apostle Paul tells us that God has made a provision for us to keep us from succumbing to temptation,
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
To avail ourselves of that promise, we must claim it by prayer. And if we seriously seek to be delivered from temptation no matter how hard it pulls, God will grant us the escape.
The apostle John tells us that there are three kinds of temptation we face in this world, “the cravings of sinful man [or the lusts of the flesh], the lust of the eyes [things we covet], and the boasting of what he says and does [in other words pride] [1 John 2:16].”
Some of you may have seen the news clip over Christmas about the UPS deliveryman who was caught on camera, delivering an item to a home. He notices a small parcel at the door left previously by FedEx. It apparently contained a new iPad. Initially he does the right thing by leaving his parcel at the door and walking away. But then moments later, he succumbs to temptation and returns to snatch up the FedEx box with the iPad. He thought no one saw him, but it was all caught on camera.
Temptation is like that isn’t it. We know we shouldn’t give in to something whether out of fear, anger, pride, arrogance, greed or just plain lust. We might even walk away initially, but if no one is looking, we want to give in to it. The only way of escape is to appeal to God in prayer who has promised to help us, and mean it. We need to be watchful and alert to avoid situations, places and circumstances where we know we are likely to give in. But that is not always possible, and that is precisely when we need to pray specifically for deliverance. The Scripture tells us, “Because [Christ] himself suffered when He was tempted, He [that is Christ] is able to help those who are being tempted. [Hebrews 2:18].”
By the way, mark this down. It is impossible to pray for God’s help in temptation and mean it, and to succumb to it at the same time. We must watch and pray when challenged by unforeseen temptation.
There is one other challenge about which we must speak. And, it comes not from the times, or trials we face, or even temptation necessarily, but from the Temptor himself, even our enemy the devil, Satan, the Prince of the Power of the Air as Scripture identifies him.
IV. Watch and Pray Concerning the Temptor We Must Resist. Ephesians 6:18
“Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.” Ephesians 6:18 NKJV
Most of you are familiar with Ephesians chapter 6, especially verses 10 through 18. It is the passage that reminds us that as believers we are soldiers of Christ involved in a high and holy battle against rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Yes, we are at war with the devil himself, the evil one. We live in a day when people who acknowledge his existence might be accused of having a medieval world view. I do believe that mental illness may play a role in some of the tragedies we’ve witnessed over the past year in Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. But I do not believe that it is a sufficient explanation for those tragedies. Perhaps if certain weapons were not as accessible to the perpetrators involved, fewer lives would have been lost. But I am convinced that a greater evil was at work than what the behavioral experts and politicians would like us to think. I am convinced that Satan works today primarily by exploiting the weaknesses and the sinfulness of people in order to accomplish as much damage and destruction to the human race as possible, because we are all created in the image of God. And, he is especially at war with the church, the body of Christ, because it represents, and very much is, the vehicle of Christ’s presence in the world today. When our weaknesses and sins are exploited, the testimony of the church is weakened, and churches tend to divide and split. When we unite in vigilant prayer not only against the evil one, but with an eye toward our need to manifest the character of Christ, not only is Satan defeated, but our churches become a magnet drawing multitudes to Christ.
Ephesians 6 lays out the manner in which we should as stand as one with Christ and successfully withstand the assaults of the wicked one. Notice, it is not by burning witches in Massachusetts and Connecticut as some of the Puritans did 300 or so years ago. No, Satan is defeated as the church of Christ takes on the character of Christ. It is as we both individually and corporately become transformed into the likeness of our Savior. But, to put on the full armor of God, to stand firm with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, our feet shod with the readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace, to take up the shield of faith, to place the helmet of salvation on our heads, and to wield the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, Paul tells us we must watch and pray, and we must do this as good soldiers of Christ at all times.
To the challenges of the New Year, the challenge of our times, the trials we must face, the temptations we must flee, and the Temptor we must resist, the Bible resoundingly exhorts you and me, “Watch and pray!”
The year was 1885, and the blind hymn writer, Fanny J. Crosby, the most prolific hymn writer of her day, and frequent visitor at the Pine Grove Campground in nearby Falls Village, wrote these words with which I’ll close, entitled “Watch and Pray.”
Watch and pray that when the Master cometh,
If at morning, noon or night,
He may find a lamp in every window,
Trimmed and burning clear and bright.
Watch and pray, the Lord commandeth;
Watch and pray, ’twill not be long:
Soon He’ll gather home His loved ones,
To the happy vale of song.
Watch and pray; the tempter may be near us;
Keep the heart with jealous care,
Lest the door, a moment left unguarded,
Evil thoughts may enter there.
Watch and pray, nor let us ever weary;
Jesus watched and prayed alone:
Prayed for us when only stars beheld Him,
While on Olive’s brow they shone.
Watch and pray, nor leave our post of duty,
Till we hear the Bridegroom’s voice:
Then, with Him the marriage feast partaking,
We shall evermore rejoice.