Just imagine you are watching a great Western movie. The hero is of course played by Clint Eastwood, as should always be the case in all good cowboy movies. AND it's coming towards the end of the film and we are about to get the climax as Clint has run the main baddie to ground and is on his way to confront him in the inevitable six-shooter showdown!
BUT just before he sets off on his long journey he comes across a remote chapel. He finds there a priest - Who looks after him and make sure his horse has some water and hey, and those sorts of things. AND just before Clint is about to head off the priest turns to him and begs him to let him come with him, saying "Let me come with you. Please let me come with you. I want to help." AND in response, Clint just narrows his eyes and fixes the priest with one of those steely gazes of his, and growls: "No Padre - you stay here and you just pray."And so as the camera pans back Clint gets on his horse and starts to head off into the wild, wild, west. And the priest falls to his knees and begins to pray.
And my question for you this evening is: Which of those two characters do you want the camera to follow?
Because I'm guessing that for virtually all of us it would be Clint. We want the camera to follow him, because that's where the real action is. The other guy, well… he's just praying. And I suspect that all that is wrong with our view of prayer is summed up in that one work - just. "You just pray." Well if we're ever tempted to think of prayer in that kind of demeaning way then it's great that we can look at a passage like Daniel 9.
If you've been coming here to HTG regularly on Sunday evenings then you'll know that I'm stepping into a series you've been doing in the book of Daniel. And we're in a section of the book where Daniel is receiving a string of extra-ordinary visions. Visions that concern empires falling and rising – And yet in Daniel chapter 9 we see… a man falling to his knees and praying. And those 2 things are connected. God's plans for his world and the prayers even of 1 solitary individual. AND as Daniel prays he shows us what should be the marks of true prayer. And we're going to look at 3 of them – AND as we do so we need to ask ourselves how they line up with our own praying.
(1.) The Inspiration is God's Word
As at the beginning of this chapter Daniel is reading his Bible. He tells us that in verses 1 & 2:
In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom – in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
So cataclysmic events are happening in the life of the nation. Overnight a coup d'etat has taken place as Belshazzar, the King of Babylonians is slain and Darius the Mede comes to power. In just 1 night everything changes. Can you imagine in Britain if this were to happen. What it would be like if we were conquered and the Queen and the royal family, the Prime minister and the cabinet are captured, rounded up and slaughtered? There would be such upheaval, such uncertainty.
Daniel was probably in his 80s by this point of his life – which is not a great time to endure massive change! He's been in exile in Babylon since he was a lad – All the time testifying to the Lord his God – The God of Israel. AND as he sees this seismic shift in power happening around him, with one empire ending in a single night – what does he do? He reaches for his Bible. He reaches for the Bible.
If this were me I would be switching on Radio 5LIve or News 24 to get a handle on what was going on! BUT Daniel says: "No, no, no, I must turn to the Lord of all heaven and earth. What is going on? What is reality here? Let God's word guide me." Now that Daniel is reading his Bible is significant. We've seen that Daniel is someone who is privileged to receive extraordinary visions that give him enormous insights into what God is doing – AND yet he is still attentive to scripture. He still reads his Bible.
For Daniel, this is still the normal way that he expects God to speak to him – And speak to him God does. Because as he's reading Jeremiah the prophet he learns that the desolation of Jerusalem will last for 70 years. Jeremiah 25 the Lord Almighty says:
This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.
And I'm sure he must have read on in Jeremiah 29:
When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
AND you can imagine Daniel as he sees that promise – you can imagine him doing the maths… "Well it's been well over 60 years! The Babylonians have already been invaded by the Persians… So the end must be soon!" AND notice what that realization makes Daniel do in verse 3 – knowing this, Daniel is stirred to pray. He doesn't just see that promise and think "This is sweet, so I can just sit back and count down the days until God does his thing." No! Daniel knows 2 wonderful things about God: He knows that God is sovereign - God is in control of everything. AND… He knows that God chooses to work in response to his people's prayers. As he reads the scriptures – he's like a man with a cheque from heaven. A cheque promising restoration. Promising it soon for the people of God. AND Daniel wants to knuckle down and pray for this to happen! You see what Daniel does is he says: "I want to cash the cheque. God has promised it, but I want to claim it." As he sees prayer – I wonder if you do you do this? He sees prayer as an unbelievable opportunity to collaborate with God's purposes. And this is a vital lesson as the cause of God acting in history is not simply his promise. It's also the praying of his people.
So you come to Scripture to find out what the Sovereign Lord has promised as Daniel did – Jeremiah 25, Jeremiah 29. And then you pray for that to happen. So for example: Has God promised that the gospel will go out and extend to the ends of the earth? Well yes he has – Acts 1! So come to the monthly prayer meetings and pray for that! Has God promised that when his word goes it will not return to him empty? Well yes he has – Isaiah 55. So let's pray for that to happen at the women's fellowship event coming up on 3rd April, a 'Village Fete' morning. So Scripture grabs Daniel's mind and the urge to pray is born. God has promised something so Daniel prays. For Daniel knows that prayer changes things.
So let me ask you – if you prayer life has become dull, flat and languid, then how is your Bible study going? I would venture to say that the 2 are inseparably linked. AND it may well be that the reason we are not better prayers, is because we're not better Bible readers. If we do not know the mind of God we will struggle to pray to God.
(2.) The Appeal is to God's Mercy
I love that scene from the film Notting Hill where the character Bernie meets the hugely famous Hollywood actress Anna Scott, played by Julia Roberts. AND he clearly doesn't have a clue who he's talking to. AND as he asks here what she does, the conversation goes like this: Anna: "I'm an actress." Bernie: "I've always imagined that's a pretty tough job, acting. I mean the wages are a scandal aren't they?" Anna: "They can be." Bernie: "I see friends from university. They've been in the business longer than you. They're scrapping by on £7-8,000 a year. It's no lie. What sort of acting do you do?" Anna: "Films mainly." Bernie: "Oh splendid. Well done. How's the pay like in movies? I mean, the last film you did, what did you get paid? Anna Scott: "15 million dollars." Bernie: "Right, so that's fairly good." Well, here in Daniel 9, Daniel is in absolutely no doubt as to whom he's praying to - He prays to a righteous God. As he says in his prayer that he knows that God was right to do what he did in sending his people into exile. God had always said repeatedly that if the people disobeyed him – he would remove them from the land. So through the pray Daniel goes back and forth between God's faithfulness and His people's sinfulness. Did you see that? Verse 4, Daniel prays:
O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong.
Verse 7: "
Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame…
The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him…
All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.
The LORD did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the LORD our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.
And notice in all of that, as Daniel reflects on the sinfulness of God's people he… includes himself. Nowhere in this prayer does Daniel say: "'They' were sinful Lord." No, he says verse 5:
…we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.
Now that's very striking isn't it? Because from what we know of Daniel's life - he was pretty obedient. He often followed God's ways even at a huge cost to himself, but he sees himself as being part of the people. And he includes himself in their sins. He doesn't just point the finger back at earlier generations – OR even point the finger at those in his own generation. He knows that even if he hasn't sinned at every point that they have - He is never-the-less part of them. AND he therefore identifies himself with them in prayer.
AND I think there's a lesson in that for us. I guess that many of you, like myself are deeply concerned about the direction our country is moving in. it seems to be drifting further and further away from its Christian heritage. Further and further away from God. And therefore further and further away from His standards and our duty of care for each other. Which is inevitable really – For if we move away from God we always end up moving away from each other. AND it's right to be concerned - even distressed about that. It's right to lament that. And it's right to pray. BUT I wonder if in our concern and our prayers for our country we are too quick to distance ourselves from the sins of those around us. And so we find that we are always praying about "them" and "their sin" and not enough about our own.
Consciously or not it's very easy to exclude ourselves from the problem. And I wonder if one of the reasons we're not seeing prayers for our nation answered in the way we would love, is because we are too slow, reluctant or blind to confess our own sins. Daniel is of no doubt that he is a sinner. So in his prayer he humbly prays for mercy. He comes to God asking for his grace.
He doesn't pray on the basis of his own good behaviour. He doesn't say: "Lord, hear my prayer because even though everyone else has been pretty hopeless - I've been pretty good. Like when I first arrived in Babylon I didn't go along with everything and I drew a line - OR when I was faithful praying to you even though I ended up in a Lion's Den - You can read about that in Daniel chapters 1 and 6, Lord. You have read that Lord? Haven't you?!" No, he simply prays for mercy.
Friends - that is the basis of all true prayer. It is not about our goodness, but about God's mercy. We do not come before God at the end of a day and think: "Lord I've brilliant today. You're going to really love to hear my prayers and grant my requests." No even if the Lord has helped us to walk with him - like Daniel we pray verse 18:
We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.
(3.) The Concern is for God's Glory
Daniel is concerned for his people. He longs for the exile to come to an end. He's conscious of the long decades they have suffered. All the humiliation and abuse that they have had at the ends of the Babylonians. Conscious of the deep longing to be back in their own land, rebuilding their ruined capital. The longing to be home. As there's no place like home is there?
BUT as Daniel prays for mercy, his greatest concern is for God's glory. AND so he prays ultimately for God's sake, not the sake of his people. And we see why this is in verses 15 and 16 - Because God has bound his glory up with what is going on with his people. So verse 16 Daniel prays:
…turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill.
And then again in verse 17:
For your sake, Lord, look with favour on your desolate sanctuary.
Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name.
AND again verse 19:
For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.
In everything that has happened - it is God's name that has been dragged through the mud. It is God who has become an object of scorn to the nations. And so greater than God's concern for the welfare of his people, is Daniel's concern for the reputation of the Lord.
And again that will always be the concern of genuine Christian prayer. It is precisely how Jesus himself taught us to pray to "Our Father in Heaven" - And what was the first prayer request he put on our prayer list "Hallowed be your name."
That's a great antidote to our vending machine view of prayer. You know how Vending Machine Prayer works? Well you know how a vending machine works don't you? My brother and I used to love vending machines when we were younger. We would go swimming with my dad once a week and after we'd got towelled off and change, my dad would give us both 20p to spend in the vending machine of wonder. The excitement that filled our tiny minds as we stood in front of that big metal box of delights was palpable as we tried to decide what to get with our 20ps. Will it be a packet of quavers? Or some space invaders? A curley wurly? Or maybe even 2 things - a freddo AND a packet of polos? It was the best part of our week. BUT you know how a vending machine works! You feel a bit peckish, so you come to it with your money. You put it in. And then you select what you want.
AND that is so often how we treat God. We feel we need a little something from him. So we come to him with our good deeds. We present them to God as proof of our worthiness. AND then we select what we want and think we so rightly deserve from God - good exam results, an easy life, or good health for us or our family members, and ultimately a ticket to heaven.
BUT when we've got what we want from God, we ignore him again till next time we need him. And we don't thank him for his gifts, OR praise him for his character, OR ask him for his guidance and wisdom, OR seek his power in the lives of others. As we get so caught up in our own lives and needs that we worship ourselves and not God. BUT God alone has the right to be worshipped. He is so infinitely glorious that for him not to be known, to be cherished, to be worshipped is a scandal - not just in heaven but on earth too!
So can you see here the goal of Biblical prayer? Daniel's greatest concern is not to share requests and get through his prayer list. The key to Biblical pray – I wonder if we've got this – The key to Biblical prayer is worship… when so often we're centered on ourselves. As Daniel allows the character of God – his righteousness, his mercy, his greatness, his reliability, his love – to grip his imagination. He's been reading about it in Jeremiah and like a tidal wave it floods over him. So the Focus shifts from me and my needs to God and his greatness. We'll never pray like Daniel till we make that move.
Well, I must conclude. And I want to conclude by asking – well what was God's answer? Well the answer to Daniel's pray comes really fast. As before Daniel has even managed to stick an "Amen" on the end of his prayer the Angel Gabriel arrives. And while we need to note that God doesn't always answer prayers in that way… Sometimes we have to wait - Daniel is immediately given another incredible vision.
We don't have time to go into in depth now. But I do think the main point of it is clear: Daniel has been thinking about the 70 years that need to come to an end for the Israelites to go back home. Yet through this vision God says: "Daniel, forget 70 years - think about 7 x 70 years as there is something far, far bigger coming. God has planned something far greater than just a return to Jerusalem for it to be rebuilt. As in 490 years time – God will put an end to sin, through his anointed Saviour!" So what Daniel receives in this vision is far more than he prayed for! He asked for an end to exile, but is promised an end to sin. He asked for the return of God's people, but he's promised the arrival of God's son. He asked for Jerusalem and he's promised Jesus. Daniel here is like a man who has climbed a mountain, only to find there is a far greater mountain ahead of him! Because it is Jesus that all of God's purposes have been pointing to. He is the reality behind everything that God has promised. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1: All God's promises have their "Yes and "Amen" in Jesus. AND so the answer to genuine Christian prayer is Jesus. Because he is the only one who meets our deepest needs and our greatest longings. AND there will be many times when we pray and God doesn't necessarily grant us our request - BUT he does meet the need that lies behind that request. Because ultimately what we are praying for is God the Son. AND nothing is more important than Him!