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Friday, June 29th 2012

12:54 PM

“The Dying Tree & God Steps Back”: Church & The End Times

Private Prayer Times 

 

By Pastor Bruce Sikes

 

One of the things I do to try and keep physically fit is ride my bicycle. An added benefit of this activity is that it gets me away from all the phone calls, emails, and other busy distractions of daily life so I can have some quiet time alone to pray. I usually ride out to a bike trail and stop at the midway point to find a quiet spot for prayer before riding back. Sometimes I find myself racing anxiously to reach my prayer spot in anticipation of spending time with God. Quite often when I am surrounded by all the beauty of God’s creation, I can’t help but repeatedly thank Him for that brief glimpse of heaven, of Eden before the Fall, and of the preview of the restoration of all things after Christ’s return. I’ll think to myself,“If only everyone I know could be here with me right now to share in the beauty of this moment. Oh! How it might bring them a measure of peace and a closer understanding of the One who created it all!”

This article is a bit of a departure from the other Voice Of The Remnant articles as I wanted to share with you a couple of recent private prayer times I experienced while riding the trails in God’s great outdoors. I believe God used those times to give me some insight and to reinforce some Biblical truths about His Church in these last days. Namely, that He the Lord is Sovereign, that He is in control and that He has a plan for His people the Remnant of God; the Church, as well as for all of mankind and His creation.

God does that. God uses nature at times to get our attention. He can remove the security and the reliance we have placed on our man-made objects so that we are left alone with only Him and His creation surrounding us. The Lord does this in some very dramatic and awesome ways at times. Just to name a few, think of the sky turning dark and the earth shaking at Christ’s crucifixion, and of the plaques, hailstones, great earthquakes and other “natural” upheavals found in the book of Revelation,

“[The Death of Jesus ] From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land…. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (Matthew 27:45, 51-52)

“The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.”(Revelation 16:8-9)

Yet, He doesn’t always do it in such colossal ways. God can also speak to us through the gentle whispers of wind as He did with Elijah. At times like that the hard part, as a friend reminded me, is getting ourselves quiet enough to hear God speak.

“ The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

Imagine how close we could get to God if we put as much effort into finding time to pray as we do finding time to play, or to eat, or sleep, or relax, or even work for that matter. We need those things in their proper measure and balance, but that’s just the point. Prayer is near the very bottom of the majority of the “average” modern Christian’s priorities. That is a problem which is further compounded by the dearth of any serious prayer times in many of our churches. Think about it. Think about some of the churches you know about. How much time do they really spend on prayer? I’m afraid if we timed it, we wouldn’t need to use the minute hand because the second hand would be enough. Of course it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality and frequency of prayer that counts. Unfortunately, if we eliminate the pandering “churchese” language and the formulized words and phrases from our church building prayer times, we would have very little left that could be called prayer. Pretty and packaged prayers have become a habit in our churches. We need to break the habit. It’s killing us. Pastors, preachers, ministers, deacons, and elders must break free from show prayers, announcement prayers, self-aggrandizing prayers, and prayers of false humility. If prayers in the Spirit do not spring from the pulpit, then the pulpit should be silent until they do. Those who attempt to do otherwise are deceiving God’s people and themselves in the process. We must redeem our prayer lives and risk praying the ineloquent, stuttering, pausing prayer. God honors prayers that originate from the heart, not those fabricated in the mind. Pray in the Spirit!

A good way to begin is alone.

Luke 5:16 says, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

Here is Jesus, a “Minister of God” to say the least, with lots of responsibilities and work to get done, yet notice it says He, “withdrew”, “often”, “alone” and “prayed”. We must carve out time for private prayer and seize it!

To be sure, you need not ride out to the great outdoors to find a quiet place to pray. You can pray at work, school, home, in your automobile, or wherever quiet moments may be found. The point is to do it deliberately and frequently. It is not always easy to find a time and place but we must make it happen! You may have to get creative, particularly if the environment you find yourself in is not very conducive to prayer. Ironically, from time to time even some church buildings may not be conducive to prayer. Years ago while on staff at one such church, I remember having to take a chair into the basement mechanical room to find a place for prayer there among the boilers and plumbing. But that was ok. God heard and spoke to me in that dim and dusty place. It became holy ground. If we make ourselves available to Him, He will find us!

So, by way of example I’ll share with you the first of the two private prayer times I mentioned earlier. On the first occasion, when I arrived at the prayer spot, I laid on the grass to pray as I had done so many times before. I must admit I had not been praying as I should. I felt rather distant from the Lord. As I was pondering this, it was as though the Lord said to me, “Do you see that tree?” I looked up and saw a large tree, bigger than any of the others along the tree line. It was right in front of me but I had not paid any attention to it before. The tree was tall and had many branches but it was dying; in fact, there were only a few branches of green leaves left. It was then I felt that God was telling me this tree represented the Church. Not the analogy any of us wants to hear. So, in my human mind my first thought (as foolish as this sounds) was a desire to help the dying tree by pouring water on its roots from my bicycle water bottle! Now, on the scale of things, even if I had a thousand water bottles, it wouldn’t have done any good. Besides, as I glanced at the base of the tree it was chocked with weeds, thorns and brush and I couldn’t have gotten to it if I tried.

Then my eyes were directed to the few green branches on this large dying tree. God seemed to be asking me, “Do you see where the living branches are located?” They were located near the top. The surviving branches were the ones closest to the sun. Botanically speaking, they were reaching for the life-giving effects of the sun. The branches below them were all dead and dying. Some of them were very impressive, reaching far out to the left and right but now were producing no leaves at all and just came to a dead end. The tree had once been full and green, but over the many seasons it began to wither and die. The life cycle of the tree was coming to an end. Only those branches reaching straight towards heaven still survived.

As I sat there taking it all in, a lot of Biblical truths came flooding into my mind. Not surprisingly, often what God wants to show us is right in front of our eyes. We only need to pause from all our busyness and look at people and things through the spiritual eyes God gives us. One big truth He showed me is that I/we all need to stay as close to the SON as possible. We need to keep reaching up and seeking Jesus every single day. By the way, have you read your Bible today? Have you prayed today? Imagine if a tree leaf behaved like a person and decided to open up to the sun for only 1 hour a week each Sunday. How long do you think it would survive? We need to be at least as smart as a leaf! Staying close to Jesus is the absolute key to surviving and serving God as long as possible as this present age comes to a close, and come to a close it will!

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:20-23)

In this present age, “the whole creation” which includes “we ourselves” are in bondage to decay, but God has a plan! He knew what He was doing when He ”subjected creation to frustration”. It is for our future “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”. God has a plan. We cannot reverse the process of decay through our own strength and efforts, in the end redemption comes by the grace and mercy of Christ alone!

To reinforce this idea, God showed me that my foolish thought of helping to revive the dying tree via my human efforts (of pouring water from my drinking bottle on it) would be in vain. The base of the tree is surrounded and its roots are being choked by weeds, thorns and brush. All the earthly physical things the tree had always relied on to survive and grow, the soil and water, are being cut off. Likewise, the Church in this world is being surrounded and chocked by the things of the world, causing it to weaken and die. All those earthly things we have relied on to build our churches such as our reliance on money, buildings, appearances, programs, numbers and even the luxury of time, are being cut off. Only those believers who focus their energies and efforts at getting closer to the Son of God will survive.

As ministers of God, our duty is to direct the Church’s attention to that task and away from the building of earthly kingdoms, even earthly church kingdoms, for they too will pass away.

“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 15:50)

We must continually encourage believers toward personal prayer and Bible study which cannot be cut off by anyone except the believer himself. It’s with these God-given tools and our unceasing proclamation of the Gospel to the lost that we find our unity, our strength and common bond as the Remnant of God.

Now, as if that prayer experience wasn’t enough, I ventured out a couple week later eager for another time with God amongst His creation. This time, I rode out on a different trail and managed to find a quiet spot in the middle of a vast expanse of fields and marshes. The sky seemed to be especially blue and there was a clean steady wind blowing so I automatically began praising God and thanking Him for His beautiful creation. Once again I kept thinking how beneficial it would be for people to spend time with God in such a setting. My mind turned to all the people who are hurting and caught in sin and I began praying for them. In the midst of all this, I lamented that things were not as they should be. I thought about fallen man and all that we have done to harm this world, in particular ourselves, and how we have disrespected the Creator and His creation. I wondered how long God would put up with us and when we would receive His rightful judgment for all our wrongdoing. I asked Him to forgive us.

Even so, I once again turned my eyes toward all the surrounding beauty and those judgments seemed far away. There had been a steady wind blowing across the fields and the sounds of birds chirping the entire time I had been praying. Suddenly, everything stopped. There was complete silence. No wind, no birds chirping, nothing. I looked in the distance to see if any tree tops were moving indicating a wind, but there was absolutely no movement. I have spent a lot of time outdoors in all kinds of weather, but this was different. Now, as a 6 foot 3 inch, 230 pound ex-police officer and competitive athlete I do not scare easily, but I must admit I did feel a good measure fear, even a bit of panic. In my spirit I thought “Something is happening!”. I began scanning the horizon looking for something. I didn’t know what. I felt it was something man-made, some evil from man, war? At that moment, not only was I physically alone in that outdoor expanse, (it would have taken me a good 30 minutes of hard riding to get back to “civilization”) but I also felt all alone and helpless. I asked God out loud,“Lord, what is going on? Is this from you?” I decided to refocus on Him, quiet my spirit and praise Him as I had done earlier. As the silence continued, slowly I began to feel a gentle wind blowing against my skin and I lifted my head. Things seemed to be back to the way they were when I arrived, my spirit was at peace, fear was gone, and birds were chirping again.

So I asked God, “What was that all about?” Then it came to my mind that He was saying, “I am Sovereign over the whole of creation!” “I control time and I am the One who will determine when judgment will come.” A couple verses popped into my mind:

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” (Mark 13:31-33)

and also,

“…the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” and also verse 9 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9-10)

Well, I must say He certainly fleshed out the reality of those two verses for me, but there was more. I also thought of this verse from the book of Job,

“If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.” (Job 34:14-15)

This made a lot of sense to me; it explained those few moments when there was dead silence followed by fear and panic on my part. It was as though God “stepped back” for a moment and said, “Here’s what it would be like if I my Spirit were not here.” That shows us a lot. First, that the earth is only really beautiful because God’s Spirit is present. It is His Spirit that gives us joy when we look at the beauty of nature. Without the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, the world is a very frightening place. Although many refuse to acknowledge Him as the creator, and worship the creation instead, He is the One who sustains everything.

“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25)

[The Supremacy of Christ] “…For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)

There was also a moment during that time when God “stepped back,” that I started sensing man’s evil closing in, it being loosed on earth to a quick destructive end. Indeed, if it were not for God’s restraining Spirit we would soon destroy ourselves. But God has a plan!

As I reflect on this, I think too of the restrainer, the one who holds evil back.

“And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.” (2 Thessalonians 2:6-8)

If that brief moment I experienced was just a microscopic sample of the fear and panic of what it’s like to be on this earth without the Lord holding evil back, then Brothers and Sisters we do not want to be here during those dreadful days! May the Lord rescue us before then and may we redouble our efforts to rescue as many as we can with the Gospel of Christ. Praise God that He has a plan and we can look forward to the “splendor of His coming” and the new heaven and earth.

"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” (2 Peter 3:10-13)

If we think this world can be beautiful in its fallen state, imagine what it will be like when God restores everything! That is something great we can to look forward to and some very good news we can share with others.

Not much of these prayer experiences would have made any sense to me if I had not been reading and studying my Bible. The Lord is able to show you so much more if you know the Bible, plus the Scriptures serve as a safeguard against any attempts by Satan to lead you down a mystical or experiential path away from the Lord. There are no substitutes for good in-depth regular Bible study!

These were just a couple of my own personal prayer experiences, most of mine are far from that dramatic! I simply share them with you to encourage you to find personal, private, and quiet prayer time alone with the Lord. Just enjoy His presence, like when someone you love is in the same room with you. Praise Him, thank Him, keep your eyes and ears open, and let Him speak to you in whatever way He chooses. He knows exactly how, what and when we and the Church need to hear a word from Him.

Always remember no matter how bad things get, God is sovereign. He has a plan. He is in control. He is right there with you. Lean on Him. Trust Him. He loves you.

Remnant of God; Pray, Read your Bibles, Share the Gospel.

 

For Christ and His Remnant,

Pastor Bruce

 

 
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