The reason I titled this message "How to Pray for a Desolate Church" is that I see much of the Christian church today as desolate. The ruin of Jerusalem and the captivity of Israel in Babylon are pictures of the church today in many places around the world. There are pockets of life and purity and depth and faithfulness and power and zeal around the world. God will never give up on his people and he will get his global purposes done, even if he has to use a remnant to do it.
But much of the Christian movement today has become a desolation of disobedience and disunity and dishonor to the name of Christ. So the way Daniel prays for the desolation of his people is a pointer for how we can pray for the desolation of ours.
Three Aspects of the Desolation of God's People
Let me mention three aspects of the desolation of God's people in this text to see if you won't agree that it sounds like much of the Christian movement today.
1. The People Are Captive to Godless Forces
Two times, verses 11 and 13, Daniel says that this calamity of Babylonian captivity was warned against in the law of Moses. For example, in Deuteronomy 28:36 Moses says that if the people forsake God, "The Lord will bring you . . . to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known; and there you shall serve other gods." Now that had come true in Babylon.
In 1520, Martin Luther wrote an essay which he called "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church." What he meant was that forces and powers that were foreign to Christ and to his Word had captured the mind and heart of the church. She was in bondage to godless forces.
That is the situation in much of the church today. Millions of church-goers today think the way the world thinks. The simple assumptions that govern behavior and choices come more from what is absorbed from our culture than from the Word of God. The church shares the love affair of the world with prosperity and ease and self. Many groups of Christians are just not that different from the spirit of Babylon, even though the Lord says that we are aliens and exiles and that we are not to be conformed to this age. So, like Israel of old, much of God's church today is captive to godless forces.
2. The People Are Guilty and Ashamed
Daniel spends most of his prayer confessing the sin of the people. For example, verse 5: "We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from thy commandments." In other words, we have great guilt before God. And because of this real guilt there is real shame. This is mentioned in verses 7 and 8. The RSV has the phrase "confusion of face"—"To us belongs confusion of face." Literally it means, "To us belongs shame of face." What we have done is so terrible and so known that our face turns red and we want to cover it and run away. That is the way Daniel felt about the people of God. Their guilt and their shame were great.
Today in the church there is an uneasy conscience. There is the deep sense that we are to be radically different, living on the brink of eternity with counter-cultural values and behaviors of love and justice and risk-taking service that show our citizenship is in heaven. But then, we look in the mirror and we see that the church does not look that way. And the result is a sense of shame based on the real guilt of unbelief and disobedience. So we slink through our days with faces covered, and scarcely anyone knows we are disciples of Jesus.
3. The People Were a Byword Among the Nations
Verse 16b: "Jerusalem and thy people have become a byword among all who are round about us." "Byword" (in the RSV) means reproach, or object of scorn. It means that the nations look at the defeated and scattered Israelites and they laugh. They mock Israel's God.
That is the way it is with the Christian church in many places. She has made the name of Jesus an object of scorn by her duplicity—trying to go by the name Christian and yet marching to the drum of the world. So the world sees the name "Christian" as nothing radically different—perhaps a nice way to add a little component of spirituality to the other parts of life that basically stay the same.
So when Daniel prays for the desolations of the people of Israel, I hear a prayer for the desolations of the Christian church—captive to godless forces, guilty and ashamed, and a byword among the nations.
Four Ways to Pray for a Desolate Church
Now how do we pray for such a church?
1. Go to the Bible
First, we pray for a desolate church by beginning where Daniel began. We go to the books.
Verse 2: "In the first year of [Darius's] reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books . . . " The books are the prophet Jeremiah and other biblical books. Prayer begins with the Bible.
George Mueller said that for years he tried to pray without starting in the Bible in the morning. And inevitably his mind wandered. Then he started with the Book, and turned the Book into prayer as he read, and for 40 years he was able to stay focused and powerful in prayer.
Without the Bible in our prayers, they will be just as worldly as the church we are trying to free from worldliness. Daniel's prayer begins with the Bible and it is saturated with the Bible. Phrase after phrase comes right out of the Scriptures. There are allusions to Leviticus (26:40) and Deuteronomy (28:64) and Exodus (34:6) and Psalms (44:14) and Jeremiah (25:11). The prayer brims with a biblical view of reality, because it brims with the Bible.
What I have seen is that those whose prayers are most saturated with Scripture are generally most fervent and most effective in prayer. And where the mind isn't brimming with the Bible, the heart is not generally brimming with prayer. This is not my idea. Jesus was pointing to it in John 15:7 when he said, "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you" (John 5:7). When he says, "If my words abide in you . . . ," he means, "If my words saturate your mind . . . if my words shape your way if thinking . . . if my words are memorized and just as likely to come to your mind as advertising jingles . . . then you will pray so as to heal the desolations of the church."
So the first way to pray for a desolate church is to go to the Book. Saturate your mind with the Bible. Pray the Scripture.
2. Confess Our Sin
The second way to pray for a desolate church is to confess our sin.
About 12 verses of Daniel's prayer is confession: verses 4–15. This means being truthful about God and about sin.
It means recognizing sin as sin and calling it bad names, not soft names: things like wickedness and rebellion and wrong (v. 5) and treachery and shameful (v. 7) and disobedience (v. 10). It means recognizing God as righteous (v. 7) and great and fearful (v. 4) and merciful and forgiving (v. 9). It means feeling broken and remorseful and guilty (v. 8) before God.
Before God! There is a difference between feeling miserable because sin has made our life miserable and feeling broken because our sin has offended the holiness of God and brought reproach on his name. Daniel's confession—biblical confession—is God-centered. The issue is not admitting that we have made our life miserable. The issue is admitting that there is something much worse than our misery, namely, the offended holiness and glory of God.
So we pray for a desolate church by going to the Book and by confessing our sins.
3. Remember Past Mercies Knowing God Never Changes
The way to pray for a desolate church is to remember past mercies, and be encouraged that God never changes.
Verse 15: "And now, O Lord our God, who didst bring thy people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand . . . " Daniel knew that the reason God saved Israel from Egypt was not because Israel was so good. Psalm 106:7–8,
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider thy wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of thy steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name's sake, that he might make known his mighty power.
Prayer for a desolate church is sustained by the memory of past mercies. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If God saved a rebellious people once at the Red Sea, he can save them again. So when we pray for a desolate church, we can remember brighter days that the church has known, and darker days from which she was saved.
This is why church history is so valuable. There have been bad days before that God had turned around. The papers this week have been full of statistics of America's downward spiral into violence and corruption. Church history is a great antidote to despair at times like this. For example, to read about the moral decadence and violence of 18th century England before God sent George Whitefield and John Wesley is like reading today's newspapers. For example,
Only five or six members of parliament even went to church . . . The plague, small pox, and countless diseases we call minor today had no cures . . . Clothing was expensive, so many of the cities' poor wore rags that were like their bedding, full of lice . . . The penalties for crimes seem barbaric today (hanging for petty thievery) . . . Young boys, and sometimes girls, were bound over to a master for seven years of training. They worked six days a week, every day from dawn to dusk and often beyond . . . If you were unlucky and starving, you might fall foul of the law and be packed off to the stench of New Gate Prison. From there, you might have the chance to go to the New World in a boat loaded with prisoners of all sorts . . . [Drunkenness was rampant] and gin was fed to the babies too, to keep them quiet, with blindness and often death as a result [did you think crack babies were a new thing?] . . . The people's love of tormenting animals at bull-baitings was equaled only by their delight in a public execution. ("Revival and Revolution," Christian History 2, pp. 7–8)
All that and more, including a desolate and corrupt and powerless church. Yet God moved with a great awakening. And to add hope upon hope for our prayers, he used two men who could not agree on some significant theological points and one of them was overweight and the other was 5' 3" tall and weighed 128 pounds.
We pray for a desolate church by remembering past mercies, past triumphs of grace. We remember that history is not a straight line down any more than it is a straight line up.
4. Appeal to God's Zeal for the Glory of His Own Name
Finally, we pray for a desolate church by appealing to God's zeal for the glory of his own name.
Look how the prayer comes to its climax in verses 18b–19: "We do not present our supplications before thee on the ground of our righteousness but on the ground of thy great mercy. 19) O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, give heed and act; delay not, for thy own sake, O my God, because thy city and thy people are called by thy name."
The people of God are known by his name. And God has an infinite zeal for his own name. He will not let it be reproached and made a byword indefinitely. That is our deepest confidence. God is committed to God. God is committed with explosive passion to the glory of his name and the truth of his reputation.
So that's the bottom of our prayer for a desolate church. We are called by your name. We live by your name. Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory. For your name's sake, O Lord, save. For your name's sake, revive. For your name's sake purify and heal and empower your church, O Lord. For we are called by your name.