Sunday, March 12, 2017

How You Pray

If I was to ask for a show of hands as to how many folks here pray I would suspect that virtually everyone would raise their hands.   If I was to ask how many folks believe their prayers would be answered hopefully the same number would raise their hands.  I mean really, if we don’t believe that our prayers will be answered then why pray? 

Some do it because it’s expected, others because it gives them something to do, others are just hedging their bets.  I had a friend in high school who wore a cross and a Star of David on a chain. He wasn’t a Christian or a Jew but he said he was trying to cover all the bases.

The bible teaches that not only should we pray but we should expect answers to our prayers, that is we should be surprised when our prayers aren’t answered.  Not when they are.   

Last week we looked at this same passage from the book of Matthew and dug a little deeper into what Jesus meant when he told the apostles “When you pray” and we discovered that he laid out some ways for us not to pray and some ways for us to pray.

And we can boil it down to say that our prayers are meant to be a conversation.   A conversation between our heart and the heart of God.  And that won’t happen if we are just reciting words without thinking about what we are saying, or if we are praying for the benefit of human ears. 

And then Jesus said When you pray, pray like this. . . and he gives us a template for our prayers.  And remember it is easy to fall into the trap where the Lord’s prayer becomes the very thing that Jesus was warning us about.  Just words, babbling and vain repetition. 

So, let’s dig a little deeper into the Lord’s prayer and see what it can teach us about prayer.

Last week I introduced you to a 14th century preacher by the name of Meister Eckhart, a member of the Dominican order who died while answering to the inquisition in Avignon France around 1328  after being accused of heresy by Pope John XXII

And Eckhart wrote “Good and earnest prayer is a golden ladder which reaches up to heaven, and by which man ascends to God.”

 And that is where Jesus begins by leading us up this golden ladder to heaven.

Matthew 6:9  Pray like this: Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.   So, first of all Prayer Looks Upward    Jesus begins by telling us who we are to pray to.  And this establishes the premise of our relationship.  This concept of God being our personal father wasn’t a common Jewish expression.  In the Old Testament, we see the concept of Father used in reference to God and the collective people of Israel, but here Jesus is telling us that God wants to be our Father and he wants us to be his children.

And that might be tough for you to accept if your experience with your father wasn’t a great one.  But, we can’t let our concept of our earthly fathers colour the words of Christ.  Because he was speaking from his concept of father, a loving, affirming, protecting father.

And the Father’s name is to be seen as a hallowed name, a holy name.  We can’t blaspheme his name one minute and then call on his name in prayer the next minute.   And I’ve spoken about this before.  Keeping his name holy means that we don’t trivialize it by using it as a curse or as an exclamation.  

Remember the name of God shouldn’t be used unless you are talking about him or to him.  And using the shortcut OMG is trivializing the name of a Holy God.

And after we establish who we are praying to we need to establish where He is in our lives, Jesus continues:  Matthew 6:10  May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Prayer Looks Outward

The Kingdom of Heaven was very much on the heart of Jesus.  And the Kingdom exists where His will is done.  

The question is what are we praying for?  The people that Jesus was talking to would have had a very definite view of the Kingdom of God.  To them it was going to be an actual physical place where the Roman oppressors were going to be overthrown and all good Jews were going to live in some form of political Utopia.  This may not have been what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of the Kingdom of God. 

Remember the very first line that he spoke in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5:3 “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. That wouldn’t seem to be indicative of a political kingdom but the fact that Jesus spoke often about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven would indicate that it was something in the forefront of his thoughts. 

The Gospel of Mark was said to be the first written account of Christ’s ministry and the very first words that it records of Jesus are found in Mark 1:15 “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” 

And in Luke 4:43 But he (Jesus) replied, “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God in other towns, too, because that is why I was sent.” So it would appear that the need to preach about the Kingdom of God was a priority for Jesus almost to the point of being an obligation.

It’s always important to remember that Jesus was a Jew.  And as a Jew he thought like a Jew, he reasoned like a Jew and he taught like a Jew and in this instance, he uses a very Jewish literary device called parallelism.  And what that does is to make a statement and then it clarifies the statement by restating it.  That is, it repeats it a different way.  It would be like saying “It’s a great day out there.  It’s hot and sunny.”  Two statements “It’s a great day out there” is the first one, the second statement clarifies the first one “It’s hot and sunny”

One of the most famous Psalms is the 23rd Psalm, and it begins with a parallelism, Psalm 23:1 The Lord is my shepherd . . .  I shall not want.  David actually uses this device quite a few different times.  Psalm 44:1 O God, we have heard it with our own ears . . . our ancestors have told us of all you did in their day, in days long ago:   Psalm 46:1 God is our refuge and strength . . . always ready to help in times of trouble.

These Psalms were making use of parallelism to teach and that is what Jesus is doing in this verse, listen to what he says, May your Kingdom come soon. That’s the first statement the next statement then clarifies the first statement May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  When does God’s Kingdom come? When His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. 

It’s interesting to note that in different places in the New Testament Jesus uses the term Kingdom of Heaven in the past, present and future tenses. Something that happened, was happening and would happen.

The Kingdom of God comes when his will is being done.  So, the very essence of the Kingdom of God is to obey the will of God.  This Kingdom has nothing to do with nations and countries instead it is something which happens in the heart of each one of us.  That’s called Holiness.

You ever struggle with the term “holiness?”  The best definition of holiness that I ever heard came from Mother Theresa.

Mother Theresa said, “Holiness can be summed up in one word, obedience.”  And let’s go back to Meister Eckhart who wrote   "Love God, and do as you like, say the Free Spirits. Yes; but as long as you like anything contrary to God's will, you do not love Him."

The kingdom of God is a personal responsibility because obedience happens with my heart and my will and my thought life.  The most important thing in the world is to obey God and the most important words that we can speak are, “Your will be done”  But only if we mean them. 

Two things you can be assured of as a Christian when you say “Your will be done”. 

1. You Can Be Sure God Knows What He’s Doing  Have you ever taken something to an expert?  You know to have it repaired or altered or built?  What do you tell, “Do what you have to do”, “Do whatever you think is best.”  Why do you say those things?  Because you know that supposedly they know more about the subject then you do or you wouldn’t be using them.

Do you know what really frustrates a professional or an expert?  It’s when someone who doesn't know what they are talking about tries to tell the pro how to do it.  You know when the guy takes his car to the garage and tells the mechanic what’s wrong and how to fix it.  I’m sure more than one mechanic has wanted to say, “Hey if you know so much why’d you bring it to me?”  God knows what needs to be done and he knows how it needs to be done.

2) You Can Be Sure God Loves You.  As you read through the Gospels you realize that Jesus was praying to a Father whom he knew loved him, period.  There was no doubt at all.  And God loves us   We don’t serve a cruel God who plays games with us.  Thomas Hardy finished his novel “Tess” with these words, “The President of the Immortal had finished his sport with Tess.” That’s the way some people see God, some cosmic chess player who gets his chuckles out of losing a pawn. 

We serve a God whose greatest attribute is love.  John was one of Jesus’ closest friends and he wrote in 1 John 4:16 We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 

Next month is Easter and nobody can look at the cross and see the sacrifice God made for us and not see his love. 

When we are sure of the love of God then we can find it easier to say, “Your will be done”.  You notice that I said easier and not easy, because by our very nature it’s difficult to give control to somebody else.  And when we surrender that control, we have the option of doing it begrudgingly or willingly.

And now Jesus goes from the spiritual, the will of God to the physical.  Once we have established who we are praying to, and align ourselves with His will, Jesus reminds us that we are dependent on God for all that we have.

And it’s here we discover that Prayer Looks Inward  Contrary to popular opinion it’s not selfish to pray for ourselves.  As a matter of fact, the remainder of the Lord’s prayers deal with what we need.

And so Jesus tells us to pray,   Matthew 6:11  Give us today the food we need
Prayer Deals with Our Today

Now this would appear to be the simplest part of the Lord’s prayer.  Well, let me tell you that nothing is so simple that it can’t be complicated by a theologian.  Someone once said, “A theologian takes the simple things and makes them difficult, it’s up to a preacher to take the difficult things and make them simple again” 

1) Some say that bread is to be identified with the last supper and so we are asking to be able to celebrate the sacrament of communion on a daily basis.

2) Others say that this actually refers to spiritual food, that is the word of God, the Bible.  And so, these people would maintain that this is actually a request for spiritual feeding.

3) Then there are those who tell us that the bread is a reference back to Jesus who called himself the bread of life in John 6:33-35.  And so the prayer is “Lord let me feast on your presence daily.

Now in keeping with all of those eminent scholar’s theories let me share with you my theory, now hang on because it’s deep.  I think that what Jesus meant by “Give us today the food we need” was “Give us today the food we need”.  I think it was just a request for God to provide the things that we need on a daily basis.  Deep, huh?

When I first went to West Africa in 2007 I saw first-hand what is meant by subsistence farming.  The people in the villages grow and raise what they need to survive, and it is a daily existence. 

And up until the last century subsistence farming was a reality in most of the world, and for most of history the prayer to provide daily bread was a meaningful prayer.   And it is still a reality in many parts of rural Africa and Asia. 

Today perhaps we need to change the wording, Presbyterian minister J. Vernon McGee wrote
 “I don't think that a Sunday morning crowd should get up and pray, "Give us this day our daily bread" when they have a roast in the oven at home -- they already have their meal. It is a very meaningful prayer for those who are hungry, but a well-fed Sunday morning congregation ought not to pray this because for them it is vain repetition.”

But this request doesn’t just deal with our next meal, It’s About All of Our Physical Needs.  Jesus didn’t just come preaching, he came healing as well.  And he took the time out to feed people, and provide for their thirst.  Do you remember what the Bible said when Jesus saw that the people he was teaching were hungry?  It said that he was filled with compassion.  Why? Because they were hungry.  Not only was Jesus concerned about the hunger of the people he did something about it, he fed them.

But Jesus didn’t just teach us to pray about our present needs, he also taught us to pray Matthew 6:12   Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.

It’s here we discover that Prayer Deals with Our Yesterdays What we have done. What we did last week, last year and 30 seconds ago.  When I was in Bible College I heard a preacher say that we need to keep short accounts, and that is still good advice. 

When you blow it ask for forgiveness and when somebody blows it with you forgive them.  It is is just that simple.  We can complicate it but saying “yeah but you don’t understand what I’ve done or you don’t understand what they’ve done.”   But Jesus was very plain here when he taught us to simply pray: Matthew 6:12   Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.  And he finishes that thought with a period and not a comma.   If you’ve ever prayed this have you ever stopped to listen to what you are saying?  You are asking God to forgive you in exactly the same way that you forgive people who have done you wrong, no more no less. 

Many people have the same concept of God as the German poet Heinrich Heine.  Heine was on his death bed and his priest told him that God could forgive his sins to which the poet responded “Of course God will forgive me; that’s His job.”  Well according to this particular portion of scripture, he doesn’t have to.

This one concept was so important that Christ not only mentioned it in the Lord’s prayer he went back to comment on it.  He literally uses three times more words to define what he said then he used to say it.

When you get to this part in the Lord’s prayer you are in effect saying, “Lord if there is someone whom I haven’t forgiven then don’t forgive me.” Ouch!  Forgiveness is tough.  There is no doubt about it and you may have been hurt by someone in ways that I can’t comprehend, but if you want to be forgiven then you need to forgive.

 You’ll remember perhaps the Guptill principle of spiritual growth that says that “Everyone grows in their spiritual life to their own personal point of disobedience.” Well the addendum is “You will never grow in your spiritual walk beyond your unforgiveness.”

Let’s keep going with the personal requests, Jesus teaches us to pray,  Matthew 6:13  And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.

You see where we are going right?  The first request dealt with our present, the second dealt with our past, what we’ve done.  Here Jesus tells us that Prayer Deals with Our Tomorrows, our future.  We are asking for help in what we will do.   

Too often when we think of the word temptation we think sin.  And if that is reality then we are confronted with one of two problems.  The first being how can we come to grips with a God who would lead us into sin.  You say don’t be silly preacher, God wouldn’t lead you into sin.  Then that leaves the second problem if temptation is sin and God wouldn’t lead us into sin why for would Jesus put this request in the prayer.

The easiest way to clear this up is to find a biblical definition of temptation.  At the very beginning of Christ’s ministry an incident happened I’ll let Matthew tell you about it, Matthew 4:1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil.  You see what happened here.  Jesus was tempted by the Devil but it was the Spirit that led him to that point.

In 1 Corinthians 10:13 . . .  He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. So now we have God allowing temptation.  Now the problem here is that the word temptation is being misused.  Somewhere along the line we have given the word temptation an evil twist, we have taken temptation to the next step and made it sin.

What it actually means is to be tested, to be proved, to be strengthened.  That’s why the very best steel is called tempered steel.  It’s the same root word.  And so what Jesus is teaching us to pray is this, “Don’t let me be tested by more than I can endure.”

Matthew 6:13 And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.  You notice that the request is “not deliver us from evil”, but “deliver us from the evil one.”  Evil is not an impersonal force which surrounds the world, instead it emanates from one person.  And that person is Satan.  his very name means the adversary, and in the Greek that is the one who pleads a case against someone.  He is in name and fact the accuser. 

Satan is real he is not a joke, he's not some dude in long red underwear with a pitchfork and horns, he is real.  Satan is personal and his weapon is temptation.  And like all enemies he won't attack until he finds a niche in your armour.

And do you really want God to keep you from temptation or is your prayer more like Augustine’s was early in his life when he prayed “Make me good but not yet”  

Maybe you’re not even in the place where your prayers can be answered because you’ve never actually established a relationship with God, He’s not your father. 

If that’s the case He’s only a prayer away.  As the worship team comes to lead us in one more song I would encourage you to take a good look at your spiritual condition.  If you need to start that relationship with God it’s as easy as praying Lord I’m sorry for all I’ve done to displease you.  Please forgive me and make me a new creation.  It’s that easy, and if you do that this morning we’d love to know about it.

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