Sunday, March 5, 2017

When You Pray

When you Pray.

I love the positive thought that comes across in the statement that Jesus made to the disciples in the book of Matthew.  It is found in what we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus says three words that reflect his positive belief in the people who will call themselves by his name.

And those three words are “When You Pray”.  He didn’t say “If you pray” he said “When you pray”.  And that reality is that we all pray.  It has often been said “There are no atheists in foxholes.” And there are very few atheists in emergency rooms either.

I love the story of the two old guys talking after a really big storm went through and one said “That was a mighty awful storm, wasn’t it?”  To which his friend replied, “Yep, I bet God heard a lot of unfamiliar voices last night.”

I started this message on the cruise we were on last week and I was sitting outside the room of prayer on the ship.  And you are thinking “Do they have a chapel on the ship?”  Nope, they have a casino aboard the ship.  And I would imagine that God hears a lot of promises and is offered all kinds of partnerships in that room.

And so, Jesus began by telling us by telling us How Not to Pray

Apparently, simply praying isn’t enough.  Jesus doesn’t just say when you pray, he also says “When you pray, don’t. . .” Don’t what? 

Well first we are told in   Matthew 6:5  “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.”

You see, Sometimes We Pray for The Wrong Reasons   Apparently, and I can’t imagine it happening today, but apparently there were folks who prayed to impress other people.  It would seem that they prayed loud and they prayed eloquently, but it wasn’t how they prayed, it was why they prayed. 

Their words were more directed to the people around them then to God.  They wanted people to say or at least think, “My, they pray well”. 

I’m sure it an apocryphal story, but I will tell it anyway.  The story goes that many years ago that the pastor in one of our district churches was known for how long his pastoral prayers were and on one Sunday morning one of the professors from our bible college was in attendance in this man’s church and after the service when he greeted the pastor he whispered, “I’d recommend having your personal prayer time at home.”

I don’t know if it’s a true story but it is a great story.

The good news is that those folks get what they want, that is they get recognition for their prayers, the bad news is they might not get what they need and that is their prayers answered.

A few years back I was asked to bring the benediction, that is the closing prayer. at the CPA graduation Ceremony.  Another pastor was to pray the invocation, that is the opening prayer, and he prayed and prayed and prayed.  And finished by calling on the name of Jesus, Allah and Krishna. 

And seriously, first of all there wasn’t one person in that sweltering hot arena that day who had come to hear a 7-minute prayer.  And when he finished by calling on three separate traditions, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person there thinking “Come on, pick a team.” 

The only people who weren’t offended by that prayer were people who weren’t Christians, who weren’t Muslims and who weren’t Hindus.   And those were the folks who were alreay offended by the fact that there was prayer included in the graduation cermemony. 

The funny side of that story is that the graduation went forever, it was like 4 days long they had 12,000 graduates and 47 speakers, some of you were there and remember it.  Well maybe it wasn’t that long, but it sure seemed that long.  There were a lot of graduates and each speaker that day spoke eloquently and at length. 

And as we came closer to the closing I noticed people on the platform looking in the program where there was a benediction listed and giving me nervous looks, wondering how long and to whom I was going to pray.

And with great trepidation I stood up to the mic and this was my prayer, verbatim.  “Lord thank you for the graduates, keep them safe.  Amen.”    And as I turned to walk back to my seat the auditorium erupted in applause, which wasn’t my intent at all, I was hot and tired and wanted to go home and I was pretty sure that God felt the same way.

But listen up, when I’m asked to pray in public people will often tell me that I need to be sure to close my prayer with the words “In Jesus’ name”.  And I wonder if their main concern is to make a political statement, and if so then that is as wrong as the Pharisees praying on the street corner for all to see.

I often close my prayers with “In Jesus name”  but it is not formulaic and it is never to make a statement.

Matthew 6:7  “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again.

Sometimes We Pray in The Wrong Manner 

There is nothing deep here, Jesus is just reminding us that prayer is a conversation, it is not a formula, it’s not a simply repeating phrases or prayers that you have memorized.  It is a conversation between you and God.

It is interesting, ironic and kind of sad that The Lord’s prayer has kind of become what Jesus was warning us about.

You know what I mean most of us can pray the Lord’s Prayer without even thinking about it and often we do.  As a matter of fact when the scripture was read earlier from the New Living Translation there were some of you who were thinking “Well that’s just not right.”

If you come from a protestant background you are probably familiar with it this way:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come. 
Thy will be done in earth, 
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, 
But deliver us from evil. 
For thine is the kingdom, 
The power, and the glory, 
For ever and ever. 

And if your background is Catholic then you were probably taught to pray this way:

Our Father who art in Heaven, 
Hallowed be thy name; 
Thy kingdom come 
Thy will be done 
On earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread; 
And forgive us our trespasses 
As we forgive those who trespass against us; 
And lead us not into temptation, 
But deliver us from evil.

And while you are thinking they both come straight from scripture you’re not entirely correct, the Protestant version comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Catholic one comes from Catechism of The Roman Catholic Church

Here is how it reads in the King James Version of the bible, Matthew 6:9-13  After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. 

It can also be found in the eleventh chapter of Luke’s gospel

Now just to shake you apple carts a little, back in 1993 Eugene Peterson, a pastor and writer published “The Message” which we are told is an idiomatic translation of the original languages of the Bible.  That is Peterson attempted to used contemporary North American idioms and slang to make the bible more readable.  I’m personally not a fan of the message, but that is a taste issue, nothing more.

But here is how the Lord’s prayer reads in the Message. Matthew 6:9-13  With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this: Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are.  Set the world right; Do what's best— as above, so below.  Keep us alive with three square meals.  Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.  Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You're in charge! You can do anything you want! You're ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

However we read it or recite it we need to acknowledge that The Lord’s prayer is probably the best-known prayer for Christians. At least right up there with “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.”  A little creepy, anybody else pray that as a kid, and then you’d do the God bless . . .

And the danger here is that the Lord’s prayer can become the very thing that we are warned about in Jesus previous words.  Because we go into auto pilot and if we aren’t thinking about the words we are praying then they are just vain repetition.

But not only does Jesus tell us how not to pray but he tells us how to pray.

Matthew 6:6  But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
We Need To Pray For The Right Reasons  I’m not sure Jesus was speaking about our location here as much as he was speaking about our attitude and our audience.

If we took this passage to heart there would be no public prayer or corporate prayer there would be no table grace, no benedictions or invocations at graduations, weddings or inaugurations. 

We wouldn’t begin our services in prayer, include a pastoral prayer or end our service in prayer.

But remember throughout the New Testament we see the early church praying together, in public.  Time and time again we read about the group coming together to pray. 

One of the first descriptions of the church tells us Acts 1:14  They all met together and were constantly united in prayer, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, several other women, and the brothers of Jesus.

When Peter had been imprisoned for preaching in Jesus’ name and was rescued by the angel we pick up the story in  Acts 12:12  When he (Peter)  realized this, he went to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many were gathered for prayer.

But I think we need to keep in mind that when we pray, even in those public settings we need to be talking to God.

I went to Bible College with a guy, whom I will call Kirk, mainly because that was his name.  And when a bunch of us went out for a burger we never asked Kirk to say grace because if you asked Kirk to say grace, he made sure that he said grace, very loudly for everyone in the restaurant.

If I’m eating out and sitting with folks who I’m not sure what their faith or relationship with God is and our food arrives I don’t take it upon myself to pray out loud for everyone at the table.  I simply pause and silently thank God for the food and for my dinner companions.  

I’m not trying to make a statement, I just want to thank God for my food.

The questions that need to be asked of course are: The first is Who are we praying to? And the second is: Why are we praying? 

The answer to the first question should be God.  Sometimes it seems that we are concerned when we pray about what others will think of our prayers, but the reality is:  you’re not talking to them.

Understand we don’t pray to anyone other than God. That is why Jesus told us in Matthew 6:6  But when you pray, . . . pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

And we can usually find then answer to the second question “Why are we praying?” simply by listening to our prayers.  Are they just shopping lists?  Do we view God and prayer as some great cosmic vending machine?  You put in the right amount of prayer you say they right words and then you get what you are looking for.  You lose your job, the kids get sick, your teen rebels so you pray?

Or maybe you don’t have enough faith to view prayer as a vending machine instead it view it as a slot machine.  You put in the right amount of prayer you say they right words and then you pull the leaver and hope that you will get what you are looking for.

While I was on vacation I stumbled across a German Theologian from the 14th century by the name of Meister Eckhart, ring a bell with anyone?  Probably not. 

Eckhart was a member of the Dominican Order of Preachers and a prolific and popular preacher and writer in the early 1300s.  I first discovered Eckhart in a novel I was reading so wrote down his name and dug a little deeper.

The Pope at the time saw Eckhart as a threat because of his popularity and had him accused of heresy.  Eckhart, who was 58 years old walked the 973 kms from Cologne Germany to Avignon France to defend himself against the inquisition.  I mean seriously, who would have expected the inquisition?

According to the authorities Eckhart recanted all his false teaching before he died during their interviews.  Seriously?  That was convenient.  And that has nothing to do with the message, but simply is the back story because I’m going to quote Eckhart a couple of times over the next few weeks.

Here’s the first one, Meister Eckhart, wrote “But many people want to look upon God with the eyes with which they look upon a cow; they want to love God the way they love a cow that you love because it gives you milk and cheese. This is how people behave who want to love God because of external wealth or inner comfort; but they do not love God properly: rather, they love their self interest.”   That could have been written in 2017. 

Methodist scholar and theologian Adam Clarke answered the question about why we pray when he wrote Prayer is the most secret intercourse of the soul with God, and as it were the conversation of one heart with another. The world is too profane and treacherous to be of the secret.”   Prayer is the conversation of one heart with another.  It is the conversation between our heart and God’s heart. 

And then Jesus tells us that we not only need to pray for the right reasons he tells us Matthew 6:9  Pray like this: He’s telling us that  We Need to Pray in the Right Manner  

Jesus didn’t say “Pray this” he said, “Pray like this.”  What Jesus is giving us is a template or an example of a prayer not necessarily a prayer.  We aren’t told to pray this prayer every day at sunrise or at sunset and we aren’t told to pray this prayer every morning in school or to pray this prayer every Sunday in Church.

Instead Jesus is telling us that when we pray we need to be talking to God.  Remember, it’s not just babbling, it’s not supposed to be vain repetition, it’s supposed to be a conversation.

Through the bible we see people talking to God.  Sometimes those conversations are filled with praise.  Sometimes they are filled with frustration and confusion.  Sometimes we hear people make requests of God and sometimes we hear people thanking God. But regardless of the content of the conversation they are conversations. 

And conversations happen between people who have a relationship.  When Jesus said “When you pray, pray like this” he was talking to people he had a relationship with and a group who had a relationship with God.   William Barclay reminds us “The Lord's Prayer can only really be prayed when the man who prays it knows what he is saying, and he cannot know that until he has entered into discipleship.”

Jesus had a relationship with the Father and he was inviting the disciples to enjoy that same relationship.  You see, without a relationship with God these words are simply babbling or vain repetition. 

And you can’t maintain a relationship without communication and communication isn’t simply the same seventy words repeated over and over again.  That wouldn’t work in a friendship, it wouldn’t work in a marriage and it won’t work in our relationship with God.

And if we are going to maintain our relationship with God we are going to have to talk to Him, to communicate with him.

Have you ever been in a relationship where communication simply stops?  Maybe it is the “Silent Treatment” and you know the relationship is strained. 

Or maybe you’ve simply drifted away from the other person, there is nothing to talk about so you just stop talking. 

But when communication stops the relationship is in trouble. 

Over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at prayer.  Next week we are going to dive into the Lord’s prayer and see how we can use it as a template for our prayers. 

But this week, over the next seven days I would challenge you to fit talking to God into your schedule.  Maybe before you go to bed, or perhaps when you first get up or on your drive into the city.

Many of us at Cornerstone have our phones set to remind us to pray for our church at 2:20 in the afternoon.  My phone also reminds me to pray for our denominational leaders at 8:30 in the morning.  Find time to talk with God, even if it’s just to check in and thank him for your day.

But this morning, let’s finish this part of our service by praying together as he taught us to pray. 

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