Message: Giving Up Our Prayers For Lent: What Prayer Is Not.
Scripture: Luke 11
Date: February 11, 2018
Well, have you decided yet what it is that you are going to give up for Lent? Lent is upon us! It begins on Wednesday. So the clock is ticking. Because in the church we have kind of created this expectation that for us to have a “good” Lent, there needs to be kind of this group sense of shared misery as we all give up something. We all need to get in the sacrificial mode. Now I have noted that for me these “sacrifices” usually reflect one of two things. If Lent starts pretty early in the year, for instance, my sacrifice is often an extension of a resolution that I made with the new year. So if my resolution is to exercise more, then I am apt to give up something that has allowed me to procrastinate on my resolution. In my mind, you see, the secular practice of New Year’s resolutions go hand in hand with the Lenten Discipline of giving up or fasting. And so in my mind, the secular resolution transforms into a spiritual discipline. It’s all very psychological, but not very spiritual. Or my Lenten Discipline tends to be diet related. I have often given up things like soft drinks, or candy or desserts. Things that are really essential. Things that have to do with body and health, but little to do with soul and spiritual well being. And these are typically things that lead me to exploit what I refer to as the Lenten loophole. Because you see, Lent is the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, excluding Sundays because the early church celebrated every Sunday as a “little Easter”. So the fast was broken into six day increments. I remember one year I decided to give up Coke for Lent. I love Coke and drink way too much of it and so I decided that I would test my will power and give it up for Lent. And I did pretty well with it Monday through Saturday. But come Sunday I started drinking coke at breakfast and didn’t stop until I went to bed. The only way I could have put more Coke into my body was if I attached an IV full of Coke first thing in the morning and then took it out last thing at night. Okay it wasn’t quite that bad, but I consumed a lot of coke on those Sundays.
Some of you might be familiar with Tony Campolo’s famous Good Friday sermon entitled “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming”. Well my story of Lent could often be titled, “It’s Lent, But Sundays Coming.”
Often times my Lenten Disciplines take on the characteristics of a Lenten Challenge. They always seem to fall short of the Biblical concept of fasting because they focus on the secular and not the spiritual. As I understand the idea of fasting it is to purge ourselves of worldly, secular things in order that we might be filled with the things of God. I think the Biblical concept is one of fast and feast. Remember how right after His baptism Jesus went up into the wilderness of Judea to fast for forty days and nights. And while he’s there, He is confronted with several temptations of Satan. One of those has to do with his physical fast. Satan comes to Him after many days without any food and says I know you’re hungry, who would care if you just turned a few of these stones into bread. And you know scripture doesn’t say this, but knowing how the tempter works, I suspect that he permeated the air with the smell of bread baking on an open fire. When you are really hungry there is no better smell is there.
Why do you think the Texas Roadhouse puts their ovens that bake those wonderful rolls right at the front door. The smell of those fresh baked rolls elevates the rest of your dining experience.
Come on Jesus, surely God doesn’t want you to die in this wilderness. Have a loaf of fresh baked bread. But Jesus says, in essence, “humanity does not survive on the things of the world. We must fast from those, purge ourselves, so that we may ultimately feast on the things of God.” Now I don’t presume to know how it is with you, but I do know that in my attempts at fasting, at giving up something for Lent, I always focus more on the purge, on what I’m giving up, then I do on what I will be able to feast on instead. Now you might want to pick your feet up off the ground, because this next statement might stomp on some toes, but I fear that for many (perhaps most?) of us both inside and outside of the church the idea of fasting from something during Lent is more of a secular custom (like making New Year’s Resolutions) then it is a Spiritual Discipline. There are a lot more people who will “give up something for Lent” then there are who will ever set foot in a worship service or pick up a Bible and read it in these next 46 days (including Sundays). If you ask people what they are giving up for Lent, what they are fasting from, most will tell you something like soft drinks or candy or desserts or swearing. Recently a survey was taken which asked what people were giving up for Lent and here were the Top 10 things that people were going to give up this year. (I feel like I’m channeling David Letterman now.)
- Fizzy drinks
- Social Networking
But I suspect if you ask those same people what they were going to feast on in their place you would either get no response, or quizzical looks, or equally secular responses. Most would not understand the concept of fasting of the worldly things that fill our lives so that we can feast on the things of God.
So here’s the question that you might be asking right now, and that is what has all this got to do with prayer? Well, you might want to lift your feet again, but here’s the thing. I think for many both inside the church, and outside the church, prayer is more of a secular custom then it is a spiritual discipline. Now before I lose you completely, let me explain what I mean. For many when tragedy strikes, or death touches us or our family or friends, or we are confronted with serious illness, the “go to” response is “I’ll pray for you” or to call on others to pray, when the reality is that they don’t pray any other time. Rick Warren calls this the “fire extinguisher” approach to prayer. For many prayer is only a reality when confronted with the dark times of life, but most rarely take prayer into the light of day. Now don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with praying for people who are struggling. But the problem is that if that is the only time we pray for them, then our prayers emanate from our relationship in the world and so it takes some kind of break in that relationship before we bring God and prayer into it. You see, if we only pray or solicit prayers for persons when they are in distress in this world, we are in a sense implying that God only works in peoples lives, is only in relationship with people, in the troubled times, and even then only when invited to be present. Our prayers are more of a request that God enter into the secular and change our situation in the world. But I believe that true prayer emanates from our relationship with God, and not the world. And while it is wonderful that we pray for persons when they are struggling – pray for ourselves when we struggle – and covet the prayers of others in those times- our prayers need to be an extension of an ongoing relationship with God, in good times and bad. So when I say that this year I am giving up prayer for Lent – what I am saying is that I am fasting from my incomplete prayers that are based solely in worldly concerns, so that I can truly feast on those prayers that come straight from the heart of God. You see, I think when the Disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, it’s not because they had never prayed before. The concept of prayer did not originate with Jesus. No, I believe they were recognizing how powerless and incomplete and unsatisfactory their prayers were because they were more worldly in nature – while Jesus’s prayers came out of His relationship with God. In His prayers Jesus placed Himself in the very heart of God. And so His power was not based on His relationship with people and the world. It emanated from the heart of God, where His will is always for our best. And so the Disciples wanted to have that kind of prayer relationship with God. Teach us how, Jesus. And look carefully at Jesus’ response. The Lord’s Prayer is focused on God and our relationship with Him, rather than the things they were being confronted with from the world: the sick and the blind and the poor. True prayer places people in the will of God, rather than trying to conform God to the will of human beings. We need to give up our prayers that seek to convince God to act according to our will, that seek to convince God to dwell in our worldly concerns, and rather pray that people, including ourselves, will live always in God’s will. You see, if God’s plan was simply to dwell in our world, then Jesus would have never had to go to the Cross, and die. He would have lived among us always. But God’s plan was for Jesus to die in order to bring us to dwell with Him forever. Jesus told the Disciples at the last supper, I am going, I am dying, so that I can go and prepare a place for you to live with God forever. And that’s where our prayers need to focus.
So what then do I mean by giving up our prayers for Lent? Well first of all, we need to give up prayers that approach God as a Genie ready to grant us wishes if only we will rub His lamp with our prayers. Or a great wizard with a magic wand that He will use if we can gain His favor and ask nicely. Rick Warren, writes this: Prayer is not some secret words, some secret incantation or chant or spell, that if you know the right words and you say those special words, then you get your way all the time. So you look at your troubled marriage and you say in prayer: Abracadabra! Make me a great husband.” Or “Hocus Pocus! Give me a great wife.”
As I was studying for this message, I read that the incantation “hocus locus” began as a misunderstanding of the prayers in the Catholic Mass. When the priest would hold up the Bread he would say: “Hoc est corpus menu” which means the body of Christ, which according to the doctrine of transubstantiation those words referred to the moment when the bread actually is physically transformed into the body of Christ. But some who didn’t speak Latin very well heard “Hoc est corpus” as Hocus Pocus which then became a popular phrase to describe such a miraculous transformation. It eventually became part of the common vocabulary of magicians and court jesters.
This Lent I am inviting you to join me in giving up prayers that we regard as magical words that call upon God to magically or mysteriously change things in our lives. He may indeed choose to do that – but because it is His Will for us, not because we use the magic words when we ask.
And then we need to give up prayers that seem to imply that when we pray we are actually in a battle of wills with God for the control of our immediate world. Through prayer we battle with God to try and get Him to submit to our will. It’s like we are in a tug of war with God. Sometimes our prayers are based on the idea if we say it enough or are adamant in our prayers that we will bend God to our will. Remember Jesus criticizes the prayers of the Pharisees because in essence they believed that the more they said, the more words they used, the more they called attention to themselves, the more effective their prayers would be. Eventually they would wear God down and He would bless their prayers. And related to this are those prayers that try to bargain with God. “Lord, if you’ll do this for me, then I’ll do this for you.” Think of how many of us would have won one of these huge lottery jack pot prizes, if only God would respond to those kinds of bargaining prayers.
I recall a scene from the old television show MASH in which a wounded soldier confesses to Father Mulcahey that when he was laying on the battlefield wounded he had made a bargain with God that if God got him through this, he would become a priest. But, he said, I don’t want to be a priest. And Father Mulcahey tells him that God understands those kinds of prayers and He won’t hold him to his bargain.
That’s not how prayer works. Remember Jesus told a story that tells us that this is not the right way to approach God. A widow comes to a judge seeking justice and at first the judge turns her away. But the widow is persistent and keeps coming back to the judge again and again. Making such a pest of herself that finally the judge relents and says, “I’ll give you what you want, if you you’ll just stop pestering me.” And Jesus says simply to those listening to the story, “That’s not how God works.” We need to give up our prayers that seek to wear God down until He finally responds how we want God to respond.
And then one more. We need to give up prayers that are ritualistic in nature. In Jesus’ day the common practice to be made spiritually clean was to bring a sacrifice to the priests in the Temple, who would then pray for you to be absolved from your sins. Through the prayers of the priest, your sacrifice became the atonement for your sin. But outside of the ritualistic sacrifice there was no prayer, no absolution, no cleansing, no approaching God- you couldn’t even come into the inner court yards of the Temple. But as the early church developed after Jesus became the atonement for us all, we no longer needed the priest to pray for us. Humanity could approach God directly through prayer. In essence the Disciples were asking Jesus to teach them how to pray, themselves, that kind of personal prayer. The Lord’s Prayer addresses God in a way that the Jews would have never addressed God. Jesus calls Him “father”. His prayers came out of His personal relationship.
But then as the early church developed, prayer became more of a ritual of absolution. The people would go to the priest and confess their sins and transgressions and temptations, and what would the priest do. He would assign them to pray. Based on the severity of their sin, they would be prescribed to pray a certain number of “Our Fathers” or “Hail Marys”. In essence prayer became the punishment, the atonement for our sin. It became a ritual that often began out of our sense of guilt, rather than freeing us from our guilt through the Grace and Love of Jesus Christ. And so prayers focused more on the things of this world where evil had dominion, then they did the things of God where evil could never dwell. I don’t know about you, but often times my prayers emerge more out of the temptations of the world, then they do from the goodness of God’s heart. And so prayer becomes a tool to try and restore our relationship with God, rather than build upon it. What Jesus taught the Disciples is that prayer is not intended to be the absolution for the times when we give in to temptation, to sin. No, He said, it is prayer that focuses on our relationship with God, from God’s very heart, that gives us the strength and courage to resist temptation and sin. Look what Jesus says to the Disciples, don’t just pray for forgiveness but rather pray that in God the temptations will not come to us at all. So we must give up prayer that, in essence, becomes the sacrifice for our sins, the ritual that we repeat over and over again, in our attempt to be absolved from our sin. We must give up prayers that we regard as sacrificial. As penance for our sin. A duty rather than privilege. A responsibility rather than joy. A ritual rather than relationship. In the Sermon on the mount Jesus talks about the prayers of the Priest and Pharisees that have become ritualistic in nature and He says: Do not use meaningless rituals thinking that you will be heard for your many prayers. And so as we move into this Lenten Season, let me invite you to join with me in “giving up” prayers that view God as a magician who can be convinced to change our lives through the wave of his hand if we only use the right words to invoke His presence, and our prayers which engage us in a tug of war of wills, ours against God, for control of our immediate place in the world. And finally let’s fast from ritualistic prayers that seek absolution from sin rather than the strength to resist evil in the first place. True prayer emerges from our relationship with God which is constant and forever, not out of our struggles that we sometimes face in this fallen world. And our relationship with God begins when we stop trying to drag Jesus into our world but rather receive Him as our Lord and Savior who has prepared a place for us in the very heart of God. And that can happen this very day. Come and enter into the heart of God this very moment. Feast on His presence right now. This Lent let’s give up our worldly approaches to prayer and feast on the prayers that come directly from the heart of God. You come as we sing.