Message: Giving Up Our Prayers For Lent: What Prayer Is
Scripture: Luke 11: 1-4
Date: February 18, 2018
What prayer is? What a huge subject to tackle in just a 20 minute sermon. And I have struggled with how to approach this second week in our Lenten Series which I have called (with some fear and trepidation) “Giving Up Our Prayers For Lent”. And, of course, the truth is that I could talk about prayer every Sunday from now until the end of my ministry and really only scratch the surface of what prayer is, of what God intended when He gifted us with the ability and desire to pray. And, make no mistake about it, all of us were created to pray. If you think about it everybody in the the world prays to something. All of the religions of the world have a concept of prayer. We all have a sense of a power, a source of strength and meaning, that is greater than us, to which we pray. Whether it be nature, or animals, or pagan gods, or Satan or technology, or even human intellect, everyone has something we worship, we reverence and seek to be in touch with in some way. The writer of Ecclesiastes explains that this is true because God has planted eternity in the human heart. Because if you break prayer down to it’s most fundamental nature, it is our way to connect to the source of eternal life. It’s part of our DNA. And the second thing I would say is that, even though prayer is a part of who we are, many do not pray regularly because we don’t think we know how, or perhaps a better way to put it is that many of us don’t pray because we don’t think we’re very good at it. We don’t pray because we don’t know the right words to say. And I suspect that was part of the Disciples confusion. You see, the Rabbis in the synagogue school and the priests in the Temple evidently believed and taught that the power of prayer came in the words that were spoken. And so they prayed beautiful, but largely ineffectual prayers. Several times Jesus talks about how the priests love to stand in the midst of the Temple and call attention to themselves by praying long and beautiful prayers. But they were prayers that came from the intellect but not the heart. They were prayers that sought to invoke God’s presence in specific circumstances, rather than ones that acknowledge God’s presence in all circumstances, good and bad. It’s been my experience that when people say they don’t know the right words to say when they pray, it is because they pray with the misunderstanding that it is somehow our responsibility through prayer to bring God’s presence rather than acknowledge that God is already present. And I think that’s really the attitude behind the Disciple’s request. It’s not so much teach us how to pray as much as it is teach us what prayer really is. Because in reality, up to that point, the priests and the rabbis had really taught them and shown them what prayer is not, rather than what it is. They were professional prayers, all form but little substance. And the Disciples, in watching Jesus, had come to realize that what they had been taught about prayer was incomplete at best. Their sense of inadequacy in prayer came about because of their misconceptions of what prayer really was. And so it is, I think, for us. We talked about some of those misconceptions last week. If you missed it, you can check it out on the church web site. But here’s the thing. Most of our misconceptions about prayer are because we believe that true prayers are results oriented. And so we pray for deliverance from the things of the world and when that doesn’t come about then we think our prayers are ineffectual, or incomplete, or unanswered, or even wrong. We’ve said the wrong words, or struck the wrong pose when we pray. Something was wrong with our prayer and so God chose to not respond. At least not in the way we prayed He would. Giving up our prayers for Lent is really about giving up our misconceptions and replacing them with God’s understanding of prayer, His desire when He created you and placed prayer in our DNA.
So the Disciple says to Jesus “teach us how to pray” but there’s more to the request then that, even though we are usually in such a hurry to get to the teaching we kind of skip over it. But the disciple says “teach us to pray (and don’t miss this because I think it is key to understanding Jesus’s response) like John taught his disciples to pray.” You see I think the point that the Disciple was making was that John didn’t teach with just words as the Jewish officials did. He was very much into acted prayer. He just didn’t teach with words about repentance, and forgiveness and becoming brand new, he took people to the river and by exposing them to the waters of Baptism, by submerging the old and allowing the new to emerge he showed them what prayer is all about. It’s about being in touch with new life, eternal life. You see, the Disciple’s request might be more accurately understood as show us how to pray rather than teach us to pray. And so Jesus doesn’t sit the Disciples down and teach them about prayer as much as He shows them how to pray. Don’t be fooled by the false prayers, the counterfeit prayers of the priests. Instead when you pray “do” this. Not say it, but do it. Here is what true prayer looks like. You’ll know how to pray once you know what true prayer looks like.
Some time ago I came across an article talking about the proliferation of counterfeit money in the United States. Counterfeit bills are showing up everywhere. The article said that officers are not being trained by being exposed to the counterfeit bills. Rather the training consisted of spending hours examining and memorizing and recognizing the real bills – every detail – every color nuance of the ink and paper. And so the Counterfeit bills weren’t discovered because their pictures and images didn’t match. Instead they were discovered because some minute detail that was included on the real bill, was not on the counterfeit bill. Only those who had spent many hours studying and exposed to the real money, were able then to determine what was not real. True prayer is learned by seeing what it is, rather than experiencing what it’s not. You know this was a very different approach to prayer then what the disciples were schooled in. Because the first thing that Jesus showed them was that true prayer comes out of our relationship with God, rather than seeking to enter into relationship with God. Because we are in relationship with God, we desire to be in Communion with Him and He desires to be in communion with us. You know the root of both Communion and Communication is the word commune which implies both presence together and conversation. And so at the last Supper Jesus says, from now on every time you gather, let us commune with one another. God’s will is for us to pray. For us to talk with Him rather than about Him. When we pray we come into the presence of God. Wow, think about that. Almighty God, the creator and sustainer of the universe. All powerful. All knowing who we keep pretty busy dealing with our folly. And yet His deepest desire is to commune with me, and you, and not just once in a while, but all the time. And so Jesus shows the Disciples prayer that is based in relationship. By beginning the Lord’s Prayer with “our Father” Jesus is placing prayer in the context of the loving relationship between a parent and child. And the centerpiece of any loving relationship is our communication with one another. The Psalmist says this: The Lord is like a parent to His children, tender and compassionate to those who love Him. You see the Disciples had previously learned about prayer in the context of a distant God, who needed an intermediary to communicate with Him on our behalf. But Jesus showed them a God who was a loving parent, eager to communicate directly with us, just as a mother or father desires to communicate with their children. Prayer is an extension of our love for God, and God’s love for us. God desires our prayers, much like we desire conversation with our children and loved ones. So true prayer is not something we learn. It comes naturally out of our relationship with God. Think about how excited we are as parents when our children speak their first words. That comes out of our desire to be able to communicate with our children. Well I believe that’s how excited God is every time we pray. Prayer is the key to our relationship with God. When we love each other we want to communicate with one another. But the opposite is true also. Relationships struggle and sometimes die, when we stop communicating with one another. When parents and children become estranged, and when marriages get in trouble, it is almost always because communication has broken down. So many times through the years I have counseled parents whose kids have gotten into trouble and have heard so frequently the pain of parents when they say my son or daughter just won’t talk to me anymore. Or husbands and wives say we just don’t talk to each other anymore. Communication can be hard work, but you see, without communication, relationships break down. And so it is with our relationship with God. When we fail to pray, our relationship with God breaks down. Our prayers are the key to understanding and knowing God.
And then secondly, true prayer comes directly from the heart. It is communication between our hearts and God’s heart. You know, sometimes we get caught up in thinking that our prayers have to be profound in content, and flowery in expression to be true prayer. But Jesus’s prayers were just the opposite. I’m sure we have all known people that were renowned for their beautiful prayers. These are the prayers that sometimes shake our own confidence in our ability to pray. We fear that we don’t know the right words to use when we pray, or we won’t say it in the right way, or use the right posture, or pray in the right context. And so we leave prayer to the experts. All of their lives, the Disciples had been content to let the priests and the rabbis and pharisees pray for them. But Jesus is hard on those kinds of prayers and says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogue and on the street corners in order to be seen by people.” Instead, He says, when you pray go to your room and just talk to your Father, unseen by people.” That’s what the Disciples witnessed in Jesus. He often went off by himself to pray where it was just Him and the Father alone, connected through prayer. Do you have a place where you can retreat and be alone with God? True prayer is not intended to be merely a ritual or a show. It is a conversation between a loving parent and a loving child. Heartfelt and simple. You see the problem with ritualistic and repetitive prayers that we often substitute for personal prayer is that in recitation we are apt to stop thinking about what we are even praying. They are more form than substance and soon become little more than a substitute for prayer that is a real conversation with God. When I was a kid, my mother taught the three of us boys how to say grace at the dinner table. It was the standard “God is great” prayer. And then once we learned it, we rotated the responsibility of saying grace from night to night. That became our dinner table ritual. And it became kind of a contest between us brothers – who could say it fastest. We always said the same prayer. I remember one time my grandfather was visiting. Now my grandfather was a good man, but I never knew him to be much of a church goer. And we sat down at the dinner table and one of us rocketed through the prayer and when we finished my grandfather said: “You said that so fast do you even think about what you are saying? Because I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t understand a word you said.” Obviously in the nightly, lightening fast repetition the prayer had lost it’s meaning. It had became meaningless repetition. Jesus says, “don’t keep babbling on and on like the pagans, who think they will be heard because of their words.” When prayer becomes just a ritual, it loses it’s power and vitality.
Now this may come as a shock to many, but when Jesus offered what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer in response to the Disciples request, I don’t believe it was ever His intention that we would turn it into a ritual that we practice every time we worship. In Luke’s telling, it is clear that Jesus intends for this to be more of an outline for prayer, rather than the prayer itself. Luke remember was a gentile convert and would have been unfamiliar with the Jewish understanding of ritualistic prayer. So, as Luke understood this encounter, Jesus was saying to the Disciples when you pray you need to pray from the heart to your loving “father”, pray with a sense of reverence and awe, seek forgiveness for your transgressions as well as the strength to resist temptations in the future. That was it. But when Matthew tells us essentially the same story, he puts it in the midst of the Sermon on the mount and he “fleshes” out the outline that Luke gives us into more of the prayer that we recognize and repeat every Sunday. Now I’m not saying that we should stop using the Lord’s Prayer in worship. But what I am suggesting is that if we do, we need to take the time to speak it from the heart and not just the mind.
True prayer is heart prayer.
Then I would say that true prayer is prayer that God responds to out of the goodness of His heart. You know the Bible makes it clear that God loves it when we ask something of Him in prayer. Think about all of the times in the New Testament we are encouraged to ask. “Ask and it shall be given. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. To Jeremiah God says, “Call to me, and I will answer you. I will show you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.” True prayers are those that are answered out of God’s will and remember that God’s will for us is always good. We need to give up prayers which seek to take us out of God’s will. And here’s the thing, God will always answer those things that are asked of Him according to His Will but the qualifier to that statement is also the great assurance that comes with prayer and that is that His Will for us is always good, no matter what the circumstance, even though we may not see it or understand it at the time. The Apostle Paul who certainly knew his share of hard times was still able to offer some of the most hopeful and assuring words of the Bible when he says “We know that God works all things together for our good” but we often stop there and don’t read on. Because Paul goes on to say that God works all things for good “for those who love Him and who are living according to His will.” True prayer places us in the will, in the goodness of God’s heart for us. But the problems come, when we ask thing in accordance with God’s will, but look for the response according to our own will. And sometimes our will and God’s will are not in sync. And so when God answers prayer according to His will rather then how we think He should respond, we think that God has failed to answer our prayers at all. But sometimes the loving response, the answer according to God’s good will for us is no, or not yet or just the opposite of what we think. As a loving parent our children ask for a lot of things as they are growing up, but we quickly learn that what is best for them does not always match what they desire. And so it is with prayer. Learning how to pray means trusting in God’s will for our lives, assured that, even though we don’t always understand it and initially perceive it that way, His will is always good.
And then finally I would say that true prayer is a continuous conversation with God. In fact I would go so far to say that God not only desires that we be in constant communication with Him, He longs for it. He wants to hear about our joys, as well as our sorrows. Our good times, as well as our bad. Our triumphs as well as our failures. Through prayer we place our whole life in God. He is our partner. He is our friend. He loves us through it all. That’s what prayer that comes from our relationship with God is all about. And it comes through constant communion and communication. There are many scriptures that talk about that and I have included some of them in this week’s toolbox. Perhaps my favorite one is this from the 30th chapter of Isaiah: “The Lord waits for you to come to Him so He can show you His love.” True prayer gives God the chance to show His love for us in every circumstance of our life. But here’s the thing, too many of us pray compartmentalized prayers, contextual prayers. We tend to let the prayers we offer during worship suffice for our daily prayers, or perhaps our prayers consist of grace before a meal, or we might set aside a few minutes every day to spend in prayer. But you see if we relegate prayer only to certain times, or certain places, or certain circumstances, it is very easy to lose touch with God and deny Him the chance to show His love to us in all things. Are there times when you feel out of touch with God? Well, it’s not because God has lost touch, it’s because you have. And a relationship where one party loses touch with the other, is a troubled one. That doesn’t work in our human relationships, and it won’t work in our relationship with God. The Apostle Paul says that true prayer is “prayer without ceasing.” It never stops. When we love someone, we desire, we long, to be in touch with that person always. Well, so it is with God. I can remember when Anna first went off to college, my biggest adjustment was dealing with the extended periods of time when we were basically out of touch with her on a regular basis. I struggled with that. And so I became a social media stalker of my own daughter. I kept in touch with her by tracking her digital footprint. So every night, before I went to bed, I would check the preferred social media platform (I think it was My Space at the time) for any indication that she had logged in to her account, and then I knew that she was home and safe and I could rest easy. I didn’t always message her directly but kind of stayed in touch vicariously through her other room contacts. I so longed as a father to be in constant touch with her and just to know that everything was okay. Through prayer we stay in touch with God, and meet His longing to be in touch with us. Continual prayer is the assurance of God’s presence with us and our presence with Him through all of life’s journeys.