Prayer - that's the way to do it! - Matthew 6:5-13

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 12th October 2008.

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We when we started this series on 21 September, I began by talking about the crisis in our financial markets.  Having worked for both the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority, I had a keen interest in what was happening to our banks.    And you might recall that I compared what was going on today with the banking crisis we experienced in the early 1990s.  But over the last 3 weeks, it’s become clear that the scale of the financial crisis has well outstripped what we experienced in the 1990s.  Indeed, many commentators have been drawing parallels with the conditions that prevailed in the 1930s which led to the Great Depression. 

But I want us to look back ever further than the 1930s.  Because on 14 October 1857, virtually the entire American banking system collapsed.  And that financial crisis quickly spilled over into a more general economic crisis as factories and shops started closing down in huge numbers.   Less than a month after that great crash, there was a crowd of riotous men gathered on Wall Street ready to storm the Treasury in order to get their hands on the $20mn stored in its vaults.  As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastics put it:  “there’s nothing new under the sun”;  except in our more civilised day, we use Congressmen and MPs to storm the Treasury on our behalf and come up with eye-watering rescue packages. 

But coming back to 1857, 3 weeks before that crash, a New York church had started a lunch time prayer meeting;  a lunch time prayer mtg like the kind I used to go to when I worked in the City of London.  And at the first of these prayer mtgs in New York, 6 people turned up.   Over the next couple of weeks, the numbers grew to about 35.  But on the day of that great crash, 100 turned up to pray.    Within 6 months, more than 6,000 New Yorkers were turning up to pray during their lunch hour.  And by then the model of lunch time prayer meetings had been copied in cities all over America;  and so 1000s upon 1000s of people were praying over their sandwiches. 

And their prayers were answered in a spectacular way.  The financial and economic crisis was eventually turned around the then American economy powered ahead once again.  But far more importantly, one historian claims that over a million lost souls were won for the Lord in the revival that was said to have been started by that lunchtime prayer mtg;  a lunchtime prayer mtg that began with 6 people and a few sandwiches.

As we were singing last week in the children’s song:  Our God is a great big God and He holds us in his hands.  His higher than a Skyscraper like Canary Wharf and deeper that the worst crisis in the City;  he’s wider than western civilisation and beyond my darkest fears;  and He's known me and He’s loved me since before the world began, how wonderful to be a part of God’s amazing plan.

How wonderful indeed.  And a plan that involves prayer.   Because that’s what we’re thinking about this morning.  Prayer – that’s the way to do it.    We’re in Matthew chapter 6 on p [901/    1503].  

And if you were here a fortnight ago, then you’ll remember that we looked at the same passage, but on that occasion we were thinking about how not to pray.    And so in v5 we were commanded not to pray to impress people, but pray to God.  Not prayers to impress, but prayers to God.  And in v7 Jesus told us not to pray prayers with mindless repetition, but pray from the heart. 

And so today, we’re going to look at v5-8 again and pick up on the positive points:  or as the sermon title puts it:  prayer:  that’s the way to do it.   And so this morning I’ve got 2 Bs for you.  The bedrock of prayer and the bottom line of prayer.  

The Bedrock of prayer (v6)

So first in v6 we see the bedrock of prayer.    And of course the context of v6 is the hypocrisy Jesus was unmasking in v5.    Whether they were praying in church, at a HG, on the Tele or down at Tesco, hypocrites pray to be seen by other people.    They’re praying to receive other people’s adulation.  And at the end of v5, Jesus says that achieve what they were aiming for:   praise from men.  Their prayers won’t be answered, but they’ve received their reward in full.  

It’s not that public prayers are wrong.  In the Gospel we see Jesus praying in public.  The book of Acts is full of public prayers by the Apostles.  The OT church had public prayers and so do we;  there’s nothing wrong with praying in public if our public prayers are addressed to God and are an out flowing of our private prayers. 

Yes we can see Jesus praying publically in the Gospel.  But we’re also told that ‘Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Lk 5:16).  And on another occasion: Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God  (Lk 6:12). 

It’s not that praying in public is necessarily wrong.     But our public prayers should be an out-flowing of our intimate private prayer lives.    That’s how Jesus lived.  And that’s what he teaches us in v6:

Mt 6:6 “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”

Location

And we need to be careful not to misunderstand what Jesus is saying here.  Jesus isn’t saying that, when you do your private prayers, you have to have a special private prayer room or chapel.  Personally, I do like to go into my study and close the door when I say my private prayers.  But Jesus prayed up a mountain and in a boat.  The Apostle Peter prayed on the roof of a house.  The point is not the geography;  no the main point is to find somewhere where you’ve got the mental space to pray in private to your heavenly Father;  somewhere where you can tune out of the constant nose and distractions of life;  and if that was difficult in J's day, how much more difficult is it our day;  at a time when we’re constantly bombarded with messages, images, noise and general demands for our attention;  death by e-mail as I sometimes call it. 

So if you can pray while driving to work, then great.  If you can tune out of the adverts and the bustle and pray on the bus, then great.  

But most of us need a bit of help tuning out of the distractions;  we need to turn off the phone, the broadband or the TV; we might need to escape from a house full of noisy children;  we might go an pray in the shed, or in the loft, or maybe for you, going to your bedroom and shutting the door is the right thing.    The geography’s not the issue:  the main issue is finding a special somewhere where you can be along with your Heavenly father;  alone mentally; free from distractions and the general noise of modern life.  And that will be different for each one of us, depending on our personalities and our circumstances.  But we all need somewhere.  So let me ask you:  where’s your secret meeting place with the Lord.  And can you meet Him there in peace? 

Content

The bedrock of prayer then in v6.  And we’ve seen that the first aspect of that bedrock was location location location.;  making sure we’ve all got a secret place to say our prayers.  But the second aspect of that bedrock is content.    Now apologies to those who love them, but I’m not too keen on Rice Crispies for breakfast.  It’s not that I dislike the taste, it’s just that there’s nothing to them is there?  They’re just air and sugar as we say in the Peter’s household.  A bowl full of Rice Crispies for breakfast, and you’re hungry again half way through the morning, because there’s nothing to them.  Not much content. 

And it’s the same with our prayers.  V6&7 make it crystal clear that prayer is all about speaking words;  speaking words to God.  We’re not to mindless repeat the same words as we learnt last time in v7;  but prayer is speaking to God using words.    And we need to be clear about this because some would say sitting in silence or contemplating a candle or a piece of art is also prayer;  but it’s not;  prayer is speaking to God using words.  And so neither is prayer listening to God speaking to us.  God speaks to us through His word the Bible;  and during our quiet times, during our times of Bible reading and prayer that is, the Holy Spirit might open up the meaning of a particular passage we’re reading, or recall to mind a completely different part of Scripture;  or He might even give us a subjective hunch about something that would need to be tested against Scripture.  It’s all part of our overall relationship with the Lord, but it’s not prayer.  Because according to v6&7, prayer is speaking words to God.  Intelligible words that both we and God can understand.  Not mindless repetition of some mindless mantra.

Well that’s fine you might be thinking, but what do we actually pray about?    Well look ahead to v9 which we’ll be looking at more next week:

 9"This, then, is how you should pray:

J taught us the Lord ’s Prayer not primarily as a set prayer to repeat in church.  Not the Lord’s prayer is a model prayer.  This then is how you should pray.  The LP teaches us about the content of our prayers;  the kind of prayers we should be praying.  And so as we go through it line by line over the next 3 months, that’s exactly the issue we’ll be looking at;  what kind of things does the Lord want us to pray.  But before we get into the detail let’s look at the overall shape of the prayer:  and the first thing to notice is that that the first 3 petitions are all about God not us:  dear HF, may your name be hallowed;  dear HF: may your kingdom come and may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.   And so that’s the model for us:  our prayers should start with, and be shaped by, God;  shaped by God’s concerns and supremely for God’s glory.    Yes of course we’re invited to pray for our own daily needs later in the prayer.  Yes of course, if we’re Christians, God is our Father and he longs to provide for our daily needs.  But the most important thing to God is His glory, His name, His will and His plans for His creation.  And so that must be our starting point. 

So how does that compare with our private prayer or even our public prayers:  how many of our prayers start with our needs, our concerns, and our problems;  health problems, financial problems, economic problems, relationship problems.  We may not be as crass as the 10 year old who prayed:  “Dear Lord Jesus, when I grow up, please give me a Mercedes”;  but often the content of our prayers is often just as me-focused.    The whole structure of the LP teaches us that our prayers need to be God-focused.  Shaped by His glory, His plans and His character. 

And one of the best ways we can learn to do that is to pray the prayers of Scripture, like the prayer in Col 1.  A prayer that starts by thanking the Lord for the growing faith of the Colossian Christians.  And one of the best books I've ever read that helps us to do just that is this one [hold up] by Don Caron:  ‘A call to Spiritual Reformation;  Priorities from Paul and his prayers’.     

And I want to share with you 2 other practical tips to help us with the content of our prayers that I’ve picked up from older wiser Christians:

Plan to pray-

First we must plan to pray.   Now before we get too legalistic about timings, we need to recall the situation back in J's day;  because in J's day the Jews had 3 set times of the day when they were supposed to say their prayers.  But, we notice from the Gospels that Jesus deliberately distances himself from any set time for prayer.  God is our Heavenly Father and we can enter the throne room of grace anytime we like.  But in v6, Jesus does encourage us to plan to pray:  which means that as well as arrow prayer throughout the day, it’s good for all us to find a special time to pray.  Notice that he’s not saying that everyone should pray first thing in the morning.  Personally I think that’s the best time, but you try telling as shattered mother with young children that she must pray first thing in the morning and you’re likely to get a wet nappy flying your way.  But whenever it is, it’s good to plan to pray;  to have some kind of routine.   

Now to some, it might sound very un-spiritual to say that we need a plan or routine for prayer, but the reality is that one of the biggest excuses for not praying is that we’re too busy.   And it’s also a fact that we do plan to do what we think’s important:  we make time to watch TV, surf the web, read a book, go to the gym, or whatever’s our thing.  So if prayer really is important to us, as it should be, then we need to make time to pray. We need to plan time in to pray.  And we’ve already touched on that earlier haven’t we?  For some of us, it might be that 30 minutes in the car on the way to work.  For frantically busy young mums, it might mean escaping to the bedroom or even locking yourself in the loo for 10 minutes away from the mayhem.  It doesn’t matter when, but it does matter that we’re doing it.  And to borrow a  phrase from one of the management development course I used to go on:  if you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.  It’s true in business, but it’s also true in our prayer lives.  So let me ask you - not only where’s your secret place of prayer, but when do you go there? 

Structure your prayers-

That was the first main tip:  plan to pray.  And so secondly, I would suggest that we need some structure to our prayers. Now again, how much structure is a matter of taste;  when Kate and I pray together, I like to write a list but Kate wants to just get on with it.  And some of you might be siding with Kate and saying that if we go for structured prayers and lists, then isn’t that less spiritual – I thought last time you were telling us to pray from the heart, not just mindless repeat a prayer list?   

But the key thing is whether our prayers are mindless or perhaps even mind-wondering.  Having a basic structure or list or even a prayer diary could help us to be more mindful and focused rather than mindless.  But ultimately we can’t be legalistic and each one of us needs to work out a system that fit with the personality and circumstances the Lord has given us.  And so with that in mind, let me share with you a couple more tips I’ve picked up along the way: 

And the first one is to have an overall structure or shape for our prayers;  and the classic model is the ACTS model:  where ACTS stands for: A for Adoration, or god-focused prayers, C for confession, private confession of sin that is;  T for thanksgiving, and S for Supplication or asking prayers.  Although I personally swap the order round into:  Thanksgiving, Confession, Adoration and then finally Supplication or asking prayers.

But what about those supplication or asking prayers.  Where do you start, when there’s so much to pray for.  And that where the next tip comes in:  what not start a personal prayer diary:  a diary where you decide which people you’re going to pray for every day, and which ones you’re going to pray for on other days of the week or month.  And of course prayer diaries and calendars like the main SJs prayer diary can help us in this.

 

I mentioned death by e-mail earlier.  But it’s not just junk e-mail trying to sell me things and leaflets from the local Pizza company is it?  I find that I’m bombarded by prayer letters and prayer e-mails.  And so you’ve got 3 options on how you’re going to deal with all those prayer requests 1) you could bin the whole lot as soon as it arrives and say:  well I haven’t got time for that lot as well as a prayer diary;  and for some that might be right;  2) but secondly you could pile them all up on the sideboard in the kitchen and promise to pray for the whole lot every week  -  and then feel guilt when you haven’t reached your totally unrealistic goal;  or 3) thirdly, you could put all those prayer letters in a folder and pray for one or 2 a day or however many’s realistic for you, and when you’ve prayed for it, then put that one to the bottom of the folder.  When they’re out of date, you bin them.  And sometimes, you might have to bin the whole folder and start again    No guilt trips if you miss a day, or even a whole week;  just a helpful system to help you pray for the people you’ve committed yourself to pray for on a regular basis.

Practical tips then to help us with the content of our prayers.  The bedrock of prayer then in v6.  And the bedrock of prayer’s about both location and content.  And we’ve started to look at how we can ensure the content of our prayers is biblically based, as well as thinking about useful tips to help us in practice.  

Bottom Line of prayer (v6&8)

And the second overall heading in v6-8 is the bottom line of prayer.  The bottom line of prayer.    Look at v 6 again:

Mt 6:6  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

And the bottom line in prayer is that when we pray, if we’re not hypocrites, when we pray genuinely to the One True God prayers from the heart, he’s listening.  He’s not only listening, but because he’s eternal, outside time and knows everything, He already knows what we’re going to ask even before we ask it.    Our Father is totally sovereign, and yet He’s chosen to work through our prayers.  He’s chosen to work out His eternal plans and purposes through the prayers of His faithful children.  How amazing is that?  Our Father answers our prayers.  That’s our reward:  answered prayer.  That’s the bottom line of prayer:  answered prayer.  Our prayers may not be answered in exactly the way we expected.  And like any good and loving human father, he won’t give us everything we ask for, especially if we ask for things that wouldn’t be good for us.  But if we’ve rooted out the hypocrisy and pray from the heart to our Heavenly father prayers in line with His will and plan and character, then He will answer us.  That’s our reward.   Just like He answered those prayers in New York back in 1857;  prayers that saw a million people won for the Lord. 

Our God is a great big God and he answers the prayers of His faithful people.  How wonderful to be a part of God’s amazing plan.  How wonderful indeed.  So let me ask you before we close in prayer:  are you part of God’s amazing plan:  are you one of His people?  And if you are, are you praying to Him:  in secret, in your special place, at your special time, and in a way that helps you to pray in line with God’s plans and purposes. 

We all struggle with prayer;  I struggle with prayer, we all do.  So let’s ask our Amazing God to help us in our prayer lives so that we might have the reward of seeing many prayers answered to the Glory of God.  Let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Dear HF, we all find prayer difficult, difficult not to be hypocrites, difficult to actually get on with in private despite all the help and guidance you’ve given us.  Father forgives us and help us to see he privilege and power of prayer, the delight of talking to our heavenly father, and the excitement of seeing the Lord of the universe answer our prayers.  Lord motivate us to pray, and help us all to fund the time, the place and the structures to get on with the privilege of prayer;  help us all to deal with the distractions and the excuses;  for our delight, but your ultimate glory we pray, Amen. 

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