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Proper prayer - Matthew 6:5-13

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 4th October 2015.

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Jim and Harry always loved staying overnight with their grandparents as children often do. They had a fantastic day with Grandma and Grandad and just before turning in for the night the two of them knelt together by their beds to say their prayers. Ten year old Jim prayed: ‘Lord God, please look after Mummy and Daddy and keep us all safe tonight. Amen.’ Short, sweet and to the point. Then seven year old Harry bellowed at the top of his voice, ‘Dear God, please let me have a new bike for my birthday.’ ‘You don’t have to shout,’ chided Jim. ‘God isn’t deaf.’ ‘I know,’ whispered Harry. ‘But Grandad is!’

 

Prayer - the easiest and yet at the same time the hardest activity we can ever engage in. And, as that little story illustrates, so easily abused if we don’t get it clear in our minds just what it is we are meant to be doing when we pray as well as remembering just who it is we are supposed to be praying to.

 

Over the next few weeks we are going to begin an exploration of the mystery and wonder of prayer by focusing on what is probably the most famous prayer in the whole world- ‘The Lord’s Prayer’- in that it was taught by the Lord Jesus himself. This is not so much a prayer that Christians should pray (although they do) but a model of how to pray, this is what Jesus says in verse 9, ‘This then is how you should pray’. And so strictly speaking this is better thought of as ‘the disciple’s prayer’.

 

Let’s begin by asking the basic question: what is prayer?  A simple question which if asked today will elicit many different answers- most of which will be wrong: so, some will reply that prayer is silence, prayer is listening, prayer is meditation, prayer is praise and so on and so forth. So how do we get to the right answer?

 

Well, if someone were to ask me: what is rugby? I could give them a bit of a history lesson of how in 1823 a young pupil called William Webb Ellis, was playing a game of soccer in his local school when he decided that he was rather tired with how slow it was all going kicking a ball, and so decided to pick it up and run with it instead. The place was Rugby school- hence the name of the game. I might then try and explain the rules, how many players are involved and their different roles and positions, what a scrum is, which tackles are legitimate, how you score and so on. Or I might simply take someone to watch Hull FC play and explain the game as it steadily unfolds. That is what Jesus does here with prayer. You want to know what prayer is- let me show you he says- v 9: ‘This then is how you should pray……’ And you will notice that it is all to do with asking for things. After the opening statement recognising who it is we are asking- God the Father- the rest of the prayer is entirely made up of requests, seven in all, the first three are concerned with God’s affairs, the really important things that matter to him and so should matter to us: “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done”. These are then followed by four requests which centre upon our needs: ‘give us, forgive us, lead us and deliver us.’ Then the prayer ends. That is praying.

 

Put simply, prayer is speaking to God. The most common word used in the New Testament translated, ‘prayer’ in its different forms, (‘proseuche’) appears 121 times and in every case it means ‘to make a request’. When you think about it, this comes over in old English usage when someone might have said rather quaintly, ‘Pray, tell me Sire, why are we doing this?’ – that is, ‘I am asking you to give me an answer.’

 

But there is something else we must have before we can pray- and that is faith. You see, every request involves trust, trust that the person you are talking to understands you; trust that the person is able to grant what you ask for.  In other words, faith is the basis for making requests. And so it is when we come to God. It was the theologian Martin Luther who said that prayer is a ‘special exercise of our faith’. It shows deep down who we think God is, how we are related to him, what his priorities are, and how he acts in the world. And so on that basis of that knowledge we can ask him for things. In fact Luther said this: ‘Prayer is a special exercise of faith, and faith makes that prayer so acceptable that either it will surely be granted, or something better than we ask will be given in its stead.’ Isn’t that wonderful?

 

The Christian writer, Dallas Willard describes prayer is this straightforward way; prayer he says is ‘Talking to God about what we are doing together.’ As such it is essentially a personal activity, one person talking with another person. But not just any persons- it is a creature speaking with his Creator. As someone has said, ‘prayer is eye contact with God’- and that is a wonderful picture when you think about it- ‘eye contact’ –something which is close up and personal. And it is because God can also be known as ‘Father’ that we can come to him at the deepest level of intimacy and affection, like a son or a daughter with the Father they delight in and with whom he delights. But there is a vital difference and qualification between a child talking to their earthly father and a Christian talking to God as Father, for he is, ‘Our Father in the heavens’. This sets him apart from all that he has made as being vastly superior to anything and anyone. This phrase underscores his majesty and ‘divine attributes and ‘rights’, with all those ‘omni’ words (omnipresence- so we can pray to him anywhere- omnipotence- so we can pray for anything for he has the power to deliver, and omniscience- he knows what we need even before we ask and so will give us what he thinks is best). And so we can pray confidently because he is personal and almighty.

 

And since it is God we are talking to, he is the one who sets the conditions by which we can approach him, and if we do not keep to those conditions, then we can’t expect God to listen to us. This means that because of God’s holiness, sin has to be acknowledged and repented of. Indeed, some means have to be provided to get rid of sin which otherwise would block any meaningful relationship with him. It is very difficult speaking to someone when a wall is in the way. Well, God has provided the means of breaking down that wall of our sin by the sacrifice of his Son Jesus on the cross. So for those who are putting their trust in him they know with certainty that they are going to be welcomed, more than that- encouraged by God to bring as many requests to him as they want. You see, without having met the entry requirements- faith in Jesus- prayer is nigh on impossible. At the very least we can’t be sure that God will listen to us - but with trust in Jesus- we can be absolutely certain he does.

 

Notice in verse 5 that Jesus says, ‘And when you pray’- not ‘If you pray.’ And Jesus is concerned that we will do so properly, which means there is a right way to pray and a wrong way and so it follows that the wrong way is not really praying at all. This is where the context of Jesus teaching on prayer is important. The setting is, is the Sermon on the Mount. The main burden of this ‘talk from the mountain’ is that Jesus followers are to be different. They are to be like, salt, light and a city on a hill, (5:13-16) and what characterises all three pictures is that they are distinctive. That, says Jesus, is how my followers are to be in relation to their surrounding culture- different. And that is why peppered throughout the Sermon on the Mount is a whole host of ‘do nots’. Other people may do things certain ways, but Jesus followers are not to do things like them but differently. And so when it comes to the vitally important business of talking with God, prayer, there are a couple of ‘do nots’ that Jesus has to deal with first because he knows that we so easily fall into the trap of being like non-Christians who try to pray.

 

First, don’t be like the poseur- verse 5, Do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full.’

 

Who is Jesus speaking about when he refers to the ‘hypocrites’? Well, he could have said, ‘Do not be like the religious showmen’. Here Jesus is concerned with wrong motivation in prayer. The religious man par excellence- the Pharisee -prays impressively because he wants other people to be impressed- that is why you will see him standing up in the synagogue and standing out on the streets-real impression management if ever there was. And subtly we can all be tempted to do this even as Christians in the name of ‘witnessing’. Now I always say grace at meals, I learnt that when I first became a Christian. God gives the food and so I should give him the thanks. But I don’t have to bow my head and bellow, especially in a restaurant: “Thank you Lord for this food, even though it is Mac Donald’s. I hope all the other patrons are as thankful to God as I am. And although Mac Donald’s has destroyed and mutilated this piece of beef, it did originally come from you Lord and so you are to be thanked. In the name of the One who saves us all- John 3: 16 ‘ For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. Amen.” Now what good does that do? I can actually thank God for my food without bowing my head, without closing my eyes or uttering a word out loud. The reason I pray is because I am thankful to God and not because I have to impress people. The same goes for when we pray at a prayer meeting or  home groups- our focus is to be upon the great prayer hearing God not the other listening people in the room, as long as we are sincere in what we pray, it doesn’t matter too much how we pray it for we are not trying to impress anyone.

 

Then Jesus says, don’t be like the pagan, v 7 ‘When you pray (here again is the contrast), do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him’.

 

Here Jesus is concerned with wrong methods in prayer. Sometimes as a Christians we tend to be oppressed by the challenge to pray. We read stories of people like Martin Luther spending three hours every morning in prayer and then feel guilty because of our lack of prayerfulness. We think it is a major achievement if we make 15 minutes! But God is not impressed by how long others have been praying, so why should we be? Their length of praying simply flowed out of their relationship with God. Let me tell you: God would prefer thirteen minutes of sincere prayer than three hours of wind. It is that you pray which matters not particularly how long you pray. As someone said of these spiritual giants in prayer, ‘I respectfully suggest that they are no more the norm for prayer than an Olympic medal winner in the marathon is the norm for joggers.’[1]

 

Look, when I am with someone I get on with, I love talking with them. If they are in a position to help me when I am in need, I will talk to them about that. But there would be something seriously wrong and strange with that relationship if I thought ‘Well, today I had better make our conversation an especially lengthy one, an ear bender of mega proportions, otherwise I might not get what I ask for.’ And so I set my clock and off I go. That would be bizarre wouldn’t it? Why then do we think that we have to act like that when it comes to God? That is not how persons relate. However, if you have a vending machine as you see at the railway stations from which you can obtain chocolate bars- by the very way they are constructed unless you use English coinage and often the right amount of coinage- you will not get what you want. But that is because they are machines. There is a strict ‘cause and effect’ relation between what you put in and what you get out. But that is the pagan view of god and so the pagan view of prayer. Here god is something to be domesticated and manipulated with the hope that more we go on at him the more readily he will give in to our requests. Do you see?

 

Now I am all for the prayer meetings we have here fortnightly and it would be great if only more of you came along. They are terrific times and we rob ourselves of real blessing if we miss them.  But I have to say that on the basis of this passage that I am troubled by some ideas about prayer which are doing the rounds in Christian circles at the moment. The idea of the prayer marathon such that if we have a prayer relay throughout the night, or throughout the world at the same time then we will see revival. Now where do you get that in the Bible? You don’t but you do get it in paganism. It was the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, who had the prayer marathon, but it was Elijah who simply and sincerely uttered a prayer lasting no more than a few seconds who was heard- and how he was heard- fire came down from heaven! You see, how we pray reveals how we view God.

 

If our view of God is as a weak god or a reluctant god, then we will have to devise ways of coaxing him. It is the idea that until we have prayed long enough, or intensely enough or interestingly enough, then he may not be able or willing to act- which means that at the end of the day he has to rely more upon us than we upon him. Or if he is reluctant for whatever reason, then we have to somehow twist his arm and overcome the reluctance That is hardly the biblical view who presents us with a great King in whose hands are the hearts of all rulers, who is a heavenly Father who knows what his children want even before they ask. Sure, we are to be persistent in prayer, but that is not the same as being pagan in prayer, however well intentioned.

 

So that is what we are not to be like, instead Jesus says do be like the petitioner. The proper way of viewing prayer can be summed up in two words- simplicity and sincerity, both of which are underscored by the model prayer Jesus gives in v 9. This is hardly a long prayer. It begins with a proper view of God as Father and holy who is transcendent in heaven, so he isn’t like the pagan gods subject to our whim and fancy. It is a prayer which reflects God’s priorities too- concern for his kingdom, and it acknowledges that God urges us to share with him in his great work by praying and committing ourselves to his cause, so that his will shall be done- on earth as in heaven. It also reflects a sense of humble dependence upon him for daily provision of food and forgiveness of sins- material and spiritual needs which he alone can meet, as well as our own vulnerability to sin and asking that whenever in his sovereign love God allows us to be tempted, he will provide a way of escape so that as we are tested we are strengthened. Such praying is sincere- from the heart, theologically informed-from the Bible, and simple like a child with her father. That is the gift of prayer.

 

[1] Steve Farrar, Point Man: How a man can lead his family.

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