Prayer - not like that! - Matthew 6:5-15
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Let me tell you about two young brothers. 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 bedtime the two of them sat together on the bed to say their prayers. Ten year old Jim prayed: ‘Lord God, please look after Mum and Dad and keep us all safe tonight- amen.’ Short and to the point. Then seven year old Harry bellowed at the top of his voice, ‘Dear God, please let me get a Bart Simpson T- shirt for my birthday.’ ‘You don’t have to shout,’ said Jim. ‘God isn’t deaf.’ ‘I know,’ whispered Harry. ‘But Grandad is.’
Prayer- the easiest and at the same time most difficult activity human beings can ever engage in. And, as that amusing little story illustrates, so easily abused if we don’t get it clear in our minds just what it is we are doing and who it is we are supposed to be praying to.
Well, 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’, the prayer which Jesus laid out before his followers for all time. It is not just that this is a prayer we are meant to say, it is a prayer which is meant to shape- that is form a template or model for all our prayers and so help us understand exactly what praying actually is and how to go about it. So do turn with me to Matthew 6:5-13 as we look at this section under two headings.
First, prayer- a proper understanding. Given the vital importance of prayer in the Bible we do need to do a Julie Andrews and ‘start at the very beginning’ – for all you Sound of Music fans- and ask; what is prayer? Well, even within the church today you would probably get several different answers to that question: prayer is silence, prayer is work, prayer is listening to God, prayer is meditation, prayer is praise and so on. But what, according to the praying man par excellence- Jesus- is prayer? What did he do and tell his disciples to do, as well as not do? We see it there in v 9: ‘This then is how you should pray……’ And will you notice, not a word about silence, nothing about listening to God, not even mention of praise. No, it is all to do with asking for things. After the opening statement recognising who it is we are asking- God- the Lord’s prayer is entirely made up of requests, seven in all: “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done”- those are the opening three requests which are concerned with God’s affairs, the really important things that matter to him and so should matter to us. Then there are four other requests which centre upon our needs: ‘give us, forgive us, lead us and deliver us.’ Then the prayer as a prayer ends.
Put simply, prayer is asking God for things. 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-often to God, but sometimes to a person. When you think about it, this comes over in old English usage when someone might have said rather quaintly, ‘Pray, tell me, why?’ – that is, ‘ I am asking you, requesting you, to explain why?’
The Christian writer, Dallas Willard describes prayer is this straightforward way; prayer he says is ‘Talking to God about what we are doing together.’ (rpt). As such it is essentially a personal activity, a person talking with another person. But not just any persons- it is a creature speaking with his Creator. However, it is because he 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 Dad they delight in and in whom he delights and loves to pieces. But there is a vital difference and qualification for he is, ‘Our Father in the heavens’ which sets him apart from all that he has made as being vastly superior - the one who has infinite wisdom and knowledge and unlimited power, a majestic King. Since it is God we are talking to, he is the one who must set the conditions by which we can approach him, and if we do not keep to those conditions, then we can’t expect God to hear us, in fact the exact opposite. 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 our sin has erected- 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- Hebrews 10:19 ‘Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place (the throne room of heaven) by the blood of Jesus…since we have a great high priest over the house of God (Jesus), let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.’ You see, without having met the entry requirements- faith in Jesus- prayer is nigh impossible. At the very least we can’t be sure that God hears us- but with trust in Jesus- we can be absolutely certain.
So prayer is talking to God about what we are doing together, as Father and sons and daughters. As Christians we should be concerned that God’s character and person are honoured- hallowed- that is treated with utmost respect. And that name is supremely honoured of course when people are converted and acknowledge him as their King- so to make that request is to commit ourselves to the task of Gospel proclamation. God is concerned that we should be forgiven and that our needs are catered for- so we talk to him about those things too. We are bound up in God’s life and he in ours and that is the basis for prayer and prayer is one of the means whereby God’s life and our life become more closely bound.
Now, if prayer is talking to God, it follows that some other activities are not prayer, they are other activities and we should not confuse things. So, praise is not prayer- it is praise, a joyful expression of our appreciation of God’s being and kindness. I certainly will praise God when I come before him and this is often a springboard for prayer, but it is not the same as prayer, for praise does not involve requests. Listening to God is not prayer- it is listening to God. How we listen to God is another question, but at the very least it is receiving his Word in the Bible- that is where we hear his voice clearly. But reading the Bible is not prayer. Silence is not prayer. By that I mean, sitting quietly with no mental activity going on which involves speaking to God. We can pray to God in silence in that without speaking out aloud using our lips, we can address God by formulating words in our head and so speak from our hearts as it were. But total silence is not a mystical way of getting in touch with God according to what we have here in the teaching of Jesus. In fact silence is the exact opposite of prayer, it is not talking. Sure, we may wish to sit quietly and reflect before we speak, or meditate upon a portion of Scripture or consider more carefully than we do the God before whom we are gathered- and do that in silence. But we do not speak to God by silence-it is simply not possible- words are needed, the sort of words Jesus gives us here. Again, to quote Dallas Willard when he says that as we come to the personal God of the universe, prayer is ‘intelligent conversation about matters of mutual concern.’ Prayer is personal speaking, not an impersonal chanting. It is intelligent, not mindless, we think before and as we speak. And we speak of matters of mutual concern, which means we ask for things that both we and God are interested in, and since he is interested in everything the scope regarding what we pray for is very broad indeed.
So, if that is what prayer is over and against what prayer isn’t, let’s turn to what Jesus says about prayer and improper practice.
Notice in verse 5 that Jesus says, ‘And when you pray’- not ‘If you pray.’ It is simply taken for granted that his followers will pray. And Jesus is concerned that they 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, although it may appear to be so to some people. You see, the context of this teaching on prayer is vitally important. The setting is, of course, the Sermon on the Mount. The main burden of this ‘talk on a hill’ 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. Salt is distinct from the meat into which it is rubbed. Light is distinct from, and dispels, darkness. A city on a hill is positioned for everyone to see and so is distinct from the surrounding environment- you can’t miss it. That, says Jesus, is how my followers are to be in relation to the 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. For example, some religious people give to the needy as a means of self-promotion- a sort of ‘Hey, look at me aren’t I being good’ boasting- but Jesus says to us (6:2), ‘When you give to the needy do not announce it with trumpets, but give secretly.’ And so when it comes to the vitally important business of talking with God, there are a couple of ‘do nots’ that Jesus has to deal with because he knows that we so easily fall into the trap of being like non-Christians.
The first is in 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. What is it that these people who spends hours in ‘prayer’, who are dedicated in ‘prayer’ out to do? Is it that they want to speak to God about things of mutual concern? Hardly! That is certainly not Jesus assessment of what is going on. What they really want is not to be heard by God, but to be seen by people. Hence, they are ‘hypocrites’- a hypocrite refers to a mask an actor would wear in a theatre to assume a particular role. The role these people are playing is that of the religious devotee. They make sure that they are seen to pray because they want to impress. In their case it is not a concern to impress God (they think he is impressed with them already)-but to impress onlookers. It is not with God hearing them but with people seeing them that is uppermost in their minds and propels them to pray the way they do. They love to hear folk say to each other in hushed tones of admiration- “I wish I could be like him. I wish I could pray as long as he does, as eloquently as he does, as passionately as he does.” That is why they pray. ‘And you know what?’ says, Jesus. ‘That is exactly what they get, and that is all that they get’- v5 ‘They have received their reward in full.’ The implication is that they have prayed simply to gain the adulation of men which they receive, but they have not gained the ear of God. What they wanted-praise- they have got- and to the full, so there is no room for anything else such as God listening to them. Their vanity is their tragedy.
Now let’s not misunderstand what Jesus is saying. He is not saying that we shouldn’t engage in any praying in public. Jesus prayed publicly, for his disciples heard him pray and were so bowled over by his simplicity and profundity that they wanted to learn how to pray like that too, so they said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ When you think about it, the question at issue is ‘sincerity’. When Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father, he did so because he wanted to and needed to- he was sincere. His eye was solely fixed on his heavenly Father, not the people around him. If they happened to listen in to him, that was purely incidental; what mattered most was God listening in. But the danger with the religious person, especially the one who occupies a position of leadership and responsibility is that he or she prays to make sure other people listen in so that people will keep looking up to them in awe saying , ‘ I wish I could be like them.’ But it is a sham says Jesus. A person who is sincere in cultivating their relationship with God by prayer will do so whether there are people present or not, and they will not go out of their way to find an audience. Now this can affect us all- not so much by praying in order to impress, but by not praying for fear of not being impressive enough. So you are at a prayer meeting-maybe in the homegroup and the reason you won’t pray- not can’t pray- is that you are afraid of stumbling over your words, of appearing not to be a good prayer and so you clam up. That has certainly been my experience. But shyness aside that is falling foul of what Jesus is getting at here. If we are sincere in talking with God, he knows that and what he thinks and not what other people think is all that matters-. You don’t have to use the language of Zion to talk to God either-all those ‘Thees and thous’ if you don’t normally speak like that and not many of us do. Sure, we don’t have to be slovenly in speaking to God, but we can be simple and straightforward and we will be if we are sincere.
The second ‘do not’ is in v 7, ‘When you pray, do not keep on babbling like the pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.’ Here Jesus is attacking not so much motive but the method. The sincere belief is that if we pray long enough and hard enough and intensely enough- those are the means whereby we are going to guarantee that God will hear us and answer us. This is a non-Christian, pagan view of prayer which reflects a non-Christian, pagan view of God. The picture of God which is held is of someone who is ignorant and reluctant. He is ignorant, lacking knowledge and so we have to fill God in with every detail otherwise he might not understand and do the wrong thing. Or he is reluctant to answer our requests and so we have to grab his attention and bend his ear by going on and on and on. God is viewed mechanically rather than personally. We have to press the right buttons, use the right formulae if we are going to get God to respond. That is exactly what we saw in our second reading and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. For hours on end they called out. That was obviously not getting them very far and so they thought they would throw in a bit of liturgical dance- so they pranced around for several hours more. Still no answer, and to show how really committed and serious they were they decided to indulge in self mutilation- slashing themselves with knives- surely their god will hear them now- talk about dedication? But apart from their god not existing, why should any personal God be so enticed by these sorts of shenanigans? Think of it this way. Your son or daughter is in some sort of need-maybe they just want to talk and share what is weighing heavy on their heart. Won’t you listen to them and give them your undivided attention? They are sincere, you know that. What you won’t do, unless you are perverse, is to lay down conditions and say, ‘I will only listen to you if you keep asking me at three O’clock in the morning for the next two weeks.’ That is not how persons behave. 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. And yet, we can with sincere evangelical piety approach God in prayer on the same basis. Take for example the practice, which the Christian Union at my son’s university did the other month- of having a rota of 24 hours of prayer. It was arranged that for every hour some student would be praying. And so a student put on his alarm clock to wake him up at 2.30 am, so he could go to a specially designated prayer room to pray- except he didn’t really pray, he was far to sleepy. But it looked good. And 3am! Surely God will warm to that type of devotion? Why should we think that God would be more impressed to hear sleepy half formed prayers at three o clock in the morning rather than alert meaningful prayers at 3 o clock in the afternoon? By the way, this also meant that many of the students were too tired to study the following day- which is hardly a good witness. To be frank that is Christian paganism. Look at verse 8- ‘Do not be like them’ Why? ‘For your Father knows what you need before you ask him’. There we have it. Prayer is asking. And prayer is asking ‘our Father who knows’. This is the all knowing God who is not ignorant of what we need so he has to be informed. However, he is a Father, who wants to be asked and who wants to answer. You see, by asking God for things we are affirming reality, we are showing what we deep down really believe- namely, that we are creatures dependent upon a Creator. That God is the generous Giver and we are grateful receivers. He is the Father who wants to demonstrate his loving care for his children, to show us he really does have our best interests at heart and so he has organised the universe in such a way that our requests actually count- prayer really does make a difference.
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