Prayer - that's the way to do it! - Matthew 6:5-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The scene is an old Spanish mission station in the middle of a desert. Tumbleweed is blowing around, and the odd dog is lying in the dust. Standing in front of it is a monk with a tonsured haircut, wearing a coarse brown robe, which makes you itch just looking at it, with a piece of rope around the middle. His hands are clasped prayerfully in front of him, and he looks meek and fragile, unworldly, unsophisticated, and undernourished, probably from fasting. He stands before two big horses, and sat on those horses are the Lone Ranger and his trusty companion Tonto. The horses look ready for action with their flared nostrils and hooves pawing at the ground. The Lone Ranger and Tonto have their guns drawn, and their faces are fixed in grim determination. The monk says: ďI want to go with you.Ē ďYouíre a brave man, Father,Ē the Lone Ranger replies, ďbut it may be dangerous. You had better stay here where it is safe.Ē ďBut I want to help,Ē the monk says. ďI suppose you could pray,Ē replies the Lone Ranger. And at that moment, his great white horse rears up on its hind legs and with a wave of his hat and hearty ďHeigh Ho Silver-AwayĒ the Lone Ranger and his trusty companion disappear into the distance to wrestle with danger and the forces of evil, while the monk is left to pray in safety. Now be honest, who would you prefer to go with? The Lone Ranger and Tonto, or the monk. Well of course for me itís the Lone Ranger every time, because thatís where the action is!
And I guess that is what many of us often feel about prayer. It seems so weak and helpless on the face of it. It certainly doesnít look like that is where the action is. Weíd much prefer to be doing other things than spending time in prayer. And that is why our series looking at the Lordís prayer in Matthewís gospel is very important. Because many of us if we are Christians will know that prayer is important. After all Jesus tells us to pray. And yet many if not all of us, if we are honest, find prayer a struggle, at least some of the time. In fact, itís interesting that Jesusí disciples specifically ask Jesus to teach them to pray. They donít ask him to teach them to preach or teach them to evangelise, though of course Jesus does teach on those things. But they do ask for help on prayer. And that is what we find in the Sermon on the Mount.
And we began last week by seeing that prayer is actually wonderfully simple. It is simply speaking to God and asking him for things. Prayer isnít complicated. Itís not about being in the right frame of mind, having the right posture, saying the correct form of words. Itís not waiting in the silence for a small voice, or staring into a candle for inspiration. It is simply speaking to God as our Father. And we found too that there are certain things that we are not to do as Christians when it comes to prayer. We are not to pray like the hypocrites, that is for everyone else to see. Weíre not to pray to get other peopleís approval. And we are not to pray like pagans, thinking that by the very length of our prayers we can badger God into giving us a blessing, rather like bashing a chocolate machine to give us our money back or the bar of chocolate. No, the Christian is to be distinct to the world around him by living a different life, a life which serves Jesus as Lord and which does not follow the fads and trends of the world around. That is the very point of the Sermon on the Mount. Itís a sermon about how to be a distinctive disciple of Jesus in the world. And it applies to our prayer lives, as much as in anything else. And this morning, Jesus will show us positively what prayer is. And if we do struggle in prayer, we should not feel guilty, but come again to the master and learn from him. For as so often he is gentle and humble in spirit and will not crush a bruised reed or snuff out a flickering wick. So letís enter Jesusí school of prayer and we will see this morning four things:
1) Who to pray to
2) How to come
3) What to say
4) What to expect
1) Who to pray to
So first letís see who to pray to. Now it might seem obvious who we are praying to as Christians. We are praying to God. But notice what Jesus says about God in these verses. Letís read from verse 6: ďBut 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. And when you pray, 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. "This, then, is how you should pray: ĎOur Father in heaven.íĒ We are to pray to God as Father. Now our problem is that this prayer has become so familiar to us that we miss the revolutionary truth that Jesus is teaching us here. That for the Christian there is an intimate relationship between him or her and God. God has become a Father to us. We are his children. This is the Father who rewards us, who longs for us to come to him in prayer, as a Father longs for his children to be dependant on him. This is a Father who knows what we need. And who lovingly gives us what we need. The apostle Paul in Romans 8 says this of God: ďHe who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?Ē The very God who sent his only Son into the world to die on a cross for us, is the very same God who promises to give us all things, not of course, everything we want, but all we need. And if he has done the much bigger thing of sending his Son to die for us, then surely we can trust him to sort out the smaller affairs of our lives. This is the loving gracious God that we are praying to. And not only is God the Father who is willing to give us what we need. But he is also the Father in heaven who is able to give us all we need. There is no point praying to a God who cannot deliver. Nor is there any point praying to God who does not want to deliver. But the God of the Bible is both a God who wants to deliver and who is able to deliver. He is not uncaring nor is he distant and impotent. No, he is our Father in heaven. He is Lord of heaven and earth. The king over the universe.
Now we will ponder this truth for a whole sermon next week. But itís worth us considering briefly this morning if this is one of the reasons why so many of us find prayer such a struggle. Quite simply because we forget the God we are praying to. We forget that he is both willing to give us all things and that he is able to give us all things. And that as Christians, through the death of Jesus on the cross, we have been brought into relationship with this awesome, loving God. He is the King, but one with whom we have a personal, loving relationship. Now in todayís world, such a person is very rare. But I did come across a story recently about a Moroccan man called Bouch. Bouch is a waiter in a bar in Chicago in the USA. There's nothing unusual about Bouch, except that he has an ongoing correspondence with the King of Morocco! The King, Mohammed VI, doesn't maintain a distance from his subjects, but interacts with them freely and frequently. He is also known for helping the poor, the disabled and those suffering injustice. Knowing this Bouch wrote off to his king at a time of need. And to his surprise King Mohammed VI personally wrote back! In fact he and Bouch have exchanged a number of letters. "Look at the letters," said Bouch to a reporter. "These are letters from the King. If I meet him, I'll be so happy." Well the reporter was a little sceptical, so he talked to the Moroccan deputy consul general in Chicago and discovered it wasn't at all unusual for the King to write personal letters to his subjects who were abroad. ďIt happens a lot," said the official. ďYou see he really loves his subjects.Ē
Now if itís one thing to have a personal ongoing correspondence with an earthly king who genuinely cares for your welfare, how much more wonderful it is to have a personal intimate relationship with the God of the universe, your heavenly Father who cares for you so much he sent his Son to die for you. And when we understand that key truth, then we will be much more motivated to pray to him, our Father in heaven. For he, says Jesus, is the God we pray to.
2) How to come
But secondly we see how to come, that is how we come to prayer, or how we go about it. And we discover that in verse 6: ďBut when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.Ē Jesus is saying that first and foremost prayer should be a private thing between us and God. Itís in contrast to the hypocritical praying that he has just warned against in the previous verse. We shouldnít pray to be seen by others and to gain their approval. Rather, we should take ourselves off and pray to God as our heavenly Father in the quiet of our own place. Of course, Jesus isnít teaching us that we can never pray in public, like in church or in a Home group. The early church clearly prayed together in public. Rather here Jesus is teaching us that prayer at its heart is between us and God. So make those personal private times of prayer a priority he is saying. In fact it has been well said that our public praying should spring from the well of our private prayers. In other words, if we appear to be so wonderfully prayerful in public but rarely come to God privately, then in reality we are being hypocrites. No, says Jesus, make personal private prayer a priority. ďBut when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.Ē
Now itís worth us pausing here to consider very practically how we can do this. Each one of us will find this hard whether we have been Christians a few weeks or a few decades, so are there any aids to help us pray more consistently. Well let me suggest to you four things which I have found helpful, and many others over the years.
a) Plan to pray- First we must plan to pray. I think Jesus may be hinting at this in verse 6, as he commands us specifically to take time out and go into our rooms and pray. We need to plan prayer into our busy lives. The author Don Carson in his book, ďA Call to Spiritual ReformationĒ which is one of the best books on prayer Iíve read says that much prayer does not happen because we do not plan to pray. Now it sounds very un-spiritual to say that we need to plan to pray, but the trouble is that one of the biggest excuses for not praying is being too busy. But the fact is we all do what we want to do. We have time to watch TV, surf the web, read a book, go to the gym, and a thousand a one other things. In other words we make time for what we believe to be important. But if prayer really is vital to the Christian, and it is, then we need to make time to pray. We need to plan time in to pray. Now for all of us this will look very different. But setting a aside a few minutes each day to read the Bible and pray is something generations of Christians have done and it has been their spiritual lifeblood. Now each of us will need to work out when is best. For some it will be early morning. For others like parents, itís simply not possible. But we will need to be creative. I heard of one Mum who would lock herself in the loo for ten minutes every day so she could read her Bible and pray. Others use the journey to work to pray, perhaps praying as they walk or listening to a tape in the car and then praying. Nowadays sermons can very easily be downloaded from our website onto I pods and the like, so itís easier than ever. Others will find late at night before bed a good time to spend in prayer. There are no rules on when we do it. Jesus simply says do it. So if youíve never done it, why not set aside just five minutes each day this coming week to read a passage from the Bible such as a psalm and spend a few minutes praying to God. Start off small, and then gradually increase the time. Or for others of us, maybe we have slipped from this good habit in recent months and we need to get back to it. Wherever we are, each of us needs to plan to pray otherwise it will never happen.
b) Structure your prayers- Secondly, structure your prayers. Often we struggle to know where to begin. So developing a simple structure for our prayers is often very helpful. The Lordís prayer is itself a structure which begins with praise and adoration of God, and praying for his concerns, and then moving on to our personal needs. But sometimes, the accusation is raised that if we go for a structure to our prayers, or have a list of things that we pray for, then it is seemingly less spiritual. We need just to pray from our hearts, people say. But just because we have a simple structure or a number of things we might bring before the Lord each day, does not make it any less spiritual. The issues are still from the heart, and the structure simply helps us to remember what we need to pray for. For example, if I go to the shops to get a load of shopping, then I can guarantee you that I will come back with the wrong things if I donít write down a list. Iíll forget the nappies and the paracetamol and bring back a DVD and a bar of chocolate instead. No, the list is helpful to me as I do the shopping. But neither does it stop me from buying other things that spring to mind. So it is with structuring our prayer times or having lists of things we might want to pray about. So a very simple structure that many have found useful is to begin by praising God for who he is and what he has done, or to give thanks to him for answered prayer. I sometimes use a psalm to get me going and I use that to help me to give thanks and praise God. Then to confess your sins to him, and then to move on to praying or asking God about certain things. For example, I start by praying for immediate family, then for close friends, various events and pressing issues, and then I finish by praying for myself. Some also find it useful to pray for specific people or events on different days, so again a list of people to pray for each day might be useful. Our church prayer diary is especially useful to help us to pray daily for things happening in the church and around the world. Again the idea is not to straight jacket our prayers but to enable us to pray intelligently and faithfully. But often without a clear structure, then the danger is we donít know what to pray for, or we find there is so much to pray for we donít know where to begin. So structure your prayers.
c) Use the prayers of Scripture- Thirdly use the prayers of Scripture and make them your own. Don Carson in his book on prayer takes us through the prayers of Paul and shows how his priorities in his prayers are the sorts of things we should be praying about. And if we find it hard to know what to pray for each other or the church, then using the prayers of the Bible is a great way to pray. For example you might take Paulís prayer in Ephesians 3 and use that to pray for yourself and your Christian friends this coming week. You can simply use Paulís words but make them your own. You might pray with Paul that God out of his glorious riches would strengthen you with power by his Spirit through his inner being. And so on. Working through the prayers of Paul, for instance would be a very profitable study and would enrich our prayer lives.
d) Find a prayer partner- Then finally find a prayer partner. Often praying with another person on a regular basis is a great way to grow in your prayer life. Of course husbands and wives should carve out time to pray together. But often having another close friend to pray with too is very helpful, men with men and women with women. There is mutual accountability, and you can learn to pray together. Of course, this shouldnít replace our time alone with God, but it can be a wonderful tonic for our souls.
3) What to say
So who to pray to- our Father in heaven. How to come- in quiet before God alone. Thirdly what to say. Now really the rest of the series will be looking at this question as we unpack the Lordís prayer, but for now I simply want us to see Jesusí structure in his prayer. Notice how he begins in verses 9-10: ďThis, then, is how you should pray: ĎOur Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.íĒ He begins with God and his glory. Actually we will see as we go through that each line is a prayer that Godís priorities and will be achieved. Jesus is most concerned with what God wants and for Godís glory to be seen. May your name be honoured, may your will be done. Thatís the priority. The focus is first and foremost on God and his will. And itís only then that Jesus tells us to pray about things for ourselves. Verses 11-13: ďGive us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.Ē And even those, as we will see in the weeks ahead, are prayers concerned with Godís glory and his will for or lives.
Now it raises the question as to what most of our prayers are concerned with. Are our prayers first and foremost God centred, or first and foremost self centred? I read this prayer recently written in the 18th century by a man called John Ward of Hackney. It's a classic example of self-centred praying: "O Lord, thou knowest that I have nine estates in the City of London, and likewise that I have lately purchased one estate in the county of Essex; I beseech thee to preserve the two counties of Essex and Middlesex from fire and earthquake; and as I have a mortgage in Hertfordshire, I beg of thee likewise to have on eye of compassion on that county. As for the rest of the counties, thou mayest deal with them as thou art pleased. O Lord, enable the bank to answer their bills, and make all my debtors good men. Give a prosperous voyage and return to the Mermaid ship, as I have insured her." Well Jesus challenges us in the Lordís prayer to be God centred in our prayers. To ask that Godís name be honoured in our personal life, in our church life, in our work life. To ask that his kingdom come in our homes, church and everywhere else. It will mean we will be praying for his agenda, things which most concern him and the glory of his name in this world and our lives- our holiness, people to become Christians, that we would make good and godly decisions in our lives, that we would seek to put the cause of the gospel first in our lives, even if it means big sacrifices of time or money or commitment. Thatís what it means to pray hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done. So the question is are we willing to pray those sorts of things? Because those are the prayers of the men and women of the Bible, and itís the way Jesus teaches us to pray. So whenever we pray, whether it be in private or in Homegroup or in church, wherever it is, we need to ask ourselves whether our prayers are first and foremost God centred, or self centred. What about our praying in Homegroups for example? Are our concerns and requests dominated by our worries and fears, or do we consider what God wants us to pray for? Do we pray for friends we want to come to church, for holiness in a particular area of our life, for Godís strength to be a God-honouring witness at work? Itís not that we shouldnít pray for health issues or the like. But if all we ever pray for is each othersí bad backs, then weíre are missing Godís agenda for our prayer lives. No says Jesus- pray that Godís concerns would be your concerns, because those are the best things to pray for, and we know that God longs to answer such prayers because he is concerned with his honour and glory and his kingdom. Thatís what to say.
4) What to expect
So who to pray to- our Father in heaven. How to come- in private before the Lord. What to say- God glorifying and God centred prayers. And finally what to expect. Well quite simply, we are to expect a reward. Seems shocking to hear it doesnít it, but that is what Jesus says. Verse 6: ďBut 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.Ē God will reward us. So what is the reward? Well itís not people patting us on the back saying well done, like the hypocrites. Rather the reward comes from God. Certainly one reward is Godís peace. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians says that we should bring all our requests to God. ďAnd the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.Ē We can know Godís peace. And many of us will have experienced that quiet peace in our hearts when we have brought something to God and left it in his hands. Itís not that suddenly everything is better, or fixed. Itís rather that we know the matter is in Godís hands and he will act according to his will.
But there is also the reward of answered prayer. Amazingly the Bible teaches us again and again that God uses our prayers to bring about his will. He does answer. Now often he will answer positively. We will see things happen that we have prayed about. We will see a friend come to a meeting. Weíll see ourselves have patience with a difficult colleague at work. Weíll see an event go well and safely. Sometimes we might not see the answer we expect. But that does not mean God hasnít answered. It simply means that whilst he has heard our prayer, he has answered differently to how we expected. His answer might be a no, or it might be a not yet. Some prayers have taken years to be seen to be answered. But God is the all wise and all powerful God and he will answer according to his will.
Let me be personal for one moment and share with you how I prayer for a close relative of mine who is seriously ill with a terminal disease. How do I pray for him a God centred, God honouring prayer? Do I pray that he will get better? Well yes I do. God is the Lord of the universe and he can heal even the most awful of conditions. But the thing is I know that it is not guaranteed. Contrary to what many think, there are no promises that God will heal all sickness this side of heaven. But is there anything I know that God wants to do for my relative? Well I know that God wants him to grow more like Jesus in this situation, and he wants to use this situation to help my family to grow more like Jesus. I know that because the Bible says it. So I pray the prayer of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4. That whilst outwardly he may be wasting away, yet inwardly he, and the rest of us, might be renewed day by day. So Lord, help us to fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporal, and what is unseen in eternal. Iím praying that God would make us more holy through this, and that weíd have a more heavenly perspective. Have I seen this prayer answered? Yes and no. I have not seen healing, but I have seen our family know Godís grace in times of sadness and his Spirit at work us to make us more like Jesus and to help us look forward to heaven. And we know his peace. And that is a wonderful reward for our prayers.
Now of course such prayers can only be made if you are a Christian. The beauty of knowing God is that you can pray to him as Father. So if you are not yet a Christian, then Iíd urge you to find out more and turn and trust the God who made you and saved your through Jesus Christ. Because only a Christian can have this personal imitate relationship with God in prayer. And if you are, then hear Jesusí challenge this morning. Remember who you are praying to- your heavenly Father who cares for you. Remember how to come, to your Father in private. Remember what to pray- God glorifying and God centred prayers. And remember what to expect. He will answer according to his will.
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