Before I begin the message this morning I would like to take a few moments and talk to you about a holiday season emphasis – it’s called A Season of Giving, and it will take us through the holiday season. Each week we’ll spotlight one of the ministries in which our church is involved – all of which are ecumenical ministries – and offer you ways to get involved. You will probably be familiar with these ministries, but as we have now reached the point of retiring the debt on our facility it is time we focus our energies in a greater way on the mission and ministry of our church.
We are blessed to have such a beautiful facility and grounds, and this is the base from which we operate, but our mission and ministry extends beyond this location. We are called to a ministry that transcends a building and takes us into our community. The ministries we will spotlight are a combination of our local, ecumenical ministry partners, such as Arriba Ninos, the Open Door of Hope Men’s Shelter, God’s Kitchen, Operation Care, the Serenity Center, and the Backpack Project; our Region of the Christian Church in Kentucky, with the New Life in Christ Christian Church and the Christian Care Community; and nationally and internationally with other Disciples churches, through Week of Compassion. These are really important ministries, they are doing great work, and many of you have already been involved to one extent or another.
As great as it is to have such a wonderful facility, the true legacy and impact of this church will be found in its ministry to the community. Last week I said that there are a lot of needs in our community, and these ministries are wonderful ways in which we can be involved in meeting those needs in very tangible ways. Always remember this – we are called to be a part of the church not just for what we can receive, but for what we can give to others, as God has given so much to us. Don’t ask what you can receive from the church, but what you can offer through the church.
This morning, I am returning this week to the series of messages based on your responses to the questions I asked you throughout the summer. You had so many questions, and so much to say in response to those questions that I could go on a long time in giving answers. Obviously, some of you have some very deep questions and are thinking very hard about some subjects, and again, I appreciate that you shared those responses with me.
A number of you asked about prayer; how it works, why we should pray, prayer in school, prayer at public events, and other questions, so this morning our topic is The Power of Prayer. There are entire libraries written about prayer, so obviously there is only a small portion of the topic of prayer that we can address today. What I will do today is address a couple of your specific questions and then add one important aspect of prayer.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus talks a good deal about prayer. Our Scripture reading for the week is one of the most important passages in which Jesus speaks of prayer, and it contains what is arguably the most well known prayer in history – the Lord’s Prayer.
5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
6 But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
7 “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.
8 So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
9 “Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.
10 ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread.
12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]
Among the questions you asked about prayer were those related to the public role of prayer, such as prayer in public schools and at civic events. I am often asked about the question of school prayer and prayers at governmental and public events, which tend to make their way into the headlines on a fairly regular basis and can lead to very contentious discussions.
I should say, first of all, that I find it rather amazing how often prayer becomes a controversial issue. Many communities often find themselves enmeshed in very contentious discussions over prayers at graduations, sporting events, and other school functions. Our community of Shelbyville found itself in the midst of such a conflict not too many years ago when there was a very public debate about whether or not there would be a prayer at graduation.
I often see bumper stickers with slogans such as If Congress Can Open Its Day With Prayer, Why Can’t Our Schools? The problem with those kinds of slogans is this – they’re not true. I’m always somewhat perplexed when I hear people talk about students being forbidden from prayer in schools. Personally, I find it to be quite absurd that anyone would believe kids can’t pray in schools. Of course they can! I am old enough to remember when the school day began with prayer, and I also remember when that practice came to an end. Did that mean that students could no longer pray in schools? Absolutely not! In fact, I would say that prayer is very much alive and well in most schools. It may be that prayer is more alive in schools these days than when I was young and we began the day with a formal, school-sponsored prayer, because prayer thrives when it becomes the freewill action of those who do so because of their love and devotion for God, and not because it is scheduled as a regular activity of the school day. Don’t believe the claims that prayer has been removed from school. Prayer has not been removed from school. The only prayers removed from school are those that are propped up by government authority, and those are not the kinds of prayers we should want anywhere, I believe. Students are allowed to pray in schools, on school grounds, and there is no one in authority with either the power or legal authority to stop them. The only prayers prohibited in public schools are those that are sponsored, organized, and led by those in school administration. It has been my experience in recent years that there is more student religious activity in schools than ever, and I believe that is because it comes from the students themselves rather than the administration.
When it comes to civic events – especially governmental meetings – our community has, like many others, had a good deal of discussion about the offering of prayers, most notably at city council meetings. The Supreme Court finally weighed in on prayers before city council meetings earlier this year, affirming the legality of such prayers.
I am often asked to pray at civic events. Since moving to Shelbyville I’ve been asked each summer to offer an invocation before the horse show. I’ve never declined the invitation, although I have to say I don’t think anyone listens. One of these years I’m going to say add this to my prayer at the horse show, just to see if anyone is listening – thank you Lord for the offering we are about to receive for the operating budget of First Christian Church. You never know; we might get some money, although I would probably never get another invitation to offer an invocation!
Last year I was invited to offer an invocation before the Shelbyville City Council, which I accepted. Since offering that prayer I have decided I will decline if invited to do so again. The reason for my decision to decline is that it felt to me that I was invited there perhaps more for a political reason than a spiritual one, and I really have no desire that my prayers be used for political purposes. My purpose is not to criticize those who offer prayer before a city council meeting, and I certainly am not questioning the motives of our elected official, nor do I intend to criticize them in a public manner. The Supreme Court has affirmed the legality of such prayers and that settles the question from a legal point of view, and I may have misinterpreted the intent, but it certainly seemed to me there were very strong political overtones behind the establishment of prayer at those meetings. I offered to pray with anyone who would like to have a prayer before the meeting starts, because I think that way of offering prayer is more in keeping with what Jesus says in verse 5 and 6 of today’s Scripture reading, but I have yet to be taken up on that offer.
When Jesus spoke the words in this morning’s Scripture reading, they were, like so many of the words of Jesus, words of revolutionary content that stunned the people who heard them. They were revolutionary because they cut against the grain of what most people thought about prayer at the time.
I believe they are still revolutionary. I believe they still cut against the grain of what many people believe about prayer because they reveal how we ask the wrong questions when it comes to matters of the Spirit, and in this case how we ask the wrong questions when it comes to prayer. Do you remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about suffering and the question why? Three week ago I preached on Revisiting the Question of Suffering, and in that message I said that the question why was the wrong question.
Some of the most common questions about prayer are variations of the same question of why – Why doesn’t God seem to answer my prayer? Why hasn’t anything happened, even though I have prayed over and over and over and I have even enlisted many other people to join me in my prayer request?
Just as with suffering, why is the wrong question when it comes to prayer. The question we should be asking about prayer, just as in suffering, is the question of what? What is motivating me to pray, and what is it that I am I seeking in my prayer?
Jesus is very clear about the importance of motivation. In the passage I read a few minutes ago, and in the two passages I included in this week’s study guide – if you had the opportunity to read it – Jesus is very clear that in his day some people had the wrong motivation related to prayer. The most common mistake people were making in the stories from the Gospels, when it came to prayer, was their desire to make themselves look good. They were standing on street corners and in other public places in hopes that people would admire their righteousness. But Jesus pointed out that it wasn’t righteousness, but merely self-righteousness.
The motivation of prayer, Jesus says, ought to be to discern the will of God, as he says in verse 10 – Your kingdom come. Your will be done. On earth as it is in heaven. That is the what question of prayer – God, what do you want me to do?
I would hasten to point out that when we ask God what we want to do, we often ask it in relation to very specific questions, such as those related to vocation. We often ask questions such as what vocation does God want me to pursue? Does he want me to be a teacher? An accountant? A musician? An athlete? In my experience, when people ask me to help them discern the will of God for their life, it overwhelmingly means they are asking about a vocational question such as what they should do for a living or whether or not they should either pursue or accept another job. And I don’t know how to answer that question, and I don’t think it’s the most important question related to our prayers. I think you should pray about your job and your vocation, but what Jesus is telling us we should focus upon in our prayers is the will of God, that we might do the will of God, and that is a far broader and deeper question than just one of vocation. Vocation is important, but what really matters is whether or not we are pursuing the will of God in the manner in which we live our life, and that doesn’t depend at all upon your vocation in life.
What Jesus seeks to get into our hearts and minds about pray is this – it’s not that God needs us to be pray as much as it is that we need to pray, because prayer is a transformative act that changes us and can then change the world.
In his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference, Philip Yancey tells this story about prayer –
In the 1980s, a pastor named Laszlo Tokes took over a small Reformed church to minister to his fellow Hungarians, an oppressed minority living inside the borders of Romania. His predecessor had openly supported the communist Romanian government, even to the extent of wearing a red star on his clerical robes. In contrast, Tokes spoke out against injustice and protested government actions. Soon the sanctuary began filling each Sunday, bringing together worshippers and dissidents of both Romanian and Hungarian descent. Membership grew from forty person to five thousand.
The courageous new pastor attracted the attention of special agents as well. They threatened Tokes many times with violence, and one evening the police were dispatched to evict him. Word spread quickly and hundreds of Christians – Baptist, Orthodox, Reformed, and Catholic alike – poured out of their homes to surround Toke’s house as a wall of protection. They stood through day and night, singing hymns and holding candles.
A few days later, police broke through the protestors to seize Tokes. Rather than dispersing and filing home, the protestors decided to march downtown to the police station. As the procession moved noisily through the streets, more and more people joined in. Eventually the crowd in the town square swelled to 200,000, nearly the entire population of that area. The Romanian army sent in troops, who in one bloody incident opened fire on the crowd, killing a hundred and wounding many more. Still the people held their ground, refusing to disperse.
A local pastor stood to address the protestors in an attempt to calm the rising anger and prevent a full-scale riot. He began with three words, “Let us pray.” In one spontaneous motion that giant mass of farmers, teachers, students, doctors, and ordinary working people fell to their knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer – a corporate act of civil disobedience. Within days the protest spread to the capital city of Bucharest, and a short time later the government that had ruled Romania with an iron fist toppled to the ground.
(Prayer: What Difference Does It Make? Philip Yancey, pp. 119-120).
Prayer doesn’t make a difference when it doesn’t make a difference to us. If prayer cannot change my heart, it is unlikely to change my circumstances. Always remember that we do not pray because we need to convince God to work on our behalf. Jesus affirms that God is already at work on our behalf, and he does not need our many words, prayers, or the prayers of others to convince him to do so.
There is indeed great power in mind, especially as God uses it to transform our hearts, minds, and lives.