This morning we come to the second message in our brief series of messages about prayer. After today, I will offer two more messages on prayer, but there will be a total of five messages in the series. The final message is not specifically about prayer, but it does speak to one of the most pressing questions we have about prayer, and that is the question of how God answers prayer, and specifically a prayer for healing. The title of that message is The Power of Healing, and I presented it early in my time here but decided it was one that I should attach to the end of this series.
Last week we talked about the Parable of the Persistent Widow, and today we turn to a passage from the Sermon On the Mount. I believe the Gospels are the heart of the Scriptures, and the Sermon On the Mount is the heart of the heart, so to speak.
The text is Matthew 6:5-15, and you can follow along in this morning’s program as I read –
5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
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.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
It seems to me that this passage tells us there are several underlying questions we must ask ourselves about prayer, and I want to talk about three of those questions this morning.
1. Who is our audience?
In verse 5 Jesus says, and when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.
There is something that really bothers me in some prayers, and it is generally ministers who do this, I’m sorry to report – it’s a sermon masquerading as a prayer. It’s not a prayer as much as it is a point being made to a congregation or the leadership of a congregation. Here is an example, for instance, of what I mean – Lord, we thank you for the gift of discernment you have provided. We are going to vote today on our church budget, and everyone has used their gift of discernment to understand how important it is that we vote today in the affirmative, except for those two elders who never go along with anything we try to do. You know who they are Lord, and we do too, and we trust that you will soften their hard hearts – and their hard heads as well. Help them to see that this budget is exactly what we need to adopt. So please open their minds, open their hearts, and open their wallets as well.
Obviously, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. I have heard prayers that weren’t far from that fictional example. When Jesus is speaking about praying without a concern for being seen he is speaking about the audience of our prayers, and God is always the audience of our prayer.
As in last week’s Scripture text, where Jesus told the parable of the unrighteous judge – and drew a contrast between the judge and God – in this week’s passage Jesus is again making a contrast, but this time the contrast is with some of the religious leaders and the manner in which they practiced prayer, which was to seek a public audience to impress others and to make themselves appear to be super-pious and super-spiritual.
Jesus could be very hard on those who were religious leaders, which, quite honestly, has always made me a little nervous. Leaders are held to a high standard, and none of us, quite honestly, truly measure up to that standard. But some, obviously, don’t really try to live up to the standard. In the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel Jesus expresses very harsh words for the hypocrisy of some of those leaders. Here is a sample of what he had to say – 25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Ouch! Those are tough words, but they were well deserved, as there was so much hypocrisy in the lives of those leaders. Too much of what they did was motivated by a desire to be seen. Worship, and personal piety and faith, had become little more than a means of attracting attention, as if to say, look at me! And look at how spiritual I am! Imagine if there had been social media in the day of Jesus. These are individuals who might have tweeted pictures of themselves praying on the street corner, or in the Temple.
According to Jesus, there is nothing about faith that should be done in order to attract the attention of other people. In his words on prayer, Jesus goes so far as to say that we ought to take measure to guarantee we won’t be seen, as in verse 6, where he says 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.
We don’t pray to impress others. We don’t pray as a way of making a point to anyone. We don’t pray in an effort to look super-pious or super-spiritual. We pray in order to bring what is on our hearts and our minds to God. We pray for others. We pray for our families. We pray for our friends. We pray for our enemies. We pray for our coworkers. We pray for people like us. We pray for people not like us. We pray for our church. We pray for other churches. We pray for our leaders, political, religious, and other. We pray for our community. We pray for our nation. We pray for other nations. We pray for our world. We pray for everything we can think of to pray for.
Now, when we read what Jesus has to say about praying in secret, we have to say a word about public prayer. Obviously there is a place for public prayer, such as worship. Jesus is not saying there is not a place for public prayer. It is one thing when an individual seeks to use public prayer as a means to impress others and when a group of people gather together to offer their prayers. There is a power unleashed when people come together as a group, as a body to pray together, whether it is a handful, such as our Wednesday evening prayer group, or a larger group such as here this morning, or an even larger group that numbers in the many hundreds or thousands. Prayer in that manner is a powerful statement that we are part of a community of faith – a community that often functions as an alternative community to the world surrounding us.
I am often asked to pray in public, which can be an interesting experience, depending upon the circumstances. For several years I was asked to offer a prayer at one of the nights of the horse show here in Shelbyville. I would make my way to the middle of the arena and when given a cue would pray. I always wondered why I was there, because no one seemed to listen. I could hear the noise of the conversations in the grandstands, and every time I prayed there I was tempted to say this – thank you Lord, for this offering we are about to receive for First Christian Church, and may everyone give generously. Just to see if anyone was really listening.
When I was younger I struggled for a long time to put together public prayer and the words of Jesus in this morning’s Scripture passage. When I was in high school, at church camp one summer, we were told that we should go back to school in the fall and pray over our lunch so that everyone would see us praying, and that was a way of witnessing to others. I think that was a well-intentioned idea, but it seemed to conflict with what Jesus said. It took my young mind a while to work out what to think about it, but the conclusion to which I came was this, which now seems very simple – I always prayed over my lunch, always, even though it generally wasn’t with my eyes closed and my head bowed. And the reason why is because that’s just how I happened to pray, and I decided that if I changed the manner in which I prayed only to be seen by others, my motivation was wrong. If you normally pray with your head bowed and your eyes closed, by all means that is how you should prayer wherever you are because that is simply you being you. But the point of prayer is not to call attention to yourself or to be seen.
2. What do we expect from God?
Richard Rohr has this to say about prayer – the word “prayer” has often been trivialized by making it merely into a way of asking for what you want or making announcements to God, as if God did not know (see Matthew 6:7-8)…It is not a technique for getting things…
(From the February 7, 2017 email from the Center for Action and Contemplation)
I once heard a prayer that echoed those thoughts in a very interesting way. It has remained in my mind for many years and is a prayer I heard offered by a young man who was in, I believe, the 4th or 5th grade at the time. We were closing out an evening of kids worship and asked for a volunteer to pray. This young man raised his hand and came to the platform to pray. He was filled with sincerity and wisdom as he prayed. One of the things he said in his prayer was this – God, help us not to see you as nothing more than a vending machine, putting something in so that we can get what we want in return. That’s some really great theology from a young man.
What do we expect from God when we pray? This is a tough question, because if we are honest, we will admit that we expect God to answer our prayers in the way we want him to answer, when we want him to answer. Obviously, God does not always do that. In verses 7 and 8 Jesus says, 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.
Isn’t that interesting, what Jesus is saying? Jesus is reminding us, once again, as we saw in the parable we studied last week, that we can expect that God is working on our behalf. There is nothing wrong with enlisting many, many people to pray for a particular concern, but it is not necessary to do so in order to move God to action. God does not need to be convinced to work on our behalf. God does not have a quota of people that need to be engaged in prayer on behalf of a cause or a person before he will act. He doesn’t say, if Dave had just enlisted one more person; he was so close. He got 99 other people to pray but I can’t act until there are 100 people. Jesus says God already knows what we need before asking. Pray with the faith and the confidence that God not only hears your prayer, but he is aware of your need, your request, your fear, your thanksgiving – whatever it is that is on your heart and mind – and has already acted upon it or begun to act upon it.
But it is good to enlist many people to pray for a person or cause, because it moves us to be involved in the work of God. We don’t have to convince God to be at work, because he is already at work. Prayer ought to move us and mobilize us to be a part of the work that God is already doing.
3. What does God expect from us?
I think prayer is about many things, and one of them is authenticity; authenticity about who we really, truly are. We talk about how we ought to live authentically, but we are to be authentic to God as well. C. S. Lewis wrote that we must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference, Philip Yancey, p. 42). How often do we say to others, I’m doing fine. I’m doing so well that if I were any better I couldn’t stand it. And yet the reality is sometimes very different from the front that we put out for others to see. We don’t want people to know we struggle, we don’t want people to know we have problems, we don’t want others to see weakness in us, and we don’t want anyone to know the real person behind our very carefully constructed façade.
Speaking as a minister, one of the real challenges to me is the level of expectation that is sometimes placed upon me. I find that to be difficult, because I can’t live up to it. I am a person with a lot of faults and shortcomings, and please don’t ask my family about any of them, because they may affirm that yes, he has a lot of faults and shortcomings; let us tell you about some of them.
At the heart of what Jesus is saying in this passage is that we ought to be authentic in all of our expressions of faith and spirituality. We live in a world that craves authenticity, because it is so lacking in the world at large. And we ought to be authentic with God when we pray. God knows who we are. God knows our faults and our shortcomings. God knows our failures. And yet he holds none of that against us. That is the great news about God! We do no favors to anyone when we project an aura of perfection. Sometimes things go wrong in our worship services. When they do, we don’t try to hide the fact that sometimes technology doesn’t work, sometimes people forget something, and sometimes we make a mistake or a miscue. So what? That is real life, and if we cannot reflect real life in worship then we are missing something very important, and that is being authentic, because that is what God expects of us.
There is so much power in prayer; power because we serve a powerful God! Thanks goodness we do not have to convince to him do what is good for us, because he is already doing so! Thank goodness we can be assured he is always working on our behalf! May we pray not only often, but always!