When you pray…

Matthew 6:5-15

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 in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

10 your kingdom come,

your will be done,

   on earth as it is in heaven.

11 Give us today our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts,

   as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation,

   but deliver us from the evil one.’

   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.

            Today’s passage is the second of three examples that Jesus gives in the middle of his Sermon on the Mount of how his followers are not supposed to practice their piety or acts of righteousness.  This is what teachers call a negative object lesson.  In the ending verses of chapter five Jesus encouraged his followers to be perfect as their heavenly father is perfect.  Then he goes on in chapter 6 to say, “But don’t do it like this…” 

          Last week we talked about giving to those in need and how we are not to give to those in need with the intention of others seeing us so that we might be glorified.  Then in today’s scripture he says in verse five, “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.”  This is the same principal that we discussed last week.  If you are doing your acts of piety or righteousness, if you are trying to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect just to be seen by others, then being seen by others will be your reward for doing so.

            Instead Jesus invites us when we pray to go into our bedroom, lock the doors, and pray there by yourself.  This is a time meant to be between you and God, not you and all of those within earshot marveling at how eloquent you are with your words.  This is between you and God.  Now I don’t think that Jesus was in anyway saying here that we should never pray as a group or with other people.  In fact, Jesus prayed with others all the time.  He didn’t pray to be seen by others, but he did pray in front of them.  There are many cases in the New Testament where we have the words that Jesus prayed or it just tells us that Jesus prayed, giving thanks for food or praying for his disciples.  Just the fact that we have it written in our Bibles means that someone heard him pray these prayers and wrote them down.  Furthermore, in our text for this morning, in the passage that we often refer to as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus uses the plural pronoun “our” and the word “us”.  Our Father in heaven; Give us this day our daily bread.  This prayer was intended to be a corporate prayer.  It was meant to be prayed together with others.  If Jesus had always gone and locked himself in a room when he prayed, we probably wouldn’t have any of these accounts.  Again, what Jesus is saying is that your motivation is what really matters.  If you are praying so as to impress those around you, then impressing others is your reward.  But prayer, regardless of whether it is done by yourself or in a group, is always meant to be a time of conversation with God.

            I want to make a few observations on prayer, drawing from our text for this morning.  The first observation is that prayer always works.  I can say that without any hesitation whatsoever.  Prayer always works.  I can say that without hesitation because prayer is simply having a conversation with God.  So if prayer is simply having a conversation with God, then it always works.  If you approach prayer as a conversation with God, then it can’t not work.  However, if you approach prayer as something that prayer is not intended to be, then it doesn’t always work.  We will get to that later.

            One thing that we learn (among many) from Jesus’s 30 some years on this earth is that our God is a relational being.  If we ever wonder what God is like, all we have to do is look at Jesus.  And if we have any preconceived ideas about God that don’t match up with who God is as revealed by Jesus, then our preconceived ideas about God are wrong.  Jesus is the perfect representation of God because Jesus is God in human flesh.

            During Jesus’s time on earth he surrounded himself with twelve close friends.  We often call them disciples, and they were indeed Jesus’s disciples, which means that they were learners.  They learned from Jesus in a kind of apprentice type of relationship.  But I don’t think that we would be wrong to call these 12 men Jesus’s 12 friends as well.  In John chapter 15, Jesus even tells his disciples that he does not consider them servants, but now he calls them friends.

            Jesus seemed to do pretty well at making friends (and a few enemies) along the way.  Outside of his close 12 friends he attracted all sorts of people.  And most of them were people who were really in need of friends: Tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, formerly demon-possessed individuals, and some religious leaders, to name a few.  Jesus was a relational person and this means that God is a relational being.  Some have even noted that the trinity, the belief that God exists as three persons in one, is a sign that God is a relational being.  As a relational being, God wants a relationship with us.

          On this Mother’s Day, I think that those of us whose mothers are still alive would do well to make contact with the person who gave us life.  Whether you send a card or email, make a phone call or skype, I would encourage you to talk to your mother if you can.  Your mother wants to have a relationship with you.

            We often use the word “Father” to describe God.  God is like the ideal parent, loving, caring, generous (but not spoiling us).  And just like your mother wants to have a relationship with you, so does your heavenly father.

            In a relationship you talk.  I am in a relationship with my wife.  This means that we occasionally talk.  When we get home from work we often ask each other how their day went.  What was new, who did we talk to, and so on.  This is what people do in a relationship.  If we didn’t talk at all we would grow further and further apart.  The same thing is true with our relationship with God.

            Of course there are times that Sonya and I really don’t have anything to say.  After we have put in a full week of work and errands and church activities and chasing around after a little boy, we can be pretty worn out.  Sometimes we just want to be in each other’s presence.  And again I think that is true with God as well.  There are times when we are just too tired and just too worn out from all that this world has thrown at us to sit down and have a conversation with God.  God is okay with us just being in his presence at those times.  Romans 8:26 tells us that in those moments when we don’t even know what to pray that the Spirit intercedes for us.  In other words, God searches our hearts and knows what we need, even when we don’t. 

          If you read through the book of Psalms, you will find prayers that were likely at one time set to music.  If song lyrics say what you are feeling, a song can be a prayer.  Journaling, writing out your thoughts and feelings can be a form of prayer.  God isn’t concerned with how we do it.  God just wants us to be communicating with him.  And that is prayer.  Prayer always works because prayer is just talking with God.

            But there is more to prayer than what there might be when we have a conversation with a friend or our parents.  Prayer is a time to thank God for what we have and prayer is an opportunity to ask God for the things that we need.  We often pray for those who are sick or in need, in large part because the Bible tells us to.  James 5:13-14 is perhaps the clearest teachings we have on the subject matter, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.  Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  This is what we call intercessory prayer, asking God to intercede, to break into our lives and help us to do the things that we cannot do.

            I like the way that Myron Augsburger puts it when he says that prayer is us inviting God to act in our lives.  When we were made God chose to give us free will.  We can choose to follow God or not to follow God.  We can choose what we want to wear, how and if we comb our hair, and what we have for breakfast.  And God won’t make us do anything that we don’t want to do.  But when we pray to God for healing or to help us out of trouble, we are inviting God to act in our lives.  God is not breaching our free will when we invite him to act in our lives.

            Now the problem with free will is that everyone has it.  And I still struggle to fully wrap my mind around this, but I believe that one of the reasons that prayers are not always answered is because God does take away the free will of others.  I struggle with this because there is a lot of grey area here.  I might invite God to act in my life in a certain way, but if that means taking away the free will of another person, then will that prevent God from acting in my life as I have asked him to do?  This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.  If I pray that God protects me and keeps me safe, but one of you has the desire to trip me while I walk down the aisle after church, will God keep you from tripping me?  Or will God maybe allow you to trip me but keep me from breaking my ankle?  I really don’t know, but what I do know is that the Bible does encourage us to pray when we are in need and that God will hear our prayers.  Prayer is our way of inviting God to act in our lives. 

            Now a few thoughts on what prayer is not.  Prayer is not our way of controlling God.  I have never been into puppets; I am not an accomplished puppeteer.  The closest that I have ever come to being an accomplished puppeteer is to have put an old sock on my hand and make it talk.  I don’t know that I have ever even bothered to draw or sew eyes on the sock.  Like I said, I am not an accomplished puppeteer.

            But puppets have been around for a long time.  I read that puppets date back as far as 2000 BC.  That puts puppets back around the time of the calling of Abraham.  Puppets were used to act out little plays long before cartoons were ever imagined.

          One of the most common and life-like puppets was and is called the marionette.  Marionettes are usually wooden puppets with multiple joints that allow them to be moved in multiple ways.  Marionettes have strings or wires that are attached to the individual joints that extend above the puppet which allows the puppet to be moved from a remote location, giving the puppet the illusion of moving on its own.  But in reality, we know that there is a puppet master above the puppet who is controlling the puppet’s every move.  And the official name of the puppet master that is pulling the strings, making the puppet perform every action that it is making, is “the manipulator.”

            I think that too often we think of God as our marionette and of ourselves as the manipulator.  We think that if we pray in a certain way, or for long enough, that we can control God’s every move.  If we pull this string just right maybe God will give us a bigger home than we really need.  If we pray the right words then God will do our bidding.  Our favorite team would win the game and we would win the lottery.  Of course someone else is praying for their favorite team to beat our favorite team and they are also praying to win the lottery.  So if our team loses and we don’t win the lottery perhaps we just didn’t pray hard enough.  If it weren’t so sad I would say that it is funny that we sometimes believe that we created beings are the manipulator of God as our marionette.  Sure, God encourages us to ask, seek, and knock.  And if we get anything out of the story of the persistent knocker we need to learn that God does answer prayers and give us the things that we need.  But God is not a marionette and prayer is not the strings that make God dance as we would like.  Prayer is not our way of making God do what we want.

            The last thing that I want to lift out of our scripture this morning is what I believe to be the most powerful, most life-changing aspect of prayer.  And to be sure, I have left out a few aspects of prayer like gratitude and forgiveness that deserve entire sermons.  But the most important aspect of prayer for a Christian that has already received God’s gift of grace is found in the center of this prayer, which is found in the middle of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and I don’t think that is by accident.  This should be central in our daily prayer life.  In verse 10 Jesus invites us to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

            I believe that this simple phrase has the ability, not only to change the world around us, but to change us individually.  This phrase is not simply an invitation for God’s will to be done in our country, our neighborhood, or our home.  This phrase is an invitation for God’s will to be done in you and in me.  This phrase is our asking God to help us put aside our own selfish desires that do not line up with God’s will and to instead adopt God’s will as our own.

            On the night when Jesus was betrayed and handed over to the authorities to be tried and later crucified, he went into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  Jesus knew what was to come.  He knew of the pain and the suffering that was going to come upon him.  And guess what.  He didn’t want those things to happen.  As he prayed there in that garden, Jesus asked God that if things didn’t need to go down as he knew they were going to go down, that God allow him to avoid that pain and suffering.  But what does Jesus pray?  Not my will, but your will be done.  Prayer for a Christian is about aligning our will to God’s.

            I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the events that took place one week ago that has had our world just buzzing with questions and conspiracy theories for the last seven days.  And I am not going to try to answer all of the questions that surround this particular event, nor do I think that it would even be appropriate for me to give my opinions on such a sensitive subject without giving everyone equal opportunity to share their opinions on the matter as well.  But I do believe that the events that I speak of provide a powerful example of what I believe to be the most important aspect of prayer for a Christian.

            On Sunday, May 1st, 2011, a special team of Navy SEALs entered into a secured compound in Pakistan and killed one of the greatest terrorists of the modern world.  Osama bin Laden was shot dead, his body retrieved, and buried at sea according to Muslim customs.  And ever since this story broke, we have been hearing the different reactions of people around the world.  Some people rejoice at the death of a man who is responsible for the death of so many innocent people.  Others question whether the dead of the Al-Qaida leader might spur further terrorist attacks of retribution on the United States.  Some questioned whether bin Laden could have been captured and tried as a criminal similar to the way that Saddam Hussein was.  Others simply wondered what Jesus would have done.  And then there were those who questioned if any of this even happened or if it was some sort of conspiracy.

            I heard in an interview on Monday from a person who had foreknowledge of this event and he assured the person that was interviewing him that he was praying the entire time that the SEALs were to be in this fortified compound.  And I am sure that the SEALs themselves were praying as well.  As the old saying goes, there aren’t any atheists in foxholes.  But as I thought about what I believe to be the central purpose of prayer for a Christian, I asked myself, “I wonder if they prayed before the mission to see if this truly was God’s will?”

            We can put this one up there with the questions that we might have about whether or not you would have killed Hitler if given the chance during WWII.  But my goal here today is not to try to answer that question, but to make sure you remember to ask another question.  Do not forget to ask the question, “God, is this your will?”

            Probably none of us will ever be in this kind of a situation, but this provides a good opportunity to ask ourselves if we are taking this central message of the Lord’s Prayer seriously.  Are we asking in our daily lives; in the smallest, most minute situations to the biggest, most important questions, “God, is this your will?”  Because it has been my experience that too often we make the decisions that we want to make and then we ask God to bless our decisions.  Maybe it is time for us, for me, to stop asking God to bless my decisions and to start seeking the decisions that God has already blessed. 

            Prayer is our opportunity to talk with God; to thank him, to ask for the things that we need, and to ask for direction.  May we pray today and every day, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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