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.’
Let’s play a little word association. Grab a pen or a pencil I’ll say a word—and you write down on your bulletin the first word that pops into your mind.
Now—Of course I can’t see your bulletins. Nor can I read your minds. But I bet the word that sprang into the thoughts of many of you when I mentioned prayer was “guilt.” You thought that because you realize you don’t pray enough. Maybe there was a time when you prayed more often but then you became too busy and this causes you to feel guilty.
I think others may have had another word pop into your heads—the word “frustrated.” I mean you’ve been praying diligently, and it seems like nothing happens. You cry out and all you get is silence. You lift your voice to God, and you feel as if it falls on deaf ears.
Maybe the word that came to some of you is the word “apathetic.” You’re willing to sit in this church and listen, but you don’t have any real strong feelings about prayer. Maybe you’ve tried prayer in the past and it left you cold—so you don’t really care much about it.
Or perhaps the word that prayer brings to YOUR mind is “fearful.” You don’t really know HOW to pray. You may even stay away from small group Bible Study because you are terrified that someone might ask you to pray out loud. That very thought of doing that causes your throat to get dry and your hands to get sweaty. You feel like when you pray, your words are clumsy while everyone prays so naturally.
Well, if we were honest, I think ALL OF US understand ALL these responses to the subject of prayer because all of us have been in all of those places. We’ve felt guilt about our prayer life. We’ve felt apathetic and even frustrated at times. I imagine many of us have been fearful of prayer—especially public prayer. This shows that we all have a lot to learn when it comes to prayer.
For those of you who missed last week, we just started a series of sermons on the spiritual disciplines—things like Bible study and worship and giving—and prayer—disciplines that help us become more like Jesus—and therefore more like the kind of neighbors we need to become for God to use us. As you can see in the bulletin, today’s focus is prayer—and let’s begin with some basics.
What is prayer?
Basically, prayer is communication—between us and God Himself. In short, prayer is a conversation, but it is one that can be spoken or silent. I mean you can verbalize your prayers to God—or you can think them to Him. God is the only Being in the universe with Whom you can have a telepathic conversation.
Here’s something else.
This conversation with God deal is something you LEARN. The first disciples discovered that. They often asked Jesus to TEACH them to pray. They had seen in our Lord a skill and intimacy in prayer that they yearned to master. I think they felt fear and guilt and frustration in their own prayer life because a literal translation of their request to Jesus in Luke’s gospel was, “Teach us to pray NOW!”
Well—this fact that prayer is something we learn is great because it means we don’t have to come to God as prayer EXPERTS. We don’t have to study and learn all the right words and phrases before we start praying. We don’t even have to have the best of MOTIVES to pray. In other words, we don’t have to be perfect prayers to pray. No—we simply come to God as teachable children.
Remember, one thing Jesus taught His disciples—and us—about prayer is that we should address God as our “Abba” which literally means “Daddy.” And, if you are a “daddy”— if you’re a parent—then you know that our children come to us with the craziest requests at times. Sometimes we are saddened by the meanness or selfishness in their requests, but we would even sadder if they never came to us. We are simply glad that they DO come—mixed motives and all. And this is precisely how it is with prayer. This side of Heaven we will never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough in order to pray perfectly. So, the thing to do is to simply begin praying—knowing that God receives us just as we are and accepts our prayers just as they are. Richard Foster wisely writes, “In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture, so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.”
My seven-year-old granddaughter, Lydia sent me this note the other day: “Dear Grandad I love you varey much I wosh I was thar Love, Lydia. Do you think I cared about her poor spelling and penmanship? NOT AT ALL! I was just thrilled to get the note. I even taped it to the bureau next to my bed. Lydia’s prayer is precious to me.
And our prayers—no matter how imperfect—are even more precious to our Heavenly Father.
God WANTS to hear from us! Do you remember what upset Jesus so much about all the moneychangers in the Temple—upset Him enough to drive them out not once—but TWICE?
His words as He cleansed the temple courtyard tell us. He said, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” Jesus was angry enough to fashion a whip to run those money changers out of there because they had taken the only part of the temple where women and foreigners could pray—and made it so noisy and smelly and busy—that prayer couldn’t take place. That angered our Lord because He WANTS to hear from us.
Another proof of this is the fact that, as the book of Revelation says, all of Heaven comes to a standstill so that the prayers of God’s people could be heard. God WANTS you and me to pray.
He wants to hear from us. He waits to help us with our struggles and fears.
This week I came across the story of a 911 dispatcher named Antonia Bundy, who got a call from a young boy. They boy didn’t call to report a break-in or a burglary or a health emergency. He said he just called to tell the 911 operator that he had had a bad day. Well, instead of scolding him for abusing the 911 line, Bundy asked him to tell her what was going on.He told her he was having a hard time understanding his homework. As they talked Bundy learned it was math homework. She reports, “I’ve always been good at math. All the way through high school I enjoyed it. So, it was something I was very happy I could help him with.” Bundy walked him through an arithmetic problem, calling it a nice break in her busy day. As it turns out, her decision not to scold the child paid off, because the boy was aware that his problem did not qualify as an emergency. He said, “I’m sorry for calling you, but I really needed help.” Bundy said, “You’re fine. We’re always here to help.”
I love this story because it is a reflection of how God feels about us. In spite of all the “911 emergency prayers” He is always getting—He’s never too busy to hear from us. He is always there to help. He will never scold us for coming to Him.
Now—as I said—prayer is first and foremost a CONVERSATION and for a conversation to BE a conversation it must be two-way—so, let’s break up our study of this second spiritual discipline in that way.
Let’s begin with how we go about talking to God. What does Jesus say about this in our text?
(1) First, He says He wants us TO BE ALONE with Him.
In our text our Lord says, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father.” God wants us to talk to Him privately—in secret. Hank Hanegraff puts it this way. He says, “The secret to prayer is secret prayer.”
And Jesus set the example in this. As Luke 5:16 says, Jesus “OFTEN withdrew to LONELY places to be by Himself and pray.”
Now—don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that public prayer is wrong. Several times in the Gospels both Jesus and His disciples prayed publicly—prayers that are recorded in the Bible. So, we are to pray publicly—we are to gather together to pray. But we must strive to make our public prayers GENUINE prayers—prayers in which we are talking to God and not our human listeners. And the best way to make PUBLIC prayer genuine is to have a healthy PRIVATE prayer life. This is one reason that, whenever possible, I prepare my public prayers ahead of time. I write them down and pray them privately before I pray them publicly.
Evelyn Christenson addresses this issue by saying, “Prayer should be like an iceberg with about one ninth showing in our public group praying and eight ninths out of sight in our secret closets.” I think Jesus had this prayer principle in mind in our text when He warned us to avoid the then common practice of lifting up prayers on the street corner in a show off our “spirituality.” Instead He has taught us to find a private place for prayer—a closet—an inner room.
Because the purpose of prayer is not to impress others but to be in conversation with God. We do not pray to communicate to others how holy we are. We pray to communicate with God how holy He is. Let me put it this way. Prayer is not a spectator sport. It’s not something we engage in to give off signals of spiritual superiority.
But—another reason Jesus says it is important to get ALONE in prayer is that being in an inner room shuts out DISTRACTIONS—our always demanding smart phones, the TV, kids, dogs—anything that can break our concentration. We shouldn’t bother fighting distractions, because we’ll lose. So—avoid them. Find a quiet place where you can pray without interruption.
Susanna Wesley mother of John and Charles Wesley—raised seventeen children in a very small home, so solitude was hard to come by. When she needed to get alone with God she sat in a rocking chair in the middle of the room and threw a blanket over herself. She called that place her tent of meeting.
That may not work for you—but find a time—and a place for you to be alone with God.
(2) Jesus also says He wants us to be REAL with Him.
In our text He says that when we pray we must not use meaningless repetition and empty phrases. And this is important guidance for us to understand because it is very easy to get caught up in using certain jargon or terminology in prayer. Some phrases may sound appropriate, spiritual, even pious—but after a while if we are not careful, we can find ourselves stringing together a bunch of popular phrases to form what I refer to as “autopilot prayer”—the same phrases uttered over and over again by rote with no SINCERITY behind them. We must understand that heaping up fancy phrases or babbling on and on can’t replace heartfelt and sincere communication with God.
No one likes FAKE—INSINCERE communication—and the sad truth is, as Christians we have become very good at that. Becca pointed me to a Christian comedian named John Crist. Listen to what he says about the was we used “Christianese phrases” to avoid being real in saying “No.
No one likes a fake—God feels the same way. He wants our prayers to be real—genuine—honest. With that in mind, our prayers should reflect the way we live. We see this principle in the pattern for prayer Jesus has given us in our text. I mean, this prayer template teaches us the principles of prayer—adoration, confession, intercession, etc. but more than that. You see, the better we FOLLOW these principles the more meaningful our prayer life becomes—but praying like this also impacts every moment of our day-to-day LIVES—as well as the lives of those who know us—people like our neighbors. Max Lucado puts it this way: “In these verses Christ has provided more than a model for PRAYER—He has provided a model for LIVING. These words do more than tell us what to SAY to God; They tell us how to EXIST WITH God.”
And I would agree.
I like how one unknown author emphasized this thinking in his own summary of the Lord’s Prayer. He said, “I cannot say ‘our’ if I only live for myself. I cannot say ‘Father’ if I do not endeavor each day to act like His child. I cannot say ‘Hallowed be Your name’ if I am playing around with sin. I cannot say ‘Your kingdom come’ if I want my way all the time. I cannot say ‘Give us our daily bread’ if I am trusting in myself instead of in God’s provision. I cannot say ‘Forgive us our debts’ if I am nursing a grudge or withholding forgiveness from someone else.
I cannot say ‘lead us not into temptation’ if I deliberately put myself in its path.”
So, prayer is a conversation. We talk to God through prayer. But prayer is also God talking to us. And if you doubt that God does that—well, let me remind you that the Bible is full of accounts of God speaking to His children directly and personally.
- Genesis 3:8 says that God walked in the Garden of Eden “in the cool of the day”and stopped to talk with Adam and Eve.
- He spoke frequently with Abraham, calling him from one place, leading him to another and promising to make of him a great nation.
- He talked to Moses through the burning bush on top of Sinai and whenever Moses needed counsel in leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land.
- He gave Joshua military advice to enable the Israelites to conquer the Canaanites.
- He talked with David about governing Israel and about his personal sins and struggles.
All thorough the Old Testament God spoke to His people—and the pattern is repeated in the New Testament.
- God spoke to Saul the persecutor on the Damascus road.
- He then guided Paul the apostle as he traveled across the Roman Empire preaching the gospel.
- God spoke to Peter through a vision telling him the gospel message was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
Well, do you think God lost His voice at the end of the first century? Of course not! If the essence of Christianity is a personal relationship between the almighty God and individual human beings, it stands to reason that God still speaks to believers today. The truth is you can’t build a relationship on one-way speeches. You need frequent, sustained, intimate contact between two persons both of whom speak and both of whom listen. And that’s the problem. It’s not that God doesn’t talk to us—He does—we just don’t listen to Him. In essence, we dial God’s number tell Him all our problems, make all our requests—and then we hit the red “end the call” button without giving Him a chance to say anything.
Well, Jesus taught that we should discipline ourselves to the point that we listen to and learn to recognize His voice. Do you remember our Lord’s words from John 10:14-15? Jesus said “I am the good shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me…they listen to My voice.” Think about it. We hear voices in our head all the time. They all compete for our attention.
- There’s the voice of lust that encourages us to embrace destructive thoughts and actions.
- There is the voice of fear that tells us to panic.
- There is the voice of greed that tells us we need more and more stuff.
- There is the voice of ambition that tells us nice guys finish last.
- There’s the voice of selfishness that tells us our needs and wants must come first.
Well, growing disciples learn to tune out those voices and hear the still small voice of God.
And if you need help in hearing Jesus’ voice, let me give you a hint. Our Lord’s leadings are always in line with His written Word. So, when you hear the voice of lust if you listen closely, you’ll hear Jesus saying something like this, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:25-27) Jesus will proceed to tell you all about the kinds of destruction that voice of lust will cause—the ways it will hurt your spouse—your children—your witness.
When panic screams for attention in your head—if you try, you’ll hear Jesus reminding you of Psalm 46 where it says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” If you keep listening, you’ll hear Him remind you that as His child we never have reason to panic—that He is infinitely bigger than that thing that causes us anxiety.
When you hear GREED tempting you to listen, don’t. Instead try to hear the Spirit of Jesus in you. He’ll remind you that, “A greedy man stirs up dissension, but he who trusts in the LORD will prosper.” (Provers 28:5) The more you listen the more He’ll help you to trust Him for your material needs.
When you hear AMBITION encouraging you to get ahead at all costs if you listen Jesus will say, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3 With His voice, He’ll remind you to follow His example in laying down your life for others.
In short to enjoy the benefits of the discipline of prayer we must learn to hear and heed our Lord’s voice. That’s the voice we must listen to. Which voice are you listening to these days? If we are going to become like Christ—we need to discipline ourselves to hear His voice.
Let me wind things up by reminding you WHY we pray.
(1) Prayer changes us.
Prayer changes our attitudes. It changes is the way we feel about a situation. Have you ever prayed for someone who has been making it their goal in life to ruin you? I have—and the more I prayed for that person—the less angry I was—and the more I begin to feel love for that individual. Talking to God—makes us think and feel like God.
Richard Foster writes, “In real prayer we begin to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves. Progressively we are taught to see things from His point of view—To pray is to change. This is a great grace. How good of God to provide a path whereby our lives can be taken over by His love—and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and self-control.”
I heard somewhere that one way U.S. treasury agents spot counterfeit bills is by rubbing them against a sheet of white paper. If the paper turns green they know the dollar is genuine because the REAL thing rubs off. Well, God is the REAL THING and when we spend time with Him through prayer, His nature rubs off on us. It impacts us—changes us—like nothing else will.
Peter Kreeft says, “Nothing else can ever cure our sick world except saints, and saints are never made except by prayer. Nothing but saints can save our world because the deepest root of all the world’ diseases is sin, and saints are the antibodies that fight sin. Nothing but prayer can make saints because nothing but God can make saints, and we meet God in prayer. Prayer is the hospital for souls where we meet Doctor God.”
(2) Prayer also changes THINGS.
In 1st Corinthians 3:9 Paul says that you and I are, …God’s fellow workers. This and several other texts teach that we are working with God to determine the outcome of future events.
One way we work with God is through prayer. As James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Someone has wisely said that when we work WE work; but when we pray, GOD works. Walter Wink says, “History belongs to the intercessors—those who believe and pray the future into being.” Thomas Merton said, “Men devoted to prayer are going for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do. They are winning for it the grace and protection and the friendship of God.”
In 2010 a group of eight people from two churches felt called to the Detroit Boulevard neighborhood of Sacramento. It was known as one of the most notorious crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city. Each house in that neighborhood was a place of danger. Nonetheless this group of eight decided to walk through the neighborhood praying over each home—praying for the presence of Christ to reign over violence, addiction, and satanic oppression. In other words they did what we’re going to train you to do today—they did a prayer walk. One of the eight prayer-walkers, former Sacramento police officer and gang detective Michael Xiong, reported that, “each time we prayed over the houses, we felt the weight of oppression becoming lighter.” A woman from one of the houses saw them and asked what they were up to. When she discovered they were praying for the community, she asked for healing, and God healed her. Eventually the group started what they called Detroit Life Church. A couple years later a local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, reported that there were no homicides, robberies, or sex crimes—and only one assault in Detroit Boulevard between 2013 and 2014. Detroit Boulevard had been transformed by a small group of people who began their ministry in the neighborhood by praying. Prayer changes things.
Will you pray with me?