Talking to God
07/10/2001 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Jonathan Redfearn
Do have the Bible open in front of you at Matthew 6. It is important to have God's Word open so that you can see what his word says, follow where we're going and weigh what I'm saying. This evening we're starting a new series on Christian basics by looking at what the Bible says about prayer or talking to God.
And how important it is that Christians pray. It was JC Ryle who said that 'prayer is the very life breath of true Christianity'. And how important it is that we're praying at the moment for the situation in the world as President Bush has just announced tonight that air strikes have begun against the Taliban and the Bin Laden camps in Afghanistan. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2:
I urge that prayers and intercessions be made for everyone for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.At times like this prayer should be our first choice. On September 11 in New York one American broadcaster, Larry King, asked a fireman at the scene: 'So you'll now be resorting to prayer?' But prayer isn't a last resort. It should be our first choice. And this evening we're going to be looking at how we should pray both in such situations and in our daily 'normal' Christian lives.
I like the story about the mother who overheard her young son praying one day: ' and if you give me a bike, Lord, then I'll be good for a whole week'. She interrupted him and said, 'Now, Johnny, it's no good trying to bargain with God. He won't answer prayers like that!' A few days later she overheard him praying again: ' and if you give me a new bike, Lord, I'll be good for three weeks!' 'Johnny', said his mother gently, 'I thought I told you it was no good trying to strike bargains with the Lord. He doesn't respond to that sort of prayer.' A few days later the mother was cleaning the house and, to her amazement, found right at the bottom of the airing cupboard, a little statue of the virgin Mary that had stood on the sideboard. She guessed that this must be something to do with Johnny and went up to his room to find him. He wasn't there but on the windowsill she found a note which read; 'OK, Lord, if you ever want to see you mother again give me a new bike!'
So how should we as Christians pray? How are we to pray if our heavenly Father is to reward us (v6)? What attitude and motive should lie behind our praying? What should we be praying to God about and for? Who are we to pray to? There is confusion about that today as some church and political leaders promote multi-faithism. And why are we to pray when, as this passage says, our Father knows what we need before we ask him?
But before we look at those questions from Matthew 6 a few brief introductory words about prayer. Jesus assumes his disciples will pray in v5, 6 and 7 but what is prayer? There are at least two answers to that question. One is subjective (it has its effects on the person praying) and the other is objective (it has its effects elsewhere). The Christian life is not primarily an experience, nor is it primarily feelings. It is primarily a relationship. Jesus defined it this way in his prayer in John 17:3:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.Eternal life is defined as 'knowing God' and 'knowing Christ'. We have eternal life if we believe and trust in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord. So prayer on its simplest level is the talking part of the relationship. Now all relationships grow or wither in proportion to the depth of communication that takes place. When the Christian life runs dry there has too often been a breakdown in prayer. We have stopped talking and stopped listening. Someone has written:
If God did not answer one prayer, and if no prayer ever made a difference to what happened in the world, praying would still be necessary! Prayer is the talking part of the relationship.And to pray is to seek God's face and to acknowledge our dependence on him. So prayer is a tremendous privilege. It's worth remembering when we pray that the only reason we can pray and be heard is through Jesus' death on the cross (cf Heb. 4&10). In this passage Jesus takes it for granted that his disciples will pray, as I've just mentioned, but we should never take prayer for granted. Yet so often we use the privilege so sparingly? "You do not have because you do not ask God." (James 4:2) Or when we do ask, James continues, we can ask with wrong motives and so do not receive (James 4:3).
So, to go back to our earlier questions, how are Christians to go about praying genuinely? And that brings us to my first heading:
First, HOW TO PRAY
How should Christians pray? Look at Mt 6:1&5-8. Jesus says:
"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' (giving to the needy, prayer and fasting) before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven...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 men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go in to 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".Notice first that Christians are to pray, and pray regularly or often - which is my first sub-heading:
a) Pray Regularly
Jesus says 'when you pray' three times in these verses, in v5, 6 and 7. He doesn't say 'if you pray' but 'when you pray'. In other words he expects his disciples to pray. He is assuming here that we will pray or talk to God if we are following him. In Luke 18 we are told that Jesus told his disciples the parable of the persistent widow 'to show them that they should always pray and not give up'. The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Thessalonica instructs us to 'pray continually' (1 Thess. 5:17).
When did we last pray? And what was our motivation? When did we last pray privately? When did we last spend time talking to our heavenly Father in private, for that is the real test of our prayer life and one test of our motives in praying.
You see in v5 Jesus tells us that 'the hypocrites love to pray but they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men' and he says to us 'do not be like them'. Which brings us to my next sub-heading:
b) Pray Secretly
The hypocrites don't really love to pray to God, nor do they really love God. No, the reality is that they love themselves and the opportunity that public prayer brings to parade themselves. Their motivation is to be seen by men. They want applause from people. That is the reward they want. Jesus says: "I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full".
Christians are not to be like the hypocrites. Jesus warns us in v1:
"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' (which include praying) before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven".Jesus could not be plainer. Yet Christians can find themselves praying like the hypocrites, praying so they will be noticed in church, in CU, in home group, in Focus 'standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men' to maybe impress the vicar or another leader. If we do we will have no reward from our Father in heaven. When we pray we are talking to God not to those around us. Our praying should not be concerned with impressing others.
"Do not be like the hypocrites", [says Jesus] "instead (v6) 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."Now Jesus does not mean that the only valid praying is that which is in secret. In Mt 18:19 Jesus says: "If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven". In v9 of chapter 6 Jesus tells his disciples to pray 'Our Father in heaven', which you can hardly pray in secret alone! But here in this context of a warning about hypocrisy the purpose of Jesus' emphasis on 'secret' prayer is to purify our motives in praying. We are to pray out of a genuine love for God. He's saying that the real test of our prayer life is not the praying that goes on in public but the praying that goes on in secret. It is the time alone with God behind a closed door that gives evidence of the reality of our prayer lives. It can be argued that if we're not praying in private we shouldn't be praying in public. So we need to make sure that our prayer life is centred on private meeting with God. Not so that we can we boast about our brilliant quiet times but to come before him in humble worship, love and trust. 'Then your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.'
How will he reward us? The original word for the room where we are to go to pray was used for the store room where treasures were kept. Perhaps the implication is that there are treasures already awaiting us when we pray. Certainly there are many hidden rewards of prayer. Paul wrote in Romans 8:16 that when we cry 'Abba Father' the Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are indeed God's children, and we are granted a strong assurance of his fatherhood and love. According to the book of Numbers 6:26 he lifts the light of his face upon us and gives us his peace. He refreshes our soul, satisfies our hunger and quenches our thirst.
c) Pray Sincerely
Thirdly we are to pray sincerely. Our praying must be real and therefore sincere as opposed to hypocritical, as v14&15 also make clear, verses which we'll come to later.
d) Pray Simply
Fourthly we are to pray simply, thoughtfully, directly and believingly. Look at v7&8. Jesus continues:
"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"In other words we are not to pray with our mouths when our minds are not engaged. And we are not to imagine that the more we say, the more likely we are to be heard. In our OT reading Jabez prayed briefly and God granted his request. Sometimes Christians can think that the longer the prayer to batter on the door of heaven with the more likely it will be to get the desired answer. Well yes we are to be persistent in prayer and this doesn't rule out long thoughtful prayers but we are not to be like the pagans. Why? Because our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask him. As someone has put it:
He is neither ignorant, so that we need to instruct him, nor hesitant, so that we need to persuade him. He is our Father a Father who loves his children and knows all about our needs. (Stott)But some of you might be asking why then do we need to pray? Martin Luther answered the question like this:
By our praying we are instructing ourselves more than we are him.Notice that Jesus does not say, 'Your Father knows what you need so you do not need to ask him'. Scripture makes it quite clear that we are to ask God. God wants us to ask. You do not have because you do not ask God. But we ask knowing that our Father knows our need much better than we do, and long before we did and that he will give us what is right at the right time. When we pray we don't hold a pistol to God's head, insisting he do things our way, but rather we acknowledge his way as supreme and sufficient, and invite him in to our circumstances to fulfil his agenda. Prayer is the adoring submission of us to God. 1 John 5:14-15 says this:
This is the confidence we have in approaching God [if we're Christians]: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us whatever we ask- we know that we have what we asked of him.Jesus then gives us a model of what genuine Christian prayer is like. It is commonly called the Lord's Prayer but perhaps it should be called the Disciples' Prayer as Jesus could not pray v12 as he never sinned. It is a model of brevity and comprehensiveness. In Luke's gospel Jesus gives it as a form to use, which we do in most Sunday services here at JPC. Here in Matthew he gives us it as a pattern to copy, which brings us to my second main heading:
Secondly, WHAT TO PRAY
Jesus says, v9-13,
"This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give 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".Who are we to pray to? The answer says Jesus is our Father in heaven. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The only true God. In fact the word for 'Father' in the Aramaic is 'Abba' or 'daddy'. So Jesus is giving his true disciples those who have faith in him the right to approach his Father on the same level of intimacy. The term daddy also points to God's nearness, love and concern for his children. The fact that he is our Father in heaven adds to our confidence as we pray because he can do all that he wants to. Nothing is too hard for him. He is sovereign. He rules over all things. That demands humble confidence and reverence from us.
The remainder of the prayer has six requests. The first three express our concern for God's glory followed by three for our needs. That order is significant.
"Hallowed (or literally 'treated as holy') be your name." This is a plea for God the one true God to be honoured by everyone including the person praying. For him to have top place in the world and in people's hearts. Yesterday David Beckham seemed to have top place in this country. We need to pray, 'Father God, hallowed be your name'.
'Your Kingdom come' is a prayer for the spread of the gospel, for his Kingdom to grow as people submit to Jesus and also for God's Kingdom to be finally established in the age to come (Rev 22:20). 2 Thessalonians 3:21 encourages us to pray for the message of the Lord to spread rapidly. Some churches across America have been praying for that since September 11 and the Californian church I visited last May has grown by 5000 since then!
'Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven' is a request that God's will be obeyed on earth, in the same way as it is always done in heaven. We need to persist in praying for that.
'Give us today our daily bread' is a prayer which acknowledges our daily dependence on God for all the necessities of life and that we are to live one day at a time, trusting him.
'Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.' This is a prayer for God's mercy. We sin daily and even hourly and so the disciple has to make this request often. The addition of the words 'as we have also forgiven our debtors' is further emphasised in v14&15. They state that our Father will forgive us if we forgive others but will not forgive us if we refuse to forgive others. This doesn't mean that our forgiveness of others earns us the right to be forgiven. Rather God forgives only the penitent and one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit. Forgiveness is free but not cheap. Do we need to forgive someone tonight?
'Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one'. The Bible says that God does not tempt us with evil. So why are we to pray that God won't do what he's promised never to do? Perhaps the request means this: 'Do not allow us so to be led into temptation that it overwhelms us, but rescue us from the evil one'.
We need to ask for God's guidance and strength against the enemy.
This prayer is a model of real Christian prayer and it is so relevant for the world situation today and for our own. Yes we could still recite it hypocritically or mechanically and we must guard against that but in the prayer Christians are obsessed with God with his name, his kingdom and his will. True Christian prayer is always a preoccupation with God and his glory.
For more sermon transcripts visit http://www.church.org.uk