Psalm 73:21-2821When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
22I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.
23Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
24You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.
25Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. 26My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you. 28But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all your works.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
This week we continue our series on Christian discipleship by talking about prayer. Prayer is one of the most important ways we nourish our relationship with God. It’s also an area where many of us feel inadequate or lost. We worry we don’t have the right words or that we’re “doing it wrong.” We feel like we send our prayers out into empty space and never hear anything back. Or maybe we want to pray but somehow the day slips away under a sea of tasks; days become weeks and we can’t think of the last time we really prayed.
We’re going to have another sermon in a couple of weeks focused on the prayer at the heart of this passage from Luke. That sermon is a skit about the Lord’s Prayer, and I think you’ll really enjoy it. It will offer you another perspective on the familiar prayer, which is a good thing. The great thing about having a prayer from Jesus is that Jesus keeps teaching us to pray even now. The down side is that when we pray the same prayer week after week it can become just words sliding through our mind instead of a life-changing connection to our God.
Today’s sermon is more of an exploration of prayer in general. I have questions about prayer myself; I certainly don’t have all the answers. At different times in my life I’ve had different prayer routines; other times I haven’t prayed much at all. There’s still plenty about prayer that doesn’t make sense to me.
For one thing, what’s our goal in prayer? Are we trying to change God’s mind by praying for something? Do we pray to call attention to a situation that’s on our hearts so God will notice and come to the rescue?
The Bible suggests that sometimes that’s exactly what happens. While I believe God is watching all the time, in scripture crying out to God has a powerful way of getting God’s special attention. When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, God must have known, but it was when Israel cried out under the burden of their oppression that God responded by sending Moses into action.
When Moses taught Israel how to live in the Promised Land he warns those with money to be very careful about how they treat the poor. When they loan money to a poor person and take their cloak as collateral, for instance, Moses tells them to return the cloak before nightfall because that might be the person’s only protection from the cold night air. If they return it, the person will be comfortable at night and ask God to bless their kind creditor. If the lender holds on to the cloak to protect their loan, the poor person shivering in the cold might cry out to God in their suffering and God would be angry with the selfish lender.
So even though God is paying attention all the time, there’s a mysterious power in crying out to God in our need. The Bible suggests that the cry of the oppressed is especially quick to travel to God’s ears, which is a sobering thought for us, since we live in the richest country on earth.
But what does prayer change? Is God counting prayers like votes to decide what do do? If more people pray for the Giants than the Patriots, will they win the Super Bowl? Do the best prayers count for more than a quick: “Help me Jesus?”
Jesus doesn’t talk about how God makes decisions; I think that is above our pay grade. He does talk about how God listens to prayer, though. He specifically says God doesn’t care about eloquence or length. Fancy words don’t catch God’s attention.
God especially isn’t interested in prayer that lifts us up at the expense of others. In my favorite parable about prayer Jesus tells a story about a religious leader and tax collector who went to the Temple to pray. The religious guy thanked God for making him better than other people, especially better than the tax collector. Then he went on to praise his own piety, as if God needed to know.
The tax collector prayed simply and humbly for mercy. Jesus tells his listeners that the tax collector went home justified, but the religious leader didn’t. Elsewhere Jesus tells his listeners not to be “heap up empty phrases” when they pray. He clearly rejects the idea that longer prayers catch God’s ear. It’s not the theological sophistication, or length of our prayers that makes them beautiful to God.
There have been some studies that show that patients in the hospital with people praying for them did better than patients without prayer, even when the patients didn’t know they were being prayed for. At the same time, often we pray for healing for someone and it seems like no healing comes. Sometimes God brings healing beyond physically curing diseases. Other times we are left without an obvious answer to our prayer.
Prayer can change the world around us, but most often it does that by changing us. When we pray, especially when we pray the way Jesus taught us, we grow more connected with God. Both in the Lord’s Prayer and in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and execution the heart of the prayer is submission to God. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. In the Garden Jesus prayed that he wouldn’t have to suffer, but then he prays that God’s will would be done, not his.
Prayer is about getting in synch with God. It’s about opening our heart to what God wants and praying for God’s will to come about in the world. As we pray for God’s will we are changed. We start trusting God more as we recognize that God is wiser than we are. We start wanting God to be more in charge so we pray less about getting our own way and more about finding God’s way.
Prayer also changes us when we pray for other people. If you’re having a hard time with a particular person, if you can’t seem to get along or you can’t let go of something they have done to you, start praying for that person. Spend a few minutes in prayer for the person every day lifting up the hardships they face and desiring the best for them.
If you spend time in prayer, and I don’t mean praying that they become more like you or praying that they do things your way, if you pray for their life and faith to go well every day, God will help you see things their way more clearly.
As that process unfolds, as you see the other person as a person and start to understand them more you will find the hurt and pain becoming less important and you’ll find it easier to forgive. You may also discover a new sense of how you’ve contributed to the problem and discover that you need forgiveness too. As God changes you through prayer, the conflict may become less intense and the way to reconciliation become clearer.
Prayer is mysterious; there’s a lot that I don’t understand about how it works or why. But I do know that we grow in faith and in our relationship with God by praying. We learn to pray by reading scripture and through practice. A big part of having a strong prayer life is building habits and a prayer routine. A devotional guide can help with that because it takes away the scary element of having to figure out what to say.
When I became a deacon in my former church my pastor gave me a Presbyterian book of daily prayer. It included simple services for morning, evening, noon and night prayer. Each included Psalms and scripture along with responsive readings and intercessory prayer. Through consistency I learned to turn to God in the morning to seek guidance for the day and to return to God in the evening to release the day’s burdens. Through repetition of some of the responsive readings a few beautiful pieces of scripture became a permanent part of my soul.
By following the prayer book’s guidance on topics of prayer each day I broadened my sense of the world and discovered new connections with other Christians and groups. Instead of just praying for things in my life I started praying for Christians and communities around the world. The set structure of the prayer book helped me develop a habit of prayer and also made me more confident in praying spontaneously. By spending more time with God in prayer through a routine I also found more desire and freedom to turn to God in other times. Developing a routine and owning the responsibility as a Christian and a leader in my community to pray regularly was a major turning point in my faith development.
It may be that the next step in strengthening your prayer life is to get in a rhythm of daily prayer using a devotional guide of some kind. Karen has some suggestions about devotionals and I can make suggestions as well. At first it might feel like you’re adding one more thing you don’t have time for, but before long you’ll find yourself strengthened by spending time in prayer. Experiment to see what’s best for you, but allow your new routine time to work.
One thing Jesus lifts up in his instruction to the disciples is persistence. If you persist in prayer you will find your heart reshaped to be closer to God. You will grow as a Christian and as each of us grows, our church will grow stronger for God.
Thanks be to God.