The Greatest Sermon in History Part 14
A Primer On Prayer
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
May 16, 2004

 

Main Passage: Matthew 6:5-15 (NLT)

 

Someone has defined character as “who you are and what you do when nobody’s looking.” And I think that’s a pretty good definition. That’s who you really are. Take, for example, the current prisoner abuse scandal that’s been all over the news… where American soldiers humiliated and abused several Iraqi prisoners. The reason you and I know about it is because of photos that were circulated to the media. But when the abuse was taking place, those soldiers had no idea that those photos were going to be seen on International television. They thought that the way they were treating the prisoners was going to be their little secret. Nobody would ever find out. But they did.

Those soldiers are supposed to be the pride of the military… some of the most honourable men in the world… but they showed a great lack of character and now they’re going to pay for it.

We’ve reached a point in the Sermon on the Mount, the Greatest Sermon in History, where Jesus talks about true spiritual character. Do you do what you do as a Christian only when others are watching, or do you do it in secret, too? Are you only doing it for the applause and approval of the crowd, or are you performing for an Audience of One?

Two weeks ago we talked about spiritual character shown through giving of our resources. Next week, we’ll be looking at fasting. This week, we’re going to talk about praying. Do you display spiritual character by being committed to praying even when nobody else is there to impress and no one by God is keeping track?

Prayer… it’s one of the most basic and at the same time most important aspects of our faith. And sadly, it’s also one of the most neglected. I was in New Brunswick this past week. I had a meeting in Moncton on Friday, so I went to Fredericton on Thursday to visit my family there. As a result, I had to get up early Friday morning to head back to Moncton. Now, I got out a little later than anticipated, so I didn’t really have time to stop anywhere. I got in my car, checked the fuel gauge, and saw I had about half a tank… should be plenty to get me to Moncton. So off I went.

A little over an hour into the trip, I got on a new stretch of highway that bypasses the old way which would have taken me through Sussex. And just after I got on this new stretch, my fuel light came on. The gauge said I still had a quarter of a tank, but I had some work done on it a while back and I’m not sure that it’s reading correctly.

So I’m running low on fuel and I’m on a new stretch of highway. That means there’s no gas stations along it yet! So I’m shutting everything off to conserve gas… the radio, the heater, I even cut back on using the wipers even though it was sprinkling out. Finally, after about 30 or 40 km, the Salisbury Irving appeared on the horizon. And I’m sure as I pulled in I was running on fumes.
When we go without prayer, we end up running on spiritual fumes. We start to get desperate, we travel through life just hoping we can make it, we get all stressed out and concerned when what we really need to do is stop and fill up spiritually. And we “fill up” spiritually by getting in touch with God through prayer.

Chris read some verses for us earlier from Matthew 6. He read us some of the things Jesus had to say about prayer. As He spoke to His disciples and the crowd that day, He addressed three major defects which had crept into their prayers. I believe these same defects are present today. So this morning we’re going to identify these defects and the antidote for each.

 

Prayer Defects and their Antidotes:

 

1. Praying to Show Off

Matthew 6:5 (NLT)
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I assure you, that is all the reward they will ever get.”

These are soapbox prayers… the kind of prayers you make sure everybody notices. In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders in particular were given to this kind of praying. They were using prayer as a means of impressing others and showing how spiritual they were. They would specify certain times of the day to pray… usually at 6:00, 9:00, 12:00, 3:00, and 6:00… and no matter where they were when the prayer whistle sounded they would drop what they were doing to pray. They would schedule their day accordingly. So they would make sure that they were standing on the corner of Grafton and University in the busiest part of town so that when the time came to pray as many people as possible would be there to notice them.

By the way, praying in public is not a bad thing. Jesus Himself prayed in public. In fact, one time when he was praying with a huge crowd around He stated that what He was praying was for the benefit of those listening in. There’s a place for public prayer. But do you pray only in public? Do you pray only to impress others?

Some of you may be patting yourself on the back right now because you never pray in public. So you figure there’s nothing to worry about. Well, let me ask, why don’t you pray in public? Is it because you’re afraid of what others will think? Because that’s just a different symptom of the same problem. Praying or not praying because of what others will think of you. Prayer is not meant to be a means of showing off. Prayer is meant to communicate with God.

But Jesus wasn’t addressing people who weren’t praying in public, He was addressing the people who were praying in public for the applause and accolades they could receive. This was a defect, and He prescribed an antidote…

Matthew 6:6 (NLT)
“But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father secretly. Then your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.”

Antidote: Pray in private

So you don’t get all caught up in showing off how spiritual you are because you pray in public, make sure you pray in private, too. Because at least then you’re not just praying to show off.

 

2. Praying as a Religious Ritual

Listen to what Jesus said…

Matthew 6:7 (NLT)
“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered only by repeating their words again and again.”

There’s a difference between being repetitive and being persistent. Jesus criticized people who were repetitive… saying the same thing over and over again like a mantra, thinking it would work like a magic formula. But at the same time, Jesus encourages us to be persistent. Listen to this (Not in PowerPoint, I’m just going to read it):

Luke 18:1-8 (NLT)
One day Jesus told his disciples a story to illustrate their need for constant prayer and to show them that they must never give up. “There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who was a godless man with great contempt for everyone. A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, appealing for justice against someone who had harmed her. The judge ignored her for a while, but eventually she wore him out. ‘I fear neither God nor man,’ he said to himself, ‘but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’”
Then the Lord said, “Learn a lesson from this evil judge. Even he rendered a just decision in the end, so don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who plead with him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly!”


Sometimes you need to be persistent and patient in your prayer. But that’s very different from the kind of praying Jesus was referring to in the Sermon on the Mount. The people Jesus was talking about were repetitive simply to impress God with their many words.

Do you ever feel like God listens to you more if you use a lot of words? Do you worry that you have to say everything just right or your prayers aren’t going to get through? Do you think there’s a secret formula to praying so you get what you’re praying for?

Sometimes we treat prayer like a magic incantation. We feel like we have to say everything right to have a response from God. And if we DO say everything right, then God has no choice but to answer. That’s the lure of magic… we think that we can take a power stronger than ourselves and learn to control it to get what we want.

But that’s not what prayer is. It’s not a magic formula, it’s not a religious ritual, it’s not a secret password… it’s simply talking with God. Anybody can do it. You don’t need to know any secrets.

What are some of the tools people in churches use to help them pray?

PARTICIPATION
(books, beads, candles…)

This is a prayer book. Filled with prayers written by… mostly dead Germans. You know, theologians, monks… the guys. And you can find a prayer for just about anything. I’m a fan of M*A*S*H. I can’t endorse the show outright, because especially in the early years it was a little raunchy. But I really enjoy Father Mulcahy. I remember one episode when Father Mulcahy was praying a blessing on their new hospital building and when he was done Colonel Potter turned to him asked if it was a standard prayer. Father Mulcahy informed him it was a “golden oldie.” He had a prayer for every occasion, even when Radar asked him to pray for his animals.

I expect he learned those prayers out of a prayer book like this one. And something like this can be wonderful to enhance your prayer life. But not if that’s where ALL your prayers come from. Your prayers should come from the heart, and if you want to use a prayer book beyond that, fine.

If you’re like me… first of all, let me say sorry. But if you are like me, the emails you tend to read first are the personal ones… the ones from someone you know and are written specifically for you. If you receive a card in the mail, you may scan over whatever poetry may be there but what you really want to read is the personal note written underneath it. You don’t particularly care about what some Hallmark employee wrote… you want to know what your friend has to say.

Here’s something else… prayer beads. Many denominations… not just Catholics… use prayer beads. In fact, they can be traced back to some Eastern religions. People use each bead to represent a prayer, and they’re not done praying until they get all the way through. Problem is, your prayers can become very mechanical with very little meaning. Plus, you can go through all the beads and figure you’ve done your duty and get all puffed up about it. But that’s not what it’s all about.

Some people use candles. They light a candle, pray until the candle burns out, and think they’ve done something great. Once again, the danger is that you become focused on the ritual of prayer and fulfilling your duty. Communicating with God becomes secondary. (If you know anybody that uses candles, I think a great prank would be to go out and buy some super-long-lasting candles and slip them in with their regular candles.)

You know, all these tools have some value. But when you start praying as a ritual and as a religious duty, it becomes void of any real meaning. You start babbling on and on, trying to use all the right words and performing all the right deeds to get the desired result. Again, it’s not about you getting your way, it’s about communicating with God. So what’s the antidote?

Antidote: Keep your prayer personal

Jesus taught that what makes prayer powerful is not in the structure of the prayer but in the One it is directed towards.

There’s a great story that author Brennan Manning tells from the time when he was a priest. As he tells it, a woman called him late one night and said, “Father Manning, my Dad is dying and has been asking to talk to a priest or a pastor. But I can’t find anyone to come.” Father Manning replied, “Okay, I’ll come.”

When he got there, he was shown to the old man’s bedroom. He was about to sit on a chair right by the bed, when the old man motioned him to sit on a chair on the other side.

So he went over, sat down, and they chatted for a while. Finally, the man said, “Father Manning, the reason I’ve called for you is that I just want to check something with a minister before I die. I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but I’ve never been very effective in praying. Recently that bothered me, so I asked a friend what to do. He suggested that I pretend that Jesus is in the chair right next to my bed—and that I just talk to him like a friend. So, I’ve been doing that. Sometimes I talk to him for an hour—sometimes two. I tell him when I’m lonely, when I’m scared, I tell him my hopes and dreams, I tell him my failures and disappointments. And I just need to know—is that okay?”

Father Manning smiled and said, “I think what you’re doing delights the heart of God.” They talked a little bit more and then Father Manning got up and left.

A couple of days later, Father Manning got a call from the man’s daughter to tell him that he had just died. As they talked, the daughter told him; “You know, it’s the strangest thing. When I walked into my dad’s bedroom this morning and found him dead, I found that he had pulled himself partway out of bed, and had his head resting on that empty chair. It all seemed so peaceful. I don’t know what that was all about, but I just thought you should know.”

I’m not telling you that you have to go out and buy a chair, or a prayer book, or candles, or beads.

You can use these things if you want to. But remember, the object of your prayer is God, not any tool you may come up with. Keep your prayer personal. Focus on the person of Jesus Christ. Connect your heart to His heart. That’s what prayer is really about.

“We must grow beyond rote and repetitive prayers such as ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ and ‘Bless this food.’ Our prayer life should become ever richer, fuller, and more joyful as we learn to talk with our heavenly Father.”
~ Mike McIntosh
from Falling In Love With Prayer

 

3. Praying Shallow, Self-Centered Prayers

Does God want to hear about you and what you’re going through? You bet He does. But there are other things to talk about, too. If you had a friend who always talked about themselves, how long would they be your friend? How interested would you be in spending time with them? It’s plain rude for someone to talk about themselves all the time.

Antidote: Pray Balanced Prayers

Jesus gives a sample prayer to show some of the things that can be included in your prayer. He didn’t intend to give a prayer that would be recited religiously, He intended to give a prayer that could be a template for your own personal prayer. So what is He saying could be included in prayer?

 

Your Prayer Should Include:

 

A. Worship of God

Matthew 6:9 (NLT)
“Our Father in heaven, may your name be honoured.”

God is God and deserves our worship. And by the way, God’s not so insecure that He needs for us to worship Him so He feels good. It’s us who need to worship. When we worship, we remind ourselves of who God is and how much we need Him. We remind ourselves of His Holiness. And we give Him permission to be God in our lives.

At the same time, notice that Jesus tells us to address our prayer to “our Father.” What a great privilege. God is over all and above all, but He still wants a personal relationship with me and with you as a Father with His child. Romans 8:15 says…

Romans 8:15 (NLT)
So you should not be like cowering, fearful slaves. You should behave instead like God’s very own children, adopted into his family—calling him “Father, dear Father.”

 

B. A Desire for His Work in this World

Matthew 6:10 (NLT)
“May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done here on earth, just as it is in Heaven.”

Pray for a little bit of Heaven on Earth. Pray for His Kingdom to grow and have an impact on our society.

Pray for His Church. After all, the Church is the expression of God’s Kingdom. That means you pray for Sunrise and for the leaders here. Pray for the effectiveness of our ministries. Pray for our sensitivity to His leadership and our devotion to Him. Pray that we’ll be free from any scandal that could tarnish His reputation. And don’t just pray for Sunrise, pray for the entire Christian Church. Pray for missionaries around the world. Pray for believers in lands where they may be persecuted and even killed for their beliefs. Pray for God’s will to be done through His servants here in this world.

And pray for more and more people to come into His Kingdom. That’s the reason Jesus came to earth to die on the cross… so we could come to God the Father. That’s why the Church was founded by Jesus… to bring people into relationship with Him. On June 12, we’re going to do something as a church. We’re going to go for Prayer Walks in our communities. I challenge you that evening to walk up your street, around the block, and throughout your neighbourhood. Pray for the people in the homes you pass. Pray for their physical needs, pray for their emotional needs, and pray for their spiritual needs. Pray that they will come to know Jesus personally, just as you’ve come to know Him.

We’ll talk more about that in the weeks to come, but you don’t have to wait until then. Start today to pray for the Kingdom of God and for His will to be done on earth.

 

C. Requests for Your Personal Needs

Matthew 6:11-12 (NLT)
Give us our food for today, and forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.

Regardless of how minor and insignificant you might think your needs are compared to the troubles in this world, pray for them. Because God cares for them. He knows everything about you, and He wants the best for you. So pray. Pray that He’ll provide for your simplest of needs. Pray that He will provide for your greatest of needs… for forgiveness.

And you can be bold in what you pray for. I think God’s willing to do a lot more than we ask Him for. Listen…

James 4:2 (NLT)
And yet the reason you don’t have what you want is that you don’t ask God for it.

Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)
Now glory be to God! By his mighty power at work within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope.

So pray for your personal needs. It’s okay. Pray boldly. God loves you and wants the best for you.

 

D. Appeals for strength and deliverance

Matthew 6:13 (NLT)
“And don’t let us yield to temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

I was in New Brunswick this week, and on the way back I tuned in to Confederation Bridge Radio. “You know you’re getting old when…” Anyway, the smile of the day caught my attention:

“Lead me not into temptation. I can find it for myself.”
~ Smile of the Day

PARTICIPATION
How many of you have never been tempted? Anyone who was not tempted this past week? How about so far this morning? How many are tempted right now to lie about being tempted?

The truth is that we all face temptations every day. You can reduce your exposure to what you know tempts you, and you should. You can pray for God to increase your immunity against temptation, but there’s nothing you can do to eliminate temptation. It’s a part of life. Now, temptation is not a sin, but it does lead to sin. So it’s important that you ask God to help you deal with it. Check out these verses:

1 Corinthians 10:13 (NLT)
And God is faithful. He will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can’t stand up against it. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it.

Hebrews 2:18 (NLT)
Since he himself has gone through suffering and temptation, he is able to help us when we are being tempted.

He’s able to help, but you and I need to turn to Him to receive that help.

This morning I want to challenge you to pray more.

 

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Pray continually. Circle that. You can choose a specific time of the day to spend in prayer… maybe in the morning, maybe in the evening, maybe during the lunch hour, maybe as an afternoon break. Whenever it is, I would suggest that you combine that time with reading the Bible a section at a time. And commit to doing this, say, five days out of the week. If you’re already there and you’re consistent with that, try bumping it up to every day. Spend 15, 20, 30 minutes in the Word of God and in prayer.

Beyond that, try injecting moments of prayer into your day. Pray in the shower. Pray while you’re out walking. Pray while you’re behind the steering wheel (Just don’t close your eyes).

Most of you know that right now Shera’s visiting with her grandparents in Kansas. Back when we got married, we made a commitment to try to talk everyday, regardless of where we are or what we’re doing. I figure it’s worth any inconvenience or long-distance charges. So we’ve talked every night this week, even if for only four or five minutes. It’s important to us.

Let me encourage you to view prayer that way. It’s important. You may have other things that press into your day, it may not always be the most convenient, and it may even cost you something. But commit yourself to putting God first. Devote yourself to prayer. And you will be amazed at the positive impact that can have on your life and your faith.

Now, let me give you an opportunity to respond. Would you close your eyes for a moment? Let me ask you, are you willing to accept that challenge this morning. Will you commit yourself to stepping it up in your prayer life and make it a regular part of your day? Some of you are already there. Will you commit to continued growth in your relationship with God in the area of prayer? If so, then just slip up your hand. I’m not going to point you out or embarrass you, but I want to give you the opportunity to make a genuine commitment.


 

 

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