Greatest Sermon in History Part 14
A Primer On Prayer
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
May 16, 2004
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.
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
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
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
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?
(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,
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
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
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
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
~ Mike McIntosh
from Falling In Love With Prayer
3. Praying Shallow, Self-Centered
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?
Prayer Should Include:
A. Worship of God
Matthew 6:9 (NLT)
“Our Father in heaven, may your name be
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.