ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 5, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
SERMON ON THE MOUNT: PRAYER
1 Thessalonians 5: 16 – 19; Matthew 6: 5 – 13
A small town had been a “dry” settlement for many years until a businessman built a tavern. In response local abstaining Christians planned an all-night prayer meeting to ask God to intervene. During the night lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground. The owner of the bar sued the church, claiming the prayers of the congregation were responsible, but the church hired a lawyer to argue their innocence in court. After reviewing his notes, the presiding judge declared, “No matter the verdict of this case, one thing is clear: the tavern owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not.”
What do we believe when it comes to prayer? What’s the purpose of prayer? What is our practice of prayer? What did Jesus teach? When his disciples came asking him to teach them how to pray, Jesus began by telling them what not to do. Don’t be like those who show off their piety to earn the praise of other people. If accolades is what they want, that’s all their prayers will get them. And don’t be like the Gentiles thinking that it’s the length or language of our prayers that impress God. Jesus understood prayer as a private relationship between an individual and God. He encouraged his followers to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6: 6). Jesus was speaking of a private place within one’s house as opposed to a street corner. When one is alone in a closed room there are fewer ego temptations and distractions. God gets our undivided attention and we become aware of his attentiveness to us. There’s another room we do well to consider also. The deepest chamber of our inner solitude; the place where “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7); the “room” of our soul. Teresa of Avila described the soul as a castle with many rooms. Growing in faith and love for Christ, we pass through each chamber where something of our false self is purged and, little by little, we are transformed or “born again” becoming more Christ-like. In the centre of the castle is the room where our true self and the Holy Spirit find a place of unity. There our souls sparkle like diamonds refracting the light of Christ’s Spirit. We often think the purpose of prayer is for God to rescue us, comfort us, grant our desires or answer our petitions. God does do those things, but they’re the outcome of prayer, not its purpose. To pray is to be in the presence of God, glorifying and enjoying him, so we may shine as his light in the world. When we connect with God at this depth, fancy or lengthy prayers aren’t needed. Prayer is an experience of love and being together with our beloved is its own reward. Jesus says that in our solitude with God, “our heavenly Father who sees in secret will reward you”. (vs. 6) In our more limited view of prayer, we take that to mean God will grant our petitions. Then, if our prayers go unanswered, it’s confusing. We conclude prayer “doesn’t work”. Sometimes we get angry and give up on God. The reward Jesus is speaking of isn’t the guarantee of answered prayers; if that’s all we think prayer is about, we’re treating God like a genie in a lamp who grants us endless wishes. As the person with the lamp becomes the genie’s master, this approach to “prayer” (actually to God) means we become God’s master. Prayer is being with God, and when we take joy in being with God for no other purpose but to love him and be loved, we grow in spirit and become our truest self – the person Christ died for; the person who God created us to be.
Does this mean God doesn’t answer our pleas? Absolutely not. God answers our petitions according to his will, his plan and his timing. Jesus said, “…your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (vs. 8). But if God knows before we ask, why pray? Prayer draws us close to God. Our needs are often the very thing that drive us into the arms of God. Co-incidentally, when we are most desperate, is when we spend the most time with God. Throughout the Psalms we hear the laments of people who cannot find God and whose prayers weren’t answered. (Psalm 10:1; 13:1; 40:1; 42:10). Perhaps God hides or delays in responding so that we are pushed to seek him. In our need we remember our need for him. Prayer teaches us who is the Master and who are the servants. Prayer is more about God than us. We pray to get a sense of God’s need in order to call on God’s help to meet that need. Prayer humbles us. Through prayer we honour God. God wants us to pray so his gifts may be given to those who desire them and will treasure the answers. Pray is a pathway to surrender. If you’re in a boat, and throw an anchor to land and pull, will the land come to you, or will you go to the land? Prayer is not pulling God into our will, but aligning our wills to the will of God. Prayer is designed to change us. A naughty boy was sent to his room to pray about what he’d done. He came out a bit later and His mother asked, “Did you ask God to help you to behave?” “No,” said the boy, “I asked Him to help you put up with me.” And yes, God knows our needs before we ask. We are told to pray about our needs and God in his way, out of his generosity, may give us our desires.
I’m frequently asked why Christians don’t have a disciplined practice of prayer like other people who pray at certain intervals of the day. We find the response to that in Paul’s writing, Christians are to, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5: 17). When asked how much time he spent in prayer, George Muller’s reply was, “Hours every day. I live in the spirit of prayer. I pray as I walk and when I lie down and when I arise.” Our first response to that instruction, “That’s impossible!” Well, if you’re looking for a practice that takes hard core discipline, this is it. To fulfill this mandate we need to be motivated from within and God needs to be in our hearts and on our minds 24/7. “Praying without ceasing” is dependent, not on outward reminders or isolated rituals, but on a lively relationship with someone we know and love. Songwriter Keith Green put it this way, “Make my life a prayer to you.” If you need something more structure, by all means set prayer times during the day; get a group of friends who will participate and hold you accountable. Better to think of God regularly than not to think of him at all. In that same passage Paul also encourages us to, “Rejoice always…in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (vs. 16 & 18). If life were all roses that would be fine, but tragic, traumatic and difficult things happen. Are we to rejoice at those? Are those events the will of God? That’s not what Paul is getting at. He wants us to remember that Jesus’ resurrection means Christ is stronger than death and stronger than evil; whatever happens to us, nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ; we have an eternal future of joy. That’s what God has willed for us in Christ Jesus. And so even in our darkest times, we can be thankful and rejoice in God’s grace and our salvation. We also know “all things work together for God to those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8: 28). We don’t need to be thankful for terrible things – that would be sort of sick. Yet even while terrible things are happening we can rejoice in hope and we can be thankful because even in this life something redemptive is promised.
Finally, we come to the prayer Jesus taught. “The Lord’s Prayer” is a prayer we say by rote; often at super speed. I hope the following meditation will remain with you and help you to reflect on the words whenever you pray them. Prayer is nothing if it’s not from our heart, mind and soul.
I can only say –
OUR if my heart, my life and my church have space for others.
FATHER if our relationship is close and I live without denying him.
WHO ART IN HEAVEN if my interests and pursuits rise above earthly things.
HALLOWED BE THY NAME if I, who am called by his name, am holy.
THY KINGDOM COME if I am willing accept the reign of God on the throne of my heart.
THY WILL BE DONE if I am willing, to do God’s will instead of my own.
ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN if I’m ready to give myself to his service here and now.
GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD if I’m willing to work with God to receive it and share it.
FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS AS WE FORGIVE OUR DEBTORS if I let go of the hatred and anger I hold against others and I let go of the pity and victimhood I save for myself.
LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION if I avoid places, people and things that tempt me.
DELIVER US FROM EVIL if I’m prepared to stand against evil in the spiritual realm and to stand for justice in the earthly realm.
THINE IS THE KINGDOM if I give the King the allegiance of a loyal subject.
THINE IS THE POWER if I fear God more than I fear people.
THINE IS THE GLORY if I seek God’s glory above my own.
FOREVER if I have hope.
AMEN if I can also say, “Cost what it may, this is my prayer.”