A sermon by Graham Agnew
Jesus talked a lot about prayer during his early ministry but it begs the question why? I mean, it’s not as though the disciples and everyone else listening to his words were not already praying. Prayer was a huge component in the life of a first century Jew – as it is among those of that faith today. Besides, the Old Testament is full of references to prayer and at the time of Jesus, prayer played a significant part in the lives of those who worshiped Pagan Gods; Jesus makes reference to them in Matthew 6 verse 7: “When you pray, do not sue a lot of meaningless words as the Pagans do…”
So why does Jesus go into specific details about prayer, when prayer was already such an established part of the religious scene and had been for centuries?
Why does Jesus talk so much about prayer in his teachings? Why did he consider prayer to be such an important issue way back in the first century? Well, among other things it would appear prayer, in some circles, had become something of a spiritual performance; a means by which people tried to impress others with their use of words and gestures.
Jesus refers to these people in Matthew 6 verse 5. He talks about those who prayer while standing up stands up in worship or stand on the street corner and He says they do it “so everyone will see them”. Yes, prayer had become something of a performance.
I’m sure the motivation was not performance based, but I can recall when, growing up in my denomination, there were certain ministers and laymen who had an approach to public prayer that was extremely intense, almost theatrical. In the worship services there was a segment entitled ‘the prayers of the church’ and sometimes those who led in this segment had pages of notes and their coverage of topics and issues resembled a lengthy news bulletin. Some used particular phrases: “We beseech thee Lord”, or “Please bestow thy Grace” and my favourite “vouchsafe thy presence” which simply meant give us your presence.
As we consider His overall teaching on prayer, it becomes very clear that our Lord is wanting to strip away all the superficiality, the insincerity and the hypocrisy that had become associated with prayer. He wanted to get people back to the original purpose of prayer…the very heart of prayer, which has always been a means of connecting with God; a means of hearing God, responding to God and a means of submitting to God.
And as we look closely at the words of Jesus it would seem three of the important issues for Him when it comes to prayer are: where we pray, what we say, and how we handle God’s “OK” – by that I mean how we handle the outcome of our prayers – both those times when prayers appear to be answered and those times when they are not.
So Jesus would have had the attention of those looking for freshness and invigoration in their prayer life – a return to the basics. When you think about it, that’s something we all need….
In His teaching on prayer, Jesus raises the topic of where we pray – the location of our prayers. Look at what he says in Matthew 6 verse 5: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. They love to stand up and pray in the houses of worship and on the street corners, so everyone will see them.
He goes on: “I assure you, they have already been paid in full. But when you pray, go to your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen and your Father who sees what you do in private, will reward you.”
But we say: wait a minute Lord; what’s this about location for prayer – especially this reference to behind closed doors? I mean, isn’t it possible to pray anywhere?
In the car…
On the train…
At the gym…
In the classroom or lecture theatre…
While walking on the road…
Well, yes it is – of course it is; but let’s just pause to think about levels of conversation.
Take marriage: I experience a certain level of conversation and interaction with my wife in the everyday events of life: what’s happening (we have a diary swap each week), questions like: Are you home for dinner tonight? Have you heard from the kids? How was your day? What should be added to the shopping list?
These and 101 other things are the topics covered in everyday conversation within families and they’re necessary and important.
But if this is the only level at which a family or a couple communicate, then it probably means there’s a degree of superficiality within their relationship which in times of testing, could find them wanting.
It’s the famous US preacher and writer Andy Stanley who says most Christians operate, at certain times, with a prayer life which is fairly light and superficial. It’s born out of the everyday moments of life that can best be summarised by: Lord: give me/give me…bless me/bless me…help me/help me…heal me/heal me… This is more often than note, prayer on the run; prayer that arises out of situations as and when they crop up.
Back to the marriage example: and these everyday conversations I have mentioned are in sharp contrast to the “behind closed doors” conversations my wife and I try to have on a regular basis. These are the intentional moments where the conversation is not so much about what’s happening, but more about us: our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations…our joys, our concerns…our fears and doubts. These are the moments where you really connect as a couple – heart to heart, mind to mind, spirit to spirit.
These don’t necessarily have to be behind closed doors, they can be over coffee, dinner, while you’re away for a few nights, on holidays – or whatever.
These are the conversations every couple needs to build a foundation for a life long marriage.
Jesus talks about “closing the door” as a way of saying these more intimate moments of conversation with God, so necessary in our walk of Faith, require privacy, intentionality and focus.
We don’t ever read of Jesus going into a room and closing the door, but we do read about him getting up early in the morning and going out into the wilderness. So the location for prayer is vital because, on occasions, we need to withdraw from the everyday.
In addition to talking about where we pray, Jesus was also interested in what we say. Matthew 6 verse 7: “When you pray, do not use a lot of meaningless words as the Pagans do who think their Gods will hear them because their prayers are long.
You know, without being disrespectful, maybe those heavy duty prayer-ers of yesteryear got it wrong; maybe you and I too often confuse the length of our prayers with the depth of our prayers.
Someone says: but I though quality and quantity time with God in prayer was important? Yes it is, but Jesus says what we say is crucial. Here’s verse 8: “Do not be like them (those who use a lot of meaningless words), your Father already knows what you need before you ask Him…
Now there’s some shocking news!! If that’s the case, why on earth am I praying? What’s the point? If He already knows what I need?
This is Jesus gently and lovingly saying: don’t spend all your time in prayer on give me/give me…bless me/bless me…help me/help me…heal me/heal me…
Why?? Because God already knows all about that! He wants to focus more on our relationship with Him; how we’re travelling with Him; He want us to listen occasionally; He wants us to discern what He may be saying; He wants us to be more aware and thankful for what He’s already doing when it comes to the provision of help, healing and blessing.
In other words, it’s about the relationship – as are those moments in a marriage when we take time out purposefully and intentionally to talk, to listen, just to be.
And prayer has its rewards – its outcomes. In the case of the “prayer performers”: those who stand up in worship and on the street corners, using high and lofty language, Jesus says: “They have their reward” – namely, the applause of people (not God).
But what about those who “close the door” and pray in private? Jesus says: “Your Father sees what you do in private and will reward you.”
Reward us, not necessarily with everything we want, but with everything we need – namely: the certainty of his grace, justice, mercy, forgiveness and love. It may not appear much, but it’s all we need.
Someone has said: prayer is more than a request for God to act; it’s a willingness on our part, to participate in the action He is already taking and wants to take…
Prayer is meant to be more than an “on the run”, seat of the pants, good luck charm. According to Jesus and his teachings where we pray (in terms of purpose and intentionality) and what we say (in terms of enriching the relationship) are both extremely important.
In this way, we convert our prayer life from merely that of a monologue to an enriching and meaningful dialogue with God our Heavenly Father.
Lord, help us to increasingly see the value of prayer and apply it in every experience of our daily lives…Amen