“The Heart of Prayer” – June 21, 2020

In Luke chapter 17, Jesus was teaching the disciples that life changes and disasters come without warning. To the Pharisees he had said, “The Kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation.” (Luke 17:20).  Here, Jesus is not taking about the end times, he is talking about God’s intervention in time.

Then Jesus goes on to explain to the disciples, in the days of Noah, “People were eating, drinking, marrying and given in marriage, when the flood came and destroyed them.” (Luke 17:27)

Likewise, when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, Jesus said, “People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, when disaster struck.” (Luke 17:28-29) 

For us, life is a mystery, we do not know what will happen from one day to the next, or for that matter, what will happen in the next hours or even minutes. Scripture reads, “Two people will be in one bed; on that night one will be taken and one left.” (Luke 17:34)

Many people associate this passage with the Rapture, but the truth is, we have no control over our lives. We are living on God’s timetable. I remember my grandfather saying, “Live each day as if it is your last because one day you will be right.”

Apparently, this brought up a conversation about the fragility of life between the disciples and Jesus. We are not privy to the details, but I think we can imagine how the conversation must have continued. What is the use in planning anything if things could end so suddenly? In fact, what is the use in praying if we have no control in what happens? Why not just give up?

Then in Luke chapter 18, Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should pray and never give up. What follows is the story of a widow who goes before an unjust judge. She keeps crying out for justice until the judge grants her request. The moral of the story is – don’t give up. Even when things do not go in your favor, and even when things seem hopeless. Keep on living, moving forward and don’t forget to pray!

This parable strikes me as especially profound in our current situation. Our nation is divided on many issues and some people are losing hope. I have heard people say, ‘What is the use of praying, God’s not listening.’ or, ‘Why pray? It makes no difference anyway.’

The most recent attack on pray comes with the backlash to the phrase, “You are in my thoughts and prayers.” Some politicians say this then use it as an excuse to go on and to do nothing. Many people are screaming out, “I do not want your thoughts and prayers, they are not enough!”

The truth is, I sympathize with these folks. I wish politicians and others with very little faith understanding would drop that expression. The term ‘Thoughts and prayers’ has actually been around for a long time. One of the earliest written forms was in a poem by William Wordsworth back in 1829.

But it began to appear regularly back in the 1990’s, after natural disasters, national tragedies and after gun violence when President Clinton used it. In 1999, after the Columbine shootings, a nearby school hung a banner that read, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

While well meaning, the cliché is no longer clever or helpful. Saying it is safer than taking real action and so it has become meaningless and trite. Pope Francis once said, “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action towards our brothers and sisters is a fruitless and incomplete prayer.”

You see, prayer should never replace action, in fact, it calls us to it. The problem is, I think, many people have forgotten what real prayer is all about. It is not meaningless or self-hypnotic. Prayer is spiritual and powerful.

As Christians, prayer should be as important to us as breathing. And it should come naturally, right? The truth is, prayer can be hard to do. For many it feels awkward and they worry about what words to say. In fact, it is easier to say you will pray for someone than actually do it. So many people, simply don’t follow through.         

Baptist pastor and evangelist Fredrick B. Meyers once said, “The great tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but un-offered prayer.” 

Before you get too discouraged, let me say, that it has always been this way. Even Jesus’ disciples were confused about what constituted real prayer. (Luke 11:1)

In Matthew Chapter 5, Jesus began teaching on a mountainside to a large crowd of followers. He began with the be-attitudes and moved on to explain the heart of the Law. By Chapter 6 verse 5, Jesus began teaching on prayer.

 “And when you pray”, he begins. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say, if you pray but when. “Do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:5)

This should bring back in your mind the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18:9-14. The pharisee is standing confident and praying boldly for others to hear him. While the poor tax collector is humble, with his head down, beating his chest.

Jesus continues, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” (Matthew 6:6)

Just to be clear, this does not mean we should never pray in public. Jesus is addressing the attitude of personal prayer here. Personal prayer should come from the heart and be directed towards God, it is not meant to be a show for others. 

Notice how Jesus also says, pray to your Father who is unseen. Some versions read, pray to your Father who is in secret. To pray to God who is unseen takes real faith and trust. This is a one on one outpouring of the heart. If you can pray like that in private to God, who you cannot see, you will be blessed.

Then Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)

So we wonder, why then should we pray if God already knows what we want and need? Good question. The purpose of pray is intimacy with God and for growth in our relationship with him. We need to ask, and we need time to reflect and listen. Because patience and being open helps us align ourselves with God’s will.

So, now the disciples knew how to prepare for pray, I imagine this is when they asked, “Teach us to pray.” “This then”, Jesus said, “is how you should pray”,

(Matthew 6:9-13)

Our Father in heaven, holy is your name,

(This is about relationship and giving God thanks and glory)

He is Our Father, God of all, and he is set apart in heaven.

 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

(This is about Who is in charge. This is about giving up control)

This is about God, His way and His direction; throughout the universe and beyond. Jesus prayed this in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but yours be done.” (Mark 14:36)

Give us our daily bread.

(We trust God to sustain us. Please give us what we need) Not always what we think we want.

Forgive us our debts, sins, or trespasses. (These burdens are too much for us to bear) We cannot do it ourselves.

As we also forgive our debtors or those who sin or trespass against us. (This is not a suggestion; it is a both/and situation. They go hand in hand.) Once we are forgiven, we are called to forgive others.

This should remind us of the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35. A man was forgiven a great debt and then he turned around and would not forgive another with a small debt. In the end, his lack of mercy condemned them both.

Finally, Jesus added, “And do not let us be led into Temptation but deliver us from evil.” (This is about recognizing our need for God because we are weak-willed at the worst times)

I do not believe Jesus gave this as the prayer to always recite but as a model of prayer that pleases God. So, let’s review it,

We pray by recognizing who God is, Lord of all, and we give him the glory, thanks and respect he is due. We acknowledge that His will, not ours is most important. We bring our concerns but trust his direction. We ask him to provide what we need to sustain us. And we ask for forgiveness and in turn forgive others. Amen.

So, Jesus taught us how to approach our prayer time and gave us a model for prayer. Our task is to come to prayer; open, trusting, and honest because God knows our hearts. We cannot hide anything from him. And we build intimacy, by revealing our soul to him. This ‘trust’ is what gets us through the hard times. But honest prayer also calls for honest action.

James Chapter 2 covers this well, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

Jesus often went alone to private places to pray. His times in prayer are what gave him the strength to do what needed to be done. This was no accident. Prayer builds faith and then faith moves mountains.

Reinhold Niebuhr gave us this wonderful prayer,

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

When we look around us at the trouble in the word, it is time for some things to change. We start with pray but we move to action. John Wesley had a great insight about prayer, he used to say, ‘we pray ourselves awake’.

It is time Christians woke up and began living like Jesus. We find our strength in prayer and from there take our power out into the world. Faith in action is love.

Your assignment is…spend some serious time in prayer this week. Set aside 10 minutes at first. Then, work to lengthen your time in prayer each day. Start by making a list of things to pray about. Over time, you probably won’t need the list, but it may help at first. Go to a place where you can be alone with no distractions. Then focus on God. Finally, spend some time in silence, listening. 

That is how we learn about the heart of prayer.

                        May you be blessed when, not if, you do it.

“And all God’s people said, Amen”