Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 28 July 2019
Readings were Matthew 6.7-13 and Ephesians 2:19-22
What do you expect when you pray?
Are you being heard? Why would you think you are being heard?
What do you expect when you pray?
Let’s delve into this together this morning, and hear what the God is saying to us by the Spirit through the Word. Jesus teaches about prayer by contrasting with a futile way of praying. Curiously, Jesus doesn’t contrast good prayer with people who do not pray at all, but with people who are going about it a certain way.
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them… (vs7-8)
Does this suggest that the way we pray matters…?
I’m not so sure…let’s look at this closely. Surveys show that lots of people in our country pray. Although the numbers who belong to churches in our country is decreasing, the vast majority of the population say that they pray.
Last weekend I flew to Tauranga for the Connect Youth Conference. You may have heard that a plane flying last Friday from Wellington to Tauranga had one of its two engines die in flight. Well… guess what…? (That wasn’t my plane!) It was the flight after our one. But a friend of mine, (who is also a Minister), was on that flight. And he said when the engine conked out, the woman next to him went immediately into ‘prayer mode’. My friend said to me (in his words) “she didn’t have a religious bone in her body”, and yet that was her reaction to the drama unfolding in flight. (The way my friend told me about this, I do wonder if perhaps that woman is telling HER friends that she was next to a Minister on that flight, and in that crisis he never once prayed!)
The point is, many people pray. But what are they expecting when they pray?
As we’ve noted, when Jesus teaches about prayer he makes a contrast with those who pray in useless babbling. But it’s not because our technique is important. In fact, he’s making the very opposite point: don’t be like those people who are anxiously pray thinking they will be heard because of all their words. That’s not important.
“Do not be like them.” Jesus says.
So, what IS Jesus saying is important…? It’s about what we are expecting when we pray. Why we think we are being heard.
To teach about prayer, Jesus teaches us an actual prayer. And this prayer is what we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. And The Lord’s Prayer has been in continual use by almost every church across the world. It’s a prayer that’s included in just about every wedding I conducted. And, when preparing funerals for those who aren’t at all sure about their faith, when asked whether they want The Lord’s Prayer included, the response is typically: “Oh, yes, absolutely.”
With such familiarity, we may miss something profound about what Jesus is teaching in this prayer. How does the prayer begin…?
Jesus teaches we are in intimate relationship with God. (Now, for some of us the gender-specific title of ‘Father’ can be difficult, for many reasons. It’s the parental title we’ve inherited. And so although it would be too extreme to stop using is, many have found God is able to ‘fill out’ the meaning of this title. So that when we use ‘Father’ in addressing God, we can recognise divine nurture, as well as protection; tenderness, as well as strength; and so on…).
To talk to God with such an intimate name is astounding – to use a family title. And so it’s the nature of this title that is at the heart of understanding what Jesus is teaching us about prayer.
It seems to me Jesus is contrasting two ways of praying, and these reveal our different expectations in praying, …including why we think we will be heard.
One approach is a business approach.
The other approach is a family approach.
The first approach assumes prayer is based on a transaction. The second approach assumes prayer is based on a commitment.
If you pray with an assumption that prayer is a transaction, your expectation of being heard is about you meeting the necessary conditions that merit the prayer being heard. And if you feel your prayers aren’t heard, you may respond in a couple of ways:
1) You may respond with coldness or anger.
I’ve done the necessary action; I’ve earned favour; …I deserve to be heard
2) Or, you may respond with anxiety or guilt.
I’ve blown it; I’ve done something wrong; …I don’t deserve to be heard
That’s what happens when your prayer has a business approach; prayer as a transaction.
What Jesus teaches is that our approach to prayer is on the basis that we have a family connection to God. God is our ‘Father’ (our loving parent) and is committed to us.
Before I became a Minister I worked in different places – banks, insurance companies …even a fish & chip shop! And I can honestly say I’ve worked with people… that I’m really glad I don’t work with any more!
With family it’s different. We probably all experience testing times with members of our wider family, where they do extremely irritating and difficult things. And if it weren’t family, we’d have nothing to do with them!
And that’s the point, because they are family, we stick with them (or we’re stuck with them!) There is a commitment that endures, where our other kinds of relationships may not.
Jesus is telling us we are part of the family – God’s family. We have been adopted as children of God. The thing about adoption is that it happens, not through the actions of the child (they are seldom even aware of being adopted), but by the actions of the loving adopting parent.
Jesus’ whole life shows this wonderful adoption by God. God has come and shared our humanity. We have been rescued from sin and death – once and for all, and the risen Jesus fulfils the purposes of humanity.
By doing all this, God has shared with us what is God’s. Jesus says:
when you see me you see the Father.
And this costs God. Because when we see Jesus suffering we see the Father suffering. God does this for our sake, so that we are able to know God and know our life embraced in God’s life.
What this tells us about prayer…is that we can express our doubts to the Father without rejection. We do not have to get our words right, we have nothing to impress God with. God chooses to hear us because God has chosen to adopt us in love.
The other thing this tells us about prayer is that prayer is never something we do on our own. Even when we pray this prayer by ourselves, we still use the plural. We are praying together with Christ, and therefore with one another.
We hear the words today from Ephesians that express our unity in Christ; we are united as a ‘household of God’. The image is of all of us built together as a temple, where God dwells. There are foundations (the prophet and apostles), the cornerstone is Christ, and we are a structure connected and growing together:
built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. (v22)
We can relate to such an image particularly well at the moment, with all the building work going on around us! As the building is being strengthened, let’s believe that God is also strengthening us in our faith and mission.
So… What do you expect when you pray?
Why would you think you are being heard?
Because Jesus teaches us that we are in intimate relationship with God. We are known, and we know God.
Jesus teaches this prayer to show us how to trust. Jesus isn’t teaching how to master a religious act of praying; Jesus is teaching us to shift trust away from ourselves – away from having to pray perfect prayers to get God to hear us. We don’t have to trust ourselves, we can trust God.
Hear again what Jesus is teaching us:
your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Your Father knows
God the Father is turned toward us, and has already addressed us before we say “Our Father…” When we pray “Our Father…” it’s not us beginning the conversation – for God has already addressed us in Jesus. We are making our response to God’s grace.
And this is incredibly empowering; God knows us better than we know ourselves; we are his adopted children.
Your Father knows
We do not need to plunge nervously into a flood of words.
Your Father knows
Our words do not make our prayers heard.
Your Father knows
Well, wait a minute, some of you may say, in that case, what’s the purpose of prayer at all? If “the Father knows”, isn’t prayer unnecessary…?
Let me answer this question (and conclude this sermon about prayer) with the words of someone else. The German preacher and theologian Helmut Thielicke spoke these words to his congregation in Stuttgart, who continued to assemble throughout the horrors of the air raids during World War II:
The main thing in prayer is really not that we present particular petitions, but that we enter into communion; into a personal relationship with the Father. If I do nothing else but say from the bottom of my heart, “Our Father…”, the main thing has already happened.
 Helmut Thielicke, The Prayer that Spans the World (London: James Clarke, 1965) p37.