Sermon Podcast Audio
We are kicking off a brand new series of messages we are calling “Dialogue: Recovering the Lost Art of Communicating with God.” Over the next several weeks we want to take a look at how we communicate with God. I think we all bring certain thoughts and ideas about prayer with us, things we have been taught or have heard through the years, passages of the Bible that come to mind just by saying the word, but I want to start by just getting us all on the same page. What do we mean when we say the word prayer?
As the word “dialogue” implies, this is about how we speak to God, but also how we listen to God when he speaks. Now I realize even in that statement, there can be some confusion. We understand the “talking to God” part. Many of us grew up learning something about prayer. We learned a meal prayer: “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Ahhhhh-men,” or the less reverent version, “Good bread, Good meat. Good God. Let’s eat,” or “Rub a dub dub, thank you for the grub.”
Or maybe you learned the bedtime prayer. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Which leads me to question who came up with this prayer! And if you prayed it, did you ever sleep? Weren’t you always worried about dying in your sleep? Seriously. The sentiment is good, but I can certainly understand how anyone who prayed that every night as a child might need therapy in being able to get a good night’s sleep! So, we have an understanding of talking to (or maybe it’s better described as talking at) God.
But God speaks? How? When? Audibly? How do we know? And what about times where God appears to be silent? These are all questions we will look at in the coming weeks.
Prayer is more than just words. It is communion with God. It is an opportunity to live where the kingdom of God overlaps this world, to touch heaven and bring it to earth. It is a place where we can discover the heart of a God who loves the world and join him in his work in the world.
Too often we have reduced prayer to God being the genie in the bottle and our words are what we use to rub the lamp to get the genie to do what we want. We have used prayer as a place to bring our laundry list of wants. It is more than that. Prayer is more than just a means to an end. It is more than just trying to get things from God. It is trying to get more of God himself.
Prayer is so simple an act that even a child can do it, but so powerful that it can change the world. But often, the waters get muddied when we bring in ideas from our culture. We are told things like “prayer is an opportunity to get in tune with oneself, the inner truth that lies within.” I’m not exactly sure what this is supposed to accomplish, but I know enough about the inner workings of my own life to see the futility in this exercise.
Or we hear those that mock prayer and doubt its usefulness, so we become a practical deist and even though we might pray at times, we view it as nothing more than tossing a message in a bottle into the ocean. It might reach someone somewhere, but more than likely it won’t.
But I really like what author and Theology Professor David Wells wrote when he said that prayer is a refusal to accept things the way they are, a refusal to accept the status quo. He writes that prayer is “rebellion—rebellion against the status quo, the state of the world in its sin and fallenness. It is the absolute and undying refusal to accept as normal what is completely abnormal. It is the rejection of every agenda, every scheme, every opinion that clashes with the norms that God originally established.”
The Heart of Prayer
Prayer is a conversation with God. But even more than that, it is an encounter with God. Now I don’t know about you, but even bringing up the issue of prayer makes me a little uncomfortable. I grew up around church. I always heard about prayer. I do pray. But all too often I have felt like something is missing when I pray. Growing up singing hymns in church, we sang songs like “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” And I thought, an hour of prayer?! An HOUR OF PRAYER! Seriously? Who’s got time for that?
Or I read quotes from people like Martin Luther. You might have heard of him; he led the Protestant Reformation; a few churches around the world bear his name. He is quoted as saying, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” Three hours? And I think to myself, “what does he know that I am missing?”
I think I am probably not alone in this struggle. Maybe some of you feel the same way. In our hectic world, I feel like the best I can do most days is a quick check-in with God. After all, we live in a twitter world. 140 characters or less. And how often could that be used to describe our prayers? Can I get a #Amen?
Why? Why does this attitude seem to be the prevailing mindset of Christians today when it comes to prayer? What are we missing? Why don’t we believe like Martin Luther that the more hectic our lives are, the more we need to pray?
Jesus on Prayer
In Luke’s gospel in the New Testament, he spends a considerable amount of time, in fact more than any of the other gospels, writing about Jesus’ prayer life. He records two similar parables, two stories that Jesus told about what our attitude should be when it comes to prayer. And the significance of these stories is that what we believe about prayer, its importance and necessity in our lives, will determine how we pray and can even influence the effectiveness of our prayers.
We find these stories in Luke 11:1-8 and Luke 18:1-8.
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.'”
Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mind on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’
Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.” —Luke 11:1-8
And story #2, the Parable of the Persistent Widow
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!'”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” —Luke 18: 1-8
Our Problem with Prayer
These stories reveal what I think are some problems we have when it comes to prayer. The first issue is that we lack persistence. We are too busy. We think prayer is mentioning something once and moving on. In our microwave, instant everything world, if we don’t see or hear something right away, we just move on. To be honest, we give up too easily. Because when we do this, we are really doing nothing more than playing at prayer. And as one commentator put it, “We must not play at prayer, but must show persistence if we do not receive the answer immediately.” (Morris TNTC 213)
Another problem with our prayer is that we aren’t helpless enough. Both of these stories show people who cannot help themselves and must turn to another to get what they need. We are too self-sufficient. From birth we are taught to take care of ourselves, to depend on no one. And prayer goes directly against that.
Prayer reveals a deep need. It reveals our dependence on God. It requires humility. Too often we walk around with the attitude of “We don’t need no stinkin’ help.” Our self-sufficient attitude and pride prevent us from reaching out and seeking help even from God.
The third problem I think we see here is probably the biggest. It is one I believe neutralizes more people from praying than anything else. We are convinced it really doesn’t matter. We say to ourselves, “Why pray anyway? God is just going to do what he wants to do anyway and so what I pray doesn’t matter at all.”
And if this attitude doesn’t completely keep us from praying, it reduces prayer to nothing more than an obligation or chore to be checked off the “What Good Christians Do” list. It removes any passion and urgency from our prayer lives. Does prayer actually change anything? Well, there are two extreme views here. And as usual, I think truth lies somewhere between the two.
Two Extreme Views
One view that is held by those in what’s known as “the prosperity gospel movement,” or “name it and claim it,” believe that God is at our whim. Whatever we say, he must do. Whatever we ask, he must give. And we certainly read things in the Bible that could give us this impression. Just read a little further in Luke 11 and we see Jesus himself saying, “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” We also read in James, “You do not have because you do not ask God.” So, we certainly see where this idea could come from.
But on the flip side we have those that believe God is sovereign and will do whatever he wants and we have nothing to say about it. Verses like Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him,” or Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
And somewhere in between, we find verses that talk about praying God’s will. First John 5:14, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”
So, what is the answer? Do our prayers matter?
I think that through these stories we’ve read today, and backed by the rest of Scripture, we see the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Is God in control? Yes. Can our prayers influence things? Yes. Why else would Jesus tell these two stories? Both are true and they are not mutually exclusive. As one pastor I read this week put it, prayer runs on more paradoxical principles than most things. For some reason, God has chosen to empower us. He desires to communicate with us. And because he wants us to be dependent of him, he allows us the opportunity to pray and influence what is happening around us. Now, that doesn’t mean we get everything we ask for. No. That would be silly and dangerous. Just like our response when own kids ask for things that we know wouldn’t be best for them, God does filter our prayers when needed to make sure we don’t get ahead of ourselves.
As Pastor Tim Keller put it, “Prayer does change things, but God still has control and won’t let us screw things up.” And isn’t that what a good, loving parent who cares for his children should do?
God invites us to be a part of his work in the world. He invites us to pray and have input in what is going on, not because he needs our help, but because of the relationship he desires with us. He doesn’t want us to be robots or bystanders, but to have a real genuine relationship with him based on love.
So why do we need to pray?
Our prayer is a reflection our faith. If we don’t trust God, we won’t pray. If we don’t believe God can do anything about it, we won’t pray. If we think our prayers are ineffective, we won’t pray. But when we live in a dynamic passionate relationship with God, we will be passionate prayers seeking God.
We pray because of our dependence upon God. Any time we think we don’t need him, we are in trouble. As we saw in the story, the woman’s only asset was persistence. She had nothing else. The man’s cupboards were bare. He had nothing else. Both of them showed shameless audacity in their persistence. Our helplessness or dependency on God should drive us to our knees in prayer. Prayer is a constant reminder of our need for God.
Prayer reminds us of who God is. These stories show people who finally relent to the constant nagging of another. The one story had the unjust judge. Does that mean God is like that? Not at all. In fact, just the opposite. It is a reminder that if even an evil, unjust judge will hear the cry of a widow and respond, how much more will a compassionate God hear the cries of his people?
Prayer aligns us with God. It is an opportunity to align ourselves with God. Sometimes we don’t know what to pray. How do we know if our prayer is God’s will or if it is selfish? This is the question we answer next week, so come back.
Prayer involves us in the work of God. This is the grand invitation of God to us to be involved in what he is doing in the world. He doesn’t have to invite us. He chooses to. And prayer is the starting point in joining God in what he is doing. As Dallas Willard put it, prayer is “talking to God about what we are doing together.”
Prayer can change things. It has an impact. Sometimes we get to see the results of our prayers and sometimes we don’t. But Scripture is clear, we need to pray because sometimes God is using our prayers to move in ways around us.
So what do you believe about prayer? Do you see it as a necessity in your life? Or as a chore to be done because you feel like you are supposed to? We need to see the necessity of prayer, understanding that we will only see prayer as necessary if we believe it actually changes things. We must realize prayer is necessary and the world needs us to pray.
In his book, “The Divine Conspiracy,” Dallas Willard writes, “God’s ‘response’ to our prayers is not a charade. He does not pretend that he is answering our prayer when he is only doing what he was going to do anyway. Our requests really do make a difference in what God does or does not do. The idea that everything would happen exactly as it does regardless of whether we pray or not is a specter that haunts the minds of many who sincerely profess belief in God. It makes prayer psychologically impossible, replacing it with dead ritual at best. And of course God does not respond to this. You wouldn’t either.” It is time for the children of God to pray like children of God should: with passion and persistence, knowing that we are touching heaven and at the same time changing earth.
You may want to start a prayer journal. We are asking that you join us in keeping our prayer lives. A journal doesn’t make our prayers more effective. It is simply a tool to help keep us on track, to record our thoughts, prayers, thankfulness, confessions, and prayers for others. It also is a place to record what God is doing in our lives and how he is speaking to us.
The staff at Ashworth Road are convinced that if you begin to put what we talk about into practice, you will see radical changes in your spiritual journey. And when that happens, we want to know about it. We want to be able to share your story with others, because we know that your story will encourage others. So, please feel free to share it with us.
As I close, I leave you with this final thought. . . we also pray because we see it modeled for us in Jesus. Jesus, fully God and fully man, able to perform miracles and forgive people of their sins, saw prayer as a necessary part of his time on earth. If he couldn’t do what he did without it, what makes you think you can fulfill God’s purpose for your life without it?