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Lord, Teach Us How to Pray
June 16, 2013
06-16-2013 Sermon Our scripture this morning begins with the phrase: “Jesus was praying…” That phrase is also where our instruction about prayer begins…with Jesus. Whatever confusion, doubts, and questions we have about prayer—and most of us have some of all these things– the fact remains that Jesus prayed and, according to scripture, he prayed often. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus prayed at his baptism. He prayed before choosing the Twelve. He prayed before the first prophecy of his passion, and at his transfiguration, and in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest. He prayed on the cross for God to forgive those who had nailed him there. His last breath was a prayer, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” So we start with the knowledge that Jesus prayed. As his followers, we are instructed to do likewise.
But how? Is there a right way to pray? A wrong way? A special time to pray? Is there a correct formula, technique, or wording that must be followed? Such questions as these must have been on the minds of the first disciples, because seeing Jesus pray, they said to him, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”
Isn’t that a question that we ask? Some of you pray a lot. Some pray only in a crisis and others hardly at all. I recall an elder from another church telling me once that he’d be happy to do almost anything for the church, but please, he said, don’t call on me to pray. He’s surely not alone. When it comes to praying, many of us feel awkward and unsure of ourselves.
You invite some friends for dinner in your home. They don’t go to church, or have any kind of faith, as far as you know. Do you say grace before the meal, or would that just make everyone uncomfortable?
A mother sits by her five year-old son at bedtime and tries to teach him about prayer. “Mommy, the child pipes up, “If God doesn’t have ears, how can God hear?” “Mommy, is it okay to ask for sunshine tomorrow for my birthday?” As a parent, do you tell your child not to bother God with trivia? Or do you say that our concerns, no matter how small, are never trivial to God?
Many of you are on the UPC Prayer chair. When a prayer request pops up on your computer, do you pray for the person right then and there, or do you write down the person’s name, and include him or her in your intercession during a regular prayer time? Does God really hear such prayers? Do they make any difference?
Last Sunday at UPC during the adult church school on the topic of prayer, a homeless man walked into classroom. The disheveled man asked us for prayers…as well as money. (Do you support this is Gods way of saying, ‘Are you guys for real. Let’s see how you handle this?). I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. As it turned out, we did pray for him, and then we gave him some gift cards and a ride to where he wanted to go. Is it right to pray even when we feel manipulated, or used?
Young and old alike, we all have questions about prayer. For what should we ask? What is out of line? What is the language of prayer? Most of all, is anyone out there listening? Like Jesus’ first disciples, we plead, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
And Jesus responds to his disciples’ request. He gives us a prayer to pray. It is what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer. Actually, I wonder if the first disciples were a little disappointed in the prayer that Jesus taught them, because when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, they added, “as John the Baptist taught his disciples.” We sense some competitiveness going on. Jesus’ followers were likely hoping for some magic words, some secret prayer code that would be ‘way better than what John gave his disciples. But instead, Jesus taught them a prayer that was not unlike the rabbinic prayers of that day, the kind of prayers Jews heard in synagogue worship. Not that there is any deficiency in the Lord’s Prayer. Truly, it’s elegant and beautiful in its simplicity and candor. But the fact that Jesus gave them a plain, straightforward prayer, suggests that in the matter of prayer, it’s not necessarily what we pray that is most important, but rather knowing who it is to whom we pray.
As one commentator on this scripture wrote: “The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, but Jesus does not give the disciples magic words to say. Instead, he teaches them about the nature of the one to whom they pray.”
To illustrate, Jesus tells a parable. Suppose, Jesus begins, that you go to a neighbor’s house at midnight and ask him to give you three loaves of beard. The reason you need the bread is that a guest has come to your home and your cupboard is empty. Now this situation might not seem to constitute a social emergency to us, but that Middle-eastern culture custom required that if a guest arrived in your home, no matter the time of day or night, you must offer your guest food and drink. So you run to your neighbor’s home even though it is midnight, bang on his door and ask for bread. The dog starts barking, the baby wakes and starts to wail, and a very annoyed neighbor tells you to go away because you’re disturbing the whole household. “I can’t,” you shout as you bang on the door, “a guest has arrived and I have nothing to give. Please help me.” So the sleepy, highly annoyed neighbor throws off the covers, gets up, and gives you what you want, just so you’ll go away and the family can go back to sleep. Now, explains Jesus, if this grumpy neighbor gave you what you needed, how much more quickly and willingly will God give to those who ask him.
This, implies Jesus, is the essence of prayer. Forget the form. Forget the order. Forget even the words. Don’t worry about what to pray. Just pray–urgently, sincerely, unabashedly. Ask. Seek. Knock. God will respond. Why? Because God is like a good father, a far better parent than any of us. God knows what is good for us. Thus Jesus teaches us not to be shy about pounding on God’s door, even at midnight.
I suspect that most us have been there asking for bread at midnight at some time in our lives, if not for ourselves, for those we love. “I’m sorry,” says the doctor, “but the pathology report came back positive.” You bury your head in your hands, praying, “God help me get through this!” Or your teenager takes off in the family car and you find yourself uttering an involuntary prayer, “Please God don’t let anything happen.” Emergencies are not the only times to pray, but, with his parable, Jesus assures us that when we do utter our desperate, midnight prayers, God hears them, opens the door and gives us what we need.
Of course, anyone who has been about praying for long knows that God’s response to our prayers is not always the one we want. Jesus doesn’t promise that God will grant our every wish. We have all prayed for things we never got; we have all knocked at midnight and gone away disappointed. In her essay titled “God of Power and Might,” Cambridge theologian Janet Martin Soskice suggests that one of the problems with intercessory prayer is that we imagine a Wizard of Oz kind of God, a divine “occasional fixer.” This is a God who could be cajoled or flattered by intercessory prayer to reach into the natural order and make adjustments. But the Christian God, suggests Soskice, is not the occasional fixer who, if properly summoned, might swoop down and tinker with the natural order. Rather, the Christian God, is always present in the natural order as the healing, reconciling, renewing love that holds all things in being. So in this view, prayers of intercession are not violations of the so-called laws of nature but are woven into God’s ongoing act of creation. God, as the psalmist says, is “enthroned on the praises of Israel” and sustains the world in part through the prayers of the faithful.
“Lord, teach us to pray,” asked the disciples. Jesus gave them a prayer they could pray, but even more importantly he gave them a compelling reason to pray. We pray because God is so good, so ever-present, so eager to give us his Spirit and enjoin our prayers in the work of God’s kingdom.
Friends, in my experience—and I’ll bet in yours as well–prayer is not easy. But this morning, please hear the encouragement Jesus gives. He tells us just to do it, whether it’s pounding on God’s door at midnight or sitting silently in the stillness of the early morning hour, or spontaneously praying whenever we see a need. Whatever you do, Jesus teaches, do not give up.