Prayer

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We are starting tonight a new series of evening studies entitled The Christian Life. And our first subject is Prayer. Also tonight I am very conscious that we have a week and a bit to go to the celebration of 500 years since the formal beginning of the Reformation of Religion in the 16th century. For the 31st of October was when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in Germany. He was attacking the sale of indulgences which we haven't time to go into now. But, under God, it was the start of an amazing Continental, and then three centuries later, World-wide, spiritual revival. And, yes, there was a recovery of the Bible. And, yes, there was the recovery of the doctrine of 'justification by faith'. But it was also a recovery of the practice of prayer – private prayer and corporate prayer. So listen to this:

"There is nothing in all of human life so needing to be talked about and daily to be made use of, than heartfelt, zealous and devout prayer. The need for this is so great. For without it nothing may be rightly received from God's hand. As the apostle James said: 'Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights' (James 1.17). God also is said to be rich and liberal to all who call on him. This is not because he will not, or cannot, give without our asking. It is because he has appointed prayer as a normal means between him and us."

Well, those words were heard by probably millions of people in England over the 16th and 17th centuries and with the sermon that followed. They are the start of the Homily on Prayer from the second Anglican book of Homilies – the English Reformation Homilies. But what about Luther himself?

Well, Luther's famous work on Prayer, is a relatively short treatise for Peter the Barber. Yes, Luther's own barber. Luther had discovered that Peter his Barber found prayer difficult. So he wrote for him something which is quite practical. In it Luther tells Peter what he, Luther, does when he finds prayer difficult. He goes to his room to read the Psalms, or to church to hear the Psalms sung or read. He also repeats to himself the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed and some of Christ's sayings or Paul's. And he makes sure he prays first thing in the morning and last thing at night. He then structures his prayer around the Lord's Prayer and meditates on the Ten Commandments to remind him he needs to pray for forgiveness.

Well, be all that as it may, tonight I want us to think about Jesus' teaching on prayer. So perhaps you will turn now in your Bible to Luke 11.1-13. And my headings are first, The Need for Jesus' Teaching, and secondly, The Content of Jesus' Teaching.

1. The Need for Jesus' Teaching

Let me suggest three reasons among many.

First, prayer seems to be coming back. Not so long ago there was some research by the Church of England regarding prayer. And it found that teenagers and people in their early 20s emerged as less likely to reject prayer than their parents' generation. Only 9% of those aged 18-24 said they would never pray, compared with 17% of those in their late 50s and early 60s. However, among pensioners it falls to 9% again, the same as for young adults. That is good news. Maybe there are some like that here tonight and so you are asking questions about prayer. If so, you will be helped by Jesus' teaching.

And all will be helped by the second reason. Look at verse 1:

"Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, 'Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.'"

We all need Jesus' teaching because praying as Jesus directs does not come naturally. For as with all learning, it requires effort. Right praying is not like breathing, which just happens. No! you have to learn and someone needs to teach you. And Jesus does just that.

And the third reason is in what Jesus didn't say. Look at verse 2.

"And he said to them, "When you pray, say: "Father…""

He didn't say, 'When you pray, first get in the mood.' He knew only too well that we often don't feel in the mood to pray. But his teaching doesn't require right emotions, only simple obedience to do what he says. How necessary that is. For you so often don't feel like going to a prayer meeting or a Home Group where at the end you can pray for one another. Or you don't feel like coming to church to pray as well as praise. Listen to Luther:

"You must learn [note that word] to call on the Lord. Don't sit all alone or lie on the couch, shaking your head and letting your thoughts torture you. Don't worry about how to get out of your situation or brood about your terrible life, how miserable you feel, and what a bad person you are. Instead, say, 'Get a grip on yourself … Fall on your knees, and raise your hands and eyes toward heaven. Read a Psalm, Say the Lord's Prayer and tearfully tell God what you need.'"

Yes, there is need for discipline. We know some of the early Christian believers sought to be disciplined quite strictly. Some at least sometimes followed the Jewish practice of praying at the third hour (9am), the sixth hour (12 noon), the ninth hour (3pm) and at midnight. So in Acts 10.3 you are told the god-fearing Cornelius, having a quiet time "about the ninth hour of the day" (3pm), had a vision of "an angel of God" saying to him "your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God" … so send for Peter. And then in Acts 10.9 you read that "Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray" (12 noon). And he too had a vision. And what followed was world shaking. For it really started the Gentile mission that has led to the Gospel of Christ being a truly world-wide faith – unlike any other. Then later in Acts you read that, while in prison, "about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God" (Acts 16.25). The fact is that prayer is a command for Christians and requires appropriate discipline. Well, so much for the need for Jesus' teaching.

  • One, there are people wanting and so needing to learn to pray.
  • Two, we need a teacher because the right lessons won't come naturally.
  • And, three, the idea has to be countered that for prayer you need the right spiritual feelings rather than the right discipline.

So, that bring us secondly to:

2. The Content of Jesus Teaching

What Jesus does is teach a shape for your praying. And he says, first, in verse 2:

"When you pray, say, "Father, hallowed be your name."

There is so much Christian theology – or the understanding of God's nature - in that word "Father". We know any Jew could have prayed, "Father, hallowed be your name", using the formal religious word, Abinu. But we also can know that when Jesus prayed, he used the word, Abba. That was the word a child used to address a human father. So Jesus taught the 'Fatherhood of God' should not just be a cold fact but a personal and warm relationship.

This, we should note, was at the heart of Luther's teaching and his own personal experience. Luther was already a theologian who knew that God was utterly holy and righteous and powerful. And he knew he, too, personally was sinful. His great rediscovery came, however, when he realised that God was also utterly merciful through Christ's death for him and all of us on the Cross. So you and I and Luther can be righteous not in the sense of being particularly good, but in the sense of being judged righteous (or justified) when we are bad. For we are acquitted by Christ bearing the penalty for our sin himself. Luther saw that as God's great gift to men and women who received that gift by faith in Jesus Christ.

But, and this is one of those Big Questions, how do you exercise that faith in Jesus Christ? For it is not just by knowing intellectually that Christ died for you to forgive your sins. The devils believe that. The answer is that you need to ask for that forgiveness – for that salvation, that new birth, that new life that Christ offers. And prayer is the word used for 'asking' when asking is addressed to God. So prayer is right at the start of someone's true spiritual life. Listen to Paul writing in Romans 10.9 and 13:

"if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved ...For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

And that calling and salvation brings you into a relationship of real sonship with the Father – through Jesus Christ who says (John 14.6):

"no one comes to the Father except through me"

So prayer is the other side of the coin to faith. Who tonight needs to pray a prayer of faith to receive Christ and his forgiveness and new life and mean it? Why not do so tonight?

Secondly, Jesus says we are to pray for the Father's name to be "hallowed" or treated as "holy". But why should you pray that? Well, it is a prayer of praise for one thing. Then our minds focus on the one we are praying to and his greatness and glory. For we mustn't just be stuck with the idea of a relationship to God as our Father. We must also realize the nature of the one to whom we are relating - namely Almighty God, the creator of this amazing universe. Just pause and think what that aspect of God's holiness means for prayer. Think of being able to phone up the Queen just when and from where you want. Multiply that by billions of times, in your imagination. Then tell yourself that such a one, of infinite significance, is now your Father whom you can contact by prayer when and from wherever you want, through Jesus Christ.

So having discovered something of the love and grace of God, you mustn't think God is just like any old pal. You must never forget that he is the creator of this universe and, importantly, the controller of it. For he did not merely start this universe off and then wind it up like clockwork and then just let it run. No, God's initial creative energy is still at work. It is working according to his will to keep all of it, and us, still in being, again (the Bible says), through Jesus Christ. And he is involving himself in all the events of history, and us, and directing them, and us, to our appointed ends. That is why he knows about the death of every sparrow, says Jesus. And he knows the very number of the hairs on your head. That is even after you've shampooed your hair and lost one or two hairs as the water drains away (Matt 10.29-30). And that is how he can be and is, as the Bible teaches, all controlling but also all caring. And why he can answer prayer – not always when we want but for our best. And why by prayer, you can cast all your cares on him. As Peter says (1 Peter 5.7),

"humble yourselves … under the mighty hand of God … casting all your anxieties on him"

So as you pray for God's name to be hallowed, you are praying that people will know, and you will know, more and more about God's greatness, about his control and about his care for the world and its people. So how foolish not to trust him. But also how foolish not to pray to such a God. It is a mystery. But God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and who is both outside time and space, can by his Spirit be directly involved in it. And he can and does change things in answer to prayer. But also praying that God's name is hallowed is a prayer for God's holiness to be known and acknowledged. It is for his righteousness and moral holiness to be known. Certainly we regularly need to pray for that in this country with its increasing decadence in non-marital sexual immorality and lust and economic immorality and greed. So we are to pray, Father, hallowed be your name (meaning character), or acknowledged as holy.

Thirdly, we are to pray, "Your kingdom come". That is a simple prayer for God to be reigning both in your own life and in the wider world and both for now and for that glorious future kingdom of heaven. So you should be praying for the Government. Paul writes to Timothy (1 Tim 2.1-2)…

"…first of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way"

But then prayer should include your family and friends and fellow students and work colleagues and other people you know you need to be praying for. And of course, you need to be praying for the Church that it may be a great and growing agent for God's kingdom. In fact we should be praying for everyone we relate to that they are agents for God's kingdom.

The Reformers had a strong doctrine of "vocation". They realized that God works through human beings as his agents in all spheres of life and not just in the Church through clergymen. For he works not only directly but indirectly. So we can say, "'God healed me', but not through an instant miracle but through a GP who sent me to the hospital, for some tests run by a nurse and a doctor, who then gave me a prescription and a pharmacist who gave me some pills to make me better." The Reformers would instinctively have said God made me better. But he uses various agents as his means. So we should thank God for those he calls to be his helpers in all walks of life. And we should pray that they are agents of his kingdom, not the kingdom of darkness. So whatever job you are doing, so long as it is not something totally immoral, you should be praying for it that you can do it well as part of God's calling to you. And that includes, of course, your work as a calling to be a student.

Then, fourthly, we are to pray: "give us each day our daily bread." This is praying for everything we need for our earthly existence, and so that we can live in accordance with God's will. In an advanced economy we should include praying for financial needs and our own financial needs if we have them. And so pray for the Brexit talks.

Notice the prayer is for each day, not for the next five years so we can then forget God until we need to pray again in five years' time. No! God often seems to keep us on a short leash, so it is each day's needs he supplies. The word is a rare one in the original. But many think it refers just to immediate needs that keep us dependent on God. And as a church family we should pray regularly for our own practical and financial needs at JPC. Even if you genuinely can't give much to God's work, and a good number will be like that, you can pray and that is so important. We heard in our Epistle reading from James 4.2:

"you do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions."

So your prayers must never be selfish prayers simply to satisfy your selfish desires. However, that is a promise that God will, in his way, answer your unselfish prayers.

And then, fifthly, verse 4:

"and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation."

We need to spend time asking for forgiveness and including forgiveness for our sins of omission – all the good we have failed to do – and not just for the bad we have done. It is not that God rewards you for forgiving someone else. Rather, if you are an unforgiving person, there's likely a block in your spiritual system that won't let God's own free forgiveness through.

And, finally, - and with this I must conclude - with regard to sin, and being conscious of your own weakness, there must be that prayer not to be led into temptation. But then remember those words of Hebrews 4.15-16:

"We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy [that is, forgiveness when we've sinned] and find grace [that is, moral strength] to help in time of need."

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