Prayer

Eleventh in a Series on Central’s Core Values,
Delivered April 18, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Matthew 6:5-8
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing
in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the
truth, they have received their reward in full.
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father,
who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will
be heard because of their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Have you ever heard The Yuppie’s Prayer? It goes like this. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my e-mail to keep. I pray my stocks are on the rise and that my therapist is wise. That all the wine I sip is white and that my hot tub is water tight. That racket ball won’t get too tough and that my sushi’s fresh enough. I pray my cell phone always works, and that my career won’t lose its perks. That my microwave won’t radiate and my condo won’t depreciate. I pray my health club doesn’t close and that my Money Market always grows. And if I die before I wake, I pray my Lexus they won’t take.”

That’s kind of a trite silly prayer, but one that in some form or another is probably prayed by a whole lot of folks. Prayer is the last of our core values – of who we say we are as a congregation. But when we talk about prayer, we’re not just talking about prayer in general, we’re not talking about the Yuppie’s prayer, we’re talking about authentic prayer. If Central is to continue to be a faithful congregation, then we need to be a praying congregation. Everything that we do needs to be preceded, and undergirded, and then followed up by prayer. Everything needs to be bathed in prayer.

Central is pretty much of a praying congregation. In fact we’ve got a reputation around town of being a praying congregation. Isn’t that wonderful? Well, before you answer that question too quickly, let’s take a look at some of Jesus’ teaching about what authentic prayer really looks like. This morning we’re going to look at his introduction to The Lord’s Prayer, and I would invite you to turn in your Bibles to the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel and to keep those Bibles open during the sermon since we will be referring back to the text. This morning, let’s take a look at what Jesus teaches us about authentic prayer in verses 5 through 8 of Matthew 6. This is the Word of God.

Jesus says “But when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think that 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.”

Join me as we pray. And now Father as my words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart, but as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The fact is that everyone prays. You don’t have to be a believer to pray. Listen to the people around you during the week. Crisis hits somebody’s life, and during their normal life they might not even tip their hat to God, give God the time of day, but boy, crisis hits and they hit that “Spiritual 911” button. “Oh God, help me!” Listen to other people around you: G-D this, G-D that. That’s prayer. It’s asking God to cast into hell whoever or whatever. Or some people seem to begin to pray but never finish. Jee-sus Christ. “Yes, go on, what did you want to talk with me about?” You don’t have to be a believer to pray, everyone prays. Jesus assumes that. Look at verse 5 of your text. He doesn’t say “if you pray” he says “when you pray.” Everyone prays. But the questions is this, the issue is not prayer. The issue is whether your prayers and my prayers are authentic or not. So Jesus goes on in this text to contrast authentic prayer with hypocritical and pagan prayers. He does that by giving you and me some “dos” and “don’ts” about prayer.

Look at verse 5. The first “don’t.” He says, “Don’t be a praying hypocrite.” Back in Jesus’ day there were all kinds of folks who would vie to see who could get furthest up in the synagogue and stand and pray in front of everyone. In fact, these folks were such powerful, pious people of prayer that they couldn’t even wait to get to church. I mean on the way to church they would stop at nearly every street corner and begin to pray out loud. “Wow, look at Joe. He’s so spiritual! What a man of God!”

The only problem is, Joe isn’t really praying, at least not authentically. You see, Joe’s chief thing is not to pray, it is to be seen. Joe is putting on spiritual airs. He wants to be known as a spiritual giant. But he’s not. He’s not really praying at all. Jesus says, don’t be like these guys, they are hypocrites! Now the word hypocrite comes from the Greek theater. It literally means “to put on a mask.” To be an actor performing. To be someone who’s not really behaving like they are as true to themselves. Jesus says, “Don’t do that.” He borrows this term from the Greek theater and says these hypocrites that are praying on the street corners and up front in the synagogues to be seen by men, they have their Academy Award. All of those people they have duped around them, praising them for their spirituality. But Jesus says that’s as far as it goes. He gives them two “thumbs down.” And Central Church, if our primary purpose in prayer is to be known as a praying church, then we already have our reward.

In verse 6, Jesus goes on to give us a “do.” He says, “Don’t be like these hyprocrites, instead, get by yourself. Get alone. Close the door.” Now what is Jesus saying here? Is he outlawing public and corporate prayer? No! Not at all. Now one thing he is saying here is that if you and I take prayer seriously and we really want to grow in an authentic prayer life, we do need to take time daily to be alone with God.

I think what Jesus is also saying here is when you pray (you see the issue really is not being alone, the issue is authenticity), whenever you pray, wherever you pray, whether it is in public or private, whether it is by yourself or corporately, shut the door! Shut the door to wrong motives. Close it! Close it to that temptation to want to be seen and praised by other people. That is always a temptation. You remember that seminar you went to and at the end of the seminar they closed by having everybody get up and join hands in a circle and go around and everybody prayed? Ever been in one of those? And as people began to pray, you found yourself not entering into their prayers, no, you were too busy doing what? Composing a prayer that would primarily impress the people who were there that would hear it, rather than authentically talking to God.

Now I don’t mean to put Elder Piet DeSmit on the spot here – he’s going to be praying the Congregational Prayer later on in the service. And anytime an elder assists in worship, I can guarantee that there is an internal struggle going on inside of them. A struggle to pray in ways that are going to impress you versus authentically talking to God. How do I know that? Because every time I preach, I am at war with Satan inside. One part of me wanting to preach in ways that will move people toward Christ, vying against preaching in ways that will guarantee that you will come up to me after the service and say, “Wow, what a great sermon, Ron.”

Whether it comes to prayer or anything else in the Christian life, the real issue is authenticity. Are we really closing ourselves off from self-aggrandizement and from seeking the praise of people, and moving instead into really hooking up with God? I can remember Tony Campolo one time telling a story about how he prayed in worship and then at the door some lady came up to him and began to correct the grammar in his prayer. And his response was, “Well, you know, I wasn’t really talking to you anyway!” Only Campolo can get away with that, I would never say that to you all. But you know there is a real grain of truth there.

Well let’s move on. Jesus gives us another “don’t” in verse 7 of our text. He says, “Don’t be like those babbling pagans who just go on and on and on.” Again, the issue is they are trying to impress, not people this time, they are trying to impress God, Jesus says, with their many words. Immediately we think of prayer wheels and prayer beads and prayer flags. The Buddhists have prayer flags. Every time the flag flutters it is supposed to be sending up prayers to God. Prayer candles – all this stuff, trying to impress God, as if you and I can impress God.

Friends, hear the gospel of grace. You and I don’t need to try to impress God. We can’t impress God. The gospel of grace is that God loves you as much as he is ever going to love you right now. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done. And the gospel of grace is that he will never love you any less than he does right now. Our job is not to impress God, Jesus goes on in verse 8 to say “Don’t be like these folks trying to impress God!” Why? Because Jesus says in verse 8 that God is your Father, and He knows, you don’t have to pile up words, He knows what you need before you even ask Him.

That begs the question then, “Why pray?” If God already knows what we need, why pray? Because, Jesus is trying to hammer home to his disciples and to you and me here today, because prayer is not about trying to get God to do something for us, it is not about trying to impress him, it is not about ritual ( if we just say the right words loudly enough and long enough then Poof – God the magic genie has to pop into action for us) no, because prayer is not chiefly about trying to manipulate God, it is about relationship. It is about the child of God in relationship with his or her father. It is all about opening you life up to God.

Prayer is simply conversation with God. Talking with Him. Opening your life up and inviting Him into that life. Put yourself in God’s shoes for just a moment. Imagine if you are God, and everyday you’ve got millions of authentic and inauthentic prayers flying at you all the time. The only thing I can figure is it must be like the difference between getting a phone call from a telemarketer versus a phone call from your best friend. One’s trying to manipulate you, one’s trying to get something from you, one’s trying to impress you, one’s trying to get you to do something, one’s trying to twist your arm, one’s trying to meet a sales quota, one’s trying to impress some bosses. The other one is simply about relationship. Prayer, you see, is at the heart of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is all about relationship.

When I talk to my wife Anne, usually it is not to manipulate her, or to get something from her, or to try to impress her. Usually when I talk with Ann it is because I love her. We have a relationship. And I want to talk through my life and our life together with her. There are two times when I need to talk with Ann – one is when I feel like it, and the other, probably more importantly, is when I don’t feel like it. The same is true of authentic prayer.

If I were to get cancer, be diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, I don’t need to pray to tell God about that. He knows everything about it. He knows how many cancer cells are there, He knows what needs to be done. I don’t need to go to Him in prayer chiefly to ask Him to heal me, although that is perfectly appropriate. He knows what I need, He knows what I want. Chiefly I go to God in prayer because we’re in a relationship, and now, there is a new facet in my life that I need to include in our relationship together. And I can do that because of God’s promise that He loves me, that He is interested in me, and that He wants to walk with me through that facet of my life. In fact, He wants to walk with me through every facet of my life. Prayer is all about relationhip. Talking your life out and over with a Father who loves you. Loves you literally to death.

When Central’s elders hammered out our eleven core values and we got to prayer, we said that there were five things that we want to be intentional about when it comes to authentic prayer. The first is that we want to teach and model and encourage lives of prayer. If you want to learn how to pray here at Central, one of the best places to do that is to show up in the Chapel on Wednesday evenings at 7:00 for our weekly prayer meeting. You don’t have to come and pray. In fact the majority of people who come never even say anything out loud. But in that room a whole bunch of prayer warriors gather. And if you want to learn how to pray, just sit in there and observe their model. Or get in a small group where you invest your life with other people along with the Lord, and that’s a great place to learn how to pray.

Secondly, we are committed to creating ministries of prayer. We have quite a few at Central. As you will see in the back of your bulletin, there is a prayer chain with a couple of numbers that you can call. Use that! You’ve got a concern, a need? Somebody to be prayed for? Call that number. We’ve got a men’s monthly prayer breakfast, where we really pray for about 40 minutes after eating breakfast. We’ve got a prayer room ministry. In the pew racks in front of you are pink prayer cards. You can write something down as I am speaking now. On your way out there is a little box by the door out to the concourse. You can drop it in there. People will pick those up and throughout the week you will be prayed for. Some of you have individual ministries of prayer, in which you pray for certain people and situations. We need to create more ministries of prayer.

A third thing we are committed to here at Central is to expectantly intercede for others. You know, possibly the best thing you can ever do for anybody or for any situation is to pray for them. Take the thing in Kosovo right now. It’s ripping our hearts out, isn’t I?. We see on the news every night lives blown apart. What can we do? Well, we need to send aid over there. In fact in the bulletin next week we will have how you can send aid through the Presbyterian church to the people in Kosovo. But as Christians, as people committed to Jesus Christ, people with prayer at the heart of our relationship with God, the best thing we can do is also pray for them. I’m not talking about “God bless the people of Kosovo.” How do you pray authentically for people in a situation like that?

Well, I’m reminded of the story of a young Scottish pastor back in the early 19th century after the death of that great Scottish pastor Robert Murray McShane. This young pastor wanted to be a pastor like McShane. So he went to Dundee, Scotland, visited McShane’s old church, ran into the sexton who had worked under McShane, and he said, “I want to become a pastor like Robert Murray McShane. What should I do?” And the guy said, “Come here.” He took him into McShane’s old office and he said, “Why don’t you sit at his desk.” Wow – he sat at his desk. He said, “Why don’t you put your elbows up on the desk?” So the man did. He said, “Now why don’t you put your head down in your hands?” So the man did. And then that sexton said, “Now let the tears flow. That’s the way McShane used to do it.”

Friends, that’s what authentic prayer is all about. It’s letting your heart break open, and maybe even bleed before the Lord for certain people and situations. Pray for others. They need your prayers more than you will ever know.

The fourth thing that we are committed to here at Central in the area of authentic prayer is realizing that prayer is always a conversation with God – it is listening to God as well as speaking to God. Two way conversation – you see we are back to the relationship thing again. Prayer is not leaving God a voice mail. That’s why prayer and the Word always have to go together to be authentic. That’s why when you have a quiet time you need not just to pray, not just you talk to God, but then you need to get into the Word and listen to Him speak to you. And you can reverse the order. Sometimes I like to pray first and then listen for God’s response through His Word. Other times I’ll read the Word first and that will generate in me what to pray about.

And then fifthly, and lastly, we are committed to the realization that God answers prayer in His way and in His time because He is sovereign. God can’t be manipulated. Prayer is not some kind of arm wrestling match with God trying to get a reluctant God to do something for us. No God always answers prayer, always answers out of His grace, always out of His love, always out of what He believes to be best for your life and for mine down there at the bottom of His heart. Maybe we can’t see it, but we have to trust it. He always answers, either yes, or no, or wait…

So what does authentic prayer really look like? What can it do? Let me close with a true story, a true story that will give you and me a glimpse of just one amazing way that authentic prayer born out of genuine relationship with Christ can make a difference.

It is the story of a Russian Orthodox priest Father Arseni who was imprisoned in a Soviet death camp back during The Cold War. You can read about it in his biography entitled Father Arseni: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. The book opens with a horrific scene of what life was like in that death camp. A cold windy night, where fires are kept blazing merely to soften the ground so that they can dig graves. And Father Arseni is given the task of going out and splitting kindling and taking it back for the wood stove in the prison dormitory. And he is out there exhausted – he is numb, and he is chopping this wood, and he begins to cry out to God in prayer. He says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner. Help me! I place my trust in you Oh Lord!” A malicious prisoner comes up and dumps water all over the wood that Arseni has chopped, because you see, non-religious prisoners hated religious prisoners. They thought Christians were nuts. And so Father Arseni gathers up this wet pile of wood and he is shuffling through the snow and he is about to drop over and he continues to pray, “Oh God, please, do not abandon me.”

Now many of you here this morning prayed for Father Arseni. Now you didn’t know his name, but you prayed for people behind the Iron Curtain. You prayed for persecuted Christians back during the Cold War. And God answered your prayers! He did not abandon Father Arseni. In fact, the persecution of Arseni drove the love of Christ so deep into that man’s heart that he began to radiate a spiritual presence in that death camp that thawed many frozen hearts. One time Arseni and a young unbeliever named Alexei were disciplined by being placed in a steel cubicle in minus twenty-two degree weather. Now the only way they could stay alive (they were going to be in there for 48 hours) was to literally jump up and down for the whole 48 hours, an impossibility for the old priest and the beat up young man. Alexei cried out in despair and in rage and gave up, and just at about the point of death, Alexei recalls that he began suddenly and amazingly see that cell begin to fill with light. As he looked at Arseni who was praying, he began to notice that the old priest’s prison uniform began to look like vestments, and suddenly he was aware of another presence in that cubicle, in fact two white robed figures who knelt in prayer with Arseni. And then even more amazingly, the atheist, the unbeliever, Alexei, heard Father Arseni say “Be still Alexei, do not be afraid, you need to rest, lie down, I will pray and you can listen.”

Amazingly, Alexei found himself entering into the prayers with that priest. The next day the authorities opened the door to drag out the two frozen cadavers. Instead they found two men renewed and radiant, their prison clothes covered with a thick layer of ice.

My friends, far more has been wrought by authentic prayer than you and I can ever imagine in our wildest dreams. Join me as we pray.

Lord God, we do not take lightly the privilege of walking into your presence this very moment, turning our heads, our hearts, our entire beings, toward you and saying thank you for this gift of prayer, where we can come into your presence without fear, where we can share our lives with you, where we, through your Holy Spirit, can be molded and shaped more and more into courageous men and women of Christ who can live for you, and more importantly, can die for you with integrity and with joy. Lord, transform us through prayer, for we ask it in the precious and transforming name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.