Monday, 8 September 2008

Considering Prayer

SERMON 11 NOVEMBER 2007 6.30
MATTHEW 7:7 – 12

I don’t know very much about prayer. And it feels quite strange standing up here this evening in front of so many prayerful people. But what I do know I’ll share with you. I’ll share with you what I’ve learnt from the bible and from my own experiences.

A friend of mine told me the other day that Prayer is like a balloon. We fill it up with all our worries and concerns. And then we must let it go. Release it, trusting that it will reach its destination. Believe that it will come to rest in the hands of our heavenly father. We may not like the answers he gives us. They may seem hard to understand. I have made many prayers and I have often been left feeling lost and confused.

The passage we are going to look at this evening comes from The Sermon on the Mount. And perhaps the most important message for us in that sermon is that we must live lives that are different from the people around us. Jesus tells his disciples and listeners to be different from the Jews, the Romans and the Pagans around them. Every part of our lives should be different. The way we treat people and the way we talk to God should also be different.

In this passage Jesus returns to the subject of prayer. His first mention of prayer in the sermon can be found in chapter 6. In that chapter Jesus teaches his disciples to be different from the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. He calls them to be different from the empty and meaningless utterances of the Gentile’s. Jesus also gives a model or a template to his disciples for prayer in the words of The Lords’ Prayer.

In Matthew 7which Katy read to us. Jesus makes us a pretty bold promise.
He says that everyone who asks God will receive what they have asked for. [Pause / Repeat]

Jesus is concerning himself here with general prayers such as requests and prayers for help for ourselves and for others. But he urges us to keep on persisting in prayer. He illustrates his promise by comparing earthly parents to a perfect God.

He ends this part of his sermon on prayer with what has become known as The Golden Rule. This is to treat people the way we would like to be treated ourselves. In doing this Jesus says we are summing up the law and the teaching of the Prophets.

Verse 7 is the key verse in this passage on prayer.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

This simple, direct and bold promise contains some important assumptions. And it is some of these that we are going consider this evening.

The principle assumption in the passage is Faith. The confident hope that our prayers and our requests will be heard. Faith is the key that unlocks this promise. Matthew says later in his gospel “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." When we pray we must pray with confidence and trust that God will hear our prayers.

This summer we went on holiday to France to visit friends. The children’s passports were out of date and I needed them renewed pretty quickly. I was full of agitation. There I was at the Post Office with three weeks to go. I paid for the check and send service and watched the cashier carefully checking each part of the application, measuring the photographs, checking signatures and declarations. Basically I did not trust the process despite his reassuring smile and beaurocratic thoroughness. Eventually the passports arrived and I could breathe easily again and sleep without waking with fear at the bottom of my stomach.

This is not how God wants us to pray. He wants us, urges us, and invites us to pray simply without fuss for what we want. And then to leave it to him. Once we have prayed we should be confident that we will be heard. We must let go of the burden of our needs. Let the balloon go.

And the reason we can have this faith is that the God we pray to is good. The God we pray to loves us perfectly. He wants to give us good gifts. It says in Psalm 103 “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” But God is not like a father. He is a father. He is our spiritual Father, our heavenly Father. Jesus says earlier on in the sermon “…your Father in heaven is perfect.” Think of your own father or your own children. A perfect Father doesn’t knowingly hurt his children or aim to destroy them. A perfect Father loves his children. He knows what they need most. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He wants to feed and nurture us. He wants to see us grow and mature into full people. .

Some years back I offered to drive a friend to Paris to pick up his belongings and drive him back to London over a weekend. We hired the van, checked our passports and booked our place on the ferry. I wasn’t really looking forward to this non stop, overnight trip. In passing I mentioned the trip to my father in law, who without any hesitation offered to come with me and be my co driver. Actually he didn’t have a valid passport. So when he got to London he spent a frustrating, expensive and tedious couple of days applying and waiting for his passport. Eventually he got it but in the rush he somehow lost his precious Malaya Birth Certificate. But he just let that go.

My father in law saw what I needed. I did not even need to ask. And his giving involved some personal loss and sacrifice. I think God our Father’s love is something like this. And because God is like this we can trust him.

Some translations of verse 7 and eight show that another key assumption in this verse is that we should be persistent in prayer. They use the words “Keep on asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking.

This principle of persistent prayer is echoed and expanded in Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians. It says "pray without ceasing" . Paul’s instruction to us is to pray not only persistently but also continuously.

Some years ago I came across The Jesus Prayer.

It goes like this

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

For hundreds of years it has become fundamental part of the personal devotion of millions of Christians across the world. It is a prayer that is repeated constantly, sometimes as a meditation, and sometimes it is used by people as a pattern of thought that underpins every moment of their waking life. It is sometimes called the Prayer of the Heart because the prayer becomes as natural and as instinctive as our heart beating.

The first year I started teaching I don’t remember sleeping. I was so busy marking, preparing lessons but mostly worrying. There was one class that were a nightmare for me. I dreaded teaching them. I almost became sick thinking about them and went into each class terrified and shaking with fear. For weeks this went on. It got worse and worse. Until I thought I just could not carry on any more.

Then two things happened at the same time. Firstly I came across The Jesus Prayer and I started to repeat it to myself every morning for the whole journey to college that took about half an hour. I repeated it to myself breathing in with “Lord Jesus Christ”, then breathed out, “son of God”, followed by breathing in, “have mercy upon me”, and finally breathing out, “a sinner”.

Another kind of prayer that I used at that time that usually happened in the middle of the night when words seem so hard to dredge up out of the darkness. I began to imagine Jesus walking with me along the corridor to the classroom. I imagined him opening the door to that crowded room full of bored and insolent faces all staring at me. I imagined Jesus taking me by the hand leading me into the room. I imagined their complaints and moaning. And I imagined Jesus walking invisibly into that room and standing beside me. His eyes never leaving me, And he smiled, calmly as I began to teach.

It was the simplicity of the Jesus prayer that helped me to pray it constantly. And because I used it with my breathing I felt calmer and more relaxed. It was the picture prayer that helped give me strength confidence and authority to handle the class and to carry on every week.

This was my four O’clock in the morning prayer. And each time I prayed it I was able to sleep. Each time I prayed it the dread of that classroom shrunk.

Another key feature in handling prayer is humility. Humility is knowing our true relationship to God. And in verse 11 Jesus establishes the nature of that relationship. He says “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

To address God the creator, The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as father, would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners. But with that one word - Father - Jesus introduces his disciples to a new way of perceiving God. And in doing this Jesus establishes a new relationship with God. It is no longer the remote, elaborate and public displays and rituals of prayer that are emphasised but rather the personal, private and intimate relationship between a parent and a child.

We are not insignificant to God. We are his children and we should approach him as a child calls to a father, full of hope and expectations that something good will happen.

Sometimes we feel our prayers have not been answered. Sometimes we feel we have been punished not blessed. So how can this be when Jesus has already said that whoever asks receives? To answer that I think it is helpful to consider that God knows us better than we know ourselves. Psalm 139 begins “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.” and later in the psalm it says “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” Sometimes we ask for things we think we need. Search for things that are harmful to us, knock at a door that can lead us to destruction. And so we are left empty, alone, with unfulfilled hopes and desires because we cannot see what God sees in us and for us. Our wills are different from his perfect will. But I do believe that our persistent and continuous prayer can connect our will to God’s will for our lives. Drawing closer to him; align our own desires with his.

This is a hard lesson and in preparing this sermon I have had to confront this difficult truth for my life.

Jesus didn’t need a big screen to get his message across on that mountain side. What he did have were words. But it is as if he had made a fire work display of his message. He must have dazzled his hearers. Shocked and disturbed them with awe and wonder. He used words so powerfully that they were imprinted on his listeners and have been passed down to us.

It was so important for Jesus to get these truths across to people. So to make a lasting impact he uses oratory techniques that are still used today by speech makers.

Firstly he uses the vivid metaphor of knocking at a door. Secondly he gives a list of three imperative verbs – ask seek knock. This repetition is emphasised by the strong rhythm of the verse. All of these techniques are an aid to memory. He uses a combination of story telling with powerful contrasts. He compares sinful people to the perfect God.

Jesus speaks in such a way because his message is so important. He wants to be as direct and simple and clear as possible.

Keep on asking and you will receive.

Finally in preparing this sermon I came across one of my favourite poems. George Herbert a poet and priest in the seventeenth century wrote that prayer is “the soul’s blood.”

So let our prayers and our lives be filled with faithful, continual and humble prayer because it is as George Herbert says the life blood of our soul.


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