Sunday, August 12, 2012

Prayer (Part 2 of a 4-Part Series)

[This was shared during the 10:15 worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 6:7-15
Sometimes, at the end of a youth group devotion or during a Catechism class unit, I’ll ask a young person if they would offer a prayer. Honestly, I don’t do this to embarrass anybody. Maintaining any good relationship entails the commitment of time and energy and communication. This is no less true of our relationship with the God we know through Jesus Christ. So, I want to encourage young people to feel that they can talk with God any time without flowery or pretentious language.

The fact is that whenever any of us pray, no matter our age, no matter if we offer our prayer publicly or privately, we may get a little tongue-tied or experience brain-freezes or become totally confused by life. I know that’s true for me!

Fortunately, those who believe in Jesus and approach God in prayer in Jesus' Name know that their prayers don’t have to be perfect. Romans 8:26 says: “[God’s Holy] Spirit also helps us in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us [that means, the Holy Spirit speaks up for us] with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

Whenever we’re overwhelmed by life, knowing that we need God, but not knowing what to pray, we not only have the advocacy of the Holy Spirit, though. We also have a pattern for prayer that Jesus has given to us. It’s what we call the Lord’s Prayer.

Last Sunday, using the version of the Lord’s Prayer found in the gospel of Luke, we looked at what we call the introduction and the first and second petitions of the prayer. Today, we’re going to consider the third, fourth, and fifth petitions, the next three things Jesus says you and I should be seeking from God when we pray.

Please turn to Matthew 6:7-15 in your Bible. Slide down to verse ten of our gospel lesson, where we find the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will [or Your will] be done.”

In instructing us to pray in this way, Jesus isn’t asking us to ask God for anything that He Himself wasn’t willing to pray for or live with. You remember that before He was arrested, tried, and murdered for our sins, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Even when He knew with perfect clarity all of the suffering that the Father's will would bring to Him, Jesus prayed that God's will would be done.

Jesus is teaching us here that there’s more to being a Christian than cashing in on His promise to give new and everlasting life to those who believe in Him.

That's because believing in Jesus is more than accepting the propositions that He is God the Son or that He died for human beings or that He physically rose from the dead. As the New Testament book of James says: “You believe that there is one God; you do well: the demons also believe, and tremble.”

When Jesus says that all who believe in Him will be saved, He means that all who entrust their whole lives to Him will be saved. Those who trust Jesus are the people who can say (or are willing to ask God to help them to pray) things like this:
  • “Here is a sin of which I’m really fond and over which I feel I have no control, God. But I accept that when You and I disagree about what’s a sin, you’re right and I’m wrong. Help me to resist temptation to sin in this way.” 
  • Or, “Lord, I really want this job or want to keep this job. But if You have some other plan, Your will be done.” 
  • Or, “I want to be with this person. But if You say, ‘No,’ I’ll do what You want.” 
Sometimes, of course, God’s will may not be entirely clear to us. But know this: God will never will us to do what is contrary to what He has revealed about Himself in the Bible.

When we feel unclear about God's will for us, we also have a promise from Jesus. As we live in relationship with Him, seeking His will in prayer, and reading God’s Word in the Bible, Jesus says in John 16:13 that the Holy Spirit will guide us in truth. In fact, the closer we grow to Christ, the more God’s will and our will get in sync.

The fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer represents a shift in emphasis in the prayer. Up to this point, Jesus has instructed us to pray for things that are helpful to us both today and in eternity. Here, we begin to ask God to things that are important to us today. In Matthew 6:11, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Martin Luther reminds us in The Small Catechism that Jesus has in mind here more than just the bread or food we need day in and day out, but everything we need to live every day.

But, we may wonder, why should we have to ask God for what we need each day? When I was a kid, I didn’t have to go to my parents and say, “Hey, Dad! Hey, Mom! You remember those three square meals you gave me yesterday? I’m going to be needing something similar today.” They knew I needed food, water, shelter, an education, medical care, love, and other things every day. They didn’t have to be reminded.

God doesn’t have to be reminded of our needs, either. He knows them better than we do ourselves. Jesus teaches us to pray in this way, I think, for three reasons:

First: So that we will remember and acknowledge that no matter how hard or ingeniously you and I may work, all that we have comes from God.

People may say (as I've sometimes heard them say), “I work hard for everything I have. What does God have to do with it?”

The answer to that question is simple: Where did the brain and the brawn you use to do that work come from? And who is the ultimate source of all the things you work so hard to attain?  These are gifts from God! James 1:17 in the New Testament says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, and comes from the Father...”

Second: We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” to teach us contentment.

There’s nothing wrong with ambitions, wanting to achieve great things, living up to our God-given potential, or trying to provide for our families’ needs.

But it’s also important to remember, as the New Testament tells us, “we brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.”

How much of what we work so hard to get can be categorized as “needs” and how much as “wants”?  So often, the reason we focus on our "wants" is because of a basic insecurity we have about ourselves, a need we feel to justify even taking up space in the universe. At other times, we focus on what we want because, like Adam and Eve, we want to "be like God" and feel a sense of entitlement to superiority over the "normal people" of the world.

In the prayer from the book of Proverbs that made up our first Bible lesson for today, we read: "Give me neither poverty nor riches—Feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny You, and say, “Who is the Lord?' Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God" (Proverbs 30:8-9)

A third reason I think that Jesus teaches us to ask God for our daily bread is to remind us to share our abundance with others.

God has engineered this planet so that there is more than enough of everything that all six-billion of earth’s inhabitants needs. Jesus teaches that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Those with plenty--including plenty of knowledge on how to create sustainable agriculture in inhospitable soils and climates--are told by Jesus’ commandment to love God and to love others as we love ourselves, to share our plenty with those who have little. There’s plenty of daily bread to go around if we will simply share with one another.

In the fifth petition, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts [or trespasses], as we forgive our debtors [or those who trespass or sin against us].”

Of all the petitions in the Lord's Prayer, this one may be the most counter to the ways our culture thinks. The prevailing thinking of the world is illustrated by the title of the best-selling album in the United States this past week: God Forgives, I Don't by hip-hop artist Rick Ross.

If being told to pray, “Thy will be done” (“You take control, God”) makes us wince, being told to pray, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us," may absolutely make us want to throw our hands up in despair!

Does Jesus want us to pray that God will forgive people who have hurt us, robbed us, gossiped about us mercilessly, lied to us? More than any of these things, actually, Jesus commands us to forgive people like these who have made our lives miserable!

Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 6:14-15 of our gospel lesson: “...if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Jesus isn't saying that if people have hurt us, we have to keep placing ourselves in situations in which they can hurt us again. He is saying that if we want the forgiveness and new life that His death and resurrection can secure for all who repent for sin and believe in Him, we must forgive, we must let go of our resentment and bitterness.

It’s a homely illustration I’ve used in sermons before (and even during the Bible study at Von Bora Circle this past week), but think of what Jesus tells us here in this way. Imagine that you’re going through your life holding onto all your grudges and resentments. As long as you’re holding onto those, refusing to forgive others, you cannot grasp the hand of Jesus offering you forgiveness for your sins and pulling you to eternal life with God.

Letting go of our resentments does not come naturally to us. You and I are born in sin, which means that if there is anyway that we can lord it over others, feeding our fantasies of being morally superior, to being “like God,” in some way, we’re inclined to exploit those opportunities. But that’s the way to death.

We think that by holding grudges we’re in some way imprisoning or hurting the people we refuse to forgive. But the opposite is true. Someone has said, “Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for another person to die.”

Unforgiven sin kills. Jesus has opened up the possibility of forgiveness and new, everlasting life to all who will repent and believe in Him. So, why would we want to throw away eternal life just for the momentary--or even lifelong--satisfaction of feeling superior to someone who has hurt us?

Sometimes bitterness, an unholy superiority complex can sneak up on you.

I may have mentioned the experience I had one day while praying. Something just didn’t seem right. I felt physically and spiritually exhausted. “God,” I said, “what’s wrong?”

At that moment, I refused to fill the silence with my words and instead just waited on the Lord. You know the promise of God in Isaiah 40:31: “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength...” Or the words of Psalm 46:10: "Be still and know that I am God."

After a few moments, God whispered to my soul in the silence. I knew what was wrong. Bitterness had infected my relationship with someone. I asked God to forgive my sin and to help me forgive the person with whom I was bitter.

Like everyone, I suppose, I still find bitterness and an unforgiving spirit sometimes welling up within me. But I’ve found an effective antidote, a supernatural cure for my natural impulse to sin. Whenever I find myself harboring bitterness toward anyone, I pray for them. I ask God to bless them. I ask God to show Himself to them that day and to help them to feel loved by Him. I militate against my sinful orientation and ask God to help me see things His way and to live His way.

I’ve heard that you can’t hate someone for long if you pray for them. I’ve found that to be true.

And Jesus says that you can’t claim the love of Christ if you’re not willing to throw away bitterness. That’s why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

An authentic prayer life will include the elements Jesus teaches in the third, fourth, and fifth petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray to God:
  • “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” 
  • “Give us this day our daily bread,” and 
  • “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” 
May God teach us all to pray in these ways.

By God’s grace, we’ll talk about prayer more next Sunday.