Sunday, July 7, 2013

Prayer in the Teaching and Life of Jesus

Preached at South Salem Friends Church
July 7, 2013

When we want to get to know Jesus better, we go to the Gospels and read about what he said and did.  Then we have to think, because what Jesus said and what Jesus did do not always seem identical.  So then we have to be willing to ask what truth is there for us in the disconnect, because as Christians, we believe that Jesus came from God, that Jesus was God as well as human, and that when we see Jesus speaking and acting in the Gospels, we see who God is.  So here’s one riddle to work through, and it has to do with prayer.

First misunderstanding: Prayer should always be private.

We see that Jesus would withdraw to deserted places and pray (Luke 5:16). Furthermore, in Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus gives advice to his followers about prayer.

“When you pray, don’t be like those who pray so that people can see them praying.  These hypocrites stand on street corners or in synagogues and pray out loud so that others will see them.  The attention they get is their only reward.  But when you pray, go into your private room, shut the door, and talk with your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees you praying privately will reward you.”

(We do not now recognize how explosive the teaching that God is “your Father” was at this time.  Watch for how often Jesus connects prayer with this intimate familial relationship to God Almighty.)

Now many folks have read this and felt like Jesus was forbidding or devaluing public prayers.  But this cannot be so, because Jesus himself prayed aloud in front of other people. 

Jesus prays aloud:  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to infants, yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Matthew 11:23-24).

Looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to his disciples to pass out to the crowd (Matthew 14: 19). He took the loaves and the fish, and after giving thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples to give to the crowd (Matthew 15:36). He regularly gave thanks for food. There are other times also when he prays publicly. Therefore, we need to learn how and when to pray publicly.

Second misunderstanding:  Prayer should always be spontaneous and original.

Back to Matthew 6: “Also, when you are praying, don’t heap up empty phrases as those who worship false gods feel they have to; they think that only if they repeat their requests over and over will they be heard.  Don’t be like them.  You have a Father who knows what you need even before you ask.”

Many folks have read this and concluded that repeating a set or liturgical prayer is not the best way to pray, even though the most famous of these, called The Lord’s Prayer, immediately follows. As Luke tells it, Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray say: Father, hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial” (Luke 11:1-13 ). Jesus himself used a “set prayer” in his cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” a shorthand reference to Psalm 22 (Matthew 27:46). Therefore, we need to feel free to borrow the prayers of others when they express our need and our trust in God.

Third misconception: if we get it right, God will grant our requests.

In Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus teaches further about prayer.  Ask, he says, seek, and knock.  The asker receives, the seeker finds, and the door opens for the one who knocks. “Think of God as a parent like you.  Would you give a stone to a child who asks for bread?  Would you give a snake to a child who asks for fish?  So if you, evil as you are, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will our Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Many folks have read this and felt like this guarantees that they will get what they pray for, particularly if they quote this to God.  But that cannot be exactly what this means, because Jesus himself asked God for something that he didn’t get. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane to be spared from death on the cross.  God did not answer this prayer.  Instead, God answered the second half of the prayer, which was “not my will but your will be done.” “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what you want (Mark 14: 36).
Therefore, we cannot conclude that when we experience hard things, it is because we do not have enough faith.  Instead the passage challenges us to believe that God is expressing God’s will through our lives, and that in our suffering is nutrition for our whole selves.

Fourth misunderstanding: if we get several other people to agree to pray for the same result, God will give us what we ask for.

“If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20). Intriguingly, the immediate context for this is conflict or wrongs done between Jesus’s followers.  “If anyone sins against you, go and point out the fault, etc.”  This suggests that we must remember in conflict with another that coming to talk to that person directly brings Jesus into the conversation.  Jesus is right there.  The point may be that when the two in conflict can agree to ask for the same thing from our Father, God gladly answers their shared prayer.

Fifth misconception: it is inappropriate to ask God for the same thing more than once.

Jesus teaches persistence in prayer through several parables—the unjust judge and the persistent plaintiff and the neighbor who needs bread from the person who has already gone to bed.  These are funny stories that encourage us to keep asking God to meet our needs—for justice, for daily bread, just as in the prayer Jesus taught the disciples.

Sixth misconception: having faith means getting what we want in prayer.

Jesus taught that prayer itself is an act of faith.  It is not “a done deal,” not like adding baking powder to the biscuits.  Instead, having faith means we believe in the giver of good gifts, our Father, and so we ask.

Additionally, Jesus taught that when we pray, we need to forgive in order to be forgiven. And Jesus taught that our attitude in prayer is humility and asking for mercy, not self-congratulation and bullying God.

So in one central incident, let’s see how prayer works for Jesus.

John 11 Back Story:
Lazarus has died, and Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep and he must go wake him up.

He says: “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there so that you can learn to trust. Now, let’s go to him.”

Jesus arrives back in Bethany.  Lazarus has been dead and entombed four days.  Martha, his sister, meets Jesus, and says “If you had been here, Lazarus would not have died.  But even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give to you.”

Jesus says to her, “Your brother will stand up again. “ Martha responds, “I know he will rise in the resurrection at the end of time.”

Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and I am life.  All who trust in me, even if they die, shall live, and all who live and trust in me shall never die. Do you trust me on this?” She replies, “Yes, Lord, I trust that you are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into our world, our universe.”

Lazarus’s other sister, Mary, also comes to meet Jesus, and she greets him similarly to Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus sees her tears, and the tears of the whole crowd, and he also weeps. 

They walk to the tomb where Lazarus is lying dead, and Jesus asks them to roll away the stone from the opening.  Martha says, “Lord, he’s been there four days and now stinks.”

Jesus says to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you would trust, you would see the positive judgment, the glory of God?”

This is the part I want to emphasize:  after they roll away the stone and while the stink of death is in their nostrils, Jesus lifts up his eyes to heaven to talk to our Father.

Jesus says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I know you always hear me.  But because these people around me don’t know that, I said it aloud so that they may trust that you have sent me.”

Then he shouts, “Lazarus, come out.” And from the opening in the earth, Lazarus shuffles out, looking like a mummy.  Jesus says, “Release him and let him go.”

Many onlookers trust Jesus as being the one sent by God on that day, but some go to tell his enemies what Jesus had done.

What can we learn about prayer from this passage?  First, we learn that when Jesus said to pray in a closet, he obviously didn’t mean all the time.  Here he is praying out loud just so that the crowd can hear.

Second, we learn that Jesus knows there is nothing magic about praying out loud.  It doesn’t make it more likely that God will do what we ask.  Instead, he prays out loud to demonstrate his faith that God has told him to come to Bethany and return Lazarus to life.

Third, we learn that Jesus doesn’t take a long time to explain things to God.  He just acknowledges to God what God has told him to do, and in his prayer explains to the crowd why he is praying aloud: so that they can believe God sent him to do this work, so that they can see he has faith that God is his Father.

Fourth, it is clear that a whiz-bang miracle like this one is not enough to win everyone to trusting in our Father God who sent Jesus to show us what God is like.  Some will still work against this truth.  It is not enough that a person rises from death into life.  So we don’t have to succeed in getting what we specifically ask for in order to prove to people that God is real or that they should also be following Jesus.  

Fifth, Jesus’s prayer here is an acted parable for all of us about what our public prayers are for:  They are to demonstrate our faith that God has sent Jesus to do the work of setting people free from spiritual death into abundant spiritual life.  We are a part of the crowd that unbinds people and lets them go free. 

So we have read what Jesus said about prayer and we have seen him pray.  We have learned that Jesus did pray privately, but he also prayed publicly, including thanking God for food and blessing it, that he sometimes used the prayers of others, that Jesus prayed on purpose so others would witness that he and God were in a son/father relationship, that Jesus prayed for spiritual and for physical needs, and that even for Jesus, prayer itself was an act of faith, as it also is for us.

Luke 10:21 At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Jesus shows us that prayer is important, so I encourage you to be people who pray in private, in public, for spiritual needs, for physical needs, using spontaneous prayers or prayers written by others, but for sure, be praying people. If any of you lack wisdom, ask God for it; God gives it liberally without scolding; pray to the Lord of the harvest of souls to send workers to bring them in.  Pray often, and pray simply, just like God’s little children.

1 comment:

Laura said...

It is helpful to see all the different ways that Jesus prayed and for what purpose. These stories are familiar to me, yet I received them in a new way and encountered Jesus in a completely new way. I was particularly moved by the thought that when there is conflict and we're striving for common ground Jesus is there in our midst. That encourages me. Many great observations here and so clearly stated. Thank you!