Prayer on the Way

Published: Monday, 25 July 2016

This address was given by Geoff Pound at ABC on 24 July 2016. It is the third in a series entitled, ‘People of the Way’. Check out the introduction to this series and Study 3 for personal and group study that accompanies this sermon.

Reading: Luke 11:1-13 prayer GP 0716

11:1 He 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."

11:2 He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

11:3 Give us each day our daily bread.

11:4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."

11:5 And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;

11:6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.'

 

11:7 And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.'

11:8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

11:9 "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

11:10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

11:11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?

11:12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

11:13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

It’s not often that a prayer hits the headlines, but this week a benediction at the Republican Party Convention in Cleveland kicked up a storm.

At the conclusion of the first night session last Monday, a pastor was introduced[1] and he strode to the microphone and said:

“Hello, Republicans! I’m Pastor Mark Burns from the great state of South Carolina! I’m gonna pray and I’m gonna give the benediction. And you know why? Because we are electing a man in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ. And Republicans, we got to be united, because our enemy is not other Republicans—but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.”

[Long Applause]

“Let’s pray together. Father God, in the name of Jesus, Lord, we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump. We’re thankful that you are guiding him, that you are giving him the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party, to keep us divided and not united. Because we are the United States of America, and we are the conservative party under God.”

“To defeat every attack that comes against us, protect the life of Donald Trump. Give him the words, give him the peace, give him the power and authority to be the next president of the United States of America. In Jesus’ name—if you believe it, shout ‘Amen’!”[2]

Even veteran religious journalists were shocked. The prayer by ‘Pastor Mark Burns from the Great State of South Carolina’ begins with some grandstanding. It links God with one political party. It tells God that their opponents are enemies who need defeating and it calls on God to bless their agenda and their new leader.

While this week the criticism flowed for the Pastor’s benediction I’ve been wondering: “What does God think of my personal, private prayer?”

If we were to ask Jesus to tune in to our prayer or lack of it, to scrutinize and give us honest feedback…what would he say?

Luke says: “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." (11:1)

As the disciples eavesdropped, they felt inadequate in their prayer. Yet far from giving up, listening to him gave them the hope that they too could learn the ropes.

And we this morning, are invited to join these first disciples with this same humility and hope and say to the living Christ, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

If he was to respond positively and say, “Be specific. Where do you exactly need help with praying?”, I wonder how we would respond.

Pattern in Prayer

Like a teacher in prep giving young pupils a sheet with lines of the letters of the alphabet, so Jesus offers us a pattern by which our prayer can become true and properly rounded.

The beauty of this Lord’s Prayer is that it’s not to be parroted so we become lazy but it provides us with the form and the fervor for the development of our prayer.

Last Monday Lyn and I went to the National Gallery of Victoria to view the exhibition of the art of Edgar Degas.[3] We joined a tour and discovered that his art work in the exhibition was hung chronologically.

From his first meager sketches, to his brightly coloured paintings when his eyes were growing dim, we saw the progression of his work.

He began by studying the masters in the Louvre in Paris—viewing the paintings of Rembrandt and seeking to reproduce them in form and colour and light.

Over the years he develops in confidence and style. His own interests become apparent as he paints horses and ballerinas and working women.

He grows in courage. He breaks with convention. He innovates and he tries his hand at sculpture and photography.

As Degas sat and painted in front of a masterpiece for days and months, we too might sit with Christ’s model prayer and study and listen and allow it to develop our prayer. I wonder, what sort of transformation that would bring?

For instance, when we begin with the word ‘Our’—Our Father, prayer immediately loses its self-centredness and self-interest. We realize that we’re not coming to God alone. Instead we’re joining with all humanity before “the One God and Father of us all.” (Ephesians 4:6).

Then, as the Lord’s Prayer goes on to praise God and remind ourselves of God’s greatness and care, so we’ll put our fears, our wants and our shopping list back into our pocket.

‘Our Father’—there’s a wonderful intimacy here! But before we get too chummy or claim to know all about how God works, we’re reminded of God’s mystery. God’s otherness: ‘Our Father in heaven’.

When we grow tomatoes we don’t just plant them and let them run wild. We train them up a stake or we tie them against a trellis. See already how this Lord’s Prayer is lifting us up and giving our prayer perspective, assuring us of God’s care, reminding us of God’s kingly rule, calling us to pray in accordance with God’s good will.

After we have done all this, we’re in the best position to come with our petitions: Give us. Forgive us. Lead Us. Deliver us.

Persistence in Prayer

Then Jesus tells a story about the man who has a friend arrive at midnight. He’s hungry but when the host goes to the kitchen he realizes he is out of bread. So he goes to his friend or neighbour who is fast asleep.

He bangs on his door asking for three loaves and he keeps persisting until the man gets up and delivers.

This parable is not about prayer for ourselves but prayer on behalf of another.

Sometimes an unexpected arrival, a crisis in the life of a family member, the illness of a friend becomes a new starting point for our prayer.

The desperate need of another person makes us feel the poverty of our own lives. We look and our cupboards are bare. At such a lack, when we feel empty, inadequate, unable to do anything with our resources, we turn to God with urgency and intensity.

This parable is not about nagging until God finally relents but helping us discover those hunger pangs that go even deeper than our yearning for bread.

Because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” (8)

There’s a sense in which prayer is submission: “Your will be done.” Yet this call to ask and seek and knock is a call to be positive, to be proactive and to be persistent in our prayer.

The Goodness of God

But what if we pray and God gives us something we don’t like?

What if we ask God and God makes our life a misery?

What if we ask and we don’t get the words right?

Our Scripture reassures us with this lovely picture of the One to whom we’re praying:

11:11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?

11:12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

11:13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

How much more! What a promise! What an invitation!

Have you ever asked for something or applied to do something and when it hasn’t come your way but you consider it further you thank God for saving you from what you’d asked for? The blessing of unanswered prayer!

Don’t let the inadequacy of our words keep us from praying. The apostle Paul in his letter to the believers at Rome admits, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.”

He says, ‘Don’t feel defeated as our weakness creates the freedom for the Spirit to help us.’

When we can’t articulate our prayers and it all seems bamboozling we’re to be aware that the Spirit is at work interpreting our groans and desires that are deeper than words.

In his early years, St. Augustine was a playboy, a Casanova. His predominant prayer in his teenage years was, “Give me chastity, but not yet.”[4] When his mother found out that her wayward son, was thinking of leaving Africa [modern day Algeria] and heading off for the bright lights of Italy, Monica’s heart sank and she prayed: “O God, please don’t let him go to Italy.”

Augustine went to Italy. There he came under the influence of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan and he discovered God in a profound way.

Monica’s exact words were not answered but God responded marvelously to the deep cries of her heart.[5]

A person had a similar experience of his prayer being answered in surprising ways:

I asked God for strength that I might do greater things – I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things – I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy – I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of people – I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life – I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for but everything I’d hoped for.

Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am among all people most richly blessed.[6]

Prayer

Loving God

You are the hope of all that seek you, the strength of all that find you,

We worship you, we pray to you, we ask for a clearer understanding of your ways, a more resolute following of your will.

Stir up within us the desire to know you better,

the yearning to listen to you,

the determination to learn from you,

the ability to better voice our petitions on behalf of others and ourselves.

So often we run hot and cold, we fail to deliver on our promises.

Forgive us and enable us to persist and grow in our relationship with you.

We trust in your goodness, your love and your care.

We thank you for your Spirit’s help and prayer.

We praise you Lord Jesus Christ for your teaching, the inspiration of your life and all the ways you grant us access to our Creator and Sustainer.

Amen.

 


[1] Mark Burns (televangelist), Wikipedia.

[2] Rev Mark Burns, Benediction at the RPC, Cleveland Ohio, 18 July 2016.

[3] Degas: A New Vision, National Gallery of Victoria.

[4] Augustine, The Confessions of St Augustine, Gutenberg

[5]Augustine writes: “But you, in the depth of your counsels and hearing the main point of her desire, regarded not what she then asked, that you might make me what she ever asked.”

Augustine, The Confessions, trans. E B Pusey, Book 5.8.15

Internet Address: <http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/augustine/Pusey/book05>

[6] This appears in many places including this source, Unknown Confederate Soldier, The Blessing of Unanswered Prayer, Belief Net.