Sermon: Learning to Pray

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the Gospel according to Matthew. Matthew, chapter 6, beginning in verse 5. Matthew is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If you are in Zechariah or Malachi, you haven’t gone quite far enough. If you are in any of the other gospels, you have gone a bit too far. Matthew 6, beginning in verse 5. You are invited to leave your Bible open as we read and study God’s Word together.

Let us set the stage a moment. Jesus has come, been baptized by his cousin John in the River Jordan, and begun proclaiming the kingdom of God and calling disciples. A crowd began to follow him and it says in Matthew 5, When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them. Jesus spoke about what it means to be blessed – to be meek, merciful, poor in spirit. He explained that murder was not only ending someone’s life, but hating them in your heart. He revealed that adultery is not only something one does with your hands and your body, but begins with our eyes and in our hearts. Then, as Jesus sits on the mountain, he speaks of the habits and practices that lie at the core of the life of faith in the LORD. Including prayer. We will begin listening as Jesus speaks of prayer.

It’s Matthew 6, beginning in verse 5. But before we hear God’s Word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s Word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

And whenever you pray, do be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do, for they think 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.

This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

And whenever you pray, Jesus says. But how?

I pulled up the gravel driveway to Rhonda’s house. Her fiancé greet us at the door. We walked down a short hall past the kitchen into the living room where Rhonda lay uncomfortable upon the couch. Her twenty-two year old daughter sat next to her a chair. The chemo had taken Rhonda’s hair as the cancer had destroyed her body. It would not be long. I could sense it was one of those holy, significant moments as she looked at me and said, “Pastor, I’m scared. I haven’t prayed enough, read my bible enough, had enough faith. Can you pray for me?”

What do you say?

And whenever you pray, Jesus says. But how?

A couple days ago, we sat around the dinner table in our new home and Olga and I could tell something was off. Elijah was weepy and sullen. He didn’t want the food, didn’t want to be with the family, didn’t want to do anything we were asking of him. After a couple minutes, we realized he was sad. He couldn’t put words to it, couldn’t find the way to say what he was feeling inside, that he missed his friends, that even though he loves being here, he is sad to have left Iowa. He didn’t know how to say all that, but Olga offered to pray with him, to bring all those feelings to Jesus. As she knelt down beside this little boy, what do you say?

And whenever you pray, Jesus says. But how?

Notice for a moment that Jesus does not command us to pray. He assumes we already have ample reason to pray. Whenever you pray – she said yes and now you have to plan a life together. Whenever you pray – the job you had hoped for finally came through and you are ecstatic. Whenever you pray – the bottom has dropped out and you do not know where to turn. Whenever you pray – everything seems fine on the surface, but there is a deep, painful restlessness in your soul. Whenever you pray. Jesus assumes we will have ample reason to pray. But how? What do you say?  

This fall, we will be sitting at the feet of Jesus as he teaches us to pray. We will learn a prayer Christians have been praying since they first learned it from the lips of Jesus. And as we pray this prayer, we will be brought into the beauty and challenge of the Christian life. For of the many things that set Christians apart, one of them is this: Christians are people who pray the Lord’s Prayer. In praying like this, our lives will be bent toward God in a way we would never have bent on our own. In praying the Lord’s Prayer, we will learn what it means to be a Christian – to belong as Children of the Father, to walk in the way of Jesus, and to live by the Spirit.

So if you are here this morning wondering about faith, I invite you to join us this fall as we pray. You probably have questions. Feel free to find me, find one of the elders, find a friendly looking Christian in this room and let’s work through them together, but as you do, learn this prayer with us. You will learn more about this thing call Christianity by praying this prayer than in all the books I could ever lend you outside of the Bible. I say that as someone who loves theology and just moved 28 boxes of books into my study in the church. Learn what it means to be a Christian by praying this prayer.

Next week, we will be sitting at Jesus’ feet as he begins to unfold for us the Lord’s Prayer. But this morning, Jesus gives us two initial instructions about prayer. Each has something to avoid and something to encourage. Here they are:

1. Remember who you are talking to

2. Remember who you are talking to

Let’s look at them in turn.

First, remember who you are talking to. Verse 5: And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

When we pray, Jesus tells us we are not to be like the hypocrites. A hypocrite, in our day, is someone who says one thing, but does another. The greek word behind the english word originally referred to actors. A hypocrite was an actor in the theatre, particularly one who wore a mask. A hypocrite was one who presented one face to the world, but kept his real face hidden.

In the context of prayer, Jesus says that hypocrites are those who want others to know they are praying more than they want to pray themselves. They present one face to the world – ‘I am someone who prays’ – but the real face is hidden. For the hypocrite, the important part is being seen, being known to be a person who prays. Prayer itself is secondary to being known as the kind of person who prays.

Jesus uses the example of people who love to make sure they are caught praying in a public place. They make sure, when it is time to pray, that they just happen to find themselves on a street corner or at church. They get dressed up, put on their nice collared shirt or Sunday dress, and come to church to make Mom and Dad happy. They make sure Mom and Dad or the cute boy or girl across the aisle hears them singing and hears them praying.

It’s an easy temptation to fall into. No one in the church wants to be seen as a bad Christian. We all want to make it look like we never have doubts, never have weeks we don’t really want to worship, or never have messy and imperfect lives. We dress nicely on Sunday to honor God, but sometimes also so that everyone else will think everything is okay. And while the temptation is easy to fall into, Jesus tells us that when we we make our prayers, our worship, our Christian life about being seen to be good, we make it about everyone else and not about God.

The hypocrite is more concerned with how everyone else views them than how God does. This posture drains prayer of its life. It’s sort of like this:

Imagine for a moment that Olga and I are going on a date. Some one is looking after the kids (yes!) and we decided to go out to a nice restaurant. We are new in town, but let’s say somewhere a step or two above Tim Horton’s. I’ll take actual recommendations after the service. We drive to the restaurant, looking forward to a great date, and, instead of talking with Olga, I spend the whole night talking with the waiter about how great my marriage is and how awesome this date is going. The whole time, I am talking about Olga but never say a word to her. We get back to the car after dinner and I tell Olga that I think we had a great evening.

Show of hands, who thinks she will agree with my assessment of the date? Right. Do you think the date was good for my marriage? When prayer becomes about being seen by everyone else, it is like coming before the presence of God and then spending the whole time talking about how much you love and trust God to everyone but him. The analogy breaks down, but I think you get the point.

This posture drains prayer of its life. It becomes a show for others, so we can’t truly be honest and vulnerable. We have to keep the mask on, even as we pray, because we don’t want other people to know what is really going on. But then we don’t really want to pray that much, because our hearts aren’t in it, because we have kept our hearts out of it. It is only a show for others. Others might be impressed by our show, but God is not.

Instead, Jesus tells us to remember who you are talking to when you pray. It is not about what anyone else thinks. When we pray, we pray to God. Verse 6: But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Pray like no one is watching. When you are by yourself, when lock the door behind you and are alone in your room, God is with you. Your Father sees your heart. So how you pray in the quiet of night, when no one is watching, is how we should pray when everyone is watching.

Remember who you are talking to when you pray. We are talking to God. While the prayer of the hypocrite shrivels because it is always afraid of being seen poorly by others, shrivels because the show must always go on, shrivels because it can never be truly honest, prayer in the posture of Jesus is fearless, unself-conscious, and brings the whole of our heart before the LORD. Prayer should not be about what everyone else thinks of us, but about bringing our hearts before our heavenly Father, who sees everything. When this is true, not only are we not concerned about whether everyone approves of our prayer, but we can be unconcerned when people disapprove. Praying like no one is watching, praying with our eyes solely fixed upon our heavenly Father, frees us to pray.

You sit down in the lunch room and wonder whether to pray. If you are worried about what your friends think, you may refuse to pray so that they won’t think you are weird or pray because that is what everyone expects or even pray a little louder so that you can do some sort of evangelism by osmosis. But if prayer is about God, thanking him for the gifts he has given you, then it doesn’t matter what they think. You are free, truly free to pray like no one is watching.

That’s the first instruction of Jesus: Remember who you are talking to when you pray. It is about life before the face of God, not what anyone else thinks about you.

Here’s the second: Remember who you are talking to when you pray. Verse 7: When you are praying, do heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

At times we feel a problem with prayer because we are muddled about who God is. Jesus speaks of how the Gentiles prayed. Gentile is the word anyone who is not Jewish, not born into the covenant people of Abraham. In this context, it is referring to people who worshipped other gods, pagan religions. In the religions of the Greeks and Romans, there were complicated formulas for praying to the gods. You had all sorts of titles for the gods you need to say precisely and in the right order in the hopes of getting their attention. Then you would ask for what you wanted over and over again in hopes you might wear down the gods to get them to answer you.

Behind this practice of prayer was the assumption that the gods did not really care about normal people and that they needed to be either flattered or annoyed into doing what we want. The gods don’t care, so we need to get the right words, the right amount of times in order to manipulate them into answering our prayers.

We can imagine that if we grew up with this kind of prayer, coming into the Christian faith would require retraining our hearts to pray. We would need to relearn what prayer is, remember who we are talking to when we pray. Our understanding of God would need to be recalibrated. So, in part, I believe Jesus spoke these words so that, through Matthew, they would be delivered to a church more and more filled with people who did not grow up in the faith of Israel, but were grafted in as adults and need to relearn what it meant to pray.

But I also believe Jesus spoke these words because this Gentile view of God can easily seep its way into the church. Whenever we hear or think “I didn’t pray enough for that” or “I’m not sure I should pray, I am not very good at it” or “I don’t want to pray the wrong way,” a bit of that Gentile way of prayer is finding its way into the church.

Instead, Jesus reminds us who we are talking to when we pray. We are speaking to our heavenly Father. Verse 8: Do not be like them, for you Father knows what you need before you ask him. Jesus reminds us we are speaking to our heavenly Father and he eagerly desires to hear our prayers. No matter what we learn about prayer at Jesus’ feet in the coming weeks, it is not a formula that will guarantee God answers all our prayers the way we want. Prayer is not a technique we master so that God will be sure to hear us or so that we can get him to answer our prayers.

Instead, Jesus reminds us who God is. The Gentiles believed the gods were distant and uninterested, but Jesus reveals God is our Father, eager to listen to our prayers. The Gentiles believed the gods did not know or care about what happened in the lives of normal people and must be informed and cajoled into action. Jesus reveals God is our Father, who knows all our needs, but still delights in hearing us ask.

I love the way the Heidelberg Catechism puts it – that great teaching tool of the Christian faith – when it describes what ‘that little word ‘Amen’ means – “It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer than that I really desire that I pray for.” I love that. “It is even more sure that God listen to my prayer than that I really desire that I pray for.”

In the coming weeks, we will sit at the feet of Jesus and learn to pray. Some of you maybe for the first time. But as we do, Jesus invites us to remember who we are talking to when we pray. It is not about what everyone else thinks. It is not about having all the right words or making sure we say enough. Whenever we pray, Christian come before a heavenly Father who is eager to hear our prayers.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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