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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

July 28, 2019

Teach Us to Pray

Jeremiah 29:11-13; Luke 11:1-13; Romans 8:26-27

Your church’s mission team to Kenya recently returned after nearly two weeks of participating in various mission activities. One mission project was the construction of a mabati or steel-framed church for a church community.  The completion was celebrated in a three-hour dedication service with a sermon preached by the moderator of the church’s Presbytery.  The pastor presented a fine sermon with three points clearly set forth in his sermon.  At the conclusion of his sermon, the pastor looked at the congregation and asked, “Now, tell me, what were the three points of my sermon?”  He directed his gaze at your mission team sitting in the front pews of the church.  We felt certain that if incorrect answers had been given, the three-hour service would have been extended by a recounting of the sermon.  I am delighted and relieved to tell you that your mission team was able to accurately and collectively respond with the three points of the sermon, and the service then progressed.  Afterward, the mission team discussed this teaching tool.  We decided that our congregation would be very surprised if, following a sermon, they were asked to list the major points of the sermon before we proceeded on in the service.  And yet, the listing of the three points of the sermon was indeed an excellent teaching tool.  So this sermon will include three major points.  But I promise that I will not ask you to list the three points when the service ends.

Jesus’ disciples recognized that they needed Jesus to teach them to pray. They undoubtedly recognized that there was no better teacher of how to pray than Jesus.  The disciples witnessed Jesus withdrawing from times of activity for prayer and praying in community in the synagogue during worship and with the disciples.  Jesus prayed before working miracles and in the midst of His trials and disappointments, physical hardships and pain.  Later, the disciples witnessed Jesus wrestling in prayer as He sought to discern and follow God’s will.  Jesus prayed prayers of thanksgiving for God’s abundant care and petitions for healing of others.  He prayed for the ministry of His disciples and for His followers of future generations.  Jesus prays for us still, for Jesus is our great intercessor.

I sincerely believe that most people pray at some point in their lives even if they are not consciously aware of having prayed, and that most people have a variety of prayer experiences. We can pray with or without words.  When presented with an experience of great beauty or wonder or following deliverance from harm, we whisper a prayer of thanksgiving.  Sometimes our prayers flow freely and sometimes our prayer feels like a wrestling match with God.  There are times when we do not even know what words we should utter in prayer and we can only stand silently before God.  At times our tears become the deepest prayers of our heart.  We can be sure that God hears all our prayers, whether we shout or stand mutely reaching out for God’s help.

But when Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they are not referring to such moments of spontaneous prayer. They are asking Jesus to teach them to pray prayers of earnestly seeking God, asking for God’s help and knocking on the door to a deeper relationship with God.  The disciples want to draw closer to God and grow in their relationship with God.  They want to live in concert with God’s vision for our world.  They know they need Jesus to teach them how to pray.

The scripture passage from the Gospel of Luke teaches us at least three important points about prayer. The first point is that Jesus is teaching us about our complete dependence on God.  God is addressed as “Father” or as Jesus would have stated the name in Aramaic, “Abba” or “Daddy.”  The version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Luke is a shorter version of the prayer set forth in Matthew.  Matthew begins the prayer by addressing God as “Our Father” rather than as just “Father.”  But in Luke, the plural form of “our” is used later in the prayer, indicating that the prayer is a prayer of the community of Jesus’ disciples.  God is our Father and this relationship makes the prayer and its petitions that follow possible.

The petition “hallowed be Thy name” asks that God’s name be sanctified and revered by all people. The prayer asks that God’s kingdom and dominion be established.  Cynthia Bourgeault describes the kingdom of God as a “transformed way of looking at the world” which comes about when we move more deeply into God and God moves more deeply into us.  We are asking God to allow us to participate in His will.[1]

Three petitions for our needs follow: give us each day our daily bread; forgive us our sins as we forgive others; and do not bring us to the time of trial.  As we pray to God for our daily needs, we are aware of our need for God to provide all that is needed to sustain our physical lives.  Some theologians interpret the petition for bread as a request for the bread of the messianic banquet to be shared when Jesus comes again.  But the more favored interpretation is that the petition for bread represents our complete dependence upon God to provide our most basic needs.  We need not just physical bread, but good water, safe homes, medical care and so many other things too numerous to list.  The prayer asks for “our daily bread,” not just for us but for all.  We acknowledge our responsibility in sharing the abundance of our blessings with others.

Jesus’ prayer recognizes that we need far more than physical, tangible items. Just as we need bread and all that is required to sustain our physical lives, so we need to receive forgiveness.  The burdens of our sinfulness are too heavy to carry.  We need a merciful God to cleanse us and help us to begin again.  Jesus links our ability to receive forgiveness to our forgiveness of others.  We pray for forgiveness of “our sins,” including the sins of our brothers and our sisters.  We also need God’s protection from any trials or circumstances that threaten our relationship with God.

Jesus’ disciples recognized that Jesus prayed alone, but He also prayed in community with others. Whether we pray by ourselves or with others, Jesus teaches us that our prayer is always to “Our Father.”  We pray as those aware of our need for God.  We pray as those who know we cannot endure the challenges of our lives by ourselves.  We are weak human beings with many needs, needs for hope, strength, wisdom, guidance, forgiveness, daily bread and so much more.  We need God and we need prayer.

Over time, prayer changes us. David Brooks, in his wonderful book The Second Mountain, writes that prayer, over time, reorients our desires.  The very act of praying and talking to God “inclines a person in a certain way; you want to have a conversation appropriate to Him; you want to bend your desires to please and glorify Him.”  David Brooks compares this transformation to that of old couples who become more like each other over the years.  A person who spends time praying and hearing God and responding to Him becomes more like Him at those secret places of our being that only God can see.[2]

This leads to the second and the most important lesson taught by Jesus’ instruction on prayer. God is faithful and merciful.  God sees us, hears us, loves us, responds to us and to our prayers.  The effectiveness of prayer is not because of us, but because of God.  God places in our hearts a desire to pray and God is ready to answer our prayers.

True prayer is our speaking and God listening, and God speaking and our listening. Our prayers must include times of silence and openness to receiving what God may be teaching us through words of scripture, insights, signposts that appear in the midst of our life circumstances, an insistent, internal nudge.  God speaks and we must be receptive to hearing, and then prayerfully discerning whether we are indeed hearing God.  As we enter a time of discernment, we continue to pray and reflect upon whether the message is consistent with the teachings and life of Jesus.  God would never ask us to do something that is inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching, such as the teaching to love our brothers and sisters as ourselves.  We can discuss with a trusted Christian friend our sense of having received an answer to our earnest prayer.  If we continue to believe that God is guiding us, we can move forward slowly and deliberately and see if the doors before us open.  We pray and pray some more and seek a peace with the answer we believe God is giving us.

 Of course, there are times when we pray and it seems to us that God’s response is silence.  Jesus provides insights through parables concerning our question of where God is when our prayers seem to be met with God’s silence.  Jesus told his disciples a story about village neighbors.  Kenneth Bailey, a Presbyterian missionary who lived in Lebanon for 40 years, explains some of the cultural background behind the story.  Palestinians use bread as we use silverware.  They break off a bite-sized piece and dip it into a dish of meat and vegetables before eating it.  In Jesus’ parable, a man is seeking three loaves of bread for his friend who has just arrived at his door at midnight.  Villagers valued hospitality and frequently borrowed from each other in hospitality emergencies.[3]

In Jesus’ story, the neighbor stubbornly ignores the request. He has bolted the door lock and is in bed.  His children are with him on a mat in the one-room house.  “Don’t bother me,” he responds to his neighbor’s persistent requests for bread for his traveling friend.  This behavior would seem absurdly rude to Jesus’ Middle Eastern audience.

Then Jesus explains the relevance of this parable to our prayers, “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.” If a cranky neighbor eventually responds to the persistent request of his neighbor, how much more will God respond to our bold persistence in prayer!

How should we pray? We should keep praying, asking, searching, knocking at the door.  We can pray at any hour of the day or night, for God does not slumber or sleep.  We pray prayers for our needs as well as the needs of our neighbor.

God is our Father. What earthly father would give a snake to his child who asks for a fish or a scorpion to his child who asks for an egg?  Earthly fathers, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to their children.  How much more will our heavenly Father give to us?

Jesus is not assuring us that we will receive whatever we desire if we persist in our prayers, asking, seeking and knocking. God may even use our difficulty to help us to grow spiritually and to draw us closer to God.  Sometimes God redeems our problems in ways we will only see at a future time we never anticipated.  The petitions of the Lord’s Prayer describe the heart of the one who prays.  The one who prays is seeking to pray in a manner pleasing to God.  Jesus is teaching us to seek first God’s kingdom and the things we need shall be ours as well.

Sometimes we must struggle in our prayers. But we remember that God is a good Father, our Heavenly Father.  We must persist, pray, trust in God’s goodness and be ready to receive His good gift.  Jesus tells us that God will give to us the supreme, most treasured gift:  the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who ask.  The greatest gift is the Holy Spirit, our Guide and Comforter, the One who reminds us of all that Jesus taught us, the One who intercedes to God for us because we do not know how to pray as we ought.  The Holy Spirit is the gift we should seek first.  The Holy Spirit can give us insights as to how and where God is at work in the world.

This leads to a third teaching of Jesus about prayer. Not only do we need prayer and God, and not only is God faithful in hearing and responding to our prayers, but also through the Holy Spirit we are taught how to pray.  The Holy Spirit can help us to see where God is at work in our lives and in our world and guide us in our words and petitions.  We are shown what breaks the heart of God and our hearts are touched, and we pray for others and for our world as well as ourselves.  We become more aware of the gifts and blessings of our lives and our gratitude to God grows.  We see our sinfulness and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness with thanksgiving.  We come to know about ourselves, our gifts and how God would use us in our world.  We are emboldened for action so that our lives become prayers in action.  We are given patience and insights, wisdom and strength to meet the daily challenges of our lives.  We are assured that there is nothing that can happen to us where God is not present.  We are drawn into a closer, more loving relationship with our Father and through Him, with our brothers and sisters, for God is their Father as well.

There really is no such thing as a solitary prayer for prayer connects us with others through the Holy Spirit. Prayer broadens our perspective and softens our hearts.  We may find ourselves troubled by the needs of others in our world.

If we are concerned by the issue of homelessness in Nashville, we may find ourselves serving in a local ministry such as Matthew 25, in the example of Hal Sauer, Andy Spickard and Dick Fleming. Or, perhaps you will help with our church Habitat for Humanity house build this fall or with hosting homeless men on Wednesday nights at our church during the cold winter months.  Maybe your heart is broken by young children with challenging home situations who struggle in school because they lack basic reading skills.  You may long to tutor young students.  Chan Sheppard would love to have you volunteer at Preston Taylor Ministries or William Mwizerwa at Legacy Mission Village.  However God chooses to touch your heart and use your gifts, there is a way for you to reach out and help to address a human need.  Our church supports over 40 local ministries, as well as many national and world ministries with your contributions to the church, and there are an abundance of volunteer opportunities in our community.

Or perhaps through your prayer, God grants insight or guidance in a difficult situation or relationship or simply gives you the wonderful gift of a peace that passes understanding and a sense of dwelling in the shadow of God’s wing. Your prayer may lead you to release into God’s loving hands your future or a loved one who you so long to help.  Our prayers lead us into a deeper relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Andrew Murray wrote that prayer is the work of the Trinity. The Father awakens in us the desire to pray and gives us all we need.  The Son prays on our behalf and teaches us to pray in His name.  The Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, strengthening our weak desires and teaching us to pray.  We pray in expectation that the Holy Spirit will help us in our weakness and pray with us according to the Father’s will.[4]

We can ask, in the same manner as the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and be assured that our prayer will be answered. We learn that prayer is more than the recitation of words and more than simply talking to God.  Prayer is coming to know God as “Our Father,” who places within us a desire to pray and welcomes our prayer, and we come to know ourselves as completely dependent upon God.  Prayer is coming to gratefully recognize God as faithful and merciful, for God knows us, loves us and responds to us and our prayers.  We learn to pray as we pray and as the Holy Spirit teaches us how to pray.  Through the Holy Spirit we can abide in Jesus and through Jesus, with God the Father, and our brothers and our sisters.  As we pray, we are transformed and our lives are transformed.  Our lives become an act of prayer.  This is what we truly seek when we ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

[1] David Brooks, The Second Mountain: the Quest for Moral Life (New York: Random House, 2019), quoting Cynthia Bourgeault, 251.

[2] Brooks, 259.

[3] Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Grand Rapids: Zonderman, 2006), 145-146.

[4] Andrew Murray with Bruce Wilkinson, Daily in His Presence (Colorado Springs: Multinomah Books, 2004), June 21.

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