A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 25, 2010.
Psalm 85:1-13; Luke 11:1-13
It took place in a conversation just this last Monday afternoon. A lady from out of town, who is here because her infant grandson is critically ill, said her daughter’s Bible study class down in Gulfport, Mississippi is praying for them. At the time we talked, things did not look good for her grandson – in fact, the situation is still quite grave – and she wondered if they needed to redirect the way they were praying; that perhaps instead of asking for healing they should start asking for acceptance of the inevitable. She told me one of the ladies in that Mississippi Bible class had said, “Maybe we’ve been praying for the wrong thing.”
When she said this, I was struck by the thought of it, and this is how I responded. I don’t know if you would agree with me or not, and quite frankly, I doubt that it really matters. I said to her, “I’m not sure there is such a thing as praying for the wrong thing. I think that God is probably grateful for any prayer we’re willing to offer. Just give it all to God, right or wrong. God knows what to do with it, and will respond with the kind of grace that only God can give.”
That’s why there are foxhole prayers and intercessory prayers, selfish prayers and prayers for others, prayers for healing, prayers for dying, prayers for wealth, prayers for living, prayers for success, prayers for this, prayers for that. Fred Craddock says he was once invited to a prayer meeting that he would soon discover really wasn’t a prayer meeting at all. They sat around in a circle. One of the participants had a small calculator on her lap – I kid you not – and they added up the answers to the prayers they had received since their last meeting. One of the answered prayers, according to Craddock, was for a date with a guy named Mike.
I would think it takes a God of grace and understanding, not to mention compassion (and how about patience?), to sort out and filter all this stuff, and create something redemptive from the different kinds of prayers that are offered up to heaven at any given moment. I’m just not sure we need to be all that concerned about whether our prayers are appropriate or not. The most important consideration is that we pray... at all... period. Maybe even for a date with a guy named Mike.
The disciples of Jesus do seem to be a bit worried about their prayer life, don’t they? They ask Jesus to teach them to pray, but I don’t believe it is because they have never tried it themselves; that they are completely clueless about what prayer is and how they ought to go about it. They seem to be more concerned with whether their prayers are the right kind, the kind that God will listen to, the kind that God will heed.
Maybe they had gotten to the point that they too thought they might be praying for the wrong things. They had overheard Jesus pray, and the way he went about it, not to mention what he said, was on a different plain, a higher level, of understanding and awareness than were their feeble efforts. If they are going to continue to follow him, and they definitely wanted to do that, they needed to be more like him. And if they were going to be more like him, they needed to pray as he prayed.
“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Evidently, they’ve hung around with John the Baptist and his followers, at least to the extent they are aware that the evangelist had taught his disciples how to pray. It seemed to work for John and his boys. Would Jesus be willing to do the same? After all, they need all the help they can get in the praying department.
“Lord, teach us to pray...”
Most of you are aware that my favorite pastime is golf. Some of you might think it frivolous, not to mention overly expensive. But please understand that I grew up playing sports. Hot weather, cold weather, it made no difference... I was generally outside playing ball of some kind. When I was a boy, the only thing that disappointed me about snow was that it covered up the yard where I played basketball. Then, I got older and had access to the school’s gym and it didn’t matter to me how much it snowed.
Well, old jocks never lose their competitive desire. So, as a young adult I decided I needed a sport I could play as long as I could walk, especially since I had a bad knee... from all that ball playing, obviously. Golf fit the bill. And ever since, I have found it to be most frustrating challenge anybody could ever encounter. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the game humbles you and let’s you know there’s always something new to learn about it. And that’s true for the best players in the world. It’s just that their challenges, the things they have to learn, are on a higher level.
Recently, Tim and Kathryn gave me a golf store gift card for my birthday. I have all the equipment I need, so I used it to purchase a new DVD instructional set by Tom Watson. It’s called “Lessons of a Lifetime,” and incorporates all the secrets and tips that Watson has learned in his long career as a professional golfer. I figured, if I’m ever going to get any better at this game, I might as well try to learn it from someone who really knows what he is doing.
Do you think that maybe this is what Jesus’ disciples did?
“Lord, teach us to pray...”
You know what, I don’t think they’re so much asking Jesus to provide them with a technique that will work, or even an outline on which they can hang their thoughts... though that is what Jesus seems to have given them. I think they’ve seen in him a posture of prayer, an attitude, a way of going about it, that they have never before witnessed in anyone else.
They knew what prayer was, at least as much as you and I know. It was a vital part of the fabric of their life and culture, as it is ours. They may not have been the most learned people around, but they had gone to synagogue before. They were devout Jews, at least in their own way. They were rough around the edges, maybe, but they knew their way around prayer. It’s not as if it was totally foreign to them, any more than it is to you and me.
But let me ask you this... If you were in the physical presence of Jesus this morning, and it came time to worship, wouldn’t you be inclined to ask him to teach you how to pray?
Even though they’ve been traveling with Jesus for quite some time now (I will remind you that Jesus has already set his face to go to Jerusalem, so he’s begun the last leg of his journey to the cross) perhaps they were just now – just now – beginning to weigh their faith up against what they’re seeing in Jesus. And they’re just now beginning to realize how woefully short they are in that department.
When Jesus goes off for some quiet time, they realize how noisy their lives are. When Jesus sees the needs of others and is filled with compassion, they understand how callous they can be toward those Jesus calls “the least of these.” When Jesus confronts wrong and the odds are stacked against him, they are far too willing to give up and give in. When Jesus invokes the guidance of his heavenly Father, they are struck by how much they try to go it on their own.
There is such a contrast between the way Jesus thinks and talks and behaves, and the way they go about each day. They want what Jesus has, they want to be the way Jesus is. They want to pray for what Jesus prays for.
“Lord, teach us to pray...”
And so, in response to their request, Jesus offers them what we call the “Model Prayer. “You know the words; I don’t have to recite them for you because we say them every week in worship. But the point is not that we say this prayer. It is that we do this prayer.
John Claypool tells the story of the sexton at the temple who walks in one day and tells the rabbi he’s quitting. “How can you do this?” the rabbi responds. “You have been one of our most valued employees for thirty years. Why are you acting so impulsively?”
“I will be honest,” the sexton tells the rabbi. “I do not believe there is anything to what we are doing here. It is all a sham.”
“How can you say such a thing?”
“I will give you an example. Every Friday afternoon as the sun is going down and the Sabbath is about to begin, I have gone into our holy space where the ten words of Moses are there on the wall and I have knelt down and prayed, ‘Yahweh, Lord of the universe, please help me win the lottery tomorrow night.’ I have done this now for thirty years and nothing has ever happened. I have concluded that there is no one on the other end of this praying business.”
The rabbi said, “The Sabbath is about to begin. Let me go into the holy space with you and maybe I can discern what the problem is.” They went in together and the sexton repeated the same prayer he had offered all those many years. From high in the shadowy eaves of the temple they hear a deep, resonant Voice say, “C’mon, give me a break. Buy a ticket!”
Saying a prayer is one thing. Doing a prayer is another. Which is not easy when you consider that, according to the way Jesus frames his response to his disciples, we are praying to a God who doesn’t exactly respond the way we want him to respond, nor does God seem to do it very quickly. The answer to prayer comes on God’s terms and God’s timing, and according to Jesus, God’s terms and timing are not always our own.
For example, in the Model Prayer, Jesus encourages us to consider God as Our Father. He draws a comparison to our heavenly Father and to an earthly father. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? ...how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
Yet, just before that he offers a parable in which a man has unexpected company and he’s out of bread. So he goes to his neighbor in the middle of the night, knocks on the door, and asks his neighbor to help him out. The neighbor doesn’t want to do it, but the man keeps knocking and knocking until his neighbor has no choice but to get up and do what his friend asks him. He says that God is like that, that if we will keep on praying, God will eventually answer.
It is strange counsel, especially coming from Jesus. Soon, he will be in Jerusalem and there will be a bounty on his head. He’ll be strung up on a cross, but not before he is tortured. He doesn’t exactly seem to be in a position to offer advice about the efficacy of prayer, does he? As good as Jesus is at praying, what’s it going to get him? Certainly not anything you or I would pray for.
Considering all this brings us back to what Jesus prayed for. “Thy kingdom come,” he says to his disciples, “thy will be done. 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.”
Somehow, we have got to believe that when the sands of time have finally slipped all the way through the hourglass of our lives, and for us, at least, the journey is over, God will reveal his ultimate purpose and will. In the meantime, we are asked to do one thing: to pray for what Jesus prayed for, to live out the way Jesus lived, to continue to put one foot in front of the other in this journey we call life, and ask God to go with us.
If you want to know what to pray for, can you do any better than that?
Your will be done, O Lord, here, right now, as it is done in the kingdom... through us, O Lord, through us. Find us praying for what Jesus prayed for, and then may we be faithful in doing it. Amen.