First, WHY PRAY?
I like the story about the mother who overheard her young son praying one day: 'And if you give me a bike, Lord, then I'll be good for a whole week'. She interrupted him and said, 'Now, Johnny, it's no good trying to bargain with God. He won't answer prayers like that!' Later she overheard him praying again: '…and if you give me a new bike, Lord, I'll be good for three weeks!' 'Johnny', said his mother gently, 'I thought I told you it was no good trying to strike bargains with the Lord. He doesn't respond to that sort of prayer.' Later the mother was cleaning the house and came across a little statue of the virgin Mary that had stood on the sideboard hidden away at the back of a kitchen drawer. She guessed that this must be something to do with Johnny and went up to his room. He wasn't there but by the window she found a note which read; 'OK, Lord, if you ever want to see your mother again give me a new bike!'
Is that why we should pray or talk to God? To get the material possessions we want for ourselves? Is that how we should pray? By bargaining with God? Well not according to Jesus here in Matthew 6.
But some of you might be asking why pray at all? For some of you that’s because you’re still not sure God exists. If that’s you you’re very welcome, please do keep coming as we look at these basic questions from the Bible and do go along to Christianity Explored where you can discuss them further. For others it may be because God doesn’t appear to answer your prayers. Or perhaps because of what Jesus says in v8 of Matthew 6:
“… your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
So if God the Father knows what we need before we ask him why pray? Well let’s look at the reasons given by Jesus in this passage:
Why pray? Because Jesus expects his followers to pray. Look at v5, 6 & 7 of Matthew 6. Jesus doesn’t say ‘If you pray’, he says ‘When you pray’. And he says it three times.
And Jesus doesn’t just expect his followers to pray but to pray daily. Look at v11. There he teaches us to pray, ‘Give us today our daily bread’. Jesus expects us to pray daily to his and our Father for our daily physical and spiritual needs. Why pray? Because Jesus expects us to ask God the Father for what we need daily.
And ask is a key word in the Bible for prayer. Now, of course, prayer isn’t just a shopping list but our Father in heaven is longing for us to ask him for what we need and he wants to give us good gifts. Turn on for a moment in your Bibles to Matthew 7: 7-11 or look at the screens. Jesus says:
7"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” 9"Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
In Luke’s Gospel we read: “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.
When did you last ask him? As James reminds us in chapter 4:2 of his letter:
“You do not have because you do not ask God.”
Billy Graham used to tell a story about a Mr Jones who dies and goes to heaven. Peter is waiting at the gates to give him a tour. Amid the splendour of golden streets, beautiful mansions and choirs of angels Mr Jones notices an odd looking building that looks like an enormous warehouse. And when he asks to see inside, Peter hesitates, ‘You really don’t want to see what’s in there.’ Finally Peter relents. The enormous building is filled with row after row of shelves each stacked neatly with white boxes tied with red ribbons. “These boxes all have names on them,” Mr Jones muses. Then turning to Peter he asks, “Do I have one?” “Yes you do.” Mr Jones rushes down the aisle to find it. Looking inside his box he let out a deep sigh. In the box are all the good gifts that God wanted to give to him while he was on earth but Mr Jones had never asked.”
“Ask,” promised Jesus, “and it will be given to you.” “You do not have because you do not ask God.”
Not that this is about being selfish. James continues in chapter 4 by explaining why we don’t always get what we ask for:
“When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Jesus challenges our motives for praying here in Matthew 6:5. Prayer with wrong motives will not be rewarded. But prayer with right motives (v6), according to the will and for the glory of God, will be rewarded by God the Father. Two of my favourite verses in the Bible are these from 1 John 5:14-15:
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask- we know that we have what we asked of him.
Do you believe that? Why pray? Because God wants us to ask him and because he answers prayer. He loves his children. He is good. He wants to give us so much that will glorify him through us. And our Father knows what we need before we ask him – he knows what is best for us. So let’s go back to the question I raised at the start. If God knows our need before we ask him why then do we need to pray? Martin Luther answered the question like this:
By our praying we are instructing ourselves more than we are him.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, 'Your Father knows what you need so you do not need to ask him'. But we ask knowing that our Father knows our need much better than we do, and long before we did and that he will give us what is right at the right time. When we pray we don't hold a pistol to God's head, insisting he do things our way, but rather we acknowledge his way as supreme and sufficient, and invite him in to our circumstances to fulfil his agenda. You see prayer is about submitting to God and to his perfect will. As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” Prayer is not always easy. Jesus sweated blood as he prayed that prayer. But as we submit to God’s will he strengthens us just as he strengthened his Son on his way to the cross (Luke 22:43).
So prayer changes us. And prayer is a vital and wonderful part of our relationship with God. Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven. How much more then do we need to pray to our Father in heaven? Praying doesn’t make you a Christian. We are saved from our sin only through faith in Jesus Christ and in his death on the cross in our place. But prayer is how we respond in faith to what God has done for us in Christ. It’s also partly how we grow in that relationship as we confess our sins, give thanks to God for his goodness and ask for what we need. You see what is eternal life? Jesus says that eternal life is knowing God the Father and God the Son (John 17:3). And prayer is the talking and listening part of the relationship. What a privilege that is! In v9 Jesus says we are to pray to our Father in heaven. And the word for Father in the original here is Abba or ‘Daddy’. So Jesus is giving those who have faith in him the right to approach his Father on the same level of intimacy as him. The term daddy also points to God's nearness, love and concern for his children. And the fact that he is our Father in heaven adds to our confidence as we pray because he can do all he wants to. Nothing is too hard for him. He is sovereign. He rules over all things. Why pray? Because we depend on Him. He is our great God who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine!
It's worth remembering when we pray that the only reason we can pray and be heard is through Jesus' death on the cross. In Matthew 6 Jesus takes it for granted that his disciples will pray but we should never take prayer for granted. Yet often we use the privilege that cost Jesus so much so sparingly.
Why pray? Because prayer changes us. It also changes other people. Indeed one reason why I’m standing here tonight is because my grandmother prayed for me for many years for God to bring me to himself. Who are you praying for to come to Christ?
Genuine prayer also changes the world. Why pray? Because God chooses to act in response to the prayers of his people. Jesus says we are to pray for God’s Kingdom to come in v10. In 2 Chronicles 7:14 God says:
“…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
How we need to take God at his word for the sake of this nation. Revival starts with us and it begins with us on our knees.
Matthew 6 is also about not worrying about your life (v25). I wonder how often we spend time worrying about our life? We are to pray rather than worry because God cares for us and is in control. We are to put God first and trust him. Look at v33:
“But seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Who needs to hear that amazing promise tonight? And remember what we read in Psalm 121? God neither slumbers nor sleeps. So we can come to him in prayer day and night. How do we come to him genuinely in prayer? Well that’s my next heading:
Secondly, HOW TO PRAY?
First Jesus says:
a) Pray Secretly
5And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.
The hypocrites don't really love to pray to God, nor do they really love God. No they love themselves and the opportunity that public prayer brings to parade themselves. Their motivation is to be seen by men. They want applause from people. That is the reward they want. Jesus says: "I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full". We are not to be like the hypocrites. Jesus warns us in v1:
Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Jesus could not be plainer. But we can still fall in to the trap of trying to impress the vicar or those in our small groups or CU. If we do we will have no reward from our Father in heaven. When we pray we are talking to God not to those around us. Our praying should not be concerned with impressing others. Look at v6:
"Do not be like the hypocrites instead when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
Now Jesus does not mean that the only valid praying is that which is in secret. Notice in v9 Jesus tells his disciples to pray 'Our Father in heaven'. The purpose of Jesus' emphasis on 'secret' prayer is to purify our motives in praying. We are to pray out of a genuine love for God. He's saying that the real test of our prayer life is not the praying that goes on in public but the praying that goes on in secret. It’s the time alone with God behind a closed door that gives evidence of the reality of our prayer lives. 'Then your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you’.
Did you know that the original word for the room where we’re to go to pray was used for the store room where treasures were kept. The implication is that there are treasures already awaiting us when we pray. Secondly we are to…
b) Pray Sincerely
Our praying must be real and therefore sincere as opposed to hypocritical, as v14&15 also make clear, verses which we'll come to later. Thirdly we are to…
c) Pray Simply
We are to pray simply, thoughtfully, specifically, directly and believingly. Look at v7&8. Jesus continues:
"And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, 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."
In other words we are not to pray with our mouths when our minds are not engaged. And we are not to imagine that the more words we use, the more likely we are to be heard. Sometimes Christians can think that the longer the prayer or the longer theological words we use the more God will hear us. Yes we are to be persistent in prayer but we are to remember with confidence that our Father…
… is neither ignorant, so that we need to instruct him, nor hesitant, so that we need to persuade him. He is our Father – a Father who loves his children and knows all about our needs.
Thirdly, WHAT TO PRAY?
Jesus gives us the model in v9-13. The prayer has six requests. The first three express our concern for God's glory followed by three for our needs
That order is significant.
"Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name." Or literally may your Name be treated as holy, may your holy Name be honoured and praised. This is a plea for God – the one true God – to be honoured by everyone all over the world. Today in this country only celebrities seem to be honoured while God’s name is taken in vain. How we need to pray, 'Father, hallowed be your name'.
‘Your Kingdom come' is a prayer for the spread of the gospel, for his Kingdom to grow as people submit to Jesus as Lord. Do you pray this in your work places, halls of residence and communities? I don’t need to tell you that the need is great. The new English church attendance survey shows that only 6.3% of the population of England go to church. In Gateshead the figure is only 4.7%. Praise God for the Gateshead Project and let’s pray on in faith for its continued development, launch and growth, for God’s Kingdom to grow in Gateshead. Your Kingdom come is also a prayer for God's Kingdom to be finally established in the age to come. The penultimate verse in the whole Bible is a prayer for this to happen: ‘Come Lord Jesus’ (Rev 22:20). Are we praying, ‘Your kingdom come?’
‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven' is a request that God's will be obeyed on earth, in the same way as it is always done in heaven. We need to persist in praying for that.
'Give us today our daily bread' is a prayer which acknowledges our daily dependence on God for all the necessities of life and that we are to live one day at a time, not worrying about tomorrow, trusting him.
'Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.' This is a prayer for God's mercy. We sin daily and even hourly and so the disciple has to make this request often. The addition of the words 'as we have also forgiven our debtors' is further emphasised in v14&15. They state that our Father will forgive us if we forgive others but will not forgive us if we refuse to forgive others. This doesn't mean that our forgiveness of others earns us the right to be forgiven. Rather God forgives only the penitent and one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit. Do we need to forgive someone tonight?
'Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one'. Do not allow us so to be led into temptation that it overwhelms us, but rescue us from the evil one. A prayer we all need to say daily.
Fourthly, WHEN TO PRAY?
As we’ve seen Jesus expects us to pray daily. But some of us may be thinking but when? When do I have time to pray? Well if you’re a student you’ll probably never have more time to pray. I remember being told that when I was a student here. At the time I didn’t believe it. There were so many friends to meet, societies to join, meetings to go to, late nights to talk into, concerts to enjoy, shops to browse and meals to cook, quite apart from catching up with lectures and essays, discovering the library towards the end of term, and cleaning the flat once at the end of the year! But it’s true. You’ll probably never have more time to pray, as well as never having quite the same opportunity to introduce your friends to Jesus Christ. And of course the two go together. However we’re all busy and so often today the urgent becomes the enemy of the important. And it’s the church prayer meeting and our time alone with God each day that goes. Well one way we can make time to pray is by fasting. In v16 Jesus says, ‘When you fast’. Again Jesus assumes that we will fast, that we will from time to time abstain from food. Now as you can probably tell I have not fasted very often! But whatever else fasting is about it does create time for prayer. Now some people with certain medical conditions will need to be careful about fasting. But perhaps the majority of us could fast once a month or before each Central Prayer Meeting, not for show but in order to spend focussed time with God, in prayer and in his Word, submitting to his will and asking him to change us and the world.