Here's a question for you: How well do you – or did you – communicate with your father? I'm well aware that our experiences of fathers are very different.
Some of you know that my own father died in the summer. I was never very good at being chatty with him. I am male, after all. So was he. Not much hope with the two of us together. If I rang home and he picked up, it was always a quick word and then, "Here's mummy," and he'd pass over the phone to my mum. However. I loved him and he loved me. And I'm very glad that even though we didn't talk much, we did say what needed to be said. I did make sure, well before he died, that I asked him all that I wanted to ask. And I said to him all that I wanted to say. I have no regrets on that score. And I'm thankful for that. I well know that not everybody has had that opportunity.
Here's another question: How well do you communicate with your heavenly Father? Because we do all have the same heavenly Father – and the same opportunity to talk to him. I have a lot more regrets about my failure to say what I should have said to my heavenly Father. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that you do too. But we can learn from Jesus. It's not too late. That's why Jesus taught about prayer. And that's what we're thinking about this evening.
Would you please turn to Matthew 6.5-15, which is the paragraph headed: "The Lord's Prayer". My title, is "Asking In Jesus' Name". And I want to consider what Jesus has to say on the subject under two headings: first, "How Not To Pray"; and second "How to Pray".
But we need to ask first of all: who is this teaching for? The answer lies back in 5.1-2, where Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, of which our passage is a part. I quote:
[Jesus'] disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them …
This teaching is for the disciples of Jesus. A disciple is one who listens to Jesus, believes what he says, and obeys it. In other words, this teaching is for anyone who is willing to be taught by Jesus.
If that is you, then this teaching on prayer is addressed to you. If that is not you, and you know that you are not yet a disciple, then by definition you are not yet ready to take on board what Jesus had to say. But you may well be interested in an inside view of what following Jesus is like. If so, then this is a good opportunity for just such a view.
Now, the issue here is not that we should pray. It is assumed by Jesus that we will pray, at least if we are his disciples. And so we will, in some way or other. Jesus is not here teaching that we should pray. He is teaching us how to pray. And he begins to do that by teaching us how not to pray. That is my first heading:
How Not to Pray
Jesus contrasts the kind of prayer that God wants with two other kinds: first, the prayer of the hypocrite; and secondly, the prayer of the Gentile – meaning here those who don't belong to God's people – in first century terms, pagans. Look at v5:
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward."
For 'synagogue' nowadays read 'church'. For 'street corner' read pretty well anywhere where people gather. The kind of prayer that Jesus is describing here is hypocritical for this reason: it looks and sounds as if it is directed towards God, but in fact the person praying wants to be heard by other people. Whether God hears and answers is very much a secondary issue.
This does not mean that it is wrong to pray in front of other people. But it does mean this: if your public praying is aimed at preserving or enhancing your status and spiritual standing among your fellow Christians, then do not expect God to answer. You will get your answer from those to whom your prayer was directed. They will think you are wonderful. Make the most of it. Because your prayer will bring no other benefit to you.
Spiritual phrases may trip off the tongue. Our posture may look deeply devout as we make clear to others that we are lost in prayer. But if what we are most concerned with is what other people think, then our prayer is in fact a sham. Remember it is not the public context which is the issue here. It is the private motivation. If our motive is to be seen by men, we cannot expect to be heard by God.
Gentile prayer is no better, but for a different reason. Verses 7-8:
"And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."
This Gentile prayer is fruitless, because it is just a pile of words. It is not real speech: it is not an attempt to use language to communicate something meaningful to another personal. Instead, it is impersonal. It sees God not as personal but as some kind of alien force or power, which needs to be appeased in some way. It is magic: an attempt to make something happen by the recitation of the right words the right number of times. It is not talking to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now we may think to ourselves that we don't pray like that. But what are essentially pagan attitudes can so easily creep in to our thinking. It is not because of our "many words", as Jesus puts it, that God hears our prayer. Neither the quantity of our words nor the length of our praying impresses God. We cannot brow beat him into submitting to our will and making things turn out the way we want by simply piling up the prayer hours. Going on and on at a parent is not the way to communicate effectively.
I have quite a number of books about prayer on my shelves which at one time in my life I found deeply impressive and challenging. They seemed to me to open up vistas of prayer that I had never known before. They promised mind blowing prayer experiences, and they demanded so much self discipline that I thought at first that they must be deeply spiritual. Some of them built up layer upon layer of careful, detailed procedure that you have to go through if you are going to get your prayer right. It seemed to me that I was a complete beginner at prayer, and that these authors had developed it to a very high stage. Now and then I would think that I had at last taken a quantum leap in prayer experience. But the effort required to maintain these elaborate systems was always beyond me, and I would quickly give up.
Then I began to realise that I had been seduced by these approaches to prayer. They may have been given some kind of Christian framework, but they were missing the point of Christian prayer altogether. They were essentially pagan in their approach. They saw prayer as a matter of technique, or as a craft or an art to be learned, or as a discipline like practising your scales if you are a musician. But according to Jesus, all such approaches to prayer amount to babble. It may be beautiful babble. It may be babble requiring the most extraordinary levels of asceticism and self-discipline. But it is babble.
God is not a force. He is not "it". He is not some divine musical instrument to be played on with varying degrees of skill in the hope that we will in the end hear from it what we want. He is not impersonal. He is our Father. Six times in these verses Jesus speaks of God as Father. That is the key. The secret of prayer is simply this: there is no secret. Prayer is talking to God, as beloved adopted child to heavenly Father. It is personal communication.
It seems that there is something in many of us that is always wanting to make it more complicated than it is, rather in the same way that we find it hard to accept that we can do nothing to be reconciled with God. Forgiveness, eternal life, and adoption into God's family are God's gift that we cannot earn in any way. There is of course much that we do not understand; but it is basically simple: we just accept what God gives.
It is the same with prayer. There is much that we do not understand, just as no doubt there are endless doctoral theses written on communication between young children and their parents. But it is not difficult to the child. Prayer is talking to our Father in heaven. It is asking him for things, in Jesus' name.
We do it because we want to, we need to, and he has asked us to. He has promised to be there always, to listen, to answer, and to give us what we ask for - but with the same kind of provisos that apply with an earthly father. He may know better than we do ourselves what we really need. So the answer to a request may come back rather different to what we anticipated or hoped. He may say yes, or no, or wait, or yes but with changes.
Whatever the answer, it will be loving and wise and the best for us. From his heavenly vantage point our Father sees many things that we do not. He knows better than us. But never forget that prayer is simple. It is not heaping up words. It is children talking to their Father, and asking him for things that they want and need.
So what are the implications of that for how we pray? My second heading is:
How to Pray
I would like to make a number of points that arise from Jesus' teaching here. How can we avoid sliding back into hypocritical or pagan approaches to prayer? How can we keep it simple as we should?
First: prayer is something that you do in a definite way. It is not an atmosphere, or a state of mind. It is the distinct activity of talking to God. "When you pray…" says Jesus, again and again. When the apostle Paul says in 1Thessalonians 5.17: "pray without ceasing" he does not mean that we should be talking to God continuously and do nothing else. He means we should never give up praying. We should take every opportunity to use the glorious freedom we have to talk to our Father at any time and in any place.
Secondly: make sure that you carve out time to pray in private. Verse 6:
"But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret."
This is the great antidote to hypocritical prayer. Of course, our attitude is more important than the place.
On the one hand, it is possible to pray privately on a crowded Metro train. One of the big differences between talking to our Father in heaven and our earthly father is that God hears even when we talk to him in our minds, silently. That is a great help. John Wesley's mother, I believe, in a crowded house full of unavoidable children, just used to sit with her apron over her head.
And on the other hand, it is possible to make a point of letting people know about your wonderful private quiet times not in order to encourage them, but in order that they will think more highly of you. How offensive to the Holy Spirit that kind of absurd pride must be. But keep it really private, and we will avoid hypocrisy.
Thirdly: pray confidently, on the basis of your relationship with God the Father, through Jesus. Verse 6 again:
"And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Our heavenly Father sees, and he answers. Remember that it is not because of any virtue of yours that you have such open access to the Lord of the universe. Jesus has done it for you. He paid the price. You pray in his name. You are an adopted child, but with that adoption come all the privileges of family membership. Believe God's promises and pray confidently.
Fourthly: be aware that God knows your need before you ask for it. This is a living relationship. You know God, and he knows you better than you know yourself.
"Do not be like [the Gentiles]…"
says Jesus in verse 8,
"… for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."
Now we may ask ourselves "why bother to ask then?" But that is ridiculous! This is a loving family relationship, not a slot machine. God wants us to be talking to him, and he acts on our requests. However, there is a sense in which we can relax – so long as that does not mean that we neglect to ask. We do not need to fear that if we get some detail of our request wrong, everything will go haywire because God got the wrong end of the stick. He knows better than we do.
Fifthly: pray in line with the pattern that Jesus has given us. The pattern is what we call the Lord's Prayer, which is there in verses 9-13. By all means use this prayer as it stands. But also apply its principles to your own praying in your own words.
Those principles boil down to two: first, pray that God will be glorified; and secondly, pray that our needs will be met.
The Lord's Prayer consists of six petitions – six requests. The first three relate to the principle of praying that God will be glorified. The second three relate to the principle of praying that our needs will be met.
So: God is glorified when honour is given to his name; when his rule is acknowledged; and when his commands are obeyed.
And: our needs are met when our physical needs are satisfied and we have food and clothing and, in this climate, a roof over our heads; when we find forgiveness for our sins; and when we are protected from testing times and all the attacks of Satan either by avoiding them or by being brought safely through them.
And note that all of the requests in the Lord's Prayer are saturated with hope. They apply to each day, but they look forward to That Day when all our struggles will be over and God's kingdom will be established once for all when Jesus returns as judge of all and saviour of his people. Every potential request that we have should be reconsidered in the light of our hope of heaven. It is a good way of checking whether our requests are along the right lines.
Then the sixth and final point: our praying should follow on from a real response to the gospel. True prayer arises out of the truly converted heart. This is where we came in. If we are not real disciples of Jesus, our praying will be futile. Are we really listening to Jesus; believing him; and obeying him?
At the end of our passage, Jesus has a little psychological test that we can use to see what is the truth about ourselves. We might call it 'the forgiveness test'. It's there in verses 14-15:
"For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
If we have been taught to forgive others, then our discipleship is real and our dealings with God are sincere. If we have not learned to forgive others, then we do not really have a clue what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. In that case, we should not expect our prayers to be answered, until we are ready to forgive and to seek forgiveness.
So, there are six guidelines for prayer that arise from the fact that prayer is simply talking to God our Father and asking him for things, in the name of Jesus.
Ronald Dunn, in his helpful book "Don't Just Stand There… Pray Something" tells how a missionary received a letter from a little girl in a Sunday School class. The whole class had been writing, and their teacher must have told them that real live missionaries were very busy and might not have time to answer their letters. The girl's letter written to this missionary simply read:
Dear Rev. Smith,
We are praying for you. We are not expecting an answer.
Too many of us pray like that. Let's get back to the basics, back to the simplicity of prayer, back to talking to God our Father, laying our requests before him, and expecting answers. While there's time, let's make sure that we say what needs to be said, and ask what needs to be asked.
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your Son to save us from our sins, that we might be reconciled to you. Thank you that through him we have this astounding privilege of being able to talk to you, knowing that you hear and answer. Help us to learn from Jesus how to make the most of this privilege that we have. In his name we ask it. Amen.