The Scripture Readings
- Old Testament – Joel 2:23-26
- Gospel – Luke 18:9-14
Meditation: Biblical prayer is impertinent, persistent, shameless, indecorous. It is more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the church. – Walter Wink
Most of us want our prayer lives to be better. If you’re like me, the time you usually pray is when you are in a desperate situation. But prayers, good prayers, should be more than just the “God help me!” we say during difficult times.
Well, we can talk about what prayer should be, or could be, but what is prayer exactly? It’s simple enough to say that prayer is “talking to God,” but it is really much more than that. Ideally, prayer is “two-way communication with God” much more than just talking to Him. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems more like “talking to yourself” than “communication with God.”
Now, before I get too far, I need to say that I speak to you today as a fellow pilgrim in search of answers. I don’t claim to be an expert on prayer or that I even understand prayer. My main qualification for talking about prayer today is that I am completely unqualified to do so and, being unqualified means that I have a lot of questions about prayer. So I said ‘yes’ when Pastor Keith asked me to speak today, if for no other reason than to have an opportunity to learn about meaningful prayer.
Today, I’d like to give you some examples of what I consider good prayers. Not surprisingly, most of them involve children. Though they may not be true stories, they each have a good point.
A little girl is running late to church one Sunday morning and she’s praying as she’s running down the sidewalk: “God, please don’t let me be late for church. God, please don’t let me be late for church.” All of a sudden, she trips and falls down. Immediately she jumps back up and starts running and praying again: “God, please don’t let me be late for church, but don’t shove me either!”
What’s the point?
Don’t blame God when bad things happen.
There is evil in the world. You don’t hear much about it these days, but evil exists and Satan is at work in the world creating uneven sidewalks, or stumbling blocks for all of us. He would love for us to fall down and blame God for our hurt and pain. And it’s easy to do! After all, if God is omnipotent and the whole world runs according to His plan, whose fault is it when bad things happen? Well, that’s a topic for a sermon of its own. Suffice to say here that if you let bad things separate you from God, then Satan’s work is done.
Another point in this joke about the little girl running to church: After she falls down – what does she do? She gets right back up and keeps running toward church. She keeps praying too. She may still be hurting, and she might blame God for falling down, but she continues to pray and run toward church.
It’s bedtime, and a little girl is saying her prayers: “God bless Mommy and Daddy and my sister and me. And please make Madrid the capital of Australia. Amen”
Her mother asks why she wants Madrid to be the capital of Australia.
The child responds, “Because that’s what I put on my geography test today!”
Pray for the impossible, because nothing is impossible for God. Don’t hold anything back, no matter how silly or impractical it is. If you feel it, pray about it. Nothing is off-limits. You’re not going to shock God with anything He doesn’t already know.
Of all the important things that have happened in the history of humanity, nothing can come close to Jesus’ death on the cross. From the beginning, it was God’s will that Jesus would offer himself up as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. Yet Jesus prayed for it to not happen, didn’t he? In the garden of Gethsemane. It was on his mind, and certainly Jesus prayed that God’s will be done, but he voiced his preference nonetheless. “Let this cup pass from me.” The point is if you feel it, pray it, even if it seems impossible.
Here’s a really old one:
There was a man who prayed every day that God would let him win the lottery. He prayed his ‘lottery prayer’ every day.. This went on for years and years and the man never won a thing. Finally, God got so tired of hearing the same request over and over, He decided to answer the man’s prayer. So late one night as the man finished his lottery prayer, he heard a rumbling voice say, “Joe, this is God. Meet me half-way. Buy a ticket.”
What’s the point?
The point is found on page 603 in your hymnal. It is a quotation from Alexander Campbell, one of the early leaders of the Disciples of Christ. It reads, “To pray for anything for which we will not take counsel together, for which we will not jointly labor, for which we will not contribute with all our energies and means, is only mocking God and disappointing ourselves.” That’s a very powerful statement. He is saying that praying can be a form of mockery toward God. Praying to win the lottery when you won’t even buy a ticket is pretty bad, but it’s no different than praying for God to give you a better job when you won’t even type up a resume, or asking God to make us better Christians when we never even open our Bibles. So what is the point? If you pray about it, do something about it. Don’t let your prayer be the end, let it be the beginning.
One more joke:
A father is walking past his daughter’s room at bedtime and sees her kneeling beside her bed, with her head bowed and hands folded, saying the alphabet. “…T – U – V – W – X – Y – Z. Amen.
So he asks his daughter, “What are you doing, honey?”
“I’m saying my prayers, but I couldn’t think of just what I wanted to say. So I’m just saying all the letters of the alphabet and God can put them together however he thinks best.”
You don’t need to find the words. God can put it together better than you can. You can just go quiet, literally, engage in completely silent prayer. Some people might call it meditation, but if your mind is concentrating on God, it is a form of prayer.
In the Romans 8:26, we find these words: In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;
What a wonderful blessing that is. It really takes the pressure off, doesn’t it? We don’t even have to pray and we can still be praying. The French philosopher, Simone Weil wrote, “Prayer consists of Attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”
How about a true story now instead of a joke? This is about a woman who purportedly got a message directly from God. The author, Philip Yancey in his book “Prayer” tells about the archbishop of Manila who had a woman tell him at his weekly audience that she had a message from God for him. He brushed her off several times, but she kept coming back. Finally he said, “We Catholics have strict rules governing messages from God. I need to test your authenticity. I want you to go back and ask God about a particular sin I recently confessed in private. If you ask God and he tells you the answer, I’ll know your message is genuine.
The next week she returned and he quizzed her, a bit nervously, “Well, did you ask God about my sin?”
“And did God answer?”
“What did He say?”
“God said that he didn’t remember.”
I love that story.
“God said that he didn’t remember.”
He didn’t remember because in Jeremiah 31:34, God says “…for I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
So what’s the point?
If you confess your sin, and you are truly contrite, then God doesn’t remember your sin anymore. So why do you still remember it? Why do any of us hold on to and feel guilty about our sins if God has forgiven them? If we are truly contrite and honestly confess our sins to God and beg his mercy, they are forgiven and forgotten. And I think that to dwell on them is to throw God’s forgiveness back in his face. If God can forget my sin, maybe I should too; maybe it’s okay. Sometimes we can’t help but remember our sins, but I think the point is that if we learn from them, honestly repent of them and then, like Jesus says in the eighth chapter of John, “Go, and sin no more.” Then we have done what God commands of us. What a wonderful gift. As we sang earlier, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”
Enough stories, I think. I need to say something about our readings from God’s Word this morning before we end our time together.
Taking a look at our reading from Joel, the people of Israel are reminded of bad times and promised good times. Joel 2:25-26: “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied…” This analogy is lost on many people nowadays. All of us are blessed to live in a place where there is plenty of food for everyone and at a time when almost everyone can afford to eat well.
So as the people of Israel back then knew and as folks who live in agricultural communities today well know, the locust and the grasshopper are terrible foes to the well-being of humankind; as was a lack of rain or a drought. Modern pesticides and irrigation have pretty much negated their effect today, but the point remains that there are some things that nobody can control.
Today, our expectations are constantly increasing. We expect our income, our retirement fund and our stock portfolios to be going up and up and up. Downturns aren’t tolerated and certainly aren’t seen as inevitable. I think that today, you almost need to be a farmer to realize that sometimes there are just “bad years” and there’s no technology and no science that will prevent it from happening.
Our prayer life can have periods of drought as well. But just as God promises that he will repay for the bad times, we should have faith that we will have periods of abundance in our prayer lives as well.
This abundance is the key to the secret of good prayer. Do you want to know the secret? The secret of heartfelt prayer is prayer. Just pray. Anytime, anywhere, any chance you get, pray. The secret of praying is praying. Pray at stoplights, pray during commercials, while you’re brushing your teeth, when you’re raking leaves. And like I told the kids earlier, don’t stop, even if you don’t think anything is happening or if you’ve already said it before. Keep on praying. The farmer keeps on planting crops regardless of how many times his fields have produced nothing. If you keep saying prayers, like planting seeds, eventually you’ll get a good harvest. God has promised us no less.
In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus relates a parable that is a classic turnabout tale. The Pharisee stands apart from the crowd and thanks God that he’s not like the sinners, he even tells God about all the good things he does – as if his works make him holy. The tax collector stands apart from the crown and beats his chest in repentance. And he is the one who goes home justified before God.
In today’s society, the people that we might think of as Pharisees might be sitting next to us in the pews this morning. They are the good people who are here every Sunday, who don’t swear, lie or gossip, they volunteer and donate faithfully to their church and other charities. They read the Bible regularly and some even fill in for their pastor when he’s on sabbatical. We, “good Christians”, are the modern-day equivalent of Pharisees.
The people that we might think of as tax-collectors haven’t changed much from those days. They might actually work for the IRS as a tax collector, or maybe they are telemarketers who call during dinner. Maybe they sell jewelry or appliances out of the trunk of their car at the corner gas station. These are the modern-day tax-collectors. They are thieves and sell-outs. Absolutely nobody who follows the Lord would identify with any of them or want to be like them in any way.
Jesus turns this normal outlook around and makes people want to be like the despised tax-collector.
Now, there are a lot of differences between the prayer of the Pharisee and the prayer of the tax-collector that are worth mentioning. But in one area, they are the same. Both men stand alone, apart from the crowd of people praying in the temple. The Pharisee is standing apart from the others because he feels like he shouldn’t be among the rabble. The tax collector is also standing apart from the others, not even looking up to heaven, because he feels that he doesn’t deserve to be among the good worshipers in the temple. But here the similarities end.
The biggest mistake that the Pharisee makes is comparing himself with someone else. It’s easy to make yourself look good when you compare yourself with someone who is completely despicable. But God isn’t like that nice teacher we all had in the ninth grade – He doesn’t grade on a curve. He’s not interested in how much better we are than the kid in the next seat. We’re going to be compared to Jesus, and none of us will ever measure up to Him. We can all take a lesson from the tax-collector’s prayer and remember that compared to the Son of God, we are all low-down sinners. And all we can really pray is “God, please have mercy on me, a sinner.”
There are many different lessons that one can learn from this parable, but the one that seems strongest to me is that we shouldn’t be confident in ourselves or our works, but only have confidence in the grace of God as shown through his son Jesus. Also, that our prayers should be heartfelt. If your heart is glad, then your prayer should be glad. If your heart is troubled, then your prayer should be troubled. If you think you’re a sinner, confess your sins to God and ask for mercy. If you think you’re a great Christian… Well, pray for humility.
I have one more example that isn’t really an example at all because I don’t know what the prayer was about. The theologian, John Cassian wrote, “We pray best when we are no longer aware of praying.” Has that ever happened to you? I’ve been saying prayers my whole life and do you know how many times that has happened to me? Once. Just once, about a year ago.
Of all times, it was when I was praying while driving home from work. You think people talking on cell phones while they drive are dangerous… People who talk to God while driving are a menace to society. The funny thing is, I don’t even remember what I was praying about or what was on my mind at the time. I only remember how I ended the prayer as I pulled into my driveway. I said, “Well, thanks for listening. Love you, bye-bye.”
That was it.
No “Amen”, no “In Jesus’ name”, just “bye-bye”.
When I realized that I had just said “bye-bye” to the creator of the heavens and the Earth, I started thinking that I had done something really wrong. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had really connected with God even just for a short time. My prayer ended very much like a telephone conversation would. I guess I just subconsciously ended the conversation like I do with other real connections.
Dr. Ed Young said, “Prayer can be just as ordinary as picking up the telephone and calling a friend… but as awesome as discovering that almighty God is on the other end of the call!”
I keep hoping, praying and trying to have this kind of connection with God again, but it hasn’t happened yet. I suppose I should practice what I preached to the kids and just keep on praying.
Well, I’ve talked about how to pray, what to pray and even mentioned where to pray, but what about the question, “Why pray?” I’ll end by taking a stab at this question
I believe that every human being has an inborn need for God in their lives; even unbelievers. This need for God often seems like an emptiness in our minds or hearts that is very hard to understand. But this feeling pushes, even drives Christians to learn as much as possible about God and his plan for us. These Christians go to the one and only authoritative source of information about God, the Holy Bible.
But humankind isn’t satisfied with just a book. We need more. We need more because we once had much more. We were once able to walk and talk with our Lord. We still desire and, I believe, need this personal attention. This is why prayer is necessary! Prayer is the point at which God and man reach out and connect. It is the only place where the man and the woman can walk in the garden again with their Creator.
“And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.
Come to the garden with me as we join together in prayer,
O Lord you are so good to us. You give us your presence and your attention. What else can we ask for, what else do we need? Like a child holding hands with her daddy to cross the street, we seek your touch, your guidance, your good judgment. We know that we cannot walk alone. All of us have tried at some point, and all have failed in one way or another. We need you, God. We need your gentle touch, your voice so sweet that the birds hush their singing. Speak to us this day, Lord, through the thousands of things we have to be thankful for; speak to us through the hundreds of breaths we take; speak through the scores of friends and family who love us so; speak through the handful of people seated near us who shake our hands every Sunday; and through your one and only son our Savior, Jesus who loves us most of all. Amen.
(c) 2007-2009 David J. Miller
This sermon was presented on October 28, 2007 at Mt. Zwingli Church in Wadsworth, Ohio