Summary: 1. Prayer is an act of worship. 2. Prayer is an expression of the soul. 3. Prayer is a relationship.
In the Scripture we have just read, Jesus tells the story of two men who went to church to pray. One was a well known sinner, and the other was a well respected religious leader. Jesus interjects some humor when he says that the religious man was praying “about” himself. Another way to translate the phrase is that he prayed “with” himself or “to” himself. He is having a great time praying, the only problem is that God is not listening. He is merely congratulating himself and thinking how proud God must be of him. But God was not nearly so proud of him as he was of himself. We know from his prayer (or should we say his speech) that he was not a robber, an evildoer or an adulterer. We also know that he practiced certain religious rituals. He fasted and gave one tenth of his income to God. We also know that he looked down on people who were not as moral as he. He practically sneered as he thanked God that he was not like the tax collector he noticed praying in the temple with him. We get the idea that the man is praying out loud. He is hoping the tax collector heard him give his little dig, and he is hoping that the other people standing around him heard his speech extolling his piety.
The tax collector, however, was not listening. He has other things on his mind. He openly confesses his sin. He does not come near the sacred place where others are standing. He will not lift his eyes to heaven, and only prays that God will have mercy on him. He prays with wonderful honesty. What is shocking about this story is that it is the sinner who is justified before God, and the righteous man is not. The Pharisee left the temple unaware that he was not right with God. In fact, he would not have been able to comprehend God’s rejection of him and his prayer, and he would never have believed that the sinful tax collector found favor in God’s eyes. Jesus ends the story by saying, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The main message of the parable is that it is not a matter of whether we pray, but how we pray that matters. What is the attitude of our hearts when we come before God? Are we being honest? Do we come before God with humility, or do we come informing God of how well we have done?
How are we supposed to pray? How do we come before God? The first thing we need to consider is that: Prayer is an act of worship. The first part of prayer should always be worship. So often prayer resembles whining more than worship. We come to God armed with complaints, and they are frequently followed by demands. But we dare not rush into God’s presence spouting off our needs and requests. We come joyfully, but we come reverently, understanding that we are in the presence of the great and mighty God. The Bible says, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Hebrews 13:15). Jesus taught us to begin with worship in his model prayer. He said that we should begin with words like: “Our Father, in heaven, holy is your name.” There is a difference between thanksgiving and worship. Thanksgiving is thanking God for what he has done. Worship is praising God for who he is. He is God and there is no other. We worship God for being holy. We worship him for being all-powerful, yet loving, merciful, kind and forgiving. We worship him for being faithful and true.
Anyone who has truly come into the presence of God is awestruck. Throughout the Bible, those who came into contact with God landed on their faces. They did not walk up and put their arms around God like their good buddy; they were overcome by their own sense of unworthiness and the totally otherness of God. I love the story of Jesus and the disciples as they are out on the lake when a terrible storm comes. The waves are whipping the boat about, and the disciples fear for their lives. But Jesus is sleeping in the stern of the boat. They awaken him, asking why he is not concerned that they are about to perish. They are, in effect, questioning his love for them and his ability to take care of them. Jesus then stands up in the boat and rebukes the winds and the waves so that a great and holy calm comes upon the lake. You would have expected the disciples to give high fives and cheer, but instead they were terrified. In fact, they were now more terrified of Jesus than they had been of the storm. They exclaimed, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him ” (Mark 4:41). They understood that Jesus was not just a great man or a holy prophet. He was something totally other than they had ever come in contact with. He was the God who ruled the wind, the sea and all of nature. He was, in fact, in control of the universe. The only appropriate response to being in the presence of God is worship. Worship is a need of the human heart. The Bible says, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23).