Summary: This prayer of Abraham seems to be the 1st recorded prayer in Scripture. Why did God preserve it for us, and what can we learn by how Abraham prayed?
OPEN: In Europe in the Middle Ages, people had a strong belief in the power of prayer. They also believed that the purer and simpler the life you led, the more God would listen to you. And since Monks were supposed to live purer and simpler lives than anyone else their prayers were seen as a hotline to God. So, rich people and warriors began to pay the monks to do all the praying they were too busy to do for themselves.
Now, the Middle Ages were times of great conflict. Lots of wars, lots of soldiers killed on the fields of battle. And at the time, the Catholic church was conflicted about the command “Thou shalt not kill.” They felt that that commandment also applied to killing in war as well (it didn’t). So, after the Battle of Hastings (for example) the Catholic church demanded that each soldier do 120 days of penance for every person they killed.
William the Conqueror (in his lifetime) was responsible for the death of about 10,000 people. That meant he was required to do 1,200,000 days of penance (meaning he’d have to pray for about 3300 years to cleanse his soul). His penance would have lasted to the year 4366 – meaning he wouldn’t have been finished yet. So he figured if the work was split up amongst a couple hundred monks he could have his soul cleansed in less the 18 years. So he founded a string of Abbeys - where monks could pray specifically for his soul. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqYYPUOJQls)
Now, not only was that practice not Biblical… it was just plain silly! God doesn’t work like that. But, people have had odd opinions about prayer for centuries. And that’s what happens when you don’t pay attention to Scripture… you create all kinds of weird theologies.
That’s why the prayers we find in Scripture – like the one Abraham prayed here – are so important. God was showcasing Abraham’s prayer (like He did other prayers in the Bible) so we could see HOW prayer works. And - as we see Abraham praying here - prayer is a very simple thing to do. Consider how Abraham prayed...
1st – Abraham was talking TO God. Now you might say… “Well, duh. Of course he talked to God.” That's what you'd think... but people don’t always do that. In some churches, folks put on a show when they pray. They don't so much pray to God as they pray for show.
ILLUS: For example, in Older churches, they’ll do a KJV kind of prayer “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy. Thou seest the needs of our hearts and thou hast heardest the pleas of our minds. Speakest now thy servant ….” How many times have you talked to your neighbors or friends that way? Of course you haven’t! Nobody talks like that in normal conversation. This kind of prayer is often the high-toned prayer for someone who is impressed with how well they can express themselves in archaic English. Now, granted not every one who prays this way do it for show… but many do.
I've been to some trendy churches where I’ve heard other kinds of prayers that go something like this– “Lord, we JUST pray that you would JUST like, JUST really JUST totally JUST intercede in our lives and help us to JUST live like JUST the kind of lives we JUST know would please you.” It’s like they “just” have to have the word “just” every 5 words or so. That sort of thing drives me nuts. Again, not everyone who prays like this putting on a show to impress others with how spiritual they are… but many do.
But one of the types of prayer that is most frustrating (and I’ve heard Preachers, Elders and Deacons do it) is when a person gets up in front and prays (not to God, but) to the audience. You can tell they’re INSTRUCTING the church goers through their prayers. They’ll stand up at the communion table and instruct people on things like why the Communion is so important, or why they should give more money in the Offering.
But that’s not how prayer works. Prayer is talking to God like you’d talk to a friend. And that’s what Abraham was doing here. James 2:23 says that Abraham “was called a friend of God.” In this text we see Abraham was talking to God like he’d talk to a friend.
ILLUS: One man told of (when he was only 4 years old) he watched his father pray. "It was Sunday morning, and 50 people gathered in a circle at the Lord's Supper. The elements, covered simply with a white cloth, were on a table in the middle. The arrangement was intentional: it spoke of Christ as the center of our thoughts. “Dad stood to pray. I was laying on the floor, looking up at him. Even now, the memory is clear. I thought to myself, ‘He actually thinks he is talking to Someone. And whoever it is means more to him than anyone else.’” (Larry Crabb, Interest, Jan 1994, p. 7) That’s what prayer is all about!