Summary: The first in a series on Christ's teaching on prayer from the Sermon on the Mount.
“There’s No ‘I” in Pray”
pMarch 15, 2009
Prayer is a subject about which every single Christian will say, “I believe in it! Prayer is important!” At the same time, it’s a subject about which many Christians will profess, “I don’t do it enough; I don’t do it well; I don’t really pray as I ought.”
Let’s talk turkey for a minute, shall we? We say Red Oak is “prayer-powered”. Are we? Why should we be? See, here’s the thing: I can (and will) talk to you over the course of the next few weeks about how to pray, according to Jesus—but that presumes that you want to pray, that you feel the urgency to pray, that you recognize the importance of prayer in your life. Beyond that, it presumes that you are really growing in your love for Jesus, for the priorities of His kingdom and His church. If I’m not praying as I ought, it’s because, ultimately, I am not loving Jesus as I ought, because those who love Jesus are those who are learning and growing in their desire and ability to pray.
Let’s not get into this trap: “I’m too busy to pray”. That’s a canard, and the honest among us know that it’s a canard. If you’re not praying, your problem isn’t your schedule; it’s your heart, it’s your priorities, it’s your lack of love for Jesus, or your lack of knowledge of Jesus. We are not members of some religion, but we are people who are engaged in a relationship with the God of the universe, a relationship with a Person, or more accurately, a Three-Persons-in-One God—and relationship requires communication!
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m now in the middle of my 20th year of senior pastoral ministry. Actually, because I served as an interim pastor for 14 months prior to beginning my first official pastorate, I’ve been speaking every Sunday morning for 21½ years now. Wow. That’s extremely hard to believe! Here’s what frightens me as I think back on that time—and what sobers me up as I speak even today: how much ministry have I attempted to perform simply in my own power, assuming that whatever talents God had given me would suffice to accomplish eternal results.
“The whole work of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Ephesians 6 tells us to “pray…at all times in the Spirit”.
And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. 2 And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. 3 And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4 And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” 5 Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” 6 Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. 7 Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain.
I Thessalonians 5 says we must “pray without ceasing”. Romans 12:12 says to “be constant in prayer”. Our topic for the next 6 weeks or so is this: “Lord, teach us to pray.” I am not particularly interested in merely filling our brains with a theology of prayer; that has some value, but I’m more interested in filling our lives and schedules and priority schemes with prayer: more prayer, and better prayer.
Matthew 6 holds up a mirror to us in ways that make us squirm, for the honest among us find ourselves in this chapter (and it doesn’t always feel real good!). It requires self-examination at points, including today’s passage. But the follower of Christ is one who welcomes such critical self-examination, because his desire is to be conformed to the image of Christ. So it’s critical to allow Jesus to be our teacher; today, we go directly to His words in what has become known as the Sermon on the Mount. Note first that He says
I. True Prayer Is Not a Performance - :1,5
Nothing in the Christian life, as a matter of fact, is to be a performance for any audience other than the Audience of One. This is especially important to remember when we pray out loud in the company of others. How does this jibe with Matthew 5:16? The answer is simple: on the one hand, we are allowing others to hear and see the good things that we do in order that God might receive the praise; on the other, here, hypocrites are doing what they do in order that they might receive glory. Which raises an interesting question: is it possible for two people to do the exact same (outward) things, or say the exact same words, and for those words or that deed to be an act of righteousness for the one person and a sin for the other? Absolutely! Which is why it’s about more than our deeds; it’s about our hearts!