A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor of First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga. on March 21, 2010.
When Christ is giving the Sermon on the Mount, he is teaching about piety, and he just says, “When you pray.” Of course, the assumption is we are going to pray because we all pray. We pray in a variety of settings—sometimes more seriously and more earnestly, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer—but we all pray. It might be the random quick prayer that comes in the car at the traffic light as we are headed to something we are feeling shaky about and we would like God’s guidance. Sometimes in the bathroom after taking a shower it is the only place you can find privacy so you think, “In these moments in here, I will say a prayer today where no one else can hear and infringe upon the time.”
Sometimes prayers are more disciplined. We set aside time for prayer and we pray longer and with more structure.
Then there are always the crisis prayers. There is the old adage, “There are no atheists in fox holes.” There are prayers that just seem to be evoked from our spirit in the moment when we were not even sure we were getting ready to pray. We are with a family member and we get a diagnosis that we did not want to hear. Our first reaction is, “O God,” and however we would voice the prayer that God would help us.
It is 1:00 in the morning and your teenage child was supposed to be home at midnight, and the cell phone is not being answered. You roll over and the clock is staring at you. It turns over to 1:01. You cannot stop yourself from praying.
There are all kinds of moments where we pray a little, pray a lot, pray short, pray long, but as Jesus says, “Whenever you pray,” because Jesus knows we are going to pray. We will indeed pray.
If we are going to pray, then how will we do it? It always seems to me that when a crisis comes or when someone knows that a friend is laboring under something that would require prayer, there is never a shortage of advice about how to pray, is there? Someone always has good advice about how to pray. Someone will say to us, “Remember the parable of the woman who kept making her petition be made known to the judge. Finally, the judge gave her what she asked for because he wanted her to quit hounding him all the time.” And Jesus says, ‘If a cold-hearted judge would grant her petition, how much more would God who loves you grant what you ask.’ So keep asking. Don’t quit asking.”
Then another friend says, “No, that’s not the way you do it. Haven’t you heard that Jesus says if you pray believing and if you believe, it will be done for you. So, therefore, you just pray one time and let it go. You don’t mention it again because that is an indication to God of how much you believe. It is one and done. One prayer and then you are done. That is all you have to say if you really have faith.” Which is it and how do I know?
There is a great funny poem by Sam Walter Foss about “The Prayer of Cyrus Brown.”
“The proper way for man to pray,”
Said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
“And the only proper attitude
Is down upon his knees.”
“No, I should say the way to pray,”
Said Reverend Doctor Wise,
“Is standing straight with outstretched arms
And rapt and upturned eyes.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” said Elder Slow,
“Such posture is too proud:
A man should pray with eyes fast closed
And head contritely bowed.”
“It seems to me his hands should be
Austerely clasped in front,
With both thumbs pointing toward the ground,”
Said Reverend Doctor Blunt.
“Las’ year I fell in Hodgkin’s well
Head first,” said Cyrus Brown,
“With both my heals a stickin’ up,
My head a-pinting down;
“An’ I made prayer right then an’ there,
Best prayer I ever said,
The prayingest prayer I ever prayed,
A-standing on my head.”
People tell us, “You should pray with your eyes closed. You should pray with your eyes looking toward heaven. You should pray with your hands clasped. You should pray with your hands open as if to receive something from God.” I have been told all of these things, and there is no shortage of opinions on how to pray. How do we pray?
The answer is partly found in trying to think about, “What are we trying to do when we pray?” Are we trying to get what we want? Is it something like we have gone to a seminar on how to close a sale? If you are trying to get what you want, then we would be taught to pray one way. But if the real goal of prayer is to know and love God better, then a better model would be a marriage enrichment retreat. How do we work on our relationships? How do we learn from each other? How do you know each other better and communicate better?
For a Christian, if what we really want to do is to pray like Jesus, then we have to be more like Jesus. If we come to the end of our life, and could say, “I kept a record and I got what I asked for 75% of the time when I prayed,” or, if we could say, “At the end of my life, I know that my prayers have made me more like Christ,” which would be the most satisfying? The 75% could be, but we don’t know because we don’t know what we asked for. But I think anyone would be satisfied knowing that their prayer life made them more like Jesus.
In a world where there is all manner of advice and even good Christian advice that differs on how we pray, Jesus gives us the model. There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament. The one we are most familiar with is found in the 6th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
A few years ago in walking through the sanctuary before worship, a great member of the church who is now deceased was rather frantically flipping through the Bible and said a few hard words to me about, “Where is it?”
I said, “Where is what?”
He said, “The Lord’s Prayer. I can’t find it in here. Where is it?”
I thought, “He has been coming to church here for a long time. What have I not done that he would know where the prayer is?”
I mentioned this to an extended family member who lives in another state and is a member of another denomination and she said, “Well, will you tell me because I don’t know where it is either.” We have known each other all of our lives and I know she was raised in the church.
If you want to know and need to be able to look it up sometime and want to read it in the context in which Jesus teaches it, look in the 6th chapter of Matthew.
What does he teach us? It is very simple. Have you ever noticed that the prayer begins and ends with God? I don’t know how many of my prayers do this, but I know that the prayer that Jesus gives us as the model begins and ends with God.
The first thing is, “Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” The first requests are not even requests for ourselves or each other, but they are requests that the work and will of God would go on in the world, and that God’s name would truly be respected. In the world in which we live, is that such an unnecessary prayer? Is the name of God always respected? I don’t think so. It begins with God and then it ends with God. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” Whatever we have asked for ourselves in between, we always need to remember that in the end what we really wanted is for glory, for God’s power, for the kingdom to advance for all of these things. No matter what I may have asked for myself, no matter what I may have asked that you have asked me to pray about, or anyone else, what we really want at the end of the day is that God be praised and that God be in control. It begins with God; it ends with God. How many of your prayers start with concern about God and end with concern about God?
Sandwiched in between are three simple requests for ourselves. First is daily bread. After I have prayed for what would benefit God in the world, I pray for daily bread. I pray for enough.
I am always learning what enough is. Have you got that one figured out? I don’t. I always think I need more than I do. But most of our lives, we are dealing with this issue of what is enough.
We started off in Sunday school as children and the illustration our Sunday school teachers used was a bicycle. “Now, you really shouldn’t pray for a bicycle. That is really not something that is worthy of a prayer.”
About the time you move to middle school, you are praying about a girl or a boy that you hoped would pay attention to you. Then you begin to move on to things like, “What school will I get into? Will I make partner? Will I be a success? Will I get recognition? Will I win the lottery? Will my parents have enough left when they pass from this earth to leave me something?” We find ourselves praying all manner of things that really never take into account what is enough. That is all that Jesus teaches us to pray about. In all the physical needs of life, just pray for enough and ask God to provide it. That is a prayer that God wants to answer.
After we pray for enough, then we just pray for right relationships. If we were to take a secret survey this morning and find out what has people upset or uptight or worried, I know the percentage would be high. Everybody someplace in their life has a relationship that is not the way they think it ought to be. Somebody is at odds with one other, somebody is not seeing eye to eye. They dread going to work because of someone they will have to face. We don’t want to call our parents on Sunday afternoon because we know what they are going to tell us again. We don’t want to discipline our children again because we are so tired of being bad parents. We wish our relationships were right, and what Jesus says to us is this: “Forgive us our trespasses and teach us to forgive others.” Let’s get this relationship right because once I have been inspired by the forgiveness of God and once I have experienced the grace of God in my life, then I can turn and extend it to other people. If relationships are ever going to be made right, they are going to be made right by grace and forgiveness.
Have you seen the new show, The Marriage Ref? It determines who is right and who is wrong. What an awful show! Do you really think that relationships are going to be made right by somebody winning? Relationships are going to be made right by grace and forgiveness. Can you ever in your life remember a quick rejoinder where you really told somebody something and it made the relationship right? I don’t ever remember that. I have thought of a million of them—always too late—things that I just knew would have convinced the other person, but the truth is, I have never heard of anything like that healing a relationship. The only things that heal a relationship are grace, love, and forgiveness.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus reminds us of that. Let’s get our relationships right. Let’s forgive as we have been forgiven. Let’s extend grace as grace has been extended to us.
Then, there is a third simple request. Sometimes we think this one does not apply to us, but we say, “Deliver us from evil.” Evil is everywhere.
Jesus says in another place in the Gospels, “Don’t fear those that can kill the body but fear those that can kill the soul.” Every day we need to be delivered from something that would like to steal our soul. Every day there is some temptation to do wrong, to steal, to cheat, to place another bet, or to take another drink. We need to say, “God, don’t let me do what I have already made up my mind to do before I came to church today. There is something in my life that I have already made up my mind that I am going to do, and I will just ask you for forgiveness when I am done. Deliver me from that.” Deliver me from the things that will steal my soul because they are everywhere.
This is the prayer. Begin and end with God. Start with really recognizing that the whole reason we can pray is because God is there. As Heavenly Father, God listens and cares and we would want nothing but God’s name to be blessed and hallowed and that God’s kingdom work advance in the world. Then, we can ask for three simple things for ourselves. “God, in my physical world, may I have enough for today. May my relationships be made right in the same model as you have made right my relationship with you. And, God, deliver me from those things that would kill me. Deliver me from those things that would do me the most harm, the things that I have grown to love far too much, things that I am not afraid enough of. Deliver me from those things. And in the end, your kingdom come, your will be done, and yours be the power and the glory, forever and ever. May anything I ask for always take second place to this.”
When I learn to pray like Jesus, these prayers will be answered because I will recognize that God hears and that somehow the gap has been narrowed and I am closer to God than I have ever been. At the end of my life, if I can say that my prayer life has made me closer to God and more like Christ, then all my prayers have been answered.
 James Mulholland, Praying Like Jesus, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 12-13
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.