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The Prayers of Jesus: At the Heart of His Teaching

March 22, 2009
Sermon:  March 22, 2009
Text:  Luke 11:1-13

As you know, we have been in a series of sermons entitled The Prayers of Jesus.  Our text for today, Luke 11:1-13, is so remarkable, so deep and rich.  Before we consider this passage, however, I want us to reconsider Mark, Chapter 1, which records the very early ministry of Jesus. 

Perhaps you remember that while in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus cured a man who had an evil spirit.  This healing drew criticism, of course, from the religious leaders because it had occurred on the Sabbath.  Jesus then went to the home of Simon Peter and Andrew where he also healed Peter’s mother-in-law, who was sick with a fever.  She was able to get up and serve them a meal.  After sundown on that same day, we read that all the people of the town came to see Jesus at this home.  Jesus continued his ministry by healing the sick, casting out demons, and teaching until late at night.  We pick up the story at Verse 35 of Mark 1: 

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

I would like you to have this scene in your mind.  Jesus has gotten up after a very hard day and gone into the mountains to pray.  The disciples, anxious about all that he has to do and concerned about his rising popularity, interrupt his time of prayer.  It is as if they think, Praying might be alright, but right now it is really a waste of time when so many people are looking for you.  To them, his praying at this particular time is a distraction. 

I want you to notice that quite an important contrast, at least in my mind, appears in Luke 11, Verse 1.  “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place.  When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…’”  Now in this scene, the disciples do not interrupt him, saying, “So many people looking for you!”  Instead, they allow him to complete his time of prayer and afterward ask the favor, “Lord, teach us to pray.” 

Robert Havighurst suggests that this scene offers what he calls a teachable moment, a time when people are especially ready to learn.  At that particular time, Jesus’ disciples were more receptive about certain topics than they had been at any earlier point.  They had not been open to hearing about the life of prayer earlier in the Gospel of Mark. 

Now, as evident in Luke 11, they were more approachable.  They had been traveling with Jesus for some time now, seeing the miracles he had performed, seeing the way he had related to other people.  They had been noticing a kind of rhythm in his life, noticing that he withdrew to solitary places for times of prayer.  They had seen in Jesus’ life unusual qualities, and they were curious.  They wanted to learn so that they, too, could be in on that action.  “Lord, teach us to pray,” they asked.  They had seen how important prayer is to Jesus.  They had seen that prayer was the very breath of his spiritual life, that prayer was his constant companion.  They had seen the difference prayer had made in his life. 

How was Jesus going to teach them to pray?  First, Jesus taught them through his example.  His disciples saw in his life that kind of model.  How we do we learn to pray?  Most of us learn to pray because we have mentors in the life of prayer.  My parents and my grandparents taught me to pray.  They did not say, “Kirk, this is the way you pray.”  They taught me to pray, simply by setting the example.  How am I to teach my children and my grandchildren to pray?  I will teach them by setting the example. 

One of my regrets is that too many times the children and youth of Morningside do not have the opportunity to hear the adults in our church pray because they are often involved in other programs of the church.  After Easter, laypeople will offer the morning prayer in both the 8:30 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. services.  Our members’ participation in offering the morning prayer will be good for all of us.  It will not only be a way for us to understand how God is at work in the church, but it will also be a good example for our children and youth. 

We have lost that example of older adults teaching younger people how to pray in the school setting.  I remember years ago the principal of my elementary school praying over the intercom.  I remember Dr. Theron Price starting every class with a prayer when I was at Furman University.  My chemistry professor there also started every class with prayer.  In seminary, some of the greatest learning that occurred for me was listening to my professors as they prayed before every class.  Though students do not hear daily prayers in the school environment, prayers are still said.  I agree with Senator Sam Irwin, who says that prayer will always be in public schools as long as students have algebra exams. 

The second way Jesus taught his disciples to pray was by giving them what is sometimes called the Lord’s Prayer or the Model Prayer.  Regardless of its name, it is a very simple, straight-forward prayer found in Verses 2-4 here in Luke 11:  Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.  And lead us not into temptation.

Notice that Jesus begins the prayer with an Aramaic word, Abba, which is the word for Father. When we hear the word Abba, we might think of the word Daddy, a very personal term of endearment.  The use of that word, however, does not in any way show irreverence for God.  In fact, it shows great respect for our Father in heaven.  Jesus’ use of Abba at the beginning shows that prayer is a relationship of intimacy with our Father in heaven.  Through this model, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray as a child. 

Three statements that follow this simple beginning are sometimes called the “Thy” statements:  “hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”  Each phrase is an acknowledgement of God’s supremacy, an acknowledgement of God in all of His grandeur.  Think about the benediction so often used for this prayer:  “For Thine is the kingdom…”  That certainly correlates to “Thy kingdom come.”  “Thine is the power” correlates to “Thy will be done.”  “Thine is the glory” correlates to “hallowed be Thy name.”  This prayer tells us that God is the One who receives the glory.  That basically is a statement of surrender for us.  It is a statement that says, “God’s name is hallowed.  He is first.  This is about God, not me.  It is God’s kingdom to come on earth, God’s will, not my will that needs to be done.”

Those three “Thy” statements are followed by three simple petitions, three simple requests.  First, we see, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Why do we bow our heads and have a prayer for blessing for a meal?  Does God require us to say “thank you”?  Certainly it is an act of politeness, an act of courtesy.

Do you remember what happened to King Nebuchadnezzar?  In the book of Daniel, we read that as Nebuchadnezzar stood and looked out over Babylon, he cried, “Look how great Babylon is!  Look at what my might has done!” (Daniel 4:30).  Do you know how the Lord responded to that pride?  Nebuchadnezzar was afflicted with some sort of mental illness.  He was reduced to grazing on all fours, eating grass like an animal. 

If we do not give God thanks, gratitude, for everything, we are basically reduced to an animal-like relationship, saying, “Look at what I have done!”  No, God is the One who supplies everything.  We must give thanks for what He provides.

The second request is the double-sided issue of forgiveness.  “Forgive us our trespasses, our debts, our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  The two sides of forgiveness work together.  You have heard me talk of the vertical dimension whereby God forgives us.  The horizontal dimension requires that we forgive others. 

I heard a man say recently, “I just cannot forgive.” 

I asked him, “Is that statement really true?  Is it true that you cannot forgive?” 

The only way we can forgive is to know the forgiveness of God.  If someone says “I cannot forgive,” it may mean that the person has not experienced forgiveness.  What that person really means is, “I don’t want to forgive.  I want to hold a grudge.”  That attitude only hurts that person who makes that comment.  If we hold a grudge, if we refuse to forgive, that attitude damages us, not the other person.  The first appeal, “Give us our daily bread,” is a request for physical nourishment.  The second request, “Forgive us…,” asks for the healing of our souls.  

The third request, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil or the evil one” is for the refreshment of our spirit.  Some people have trouble with that concept.  Why would we pray that God would not lead us into temptation?  Passages of Scripture say that God would never tempt anyone, yet He allowed the Holy Spirit to lead Jesus into temptation.  How do we understand this?  I love the way Dr. Ray Steadman interprets this contradiction.  He says that prayer is asking that temptation not blindside us, that temptation not catch us unaware or unprepared.  Steadman’s reading on this line of Scripture is pretty accurate.  This section of the prayer requests protection. 

Jesus offered his disciples this model prayer, teaching them to be simple and straightforward.  He cautioned against heaping up empty words and offered them a prayer that asked for the nourishment of the physical body, the nourishment of the soul, the nourishment of the spirit, and the deliverance from evil. 

What holds us back from the life of prayer?  In this age when so many of us are high achievers, we feel as though we have to get it right, that we have to be completely pure, that we cannot have any sin in our lives, in order to pray.  We have the idea that we must have just the right words, just the right level of piety.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  That is exactly the time we do need to pray.  Pray just as you are.  We sing, “Just as I am without one plea…”  Pray a simple prayer from your heart.

Jesus then moved into his teaching on this model prayer in order to make a point.  He told two parables in the course of the next thirteen verses.  The first parable is the Parable of the Friend at Midnight.  Every day someone of the village baked fresh bread, which everybody in the community could smell.  Jesus used that common knowledge as he told of a neighbor who had a visitor arrive at his home unexpectedly.  Wanting to provide food for his friend, he went to the home of his neighbor and asked for bread.

It is important to understand the structure of a Palestinian home.  It basically was one large area, divided into two sections.  The front section, which had a dirt floor, housed the animals at night.  The back section, not really divided by a wall or partition, was a raised platform that served as the family bed.  Everybody in the family rolled out a mat on that platform at night.  People customarily went to bed at sundown.  Going to bed before midnight might not seem unusual to some, but being awake at that time of night was very unusual in first-century Palestine. 

Now midnight, this man was in bed with his family all around him in the back section of the house when his neighbor knocked on his door.  The goats, sheep, and dog were all in the front part of the house.  What did it mean to have a neighbor asking for bread at this time of night?  It meant that the man had to get up in the dark and crawl over his children and his wife, disturbing them.  He had to stumble around in the dark through all those animals, locate some bread, and find his way to the front door.  Once he had opened that door, making sure that no livestock escaped, he would hand the bread to the man outside his home.  It is easy to understand why he would be reluctant to help his neighbor get bread for the visitor at this time of night. 

In this parable, Jesus made a strong contrast between God and this reluctant neighbor.  The neighbor is reluctant, but God is reliable.  God is dependable. God is faithful. 

Jesus emphasized in this teaching that his disciples must be persistent in praying.  You will notice that Jesus did not offer techniques.  He did not provide clever little phrases.  He did not define the posture they should assume.  He offered no fancy words.  He simply gave a strong invitation to pray.  “Just do it,” he told them. 

We might be deterred from praying because we do not understand God.  We think of God as being just as reluctant in granting a request as the man.  We think of God as some sort of divine police officer who will give us a ticket because we do something wrong.  We must think of God as a loving heavenly Father who wants to provide for us, who welcomes our prayers. 

A mother and her daughter were making cookies together for the first time.  The mother mixed up the dough, and the little girl formed the cookies.  They were not uniform in size.  Some were tiny, about the size of a half dollar.  They cooked very fast and burned a little bit.  Some were huge, about the size of a dessert plate.  Those cookies were a bit mushy in the middle. 

The daughter complained, “I can’t make good cookies.” 

Her mother answered, “Honey, there are no bad cookies.  Every cookie is a good cookie.”

Jesus gave his disciples this same message.  There are no bad prayers.  God welcomes the prayers of His children.  He wants to hear from us. If we think we have to get it just right, we are sadly mistaken.  We will never get it perfectly right. 

Then Jesus taught his disciples about a three-fold path of prayer, using three verbs of continuous action in the Greek language.  The real translation ought to be read, “Keep on asking.  Keep on seeking.  Keep on knocking.”  Jesus was making the point, “Don’t give up.  Don’t just pray one time and think you are finished with it.  Be persistent.  Keep on asking.  Keep on seeking.  Keep on knocking.” 

Many people pray a long, long time for a lot of things.  At the end of a revival I was preaching one time, a man came up to me and said, “I have somebody I want you to meet.”  He introduced me to his wife and explained, “Let me tell you about this woman.  For thirty-three years, she prayed that I would accept Christ.  I have been a Christian now for three years.”  Can you imagine praying thirty-three years for one desire? 

The brother of Jesus, James, who wrote the little book of James in the New Testament, gives council about this first level of prayer.  He says, “You have not because you ask not” (I John 2:21).  He makes it very clear that simple prayer is the approach people should take when making requests to God.  Does that mean that God is going to grant every request?  No.  It is not going to be granted just like we ask it.  God answers prayers the way parents answer the requests of their children.  Sometimes parents say no.  Sometimes God says no.  Sometimes parents say, “Let’s just wait a while.”  Sometimes God does that.  Sometimes He has already provided for our request.  He is just waiting for us to ask.  Sometimes parents say yes.  Sometimes God answers yes.  God invites us to ask.  If we simply ask, we might not receive exactly what we want, but we will certainly receive what we need.

The second level is to seek.  Let me remind you that a double search is occurring.  “Seek the Lord while he may be found.  Call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6).  We must seek.  “Call to me and I will answer you,” God promises (Jeremiah 33:3).  “Seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).  On the other hand, Jesus tells us, “I have come to seek and to save the lost” (Matthew 18:11).  A search is going on from both sides here.

I can lose anything – a cell phone, an appointment book.  I lost the only pager I ever had one time.  It was gone for a month before I finally found it in the refrigerator.  I have no idea how it got there.  Kathy Green and Clare Neely are constantly putting up with my losing things. 

I can go to the refrigerator and not be able to find what I am looking for.  I was looking in there for something the other day, and Clare said, “Kirk, in order to find what you are looking for, you have to move a few things around.”  Who knew you had to do that?  I thought you just opened the refrigerator, and it would be sitting right there in view.  No.  You have to look around and search. 

If you are really going to be involved in the process of seeking through the life of prayer, if you really want to find out what God has for you, you have to move some things around at times.  Frustration, anger, and despair will interfere with the life of prayer.  A part of the seeking process is learning to get the things that interfere with the life of prayer right in your own heart. 

The third level is to knock.  Again, the knocking must occur on both sides. 

Our home, which was built in 1937, has a door that our children have always called the “trick door.”  On more than one occasion, some uninitiated person has gone into our guest bathroom and has not been able to get out.  Some days, rainy days for example, you have to turn the knob all the way to the right, lift up on the door, and pull it really hard to open it.  To the uninitiated, that technique is a great mystery.  Some poor person inside that bathroom has knocked on the door, hoping to get the attention of somebody in the house who could help. 

Of course whenever that happens, Clare always sends me.  I knock on the door and ask, “Do you want to get out?” 

The answer is always, “Yes.” 

“Stand back,” I say.  I turn the handle and push, nudge, or sometimes give a good ole linebacker four-arm shiver to knock the door open.  Knocking occurs on both sides.

It is the same way with closed doors in the life of prayer.  We knock, and we are to remember the image of Jesus that we see in Revelation 3:20:  “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.”  He is knocking, too.  In order for the door to open, Jesus not only has to want it to open, but we have to want it to open, too. 

Yesterday, I was talking to a man who is not a Christian.  I had gone to see him with the purpose of trying to lead him to Christ.  When I talked with him, I realized that he was not quite ready. 

I said, “I really want to tell you how to become a Christian now if you are ready.  If not, I will do it later.” 

He answered, “I am not ready.  I do not want to do that now.”

The door was closed.  I suppose that I could have beaten on the door and tried to knock it down, but I have found that the Lord does not work that way.  That is not the best way we are to work.  A willingness to open the door on both sides must exist.  That man will be ready eventually.  I may not be the person to lead him to Christ, but it does not matter.  Somebody else will be the right person.

Jesus continued his teaching on prayer with a second parable. 

 “Which of you, fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will you give your son a snake instead?   Would you give him a scorpion if he asks for an egg?  Would you give him a poisonous snake if he asks for a fish?  Would you give him a rock if he asks for bread?  No.  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask?”  

 Three parables about prayer in the teaching of Jesus all stress “how much more…?”  The story in Luke 11 about a widow who went to see an unjust judge is one.  She pled her case until the judge finally relented.  The other two include the friend at midnight who finally got up and gave bread to his neighbor and this parable about fathers and their children.  All three are parables of contrast.  They show us a judge who is reluctant but relents to this woman, a neighbor who is reluctant but agrees to help this man needing bread, and parents who know how to give good gifts to their children.  Jesus asked, “How much more does God, God who loves you, want to give good gifts to you?”  Simple prayer opens the channels of communication.  It opens the relationship of love.  Jesus did not stress the use of fancy words, regard for posture, or technique to his apostles.  He told them then, and he is telling us now simply to pray.  Ask, seek, and knock.  God wants to respond.

 The last verse in this chapter of Luke is so important.  This account emphasizes that the Father in heaven wants to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.  What does that mean?  We receive the Holy Spirit when we accept Christ.  That is the first installment. 

I am reminded of the story a missionary told.  He worked and worked and worked to try to get a John Deere tractor for a community in a third-world country.  The tractor was finally sent, and he went to the port where it arrived.  After filling the tractor with gasoline and driving it into this village, the missionary showed several of the villagers there how to operate the machinery and how to till their land.  When he returned in about a week to help them plant, he found this big tractor sitting in the middle of a field.  A family had moved into its cab and was living there. 

Horrified, the missionary asked those he had instructed, “What happened?” 

They answered, “It just stopped in the middle of the field, and we couldn’t get it to go.”  The missionary had forgotten to tell them that the tractor had to be refilled with gasoline.

When we become a Christian, we receive the Holy Spirit, but we have to be filled and filled and filled again.  It is this filling of the Holy Spirit that gives us strength.  It is what we need most from the life of prayer.  Do you remember what the early disciples experienced?  Jesus told them, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8).  The same happens in the life of prayer.  It is like refilling our tank, refilling our spirit with the Holy Spirit of God.  That is why prayer gives to us the strength, the energy, and the wisdom – not our own wisdom, but wisdom from above – to do the things that God has for us to do.

Jesus invites us to be learners.  He responded to the question of the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray” by laying out a pattern in thirteen verses.  We need to soak up this pattern.  We need to consider these verses.  We need to learn from the Master about the life of prayer.  This Master is Jesus, our Lord and Savior.  This learning begins when you acknowledge him as the Lord of your life, when you accept him as your Savior, your Christ.  If you have never done that, could I invite you this day to accept Christ as your Savior?

 Kirk H. Neely
© March 2009
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