The Revelation of God in Human Life: Through Prayer
Today we continue our series entitled The Revelation of God in Human Life. Today we look at the life of prayer. I invite you to turn with me to our text, which comes from Luke 18:1-14.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
We read early in the Gospels that Jesus taught and healed. The first time we are told that he often withdrew to a lonely place for a time of prayer is in the Gospel of Mark. We read that the disciples on this occasion found Jesus and asked, “Don’t you know that everyone is looking for you?” They appeared to be impatient as they interrupted his time of prayer.
Later in the Gospels we see that the disciples reacted differently when Jesus withdrew for a time of prayer. They did not disturb him but waited until he had finished. Then they asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus taught the disciples to pray in a variety of ways. One way is through the use of parables. Our text provides two parables that are important in our focus this morning.
We will first consider the second parable. Jesus contrasted the prayers of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee offered a wrong-headed prayer of thanksgiving: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” What kind of thanksgiving is that? On the other hand, the poor tax collector prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I doubt that this man was literally poor. Tax collectors were usually very wealthy. This tax collector was poor in spirit.
What point does Jesus make through his comparison? This parable is straight-forward in its message. Jesus teaches us that prayer must not be ostentatious, showy. It is not to be filled with fancy words and eloquent sentences in an attempt to impress others. We do not have to swallow the encyclopedia or scour Roget’s Thesaurus in order to pray. Jesus proposes that we speak plainly and simply. Our prayers are to be sincere and marked with humility.
The parable in Verses 1-8 is more difficult. A widow sought justice from unnamed adversaries. We know that one of those adversaries was the judge, a man who cared nothing about God and other people. The widow frequently went to this judge, asking for justice. Her only recourse, he responded only because he had tired of her nagging, not because he had compassion for her and concern for her grievance. Jesus’ purpose for telling this parable was to emphasize that we must be persistent in prayer.
The parable raises important questions: Is the widow’s nagging the way we must pray? Must we constantly beat on God’s door, pounding Him with our requests until we finally get His attention? Must we badger God until He tires of our nagging, until we become too bothersome to Him? Does God grant our requests, simply to be done with us? No, Jesus offers a different message in the parable.
Jesus taught parables of different sorts. Another parable that is similar to the widow’s circumstances is the story of a friend needing assistance from his neighbor. When unexpected visitors arrive, the friend does not have enough bread. The neighbor he asks for a loaf is reluctant to help at first. Of course, he would be reluctant.
A Palestinian home in those days was basically two rooms. At night, the animals – donkeys, sheep, goats, and lambs – occupied the front part of the house. The back part of the house, consisting of a raised platform, housed the entire family – mother, father, and all the children. Providing someone with a loaf of bread at midnight would obviously be disruptive. It would require getting out of bed, crawling over the wife and children, wading through all those animals, finding the bread, and handing it out the door. The neighbor is reluctant to give the bread but relents because the friend keeps asking.
Reading the parable as a straight analogy would cause you to think that it promotes being like the neighbor who begged and pleaded in order to receive bread. Are we to beg and plead in order to get God to respond?
Jesus’ teaching about gifts to our children in the Sermon on the Mount probably helps us understand his point about prayer most.
Jesus asked in Luke 11:11-13,
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Both the message on the Sermon on the Mount and the parables ask, How much more? If a neighbor at midnight is reluctant to give assistance to his friend but finally does so, how much more will God give? If the unjust judge finally relents and grants the requests of the persistent widow, how much more will God respond? That how-much-more is the key phrase in this message today.
I am concerned about prayer for a lot of people. I am concerned about it for you and for me. My concern is that many Christians have never explored the depth of prayer. Prayer is part of the way to know God. It is part of the way God is revealed to us.
So often we talk about our prayer lists. I am not opposed to prayer lists, but they can resemble a grocery list of items we want. God does invite us to come to Him as little children. He does invite us to come to Him and ask. Jeremiah 33:3 says, “Ask, and I hear and answer.”
If we regard prayer simply as a way of asking God for things, however, we miss the depths of this powerful resource. We miss the importance of this wonderful gift that God has given us. Can you imagine an Almighty God giving us His undivided attention? That is exactly what He tells us He is going to do.
It makes sense that in prayer we need to give God our undivided attention. If prayer is only a monologue, our doing all the talking, we miss its depths. God’s heart’s desire is to speak to us when we come to Him in prayer.
So many people describe an ineffective prayer life. “It is just a waste of time,” one person told me, “I feel as though I’m talking to myself, like my prayers are bouncing off the ceiling.”
I visited several times a woman whose health continued to decline. The daughter, always by her mother’s side at the hospital, complained, “You are not praying right. If you were, my mother would get better.” That understanding of prayer, as you know, is very, very shallow.
When I think about how we pray and how our prayer life matures, I think about my relationship to my own father. When I was young, my dad was a wonderful provider. He did not provide everything I wanted, but I had plenty to eat, a warm place to live, and blue jeans to wear to school. Maybe the most important lesson he taught me was how to live as a person of faith. Maybe the second most important lesson was how to work for something I wanted. I learned that one day I might be able to get something if I worked hard enough for it.
I realized that my relationship with my dad had changed probably at the event of my ordination. Dad came through the line, put his hands on my head, and breathed a little prayer, “God bless you, my son. God bless you, my brother.” Not only was I his son, but I was also his brother in Christ. I still had much to learn from him, but I found that he was also eager to learn from me. We wanted to learn from each other.
The day Dad joined this church, he came to the front, took me by the lapel, and said, “Kirk, you are the oldest of my eight children. And you are the last of my eight pastors.”
What an honor to have my dad allow me to be his pastor! Our relationship continued to develop and change over the following years. Toward the end of his life, I just wanted to listen to him. I just wanted to hear what he had to say.
My relationship to God has changed in a similar way. I used to think I knew how to pray. I generally prayed a good five minutes, maybe ten, at a time. I would sing “Sweet Hour of Prayer” but had no idea what that meant. My prayers do not last very long if I do all the talking. It does not take me long to pray about everything I want to say.
Over time I have learned that prayer is so much more than that. Prayer is a relationship, coming into the presence of someone who loves us very much, someone who not only wants to hear from us but who also wants us to hear Him. God pays attention to us, and God wants us to pay attention to Him.
When we come to God in prayer, we need to ask ourselves, What am I going to hear from God this time? What am I going to experience as I come into the presence of my heavenly Father? Sometimes God teaches me lessons that surprise me. Sometimes He reminds me of something I should have remembered. He is always involved, not as a passive participant, but as an active participant, in the life of prayer.
I have so much more to learn. In many ways I am just a beginner. I have been a beginner trying to learn how to develop this relationship with God for sixty-eight years. I am constantly surprised by how much a rich resource prayer can be.
Usually when I prepare a sermon, I spend a lot of time sitting in a favorite chair or at the computer, reading commentaries. When I prepared this particular sermon, I spent more time sitting on my back porch after dark, praying. I knew that what I wanted to share with you and what God wanted me to say could not be dug out of a book somewhere. It had to come from my own heart. It had to come from my own experience in the life of prayer.
It is a great tragedy when Christians pray and do all the talking but no listening. It does not give God an opportunity to say one word. That practice does not give the Lord an opportunity to reveal Himself.
Richard Foster’s marvelous resource Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home lists twenty-one different kinds of prayer. I doubt that God is so concerned with categories, but I would recommend that you read Foster’s book. God is more concerned with “the words of my heart,” as the choir sang this morning, and with “the meditations of my heart” (Psalm 19:14). It is not what we say but how we respond with our hearts that makes the biggest difference in the life of prayer.
For years I taught about prayer, using a mnemonic device, the word ACTS. Each letter stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. That device offers a wonderful way to remember some basics about prayer.
The great theologian Carl Barth says that all worship begins with doxology. He is not referring to the doxology we sang here this morning. He is talking about a very special concept based on the Greek word doxa, which means glory. According to Barth, all worship begins when we give glory to God, when we praise God.
Adoration is the simple acknowledgement of God’s majesty and power. It is the sense of wonder we have about God. It is no coincidence that Jesus begins with adoration, with an ascription of praise, in his model prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.”
Confession is the acknowledgement of our own sin. We must come clean with God. He knows the contamination of sin in our lives. He knows what is in our heart.
I confess to God every single day something I have done or failed to do, a comment I have made or not made, a thought I had have. You do, too. The promise is that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. He wipes the slate clean. God is faithful and just.
Thanksgiving is the acknowledgement of our gratitude.
A grandmother and grandson, seated in a restaurant, had a blessing together before they started eating their meal.
A man at a nearby table asked the grandmother, “Do you always say the blessing before you eat, even at a restaurant?”
She said, “Yes.”
He said, “I do not do that.”
The woman answered, “Neither does my dog.”
I guess you have to be a grandmother to be able to make a comment like that.
Our relationship to God through prayer separates us from the rest of creation. We have the ability to be genuinely grateful to God.
Supplication is the acknowledgement of our needs. It is a two-sided coin of our petitions and intercessions. We pray for ourselves and for others.
Contemplation is another type of prayer I want to add, though it does not fit the mnemonic device. This idea comes from the Quakers, from the monastic tradition of the Christian church. Contemplation is a way of saying, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We must fall silent and listen. We must ponder and think. We must let our mind be centered, focused, on what the Father has to say to us.
I have found that contemplation is one of the richest parts of my prayer life. Reflection and introspection allow me to receive a spiritual front-end alignment.
Do you feel that prayer does not change things? It certainly does. Prayer changes us, bringing us into alignment with the will of God.
I commend these ways of praying.
Let me sum up the information on prayer in this way – Hallelujah! Thank you. Sorry. Please. Ponder. Wait. What could be simpler than that? That way of praying is very different from saying, “God, I have a list here. Aren’t you supposed to be the divine bell boy and bring me whatever I want?”
Is this all we have to say about prayer? No, prayer is much deeper.
I want to share with you my favorite illustration about prayer.
A father was kicked back in his La-Z-Boy recliner. His teenage son came into the den and asked, “Dad, can I have the keys to the car? I have a date tonight.”
Dad reached in his pocket and pulled out the keys. He flipped them to his son and said, “Be careful.”
His teenage daughter came in soon after her sibling and said, “Dad, I am going to a movie tonight and getting something to eat with my friends. Can I have some money?”
Dad reached in his wallet and gave her a bill.
When the little eight-year-old daughter crawled up on his lap, he asked, “Young lady, what do you want?”
The child replied, “Daddy, I just want to be with you.”
Engaging in a relationship with someone who loves us very much is the best part of prayer. God certainly wants to hear from us. If we have a list, fine. We can give it to Him. We must not dismiss Him so quickly though. We must spend some time in silence, giving God the opportunity to speak to us.
Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior? If you have never accepted him, could I invite you to do so? Maybe God has laid another decision on your heart. You come and respond.Kirk H. Neely © September 2012