Teach Us to Pray (1): Invitation to Forbidden Territory
Intro – Some of you will remember the old starter systems on tractors and cars. Key and starter were in different places. You could push on the starter without the key turned and it would turn the motor over. Remember? If the car or tractor was in gear it would lurch forward a foot or two. Of course, if you did that very long, the battery would run down, but you could make very slight progress without ever turning the key on. So, are you like me? Does your Christian experience ever feel like a series of disjointed starts and stops – like you are operating by fits and spurts? If so, the cause is almost certainly that we haven’t turned the key that allows the engine to engage. What is the key? Prayer. Talk a lot about it. Seldom do it. But without it all of our efforts, whether sacred or secular, are wasted. No eternal value.
Having said that, prayer by itself is also useless. When I was a youngster I used to collect keys. I had several large key rings filled with keys. But all were useless because I didn’t know what they were for. They went to something – a house, a car, a locker. But they were no good to me because I didn’t know what they were for. Similarly prayer without human effort – preparation and action, is also useless. They must go together – prayer and preparation. But of the two, prayer is the most necessary – yet it is the least practiced. John Bunyan expressed it memorably: "You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed." If we really got that, our whole existence would change.
One of Jesus’ disciples got this. He noticed when Jesus prayed, things happened. And so he comes in Lu 11:1 and asks, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” This man wanted what Jesus had. Interestingly, this is the only thing in the gospels that any of Jesus’ disciples ever asked to be taught. Since He was already teaching them the Word daily, they had no need to ask. But this question spotlights the importance of prayer.
It’s important to learn about prayer. But more important is simply to do it. Don’t wait. Learn by doing even as we study it. Prayer is a little like an M16. The first time you shoot one, you won’t hit much. Its power is hard to control. The more you practice, the better. But if the enemy is coming over the hill, you don’t get out the instruction manual, you start firing, right? On the job training! Well, the enemy is coming over the hill, Beloved. So don’t wait to learn before you do. Learn as you go. And I hope the next few weeks will encourage us mightily – not to get smart about prayer, but to do prayer. Now, eventually we’ll examine Jesus’ teaching in detail. But for a couple of weeks some general observations about prayer.
I. Prayer is entree to God, not Self
A marine biologist is telling his friends about his research. “Some whales can communicate at a distance of 300 miles,” he says. “What in the world would one whale say to another 300 miles away?” asks a sarcastic friend. Another friends says, “He probably says something like, ‘Can you hear me now?’” Can God hear us now?! He can! But what is incredible is that He does! We’ve lost our amazement at God’s availability. Because we forget who He is and who we are.
V. 2: And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father.” Stop there. Here is the most wonderful aspect of prayer. Prayer is access to God. Prayer puts us into the Creator’s presence! We’re not only there, but we are talking to Him. We are presuming to speak in His presence. But what we forget is we have no right to be there. None. We are as out of place as we would be if someone lifted us up right now and transported us into the presence of the Queen of England or the President of the US. Most of us would die of shame. We are not properly dressed; don’t know the protocol; way out of our league. We would be totally out of place there and here we are in the throne room of the Creator of everything. But where is the awe, the reverence, the respect? We’ve lost our sense of privilege.
God is perfect in His holiness. That means 2 things. One – He is totally separate from us; two – He is morally perfect and we have no idea how rotten we look to Him. We get a clue when He reminds us in Isa 64:6, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Did you ever consider what that means? That means that on our best day – not our worst, but our best – on the day when we got up, had devotions, prayed for others, gave money and time to the flood victims, helped muck out houses, bent our will to His – on our best day, when compared to His moral perfection, we look like filthy, dirty, oily rags – on our best day! Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do those things. We should. But on our best day our motives are mixed, even as a believer. And He sees right though our righteous deeds to our selfish, evil heart. We can never deserve to be anywhere near Him.
So, how’d we get in? We have a mediator, Beloved. Those in Christ have a mediator, a go-between, someone who gives us entree. I Tim 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” He is our ticket to God’s presence. He paid the entrance fee with His own blood on the cross, taking the penalty for our sin so that we can stand before the Father without being consumed by His holiness. Heb 4:15-16, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We could never earn this right – not on our best day. But in Christ – we have access!
Pete Briscoe pastors the church my sister goes to in Dallas, but he grew up in Milwaukee where his father, Stuart, pastored for many years. He speaks of how the Brewers are gods in Milwaukee. Everyone watches them on TV. As many as can make the pilgrimage to County Stadium to worship in person. But to enter the locker room? That is the holy of holies – the inner sanctuary of the temple. No mortal fan could ever think of having access. But one day – Pete got in! He got in! And even better, he got to speak to the players – in fact, he got to share the gospel with them. Why? How did he do that? Because he knew Paul Molitor, the captain of the team. His relationship with Molitor elevated him to a different level with these athletes to the point where they would even listen to what he had to say. He had a mediator.
That’s what Christ is to us – a mediator who gives instant access to the presence of God Himself. We have no greater privilege in this life than instant access to God in Christ. So let me ask. Do you use it? Have you been there lately? Or do you squander this amazing gift?
You know, the skeptics are quick to say that prayer is nothing more than a crutch to make us feel better. At best it is a means to find our inner strength – to tap the power that lies within ourselves. But that’s not how Jesus presents it. It is an address to the Father Himself; it is entree to a place we could never belong on our own, to make appeals we could never deserve in ourselves because we have a mediator. Can you see what fools we are not to take advantage of such a privilege? If prayer is a foreign land to you, let me urge you, get in the game. Prayer is access to the most exclusive territory in the universe – forbidden except it has been bought and paid for by Jesus Christ. Don’t squander it! Use it!
II. Prayer is essential, not optional
Why is it essential? Because we get things? No. Because it aligns us with the will of God. If you want the best life you can possibly have, then prayer is a necessity. Your best life is what God wills. And you get that by prayer.
Let me show you how important this is. V. 1, “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place.” Who was praying? Jesus. Think how much this was the pattern of His life. At the very beginning of His public ministry we find in Lu 3:21, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened.” Even as He entered the waters of baptism to initiate His ministry, Jesus was praying. And in response, heaven was opened, the HS descended and God the Father spoke from heaven. Not a bad beginning, is it? When Jesus prayed, things happened. And He prayed a lot.
The last thing He did before His departure from planet earth is in Lu 24:50, “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” The last thing Jesus did on earth was pray. And in response to that prayer for blessing, He was taken back into heaven. You say, “His ascension wasn’t a response to prayer. That was just the Father’s initiative.” I beg to differ. That was a response to prayer. Jesus was praying for their blessing, right? He had already told them how they would be blessed. John 16:7, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” The time has come. Jesus prays for their blessing which means the HS must come, which means that Jesus must go. His ascension is a direct answer to prayer. Prayer marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; it marked the end of His ministry and it marked everything in between.
Every critical point in Jesus’ ministry was occasioned by prayer. In Mark 1 after healing people far into the night what did He do? Mark 1:35, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” And in answer to that prayer, He left the healing service everyone was expecting and went to preach in other places – aligning with the will of the Father. In Lu 5:15, “But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” He left off healing and preaching – to pray. Why? It was essential, not optional! Aligning with the will of the Father.
He prayed all night before choosing the 12 apostles. Aligning with the will of the Father. He prayed before feeding 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Prior to walking on water, He was praying. He was glorified on the Mount of Transfiguration as He prayed. Aligning with the will of the Father. They brought Him children and He prayed for them. And as He neared the end of His physical rope with the awfulness of becoming sin for us, He prayed in Gethsemane. Aligning with the will of the Father. He prayed all the time – and always submissive to the will of the Father, not his own will.
You can’t miss the implication, can you? If Jesus needed to pray in order to align with the will of the Father, how can we hope to get by without prayer? Prayer is not a matter of you can if you want to or it’s okay if time permits. It is the one thing in life that is necessary. Please, if you weren’t here last week, go watch the sermon on Mary and Martha. It’s pivotal to Luke; it’s pivotal to Christian living. Prayer is not an option for those living a Christian existence; it is a necessity. It is like breathing. Breathing is not an option for physical life. Ever try to take a day off breathing?! And praying is not an option for spiritual life. Prayer is the thing that gives eternal value to mundane things. It is the thing that moves the heart of God.
R. A. Torrey tells of a young Englishman who inherited a deal of money from his father. He soon squandered it all in India thru drinking, gambling and debauchery. He came back to England with enough for one final try at gambling and won enough in one night to get him on his feet again. But he soon lost that as well. His sister came to one of Torrey’s meetings and asked that Torrey pray for her brother. Neither knew that just as that prayer was going up in Birmingham, that brother was sitting at a table 40 miles away with a loaded gun to his head. The answer came down in that little room in the form of memories of home and a godly mother, and in the end, that dissolute brother gave his life to Christ instead of taking it by his own hand.
Now, not every prayer is answered in such a positive way. God may answer, “Yes, No, or wait.” But here is the point. You do not know you have His answer if you have not asked, right? That is the one and only way to know. You can’t know if the business failed or the accident happened or the child got sick as a result of God’s will unless you have asked. That’s why prayer is not an option, it is a necessity.
Moses wrote the 90th psalm which reminds us to number our days. In v. 17 he says, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” A marginal note in the NASB will tell you that the word “establish” can be translated, “make permanent.” Make the work of our hands permanent. Give eternal value to my housework, my business plan, my farming, my diaper changing, my dishwashing, my cup of cold water. “Make permanent the work of my hand.” How does that happen? By asking God. It’s up to us!
Conc – Let me close with this. Don’t squander the opportunity to come into the presence of the Father. Prayer takes us to breathtaking heights – to forbidden territory where we have no right to be -- but where we are invited and wanted anyway – in Christ! Life takes on a whole different perspective when you begin to pray – and pray specifically. In the Oct 2011 issue of Christianity Today, one woman shared that she and her husband were facing a financial shortfall one month. So, she prayed. Three days later, an unexpected check arrived in the mail matching almost exactly the amount they needed. She goes on, “My skeptical mind knew the money could have been purely coincidental, but in that instance I had the unprovable but resolute sense that it was God's answer to my prayer. I was of course flooded with immediate gratitude, but within minutes I was undergoing mental gymnastics. What if I hadn’t prayed? I wondered. Would God have provided anyway? Do I really have to ask when he knows our needs before we do? I don't generally hear the audible voice of God. But that particular afternoon, I could have sworn I heard a chuckle. ‘Of course I would have provided it’, it seems God was saying. But you wouldn't have had the joy of knowing it was me.” There’s only one way to know that you and God are working together. You can do more than pray after you pray, but you can’t do more than pray until you pray. Let’s pray.