Text: Mt 6:1-18
The first reference to prayer in the Bible occurs in Genesis 4, which records the time when “men began to call on the name of the LORD”,. The last reference is in the last verse but one of Revelation, which is itself a prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus”. In between the Bible is full of prayer. Even apart from the Psalms, whole chapters record the prayers of God’s people. Abraham would pray under a tamarisk tree. Jacob famously wrestled in prayer. David described himself as ‘a man of prayer’. The first sign that Saul of Tarsus was truly converted was, ‘he is praying.’ Jesus constantly withdrew from the crowds to pray.
If prayer has a central place in the Bible, then it also has an indispensible place in the Christian life.
‘As it is the business of tailors to make clothes and of cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray.’ (Luther)
‘Prayer is one of the means God has etched into the cosmos for the advancement of his purposes.’ Carl Henry
Central in the Bible; indispensible to the Christian. Few here would argue with that. So why do so many of us struggle with prayer?
We set out to do business with the Lord of heaven and earth and allow ourselves to be distracted by a fly. We make so many excuses: “I’m a practical Martha; rather than a reflective Mary.” We make promises and resolutions, but still allow the urgent things constantly get in the way of the important things.
Christ went more readily to the cross, than we to the throne of grace. (Thomas Watson)
If I wished to humble anyone, I should question him about his prayers. I know nothing to compare with the topic for its sorrowful confessions. C.J. Vaughan
“We never get it licked” (Billy Graham)
Our Lord seemed to know that his disciples would struggle with prayer, and so, in this most famous part of the most famous sermon of all time, the Sermon on the Mount, he addresses two of the commonest problems of prayer and offers us practical instruction and encouragement to help us sustain – or, in some cases, to establish for the first time – a healthy prayer life.
The first problem that Jesus deals with is what I’m going to call the problem of mixed motives. Jesus speaks of giving, vv2-4, praying, 5-8 and fasting, 16-18, and in each case, says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites, who do the right things from the wrong motives.” In this matter of prayer, the outward show can end up as more important to us than the inward reality. The Jewish system of praying made showing off very easy. For one thing, the Jew prayed standing, with hands stretched out and head bowed. For another things, there were three times for prayer, 9, 12 and 3, and prayer had to be said wherever a man might be. So it was easy to arrange to be in full view either in the synagogue or on the street corner, and to pray a lengthy and demonstrative prayer.
Such people says Jesus, have received their reward. They were seeking the admiration and congratulation of others, and they have achieved it. They were not looking for any other reward, and none will be forthcoming.
Now, I don’t know many of you would be tempted to stop on the way home today at the corner of Trinity Street and Unthank Road and start praying ostentatiously. And if you did, it would be worried, rather than admiring, looks that you attracted.
And yet we know that we have mixed motives in prayer. And, especially when we pray in the company of others, we can seem to be what we are not.
To be in the habit of praying with others while neglecting private prayer would be like the husband who is charming and polite, chatty and considerate to his wife in public, but has not one word to say to her in the privacy of their own home. His public behaviour would then just be a pretence, a sham, a theatrical performance.
The answer that Jesus gives is this: keep your own private place of prayer. V6 – the room referred to here is a private room which was sometimes used as a storeroom, probably without windows and the only lockable room in the house; it represents the least public place. Each of us needs a place – it doesn’t have to be a room – where we can be ourselves before God, without distractions and without pretence. This is not to outlaw communal prayer, but it is to underline the priority of private prayer. Your prayer life should be like an iceberg – most of it should be hidden.
Go to your room. And in that secret place, tell God the truth. Be yourself before God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.
It’s about sincerity of heart. ‘God looks not at the elegancy of your prayers, to see how neat they are; nor at the geometry of your prayers, to see how long they are; nor at the arithmetic of your prayers, to see how many they are; nor at the music of your prayers, nor at the sweetness of your voice, nor at the logic of your prayers; but at the sincerity of your prayers, how heartfelt they are. There is no prayer acknowledged, approved, accepted, recorded, or rewarded by God, but that wherein the heart is sincerely and wholly engaged.’ (Thomas Brooks)
And God will reward you. He will give you treasure in heaven. He will refresh your soul. He will speak to you. He will reward you with his very self.
Come to terms with your mixed motives by seeking out a place and a time when you can be alone with God; when you can pray without pretending.
The second practical problem addressed by our Lord in these verses is what we might call the problem of muddled methods. Don’t be like the pagans, who babble meaninglessly and endlessly, v7. So we have the endlessly recitation of mantras by the Hindu, the endless turning of the prayer wheels by the Tibetan Buddhists, magical incantations of various kinds. It is a pagan attitude to think that God will be impressed by long pious words or by mindless repetition. It is a mistake to suppose that a 10-minute prayer is twice as good as a 5-minute one. In the Greek original of the Lord’s Prayer there are 57 words. In the 10 Commandments there are 296. In a recent EC report regulating the sale of cabbage there are 26,996. It isn’t the number of words that count.
After all, v8 – God already knows what we need. Prayer, then, is not about informing an otherwise ignorant God, or persuading an otherwise unwilling God. Prayer is about developing a relationship with the Almighty.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we come before God in number of guises.
We come as conquerors, praying ‘Deliver us from the evil one”
We come as wandering sheep, praying “Lead us not into temptation”
We come as sinners, praying “Forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”
We come as dependents, praying “Give us each day our daily bread”
We come as servants, praying “Your will be done”
We come as subjects, praying “Your kingdom come”
We come as worshipers, praying “Hallowed by your name”
Best all – we come as children, praying “Our father”
This is one of those things that would have astonished Jesus’ first hearers. No Jew – then or now – would ever address God as ‘my Father’. But Jesus did, and he taught us to do so as well. Moslems have 99 names for God – Creator, Sustainer, Provider, Protector. But the name ‘Father’ is not found amongst the 99. There is an Arab saying that God actually has a hundred names, but only the camel knows the 100th name, which explains why the camel’s expression is always one of ineffable superiority. But it’s not the haughty camel, but the humble Christian, who knows this 100th name: ‘Father’.
You are coming to a Father. To the best of Fathers. Not one who is continually wagging his finger at you, saying, “You only have time for me when you want me to help you. Well, go away, I havn’t got time for you.”
Have you found that your prayer life has dried up, that you have wandered away from the path of prayer? Look, the Christian faith is all about new beginnings. Come back to your Father; get back on speaking terms with him. He is even now looking down the road, eagerly awaiting your return.