Today is the second week of our How to Pray series, a 4- week series looking at what Jesus had to say about ‘How to pray.’ And we’re doing this by looking at what Jesus said about prayer in his famous Sermon on the Mount. The reason we felt it was important to take 4 weeks to talk about prayer is that we firmly believe that prayer is fundamental to our faith… And yet we also know that prayer is difficult for some. Whether it’s because you don’t know what to say when you pray or you’re uncomfortable with the thought of praying our loud or you don’t seem to be able to find the time for prayer… we know that these sorts of things keep people from praying… and so we’re taking 4 weeks to see if what Jesus had to say about prayer can help us.
Last week Amy talked about prayer being the opportunity to enter into sacred space and experience God. She called prayer ‘the very gateway to heaven.’ If you haven’t heard Amy’s message, I recommend that you find the time to listen to what she had to say about the wonder of prayer. And today we are moving to other aspects of prayer that Jesus addressed in this famous sermon… and can I just step back a second and say that for decades I always pictured the sermon on the mount as Jesus standing on a mountainside preaching to a large crowd. Truth is though, nothing in what Matthew tells us of that ‘sermon’ ever says that Jesus was giving a sermon to a large crowd that day. We do hear some comments from ‘a crowd’ at the end of Jesus’ sermon, but the actual language Matthew uses points to this being a time of teaching that was first and foremost meant for his closest disciples. In fact, many scholars believe this sermon should be titled, ‘Jesus’s discourse on discipleship’ or ‘Jesus’ expectations of his disciples,’ rather than ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’ And I tend to agree. I think Jesus would have titled this entire sermon this way: ‘This is How My Disciples Should Live… NOW… in Today’s World.’ And the ‘NOW… in today’s world’ is really important because one of the criticisms I’ve heard of this sermon is that no one can live the way Jesus outlines in this sermon. Even Martin Luther, of all people, said that what Jesus says here is unattainable. That’s why some scholars even go so far as to say that this kind of life will only be realized after Jesus returns. But after much study and thinking and prayer I am convinced that this ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is absolutely an outline for normal discipleship… NOW… it tells us how Jesus wants his disciples to live in this world NOW and this is especially so when it comes to prayer!
Amy spoke last week to the first verses of Jesus’ statements on prayer… well, here, let’s turn to the passage together and look at is as a whole… that’s Matthew 6 on page ???? in the house Bible… welcome those online.
Now these verses on prayer are actually a part of a larger section that begins in verse 1 of this chapter and it is a section where Jesus talks about what he calls ‘public good deeds.’ And the reason he talks about these ‘public good deeds’ is that they were actually ‘good deeds;’ they were expected, legitimate, good deeds, but in Jesus’ day were literally practiced in public! These expected, publicly-practiced, good deeds were 1) giving alms to the poor 2) fasting and 3) prayer. We don’t have time to talk about all of this today, but take my word for it, for most Jews in Jesus’ day, the giving of alms to the poor, fasting and praying were things people did in specific ways… in public! And look at what Jesus says in verse 1. ‘Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.’ And then he goes on to talk about some of the loud, public displays that were practiced then when certain people gave money to the poor… and later, in verses 16-18, Jesus talks about public displays when fasting, of all things! But in between talking about giving money to the poor and fasting, Jesus talks about prayer. And the big issue that sits over everything he says throughout this entire passage is that when we give, fast or pray we aren’t to be ‘hypocrites.’ In fact, Jesus’ comments about prayer begin with these words, ‘When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites…’ Now, we have a given sense of what a hypocrite is… we think of a hypocrite as someone who says one thing, but then does another. But in Jesus’ world, this word hypokrites (who-pock-ree-tais) literally meant An actor… a person who pretends to be someone they aren’t. And Jesus clearly wasn’t down with people being ‘actors’ when it came to praying! Amy, who knows more about being an actor than anyone I know around here, talked last week about praying in ways to be seen and heard by others… all while acting like you’re being spiritual… She said she remembered hearing people praying but it was clear that they were really trying to impress others or shame someone or gossip about others. And this sort of ‘acting prayer’ was particularly a problem in Jesus’ day because prayer then, as a general rule, was done very publicly, one person at a time, standing up, arms out and out loud. And as Amy told us last week Jesus gave us all some very strong orders about this sort of thing! He said, ‘Stop This! Go into a closet and speak privately to God! And then Jesus said this in verses 7-8. 7 When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. 8 Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Did you notice that Jesus says, ‘When you pray…?” Clearly, Jesus was expecting us to pray! And when we are praying, he says, ‘Don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do!’ The Greek word that gives us ‘babble’ is only found this one time in all of contemporary Greek literature… the word is Battalogesete () (ba-tal-loga-setai) and many think, that since Jesus was speaking in Aramaic, he said actually said something like, ‘When you pray, don’t’ and then he said something weird nonsensical, Aramaic phrase like our phrase ‘Blah, Blah, Blah.’ And Matthew, when he was translating Jesus’ Aramaic into Greek knew he had to say something in Greek that also said, ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ so he just made up the word Battalogesete (). (ba-tal-loga-setai)--Where it actually came from we don’t know, but some scholars feel that Matthew was familiar with a Greek poet of the time named Battus, who wrote long, tedious, boring poems, poems that were considered to be a lot of blah, blah, blah… and so he just made up a word using that mind-numbing poet’s name… and what he gave us was a one-off Greek word that meant what we think of when someone is blah, blah, blahing on and on and on. And, boy, did Jesus know what he was talking about here. He knew that the gentiles, people who practiced other religions, did Battalogesete, () when they prayed.
Now, there were 3 forms of religious prayer in Jesus’ world. There was Roman/Greek prayer… there was pagan prayer… and there was Jewish prayer. Roman and Greek prayer consisted mostly of calling out to the gods using as many names for the gods as you could think of, hoping to get their attention with one of those names. You see, they believed the gods were distant and completely uninterested in people’s lives; they believed the gods were more interested in what people could do for them than doing anything for people. So, Roman and Greek prayer was mostly trying to get some god’s attention and reminding the gods of what we’d done for them in the past… all in the hopes of getting some god to return the favor. Pagan prayers were big on getting the words exactly right… it was thought if you said some incantation exactly right, if you got the words in the exact order and the perfect pronunciation, the gods had to do what you wanted. Pagan prayer was more about multiple attempts at saying the words right in the right way than anything, because they honestly believed that if they said the right words in the right order often enough the gods, if they were listening, were obligated to do what they were asking. So, you can see why Jesus said, ‘When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again.’ It’s no wonder he said, ‘Don’t be like them!’ But then he went on to say something somewhat amazing, ‘for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!’ More about this in a minute. But first, it’s important to know that at this time ‘praying’ long, set prayers over and over, much like the gentiles were doing, had crept into Jewish prayer life. Historical records of the time say that this was a trend in the more esoteric portions of the Jewish population… and Jesus didn’t want his disciples falling into this mess. Jesus words here make it very clear that he wanted his disciples to know that God wasn’t distant or unconcerned about them; they didn’t have to work overtime trying to get God’s attention or try to make some sort of deal with him. What Jesus wanted them to realize was that God knew them so well that he knew what they needed before they asked! And I am convinced that this is still true for us today! Now I know this statement by Jesus raises all sorts of questions like, ‘Why do we even have to pray, then if he knows what we need?’ and ‘Why doesn’t he just give us what we need without making us go to all the trouble of asking?’ But before we get to any of that, I want you to know that this idea of God knowing what we need before we ask wasn’t something new that Jesus just dropped on his disciples in that moment. There is a passage in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, written almost 800 years before Jesus gave his sermon on the mount, by the way, where Isaiah quotes God talking about what it will be like in his eternal kingdom… and just before God says that famous line about the wolf and the lamb and the lion all living together in peace, God says, speaking of his people, I will answer them before they even call to me. While they are still talking about their needs, I will go ahead and answer their prayers! Is. 65:24. And Jesus was saying, ‘This prophecy wasn’t about some far-distant future. It was about right now! And I fully believe it is still about right now! Truth is, whether you believe it or not, God is paying attention to your life, he cares about you and he knows what you need… even before you even get around to asking. I’m certain Jesus meant for these words to change the way his disciples prayed… he wanted them to pray in the confidence that they were being heard no matter what they said or how they said it… and I think Jesus wants us to pray in this confidence as well… So, let’s get practical here… what does Jesus want us to take with us from these verses today?
Well, the first thing I think he wanted us to take with us is that There aren’t any formulas for saying the right things in prayer. Prayer is simply speaking to God in honesty… from the heart. That’s all! Whether what you have to say to God is ‘Thank you.’ or ‘Help me!’ ‘Please watch out for my loved one,’ or ‘Protect me from that dangerous person!’ the best advice I can give you is to just be as straight with God in your prayers as you possibly can. Bottom line, God says he already knows what you need before you ask. How THAT all works I really can’t explain… but I will say this: I can give you any number of examples… even from the last two weeks of my life, when it was clear that somehow God had already put the wheels in motion to take care of something in my life a good while before I even started asking God to help me. I am not a highly mystical, supernatural sort of guy, but I can’t deny that this particular statement by Jesus has shown itself to be true… at least in my life and the life of my family… God knows what you need before you ask… So, my first bit of practical advice: don’t go looking for set formulas in prayer… sure, it’s okay to write out your prayers or even to pray prayers that were written by others, but always keep in mind you are talking to God and there is no formula for praying that will move God more than simply being straight with him.
Secondly, Prayer should be simple, direct and always straight from the heart. I’ve learned that it doesn’t do any good to try and force God’s hand by being all spiritual in my prayers. What is important is honesty… honesty about my attitudes, my feelings, even my depth of trust in Him… God clearly wants honesty about what is going on deep down in here from you and me. These words from Jesus tell me that waxing all spiritual in prayer doesn’t do any good. God is well-aware of everything… good and bad, so you can’t fool him with any, how should I say this?... thespian-esque flattery. Again, acting is fine, just not when you’re praying. What I’ve found is that when I’m honest, honest about what is really going on in the deep recesses of my soul, it’s freeing… and I am convinced by what Jesus says in this passage that this is what God wants from us... honesty that leads to relationship with him that is built on trust. Jesus was telling his disciples, and I’m including you and me in this, that when we in true honesty turn to God in prayer he is listening, and he is listening because he loves us. We are family. And can I also add, if you are having difficulty believing that God is present with you or that he cares about you, that’s where your prayers should start. Simply and directly say, ‘I am having a hard time believing that you are present or that you care.’ That’s all you need to say… my experience is that in the moments when my heart feels distant and uncertain about God, a simple, direct, honest prayer like that generally gets answered fairly quickly in a way that shifts my heart from wondering about him to trusting him. Again, it is all about being simple, direct and honest.
I know that many years ago when I was speaking on prayer, I said that one of my most precious moments of the day was when I would put my little ones to bed and as I was telling them stories or just talking to them, they would often fall asleep in my arms. It was precious to me because I knew that they felt safe and secure when I was present with them in that way. And I said it then and I still believe it is true now, I can’t imagine that our heavenly father is any different. Amy talked a bit about falling asleep in prayer last week, but I want to go further with this. When you put your head on your pillow and speak to God simply and honestly and directly about your life and your concerns and your hopes and dreams and needs and possibly fall asleep in the middle of those prayers, I can’t help but believe that God has just as much joy in that moment as I had when my children, and now our grandchildren, fall asleep in the safety and comfort of my arms. Remember, he already knows what you need before you even ask… and it seems like that might still be true even if we fall asleep and don’t even get around to asking. Jesus has told us directly, prayer does not become effective due to the fanciness or the volume or the number of our words. Prayer finds its effectiveness in the honesty of our hearts. That’s all that God is concerned about. And when we pray in simple, direct honesty, when we are not acting, but just being exactly who we are, I believe with all my being that it brings joy to the heart of God… and as odd as it may sound to say, I believe that God is thankful that he gets the privilege of spending that precious, honest time with you; I believe he loves listening to you share your heart with him. And he also loves finding ways to tell you that he loves you.
Our series is called How to Pray… and so, ‘how are we to pray?’ Well, Jesus’ words in this part of his sermon make the answer to that question very simple… We are to pray with simple, direct words that get straight to the point, words that reveal the truth about our hearts and our situations. and when we do this Jesus has promised us that God is listening, and he is waiting to give us all that we truly need.