This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on November 14, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, thank you again for this time this morning — this worship. Thank you for friends and family who come together to lift up our lives and our hearts to you, Lord. Thank you for the presence that we have from you.
I pray, Lord, that as we sing and as we look into scripture and as we pray this morning our minds would be fixed on you in a way that helps us to be attentive to the work that you are doing, whether in our lives or in the world around us. Teach us, daily, to be attentive to you, Lord, through prayer and worship in a way that helps us to be transformed in the Spirit into the kind of people who affect the world around us. We want to be part of creating in love alongside you. We want to be part of the work that you do to create a new world — a new creation — that is something better than what we have, currently. We want to be part of the reconciling work for all of creation, that we can be a people who is devoted to love, who is devoted to healing, who is devoted to community and relationship with the rest of creation and the rest of humanity, Lord.
Be with us this morning in these things. We love you, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I’m eventually going to be in Matthew chapter 6, this morning, and then after Matthew chapter 6, we’ll spend some time in the Psalms, so if you’re following along, you can turn over to those places or mark them in your Bible. Otherwise, you know, feel free to just listen and follow along as I read and as I turn to those places.
I was raised in Churches of Christ, and one of the notable differences between Churches of Christ and other expressions of Christian faith is that in Churches of Christ, we didn’t talk about prayer very much. We prayed a lot; we didn’t talk about prayer. We didn’t explore prayer or the meaning of prayer or the uses of prayer, and prayer was very one-dimensional in conventional Churches of Christ.
Prayer was almost always a thanksgiving and solicitation, and you might think to yourself [that] that seems like two things, so how can it be one-dimensional. I say it’s one-dimensional because the solicitation and the thanksgiving were often related. The thanksgiving was often for a solicitation that people felt had been answered and then the new solicitation, for which we would be thankful later when it was answered — so it was really rather one-dimensional. It was really all about solicitation. That’s not to say that people didn’t mention other things from time to time, and you probably hear those things in how I pray, because those were traditions that I was raised in.
I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with those kinds of prayers. The problem comes when the prayer of thanksgiving and solicitation isn’t sufficient for the need that we have. As with all things in worship — as with all things in our relationship with God — what we do ought to reflect the relationship and the needs of the community and the individual, so when we pray, having different perspectives and postures toward prayer and different prayers that we pray is a really important part of how we interact with God, and so it can be difficult when we don’t have those tools and those postures in our repertoire to come to God in prayer and to feel like the prayer is meaningful in any way.
So that’s what I want to talk about this morning; I want to talk about prayer, and specifically, I want to talk about a perspective on prayer that is different than just asking God for something.
Matthew chapter 6, starting in verse 5, he says,
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”Matthew 6:5-15, NIV
The temptation is to come to passages like this and to say [that] because there are “requests” in the prayer, the prayer is therefore designed to request something from God. Because he says things like “give us our daily bread,” the prayer is then primarily about asking God for daily bread. Because he says “may your kingdom come and your will be done,” the prayer is primarily about a petition that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s a logical flow of thought. There is a petition; there are several petitions. Therefore, the prayer is a prayer of petition, but what we miss out on as very pragmatic, Western thinkers is the idea that this prayer can be done as a liturgy. That is, as something that shapes us and forms us into something.
It’s the same thing as saying the only reason to read a book is for information — that the practice of reading, itself, does nothing for us and that the kind of book or the things that we read do nothing except to educate us intellectual, but anyone who’s been through times of trial or transformation or growth in their life knows that that’s not true. The information you take from the book is not always as important as the posture you have toward the information that you’re reading.
Sometimes the information is not about learning something intellectually. Sometimes conversations we have with people are not about getting information from them or soliciting things from them. Sometimes even when we ask people for things, the primary interaction or the primary thing that’s happening — the event that’s taking place in the conversation — is not really the solicitation.
This happens a lot with spouses and with children. When you’re in your families, often times asking people for things is so much more than just the request, itself. Sometimes in relational dynamics, there’s a time when you ask somebody for something not because you really need something from them or you care whether they do it or don’t do it but because the asking of it does something for the relationship. For example, if a person likes to be helpful and feel useful in a situation, asking them to do something can help them feel good about themselves. It can put them in their comfort zone, whereas a person who doesn’t like to be involved — who’s very stand-offish or sometimes might feel anxious about being asked something directly — it might not be good to solicit something from them. These are relational dynamics that become complicated when we have big groups of people, but we understand from those kinds of circumstances that asking people for something isn’t necessarily the point of the conversation.
In the same way, asking God for things while we pray is not necessarily the primary goal even of a prayer like [the Lord’s prayer]. When we approach this prayer with a different posture, we see different things, and the requests take on different meanings. For example, he says in verse 14,
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.Matthew 6:14-15, NIV
When we then take that posture and we look back at the Lord’s prayer and it says, in verse 12, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors,” the request is not about God forgiving us. The request is a reminder to us that as we forgive others, God also forgives us. We’re not just asking God to forgive us, because we know that God’s forgiveness, given freely, is also about a transformation in our life that leads to the forgiveness of others. That’s a different posture. The request is unnecessary, as he says in verse 8: “for your father knows what you need before you ask him.” The request is irrelevant, so far as an actual petition to God. God knows we need to be forgiven, God knows we want to be forgiven, and God already knows that he’s willing to forgive, and through Christ, God has already forgiven, so the request for forgiveness is not about, primarily, a solicitation. The request is about transforming ourselves into the kind of people who forgive others, because we know that we are forgiven.
That sort of interpersonal dynamic doesn’t come out if we only see these prayers as solicitations for something from God. What does that mean, then, for other parts of the prayer? What does that mean when we pray to God, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?”
With this posture that something transformative is happening — with this posture that this is a liturgical practice of prayer, a formative practice of prayer, and not just a solicitation — we come to this passage, and we remind ourselves in the prayer that we are part of God’s kingdom coming and his will being done on earth as it is in heaven. We remind ourselves that we have entered into that kind of desire with God, and so when we pray this prayer, we have to commit to actually desiring the thing that we pray.
Do we actually desire that God’s kingdom should come on earth as it is in heaven? Do we actually desire that God’s will should be done here on earth as it is in heaven? Do we actually desire that God’s presence be felt and perceived in the world? And if the answer is yes, then as we pray this, we commit ourselves and recommit ourselves to that reality. That’s part of how we live into that reality of being forgiven because we have forgiven others.
“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.” It’s not merely a request that we should not be tempted into evil. This is a commitment — a recommitment — a realization that we are actually part of a kingdom that is “of deliverance.” We’re part of a dominion of grace in which Jesus Christ has already conquered the evil one. Why should we pray that he will deliver us from the evil one and not lead us into temptation when, as we looked at last week, we are already walking in the light with Jesus and living the way that Jesus lived and therefore his blood purifies us of our sins; we have no fear of the evil one. So this prayer is not actually a prayer of petition or solicitation from God. Instead, it is a formative prayer — a reminder of who we are and how we actually live.
It’s the same with the daily bread. This is not necessarily a petition that God should actually provide us with our daily bread, because we already live into a reality where we believe God is attempting to do that very thing for us, and in the same way that we forgive others because we are forgiven and so that we will be forgiven, we enter into the provision of daily bread for others, as much as our resources will allow, because we already believe that God is providing us with our daily bread.
From this posture, these prayers of petition are actually reminders of our relationship with God — of our status in who we are as children of God — of the process of transformation that is taking place in us because of the Holy Spirit.
So now, let’s jump over to the Psalms. Take that same kind of posture, now, and consider all of the book of Psalms. The entire book of Psalms is people’s putting into words this very posture — this posture that their relationship with God is more than just asking and receiving. Their relationship with God is so open and intimate, especially from writers like David, that they can be completely honest and sincere with God about who they are, about what they feel, and about what they perceive God to be doing in their lives, so when we get to something like Psalm 23, for example, which is a very popular one that people actually pray…
Psalm 23 says,
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.Psalm 23:1-6, NIV
There is no petition in here. He doesn’t even make the attempt for a petition. Instead, his prayer is entirely an expression of his perception of his relationship with God. Who is the Lord in relation to me? The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord does these things to me: the Lord refreshes my soul, the Lord guides me in right paths… And then what is the impact of that on me? I fear no evil even though I walk through the darkest valley, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. What is the implication of that in my relationship with the people around me? You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, and my cup overflows — goodness and mercy all the days of my life. I dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This is as much a prayer as the Lord’s prayer. This is as much a prayer as any prayer of petition. It is as formative in us when we say it and when practice it and when we meditate on it as any prayer of request. When we take this kind of posture and we apply it to any of the other Psalms, like Psalm 42… Psalm 42, which is a much more somber psalm — an outpouring of this desire made real in our lives. He says,
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
among the festive throng.
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.
By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.Psalm 42:1-11, NIV
And you might think to yourself, if you’re coming from the kinds of traditions that I’m coming from, that it doesn’t sound like a prayer because it doesn’t seem to be talking to God, but remember how he opens the Psalm: “as the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” He begins with an address to God. This is as much a prayer as Psalm 23 or as the Lord’s prayer, because his posture is “God is here with me in this; this is a conversation I have with myself, but this is a conversation that the Spirit has with my spirit,” and so he has a conversation with his own soul: “my soul is downcast within me.” Verse 5: “why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
He invites God into a conversation with himself, and then they talk with each other, and you see that sort of thing in other Psalms, as well. If you look over in Psalm 4… Psalm 4, he says,
Answer me when I call to you,
my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.Psalm 4:1, NIV
And then in verse 2, he shifts from talking to God to talking to his oppressors.
How long will you people turn my glory into shame?
How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
Tremble and do not sin;
when you are on your beds,
search your hearts and be silent.
Offer the sacrifices of the righteous
and trust in the Lord.
Many, Lord, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?”
Let the light of your face shine on us.
Fill my heart with joy
when their grain and new wine abound.
In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, Lord,
make me dwell in safety.Psalm 4:2-8, NIV
There’s so much going on, here. He begins by calling upon God, and then he shifts to talking to his oppressors, and then he addresses people as though they are sharing with him as people of God, and then he addresses the Lord, again, in verse 6, and then he comes back to a reminder to himself and to others about his relationship with God and how God sustains him, even as he sleeps.
Prayer is a deep, meditative, relational, interpersonal dialogue with God, with ourselves, with others. Prayer is more than just petition and thanksgiving for petitions. Prayer is more than just coming and saying that God is good. Prayer is more than just coming and saying this is what I need. Prayer is more than just coming and reminding other people who might be listening about who God is. The way that we pray — the way that we posture ourselves toward God and toward prayer — can take on many forms, and to have these different ideas in our mind, these different postures and approaches to our prayers, can change the things that prayer does for us. Because remember: prayer is not for God. God doesn’t need prayers. He doesn’t need our prayer. He doesn’t need other people’s prayer. He doesn’t need more prayers or less prayers. The act of praying for the sake of praying means nothing. If God already knows what we need then the act of praying just to petition him means nothing. Loving people don’t sit around and wait for people to ask them in order to do things for them.
Isn’t that the whole point of Jesus on the cross? Jesus didn’t come down because the world asked him to. Quite the opposite: he came to what was his own and his own rejected him. He came anyway. It’s the declaration on the cross: forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing. The world didn’t ask for God’s love. God loved the world, and so he gave his only begotten son. All of creation comes into being through the Word, and the Word is with God and is God, and what comes into being through him is life, and all of that because he loved in the beginning.
So our prayer is a liturgy. It is always a liturgy. It’s a practice that we do that forms us into a certain kind of person, and if, when we pray, the only thing going through our mind is “what can I ask for, and what has God already given me that I should thank him for,” then we do [ourselves] a disservice.
There is a depth and richness of prayer that runs through all of scripture. It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s not about being sinful or pure. It’s not about asking for things or not asking for things. It’s about entering into a real conversation with ourselves and with God. It’s about making space to be attentive to the Spirit; it’s about making space to be attentive to our own spirit and to God’s Spirit and to the Mission of God in our lives and in our communities. It’s about taking time to be present with God in a way that forms us into the kind of people that we desire to be.
As Christians, our claim is like the claim from David and the claim in the New Testament: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Our claim is that we desire after God like the deer pants for the water. We want to be with God. We want to participate with God. We want to go where God goes and do what God does.
Prayer, just like any other part of worship, is a part of forming ourselves into that kind of a person, so when you pray, today — when we pray at the end of service, when you pray on your own, when you pray with others — whatever you pray about, remember that you’re not just asking God for things. Sometimes it’s ok to bring a prayer like Psalm 42, to bring a prayer like Psalm 23, to bring a prayer where all that you’re doing is being real and honest with God in a safe space — to invite God to be present with you while you pour yourself out and explore yourself — and to let God be part of that process. That kind of a prayer is just as powerful as any request you could ever make of God or anyone else.
As you go through your week, I invite you to enter into prayer, often. Pray continually, and don’t be afraid to try different kinds of prayers. Write a prayer down and pray it later, or pray whatever you’re feeling. Enter into a place where you’re prayerful in your mind or in your heart, even if you have nothing to say. I invite you to try that, and I invite you to share with us what happens, and if, during that process, you come across questions — you come across a desire to seek after God in a deeper way or you come across thoughts that maybe you’re wondering about and you want to talk about — take those things and reach out to us and to others and have a conversation with another person, and even there, create a prayerful space where you invite God to be part of those conversations, and share with us the stories of what happens.