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Experiencing God in Worship and Prayer

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Sermon Series: Worship96

Part 7: “Experiencing God in Worship”

 (Psalm 96; Matthew 6:5-15)

A Sermon on Prayer

We have come to the end of our sermon series focusing on the theme of worship.  The one topic we have not discussed and is not specifically mentioned in Psalm 96, but is everywhere else in the Bible identified as a part of worship, is prayer.  So today we come to the topic of prayer.  Prayer is that rare opportunity in worship to engage God in a dialogue where we literally speak to him and listen to what he says.  To find out more about prayer we will study Matthew 6:5-16 this morning. 

Who can deny the value of prayer? Robert Law once said that, “Prayer is a mighty instrument, not for getting man’s will done in Heaven, but for getting God’s will done on earth.” Very few people would ever deny the value of prayer and if they did, it would not be because they do not pray. 

Statistics show that whatever people believe about prayer, they still pray.  In fact statistically there are more prayers in America than there are employees of companies, people who choose to stay physically fit and exercise, or even people who engage in sex.  Around 78% of people say they regularly pray, at least once a week.[1]  Someone once said of it, “A day hemmed in prayer is less likely to come unraveled.” And Americans in spite of all our secularization seem to believe that and so we still pray.

If you don’t believe that America still practice some kind of prayer, just consider the fact that there are well over 2000 titles of books currently being printed with the word prayer in their title.  Even in our sex-crazed culture, there are more than three times as many books on prayer then on sex. 

Matthew 6:5-15

We turn our attention now to Matthew chapter 6.  Jesus is in the midst of his sermon.  We will join him there this morning.  We will join him like a program already in progress.  We will travel back in time to ancient Palestine into the region called Galilee and go with Jesus up that mountain where he was preaching that famous sermon.  We won’t listen to the whole sermon, but we will only listen to the part that deals specifically with prayer.

Let’s listen in to what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount about prayer. 

"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 men. I tell you the truth, 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. 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 men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:5-15 NIV)

This is a glorious gift from God—a word from God on how we should pray.  A word from God how we can experience his reality in our lives today.  So many times we come to the subject of prayer, and we are left with our mouths open and our minds empty.  We feel that we have more questions than we have answers, even in scripture.  We say to ourselves what should I say when I pray?  How should I pray?  When should I pray, in the morning, in the evening, before meals, at church, in the car? When, and then also, where should I pray?  More often we wonder how come our prayers seem unanswered, and then at other times we thank God for unanswered prayers.  While not all of our questions will be answered this morning, some of them will be, because we will listen into the words of Jesus himself, the one who sat in the Father’s presence for time and eternity, the one who knows all the thoughts of our God and is himself a member of an elite heavenly club, called the Trinity. 

I. There is a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Pray

Before Jesus begins to explain to us how we should pray, he begins by talking about how we should NOT.  Don’t pray standing in synagogues to be seen!  Don’t pray on street corners to be heard! Don’t pray so others will be impressed!  Don’t pray babbling like pagans!  Don’t pray harboring evil against your brother!  Don’t pray with unforgiveness!  Don’t pray unaware of your enemy!  Don’t pray to what is seen but him who is unseen! The issue here for Jesus is hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is ancient Greek word used in the theater where an actor would wear a mask pretending to be something or someone they were not.  There are always to kinds of hypocrites.  There are those who know they are pretending and those who unfortunately do not know.  There is a kind of obvious fraud.  A person who stands on street corners looking for attention to be given.  However, everything we know about the Pharisees of Jesus’ day tells us that many of them were not only deeply religious but very sincere.  This is a startling discovery.  Some people are guilty of being hypocrites (or perhaps a nicer word is pretender) in their prayers unknowingly, even sincerely believing that what they are doing is appropriate. 

I can think of various examples of sincere worship or prayer that is in truth only pretense.  Pick up a book sometime of the religions of the world, especially a picture book.  Look at the huge temples erected to various gods of the ancient Mayans or other civilizations of Central and South American.  Read about the thousands of humans sacrifices that were done by those religions to pay homage to the quote, “Sun God.” Many people throughout history worshipped the “sun” as God.  They prayed to it and sacrificed to it.  Little did they know that all their most sincere were placed in completely the wrong thing.  The sun is a large ball of gas in the middle of our solar system which does nothing but put off gravity and energy.  It does not rule the universe.  It cannot answer our prayers.  It can do nothing for us, no matter how many sacrifices we make to it.  These sun-worshippers are an example of hypocrites.  Hypocrites because their worship is a fake, but they just don’t know it.

What if there was someone hear today who was worshipping even praying, but in fact there pray was a fake and they did not know it? 

I want you notice something in this passage about prayer.  I want to make sure you don’t miss Jesus’ point.  Some people thinking that the point of Jesus’ teaching was about public prayer.  Some have even called for a ban on public prayer within Christian circles.  Some have thought that Jesus believes prayer is only private.  Such a conclusion is erroneous.  Jesus himself publically prays, sometime all night long.  One of the longest sections in the Gospel of John is an extended prayer of Jesus.  The OT Psalms are filled with examples of public prayers.  The command of God to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14 is for God’s people to pray to him.  The situation was the dedication of the temple and the idea was that they would do so as they together celebrating and worshipping God. 

Separation of Church and State

I think one of the great travesties of misinterpretation is people today do not pray publically.  Jesus was not condemning public prayer.  In fact, one of the greatest contemporary scholars of our time, Raymond Brown, once said that if Jesus were to speak the Sermon the Mount to America and Europe today, he would tell them to stand on street corners and in public places and pray.  The secularization of our culture is partly due to the privatization of religious expression. 

As Baptists we believe that religious experience is personally; it is between us and God; but we do not believe that prayer is only private.  As Baptists we believe in the separation of church and state, in fact we helped the Founding Fathers of our nation craft the constitution to prevent the public sphere of life from encroaching upon our religions practices.  However, none of our Baptist nor Founding Fathers ever intended for the “separation of church and state” to mean the removal of God from government.  Rather it was the protection of the private expression of religious conviction.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you that “separation of church and state” has anything to do with removing God from government. 

Now we might ask, what does this have to do with today? Well a lot of course, but we must be careful here.  Just because Jesus said to people in his day not to pray publically does not mean we should not pray publically.  Jesus’ concern was not public prayer but hypocritical acts of religion.  His concern was people doing what only gained attention to them and offered no glory to God.  Jesus saw through the religious exterior of the Pharisees who prayed so often only to give the appearance of the religious piety—even in instances where they themselves may not have realized their own hypocrisy.

II. There are Five Reasons Prayers Fail

Jesus then turns his attention in this passage to the cause for prayer to fail.  Certainly you have asked the question, “Why did my prayer not work?” Jesus takes up this big question  Jesus gives a list of reason prayers don’t/won’t work. 

The first reason prayers sometimes fail is because they are not in accordance with the Father’s will! Sometimes I think we miss this point.  We sometimes think that everything we want must be what is best for God and his purposes.  But this is not so.  God’s purposes are bigger than us and nothing in our lives is greater than God.  If God wants to make us sick, he will make us sick.  If he wants to kill us, he can do that.  He is God! When will we stop complaining and denying the truth: God is sovereign—he is God!  That means he gets to pick what happens in the world. 

We wonder if God causes hurricanes, God wonders why we wonder about this!  He wonders why we spend so much time analyzing him and trying to distance ourselves him.  Part of prayer is to find out what God wants and then pray in accordance with that.  Our prayer should not be “my will be done” but “thy will be done” and mean it!

Just consider for a moment what most of us actually pray about.  According to a Poll in USA Today, nine out of ten adults in America say they pray at some point. What do they pray for most often?

•     98%—Our own families

•     81%—World’s Children

•     77%—World Peace

•     69%—Co-workers

Now consider that for a moment.  How selfish is it to pray for our families and co-workers?  Well it might not seem selfish to us but it involves our own lives and the people who mean the most to us personally.  Even prayers for world peace are ultimately concerned preserving our own way of life?  The point I am trying to make is that our prayers are often built around ideas or concepts that we have that we think are important.  However, God might just have a different agenda.  Prayer that works needs to push beyond our own personal agendas and to seek the heart and the will of God.

A (2) second reason prayer does not work is because our motives can be completely wrong.  A person asking only for their own benefit is selfish.  A person who asks God to make them rich while everyone else is poor is selfish.  A person asks God to forgive them but does not ask God to forgive others and does not themselves forgive others, will find the heavenly door slammed in their face and their heavenly mailed returned to them unopened.

 God is not in the business of answering our prayers—he is in the business of running the universe in accordance with his plans—first and foremost.  Now that does not mean he is not interesting in our benefit or blessing.  It just means that we need to consider the big picture sometimes when we pray.

A (3) third reason prayer fails is because of a lack clarity in our asking.  Now this is not always the case.  Sometimes we don’t know what to pray and God helps, but sometimes our prayers fail because we did not ask correctly. Now this does not mean that there is a secret recipe or a heavenly password everyone has to enter in the right order for God to respond to our prayers.  God is not a combination lock that must have the right set of numbers to open heaven door.  NO!  God is not like that. 

A (4) fourth thing is our attitude or conscience toward others.  Jesus teaches that what we think about others is sometimes more important that what others think about us.  Reactions are more important than actions.  A person who cannot forgive is a person who will not receive God’s forgiveness. 

If there was one spiritual secret in this passage, it is this: God helps those who realize they cannot help themselves.  Prayer is about understanding our need for God not about us getting from God what we want. 

Personally, I am tired of the prayer of Jabez being misunderstood as a secret path to personal blessing.  I am tired of TV preachers who talk about getting whatever you want if you just have faith.  I am tired of Western Christianity which focuses so much on the me and so little on the God of our faith.  Prayer is not about us, anymore than worship is about us.  It is about God!  We need to get back to the heart of prayer!

(5) A fifth thing which causes failed prayer is misinformation.  Stop buying all those books at the Christian bookstore store on prayer, and start reading the Bible.  Don’t read Joel Olstein’s latest book on how to be happy, if you won’t read God’s word.  Joel Olstein does not know more about happiness that Jesus Christ.  There is so much worthless information about prayer and Christianity that is published every day in America.  I am appalled at so many so called experts on religion who spend so much time talking about things which they know nothing of. 

This seems to be part of what is bothering Jesus in this passage.     He is the one true light of the world, but everywhere he goes he finds people living in darkness. Not the Gentiles but the Jews.  He finds God’ s own people who should know better, but don’t.  Part of their problem is their teachers.  The religious leaders were so corrupt and so selfish that they never could teach anyone about God—they didn’t know anything about him.  They didn’t know him.  Jesus did!  Jesus knew that standing on street corners ain’t what it takes!  Jesus knew that standing in synagogues publically sounding out brilliant prayers of passion and eloquence was not what reaches the heart of God.  Jesus knows what we often do not.  Going to Galilee does not make you closer to God.   Going through countless pointless trivial activities is not what God is interested in—he wants you—he wants a relationship.  He wants you to talk to him and vice versa, but he wants you to listen and to do what he says.  Your relationship with God is not a peer-to-peer conversation; it is a God-to-human conversation.

Remember what John Newton said:

Thou art coming to a King

Large petitions with thee bring;

For His grace and power are such

None can ever ask too much.—John Newton

Probably my two favorite preachers are Haddon Robbinson and Bill Hybels.  You probably have never heard of Haddon Robbinson, but you might have heard of Bill Hybels.  He is the pastor of Willowcreek church in Illinois.  It is one of the largest churches in America and he built from nothing to about 30,000 people a week.  He is a gifted communicator and in one of his sermons on prayer he provides God’s four reasons for unanswered prayer:

•     If the request is wrong, God says: No

•     If the timing is wrong, God says: Slow

•     If you are wrong, God says: Grow

•     But if the request is right, the timing is right, and you are right, God says: Go!

So how should we pray?

PRAYS could be an acrostic to remind you of the 5 components of prayer in Jesus’ lesson to his disciples concerning prayer.  Let’s listen in to the conversation again and Jesus explains how we should pray.

First realize the Person of prayer.  This is God.  Jesus says, “Our Father in Heaven.” God is our Father.  This explains deep personal and intimate relationship with God.  It expresses the reality that God is above us in heaven and above us in the pecking order of the universe.  More than that he is completely  holy, something the Psalmist also teaches us about God.

Second realize the Reign of God. God’s reign is his kingdom.  The prayer reminds us that everything Jesus did was about making God king of everything in our lives.  His kingdom is not about a nation (e.g. America) nor about crusades, as foolishing our Catholic ancestors chose to interpret.  The kingdom is about the reign of God in our heart anticipating the future reign of God over the entire world.  It is a reminder that the hope of Christians is not just going to heaven when we die, but bring heaven to life through us right now.  God’s kingdom should be breaking forth into this world through us. 

Third (3) notice the Us in this passage, but for the sake of the acrostic lets say All.  There is a part of prayer that concerns us.  We need to deal with our sins, our unforgiveness, our temptations, etc.  We need to ask God’s help with these things and not foolishly believe we can defeat in our own power.

The fourth (4) thing is others but to make the acrostic we will say You. Another way to say this is “You all” or “Ya’ll.” Remember the part that deals with the YOU.  Remember other people in your prayers.  Don’t pray just for self or  your family.  Pray for others.  Pray for your enemies.  Pray for you neighbors.  Pray not just for president but for criminals.  Pray for the police and for the clergy.  Pray for everyone. 

Fifth (5) pray number five because you have an enemy whose name is Satan. The Greek in this passage is clear and for that reason the KJV is wrong.  Jesus does not tell us here to pray that God will spare us from “evil” but from the “evil one.” His name in scripture is Satan, the devil, the ancient serpent, the deceiver, etc.  He is our mortal enemy.  Prayer is all about spiritual warfare.  It is all about realizing that there is a battle going on in the hearts and the minds of God’s people.  In the Gospels Jesus does not pray for a bigger SUV, he prays his spiritual survival.  He prays that God will get glory and Satan will be defeated.  He prays that sin and its power will not win out.  He prays that his disciples will not be defeated by his enemy.  He does not pray that is boundaries will be extended, that his 401K will be lifted, his taxes will be reduced, his education will be increased, the Romans will win in battle . . . He prays for the defeat of Satan and for his power to overcome the evil one.  Think about that when you pray.

Illustraiton (100 Year Prayer Meeting)

In 1722, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, troubled by the suffering of Christian exiles from Bohemia and Moravia, allowed them to establish a community on his estate in Germany. The center became known as Herrnhut, meaning “Under the Lord’s Watch.” It grew quickly, and so did its appreciation for the power of prayer.

On August 27, 1727, twenty-four men and twenty-four women covenanted to spend an hour each day in scheduled prayer, praying in sequence around the clock. Soon others joined the prayer chain. More signed on, then others still. Days passed, then months. Unceasing prayer rose to God twenty-four-hours a day as someone—at least one—was engaged in intercessory prayer each hour of every day. The intercessors met weekly for encouragement and to read letters and messages from their brothers in different places, giving them specific needs to pray about. A decade passed, the prayer chain continuing nonstop. Then another decade. It was a prayer meeting that lasted over one hundred years.

Undoubtedly this prayer chain helped birth Protestant missions. Six months into it, Zinzendorf, twenty-seven, suggested the possibility of attempting to reach others for Christ in the West Indies, Greenland, Turkey, and Lapland. Twenty-six Moravians stepped forward the next day to volunteer. The first missionaries, Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann, were commissioned during an unforgettable service on August 18, 1732, during which one hundred hymns were sung. The two men reached the West Indies in December of that year, beginning the “Golden Decade” of Moravian Missions, 1732–1742. During the first two years, twenty-two missionaries perished and two more were imprisoned, but others took their places. In all, seventy Moravian missionaries flowed from the six hundred inhabitants of Herrnhut, a feat unparalleled in missionary history.

By the time William Carey became the “Father of Modern Missions” over three hundred Moravian missionaries had already gone to the ends of the earth. And that’s not all. The Moravian fervor sparked the conversions of John and Charles Wesley and indirectly ignited the Great Awakening that swept through Europe and America, sweeping thousands into the kingdom. The prayer meeting lasted one hundred years. The results will last for eternity.



Examples of Prayer in the Bible

Samuel Chadwick once said that there is nothing more the devil fears than the thought of people praying and then added, “He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.”

The Bible is replete with the examples of the power of prayer.  Remember that Exile named Daniel.  He was living in a foreign land under the power of a corrupt, wicked, pagan, idolatrous, and completely unsympathetic Babylonian empire.  He was told if you pray, you will be thrown into the lions’ den.  Daniel prayed anyway.   Someone once said of Daniel that “Daniel would rather spend a night with the lions than miss a day in prayer.” Daniel’s prayers were answered and he was saved from the mouths of lions. 

I think for many people, it is not a question of “Do you pray?” but a question of “Why does prayer not seem to work?” It is not a question of calling on the power of God but on actually seeing the power of God demonstrated.  Certainly there are plenty of us in this room today, who have earnestly prayed for God to act in a certain way and he did not.  So, what do we do with this question?

My suggestion would be to turn to the Bible for an answer.  A person studying prayer would find that there are many examples of prayer in scriptures.  We are taught in the book of Deuteronomy that our God comes near to us when we pray (Deut 4:7). 

We are taught in Solomon’s dedication of the temple prayer that God spoke to Solomon and to Israel and called on them to humble themselves and pray (2 Chr 7:14), and then God would hear and heal the land.  We certainly are living in a time where we need a healed land, and we need to pray. 

Because our prayers often feel as though they do not leave the room, but hit the ceiling, God says in 2 Chr 30:27 that our prayers do reach heaven. 

The need to pray not only for our land but also for our friends and family, especially the lost is echoed in the words of Job 42:8 when God commands Job to pray for his friends so that they might receive forgiveness.  We rarely pray for our enemies, but we should because the Bible says, in fact Jesus says, pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44). 

Sometimes it is more important to watch and wait then to pray, but we must be careful that we do not fall asleep as Jesus’ disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemene while he was praying (Matt 26:36).  I am afraid that too many Christian are asleep in our land today hoping that others are watching and still others are praying.  Our enemy is real as so scripture teaches us to pray that we do not fall into temptation (Luke 22:40). 

Sometimes life leaves us with the absence of knowing how we should pray and with what words and so Paul tells us in Romans 8:26 that God will intercede on our behalf and his spirit will cry out with groaning and unutterable sounds—I think here especially of those who have experienced great pain and great loss—knowing not what to pray, we are comforted that our God will help us then. 

The final picture of pray in scripture is in Revelation where we are told that the prayers of God’s people, the saints, go up before him like the sweet smelling aroma of incense.  So let’s offer to God a sweet smell—let’s offer him our prayers (Revelation 5:4)




[1] Newsweek Magazine devoted its cover-story on January 6, 1992.

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