Ash Wednesday Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 Prayer
I have with me the perfect example of prayer: (pop a popper) Can you tell me why it seems to us a popper represents our prayers? Well, here are some reasons why poppers are our prayers:
- We only use prayer on special occasions
- We imagine our prayers need to be impacting, like the bang, in order to gain God’s attention.
- Our thoughts are all bottled up in our minds and we let a barrage of requests shoot up to heaven, like the streamers.
- Most importantly, just as the streamers came pouring down almost immediately after they were fired up, we want our prayers to be answered immediately and we want the answers from God to stream down upon us and shower us with goodness.
The popper prayer most accurately describes our prayer practices and expectations, and if we were honest to ourselves, the popper prayer is really the only way we know how to pray. Perhaps this is why we struggle with prayer, struggle to pray each day. The popper prayer may not be how God intended prayer to be. Perhaps popper prayer is more closely aligned with our plans and expectations of prayer than God’s. And as you are well aware, anything centred in us, is sinful and against God’s plans and is destined to failure. When prayer is human centred, prayer is hard. Its hard because we keep getting the same results, a perception that God is not listening and is not answering our prayers.
We try harder, more fervent prayer, or to use my example, we put more gun powder into prayer, hoping God will be awakened by the big commotion and rain down answers. Jesus likens this sort of practice to the prayers of hypocrites. Hypocritical prayers are designed to be seen not heard; to be showed off as a perfect word sculpture. They are prayers that are to be seen by everyone in the church, bible group, or street corner and especially to be seen God…but not heard. No wonder there is no answer to the popper prayer. Like the popper, its self serving and designed to be a display, not a way of communicating.
Michael Foss, the author of many discipleship books says we are creatures of habit. We constantly do things exactly the same, yet, for some unknown reason, expect different results. Not so, the results will remain the same. Human centred prayer will always return the same results, a sense of rejection by God because he didn’t answer the way we expected.
The feeling of not being heard is the result of sin which is most evident in the difficulty we have with prayer. You would think as a Christian, prayer would come naturally, as natural as breathing, yet we all know this is not so. Let me quote from John Kleinig’s book ‘Grace upon grace’, in which he gives us some insight into why God allows us to fail in prayer. ‘We know that we should pray. We would like to pray more regularly, ardently, and spontaneously. The harder we try, the more we seem to fail. But that’s how its meant to be. Christ lets us fail when we pray by ourselves so we rely on his intercession for us. Oddly, our success in prayer comes from our personal failure and our willingness to carry on as he works for us and in us.’
Jesus allows us to fail in prayer, not to make us put more powder into our prayer, but to make us realize our inadequacies and hopelessness without him. The power of prayer lay not in our success, but in our failures. Answer to our prayer comes in and through failure and disappointment.
This is why Jesus encourages us to drop the outward displays, let go of the popper prayer, and retreat to a quiet place, a lonely place and let him take over your prayer; let him use our prayer and make it acceptable to God. I have a picture of what this sort of prayer looks like. (picture of Peter holding onto Jesus after walking on water: ask what Peter was doing just before this)
Here we have the perfect prayer. Peter represents us, sinking into the sea of despair and rejection after failing in prayer, but then Jesus takes over where we fail and takes our hand as a brother and leads our prayers right into the heavenly Father’s ears. And after lifting us and our prayers into the presence of the Father, Jesus then brings us back into the boat, back into his word, his gospel where we rely on his promises ‘I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.’
This Lenten season, I am encouraging you to be involved in this Lenten study on prayer. It has been compiled by some of our members. It is a nightly devotional series on prayer and it is designed to help you to discover new ways to pray. We have taken snippets of advice from Jesus and the prayer he taught us. From Luther, Hallesby, and others. Can I commend this to you as a tool to assist you in your pray life over the next forty days of Lent. To encourage you in prayer and to help you realize prayer is not about us, its about God and how he does indeed hear our prayer.
Prayer is certainly a wonderful gift. Yet it would be wrong of me to say that after you have studied the booklet, everything would be fine. Rather, let me finish on a sober warning from one of the desert fathers, a man called Agathon ‘The brethren also asked him ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’ He answered, ‘Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’
If you would like a copy of this booklet please email Pastor at Brenton.firstname.lastname@example.org