Thursday, May 23, 2013

One of the "Secrets" to Effective Prayer? Recognize God Isn't Your Errand Boy.

I print below a brief section from my sermon last Sunday morning. We have, for several weeks, been examining Matthew, Chapters 5-7. It's the section of the gospel usually called the Sermon on the Mount. Sunday's text was Matthew 7: 7-12. Anyway, after a couple of conversations this week, I decided to post this particular section of the sermon in order to help Vital Signs friends think through some of the key issues about prayer.

I suggest before reading through the comments below that you familiarize yourself with that passage in Matthew's gospel.

...In verse 7, Jesus begins describing the life of prayer He sets for His disciples. And I say “life of prayer” because the Greek tense used here is the present imperative which means not just to ask but to keep on asking…not just seek but keep on seeking…not just knock but keep on knocking.

Jesus has been emphasizing throughout this discourse to His disciples that they demonstrate a lifestyle of belief in God, of dependence upon God.  And now He insists that they do the same with prayer -- make it a lifestyle thing as well. Ongoing, patient, trusting, expectant.

These verses really smack down the life of independence and self-reliance that we are so won't to embrace. But no, the theme song for a Christian is not “I Did It My Way.” It is more like "Trust and Obey" or "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."

We must strive to live in a conscious dependence on God.  And, as we do so, a lifestyle of prayer (frequent, humble, trusting) will be an inevitable outgrowth.

Ask, seek, knock. Note that all of these verbs require the acknowledgement that our answers, our resources, our blessings come not from within us -- but from outside us. I don't work them up. I don't reach deep inside. I don't get "my stuff together."  The gifts come from God.

These verbs also show an intriguing progression. These three verbs are not to be taken as synonyms. They illustrate the development of the prayer lifestyle.

Ask is an action of the voice. It's an opening for conversation with God. But to seek stretches us a bit more.  Seeking involves our body and our mind.  It requires care and application and time. It’s an investigation. And to knock? That verb carries connotations of earnestness and perseverance.  It suggests a willingness to address obstacles -- yet always with the knowledge that the door must be opened from the other side.  We don’t kick the door in for we believe there is Someone on the other side Who alone has the power to open the door.

The image created by the combination of these three verbs is a neat one, for it helps us to visualize the ultimate satisfaction of answered prayer; namely, the one-on-one fellowship we experience with God (and all the attendant blessings) when He opens the door to us.

You see, prayer has an ultimate goal. And I know I'll be bursting some bubbles here, but that ultimate goal is not you getting your way or getting your requests answered according to your desires and timetable. No, prayer’s ultimate goal is closer fellowship with God.

Of course, to pursue this course requires virtue.  To ask, seek and knock in the appropriate fashion requires faith and hope, confidence and patience, perseverance and trust in God’s character and power. In other words, to pray in the way Jesus is instructing, you must have "the right stuff.”

How is that possible? We are sinners. By choice, we do bad, selfish stuff. In fact, even when we want to do the right thing, we mess up. We don't have the staying power. Our breaking point for holding onto holiness is very low.

Well, remember what we have stressed throughout this sermon series. Remember, Jesus has been teaching throughout this discourse that the righteousness of His disciples (the citizens of the kingdom of heaven) must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. That righteousness must be complete and pure. It must reflect the royal law and thus be of the same character as Jesus Himself.

So, is Jesus just pulling their chain? Is He pointing to a standard of thought and conduct that will forever be far away from them? No. Jesus' teaching about the royal law serves the same purpose (only more thoroughly, dealing as it does with the thoughts and intents of the heart) as the law did in the Old Testament. And that purpose is to show the unfathomable distance between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man.

It's a distance that can't be traversed by man. No matter what he does, he can't get over the chasm. But He can be lifted over by the grace of God -- a God Whose judgment on sin is satisfied by the vicarious suffering and death of Jesus. He took our penalty upon Himself. He paid our debt. And those who believe in Him, who wholly put their trust in His sacrifice, are not only forgiven, cleansed and adopted into God's forever family, they receive the imputation of Christ's righteousness and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

The Christian receives as the free gift of God that "right stuff" that empowers him to live according to the royal law…to experience a righteousness that exceeds religious legalism…to live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven…to live a lifestyle of humble prayer.

Keep on asking. Keep on seeking. Keep on knocking.

Now, of course, several other Scriptures illuminate this lifestyle of prayer but we just don’t have time to explore those passages this morning.  But let’s look at least at one very key element. It's in the next verse.

Verse 8 reads, “For everyone who asks receives and he who seeks finds and to him who knocks it shall be opened.”

The point?  Persistent prayer -- when offered with a clean heart and truly desiring that the will of God be performed (Remember the pattern of prayer Jesus had earlier laid down? "Thy will de done.") -- will be answered. And as it is answered, the ultimate goal (closer fellowship between the disciple and his heavenly Father) will be achieved.

Now to many people (maybe, some of you guys too), this is a rather disappointing perspective on prayer.  Because sometimes we are not really looking for God’s will to be done as we pray nor nor are we desiring more intimate fellowship with God through our prayers nor are we desirous most of all to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ through our prayer experience. No,  what we're looking for in a sermon or book or radio program about prayer is “How can I get what I want?  What’s the trick to getting God to come through with exactly what I’m requesting and, by the way, without further delays?”

Here’s important news for such folks. God is not your errand boy.  God is not your go-fer.  God is not a genie that you rubbed out of a lamp or a magic fish you pulled out of the pond who will grant your every wish.

God is God.  The Creator of heaven and earth.  The Sovereign Lord over all.  The One (the only One) Who is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. His will runs the universe, not yours.

And once you get hold of that brilliant truth, prayer becomes an opening to tremendous satisfaction, empowerment, spiritual growth, and other blessings.  To know that your prayers (when they come from a clean, dependent heart) are always answered and that the ultimate goal of prayer is always being achieved is of utmost importance.

This means, of course, that your prayers are often going to be answered in ways that are quite different than what you’re hoping.  But that’s as it must be. For God knows best what you need.  God knows best how His eternal plan is being enacted.  And God knows best how to bring you into a closer walk with Him.

Remember these points as you meditate on the subject of prayer and, more importantly, as you engage in the frequent practice of prayer. God’s will.  God’s power.  God’s goodness.  And the fervent pursuit of that ultimate goal of prayer – a more intimate, more bountiful relationship with the Father.

Okay, let's look at the next verses...