Sunday, October 21, 2007

How to Pray

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Luke 18:1-8

I’ve always admired those people who say straight out that they don’t know how to pray. There’s good Biblical precedent for this. What request did the disciples come to Jesus with? “Lord, teach us to pray.” And what does Paul say? “We don’t know how to pray as we ought.” I suppose it’s kind of depressing that we don’t even know how to pray. But it’s also a very freeing experience. It’s a relief to know that even as we are unable to do it of our own ability, the Triune God is the one who makes it possible for us to pray.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray He gave them the Lord’s Prayer. When the apostle Paul said that we don’t even know how to pray as we ought he didn’t leave us without comfort but told us that the Spirit intercedes for us with groans which words cannot express. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells a parable where He teaches us that we should be persistent. We shouldn’t give up.

His parable is striking—He compares God with a pagan. Jesus shows us that no matter what, God is going to hear our prayer. The judge in Jesus’ parable heard the widow every time even though he didn’t do anything about it. So God hears us every time even though it may seem like He doesn’t do anything about it. And just as the judge finally got tired of the widow’s pleas and granted her request God will give us what we need when we persist in our plea.

This sounds great, doesn’t it? If we’re persistent enough God will grant us our heart’s desire! If we don’t give up, God will give us whatever we ask for! So does this mean that we haven’t been persistent enough? Is this why God hasn’t answered all our prayers in the way we have asked for? That could be part of it. But the Bible makes clear that He doesn’t give us everything we ask for or always in the way we want it. Our desires are tainted by our sinful flesh and He’s not going to give us something we ask for that’s actually damaging to us.

Jesus isn’t just teaching us to be persistent. He wants us to be persistent in God’s Word. His closing words are chilling: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” Isn’t it easy to get lackadaisical? If there is the possibility of losing faith we’re more inclined to be vigilant and not take lightly the Word of God.

So to the Word of God we go. This is where He teaches us to pray. The words of the Lord’s Prayer that we pray—they are His Words. The Psalms are words He inspired to be written. Don’t rely on your own words when you pray. You can pray using your own words, of course. But don’t rely on them. Especially when you have the very words of God at your disposal. He knows a lot better what you need to pray for than you do. Go to the Scriptures themselves.

When you pray the Lord’s Prayer you don’t just have to pray it straight through. You can meditate on each petition. Think on each one. Pray to God to help you understand each one. Read and meditate on each portion of the Lord’s Prayer with the meanings in the Catechism.

The great portion of the Scriptures for prayer is the Psalms. Pray the Psalms. You can do one a day or some other pattern. You can read a Psalm and have that be your prayer, or read it verse by verse and meditate on each verse.

The key in all this is that we want to pray according to God’s will and in going to the Scriptures we are being guided by Him as to His will. The Word of God itself is where we find God’s will. So we need to read the Scriptures. The more we get into the Word of God the more He will form our prayers and our minds will be conformed to His will.

We too often take the Word of God for granted. He has given us His very Word. Do we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it? One of the reasons we don’t get into the Word as much as we ought is that it’s a daunting prospect. It’s long and some of it is tough to understand. But there is a way to help us navigate the Word of God as well as take it to heart. The Christian Church in its wisdom drew up the Catechism over the years. We Lutherans tend to think of the Catechism as the writing of Martin Luther. But Luther just took the Catechism that had already existed for about 1500 years and wrote meanings to each portion. When Luther came along the Catechism consisted of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. These three teachings are the essence of the Christian faith.

But the Christian Church didn’t have the Catechism just to learn and memorize, but to pray. Luther talked about praying the Catechism. In our daily prayers we don’t have to limit ourselves just to the Lord’s Prayer. In praying the Ten Commandments we learn repentance. In praying the Apostles’ Creed we learn faith. And in praying the Lord’s Prayer we learn holy living. The reason this is the case is that each part is not the writing of Luther, or any other man. It is the Word of God. The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer are directly out of the Bible. The Apostles’ Creed is also Scriptural, with each phrase taken from or based directly on the Bible. When we pray the Catechism we’re praying the Word of God!

Or we can put it another way. When Jesus is talking about prayer He’s doing nothing other than laying out the life of the Christian. The life of the Christian is a life of prayer. Prayer is us saying back to God what He has said to us. We go to His Word to be formed by Him in what we say.

The life of prayer begins when He Baptizes us. Anna is only a few days old and the sounds that come out of her mouth are not intelligible speech. That’s because she’s unable to to use reason. But she is living the life of prayer even as we are. Because prayer is all about hearing and receiving the Word of God and responding back to God with that very same Word. When the apostle Paul exhorted us Christians to pray constantly, he wasn’t just talking to adult Christians, but to Baptized Christians. We should have no more incomprehension at how Anna can pray constantly than we should about ourselves praying constantly.

Prayer can become ritualistic. We sometimes go through the motions. That’s why we need the Word of God. His Words are living, breathing expressions of His will. Baptism isn’t just a ritual either. It’s not a magic wand over a person in which now they’re good to go. It’s a one time event but a life-long growth in the Christian faith. It’s very much like our physical birth. When you’re born you have life. But that life left alone will quickly be snuffed out. A baby needs to be fed and nurtured. That’s how the baby grows and is sustained in its new life. Baptism is new life that has no end. That’s why we take it so seriously with the vows that Alan and Kristen took this morning in the Baptism of little Anna. They promised to instill in their daughter the Scriptures. They promised to continue to bring her here to the place where she has been Baptized, the place where the Word that was connected to the water of her Baptism continues to forgive her and sustain her.

In Jesus’ little parable this morning we see what a remarkable God we have. If Jesus has the guts to compare God with a man who cares nothing for God or men we know that there’s more to this God than meets the eye. He’s a God who’s not afraid to step out over the edge to draw us in. When Anna was Baptized this morning it was as if God was reaching down to her right where she is. And now, not only are all her sins washed away, she is raising up prayers to her gracious God!

Right now, from what we can hear, Anna is busy making cute sounds; and even some that are not so cute! As she grows, she’ll find as we all do that it’s tough living in this world. And that it’s tough being a Christian. And on top of all that, we don’t even know how to pray as we ought. But we can take heart. Not only in the Word of God, the Bible, but in the Word made flesh—Jesus Christ. He knows what we’re going through. He Himself suffered. And His prayers ascended to His Heavenly Father. He prayed that His Heavenly Father’s will would be done.

The Good News for us is that it was! Jesus Christ did suffer and die on the cross for the sin of the world. He has given us His eternal salvation in Baptism. He delivers us from all evil and into His eternal Kingdom. Amen.



Peter said...

Paul, great catechetical sermon on prayer. Your diagnosis about holy Baptism is one I have noticed and preached on as well. Too many Christians see that Sacrament as a free pass, a magic wand, or some other illustration that offers them a quick fix (how American!), rather than beginning them on the daunting path(in the sense that we are constantly tempted to depart from the path) of faith in Christ.

rev.will said...

Thanks Peter.

Peter said...


How are you and the congregation faring with the wildfires out there?

rev.will said...

Hi Peter:

We're safe and sound. The fires have raged around us but never near enough to put us in danger. A few in the congregation were evacuated but are now safely home. However, one home (the parishioners are in Oregon right now) is potentially in danger so we're sitting tight with that and praying. It's pretty smoky out here and many in the congregation know of people who have lost homes. Thanks for asking and for the prayers!