An elderly couple folding their hands and bowing their heads at a restaurant.
A young mom dismissing herself from conversation to join her daughter in reciting a poem before bedtime.
A small group of people gathered at a gravesite holding hands and listening to the leader speak his peace.
A larger group of people gathered together on a Sunday morning some kneeling, some raising their hands in the air, others meditating on the phrases spoken by the preacher.
It's called prayer.
Today we're going to delve into the topic of prayer. Take a look at the outlines in front of you. We've got a bunch of contemporary definitions of prayer. Think about them and then underline which one you think is the best definition.
A way of getting in touch with yourself.
Meditation that's good for the body.
A way of saying, "I'm sorry that happened."
A supernatural conversation.
Take a look at that first definition. "A way of getting in touch with yourself." Certainly, that happens during prayer. Because during prayer a person is releasing their own thoughts and desire, which means you must think about your thoughts and desires in order to express yourself.
In other words, you must get in touch with yourself.
But is that all prayer is? If so, then what's the difference between prayer and taking an online quiz about Which Twilight character best represents your personality? Doesn't that get you in touch with yourself? Or what about watching a preseason football game? Guys, doesn't that get us in touch with our natural desire for competition?
Prayer is more than just getting in touch with yourself.
Some may have picked number two. Prayer is "meditation that's good for the body." Again, that might have some truth. It might calm our nerves. It might settle the stomach acids that stress has brought into our abdomen.
But I don't know any doctor that prescribes for you prayer as the solution for a better health. And when you're praying to get over the common cold, I don't know anyone who says, "Dear nose, please calm down. It's just a few germs. Surely, you can stop running for a few moments while I give this presentation. Amen."
Prayer is much more than meditation for the body.
Number three is probably the most common. After a tragic event happens, all kinds of people will come up to the person to whom this event happened and will say, "My thoughts and prayers are with your family." But what they really mean is "I'm not actually going to pray for you, but it is politically polite for me to say that I will pray for you, so I just did!"
How many times when people say that are they actually praying? Even atheists say this. They don't pray to anyone!
Unfortunately, number three is all that people often mean by prayer, but prayer is so much more than that.
Take a look at that last one. Prayer is a supernatural conversation. At first glance it might seem kooky. A bit strange. It makes you think, "Do people really believe that?"
And yet, that's exactly what prayer is.
Take a look at the Old Testament lesson. Abraham had some visitors. One of these visitors just so happened to be God. And God, is hanging out with Abraham, and he reveals to Abraham that he will soon bring wrath and destruction on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for all of their sins.
But Abraham's nephew lived there. A lump appeared in his throat.
Suddenly, Abraham finds bargaining with the Almighty, all powerful, God of the universe. "If I may be so bold, what about if 50 followers are found?...how about 45? 40? What about 30?...Don't be angry, but what about 20?...Last time, God...what about 10?"
Philippians 4:6 says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God!"
Isn't that exactly what Abraham is doing? He's having a conversation with God. He's releasing his deepest requests and desires. He's talking to him. He's...praying!
It's a strange thought, and one that maybe it hard to grasp. Why? Because God Almighty is not in visible form with us. But this is exactly what prayer is! Our Lutheran catechism defines it as, "An act of worship in which we speak to God form our hearts."
This is supernatural! We're talking to THE SUPERNATURAL! The Almighty! The Creator of heaven and earth. We're bowing before the ruler of heaven and earth and presenting our requests to him!
Wow. We have an audience with the king!
Considering what prayer is, doesn't it become scarier? It's an attempt to communicate with the king of the Universe!
My first thought? "I'd better be careful to approach him at the right time, so as not to offend him and earn his wrath!"
When I was in college, I remember I once needed to have a conversation with the Dean of Students. I went to his office, but he was not in. I came back another time and his secretary said that he was gone for the day. I came back a third time and she said, "His office hours are 9am-Noon." So, I worked really hard to get there during those hours. I knocked on his door. And he said, "Do you have an appointment? I'm kind of busy. Why don't you make an appointment."
Is God like that? Is he only available on Sunday from 10:30am-11:30ish? (It's why you all want me to hurry up so that we can get a few prayers in the alotted time.) Is God available only from Noon-one when we have lunch? Too bad for those who take a late lunch. You forfeit your prayer rights. Is he in bed at 10pm? So you better say your prayers before them? And...Oh, yeah, that's Eastern time zone, so all the other time zones are out of luck!
Not at all!
Look at what the Apostle James encourages us: "13Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and oil them with oil in the name of the Lord."
Did you catch that? We should pray In trouble. In health. And with others!
In other words. In fact, in the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:17, "pray continually."
God doesn't get tired. He's eternal. He doesn't go to bed. He never rests. He is always there to listen to you. To hear you. To give ear to your hearts desires and wishes!
What an incredible God we have! One who, though he is busy keeping the laws of the entire universe in check and listening to prayers of many people around the world...still has time to hear your own thoughts and desires.
Of course, it's usually the other way around. God has time for us, but we don't feel like we have time for him.
But maybe this is because we don't have a lot of faith in prayer.
It's kind of like calling the computer company for help. You push a bunch of buttons to get connected to the tech department. You talk to a gentlemen who reads to you the trouble shoot manual. He names as solutions everything that you've tried already. Then, he says, "I think you should send the computer to an expert."
Was that of any value?
What about God? Is it of any value talking to him? Certainly, our sinful nature begins to think that it isn't of benefit. THe devil wants us to think, "He's not listening. He doesn't care. And he won't be there for you!"
But James says differently, doesn't it? He says, "And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven."
Why? Because God is good.
This is what Jesus was getting at in the Gospel. He tells the parable of the friend, who wants to go to bed. Who wants to be left alone. And yet, you keep on knocking! You ring the doorbell. You shout at him. Even thought he wants to go to bed and even though he is angry at you and would rather knock your teeth out, Jesus says, "He will come and help you because of your persistence."
If that's what happened when you ask for the help of the neighbor who's upset with you, how much more so when you ask for the help of the God who loved you so much to die for you? It's why Jesus says, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." He's not talking about conversion here, (as some might say), but of prayer. Prayer of those who already believe. He's saying, "I, who love you so much to die on the cross and take away all of your sins..even the sinful attitudes that say, I don't think he's really listening. I, that God, that Jesus, am listening to you. I died for you. Why wouldn't I listen to you?
Think about that: Why wouldn't he listen to you?
I could think of a whole list of reasons.
4. How do I know I'm heard?
Which leads us to the last question of this morning? How do I know I'm being heard.
Again, picture us in that palace. We are approaching the Almighty God of Heaven! The One who hates evil and punishes it with fire. How confident are you that, in your sins, he'll welcome you as an old friend? Considering all the times your lips have cursed others in his name and cursed Him in your name, how do you think he will respond to your request to be heard?
I'm not so positive either.
I suppose we might think it's because we need to perform special ceremonies. We need to cross our heart in the right direction. Pray our prayers at a 76point degree angle, because some scholar says that's the angel that Jesus' head was at when he bowed his head and died. We might even think that we have to pray it in Latin or some other fancy sounding language.
Or maybe we think we need to shout! Loudly dancing. Loudly screaming. Like a rain dance. Thinking that we have to get God's attention away from all the other people who are praying all over the world and get him to put his ear over Raleigh, NC.
Or maybe we think we need to pray in a holy place. It's why people set up altars. It's why people come to church. Surely, the living room won't do? Or a car? Or the McDonald's play area?
But none of these things can ensure that God will hear us.
Why? Look at James. he says, "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective."
So, if you want God to hear you. Don't sin.
It makes sense when you think about it. This is God the Almighty! And as we hear this, maybe our worst fears are confirmed, God can't hear me. He won't hear me. I'm too sinful. There's nothing I can do to get his attention or deserve his attention.
And when you've gotten to that understanding. You're where you need to be.
Because there is no way for us to grab God's attention on our own. Our sins have caused a dark barrier of sound proof glass to separate us from God.
And if you think you can keep living in your sins and talk to God, know that he won't listen. He won't hear.
In Isaiah 1:15 God says, "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen."
How then will we get the Almighty to hear us?
"God made him who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor. 5:21)
Did you see it? God made Jesus, who was righteous, to be our sin. It's why Jesus cried out on the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Because God wasn't listening to him. God had abandoned him. Not because of his sins, but because of our sins.
Then, it says, "We might become the righteousness of God." The righteousness of God.
This is what faith in Jesus does. It clothes us in righteousness. It makes us the 'righteous person' whose prayer is powerful and effective. It gives us an audience with the King of glory.
In short, Jesus alone ensures that we are heard by our heavenly Father.
Think back to that palace scene. As the angry King gets ready to banish us from his presence forever, Jesus comes running in. "My Lord," he says, "Listen to them. I know they have sinned, but I was punished for it already. They have been cleared. Treat them as your dear child."
And God smiles.
And he does.
So my dear friends. Pray! Talk to God. Talk to him often. In the morning, afternoon, in the evening, when in trouble, when in health, with others, and by yourself. Talk to him because God promises to give good gifts to those who talk to him. Talk to him because God tells us to talk to him. Talk to him confidently. Knowing that he will hear you.
But what if I don't get what I want?
Think of the Lord' prayer. Jesus tells us to pray that God's will be done. That prayer means this: We recognize that God knows more than we do. He knows better than we do.
In faith then, we pray that God do what's best. Just as Jesus said, "You fathers, wouldn't give your sons a snake when he asked for bread? Neither will God your Father."
He also won't give us snakes when we ask for snakes. He still gives us bread.
After all, he gave us the gift of his Son. There's no better gift than that.
Dear Lord, help us to pray aright to you! You are our king. I will exalt you. Amen.