Nehemiah 1:5-11; Matthew 6:5-8
April 29, 2018 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear Congregation of Christ: The Christian media is full of books, articles and quotes about prayers. I will mention a couple of quotes: First, “Do you realize that movements on earth govern movements in heaven? Do you realize that a child of God in prayer affects decisions in heaven? We must depend on His Word, pray the promises of God, and then watch what happens. The Word spoken through your lips releases angels.” This is one of the grave errors that Benny Hinn and most televangelists teach about prayer.
Second, “Anyone who stands before God to pray . . . should abandon all thoughts of his own glory, cast off all notion of his own worth . . . put away all self-assurance – lest if we claim for ourselves anything, even the least bit, we should become mainly puffed up . . .” ~ This is from John Calvin, the great 16th century Protestant Reformer. It is obvious that prosperity gospel false teachers look at prayer completely different from sound Reformed teachers.
Historically, Protestants have believed and taught that God has provided three ways by which he can regularly confirm, nourish and strengthen the faith of believers. These three ways, called the means of grace, are the preaching of the Word, the administration of sacraments, and the exercise of prayer. These are not spectacular or fancy, but ordinary and common means, using words, bread, wine and water. But these common elements have been sanctified by God through the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. So these means of grace are able to do an uncommon work: that of feeding and strengthening our souls.
Paul says that through the preaching of the Word, the Spirit creates faith in a person’s heart (Rom 10:17). By continuing to sit under the preaching of the Word, this believer will then grow more and more into the wisdom and knowledge of and obedience to Christ (Isa 55:10-11; Col 1:10). The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not mere memorials. More importantly, like food and drink, they nourish our souls to stronger faith (1 Cor 10:16). Lastly, prayer is the means by which we commune with God, expressing our adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplications to him (Psa 145:18-19; Prov 15:29; Jas 5:16).
But why do we pray? How do we pray? When do we pray? What do we pray for? This morning, we meditate on these and other questions about prayer under four headings: first, True Prayer is Private and Public; second, True Prayer is Heartfelt; third, True Prayer is Confident; and fourth, True Prayer is God-Centered.
True Prayer is Private and Public
The setting of our text in Matthew 6 is found in Luke 11. Jesus had just finished praying by himself “in a certain place,” so his disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” But before Jesus taught them how to pray, he taught them a few other things about prayer.
Again, he teaches his disciples by the negative example of the Pharisees. Their prayers – and the way they pray – are not true, real prayers. Why? First, like many things they do in public, their public prayers are merely for show because they’re hypocrites pretending to love God and neighbor. Jesus warns his disciples to avoid praying like the Pharisees, who pray in public to display false piety. They lacked a humble attitude when they prayed in public. They did not see themselves as needy and helpless sinners. In fact, they were so proud of their good works before God and before men that they trumpet in their prayers that they fast and give tithes more than what the Law requires (Luke 18:11-13).
The Pharisees wanted to be seen fasting, praying and giving alms in public to gain the praise of others. Jesus says, “they have received their reward,” but only the reward given by men, not commendation by God. Today, many Christians are the opposite of the Pharisees of old. Many today are reluctant to pray in public, whether in church or other gatherings, or in homes before meals. Does Jesus rebuke the Pharisees for praying public? Of course not, because he himself, his disciples, the prophets and the apostles, all prayed at times in the sight and hearing of everyone. What he rebukes is the Pharisees praying to be seen by others.
Public prayer is a lost “art” in the churches today such that many people cannot stand prayers more than two or three minutes. So little “prayerettes” – in addition to “sermonettes” – are offered to God in worship services, no more than a few trivial lines, like small talk. God is addressed only “the man upstairs” or a “buddy,” or “the big kahuna,” and not as the Holy Majesty in heaven.
In the worship service, whenever we sing the Psalms, we are in effect praying. In the Psalms, we find all kinds of prayers that a worshiper can pray. There are prayers of praise, thanksgiving, lament, sadness, loneliness, joy, even anger. In them, we can pour out our heart and soul to God. John Calvin says the Psalms are “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.” You don’t know how to pray? Then read the Psalms, for when we read, meditate and sing the Psalms, we are praying. We then develop a wide vocabulary for prayer.
Read also the many other examples of prayers in the Bible. In 2 Chronicles 6:14-42, we find King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple. He first praises God for his faithfulness to Israel, then goes on to humbly ask God to listen to the prayers of his people. His prayer is mostly a prayer for God to be merciful to his people when they ask for forgiveness of their sins.
Another model prayer is the one we read in Nehemiah 1:5-11. Like Solomon, he first praises “the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love” for his people. Then he asks God to hear his prayer on behalf of Israel. Again, he asks God to forgive them of their sins when they repent, for that was his promise. Finally, he asks God to give him success in his plead to Artaxerxes, king of Persia, to help the exiles who had returned to Israel to help rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. And God heard his prayer because the king granted his request for help.
Therefore, prayer can be in both private and public settings. Both are commended by God. But true prayers are also heartfelt, not merely an outward ritual or show.
True Prayer is Heartfelt
In his teachings about the laws about murder, adultery, oaths and loving our enemies, Jesus taught that sins against these laws come from the heart. So our obedience must be heartfelt.
What does Jesus condemn about the prayers of the Pharisees? Repetitious prayers without thought and without the heart. Pharisees, like pagans, think that the more they repeat God’s name or specific short phrases, the more God will hear their prayers. Jesus condemns mindless, mechanical repetition and chanting. In the Bible, we read repetitious prayers, but these flow from the heart. Psalm 136 is an example of a repetitious prayer in song, with the refrain, “For his steadfast love endures forever.” But this refrain is sung after each praise and thanks to God for his wonderful works of creation and salvation.
Pagans repeated the names of their gods or the same words over and over without thinking. In 1 Kings 18, when the prophet Elijah confronted the prophets of the pagan god Baal, the pagan prophets chanted from morning until noon, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” (v 26). They thought that their idol-god will hear them if they just repeat their chants for hours. In Acts 19, the pagan people of Ephesus rioted against the apostle Paul, shouting the name of their idol-god Artemis for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (v 34).
This practice has become popular in Christian circles. When asked how a Christian can practice praying without ceasing, L.A. megachurch pastor Rick Warren answered, “One way is to use ‘breath prayers’ throughout the day, as many Christians have done for centuries. You choose a brief sentence or a simple phrase that can be repeated in one breath.” This practice has been used not only by the early church monks, mystics, Catholics, but by pagans or unbelievers. Warren even admits, “Breath prayers are nothing more than mantras.” Mantras, or repeated chanting, are part of the Hindu religion, which is called “New Age” in the West. Remember the song, “My Sweet Lord,” by Hindu Beatle singer George Harrison? At the end of the song is a long chant, where he says “Hare Krishna,” “Hare Rama,” and even “Lord,” about 37 times for four minutes!
“Breath prayers” are also known as “contemplative prayer,” “centering prayer,” “listening prayer,” “transcendental meditation,” and “spiritual formation.” The idea is, by such long repetitions, a person will eventually be under the subconscious control of these chants, and finally result in an altered mind. So when you hear these phrases, do not be deceived. They are pagan!
Another Biblical and historical practice that has fallen on hard times today are written prayers read by the pastor, or read responsively by the congregation. Most churches think these are too formal, inflexible and not heartfelt. But these practices go all the way back to the early church and the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
In fact, we get a hint of formal, read prayers in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.” The use of the definite article the means that these were not private prayers, but prayers recited in the church. And these were not just any prayer, but prayers that the early church commonly used, most probably readings from the Psalms and other Biblical prayers. And this is what we do every Lord’s Day assembly.
How are read prayers and congregational readings, and other parts of a “formal” service better? They’re better because there is much time, care, thought and scriptural research involved in preparing them. Too many churches today have “spontaneous,” “Spirit-led” prayers and practices that often lead into repetitious, and even incoherent groping for words. They lack variety, coherence and order, often resulting in mumbo-jumbo babbling. Often, when the pastor or worship leader runs out of words to pray, they repeat, “O Lord,” or “O God” so often that it becomes a distraction.
Jesus prohibits mindless, mechanical repetitions like these, not humble, heartfelt repetitions.
True Prayer is Confident
But Jesus also teaches us to pray with confidence. He tells us in verse 6 that our heartfelt prayers will be heard by God the Father, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Nehemiah’s “success” after praying was not because of his performance in praying, but on God’s will and wisdom alone. We are to be confident in prayer, but not in the wrong way, such as when we pray that we will win the mega million lotto. Why would God give us what we ask for when he knows that it will only hurt us? He knows our deepest needs, and he gives good gifts to his children (Mat 7:11). He knows our needs before we even ask him (verse 8).
John says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14). The prayer of faith is the prayer that God would fulfill what he has promised in his Word. This is the only basis for our confidence in prayer. How do we know what God’s will is for our lives? It is found in his Word, so we are to read, study and meditate upon his Word regularly. Why then do we have to pray when God knows our needs even before we pray? For one, he commanded us to do so. Second, prayer increases our dependence and trust on God. Third, he uses prayers to give his people confidence that he fulfills his promises when they ask. Then we know what his will is for our lives.
We are to pray in faith. Does this mean that we are to pray “name-it-and-claim-it” prayers, like Benny Hinn and other prosperity gospel televangelists do? Just claim that God will heal your beloved’s terminal cancer, and God will surely deliver your request. Joyce Meyer, another popular false prosperity gospel teacher, blames people with cancer for their disease, “You don’t have to take ownership of it [cancer] and become its buddy.” She says if cancer patients spoke the right words to disown their cancer, they wouldn’t have cancer.
And if we do not receive what we pray for, does it mean that we do not have enough faith, as these heretics claim? What our Catechism says is very different from this false teaching. Our prayers, to be pleasing to God, must be accompanied by faith and assurance that God will answer the prayers of unworthy sinners according to his divine purposes. We pray in order “that we be firmly assured that notwithstanding our unworthiness He will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as He has promised us in His Word.”
True Prayer is God-Centered
Finally, prayer is, as mentioned earlier, communion with God. In verses 6-8, Jesus mentions three times that his Father hears our prayers. The pattern of prayer that he taught us to pray begins with honoring God, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” And it ends with praise of God, “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory.”
In prayer, all our petitions for forgiveness and needs are sandwiched between adoration and praise of God. But how do we pray God-centered prayers? Read a psalm or two. There, you would find God-centered adoration and praise. In joy or sorrow, praise or lament, the Psalms are God-centered, and even point to Jesus the coming Messiah. There, we learn God’s majestic and holy names: LORD, God of Heaven, God of Gods, Savior, Shepherd, King, Holy One, Mighty One. There, we learn how to “wait for the LORD,” which gives us strength and patience (Psa 27:14; 37:7).
Dear Friends: Let us therefore make the Psalms our prayer book. Start with a familiar one, Psalm 23, where we open with adoration of God our Good Shepherd, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Then we end with, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” What peace, comfort and assurance this will give our soul through troubled times! Then go back to Psalm 1 and then through all the Psalms.
Another good guide is to pray through the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the and the Lord’s Prayer. All these are discussed in more detail in the Heidelberg Catechism. These Scriptures and statements focus our minds to the adoration of God, confession of sin, thanksgiving to God for all his benefits, and lastly, the expression of our physical needs. Amen.
 Arthur Bennett, The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), has over 200 prayers for different Christian experiences for teaching how to pray and to supplement one’s own prayers.