************ Sermon on Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 116-119 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on November 13, 2011
Q & A 116-119
Someone asked Emily Post, "What is the correct procedure when one is invited to the White House and has a previous engagement?" She answered, "An invitation to lunch or dine at the White House is a command, and automatically cancels any other engagement."
The Christian should have such a daily engagement. It is an engagement which takes priority over everything else. It is an engagement to meet the Lord in Prayer.
When we look at our Scripture reading we notice something about prayer that is often overlooked. Jesus' disciples said to Him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples" (Lk 11:1). Telling us what? Telling us that prayer must be taught – and learned. John the Baptist did this with His followers (Lk 11:1), and so did Jesus (Lk 11:1ff; 18:1ff). So the church, through the Catechism, must also teach her members. And, Christian parents must teach their little ones how to pray.
Tonight we continue our study of the Catechism by looking at prayer. More specifically, as we begin our study of the Lord's Prayer, we will look at the why, the how, and the what of prayer.
I Why We Pray
A "Why do Christians need to pray?" (Q 116). That's what the Catechism asks. Notice the assumption: that prayer is something the Christian needs. Just like we need to eat and drink so likewise do we need to pray. Prayer is something we need like the air we breathe. So, if you are a Christian, you pray. It is as simple as that. There are no ifs, no buts, no maybes. A Christian prays and a Christian needs to pray.
B We follow, of course, the example of Christ Himself. Ruth and I just finished reading the Gospel of Mark for devotions. One of the things that struck me in Mark was the importance of prayer to the Lord Jesus:
(Mk 1:35) Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
(Mk 6:46) After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
(Mk 14:32) They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray."
(Mk 14:35) Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him.
(Mk 14:38-39) Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." (39) Once more he went away and prayed the same thing.
Did you notice how Jesus puts it in our Bible reading? Jesus said to them, "When you pray ..." (Lk 11:2). He didn't say, "If you pray ..." "When you pray ..." In other words, Jesus assumes that His followers will be like Him, that they will follow His example of daily prayer.
C "Why do Christians need to pray?" (Q 116). The Catechism mentions two reasons. First, Christians need to pray "Because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us" (A 116).
I've mentioned before that I am always a little surprised when I read this line. When we think of bringing thanksgiving to God we usually think of worship and song. When we think of the thankful life we usually think of obedience and works of gratitude. As I was going through the Ten Commandments with you, I finished each message with a reminder that the Ten Commandments are to be kept as our response to being saved and washed by the blood of the Lamb. Yet, we now find out that in the life of gratitude prayer is more important than obedience.
Why do you suppose this is so?
Our hearts are so sinful and so deceitful and wicked. Our hearts are so sinful and so deceitful and so wicked that we fool ourselves into thinking our obedience is payment for services rendered. In our obedience we can too easily fool ourselves into thinking we have earned God's grace and good pleasure. In other words, we sinful people start to think we have somehow paid for our salvation. We forget, of course, that our works and our obedience earn nothing. We forget that even the holiest among us makes only a small beginning in living the obedient life (A 114). We forget that none of us are perfect and even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin (A 62).
Do you hear what I am saying? I am saying no one can be obedient but everyone can pray.
"Why do Christians need to pray?" (Q 116). "Because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us" (A 116). Which makes me ask, "In what way does prayer bring thanks to God?" If we look at the prayer Jesus taught us to pray – the Lord's Prayer – there is not a word of thanksgiving included. There is praise and adoration, but no thanksgiving. There are lots of requests, but no thanksgiving. We ask God for so much. We ask God for bread and forgiveness. We ask God to do His will and to flee temptation. We pray for the name and kingdom of God. So, how does this thank God?
When we pray to God, when we present our petitions to God, we are saying something about God. We are saying all things are in God's hands and not ours. We are saying God is able to supply all our needs. We are saying God is the Lord and Master of this world. We are saying God has power and might. All of our asking becomes a word of praise and thanks to God because we are declaring our complete dependence upon Him.
So, God loves our prayers. Because in prayer we express our full dependence upon God. Because in prayer we recognize our debt to God. Because in prayer we bring nothing. Because the folded hands and closed eyes of prayer earn nothing. Instead, they only plead to God to give, forgive, and deliver. We come to God like little children, trusting in Him and relying on Him. Prayer, true prayer, realizes that all is only by grace and not by works. In prayer we do not earn salvation but can only thank God for His precious gifts.
D "Why do Christians need to pray?" (Q 116). The Catechism mentions a second reason: "because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking him for them" (A 116).
Let's not misunderstand this. God, of course, is sovereign. He is "free." He is not bound by our prayers. Nobody can "make Him" do or give anything. The book, "The Prayer of Jabez," implies this – but this is plainly wrong. God is not a genie in a bottle Who will grant all our wishes. He is not a Sugar Daddy Who gives us whatever we want. Yet, God has ordained that we must pray before we can receive. When we ask in faith, He will give; when we seek, we shall find; and when we knock, He will open the door (Lk 11:9-10). When we lack anything in this life, the most logical explanation is that we did not ask. "You do not have," says James, "because you do not ask God" (James 4:2). And, in another place he says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God" (James 1:5).
Consider the parable of our Scripture reading. The man giving help gave it only because he was asked. God wants to be asked and He will give us what we need.
Think about the practical implications of this for a moment. Many Christians plead their inability to resist temptation. I have only one question for them: have they ever asked for the power to resist? Other Christians cry about their weak and wavering faith. Again, have they ever asked God for a strong and steadfast faith? Some say they can't be expected to visit the sick, the lonely, the mourning, because they lack the ability to cheer people. Again I ask, have they ever asked God for this gift? Some say they cannot speak of Christ or serve in church office or pray in public. But have they ever asked for these gifts. The fact is, we do not have unless we ask.
Prayer is the avenue through which we must go to receive what God promises us. And, unless we ask, we will not receive.
II How We Pray
A From why we pray we go to how we pray. The Catechism asks, "How does God want us to pray so that he will listen to us?" (Q 117). The Catechism gives us four answers. First, did you notice that the "how" of prayer is answered in part in Q & A 116 already? It says we are to "pray continually and groan inwardly" (A 116).
Do you recognize the phrase, "continuing in prayer"? It is a famous – perhaps even an infamous – line in the URC church order. One of the duties belonging to the office of minister of the Word is "continuing in prayer" (C.O. Article 2). This same duty – of "continuing in prayer" belongs to the duties of elders and deacons too (C.O. Article 14, 15).
Prayer is important in the Consistory and Deacon rooms. We urge all of our office bearers to keep up-to-date prayer lists. We urge our elders to pray regularly for the members of their district. Pastor Godfrey and myself get together for prayer at least once a week. We strive to be like the widow in Luke 18 – we strive to be persistent in prayer.
Not only the office bearers but all of us need to be "continuing in prayer." Not only does this mean we need to pray continually but it also means we need to pray persistently. We must unceasingly beg, we must continually pray, we must persistently ask, for the grace and Spirit of God. Too many times we pray for something once or twice or maybe three times and then we let the matter drop. The Lord wants us to be persistent in our requests, to never give up, to keep on asking. Remember this: when we knock, He opens; but when we get too tired or too lazy to keep knocking on heaven's door, we no longer get God's gifts (Lk 11:9-10).
Consider, again, the parable of our Scripture reading. The man getting help needed to be persistent. So, likewise, do we need to be persistent in our prayers.
B "How does God want us to pray so that he will listen to us?" (Q 117). Second, says the Catechism, "We must pray from the heart to no other than the one true God, who has revealed himself in his Word" (A 117). That is, we must pray to the God of the Bible.
In some circles it is fashionable to say we all worship the same god and pray to the same god. However, we do not pray to the one only true God if we pray to Allah. Nor do we pray to the one only true God when we pray to Buddha. In the Rotary club I attend I have to endure an invocation to the sun, moon, and earth – notice, I call it an invocation because it certainly is not a prayer. Nor do we pray to the one only true God when we pray to our "Mother in heaven."
Scripture tells us that God is holy and that He hates all sin; therefore it makes no sense to ask for His help in committing a crime. We also know we can't ask for forgiveness from God when we refuse to forgive others (Mt 18:23-35). And, God warns us more than once about great wealth, so it makes no sense to ask Him for riches (Mt 19:24).
We are to be like little children. Children know better than to ask for certain things from their parents. "No use asking him," they say of their dad, because they know their dad thinks the thing they want is not good for them. And in the same way we ought to know what our heavenly Father will not give us. The Apostle Paul says, "Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is" (Eph 5:17).
We should not only know what God will not give but also what He longs to give. "If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us," (1 John 5:14) writes the Apostle John. And what is that God wants to give us? His will is to make us like Jesus and to give us His Spirit. Prayer, then, is not a means of getting what we want; it is a means of becoming what God wants us to be.
C "How does God want us to pray so that he will listen to us?" (Q 117). Third, "We must acknowledge our need and misery, hiding nothing, and humble ourselves in his majestic presence." In Luke 18 we see both a good and a bad example of this kind of prayer. First, we see the Pharisee:
(Lk 18:11-12) The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. (12) I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'And then we see the tax collector:
(Lk 18:13) "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
The Pharisee's prayer lacked all humility in that he boasted about himself and failed to show reverence for God; it also lacked any honesty in that he did not acknowledge his own sin and guilt. The tax collector, on the other hand, was both honest and humble. He knew and confessed his sin and he was filled with reverential awe as he approached God in prayer. The Lord Jesus would have us be like the tax-collector and not like the Pharisee.
D "How does God want us to pray so that he will listen to us?" (Q 117). Fourth, it should go without saying that we pray in "Jesus' name." Prayers prayed in Jesus' name are prayers prayed with confidence. We know that because of Christ God hears our prayers. "You may ask me for anything in my name," says Jesus, "and I will do it" (John 14:14).
III What We Pray
A Our third point concerns the what of prayer. The Catechism asks, "What did God command us to pray for?" (Q 118). "Everything we need, spiritually and physically" (A 118).
Let me make three comments about this. First, we often confuse needs with wants. As I said in looking at the tenth commandment, our society has reduced us to "consumers." It seeks to create new "needs" within us. That's the point of advertisements. We must be careful that we never pray for advertizer induced wants rather than real needs.
B Second, we have to admit that we generally do not know what we need. We have very little insight into our most basic needs. That's why we need to be taught how to pray. But there is One Who knows exactly what we need: "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Mt 6:8). God knows our needs before we ask and in spite of what we ask. He knows! There is great comfort in that knowledge.
Do you remember when a cripple was brought to Jesus, someone who could not walk and jump and run, someone who could not get up for his most natural needs and wants? When he was lying there, at the feet of Jesus, we would think his real needs were evident to everyone. That man needed healing! But Jesus said, "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5). Jesus knew, Jesus identified, Jesus satisfied this man's deepest need: forgiveness.
This says something to a problem we all have faced at one time or another – the problem of unanswered prayer. When the Lord does not seem to answer, we should not conclude that the Lord has turned against us. Rather, we must recognize that He knows what we have asked for is not what we really need.
Learning to live as one of God's children is learning to know our needs, our real needs. So when we ask, as the disciples did, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Lk 11:1), we are also saying, "Lord, teach us our needs, our real needs."
C My third comment has to do with the fact that our Lord teaches us to pray for spiritual AND physical needs. Let me emphasize the "AND." Why do I say this? Because I, too often, hear prayers that focus on either the physical or the spiritual but not on both. God made us body and soul. God saved us body and soul. And God want us to pray for body and soul. Those who pray for nothing but the things of this earth are showing themselves to be crass materialists. Those who pray for nothing but spiritual things are giving the message that religion and faith and Christ does no earthly good and that the things and pains and sufferings of this earth are unimportant.
Don't forget, we are still dealing with the life of gratitude. Those saved by the blood of the Lamb offer prayers to God.
As I said at the beginning of this message, let us make sure we pray. Take to heart that you should have a daily engagement to meet the Lord in prayer.
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