************ Sermon on Matthew 6:5-8 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on August 5, 2001
"Be Careful How You Pray"
During a visit with his daughter's family, a man went into the bedroom to pray. His curious 3-year-old granddaughter followed him and came out saying, "Papa's in there praying, and there isn't any food!"
Based upon our Bible reading we know Jesus would applaud this grandfather. At the same time, we will also find out that certain kinds of prayer can be dangerous and ineffectual.
As for the little girl, I hope that someday she will learn that prayer, as the song puts it, is the Christian's vital breath. I hope that someday she will learn that prayer is not always done at mealtime or in public.
We come to the second example given by our Lord to illustrate the practice of religion and faith and holiness. He says in general,
(Mt 6:1) "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.His first illustration of this principle has to do with giving, His second has to do with prayer, and His third has to do with fasting.
I The Nature of Sin
A The tendency exists, when we read this portion of Matthew, to think our Lord is merely exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and other obvious hypocrites. What we often forget is that our Lord is speaking to born-again Christians, to believers. He is not speaking, first of all, to unbelievers or to Pharisees.
Why does Jesus warn believers about hypocrisy?, about the practice of our religion and faith and holiness? Jesus warns us who believe because He knows and is exposing the terrible effects of sin upon the human soul.
Our Lord wants to remind us that sin is more than action. You see, we aren't sinners because we do bad things. Rather, we do bad things because we are sinners. Sin is part of our very nature, our very condition, as fallen creatures on this earth.
B Sin, Jesus reminds us here, is something which follows us all the way, even into the very presence of God. Sin is something so prevalent, so pervasive, so widespread, that it will not only follow us to the gates of heaven, but – if it were possible – into heaven itself. After all, need I remind you that sin is something that began in heaven, and not on earth? Before man fell there was another Fall. Satan was a perfect, bright, angelic being living in the heavenly places; he fell before man fell.
What is the highest and best picture you can have of man? I would have to say it is man on his knees before God in prayer and worship. Prayer and worship are the highest achievement of man; they are his noblest activity. Man is never greater than when he is in communion and contact with God. Now, according to our Lord, sin is so prevalent, so pervasive, so widespread, that it battles with the believer even when the believer is engaged in prayer and worship.
We tend to think of sin as we see it in its rags and in the gutters of life. We look at those behind prison walls – murderers, rapists, drug-dealers, child-molesters, extortionists – and we say, "There is sin; that is sin!" We look at drunkards, drug users, and promiscuous people and we say, "There is sin; that is sin!" Yes, all of this is sin.
But to get a better picture of sin, a real picture of sin, we need to look elsewhere. Pick a saint, a great saint, an unusually devout and holy man or woman. Look at that person in the pew or on their knees before the Lord in prayer and worship. There you see sin, says Jesus. Because there, in that holy man or woman, there exists the temptation to think self-righteous thoughts. Because there, in that holy man or woman, there exists the temptation to worship self rather than God.
C Sin is so prevalent, so pervasive, so widespread, that it battles with the holiest believer even when that believer is engaged in prayer and worship. If anything this should convince us of our utter sinfulness, our total hopelessness, our complete helplessness. If anything this should convince us of our tremendous need for grace, forgiveness, rebirth, new life, and the sanctifying presence of the Spirit.
In the light of all of this it is obvious that we need to be careful how we pray. In talking about prayer Jesus tells us there is a wrong way and a right way to pray.
II The Wrong Way to Pray
A Jesus first teaches us about the wrong way to pray. He says to us:
(Mt 6:5) "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full."
Jesus talks of those who love to pray standing in the synagogues. Do you remember our Lord's parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector? Here is a perfect illustration of what Jesus is talking about. Both went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood as far forward as he could, in the most prominent place, and there he prayed. The tax-collector, on the other hand, "stood at a distance." He was so ashamed and so repentant that he could not even so much as look up to heaven.
Jesus also mentions those who pray standing on street corners. These people, supposedly, are so anxious to pray that they cannot even wait until they get to the temple. So they stand and pray at the street corner.
What is wrong with this kind of praying? The trouble is that attention is being concentrated on the one who is praying rather than on the One Who is being prayed to. It is the old refrain of glory to man or glory to self rather than glory to God.
Sometimes we think that in our age such self-glorying in prayer does not exist. No one today would even think of praying on a street corner in their haste to get to church. But there can be self-worship in other forms of public prayer. For instance, people who are asked to lead in prayer at public meetings may find it extremely difficult to concentrate only on the Lord.
In this way ministers – who often have to pray in public and who sometimes are used as prayer-machines – are not to be envied. The fact that other people hear you and judge you is a hindrance to true contact with the Lord. Even if there is no tendency to self-worship, the presence of listening people can block communication with God.
Many people do not understand this. Sometimes it is said of office-bearers that they have the special gift of prayer. This may be true. But the gift does not come without risk, it may even be dangerous.
A stammering prayer which reaches the Lord has more value than a beautiful prayer which does not reach any further than the admiration of men.
So Jesus warns us against being the type of person who parades his faith and puts her religion on display and is always calling attention to his or her holiness. Jesus warns us against striving to have a reputation of being a woman or man of prayer. Jesus even warns us against being known for "beautiful prayers" – prayers that have more of an effect on people than on God.
Topic: PrayerBill Moyers, I have to say, had it right. He was addressing God, not man, in his prayer.
Title: Speak Up, Bill!
The story goes that one time when Bill Moyers was a special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, he was asked to say grace before a meal in the family quarters of the White House. As Moyers began praying softly, the President interrupted him with "Speak up, Bill! Speak up!"
The former minister from east Texas stopped in midsentence and without looking up replied steadily, "I wasn't addressing you, Mr. President."
B Jesus also mention one other wrong way to pray. He says to us:
(Mt 6:7) And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.To make prayer an accumulation of many words is an old evil.
Remember the priests of Baal at the Mount Carmel contest? They tried to persuade their god by the multitude of their words. This idea, I'm afraid, has always found acceptance by many people in the world. Think of the Muslims who answer the call to prayer 7 times each day. Think of Roman Catholics who pray with a rosary or Eastern Christians who use a prayer wheel – where the Lord's Prayer or other words are repeated endlessly.
Not that long ago we in the CRC were not much better. I remember the time when the congregational prayers were 20-25 minutes or more in length. These prayers often started with a summing up of the names of God – almost as if He forgot Who He was. They also included all kinds of doctrines as if it were necessary to tell God what was taught in catechism classes. Sometimes they were used to beat the people over the head; the minister prayed against sins and faults he was too scared to mention in the sermon. And sometimes prayer was also used as a means of information. I heard of a minister who mentioned not only the name of a sick brother, but also his exact address. And, to fill the time, every conceivable cause in the church and kingdom were mentioned Sunday after Sunday and prayer after prayer.
Of course, the intention was good. It is easy to criticize the past. It is, however, a blessing that in our modern age public prayers usually have become short. God is not persuaded, you see, by a multitude of words. A pound of prayer, so to speak, does not have more effect that an ounce of prayer.
Topic: WordsIt's not how long we talk, it's what we say that is important. Like me, I am sure you have been at public events where someone is asked to pray after the main event – and they go on and on and on almost as if they are trying to outdo the speaker or minister who just spoke.
Consider this: The Lord's Prayer contains 56 words; the Gettysburg Address, 266; the Ten Commandments, 297; the Declaration of Independence, 300; and a recent U.S. government order setting the price of cabbage, 26,911.
Jesus reminds us, then, that when we pray, we don't keep our eye on the clock to make sure we have prayed long enough. When we pray, we should not be concerned with the length of time that we pray. The moment we do that, it becomes mechanical and we have ruined everything.
III The Right Way to Pray
A Jesus also teaches us about the right way to pray. He says to us:
(Mt 6:6) But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
There are some people who believe Jesus here prohibits all public prayer. So, for instance, you can go to a Quaker service and you will hear hardly a word uttered during the entire worship service. Members sit in silence before God and each other with their thoughts focused on God. But this is not Jesus' intention. There are prayer meetings recorded in the Bible, and they are of the very essence and life of the church.
B Jesus is laying three very important principles before us. The first principle is exclusion and concentration. When we pray we must shut out and exclude other people. We must shut out and forget ourselves. We must forget our surroundings. We must shut out everything which may interrupt us. We must exclude everything and everyone but God alone. That's what Jesus means when he tells us to go to our room and shut the door and pray in secret.
Together with exclusion goes concentration. Concentration can be very difficult in prayer. In the most earnest prayers our thoughts can wander away, so that the words have no meaning. Sometimes we have to start all over again. It is not easy to concentrate on prayers. That's also what Jesus means when He tells us to go to our room and shut the door and pray in secret.
C The second principle is realization. Realize what? Well, we must realize that we are in the presence of God. That's what Jesus means when He tells us to pray to the Father, Who is unseen. Before we pray we should say to ourselves,
I am now entering into the audience chamber of God. God the almighty, the absolute, the eternal, the great. God with all power and might and glory and majesty. God Who is a consuming fire. God Who is light. God Who is the utter, absolute, Holy One. God Who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.
D The third principle is confidence. Notice, Jesus says we pray to "our Father." As a Father, He loves us, He cares for us, He has our good in mind, and He knows our needs before we even say them. As a Father, He wants to give us everything that He knows to be good for us. As a Father, His delight is to bless us. As a Father, He is much more ready to give than I am to receive. So we pray to Him with utter, total confidence that He hears and wants to answer.
We are sinners. Sin has invaded us who believe. So, says Jesus, "Be careful how you pray."
We don't pray to be heard or seen by men. We don't pray with the heaping up of word upon word.
Instead, we pray keeping three principles in mind: exclusion and concentration, realization, and confidence.
Keeping this in mind, we can say, "Lord, listen to your children praying."
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