Simply Pray

Acts 6:1-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14; John 17:1-11

I’ve drawn the theme for today’s sermon from all of the readings set down for today.  Each of the readings seemed to be drawing in some way on the common theme of prayer.

Let’s start with our first reading; this is the account of Jesus’ ascension in Acts.  Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive the Holy Spirit and then go out and witness to the entire known world and then he ascended into heaven.  On their return home to Jerusalem what did they do?  They gathered together in a room and devoted themselves to prayer.

In our second reading from 1 Peter the writer is calling for those who are suffering to rejoice and shout for joy, allow themselves to be humble and cast their anxiety on God.  By crying out to God in prayer, through the power of God, they can resist the devil that is prowling around like a roaring lion.

Then in our reading from John we hear Jesus praying for his disciples.  Jesus teaches his disciples through his prayer and prepares them for a time when he will no longer be physically with them.  This is the son of God praying to his father, he has made the Father’s name known to his disciples, so that when he is no longer with them they are able to call on the Father, so that they may be one as the son is one with the Father.

Jesus’ example here teaches the disciples how to pray and by default we too learn a little about how to pray.

I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer lately.  I think it was late last year that Pastor Mark recommended the book, God on Mute to me.  It’s a book about prayer, not only a how to pray book, but also what to expect from God, why God is sometimes silent and how to deal with it when it happens.  It’s one of the most practical and helpful books I’ve read in a long time. 

Then at the conference I went to in Adelaide the other week, Dr Michael Foss was talking about prayer being one of the important marks of discipleship.  I bought copies of two of his books and have read some interesting insights into prayer. 

One day last week I was browsing through my bookshelf and pulled out Senkbeil’s Dying to Live – The Power of Forgiveness.  Which section do you think I opened up to, that’s right, the chapter titled ‘Private Prayer: Liturgical Life Alone’.

I think God has been ganging up on me, trying to tell me something!

We hear today’s readings in the context of Christ’s ascension, he has done what he came to earth to do, it is now time for him to take up his place at the right hand of the Father.  The readings are pre-Pentecost, the Holy Spirit hasn’t been sent yet, but the disciples pray through the Son of God anyway.  We are living in a post-ascension, post-pentecost world.  We know that through Christ we have access to our Father in heaven, as we read in Hebrews 10; 

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God,  let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

We should have the confidence to approach God with our prayers, but do we know how to pray?  Dr Foss told a story about one of his staff members who was running a workshop on prayer at a conference for pastors and congregational leaders.  They figured that there wouldn’t be too many takers for the particular elective so they chose a room that would seat fifty people.  When the leader arrived he discovered that there were people sitting on the floor and standing around and even some who were outside, still trying to get in.  As he began he was interrupted by someone raising his hand, the man said, “You’re talking about prayer as if we know how to pray, I’m a pastor, and I don’t know how to pray.”  The leader had to change directions with his presentation and start with the basics.

Do you know how to pray?  Have you been taught the basics?  Have you been too embarrassed to put up your hand at some point and say, “I don’t know how to pray.”?

Have you perhaps been intimidated by someone who you think prays beautifully?  Do you think that if your words aren’t eloquent and poetic that God doesn’t want to hear from you?  Remember that at one point the disciples didn’t know how to pray either, they had to say to Jesus, “Lord teach us to pray” and he responded with what we now know as the Lord’s Prayer.  We can use the prayer that Jesus gave to his disciples as a basis for our prayers; it’s a very good starting point.

The Psalms are also a great place to go for guidance; they range from praise and thanksgiving prayers to cries of lament for the suffering and the down-trodden.

As with anything we need to learn to crawl and then walk before we learn to run.  I like Mike Foss’ analogy of learning to type.  When we begin we hit lots of wrong keys and we go really slowly, eventually building up speed and accuracy until we are relatively proficient.  I’m yet to meet a typist who still doesn’t make the odd mistake along the way and I’m sure there’s no-one who gets their prayers just right either.

Here are some ideas to get you started if you’ve been struggling.  I’ve often heard that when it comes to personal prayer and devotion time that you shouldn’t try to overdo it to start with, a bit like starting out at a gym, if you give it too much in the first session you might pull up sore and not want to go back.  So start with just a few minutes at a time of day that you are at your most alert and there aren’t too many distractions.  Get comfortable and preferably find a place without too many distractions or interruptions.  Start talking to God as if you would talk to a best friend; strike up a conversation with him.  Thank God for the blessings in your life, be specific, then move on to points of difficulty in your life, say sorry for falling short of the mark, then thank God again for forgiving you for these things.  You might then like to move on to asking God for his help in your needs or the needs of family or friends.  It doesn’t hurt to admit to God that you may have missed some things you should have prayed for and ask him to take all these things into his hands for you.  Then once you’ve finished spend some quiet time and allow God act on your heart and mind, you never know what you might discover!

This is just one method of prayer, there are dozens more.  I like to pray about things as they come up during the day, as I think of people or see or hear about things happening in the world.  Simply hand them over to God. 

Even when we forget to pray or simply feel that we can’t pray at the moment, we can be assured that Jesus is praying on our behalf, as we read in Hebrews 5; “ In the days of his flesh, he offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

As our great high priest Jesus continues to pray for us, just as he prayed for the disciples before his death.  He knows our needs and desires and brings them to the father on our behalf.  When we pray, we pray through him and he brings our prayers and petitions to the father too.  When we are suffering or burdened like the people mentioned in 1 Peter, or when we feel abandoned and alone like the disciples probably did after Jesus ascended, God wants us to call on him and feel his presence with us and know that we are not alone.

In the words of the apostle Paul, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing”.

Amen.