I don’t preach often. Two, maybe three times a year. But I don’t think it makes a difference if I preach once a year or once a month (as I used to), I never seem to get used to it. I still get nervous. I still get butterflies in my stomach. I still struggle and wrestle and worry that I may say something less than doctrinally sound.
Yesterday’s sermon was particularly nerve-racking.
Preaching on prayer is no easy feat.
1. Most Christians probably don’t have a particularly strong prayer life (just visit the prayer service and do a head count).
2. I have not always had a particularly strong prayer life (which makes preaching on prayer feel more genuine on the one hand, and half hypocritical on the other).
3. The strength of someone’s prayer life testifies to the strength of their relationship with God.
4. Preaching on prayer inevitably involves preaching on what it means to “believe in prayer” (i.e. faith), which in itself is no easy feat.
5. If someone does not have a prayer life at all, this is almost an absolute sure sign that sin is festering.
All of this amounts to a sermon delivered to blank stares and crossed arms. (The sweat beads which formed on my forehead were not from the heat, but from the heat I feared I would receive after the sermon.) As I write this I am conscience that some from my church may read this post, to them I say worry not, the “blank stares and crossed arms” may be nothing more than my fearful perception, and by no means do I mean to suggest this represents the majority. But I have no doubt I offended some. (I could almost say I offended myself at a stop or two along the way, but that would be weird in a schizophrenic sort-a way.)
To add to this anxiety, how can I preach on prayer without sharing my conviction – without using technical or theological jargon – that the future must be at least partly open. I don’t see how it is possible to preach the effect prayer has on God, or for that matter, a reason to pray without at least mentioning this biblical reality.
The Essence of my Sermon on Prayer: New Angle
I wanted to step outside of the box of how prayer is normally spoken about. There is the usual “prayer is about relationship”, “Jesus commands us to pray”, “when you pray do not doubt” and so on. I incorporated all of these ideas, but used different language in hopes that a Purple Cow sermon on prayer would get someone’s attention.
I think it did. I received more than a few comments afterwards saying things like, “I never heard prayer put like that”; “I’ve never thought of it that way before”, “the way you presented it made it so simple to understand”. (The difficulty I have in accepting these compliments is best left for another post.)
The passage I built the sermon around was Hebrews 11:6:
Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists (ἔστιν) and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
We did a word study on the Greek word ἔστιν which literally translates “is” (the verb, to be). Through the process of study I taught that the author of Hebrews is making a claim here, not to God’s existence generally speaking, but to God as the covenant God of Israel, I AM (Exodus 3:14, the verb, to be), Yahweh (Exodus 20:2, “self Existent One”, the verb, to be), Jesus is the I AM (John 8:58) who established the New Covenant (Luke 22:20). So I believe the author of Hebrews is saying, “God said his name is I AM, you need to believe that He IS”. So to paraphrase Hebrews 11:6:
Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he is who he said he is and that he did/does what he said he did/does, in prayer.
I then explored the implications of this interpretation as it relates to prayer.
1. The question “do I have enough faith to pray this and see a miracle” is no longer relevant. The question we now ask is, do you believe that God is who he said he is (the creator of the universe) and that God did/does what he said he did/does (established a covenant by his blood to answer the problem of creation)?
2. The statement, “there is power in prayer” is now a falsehood. To approach prayer as if there is power in it often leads people to place their faith in the wrong thing. The power is in God (I AM) and is exercised through your relationship with him (what he did to establish that relationship in covenant).
3. Prayer is not a suggestion, but neither did Jesus say it was a command (per se). Jesus said “when you prayer”, like “when you breathe”, or “when you eat”. It is simply a part of your spiritual life and reflects your relationship with God.
4. This brings up the question, what if you don’t pray? a) We sing songs about “I want to know you more”, but if we don’t cultivate a prayer life, are those words true, or simply good lyrics which have caught us up in the emotion of things. b) To quote Ravenhill, a sinning man does not pray and a praying man does not sin. (I can testify to this in my own life.) c) So when you don’t pray it is a sign that things are not as they should be. d) The first prayer you should pray – when in such a state – is a prayer of repentance. Your second prayer will be much easier. e) Praylessness is a sin because it reflects a spiritual distancing from God.
5. Finally, I wanted take this whole concept of God’s covenant relationship with his children to new levels of faith when it comes to prayer, I explain below.
Prayer: It Moves the Heart of God!
I believe many people don’t pray because they simply don’t see the point. If everything has been written on stone, then why pray? Jesus said that the Father knows what we need before we pray. But this only seems to reinforce the dilemma. So why pray? At this point people reach for the law of prayer: “because God commands it”. But for me (and I suspect, for many other reflective people as well), this is simply not good enough. God is not frivolous. God is a God of purpose. You hear it often said “prayer changes things” and then with their next breathe, “All things are determined”. The parishioners’ reasonable response is, “huh?”
Frankly, for the sake of the sermon, I don’t care if you speak of “all things are determined”, “foreknown”, “predestined” or “written on stone”. If that’s how you want to think of things, fine. But God is sovereign, and a part his mystery is a giant eraser. (This way of thinking is only to accommodate those who want to think of things as being set in stone.)
First, Jesus wept, even though he foreknew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, he still wept. I think it is important to keep in mind that he was emotionally moved by the sorrow of his friends, and that he did not chastise them for having “a lack of faith” when they said to him, “if only you were here”. I think this is an important point to make because we Christians tend to think, if you speak that way you don’t have faith and God will get mad at you. To them I respond: read the Psalms!
Second, God tells Isaiah (yes, that Isaiah) to send a message to Hezekiah that he will die of the sickness he has, “so get your house in order”. This was not a “false prophecy”, it was not a “conditional prophecy”, it was not a “lying spirit”. This was God speaking through the reputable prophet Isaiah. I then challenged the congregation: if you received this prophecy from God (written on stone, foreordained, predetermined, or whatever), how would you respond? I suggested, in flat out honesty, that if I received this prophecy today I would probably respond the way Hezekiah did, “I’m not ready to die!”:
Remember, O Yahweh (covenant name), how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion… (2 Kings 20:3)
The passage concludes with, “Hezekiah wept bitterly”. Here Hezekiah appealed to God specifically as the covenant God of Israel (Yahweh) and reminded God of his faithfulness to him. In other words, Hezekiah appealed the relationship he had with God, and in doing so he moved the heart of God to erase (if you will) what God has formally prophetically declared:
Before Isaiah has left the middle of the courtyard, the word of the Lord came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, ‘this is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you…”
In other words, to cut a long post short, prayer does change things! But it’s all about the relationship.
That was the essence of my sermon on prayer. I took a little heat by a member of the congregation for my interpretation of John 2:1-11 where I suggested that because of Mary’s relationship with Jesus, she persuaded him to perform a miracle “ahead of time”. But besides that, more people seemed to affirm the sermon then did not (by perception). We shall see if there will be any fall out yet to be had.
In any case, let us pray.