Allen Jackson - Prayer 201 - Part 1
Our theme for this year is "Let's Pray". We want to drill down with a little more detail and intentionality and insight in what it means to pray. If you're a Christian at any level, marginal or devoted, you know that prayer is a part of the Christian faith; but it's also a part that we tend to overlook or neglect or it's kind of a crisis-response point, and I would submit to you there's more, there's a greater meaning in prayer than perhaps we have known, and we've been talking about prayer around here for a while now. For several years we've been trying to take some steps towards becoming a people of prayer.
And we have begun to pray some things together and we have made some progress; but this year I believe God has an invitation to us to understand prayer in some entirely new ways, some more meaningful ways, some more profound ways. So we're going to label this weekend "Prayer 201". We want to go beyond some of the beginning points. I want to start in Isaiah chapter 37, the 21st verse. Isaiah is a prophet we're introduced to in the Hebrew Bible. There's a book that bears his name in your Old Testament. He is certainly one of the most celebrated of the Hebrew prophets. The book is filled with some beautiful poetic language and some tremendous insights into the character and the work of God.
Once the monarchy was established in Israelite history, once they had a king and they lived in the Promised Land there were three offices that God implemented to provide direction, insight, and provision for his people. They were the prophet, and the prophet's assignment was to provide a God perspective to the people. There was the priest, and the priest gave the people's perspective to God. The priests were the ones who offered the sacrifices to God and offered the prayers to God. And then there was the king, who had the administrative role. Well, the prophetic perspective, God's perspective for the people, is what we have collected in all those prophetic books of your Bible.
When you read the Hebrew prophets that inhabit the back of your Old Testament, what you're reading is God's perspective on what the people of Israel were doing and the nations that surrounded them. And so it's often helpful to have a bit of historical context or social context to understand what the prophets were speaking into. They weren't primarily future tellers, they were presenting a God perspective to the people. Well, in Isaiah 37 we get to listen in to a response that God has from the prophet to the king. "Isaiah son of Amoz sent a message to Hezekiah". Hezekiah is the king of Israel. "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib the king of Assyria, this is the word the LORD has spoken against him: 'The Virgin Daughter of Zion despises you and mocks you. The Daughter of Jerusalem tosses her head as you flee.'"
Isaiah the prophet goes to the king, Hezekiah, with a message. Jerusalem has a problem. The rising empire of the day is Assyria, and they have conquered every nation that they have set their sights on and now the Assyrian armies have encircled Jerusalem and destruction seems imminent. Hezekiah has prayed, and Isaiah goes to see the king with this message. We just read it. Did you see it? He said, "Because you have prayed to me concerning the king of Assyria, I have spoken against him". The implication is very clear. "Hezekiah, if you hadn't prayed, I wouldn't have done anything. But because you prayed, in response to your prayer I have made a pronouncement against the Assyrian king and I will drive him from this land".
It's a very simple idea. Prayer opens doorways of God's possibility in your life. When we refuse to pray, when we fail to pray, when we ignore prayer, we remove God's possibilities from our lives. Prayer is more than a burdensome responsibility. It's more than the assignment given to professional, clerical, religious people. Prayer is an invitation to every one of us to cooperate with the purposes of Almighty God. God responds to the prayers of his people. Look with me at one more passage. This time it's the New Testament. Luke chapter 11. Jesus is speaking. "I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you'll find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened".
It's a very intriguing passage to me. We are given a set of permissions from Jesus. We are given permission to ask and to seek, to find, to knock. If there's a door closed, Jesus doesn't say turn and go another direction. He says begin to knock. It's an invitation to an assertive response to life, a God-informed response to life, a God-directed response to life. Prayer matters. Prayer is more than something to resort to when everything else fails. Prayer is not the territory of the weak or the incapable or the unmotivated; prayer is a powerful, powerful part of your journey as a Christ follower. We can't afford to withdraw from the arena of prayer.
Now, I want to suggest to you a new response for this year; a way to interact with one another, to interact with people. It's a response to the challenges of life and the victories of life and it's wrapped up in two very simple words: let's pray. You don't need a Greek word or a Hebrew word or an Aramaic word or a word study. Let's pray. And they're simple. I mean, they're both one-syllable words. I think you can do this. This isn't Nebuchadnezzar or Sennacherib. All right? Let's pray. Can you say it? That was very mediocre. I wonder if we could do it with the enthusiasm as if Angus gave you the invitation. Okay? On three. One, two, three. That'd be a bit better. That's not quite up to Zulu standards, but we're working on it. Let's pray.
I brought you a passage of Scripture. Look with me in Philippians chapter 4. Says, "Do not be anxious about anything..." How wonderful it would be to live a week without being anxious about anything? "Don't be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus". Look at the outcome. It says there's a peace that is beyond understanding that can guard our hearts, our emotions, and our minds, our thoughts. I'd like to live in that place. I would like to live in a place that irrespective of what's happening in my life or in the broader world I am at peace within and at peace with the world and at peace with God.
Here's the idea with let's pray. We interact with people all the time. Every day every one of us interacts with dozens and dozens of people. Little people, big people, old people, professional people, casual acquaintances in the stores, with our friends, with our families. We do it in the social media. We post things. We text. We tweet. We put things, all kinds of ways we communicate, and there's a normal pattern of interaction that's a part of dealing with people in exchange of information. And if you grew up in the south, there's a whole polite layer to that. "How are you"? We don't really care, we were just taught to say that as kids. That's the truth. "And how are you today"? And if you've got a 3-minute answer, we're like, "Oh, could you hush"? But we have this interaction, right?
All kinds people tell you, you know, "How are you doing today"? "It's not good. The kids were sick last night. What I cleaned up in the floor of my house, I did not sign up for this". Right? "How are you doing"? "I'm not doing great today. My boss is in a bad mood". "How are you doing"? "I didn't sleep at all last night". All kinds of messages come to you, right? I mean, dozens and... I mean, talking to your friends, "How are you doing"? "I'm bummed out my team lost". "I'm excited my team won". "What are you doing for the Super Bowl"? I mean, you get all kinds of messages that come to you, and now we've got a pattern of responses. You probably got some phrases that you use. I mean, it's habit to you at this point. I'm asking you to retool a habit. This isn't going to be easy. We'll have to revisit it. We'll have to practice. I'll need your help. You'll need my help. We'll have to walk this out.
When you get that message, you've got a decision to make now. What are you going to do? You're going to commiserate? You're going to carry the gossip one step further in the chain? You're going to empathize? You're just going to look at them with a dumb look? What are you going to do? What are you going to say? We've got habits. "Oh, it's too bad. I'm so sorry". Sometimes we try to top their testimony with a horror story from our own portfolio. "You think your husband's bad. Listen about the man I live with". "You know, you won't believe what happened in church". "Well, let me tell you about the church I go to. Darth Vader was in the lobby".
Don't send me an email. So you've already got a... here's what I want to suggest. The minute somebody gives you one of those places that is a window into discomfort, angst, heartache, heartbreak, concern, worry, whatever it is, our response is, "Let's pray. Let's pray. Let's pray". But you can't stop there. There's a second step. As soon as you say let's pray, what I'm suggesting you do... the second step in this is you just drop your head. Don't say let's pray and wait for them to respond to you. "Well, now, Pastor, the way I believe..." No,"Let's pray," and you drop your head and we're going to pray.
Now, I don't want you to swell up like a TV preacher. All right? I know some of them. Okay? I'm not suggesting you say let's pray. "Almighty God", Okay? I'm not talking to you about that. And if you've got that tendency you go outside with the rabbits and the squirrels and the birds and you go for it, but don't subject us to that nonsense. All right, don't talk to God in a voice you don't use when you talk to the rest of us. He'll be laughing at you, too. "Gabriel, get over here. Listen to this. That 21st century southern boy just said thou. Look at that". When it's time to pray, let's pray. And you drop your... now, here's the third piece, and this is the money piece of this. You're going to pray a one-sentence prayer. "How are you doing"? "I'm not doing great. My kids were sick". "Father, help them. In Jesus's name, amen".
And hush. And then you look right back at them and your next line is not spiritual. You're not going to look at them with that long, sad, sober bless you. All right? "Let's pray. God, help them. In Jesus's name, amen. Who do you think is going to win the Super Bowl"? You with me? It's spiritual hit-and-run. Okay? I'm not opposed to long prayers. There's a time and a place. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about in the fabric of your everyday life, in the context of all of your relationships from the grocery store to purchasing gas to interacting with the co-worker. When they open a window about a life circumstance you're prepared to do something other than not care.
We're prepared to do something other than just wait until they're done with the nonsense so we can get done with whatever the business we have is. We're going to invite God into that circumstance in a sentence. You can do that. "Let's pray. Let's pray". "I had a horrible week. I'm physically exhausted. I had guests all weekend. I got to start work on Monday, I'm wondering..." "Well, let's pray. Lord, give us your strength. In Jesus's name, amen". "I have election fatigue. Make them stop talking". "Let's pray. God, give us your leader. In Jesus's name, amen". And you're gone. You're moving on. Say, "Well, you know, where I work we're not supposed to pray". I get that. "Father, let's pray. God, help us today. Amen, in Je..."
We're gone. You're not supposed to look at Facebook at the place you work either. And if you interview in senior management, they probably don't want you talking about the point spread on the Super Bowl or what the Vols are going to do next year or the recruiting class that's happening with your favorite whomever or whatever. Why are we willing to shut down the invitations to God in the places where we work, in the places where we live, in the places where we study, in the places where our lives happen? Let's pray. We can do this. It's time to stop being angry about what's not happening and being frustrated about expressions of ungodliness, and it's time for us to turn up the light. Let's pray.
It's going to take us more than 1 week to unpack this idea. The reason we're doing this over a 3-week window is I'm not clever enough to get it into one 40-minute little bucket. It's not a trick to get you in church for every weekend for the rest of your life. But if you'll give us three consecutive weekends, we'll do our best to give you some tools to face this year with an imagination of some different outcomes than would be typical. There's three simple prayers here. There's in no way an inclusive list, but, "Almighty God, we ask for your help. In Jesus's name, amen". Who doesn't want God's help? "God, give us your wisdom. In Jesus's name, amen. Heavenly Father, thank you for watching over us. Amen". And when you've prayed the prayer, now move on. Don't stand there like Father Confessor. It's important. Let's pray.
And before you realize what's happening and before the people that are interacting with you, you will have interjected invitations to God in dozens of ways, in dozens of places, in a non-threatening way that opens people's imagination that God is walking with them; and I believe the responses will be much like what we heard Isaiah say because you prayed. Somebody stopped me this morning, and they said, "Pastor, I've already tried it. I was leaving church last night and a friend sent me a text and they said, 'Our washing machine quit. We're at the big-box store shopping for washers.'" And they said, "I sent them a text back that said, 'I'm praying you get a good price on the right washer.'" Let's pray.
We've got to create a bigger window, more frequent invitations to God into the midst of our life. Stop raging against the darkness and turn up the light. I got a fun little reminder this week. Right out in front of the Three Crosses there is a search light, and the nights this week, they're going to turn it on about sunset. If you're out and about, you look up and you see the light, let it be a reminder that you had an assignment every day this week to let's pray. And if it's the end of the day and you haven't said it once to anybody, here's what I want get, climb in your car, drive to Mickey D's, go to the drive-in window, and when you get ready to order and that little squawk box comes on, "May I help you"? "Let's pray. God, give me something to eat that won't blow me up. Amen". And then move right on.
There is a let's-pray opportunity in almost every interaction you have through the day. This is not just something for the college kids or for the little kids. This works in a business meeting. If you got a tough problem and you need wisdom and experience and some significant horsepower directed at the problem, it's most appropriate for you to say, "Hey, let's pray. God, help us. In Jesus's name, amen". And then get back to work. If you've got a real challenge, this isn't about your profession. Don't tell me you're too professional to pray. Are you too professional to need God's help? We're not too sophisticated or too educated. There is a God, and prayer will make a difference. Let's pray.
Now, I want to give you some tools to help you walk this forward a little bit. Let's take this "Prayer 201" just a little bit further, and what I want to suggest to you is that there is a workmanlike quality to prayer. It's a very important piece of this equation, a workmanlike quality to prayer. What I mean by that, when I think of work I think of it in these terms. I think work means that you show up whether you feel like it or not. You know, it's not about the weather or the snow or the lack thereof. A workmanlike quality means you show up, you do the things that you know you can do that you're assigned to do, that you're responsible to. You got to roll up your sleeves. You lean into what the assignment is even though you understand sometimes that the larger outcomes are beyond you, but that if you don't show up and do your part you have torpedoed those larger outcomes. Well, there is a workmanlike quality to prayer.
You have to show up, engage, participate, be willing to make it a consistent part of your life response even though we understand the outcome is beyond us. See, when you see someone who with some consistency has outcomes to their prayers, what I want you to understand, it isn't that they have found the secret sauce. They don't have some special dust in their pocket or a mystical verse of Scripture that they have found. When you see someone when there are consistent outcomes to their prayers, you can know for certain that they have invested time and effort in knowing God and in praying. There is a workmanlike component to prayer. I remember Lance Lambert saying in this place that if someone has to tell you they're an intercessor they're probably not. I'm not talking about being goofy. I'm not discussing weirdness. I'm suggesting that the cultivation of meaningful prayers in your life means you're willing to engage in a set of practices.
Now, I want to give you a couple of ideas to help build that out, and the first is when we pray it's very important that you understand exactly whom you are addressing. It makes a difference. In Luke chapter 11 and verse 1 says, "One day Jesus was praying in a certain place". Now, I would suggest to you that if Jesus took time and energy to pray, it might be a good idea for you and me. I'm just thinking. "One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. And when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, 'Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.'" It's worth noting these are the disciples that Jesus had personally recruited. I think we could argue that Jesus was an effective leader, that his discernment, that his training skills were above average.
Now, he's recruited Peter, James, and John and the rest of his crew. They've been with him a while now, and they've observed Jesus praying, and they say to him, "Lord, we don't know how to pray like you do. Teach us to pray". That's a very important observation to me because I feel that way a good bit of the time. Jesus didn't rebuke them. He didn't chastise them. He didn't do anything to diminish them. He began to help them. So when you say, "I don't feel adequate, I don't know how to pray like I would like to pray, there's a deficit in me," that's not a point of shame or embarrassment or humiliation. It's not a threat of being rejected by God. We're standing shoulder to shoulder with Peter, James, and John. "Lord, teach us to pray".
Now, Jesus began his instructions immediately. "He said to them, 'When you pray...'" He assumes they're going to pray. "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.'" Now, most of you know the balance of that prayer. It's the Lord's Prayer, the our Father, but Jesus said the beginning of a meaningful prayer journey is this: "When you pray, say, 'Our Father.'" Our Father. Whom was Jesus addressing? The Creator of the universe, the Creator of all things, the Most High God. But he said, "When you pray, pray this way: 'Our Father.'" He didn't say when you pray you should start and say, "Oh, benevolent one who watches over the universe, the most omnipotent higher power..." No, he said when you pray, he's your Father in heaven.