“Why Does God Listen to Us?”
Devotional Text: Matthew 6:7-13
Good evening, family! This is the first of a series of “family devotionals.” God willing, I plan on creating and broadcasting one of these each as often as I can during this strange, challenging time in which we find ourselves. When we’re “quarantined.” I don’t want you to feel “quarantined” from church, or from your pastor… So that’s why I’m doing this.
By the way, here’s my favorite tweet I’ve seen over the past few days. It comes from someone in Ireland:
Day 1: I have stocked up on enough non-perishable food and supplies to last me for months, maybe years so that I can remain in isolation for as long as it takes to see out this pandemic
Day 1 + 45 minutes: I am in the supermarket because I wanted a Twix
It helps to keep a sense of humor about this crisis!
And make no mistake: it is a crisis. I’ve already been concerned about the coronavirus itself, and the threat it poses to me and my loved ones, including those of you in this congregation—especially those of you who already have compromised immune systems. But now… as it looks like this crisis might last a while… We see what’s happening on Wall Street. We see what’s happening to local businesses, especially retail businesses… restaurants and shops. Will this lead to a recession… depression? What will happen to our jobs? To our businesses? What will happen to the economy? So many of us are feeling financially insecure all of a sudden… Add to that the disappointment of high school students who likely won’t have prom this year. Will seniors even be able to walk for graduation? And so many of our children and youth are facing the disappointment of canceled sports programs and other extracurricular activities. College students are home and feeling very uncertain about the rest of the semester.
And don’t get me started about church… holy week… Easter! What are we going to do? I don’t know. And what about weekly offerings!
Many of us are feeling out of control. Or more accurately, we’re reminded once again of the fact that ultimately, we never were in control. Or we’re reminded how quickly events outside of our control can quickly change our plans, even change our lives.
So, I thought I would begin this series of devotionals by focusing on… prayer. Doesn’t that seem very relevant right about now? And I want to begin by reading some of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount about prayer, Matthew 6:7-13. If you have your Bibles, and you should, turn with me to Matthew 6:7-13. Arlean, my wife, tells me I don’t give people enough time to turn in their Bibles. So please press pause on the video if you need to… I’ll wait… I’m going to read the scripture:
7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Back when I was in college, I read a book by a popular Christian author on the subject of prayer. But the book actually caused great harm to my prayer life. Why? Because I became convinced that I wasn’t doing it right! I wasn’t praying correctly! I was a failure at prayer!
For one thing, the book convinced me that my life was way too busy, that I needed to slow down, that I needed to foster a “prayerful attitude,” that I needed to get in the right frame of mind to pray. And the author talked about all kinds of ways we can do so—he talked about breathing and posture and prayer beads—even lighting candles. He talked about prayer warriors from centuries past, and how they prayed. Do what they did, he said… follow their example… Emulate these saints!
To make matters worse, he said that I needed to make time to listen to God, that “listening” was the most important part of prayer. You’ve probably heard that, too. Anyway, I wasn’t making nearly enough time to do that, either!
My point is, I felt like unless I could make enough time for prayer, and unless I could create the right environment for prayer, and unless I could have just the right sort of attitude for prayer, and unless I could pray in just the right sort of way… unless I could do all those things, then… well, don’t bother praying at all! As a result, I prayed less and less. Which just made me feel like more of a failure than I did before I read this book!
Do you know what I needed far more than I needed to read that book?
I needed Jesus to teach me how to pray. Because Jesus knew how to pray better than anyone else, right? And his disciples noticed how unusually effective Jesus’ prayers were. In fact, in the other version of the Lord’s Prayer, in Luke chapter 11, the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Jesus, teach us how to pray.” We don’t know how to do it very well. You do. So, we need you to teach us. And Jesus gives them the Lord’s Prayer—often called the Model Prayer—in response.
In Matthew, Jesus is preaching to a much larger group of disciples as part of a sermon; same prayer, different occasion in Jesus’ ministry.
We’ll look at the prayer itself later this week. Right now, I want to focus on Jesus’ words leading up to the prayer, verse 7: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
Jesus lived in Galilee, in the northern part of Israel. He lived in the town of Nazareth and, later, Capernaum, both largely Jewish communities, but they were surrounded by Gentiles. And he would have noticed that when Gentiles prayed, they wasted their breath with a lot of empty words—gibberish words and phrases—believing that if they used just the right words, in just the right order, with just the right tone… then… then… they could get their god’s attention and cause their god to listen and respond to them. Apparently, they had to speak a lot of words before their god would pay attention to them!
And Jesus tells us, his disciples, no… Don’t be like them! Authentic prayer isn’t about using just the right words or doing it in just the right sort of way. Indeed, as with all things related to our relationship with God, prayer isn’t mostly about us and what we do; it’s about God and what he’s done for us through his son Jesus, and what he continues to do for us through his Holy Spirit, by his grace!
But in a way, I fell into that same trap back when I read that book in college: Do these things. Apply these principles. Follow these techniques. And then God will… what? Love you enough to answer your prayers? Perish the thought!
Maybe you can relate to verse 7? You think, “I need to get my act together before God will listen to me! I need to make myself worthy before I ask God to do anything for me! I need to show God that I’m really, really sorry for letting him down and resolve that I’m going to change… and then maybe he’ll listen to me! After all, why should God help me? It’s not like I’ve done much to help him!”
See what I mean? Jesus is telling us in verse 7 that our Father is not going to listen and respond to us when we pray because of who we are and what we do or don’t do… it’s because of who God is.
And who is God? If we’re Christians, God is our Father! It’s not about earning anything from him!
If you’re a father, think about your own kids! Can they do anything to earn your love? Do they have to behave in a certain way in order for you to always, always, always want what’s best for them? Do they have to somehow earn the privilege of talking to you? Of course not! Don’t you love it when your kids talk to you?
If Jesus is right, and God is our Father, how could he not feel the same way—only more so because, unlike sinful human fathers like me, our Father’s love never fails!
Besides, remember the Prodigal Son in Luke 15? The younger son squanders his father’s money in a faraway country. He’s broke. He’s starving. He knows he’s mistreated his father terribly. He knows he’s taken advantage of his father’s love. “But here’s what I’ll do,” he thinks. “I’ll return to my father. I’ll fall on my knees. I’ll tell him I’ve sinned against him badly; I don’t deserve anything from him—certainly not to be treated as his son. I’ll tell him that I only want to work as his hired hand. Then, maybe if I do these things and say these things… then maybe, just maybe he won’t kill me; maybe instead he’ll treat me like a slave, which is better than I deserve!”
And you know the rest of the story? His father runs out to meet him, throws his arms around him. Tells his servants to fetch his best robe to put it on him—to dress him in the finest clothes. To kill the fatted calf so they can have the biggest celebration imaginable!
Here’s the thing: The father doesn’t even let his son finish his well-rehearsed speech about how sorry he is and what he aims to do. No! His father doesn’t need him to say or do anything!
That’s God’s grace! That’s how our Father views you, his child! That’s how much he loves you! That’s much he longs for you to come to him in prayer! If it’s true for a prodigal son, why would you think it isn’t true for you—a regular son or daughter of our heavenly Father?
My point is, our Father is not reluctant to listen to you when you pray, to show you his favor, to bless you, to give you exactly what you need when you need it! “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus our Lord.”