Learning to Pray

St Barnabas 3rd March 2013

Readings – Luke 18:1-8; Genesis 18:16-33

Prayer. It’s something we all do. When you see a child run out into the road, you pray. When you see a car coming head on towards you, you pray. When you get that letter from the benefits office, you pray. No matter what people say, when the chips are down, most of us pray.

So what exactly is prayer? That’s a subject which, down the ages, has filled countless books, and attracted the minds of the very best theologians and philosophers. I could spend all morning discussing the learned writings of saints and scholars across the centuries who tried to answer this question. Prayer is often thought of as something mystical and obscure, a difficult exercise only to be attempted by people who are clever or appear not to have that much else to do.

But Jesus had a very simple attitude to prayer. You can see this in the story we heard this morning, and it’s one we can all relate to. It features an unjust judge, and a poor widow, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture the scene.

Here is a crusty old gentleman in a wig. He’ll give you justice, all right, just so long as you slip a few notes into an envelope, or give him your bank account details. Everyone knows he’s bent, but it seems there’s not much anyone can do about it. And then there’s the poor widow, who seems to have absolutely no chance of winning her case. We all know what’s going to happen, right!? Only just as in any good Hollywood blockbuster the little guy stands up to the big, bad guy. And after many twists and turns, and against all odds, the widow wins. The hammer comes down. The verdict is pronounced. The widow has got justice, after all.

It’s a great story but what does it teach us about prayer? Well, let’s think first of all about the unjust judge in the story. Jesus describe him very carefully in order to teach us what God is and isn’t like.

Jesus tells many stories where one of the main characters represents God. Think of the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. Think of the king giving the talents to his three servants. Think of the judge in this story. What do all these pictures of God have in common? Very simply, that they show God is a personal God. It’s very easy to miss this point, but it really is so important. God is not a bundle of cosmic energy, or some kind of life-force you can only reach by some kind of mystical experience. Nor is he is some great obscure puzzle you can sense but never really relate to. No, God is personal. That means we can communicate in a real and personal way. We can talk to Him. We can listen to Him. We can understand what He wants of our lives. We can love Him and be loved by Him.

And that’s the first point Jesus wants to make about prayer in this story. When we pray it is just like the widow coming before the judge. They use words to have a conversation. The widow speaks, and the judge speaks. Of course at first their conversation doesn’t get very far, and we’ll come back to that later. But I want to ask, have you ever understand prayer in this way, as a conversation between you and God?

By the way, let’s be clear: when you pray, you don’t have to use proper, religious language. You don’t have to put on a posh accent, or even make a lot of sense. We have a Heavenly Father who just wants us to talk to Him. And if there’s anyone here who has never really grasped this point, who perhaps feels too scared or too tongue-tied to pray, let me encourage you this morning to talk to God. It may feel kind of weird at first, but gradually as you learn to come into your Father’s presence, you will discover it to be the most natural and most wonderful thing you can do.

But do be aware that God also wants to get a word in edgeways! After all, how do we know that we are asking for the right things, or we properly understand who God is? The answer is, that God has given us His word, the Bible, and He wants to teach us so much about who He is and what He wants for our lives. So when you pray, get used to the habit of keeping your Bible open. Take a short story like the one Jesus tells in today’s reading to learn who you are praying to, to discover what it means to believe and trust in God and His only Son, Jesus.

And if that all seems a bit too difficult or scary, find a close Christian friend you can pray with, can help you understand what the Bible might be saying to you. But however you do it, do make sure your prayers allow space and time for God to speak to you. Because, God, the very maker of heaven and earth, is interested in you, and He has a plan and a purpose for your life. Surely it’s worth out finding out what that is, isn’t it?

So, if that’s the case, why does Jesus describe God here as an unjust judge? The very simple answer is, to show us exactly what God isn’t like. You see, if we’re honest, too many of us view God exactly as Jesus describes Him here. We think God will answer our prayers if we try and bribe Him, rather like the little boy who asks for a new train set and then promises to be good. We think if we can just offer God something, then He will be impressed. Maybe we do promise to be good, or to come to church, or read our Bible, if only God will give us what we want.

And that’s completely the wrong way to look at prayer. After all, God is pure and holy, and we are not. God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and we are not. God is mighty and awesome, and we are not. The idea we can make a bargain with Him is frankly quite ridiculous. So why do we do it? Because we have such a small view of God, and such a big view of ourselves, we think we can cut a deal.

And if you think I am exaggerating, take a moment to reflect on our passage from Genesis this morning. This is one of the most extraordinary passages in Scripture about the very nature of God. Yes, it is a conversation between God and Abraham, but it is nothing like the cosy chats that we so often imagine prayer to be.

For a start, this prayer does not begin with Abraham. We so often imagine that prayer starts with us coming into the Lord’s presence and then listening for His answer. But here this conversation has a different starting point. It begins with God taking Abraham into His confidence, and revealing His plan for Sodom and Gomorrah. And what a horrific and apparently unfair plan it seems to be. Because what the Lord is intending to do is nothing less than totally annihilate the cities, to make an end of every living thing, to ensure that the places become so desolate they can never, ever be rebuilt again.

Just think about that for a moment. Imagine a city or a society that has become so corrupt the Lord decides to wipe it out. Imagine a place where violence, sexual exploitation and greed has become so endemic the Lord says, “Enough is enough” and puts an end to everything. And let’s be clear, Sodom and Gomorrah really was like that. The Lord wasn’t operating on rumour or hearsay. Indeed the story portrays the Lord actually checking out the facts for himself (verses 20-21): The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.

The Lord has heard. The Lord has seen. And now the Lord tells Abraham He will act. I wonder, if you were in Abraham’s position, how would you react!? Surely if you had any heart, any compassion you would protest against the injustice of the Lord. Yes, the Lord has to act against sin, and evil must be punished. But why should His judgement include absolutely everyone? Isn’t He in fact behaving precisely like the unjust judge Jesus describes in our gospel reading today? If the Lord is compassionate and merciful, then there seems no reason why the sins of some should fall upon all. It all seems such a terrible and unnecessary waste, a very denial of the justice that is supposed to be the essence of his character.

And so we come to this extraordinary scene where Abraham pleads to the very father heart of God. Verses 23-25: Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? This is the prayer of a man in pain, but not the sort of physical pain that so often moves us in our prayers. This is the prayer of a man who has seen the full horror of hell, and wrestles with a God who seems to condemning everyone to their fate. Surely, he reasons, there must be some good in this city, some righteous people who could and should be saved from this fate.

And it seems for a moment as if the Lord has heard and answered Abraham’s prayer. Verse 26 tells us plainly: The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” So you might have been thought Abraham would have been content with this reply. The Lord has revealed His will and in response Abraham has been moved to pray. It seems that the Lord has answered His prayer. Abraham has shown himself to be a great man of faith. Sodom and Gomorrah are spared. Everyone lives happily ever after, and for generations to come we have a lesson about how to plead with God.

But that’s not how the story develops. Because Abraham carries on with his negotiations: Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?” “If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it”. So the question, why does Abraham carry on? What prompts him to start this strange kind of bargaining with God? The Lord promised not to destroy the city if there were fifty people righteous people in it. But now Abraham brings the number down to 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, 10. Each time he takes the lead in prayer. Each time he reduces the number of righteous people. What’s going on?

The short answer is that as even as he prays Abraham begins to understand what he is asking. He is asking that the Lord declares a certain number of people in the city worthy to stand in His presence. That’s what righteous means – counted pure and holy enough to be acceptable in God’s sight. And when you start to think about who can be righteous in God’s sight, the number begins to go down, and down, and down. In fact in the end you end up with the conclusion that Paul reached in Romans 3:23: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Or as the psalmist puts it: there is no-one who does good, not even one (Psalm 53:3).

That’s why when it comes to prayer, don’t imagine for a moment you can negotiate with God or often Him sweeteners so your prayer can be heard. All you can do is realise that you have absolutely nothing to offer God, no merit of your own that can ever make you fit to stand in His presence of God.

Yet, please also note this, it was not wrong for Abraham to pray like this. The Lord still wants us to pour out the desires of our hearts, just as indeed the widow in our gospel reading poured out her desires before the judge. And the amazing thing is that, when we reach the point of realising we have nothing to offer, it is then that the Lord will hear and act upon our prayers. This is what Jesus says in verses 6 and 7: Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?

I began this morning by asking the question, “What is prayer?” My simple answer would be a response to the grace of God. It’s about coming to the Lord recognising that we have nothing to offer Him but trusting and believing only in the name of Jesus.

Now I guess that many of us would be familiar with this understanding of prayer. Many of us here this morning have already reached that point of trusting Jesus, and many of us have great stories of what has happened in answer to our prayers. We know that thanks to Jesus we have a conversation with God our Father. We are used to giving Him the desires of our hearts. And there is nothing wrong with any of that.

But both our gospel reading and our passage from Genesis, I believe, would have us think again what it means to pray. Because, if we’re honest, there are times when our prayer becomes too small, when we think we can negotiate with God, or twist His arm. And there are times when our prayers become too comfortable when we do not wrestle enough with the warnings and judgements God gives in His word.

So this morning recognise afresh what a privilege prayer is. Recognise it is a personal conversation between you and the very maker of heaven and earth. Recognise there is nothing that you can offer God, and especially in this season of Lent, recognise your own poverty and need of God’s saving grace. Recognise what a joy it is to pray in Jesus’ name, knowing that through Him alone you can come into the Father’s presence.

And then, when you have thought about what it means you to pray, have the courage to look around at the city, at the neighbourhoods and streets where you live. Don’t confine your prayers to yourself, or those you know and love. Pray for those who are perishing, for the people of Plymouth who are, even without knowing it, under the judgement of God. And when your heart has been broken by the pains and needs of a lost and suffering world, come before Jesus and wrestle with that very question He asks each one of us: when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

Rev Tim


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