The God who hears our prayers

St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 27th September 2015

Readings – Hebrews 4:14-5:10; Luke 11:5-13

So there you are in bed fast asleep, with your family tucked up for the night, when suddenly you hear a tap at the door. You grunt and roll over, but the tapping continues. Bleary-eyed you get out of bed, not really certain if you’re dreaming or not. Cautiously you walk down the hallway, trying to make sure you don’t wake up the whole house. You put the chain on the door, and open it a few inches. It’s your neighbour. He’s got some story about a friend arriving unexpectedly and he needs three loaves of bread. “Who needs three loaves at bread in the middle of the night?” you wonder. So you shake your head, and you try closing the door, but he’s not giving up that easily. Whoever his friend is, the visit is important, and he’s begging you to help. In the end, just because you want to get some sleep, you give in. You go to your freezer, pull out the loaves and give him what he wants.

Now take a moment to imagine what it must have been like for the neighbour to go round at midnight and ask for help. He was faced with an emergency. He didn’t have what he needed, and he didn’t know where to turn for help. It was a crazy, crazy idea waking up his friend next door, but what could he do? There really seemed to be no other solution. The shops were shut. There was no time to bake anything. He just had to go round and beg.

Can you, I wonder, sympathise with this neighbour? Can you think of a situation in your own life where you have come to the end of your resources and didn’t know what to do? If you have, then I guess somewhere down the line you have probably asked yourself on more than one occasion where God was in that situation. The point Jesus is making in this story however is that God is not like the man woken up by His neighbour. He is not fast asleep. He is not behind a locked door. He is not reluctant to give. He is our Heavenly Father who delights in giving good gifts to His children, and He wants us to ask.

In our Sunday morning sermon series we have been going through Hebrews, and one of the big themes the writer wants to stress is the confidence we can have in approaching our Heavenly Father. Hebrews 4:16 – our memory verse for this morning – tells us: Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Of course, as we have seen, the people who received this letter were anything other than confident. They were going through tough times. They were struggling with sin and growing spiritually weary. They were facing opposition, and wondering if it was really worth carrying on with the Christian faith. That is why right from the very beginning the unknown writer has been so keen to stress who Jesus is.

So in chapter 1 he presents a breathtaking portrait of Jesus as the son of God who reigns over all things. In chapter 2 he shows how this same Jesus who reigns over all is also our brother and high priest. And in chapter 3 he reminds them that He is the one who still speaks to us even now. Quoting from the Old Testament and applying that Scripture to the very situation his hearers were facing, he challenges them with these words from Psalm 95:7: Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. Because the greatest concern of the writer is to show that this Jesus is the one through whom God made and sustains the world, and who gives us security in even the most challenging circumstance. We don’t, as it were, have to knock on His door at midnight and wake Him up, because He is already at work.

Listen to these words from Hebrews 4:12-13:

12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

That doesn’t make for comfortable reading, does it? But these verses remind us that when we do come to God in prayer, we have to realise He already knows all there is to know about us. He is not unaware of our situation. Nor is He unaware of the secret thoughts and desires that lead us to pray. He knows us better than we know ourselves. Which means that the starting point for any kind of prayer has to be complete honesty and openness before God. In Jesus’ story the man woken up at midnight only knew what his neighbour thought to tell him. For us, when we pray, the living God already knows the whole story. We don’t have to be like the man who many years ago got on his knees and said, “Oh Lord, as you have probably seen in the Times today…” Our God is so much bigger than that. He is indeed, as we often sing, a God who has known us and loved us since before the world began, and that realisation has to be the starting point for all of our prayers.

So what confidence can we have that such a God will hear and answer us when we pray?

Let’s go back to the book of Hebrews and think a little more about all the writer says about the high priest. Now the centre of the Jewish worship was the temple in the city of Jerusalem, shortly to be destroyed by the Romans in 70AD and never rebuilt. The temple was divided into separate areas. There was the outer courtyard which was the only place where the Gentiles were allowed to enter. Then there was the court of women, which was for Jewish people only, and above that, the court of Israel, which only the men could enter. At every level entry became more and more restricted, and right at the centre of the Temple was the Inner Sanctuary which only the High Priest could enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement. There, as Hebrews 5:3 tells us, he offered animal sacrifices both for himself and for the people.

But did these animal sacrifices really deal with the sin of the people once and for all? The answer is clearly not because the next year the High Priest had to go back and offer the same sacrifices all over again, in accordance with the law of Moses. He was a frail human being subject to weakness as verse 2 puts it and nothing he offered could ever fully restore the relationship between us and God.

Contrast the sacrifice that Jesus made. To begin with, as Hebrews 5:5 makes clear, Jesus was appointed once and for all eternity as the Son of God: You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Only someone who was in a perfect relationship with God the Father could ever offer an effective sacrifice for sins, and the huge claim of not just Hebrews but the whole New Testament is that Jesus is just such a person. Why? Because He Himself shares in the very nature of God. He is not a dead prophet. Nor is He simply a moral teacher or a good example to follow. He is the only Son of God who alone can pay the price for all our wrongdoing, all our rebellion that cuts us off from God.

So what, then, is this sacrifice that Jesus makes on our behalf? The startling answer, quite simply, is Himself. Think about that for a moment. Here is Jesus the Son of God, the perfect one loved by God the Father, who has reigned with Him in glory since before the beginning of time. Yet what does He do for us? He comes to us in weakness and humility, offering Himself up even to the point of death. As Hebrews 5:7 so movingly puts it:

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.

There is something mind-blowing about the fact Jesus Son of God so willingly offers Himself on our behalf. As Charles Wesley so memorably wrote in one of his hymns: Amazing love! how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? But even if we cannot fully answer that question, we can however rejoice as verse 9 puts it in the fact that once He had made that perfect sacrifice of Himself He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him. So instead of relying on a human priest to offer sacrifices on our behalf, we can as soon as we believe and trust in Jesus come to Him knowing that the price for all our sin has already been paid. Every single one. Every wrong thought, every wrong deed, every wrong word. All dealt with once and for all at the cross.

So what does that mean for our prayers? Very simply this, that the door into God’s presence has been unlocked. We have free and unrestricted access into the throneroom of God at any time and any place. Our Heavenly Father is pleased to grant an audience with us whatever our situation, whatever we are going through.

And just to confirm this point, do you remember what I just said about the Inner Sanctuary which only the High Priest could enter once a year? It was separated off from the rest of the temple by a thick veil or curtain as the sign of the separation between God and man. Yet at the moment Jesus died on the cross, at an abandoned quarry on the other side of Jerusalem, this curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. It was God demonstrating once and for all there really was a way for sinful man to come into His presence through the perfect sacrifice of His perfect Son who took all our wrongdoing on our shoulders in order that we might become right with Him.

Do we, then, have to come before God like the neighbour in Jesus’ story, trying to persuade and cajole Him into answering our prayer? The short answer is no, because He is more ready to listen than we are to ask. He is our Heavenly Father who made us, who loves us, and who accepts all who come to Him in Jesus’ name. That is the astonishing privilege of prayer, and let me stress, it really is available for everyone. All I’m saying about prayer doesn’t just apply to church leaders, or theologians, or people with special gifts. When that curtain in front of the inner sanctuary was torn, the way into God’s presence was opened for you, and for you, and for me, and that way is still open today.

As the writer to the Hebrews says in chapter 4, verse 16: Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Because our Heavenly Father’s greatest desire, greatest longing for each and every one of us is that we might receive the mercy and the grace that we need when we need it. Luke 11,

9 So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

That is Jesus’ promise to you this morning. How, then, will you respond?

Now today is the National Prayer Weekend. The idea behind the prayer weekend is very simple: what would happen if all God’s people all at the same time availed themselves of the privilege of prayer? If they pleaded with one voice for the people they love and the places where they live? The history of the church at least suggests that we might start to see some mighty answers to our prayers. Because nothing pleases our Heavenly Father more than when His children gather in the name of Jesus, and as one body approach the throne of grace with confidence. And if only we put into practice all we knew and had been taught about prayer, then I believe we would see great results.

The trouble is, the enemy knows that prayer is powerful. He wants to do anything to discourage, distract or divide us. He wants us to believe that God is asleep, that He is hiding behind a locked door, that He is reluctant to give. My simple aim this morning is to show that nothing could be further from the case. Luke 11,

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?
12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?
13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

So this morning let us ask our Heavenly Father for the gift of His Holy Spirit. Let us pray that we are indeed sent out from here in the power of the Holy Spirit to live and work for His praise and glory. And let us go out from here united in prayer, confident in God’s grace and mercy, and claiming His victory.

For His name’s sake. Amen.

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