Life Upside Down
Proper Prayer 1
We are returning to the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus preached to a large crowd on a hillside on the northside of the Sea of Galilee. This powerful sermon began in Chapter 5 with the Beatitudes. Since then Jesus has shown us some aspects of Christian living that are like life turned upside down. For instance, when we are angry it is like committing murder, when we lust it is like committing adultery, we should love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, and there have been many other life altering teachings we have looked at. If you missed some of them, I encourage you to go to the website and catch up on what we have learned so far.
It is like taking what we might consider a normal way to live as a believer and turning it upside down. Today, we will begin to look at what Jesus has to say about prayer. I believe what He has to say about prayer will once again confront our understanding of our relationship with Him. Let’s begin by reading Matthew 6:5-8.
5 "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
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.
Activity of Prayer (v. 5a)
And when you pray
~ The Repeated Action
I like this opening phrase. It says a lot about what Jesus thinks about our activity of prayer. Notice that it is not “if you pray,” as if it is something that may or may not happen in our lives. It is “when” you pray. There is an expectation that the activity is taking place. In fact, the Greek word translated “when,” is ὅταν and according to Friberg’s lexicon it is “a temporal conjunction used to show indefinite time for repeated or contingent action.” Friberg goes on to say that this is used “with the indicative to indicate definite repeated action.”
Thus, the words Jesus is using here indicate that those who are listening to Him on that hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee are to be a people of prayer. It is to be a part of their lives on regular repeated opportunities. It is a continual repeated communion with God. Prayer in its simplest understanding is just talking to God. Taking time to verbally or mentally talk to God. As simple as prayer is, it can be very complex at the same time.
We usually think that it is only spiritual people who pray, but in reality, many who do not even believe in God will call out to Him when life gets tough. In a crisis moment of life, a time that seems to be completely out of their control, an unbeliever may be found crying out to God to help them or fix their situation.
We can go to any number of passages in Scripture that evidence God hears the prayer of those who call out to Him in faith. When repentance is involved, God certainly hears the prayer of an unbeliever. 1 John 5:14-15 tells us that if we ask things according to God’s will, He will listen. Unfortunately, for many unbelievers, their cry out to God in crisis has nothing to do with repentance or seeing God’s will accomplished in their lives. They are just looking for relief from a difficult circumstance. For them, God does not listen we are told in John 9:31:
We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.
But think about this for a moment. It is a pretty awesome experience to think that we can talk with our Creator. As insignificant as we might think we are in the realm of God’s creation, God hears and answers our prayer. But we need to pray. Prayer needs to be a part of our lives on a regular basis.
It is amazing to me to think about these two extremes. An unbeliever who cries out to God in crises hoping to be heard but has no heart for God. But on the other hand, a believer who seldom or never talks to God and really doesn’t care about whether they are heard and yet claims to have a heart for God. Isn’t the end result the same?
There can be so much to understand about prayer and honestly, I don’t think we give much thought to it. A human being talking to their Creator! How exactly does that work? Does God really hear the prayers of people around this globe all at once? If God is sovereign, does prayer somehow move Him to do things differently? How does God know what to do when people pray differently for the same thing? What should we pray for? What does prayer look like? Have you ever stopped to contemplate prayer and what it looks like in your life?
Some people regularly pray before meals, others do not. Does that mean they are not right with God if they don’t pray before meals? Many Christians teach their children to pray simple prayers before they go to bed. If a child prays something a parent tells them to pray for, does that do any good? Do children really understand what they are doing? Though prayer is a very simple act, prayer is complex in what takes place when we pray.
What about what took place just recently. 12 school-age boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand for 18 days. During this time social media was chocked full of calls for prayer for these boys and their coach. I would even bet that were unbelievers calling out to God asking for divine intervention in this crisis. Keep in mind that James 5:16 tells us that “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” We prayed for them in our home, and if you pray, I would assume you prayed for them as well.
Jim Daly of Focus on the Family asked an interesting question in his blog. “Did all of the prayers from around the world deliver these boys to safety from the dreary and darkened flooded cave? More simply and bluntly put, did the Lord first need to hear from us before enabling the rescue? At the heart of such a question is a bigger one yet: If God is in control and sovereign over all things, why do we pray at all?”
These are powerful questions that Jim asks on his blog. If we cannot answer these questions, then it is probable that we do not pray as we ought. We either do not pray because we see no sense in praying or our prayers becomes this ritual we do because, . . . well, because Jesus told us we ought to pray. After all, our verses today begin with “And when you pray,” indicating we should have an activity of prayer taking place in our lives on a regular basis. So, since Jesus expects us to pray and if I am not praying, then I must start praying even if it has no meaning and is a dead ritual to me, right?
Here is something we know for sure when it comes to prayers for these boys in Thailand. If you did not pray for the boys in Thailand, and God was a part of their rescue, you have no part in it since you saw no need to pray about it. But if God enabled this rescue, and you prayed, you became a part of God’s powerful rescue operation that took place in Thailand.
But then this begs another question. It is clear, that if God was involved in the rescue of these boys, that He answered our prayers and for that we are truly thankful. And if you pray, I hope you thanked God for their rescue. I know many of us did during prayer time on Wednesday. But the question that we may have is why did God rescue these boys and not Saman Kunan, one of the seal divers who died trying to refill his oxygen in the rescue? And the only answer we can state with complete assurance is “I don’t know.”
We can go to many situations in the Bible and ask the same question. For instance, why was Job allowed to suffer? Why did Paul have to live with an affliction though he prayed for relief from it? Why did Steven have to be stoned to death when he was a tremendous witness for the Lord? And on we could go with examples from Scripture. Sometimes we look at these situations and we say, “why pray, God’s going to do what God’s going to do?”
But we keep coming back to the phrase, “And when you pray” realizing that prayer should be a part of what we do and who we are in Christ. This kind of statement is made often throughout the New Testament.
~ 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “Pray without ceasing.”
~ Ephesians 6:18 “Praying at all times in the Spirit.”
~ James 5:16 “Pray for one another that you may be healed.”
~ Philippians 4:6 “In everything by pray . . . let your requests be made known to God.”
~ 1 Timothy 2:8 “Men should pray lifting holy hands.”
Prayer is an activity that God expects from those who love Him. This activity should be a part of our lives, regularly, spontaneously, and with great excitement in knowing that we have God’s ear on what concerns our hearts. Unfortunately, what I have found in talking with many Christians is that prayer is not a primary part of their lives. They are unfamiliar with the concept that prayer is an activity that should be as much a part of life as talking to your wife or best friend and even more so.
~ The Pleasing Aroma
How many of you have burned incense of some kind in your home? Why did you burn incense? It may have been to create a mood, make your home smell better, or simply because it is pleasant and pleasing to our senses. Incense is a material that when burned it releases a fragrant smoke. When our nostrils pick up the fragrance it brings us a sense of pleasure.
Now I want you to listen close to what I am about to say. When God asked the nation of Israel to build the tabernacle, part of its furniture was the altar of incense. The altar of incense stood right in front of the veil that separated the Holy of Holies, which was the place of God’s presence and the rest of the Tabernacle. God commanded the priests to burn incense on the golden altar every morning and evening, the same time that the daily burnt offerings were made. The incense was to be left burning continually throughout the day and night as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
What we find in Scripture is that the incense burned on this altar was a symbol of the prayers and intercession going up to God as a sweet fragrance. One of the practices that took place during the morning and evening lighting of incense was for people to be praying outside. Why did they do that? They understood that the burning of the incense represented the pleasing aroma of the prayers of His people.
Do you remember when Zechariah the priest was visited by the angel about the birth of John the Baptist? He was in the Temple lighting the incense on the Golden Altar when the angel visited him about the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to him and his wife Elizabeth. But what I want to point out is that as he was doing light the incense on the Golden Altar, the people were praying outside the Temple.
And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.
The picture is of the pleasing aroma of the prayers of those who love God. Even when David was praying to God, he asks that it be like incense to the nostrils of God.
Give ear to my voice when I call to you! Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
In the book of Revelation, John the Apostle saw a vision of something that takes place in God’s throne room at the beginning of the seven years of great tribulation that will take place during the end times. John saw the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, take the seven sealed scroll of God’s judgment upon this earth. Of course, Jesus is the only One worthy to open this scroll. But what is powerful in John’s vision is the prayers of the saints being depicted as incense in golden bowels..
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Do you see the picture? Twenty-four elders holding 24 golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of the saints given in worship to God. All the prayers of the saints that are prayed . . . they are like a sweet savor of worship to our God.
A little bit later in the book of Revelation we read about the seven Trumpet Judgements. As preparations are made for the seven Trumpet judgments we find the imagery of the Golden Altar of Incense and the prayers of the saints again being talked about.
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
What John was seeing here is the prayers of believers for the coming Kingdom. It was the cry of believers during the great Tribulation for God’s judgment on those who refuse to believe and turn in repentance. The act of this angel filling this censor with fire and throwing it to the earth is an indication that God’s judgment comes in direct response to these prayers.
Oh, that you and I could get a hold on the importance and power of prayer. Oh, that you and I would take seriously the things we pray for. Oh, that you and I would understand that our prayers come before God as a sweet savor, a pleasant aroma that gives our God pleasure! Oh, that we could truly understand what Jesus is telling us when He says, “And when you pray.”
As Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount to the people on the hillside that day, He was turning their lives upside down. Jesus is about to take them to the heart of prayer. It is not about personal recognition, it is about communion with the Father. It is not about empty phrases, but about our worship of an omniscient God. But now I am getting ahead of myself. That’s for next week.
Today I want you to think about your prayer life. If you claim Jesus as your Lord and Savior and God as your Father through a genuine faith relationship, I have no doubt that you are a person of prayer. But maybe you claim you are a Christian who does not pray. You don’t spend time in daily communion with the Father. You don’t speak to Him throughout the day as you would your spouse or best friend. You may say a blessing at the table for your food, but that is the extent of it. You choose not to pray with others in a prayer meeting because you feel uncomfortable. You daydream about things you want to do rather than consciously joining in prayer with someone who is leading in prayer.
Maybe you are unsure about what good it does to pray. Maybe you feel you don’t know what to say. Maybe you don’t think you have time. We spend two weeks talking about praying for our nation. You might be thinking, that will never change anything.
Can I challenge you with something this morning? Let’s pretend . . . I don’t’ believe this to be true . . . but let’s pretend that we cannot move God with our prayers to act differently than He would without our prayers. Let’s pretend that there is no power in prayer and that it has no bearing on the outcome of anything. What if the only thing that happens when we pray is that God is pleased? That He enjoys the sweet savor of our communion with Him. What if the only thing that happens when we pray is that we bring a sense of dependence and love into our relationship with Him? Now I am not saying that is the only thing that happens, but what if it were? Wouldn’t that alone make prayer so worth our time and energy?
I honestly believe that if pleasing my God was the only reason to pray that that is reason enough. To think that I can bring a sweet and pleasurable aroma to God because I took time to pray is worth it all. But the beauty of this is that that is not the only thing that happens when we pray. We will talk more about that next week.
I have no doubt that there are many of you here today who do not take time to talk to God in prayer on a regular basis, simply because you love Him. My prayer is that you will have such a love and passion for God that you begin talking to Him, simply because it is pleasing to Him.