|Luke #43 Discovering Power and Presence in Prayer
Discovering Power and Presence in Prayer
Reading: Luke 11:1-13
Introduction: Any time one makes an extended trip away from home and family, it is great to return home to family and friends, and especially one’s own bed. Joe and I had a great trip, the best part of which--for me in many ways--was being with Joe for 11 days. Over the course of the next few weeks, I am sure you will hear more stories than you wanted about our trip. This Wednesday night I will spend a few minutes talking about the trip in my class. This morning I want to share just one story from our week with the Christians in Zagreb. On the last full day we were there, we were scheduled to visit the congregation in the neighboring city of Zaprecht, where Ivan Tesic is the full time missionary and his brother Nicola is his associate. Ivan and Nicola are native Croatians, with Ivan having studied here in the States at Lubbock Christian and Abilene Christian before returning in 1985 to work with the church in Zagreb.
The work in Zaprecht was begun about four years ago. We were reliant on others for transportation, of course, and they arranged for Nicola to pick us up. Nicola speaks some English but is not really fluent like his brother or his son Ivaca. Nicola’s wife died more than 10 years ago and he lives in Zagreb with his now 15 year old son and his refugee mother in a small apartment. When he came to pick up Joe and me, he first took us with him on a couple of errands and then we went to his apartment for a short time before making the 25-30 minute trip to Zaprecht. When we got in the car to go to Zaprecht, we hadn’t been driving more than 4-5 minutes when Nicola interrupted the conversation to ask if we minded him praying at that point. We said that would be fine, and he started praying out loud, in Croatian, as he drove.
One of the things about all the prayers we heard while we were there was that, even though we could not understand the words, we could feel the reverence and awe and the emotions of their prayers. There is such an obvious appreciation and thanksgiving for the God of the universe intervening in their lives, giving them some measure of hope in the midst of the despair. On this occasion, as we were in heavy traffic in Zagreb, we could not understand the words, but we soon more than just spectators of this man driving and praying at the same time because the sincerity and importance of the moment was so obvious. About the time Nicola finished his prayer we came to an underpass and Ivica began explaining that just a couple of weeks early there had been a horrible multiple car accident at the intersection, with cars totaled and people badly injured, and his dad was just one car behind those that collided.
Joe and I assumed Nicola must have been praying about the wreck, and suddenly it made sense that he would choose to pray at that point, although the praying out loud in front of strangers from America was still a bit odd. That evening, after we had eaten with the Tesic family and after I had spoken to the church in Zaprecht, Nicola was once more appointed to drive us back to Zagreb. Again, we had not been in the car more than a couple of minutes when Nicola interrupted the conversation to say that he would again pray, this time in English. I thought he must really be shook by that near miss--he prays for safety every time he gets in the car. But to my surprise, he never talked about driving and safety in any of the prayer. Instead, the English words carried the same sense of awe in the presence of God who so loved the world that he gave his only son. There was that same sense of thanksgiving. I cannot remember much at all in the way of petition or asking God to meet human needs except for a call for peace in his homeland. I have though much since then about what it means to pray, and why Nicola chose those moments to pray.
Prayer is one of those parts of religious experience that we all know, and yet sometimes we wonder if we understand anything at all about prayer. One of my professors in graduate school likes to tell the story about the minister who went to the hospital one day to visit an elderly lady who had been bedfast for some time. As the preacher was ending his visit and conversation with her, he offered to pray with her--it was his custom to do that whenever he visited the sick. She said that would be fine, and so he prayed that God would bless those attending to her and that he would restore her health, and he ended his prayer and turned to leave. Before he could get out of the room however, this woman sat up in her bed. Then she swung her legs around off the edge of the bed; she stood up and put on her slippers and began to walk around the room. Then she turned and hugged the preacher and began shouting, “Oh, thank you, thank you! I’m cured!” The preacher went out to his car and got in it and put his hands on the steering and looked up and said, “Don’t ever do that to me again!”
What do we believe about prayer, anyway? We know those men whose public prayers we like to listen to, and we know those other guys as well. We have some sense that we ought to have a personal prayer life and a family prayer life and a congregational prayer life, but what’s it all about, what do we hope to accomplish? Is it just a psychological game we play as religious people? Is it a divine power that we somehow can manipulate with the right incantations at the right moments? Is it something men can do in public that women can only do in private? What is it? When is prayer appropriate? Why was Nicola’s prayer so strange to me?
In our story from Luke today, 12 men who have been with Jesus for some time now, who were selected after Jesus spent one entire night in prayer, come to him as he has finished praying and they want to be taught. It is not that they did not already have some conception of prayer as Jews. They all must have been around the temple and the synagogue. They must have memorized the prayers that were part of the worship rituals. But they want the teacher to instruct them as John instructed his disciples. Jesus tells them the words to say, and they are words we are most familiar with in the context of Matthew’s gospel and the Sermon on the Mount. This version is shorter, and while we recognize the words and the form, it is not what we read or hear most often. There are no songs called “The Lord’s Prayer” that have these words.
As I have studied and taught on the words of the “Model Prayer” as some refer to it, I have learned to talk about all the particular nuances of each phrase, of the importance and distinctiveness of referring to God as father, not just as creative father but as kinship father. I have learned to talk about what “hallowed be thy name” means, as a reference to God’s name being made holy. I have learned to talk about “thy kingdom come” as a reference to the rule and reign of God and this petition that the rule and reign be fully and completely established. I have learned how to defend this prayer as something still fitting for Christians today, not because the church has already established the kingdom, but because God’s perfect rule and reign still remains as the goal in front of us. I have learned to talk about the petition for daily bread as recognition of God as the provider of daily physical necessities. I have learned to talk about the contingency that suggests God’s forgiveness of us is somehow conditioned by our ability to forgive others. I have learned to talked about the petition about temptation not as something God might actually do to us--lead us into temptation--but rather as a plea that God would prevent us from falling prey to temptation.
But having said all of that, I find the teaching of Jesus on prayer at that moment not particularly inspiring. You never see another prayer in Acts or in the Epistles that looks like this one. Does he mean that these are the very words we should use, as later church tradition established? Is it the simplicity we are to learn from? What are we to do with these explanatory stories that follow the model prayer? How do they provide explanation or helpful commentary? The first is about prayer in the context of honor and shame. According to rules of hospitality on the one hand and neighborly reciprocity on the other hand, both of the men in this story are in a bind. The first has guests he can’t properly attend to. The second has a neighbor whose honor is at stake and he therefore looks to the neighbor to rescue him. For the neighbor to deny the request, he must allow the neighbor to be shamed, which in turn would shame him, because he did not respond honorably as neighbor. How much more, Jesus says, is God’s concern for one who calls out to him. How much above such simple human perspectives on honor and shame and human worth is God!
The second example is obvious and straightforward. No parent substitutes snakes for fish, or rocks for eggs. How much more will God give the Holy Spirit. How much more will God give the Holy Spirit? Not “good things” as in Matthew’s account, but Holy Spirit. Rather than this last sentence being a strange twist in Luke’s account that simply is another of those special interest texts of Luke, I suggest that this last sentence is the ultimate explanation of Jesus’ teaching on Prayer. The Holy Spirit is what came upon Jesus at his baptism. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for 40 day, tempted by the devil. After he had withstood the greatest challenges of the devil, he returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and the reports of him began to spread. When he read from Isaiah 61 at the synagogue in Nazareth, he announced that the Spirit of God was upon him and had anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who were oppressed. It was that divine presence that empowered his ministry, in his speech, in his miracles, in his prayer. Prayer, in the end, is communication with God, our faith that when we pray we somehow are being heard by the Creator of the Universe.
What Jesus does with his disciples here is not to give them new words to memorize, or new theological understandings of God to master, or new conceptions of divine and human forgiveness to ponder. What he does is tell to seek the presence of God through prayer. Every single aspect of the so-called model prayer is a petition for God-presence in our world, in our lives. The address of “Father” claims kinship ties to God and therefore is recognition of relationship and presence. To pray that his name be sanctified is to recognize that God alone was capable of making his name known and made holy among humans. To pray that his reign be established is to pray that humans recognize that power and presence. To pray for daily bread is to recognize that God is the giver and sustainer of life. To pray for forgiveness of humans by God, and forgiveness of humans by other humans, is to agree with the crowd who saw the paralytic healed: only God can forgive sins. To pray that we not be led into temptation is to pray that we will not leave that God presence. We will not forget God is there to empower us just as he did Jesus against Satan in the wilderness. To learn from Jesus how to pray is to learn how to live in the constant presence of God, to live empowered by the Holy Spirit, to live a life that Asks, Seeks, and Knocks, not for stuff on this earth, not for more material needs and concerns, but for God’s power and presence to be manifest among us. That’s what Jesus’ prayers were about, weren’t they? Abba, father....
To pray is to recognize God as creator and sustainer and giver of all that can be authentically described as life. Our prayers are expressions of thanksgiving, of petition for life that is that God presence, that Holy Spirit activity in our midst.
Don’t pray like the hypocrites who want to be heard for all their words--it’s not just the simplicity of the words, it is the point of prayer. It is us recognizing and inviting the empowering presence of God to be at work in our lives and in the lives of others around us.
Suddenly Nicola’s prayers in the car not only made sense, I want to learn to pray as he prayed. And it’s different out loud, rather than silent, by the way.
God has chosen since the beginning in the garden to allow humans to think they can live outside that presence. But he longs for those created in his image to seek that presence and live within that presence.
I want to challenge all of us at this congregation today to learn to pray as Jesus prayed; to ask, seek, knock, to discover what it means to be constantly aware of the presence of God.
Delivered at Brentwood Hills, February 5, 1995 a.m.
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