Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
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The Vows of Membership- Prayers

Mark 9:14-29 and Matthew 6:5-13

 Today we are beginning a five week sermon series on what it means to be a member of the Church.  Our United Methodist liturgy contains a series of membership vows, pledges that a person makes about what it means to be a member of the church.  If you open a hymnal to page 38, you see a list of them.  To be a member of the church means to commit yourself to participate faithfully in its ministries by your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  You’ll notice that our hymnals only have four vows, leaving off “witness.”  That fifth vow was added to the liturgy four years ago by the 2008 General Conference, so hymnals older than do not include it, but it is now officially a part of our membership vows.

 Today we’re going to talk about the first of these vows:  Prayers.  I think this may be the most difficult of the five for me to preach because there is so much that could be said about prayer.  I could preach five sermons just on prayer and not exhaust everything that could be said about it.  But I’ll try to keep it simple and answer three basic questions about prayer:  Why do we pray?  How do we pray?  And for whom do we pray?

 First, why do we pray?  If we believe that God is all knowing, then what’s the point of us talking to him since he already knows our needs?

 Prayer is not something we do for God’s sake.  It’s something we do primarily for our own sake and for the sake of our relationship with God.

 Prayer is a theological act.  When we pray, we are revealing our “theology,” our understanding of God.  Every word we pray says something about what we believe to be true about God.  Even the fact that we pray reveals very important things about our understanding of God.  We pray because we believe God hears our prayers and is responsive to them.  

 Prayer is also an expression of faith.  When we pray, we declare that we are not self-sufficient.  We confess that we depend on God.  If we were not to pray at all, what would it say about us?  It would say that we are putting ourselves in God’s place.  To fail to pray is to claim that the solutions are all within us.  To fail to pray would be to claim that we are the ones to meet our own needs, that we need no God.  

 In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  When we pray that, we confess to God that we depend on him, not just for bread, but for everything we require as creatures.  We are not independent.  We live by grace, and we declare it with our prayers.

 We also pray because prayer is an act of intimacy.  How can we say that we have a relationship with God if we don’t talk to him about our thoughts and fears and hopes?  What relationship is there without communication?  Those of you who are married, do you talk to your spouse about things that you both experienced together?  If you saw a movie together, would you talk about it afterward?  Why?  What would be the point of talking about something you both saw?  The answer:  Because in that communication, more is exchanged that just information.  Hopes, fears, and dreams are exchanged.  And relationship is built.  We pray to God to draw closer to God.

 Third, we pray to invite God to participate in our lives.  It’s true that God already knows our needs.  It’s also true that he desires to meet our needs.  But sometimes God does not act unless we invite him to do so.  Sometimes the healing or the help that we desire will only happen when we sincerely ask God to come into our lives.

And finally, we pray because prayer is powerful.  We believe that when we pray, we bring the power of heaven to bear on the problems of earth.  We pray because we believe that God can change things.

 Earlier we heard the story from Mark 9 about the boy who was troubled by a spirit and the disciples were unable to cast it out.  Jesus did it, and the disciples asked him after why they could not.  And Jesus told them that it was because it could only happen by prayer.  The disciples had forgotten that the power of God belongs to God.  They’d begun to think they had it themselves.  And they needed to have their pride broken and to be reminded that the power of God is only unleashed by prayer.

 Second question:  How do we pray?

 Jesus begins his discussion of prayer in Matthew 6 by talking about how not to pray.  We pray for the sake of a relationship with God, not for the sake of being admired by other people.  Jesus is not prohibiting public prayer by any means.  In fact, we should be capable of praying in public, I believe, and many Christians cannot or will not.  But all prayer should be done for the right reasons:  to seek the will of God, to request his help, and to grow in our relationship with him.

 If we pray more in public than we do in private, then it at least gives the appearance that we’re doing it to be admired by other people.  So we should pray privately as much as possible.  Private prayer is a powerful thing.  It is a time to encounter God and be renewed by God.  Jesus left us the example to seek out times apart with God in prayer.  There are a number of other passages speak about how Jesus frequently went off by himself to be in prayer and to be renewed by it.  

 Jesus also tells us that prayer can be simple.  We should not be intimidated into not praying because we “don’t know how.”  God is pleased with the simplest of prayers.

 When it comes to prayer, the length has no relationship to the effectiveness of prayer.  In Jesus’ day, the pagan religions taught people to offer extraordinarily long prayers.  A typical pagan prayer would be filled with exalted titles for the god, with flattery, with reminders of all the past favors that a person has done for the god, and also with promises of what they would do in the future if the god answered the prayer.  It was very much a “business transaction.”  It was all based on an economy of give and take.  You tell the god how wonderful they are and how much you’ll do for them, and they’ll give you what you want.

 But the prayer that God desires is based on relationship, not a “business transaction.”  And in a relationship, simplicity and honesty are far more important than length.  There’s nothing wrong with pouring your heart out before God in an extended prayer.  Jesus certainly did that.  But it’s not necessary.

 1st Thessalonians 5:17 reminds us to pray constantly.  The idea is not that every moment of the day is filled with prayer, but rather that we try to bring every situation before God in prayer.  We try to fill our lives with many prayers for his help and his guidance and with expressions of our gratitude.  

 Prayer also requires more than just speaking.  Prayer is meant to be a two-way communication.  So no discussion of how to pray would be complete without remembering that listening is part of prayer as well.  God may not speak to us audibly, though he certainly can, but we can experience his leading in other ways.  Remember:  the point of prayer is not to give God information but to build relationship.  Relationships require listening as well as speaking.  

 When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them what we call the Lord’s Prayer.  I believe the Lord’s Prayer is meant to be a lesson in the kinds of things that we

should include in our prayers.  Prayer contains praise to God for who he is.  It should contain thanksgiving to God for the things he has done.  It should include confession of sins, so that our relationship with God is not hindered by them.  And it should include “supplications,” our requests to God.

 One last thing about the “how” of prayer:  How does prayer work?  Someone once told me something I thought was very instructive.  They said God answers prayer in one of three ways.  Sometimes God intervenes when we pray.  Sometimes he changes circumstances.  Sometimes God interacts with us when we pray.  He may not change the circumstances around us, but he can change the circumstances within us to allow us to see the world in different ways.  And sometimes God is simply present with us when we pray.  He doesn’t remove the difficulty.  He doesn’t change our understanding of the difficulty.  He just walks with us through the difficulty.

 Final question:  For whom do we pray?  Maybe this is the easiest one.  We could just answer everyone, right?  I guess, but let’s talk about who everyone is.

 We pray for ourselves, obviously.  And we pray for those who are near to us, our friends, our family, our family in Christ.  We pray for help and healing and guidance and strength and wisdom and encouragement.  

 But we should also pray for our enemies.  When we pray for our enemies, even if we don’t want to, our feelings toward them will change.

 We should also pray for the Church.  We should pray for the Church, capital C, and we should pray for our church, small c.  We should especially pray for the Church in places where it experiences persecution.  And we should pray for the Church in all the ways that we fail to live up to Christ’s prayer that we would be one as he and the Father are one.

 We should pray for those in positions of authority, government leaders, even if we didn’t vote for them.  Even if we don’t particularly like them, we should pray for them.  

 And finally, we should pray for those who do not know Jesus Christ.  We should pray for those who are lost, hurting, alone, in this world.  

 To be a member of the church means to support it by your prayers.  One vow down, four to go.

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