I’m not sure when it started, but for as long as I remember, my older son has called his goodnight prayers his “thank you Gods.” It makes sense because when he was first starting to pray, we talked to him about how our prayers were a good time to thank God for things. Sure, there were times we asked for something (help the dog feel better, help us not be afraid of the storm, etc.) but thanking God for what we were blessed with was key.
I assumed that when our second son started to say his good night prayers that he would call them his “thank you Gods” but somewhere along the way, he picked up that we said our “blessings” at meals, and he calls the good night prayers his “bwessings” (he’s two). But he too thanks God for a litany of people, the fun things he did each day. Thanking is just part of their process.
But as adults, prayer gets more complicated doesn’t it? We’ve seen more of the world, more trouble, more frustration, more uncertainty. Prayer gets deeper, more convoluted, more … something.
It begs the question, if you had to name your prayer, what words do you use to describe it?
Is it hard, mysterious, tough, powerful, faithful? Would you describe prayer as life-threatening? Would you call it my “asks for,” my “begs,” my “needs”? Do you get real with God or do you simply go through the motions? Do you still approach prayer like it has to happen, like it’s something you look forward to, or does the world around you crunch you into a prayer-free zone where prayer is a last resort not the first step?
In the drama The Apostle, Robert Duvall is an out-of-work preacher who finds himself staring up at the world from the bottom of the pile. And one night, he prays a prayer that lays it all out there, like some of the prayers listed in the Old Testament. He literally yells at God. Have you ever done that? Have you ever been so connected to God in your conversation that you could be real enough to actually tell God what you were thinking (like he didn’t know it already)?
In Daniel 6:6-23, we find Daniel, the advisor to the king, knee-deep in a conspiracy of the high court. See, several of the king’s other advisors must’ve felt threatened by Daniel’s relationship to the king, so they went to the king (never too bright a bulb as we’ve seen already in his handling of nutrition and the thousand-foot statue of himself) and proposed that the king issue a law that said the king was the only person who could be prayed to for a month.
And the king, proud, powerful, and vain, thought this was a great idea, and signed on the dotted line. Condemning his best man to death with a stroke of the pen.
When I find out that there’s a law or a rule in place that seems to penalize me, I usually pout for awhile. Sometimes, I’ll even eat some candy and watch television. But I rarely flaunt the breaking of that law immediately, and I’ll admit it, I don’t pray about it as often as I should.
But Daniel, he’s iconoclastic and faithful. It doesn’t just say that these out-for-blood rivals found Daniel praying; it says that when Daniel heard the law was in place, he went to his room, through open the windows and prayed to God at the three times appointed for prayer. He didn’t change his pattern, he didn’t hide what he was doing. He went to God about the problem in prayer.
Daniel went directly from hearing the bad, life-condemning news to prayer. Dir-ect-ly.
Now, how seriously do you take prayer?
Of course, his rivals saw the prayers, and went running to the king to tattle like little kids who’ve caught their classmate in mischief. “Oh, King Dariiiiiiius! Remember your law about praying? Well, Daniel is breaking it!” Instantaneously, you can see the color drain from the king’s face as he realizes what he’s done, and he thinks all day on how to get Daniel out of trouble.
Still, there was no rescue for Daniel. The king’s law was more powerful than the king himself. The law was too dangerous, and the king couldn’t undo it. So Daniel gets thrown into the lion’s den with the king’s blessing, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!”
Daniel was thrown in, rare meat and blood still bumping, and a stone placed over the mouth of the den. And the king went back to the palace to contemplate the funeral of his friend and advisor, while Daniel… slept?
It says that at daybreak, at dawn’s first light, the king ran to the lions’ den and cried out before he even got there, “has your God actually been able to rescue you from the lions?”
Daniel responded that there had been an angel there all night, that the angel of God had shut the mouths of the lions because Daniel was innocent in God’s sight. And Daniel pronounces himself innocent of offending the king, because his prayers to God were right and just. Not only was he alive but there were no wounds on him, because he had trusted in God.
So, I’ll ask you again, how seriously do you take prayer?
I wonder what would happen if we took prayer as seriously as Daniel… or Jesus.
In Matthew 6, Jesus couches his teaching on prayer in terms of not being a hypocrite, and in terms of forgiveness. You’ve heard it before, but consider again:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Jesus told his disciples to treat prayer like it was sacred, a trust between God and them, and to pray even though God knew what it was they were talking about already.
And here we thought prayer was to keep God happy! No, prayer is for us, to keep us connected, to make us part of the process.
Jesus put a premium on prayer, on giving God praise and putting God’s will before our own, on focusing on what we need for today (not tomorrow), on forgiving us and on our forgiving others, and on avoiding all evil. Straightforward, right? Easy for the Son of God AKA God himself to say, right? Consider how Jesus prayed when push came to shove, when the cross was right before him, filling up his vision.
In Luke 22, “Jesus prayed: ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
So, Jesus’ instructions to his followers, one foot in front of the other, keep the main thing the main thing, when it came down to the wire, Jesus’ prayer life exhibited the way that he believed we should pray and act. Jesus’ earnest prayer to do God’s will brought him into the strange place where his prayer made him bleed (or at least, get very, very sweaty). That’s some hardcore, personal prayer!
Jesus is literally saying he wishes that God would free him from the anguish, that God would take the pain and suffering and death away, IF IT BE GOD’S WILL. And so God sends an angel to strengthen Jesus in mind and body… and to answer the request with “keep going, my son.”
But that doesn’t stop Jesus from praying. It’s not that he gets an answer he doesn’t like and then he bails. The next day, in Luke 23:34, Jesus was hanging on the cross, and he prayed, ““Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus is hanging there, dying, and he prayed that God would forgive the very people who had hung him on the cross to kill him. Would you be there, dying, and praying for the people who were killing you? I’ll admit that I sometimes struggle to pray for my enemies when they’re insulting me, looking at me funny, or talking about me behind my back LET ALONE BEATING ME WITH WHIPS AND NAILING ME TO A CROSS.
We get the “praying for our enemies” thing confused all the time. Jaron and the Long Road To Love delivered this choice take on prayer in “Pray For You”:
I haven’t been to church since I don’t remember when
Things were goin’ great ’til they fell apart again
So I listened to the preacher as he told me what to do
He said you can’t go hatin’ others who have done wrong to you
Sometimes we get angry, but we must not condemn
Let the good Lord do His job and you just pray for them
I pray your brakes go out runnin’ down a hill
I pray a flowerpot falls from a window sill and knocks you in the head like I’d like to
I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls
I pray you’re flyin’ high when your engine stalls
I pray all your dreams never come true
Just know wherever you are honey, I pray for you
Brought some grins, didn’t it? Some of us have prayed those kinds of prayers– but somehow, that’s not exactly the kind of prayer I think Jesus would encourage us to.
Daniel and Jesus, brothers in prayer. Both facing certain death, both determined to take prayer seriously. One was saved from death and one was not (at least not immediately!) But both point us to believe that maybe we’re supposed to be taking prayer a little more seriously than we are.
I know I’ve got some praying to do. For people I know. For my sins. For the grace to be more like Jesus.
What do you need to pray for? How will you do it? Who will you pray for?
We’re going to close in a minute, with a pattern that lays out who is most important (God) and the attitudes we should have about prayer, God, and this amazing life God has called us to:
Consider who the focus of our prayer is.
Consider how God is honored in the beginning of the prayer, and how God’s will is the directing element.
Consider how the kingdom of God is used to bring the eternal, to bring heaven, into the now.
And consider what we’re asking for (our immediate needs, forgiveness to receive and to give, eternal salvation).
And as we pray, ask yourselves, what it is that I should be “taking to the Lord in prayer?” What is it that we should be.
I don’t think you can do prayer right, or wrong. I don’t think you need to know all the words. But I think our attitude matters. I think it matters how much we want to be with God and like God when we pray. Because our prayers have the power to heal the sick, to change the world, and even more amazing, to change our hearts.
Will you pray with me, these words from the Lord’s Prayer, like it’s the very first time?
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
This sermon is for the 9 and 11 a.m. services at Blandford UMC on November 24, 2013.