The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost September 7, 2008
384, 456, 458(1-6), 458(7-9)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
[Jesus said], “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’ For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ Jesus, who opened for us the way of true prayer with the Father:
“Hey, Mom, thanks for helping me out! I’ll get you the money Friday after I get paid. I sure didn’t want to have that ticket hanging over my head any longer than I had to.”
“Well, Tom, I’m glad to help. I just hope you’ve learned a good lesson.”
“Oh, for sure! What a stupid thing to do. Those cops are always watching 3rd Avenue after school. I was just late for work and got in a hurry. I guess the speeding ticket made me even more late. Mom…?”
“You’re not going to tell Dad, are you?”
“No, Tom, I won’t tell your father….”
“Oh, great, thanks!”
“…He already knows.”
“Your father’s friend, Jim Thompson, the city councilman, was doing a ride-along with the officer that pulled you over. Dad knew about it before you even got to work.”
“Oh, Man! Dad’s going to kill me. I was hoping he wouldn’t find out!”
“Well, Tom, like I said, he knew. And we’ve already talked about your punishment, and I don’t think it includes ‘killing’ you. Actually, he’s already forgiven you. Jim told him the officer said how respectful you were, and he was glad it was an honest mistake, and not foolishness with the car.”
There are a lot of times in our lives, especially perhaps in our younger days, when we thought we were getting away with something only to find out later that our parents seemed to be omniscient. They found out about the strangest things.
The words “your father knows” may have put a chill in your veins, but not so if the Father we have in mind is our heavenly Father whom we come to know by faith in Jesus Christ. Certainly, He is omniscient which may cause us sorrow and shame when we know we’ve done wrong. But He forgives us for Jesus’ sake and for that reason He opens an avenue of prayer to those who believe.
In the Word of God before us today, Jesus addresses the privilege by which we come before our Father in heaven. In the most positive and joyous light, Jesus assures us of a number of things that YOUR FATHER KNOWS. I. He knows where to find the praying believer, II. He knows what the distressed believer needs, and III. He knows the state of the heart of the pray-er!
First of all, Your Father knows where to find the praying believer!
Jesus was teaching His disciples to avoid the hypocritical silliness so common in His day among the Pharisees and other religious leaders. He begins by warning them: “Take heed that you do not do your righteous deeds to be seen by men” (Matthew 6:1). What more fundamental “righteous deed” can there be than to pray—to speak to our invisible God?
But the sad fact is that many people treated prayer as an opportunity to impress others, to gain respect, and to perhaps gain a following. There were those who purposely sought opportunities to pray in places where they would catch the attention of their neighbors and fellow citizens. Jesus pointed out that people who operate that way receive their reward. [v.5] in the admiration of men, but such obvious efforts got them nothing in the way of help from God. What wickedness it is to use your religion to gain the favor of mere people! We don’t have to stand outside on a clear day so that we can be spotted by a passing satellite so that the Lord can find us on Mapquest!
Do you have something on your mind, or weighing on your heart? Go in your room and close your door. You can pray about it anywhere, but it may be a good idea to go to a place where you will be undisturbed and undistracted. Your Father in Heaven sees you in secret. He can certainly find you in your room, in the car, on a walk in the woods. You can’t see Him, still you pray to Him knowing that He is there. He hears the appeal of His believing people, just as He heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt and responded by sending them Moses to lead them out of their slavery. He will likewise answer our prayers in His way in His time.
Your Father also knows what the distressed believer needs, so speak your heart without thinking you have to multiply your words. Jesus addresses another prayer problem, what He calls “vain repetitions.” “Do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” [v.7]
God, of course, listens to prayers that come from the heart—prayers that include the praises, appeals, thoughts and burdens of His people. They can be long or short. Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple is thirty verses long, and the Lord came and filled the temple with His presence ( cf. 2 Chronicles 6:14ff). The disciples on the Sea of Galilee simply said “Lord, Help us! We perish!” (Matthew 8:25) and He silenced the tempest. It’s not about verbiage. It is about the content and the heart. The Lord responds to the one-word prayer of a child “Abba—Father (cf. Galatians 4.6)
The heathen turn prayer into an act of work-righteousness. The expectation is that the more in number or extreme our efforts are the more chance there is of God responding favorably to us. They don’t understand that prayer is a natural response of the heart which has come to believe in God as His kind and gracious Savior.
Sadly, this heathen way of thinking can creep in among Christians. Some encourage vain repetition with required repetitious prayers over and over again with the hope that this will gain God’s favor.
I also often wonder if people aren’t led into something of a trap with the idea of prayer chains and broad appeals to prayer for a particular thing. On the one hand, it is a great comfort to us in trouble, to know that sincere Christian friends and relatives are praying on our behalf. It is an amazing thing to think of many prayers being offered up in many places for the needs of one. But wherein does the true effectiveness and comfort lie? Does it lie in how many people are praying, or because many people are praying to the one God who is able to help? And how is the prayer of thousands more effective than the prayer of the one believer who is righteous through Christ? The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5 16b).
Our Father know what our needs are even before we’ve mouthed the prayer. Even within ourselves, the Holy Spirit pleads for us when we cannot seem to frame the right words for the prayer. “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).
In the context of our heavenly Father knowing our needs and responding to the simple requests of His believers, Jesus gives us a model of comprehensive prayer in the Lord’s Prayer. In this prayer we learn from Jesus what things we should seek from the Lord. This great prayer, beautifully brings forward our spiritual needs and puts our material concerns in their right perspective.
One of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer is that God would forgive our sins—a request that is tied to our willingness to forgive others. This issue is so important to the praying believer that Jesus brings it up again: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” [vv.14-15] Here we see that Your Father knows the state of the heart in the pray-er.
What is the difference between the child of God and the heathen? They are both sinners, are they not? Jesus died for both, did He not? Therefore, in the sight of God, the sins of both are forgiven, are they not? The difference is that the child of God receives that forgiveness through faith. The unbeliever, though forgiven for Jesus’ sake, rejects that forgiveness.
The way we can tell the righteous from the unrighteous is that one believes in his forgiveness before God; one does not. And nowhere is that faith or lack of faith more evident, more fully borne out in one’s behavior, than when we are faced with the faults and offenses of others. That is when our faith in our own forgiveness is truly tested and proven.
Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant—the one who was forgiven a huge debt by his master, but refused to forgive the fellow servant who owed him a minor debt—to warn us that our own salvation is not a trivial thing. We cannot truly believe that God has been so profoundly gracious to us as to forgive all our sins every day, and then refuse to forgive those who trespass against us. Jesus already touched on this when he said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Where a forgiving spirit is lacking, true faith is lacking as well. Where true faith does not exist, there is no prayer, there is no access to God. And yet, how gracious our Lord is, that in Christ God richly and daily forgives all sins to all believers. God receives all those who sorrow over their sins—even their un-forgiving-ness—and hears their humble and halting prayers. God grant that we use this wonderful privilege at all times and in all places.
Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
His watchword at the gates of death‑‑
He enters heaven with prayer.
O Thou by whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way,
The path of prayer Thyself hast trod‑‑
Lord, teach us how to pray. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.