Sunday, October 30, 2016

If The Lord already knows, why must we pray?

Jeremiah 33:1-9
Colossians 3:22-4:6
Luke 18:1-14

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”  Colossians 4:2

It has been said that prayer is what we do when we talk to The Lord, but meditating is what we do when we take the time to actually listen for The Lord’s response.  Jesus goes to great lengths to assure His followers that earnest prayers are always heard.  There are several passages in the Scriptures, however, which have been twisted to suggest that if we only believe when we pray, we will get what we want – “the desires of our hearts”, the psalmist says (37:4). 

We often skip over the part that seems to require we first “take delight in The Lord”; not just that He exists, but also including delight in His ways, His commandments, His requirements.  When our hearts match His heart, then we may expect the desires of “our” collective heart – our heart matching The Lord - not strictly our personal desires that have nothing to do with The Lord, the Kingdom, or His Church.

So we should not be surprised that the answer to our self-serving prayers from a truly loving Father is often “no”.  St. James says “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:3). 

How, then, do we put it all together so we may have a clearer understanding of the awesome task, the remarkable responsibility of prayer AND meditation without asking, “If The Lord already knows, why must we pray?”

A couple of weeks ago we began an exploration of biblical stewardship.  Recall that I suggested it is more often than not that when we hear “stewardship”, we hear “money” and stop listening – having already determined we are a) giving all we’re going to give, or b) giving all we think we can give, or c) not going to give, no matter what. 

Believe it or not, every church – without exception – has a mix of all three.  And believe this or not, but a, b, and c all miss the mark as it pertains to diligent and faithful stewardship because all three are subjective reasons that do not consider the privilege of stewardship; they see only burden.  Not just with money but with prayer, committee assignments, and other church endeavors that require membership participation.

And no less so when it comes to the many other means of grace we have been entrusted with.  Through it all, we fail to understand the principle of stewardship – what it means when we are entrusted with something of immeasurable value rather than that we are given something for our own personal enjoyment and benefit with no regard for The Lord, the Church, or the Kingdom.  Believing to the point of boasting that we are personally blessed only for our own sakes as some cosmic reward for our faith is a perversion of what is actually written in the Scriptures.

More than once (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; James 2:9) we are told that The Lord shows “no partiality”.  The Lord favors no one over another; rich or poor, black or white, male or female, Jew or Gentile, Democrat or Republican – all have found equal favor through redemption by the Gift of Christ Himself whether they believe it or not.   But all we are entrusted with is to be devoted to helping the “or nots” to believe – to give them a reason to believe.

When we finally determine that The Lord entrusts His people with such gifts for “making disciples” as per the Great Commission to the Holy Church and helping unbelievers and doubters to come to know of The Lord’s profound love and their own need to actively fellowship with the Church, then we can begin to understand nothing is given to us that we are not expected – actually, commanded – to give freely to others (Matthew 10:8). 

Big difference between having been given something and having been entrusted with something.  Yet both must be greeted and received with profound gratitude.  Sadly, however, we seem grateful only when we believe what we have – however much or little – has been given strictly to “us”.  We cannot seem to muster the gratitude to be thankful for what is entrusted to us for the Kingdom’s purposes in and through the Church.

Hence our acute need to pray AND meditate, and to understand what is really happening when we do engage the Kingdom of Heaven when we pray AND meditate.  This, of course, depends on why we choose to pray in the first place, and how much of our own precious time we are willing to devote to such prayer AND meditation – both talking AND listening.  We cannot call prayer a “conversation with The Lord” if we are unwilling to hear Him speak – or give Him time to speak.

I could not help but to think about the coming US election and how much we believe to be at stake as I was reading Isaiah 62.  The chapter begins with The Lord’s determination that when Judah is finally restored from her exile, “her vindication will shine like the dawn, and her salvation [will shine] like a burning torch.  The nations will see your vindication, and all the kings [will see] your glory” (1,2).

To this end, however, comes a duty to The Lord’s people before and after the Restoration: “You who remind (pray to) The Lord, take no rest; and give [The Lord] no rest until He establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth” (6,7).

The engaging principle of stewardship in constant prayer, and being given a reason to pray, was set to remind the people of Judah to think very hard about what it is they really want and what they are willing to hear.  Did they only want to be returned to their homeland for their own sakes?  Or were they willing to “shine like the dawn” and “burn like a torch” as a deliberate – rather than an incidental - testament to the Living God who alone delivered His people from bondage and will set His people back on the right path – if they were willing to follow Him?

Are we so willing to “shine like the dawn” and “let our salvation burn like a torch” as a deliberate testament to the Living God who alone has atoned for our sins and who alone can set His Church back on the right path – IF we are willing to follow Him?  Are we willing to take no rest, and give The Lord no rest” in earnest and diligent prayer until He delivers the Church from a culture that has become entirely too self-involved and self-centered?  Including those who have convinced themselves by a perversion of the Gospel that our God and the Father of ALL creation actually shows favor?  Or that the material blessings of this life are signs of Divine favor bestowed personally on one over another? 

That, my friends, is the very heart of the so-called “prosperity gospel”.  It does not fit the biblical narrative of The Lord’s people, and it does not acknowledge the reality that the entire Church is set apart – as Israel was intended – to work as a whole entity for His glory and for the spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of others! 

Because genuine gratitude is not what we feel.  Like love, gratitude is what we do with what has been entrusted to us.

It is the nature of our prayer and our willingness to earnestly meditate which determines what we come to know about gifts and blessings.  It is entirely about how open we truly are to The Lord’s voice in our lives and in our hearts through the heart of the Church.  It is true, of course, that The Lord already knows.  What is not true is that we ourselves already know.  We don’t.  And if we think we do, it is only because we are not open to the distinct possibility that The Lord may ask more from us than we are willing to give. 

For heaven’s sake, Abraham was called to pack and move at the age of 75!  Was he blessed?  Or was he burdened!  We cannot say he was comfortable – which seems to be at the heart of our own desire.  Use me, Lord, but don’t inconvenience me!  Bless me, Lord, but don’t ask anything of me.

All the other components of stewardship, all the means of grace at our disposal to become all our God has intended for us to be, become meaningless if we do not understand the importance of, and our desperate need to, pray AND listen – not to make ourselves feel better but to learn to feel better about our Holy Father regardless of what He asks of us!  

Because it may be that where we are is what WE have settled for – not what He has asked of us.

There are 1001 reasons not to bother with prayer, not least of which is that “your Father already knows what you need”.  As with public worship, however, there is only One Reason to make time for prayer and meditation.  It is the only way we will ever come to know what our God, our Holy Father wants us to know – needs us to know AS A BODY for the sake of those who do not yet know. 

If we can get past the false notion that prayer is strictly about “me”, and if we can embrace prayer as the privilege it truly is rather than the burden we think it is, then we are well on our way to a healthy and truly fulfilling prayer life.  Because the entire Church of The Lord depends on our faithfulness and diligence in prayer.  The Whole Church – and the communities we are called to serve … for His Glory and no other.  Amen. 

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