A man came to a minister and asked the minister to pray for him. The minister asked, “How may I pray for you?”
The man replied, “Please pray for my hearting.” So the minister put his hands on the man’s head and as he prayed he moved to cover the man’s ears. He prayed and he prayed. He ended the prayer and then he asked the man, in a whisper, “How is your hearing?” The man responded, “I don’t know. It’s not until Wednesday.”
Prayer is important. All of us who are people of faith pray. And yet sometimes even though we are people of faith we lack confidence in our prayers. Sometimes we feel others may pray more effectively than we do. The disciples felt this way too, although, they clearly felt this way for good reason. They were comparing themselves to Jesus and I am sure any of our prayers compared to the prayers of Jesus would feel a bit lacking. There is not only that though. It is important to note that the disciples wanted to pray like Jesus. Often we don’t give the disciples of Jesus a lot of respect. We talk about Peter being too impulsive and speaking or acting before he thinks; a ‘shoot, ready, aim’ sort of man’; we talk of Thomas being ‘doubting Thomas’; we talk about the disciples being country-bumpkin fishermen. In short, we put them down. What we often neglect to remember is that these men did leave everything to follow Jesus. We also neglect to point out that these men were not simply devout, they were extremely devout. These men wanted to serve God more than anything. And Jesus chose them to be the men who would indeed change the known world.
Our gospel account tells us that Jesus was praying in a certain place and when he had finished one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. They told him that John had taught his disciples to pray, so teach us too. How did they know about John? Well, perhaps half or more of them had first followed John the Baptist. John’s teaching on prayer has been lost. But why did the disciples want to pray like Jesus? The disciples have seen him go off feeling burdened about things and then come back changed having been with God his Father. Most of us when we think of Jesus praying we think of Jesus praying we think of him kneeling with his hands folded, either looking up or with his eyes closed, just like we see him in the pictures. Yet, Scripture gives us quite a different picture. In the book of Hebrews we are told that Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears. In Gethsemane we see Jesus praying in agony, his sweat became like blood falling down to the ground. But it seems this fervency in prayer wasn’t that unusual for Jesus because the disciples fall asleep! Apparently they had seen this before a number of times. Other times we see him praying while he looks up to heaven or he prays after throwing himself onto the ground. Typically, when he prays, he goes off by himself; one time it says a stone’s throw another time he goes out to a lonely place; so clearly he wants his privacy when he prays. But while praying he really gets into it! He is not simply reciting words. He is having an earnest, fervent, and heartfelt conversation with God; he is wrestling with God! “How do we do that?” ask his disciples. How do we pray like you? How can we make our prayers mean so much like yours mean to you?
We could ask the same thing, couldn’t we? How can we make our prayers come alive? How can we get beyond simple rote words? It wasn’t as though the disciples didn’t have words to say for their prayers. You recall they had the book of Psalms, and most of the Psalms are prayers. The Psalms are great prayers! Words they had. It was the life in their prayers they lacked. It is the same for us. We, especially as Episcopalians, have words. Man, we have great words. We have a whole book of great prayers. But the words all by themselves don’t have life, do they? Frankly when most of us pray we sound like students reciting the pledge of allegiance for all the emotion or life we put into it. So how do we get life into our prayers like Jesus did?
Jesus said, “When you pray—first, pray to someone who loves and cares for you, talk to your Father. We are not simply saying words to the ceiling or to the clouds, or to our shoes or simply muttering words out loud. We are talking to SOMEONE who cares about us and for us so we need to think about who are talking to. Next, pray about things that really matter to us. If you are praying for something you do not care much about, your prayers will be at best half-hearted. God hates half-hearted! In the book of Revelation we are told that Jesus is going to vomit out a church because of its half-heartedness, its lukewarmness.
The first request is that God’s name be hallowed. For the disciples, for the Jews of the first century this was something that really mattered. The entire Roman and pagan world had a very low view of the God of the Jews. After all, the Jews’ God had given them into the hands of the Romans. Their God apparently was less strong than the Roman gods and was not worthy of respect. This was a big deal for these faithful Jews and it did lay heavy on their hearts, so Jesus tells them, pray about this! Get into it! Pray that God’s name would get the respect it deserves. This was a hot topic for Jesus too! Remember the time he got so angry he threw over tables and drove out the money changers in the temple? Why was he so angry? God’s name was being dishonored; God’s temple was being made into a bank! In our day people don’t have much respect for God either. This should be something that matters to us too. And then pray for God’s kingdom to come! Again, this was another hot topic for the first century Jews. This was the whole focus of Jesus’ ministry! Now granted, the disciples didn’t really understand what God’s kingdom was going to look like, but they really wanted it to arrive. Now, it has arrived. The kingdom has begun through the founding of the church. Now we pray that God’s kingdom will grow and grow through us. Next we pray ‘Give us our daily bread’, please Father God, help us with our daily needs. For us today here in the States, we usually do not need bread to eat but we each have daily needs. We should pray about them. We need to pray fervently about them. The next request is to forgive us our sins—but Jesus adds a lesson in there for his disciples and us as well—forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us. In the King James version the next request is that God would not lead us into temptation. God does not lead people into temptation. A better translation is what we heard today, ‘and do not bring us to the time of trial.’ We are pleading– ‘please don’t put our faith to the test! We are too weak; please help us avoid times of testing.’
Jesus tells to pray about important things. We are to pray about things that matter to us. But as we pray, we are to pray fervently; we are to pray with feeling! These are the ‘what’ to pray for and Jesus has already shown them the ‘how’ by his example. But then there is one more key element and that is persistence.
Jesus gives them a couple of short stories to encourage them to keep on praying and not to give up. Jesus knows us quite well, doesn’t he? I have been praying for some people now for going on two decades. And guess what? God still hasn’t answered my prayers. Am I tempted to give up? You bet! But Jesus tells us to keep on praying. He says to ask, to seek, and to knock. The words in the Greek can be translated as keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking.
So how do we pray like Jesus? It is not simply to mimic some words—although they are really good words. But to pray like Jesus we need to go off by ourselves, have some privacy with our Father, we need to pray with our hearts, mean what we are saying; to pray with our minds, understand what it is we are asking; to pray with our souls, our emotions, we are to care about what we pray; and finally we are to pray with your strength, praying with persistence. And then, well, then we are praying like Jesus and our prayers will make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others for whom we pray. Amen