One of the challenges many Christians face when it comes to prayer is believing that God cares enough to hear from us about our “small” problems. Yet, if the first words that Jesus gives us to pray are true—”Our Father”—then we have no reason to doubt. God is not less of a father than any human father. Quite the contrary!
This sermon encourages God’s children to pray, and to do so with boldness.
Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-13
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Michael Bleecker leads worship at a megachurch in Texas. On Twitter, he recently asked his fellow worship leaders around the world to document some of the theological blunders they’ve accidentally made while leading worship or singing in church under the hashtag “#worshipheresy”. Of course, yours truly has never made mistakes when I preach or pray! Yeah, right! I once preached a sermon on Noah, and throughout the entire sermon I referred to him as “Jonah.” Or vice versa.
Many of the funny mistakes that worship leaders made were related to extemporaneous prayer, and here are a few of them: “Father, thank you for dying on the cross.” And “Father, we thank you for rising from the dead.” And “Jesus, we thank you that the tomb is not empty.” But some prayer mistakes might be more accurately characterized as Freudian slips, if you know what I mean. They reveal a bit more about us than we’d care to admit. Here are a few if them: “We’re just trying to repay You for what You’ve done.” Or “God, that you would decrease so that I may increase.” Or my favorite: “Lord, align Your will with ours.”
Lord, align your will with ours.
So we’re back to a recurring theme of the Sermon on the Mount: we are naturally selfish. We are self-centered. Our egos are always getting in the way of living the life God wants for us. They get in the way when we use prayer, for example, to try to get God to do our bidding. They also get in the way when we use prayer to show off how religious we are.
A few years ago, there was a big fuss made about about Tim Tebow’s public prayers. Remember? We called it “tebowing”—when, after Tim Tebow scored a touchdown or threw a touchdown pass he would get on one knee and pray. And plenty of athletes do similar things. Many people complained that Tebow was being a hypocrite. I disagree because you’re only a hypocrite if you present yourself as one way in public, when in reality you’re someone else in private. Who we are in private, of course, is who we really are. I’m a Tebow fan who still thinks he deserves a job in the NFL, but I don’t doubt for a moment that his public prayers reflect what’s in his heart.
Besides, the biggest problem many people have with Tim Tebow praying on the football field—or any athlete for that matter—isn’t that they’re being hypocrites. The biggest problem that many people have with athletes praying is that God doesn’t care about football. God doesn’t care who wins a football game. God doesn’t care whether or not you score a touchdown.
Have you heard this before? Have you thought this before? Well, I’m about to say something that might surprise some of you, or bother some of you, or even delight some of you, but I believe this from the bottom of my heart, and I want you to believe it, too, because it gets at the heart of Jesus’ words in today’s scripture: God cares passionately about football. Now, before you call Bishop Watson and tell him your pastor has lost his mind, hear me out. Besides, the bishop is an Alabama fan, so I’m sure he believes it too!
How do I know God cares about football? Because of the first words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father.” If God is our Father then he cares passionately about things that we care about. Why wouldn’t he? I care passionately about my son Townshend’s basketball games. I care passionately about my children’s Tae Kwon Do tournaments. I care passionately about piano recitals—at least my own kids’ performances; I honestly couldn’t care less about all the other kids’ performances—because they’re incredibly boring! But they have their own fathers and mothers to care about them! But I care passionately about these things because I’m a dad, you see. Even though I’m not a perfect dad—to which my kids will say, “Amen!”
But you know who is a perfect dad? Yep, you guessed it: God. Jesus says that God is our Father, and that means that God is not less of a father to us than any human father. In fact that’s the understatement of a lifetime! He’s infinitely more of a loving and caring father than any human father—not just the badly flawed ones like me. Therefore, just as a human father would hate to miss a son’s basketball game, a daughter’s piano recital, or a child’s Tae Kwon Do tournament, so our heavenly Father will be deeply involved in all these so-called “little” things in our lives. If they’re big enough for us to care about, they’re big enough for God to care about.
Recently, an Italian woman named Anna Romano got pregnant out of wedlock. The father, who was already married and had children, pressured her to have an abortion, and she refused. She wrote a letter to the new pope, Pope Francis, earlier this year and described her life and her brave decision not to have an abortion. Two weeks ago, to her great surprise, the pope called her out of the blue and said that he would personally baptize her child after she gives birth.
Isn’t that awesome? Just think: this powerful, influential world leader is going to take the time to baptize this woman’s child! Who is Anna Romano, after all, that the pope would condescend to do this? Isn’t she a nobody? Doesn’t Pope Francis have more important things to do? Doesn’t he have more important places to be? Isn’t the pope too big, too powerful, too important to be bothered with this woman? By showing that he’s not too big, too powerful, too important, the pope is actually giving us a nice symbol of who God the Father is—because God is not too big, too powerful, too important to be bothered with any of his children, or their problems or needs or concerns!
See, if we believe that God is really too big to be bothered with us, then we really believe that he’s too small to be bothered, because he’s something far less than the God of the Bible and Christianity. God is not like us. Unlike us humans, every moment that God spends attending to our prayer concerns isn’t one less moment that he has for someone else’s prayer concerns! We shouldn’t think, “I can’t bother God about this problem I’m having at work, because, after all, God has to deal with Syria.” No! God has all the time in the world for you and your problems and all the time in the world to deal with Syria because God is beyond time. He isn’t limited by anything!
So, by all means, ask God for what you want or need him to do.
Christian writer Richard Foster, who’s written extensively about prayer, tells the story of young woman named Maria who was a student at the college he was teaching at. She fell out of the back of a pickup truck on campus and suffered severe head trauma. Foster, acting as her pastor, rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital, holding her hand and praying for her on the way, while the paramedics worked to save her life. At the hospital, Foster gave a group of her fellow students a crash course on intercessory prayer: “The brain is bleeding and swelling from the impact of the injury,” he said. “So our initial prayer efforts must focus on seeing the injured capillaries in the brain begin to heal and for the swelling of the brain to slow down.”
And that’s exactly what they prayed. And guess what? Maria got better!
By contrast, Foster described an earlier prayer meeting for Maria with some of his fellow professors. And they prayed things like, “It’s in your hands now, Lord; there’s nothing else we can do.” Or, worse, “Lord, help Maria to get well, if it be thy will.” Foster said that while he knew his colleagues meant well, their prayers betrayed the fact that they didn’t really believe that Maria would get better or that God was going to do anything.
Let me tell you right now, if I’m in a terrible life-threatening accident, and I’m being wheeled into an emergency room somewhere, and you’re praying for me, I want you to believe that God will give you what you ask for! Enough of these mamby-pamby prayers! Ask and believe that God can and will do something.
As we hear these words, however, some of us may object, “All this asking for stuff makes me uncomfortable! It sounds selfish or self-centered!”
When I was in Kenya last year, I attended a worship service. Kenyan worship services often include a time in which people offer testimonies. One Kenyan pastor described an experience in which he said that God intervened to prevent his house from being burglarized. He said God answered his prayers, and he said, “Isn’t it great how God is taking care of us pastors?”
A layperson from Atlanta who was with me on the trip asked me later what I thought about his testimony. I said I loved it. She said she was deeply bothered by it: Why would God intervene to help this person when God so often doesn’t intervene to help other people—especially in Kenya, where so many people are desperately poor? She said, emphatically, “I don’t believe God works like that!” I hope that whatever I told her sounded pastoral and sensitive, but as I think about it, I want to ask her: “Then how exactly do you think God works? If you don’t think it’s possible that God intervened to help this person with this small thing, do you think God intervenes to help anyone at all—ever?” I mean, don’t bother praying for your daily bread, or any other small thing you need. Why should God give you bread, when so many people in the world are starving?
The truth is, the woman on this mission trip isn’t alone. Many Christians have swallowed this spiritually poisonous idea that God doesn’t really answer prayer. That prayer doesn’t really change our circumstances. That prayer doesn’t change God’s mind about anything. That God doesn’t do anything in response to our prayers that he wouldn’t do otherwise. If God seems to answer our prayers sometimes, it’s really the happy coincidence of our will aligning with God’s will. Because God was going to do the thing we asked for, anyway. Whether we ask or not is irrelevant. I’ve heard this popular bit of bad theology expressed in the following way: “Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us.” Our job in prayer is to simply get on board with what God wants to do, and then pray for that.
Well, if that’s what we believe prayer is… it’s no wonder many Christians aren’t faithful doing it. We can’t keep up the charade of asking for something unless we believe that asking might make a difference.
No, when we pray, we pray believing that God will do things for us that he wouldn’t otherwise do. All because we asked! Our prayer has the power to change God’s mind not because we have the power to manipulate God, but because God willingly and graciously chooses to have his mind changed by our prayers. By all means, God has a general plan or purpose for our lives and our world, but God gives us great freedom to accomplish those purposes in any number of ways. There are any number of things we can ask for that are perfectly consistent with God’s will, in which case God may grant our request.
Sometimes, however, what we ask for isn’t consistent with God’s purposes. And it doesn’t mean what we ask for is wrong or selfish. It just means we’re not God. And unlike God, we’re not in a position to know how a prayer request granted to us would affect the lives of everyone else in the world. We can’t know about unintended consequences of answered prayer.
But God can… and does.
And that’s why the first half of this model prayer that Jesus gives us focuses not on us, but on God. We’re praying not for our kingdom to come, but God’s kingdom. We’re praying not for our will to be done, but God’s will. We acknowledge that we are not God, and we don’t know more than God. I think sometimes me think we do. “If I were running this universe, I’d make some changes around here!” But we’re not God. And we are saying that more than anything else—including our own wants and needs—we want what God wants—for us, for our loved ones, for our world. And we don’t usually know what that is. But God does. We’re saying, “No matter what happens, God, we’re going to trust that you know what’s best. And if I don’t get what I ask for, then it’s because you’ve got something even better for me and for he world.”
And here’s my final point: Prayer changes God, and… prayer changes us. My mom died a year ago February. One of the sweetest gestures of love and support that was extended to me in the wake of her death were these handwritten notes I received from fellow pastors in the North Georgia Conference, some of whom I barely knew or didn’t know at all, telling me that they were praying for me. These clergy had read about Mom’s death in a weekly email that our North Georgia Conference sends out listing prayer concerns for pastors. The funny thing is that through the very act of my receiving, opening, and reading these handwritten notes, God was answering the prayer these pastors prayed for me: because these notes gave me comfort, encouragement, and strength. So the people sending me these cards were the answer to their own prayers for me! They answered their prayers through their actions!
God works like that! To pray that God would do something about a problem means opening ourselves up to the possibility that God is calling you to do something about that problem! And maybe that’s what I would tell that layperson in Kenya: How can you say God doesn’t intervene in our lives to answer prayers, when God sent you here… to this place… where there is so much need… and you have the power to help. You’re here in this place because God has answered someone’s prayer! You are the answer to someone’s prayer!
Do you believe that you are the answer the answer to someone’s prayer? Do you believe that Hampton United Methodist Church is the answer to someone’s prayer? I do.
So pray… Pray and believe that God will answer your prayer. Pray… Pray and act as if you can be the answer to someone’s prayer. Amen?
1. Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 213.
2. Ibid., 213-4.