Sermon 01-07-18: “Rewarding Prayer”

January 18, 2018

This is the first of a new six-part sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. In this sermon, I talk about Jesus’ promise of a reward for praying the way that he teaches. I suspect many of us haven’t experienced prayer as “rewarding”—at least as much as God wants us to! I want that to change! I also talk about the privilege that we have in calling God “our Father.”

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-9

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Many of you have seen the funny meme that has circulated this past week, in the wake of the `Bulldogs’ overtime victory over Oklahoma. It looks like this: [show meme on screen] “If you made any promises in overtime, service starts at 9:30 or 11:15 this Sunday morning.”  And so we could change ours to 9:00 or 11:00, but same difference. The point is, many Georgia fans were praying during that game last Monday—and chances are that some of them made promises to God: “I will go to church, Lord, if only you’ll let the Bulldogs win.”

This is funny. I like it. But by the end of the sermon, I hope you’ll see why, according to Jesus, this is terrible theology.

But this meme is about prayer, and today at HUMC we’re beginning a six-part sermon series on prayer—specifically, the Lord’s Prayer. We sort of began last week by looking at a parable about prayer—the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18. As we saw last week, Jesus told that parable to encourage us disciples to pray always and not to lose heart.

A natural follow-up question to last week’s sermon is, “O.K., I get it, Pastor Brent. I need to pray a lot more than I do now. Tell me something I don’t know! But how do I do it?”

And to answer that question, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew chapter 6. We’re going to look at just the very beginning of the prayer today—“Our Father”—and the four verses leading up to it. The four verses leading up to the Lord’s Prayer tell us how not to pray.

The first way not to pray, Jesus says, is to do it for the sake of any audience other than God: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

This is a challenge to me—because I pray in public as part of my job. And it’s hard for me to do anything in public without being mindful of the people who are watching—I try to impress people; or to sound intelligent rather than sound like an idiot; or to give the appearance that I’m a deeply spiritual person. It’s hard for me to do anything in public without a thought in the back of my mind: “How am I coming across? How are people perceiving me? How are they judging me? Do they like me?” In other words, rightly or wrongly, I care deeply about my audience.

But when we pray, Jesus says, we have an audience of One, and One only: our Father, who is “in secret”—in other words, our only audience is Someone that we can’t see and whose presence won’t be obvious to us or anyone else. In fact, the Bible says, God is the ultimate audience for everything we do! I wish I were more like the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, when he says, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you… It is the Lord who judges me.

If only we could live out that principle! To care only about how the Lord judges us in any situation!

Only the Lord is in a position to judge: our Father not only is in secret, Jesus says, he “sees in secret.” He sees in secret. This means he sees everything. He sees those parts of ourselves that we hide from others. So if, when I pray, there’s even a small part of me that’s trying to impress people with my piety, with my wisdom, with my intelligence—if there’s even a small part of me that’s trying to “win people over” to my side—to get people to like me—to stroke my pride, to feed my ego—well, I may be fooling other people, but I’m not fooling God. He sees in secret. He knows me better than I know myself. He knows every sinful motivation inside of me. He knows my pride.

Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th-century British preacher, said that we look down on primitive people who bow down to idols, who worship idols, who pray to idols—because of course these idols are incapable of hearing or seeing anything. Our God, by contrast, sees and hears everything—including our deepest, most intimate private thoughts and hidden motives. But Spurgeon asks, “Does that fact make any difference to us at all?” In other words, do we live our lives any differently knowing that our God “sees in secret”? Spurgeon said:

Your God can both see and hear—would your conduct be in any respect different if you had a god such as those that the heathen worship? Suppose for one minute that [God], could be (though it is almost blasphemy to suppose it) smitten with such a blindness that he would not see the works and know the thoughts of man? Would you then become more careless concerning him than you are now? I think not… Divine Omniscience [the doctrine that God knows everything], although it is received and believed, has no practical effect upon our lives at all. The mass of mankind forget God… We are practical atheists.[1]

Harsh words… But how will we not be “practical atheists” in this new year? How will we live our lives differently knowing that our Father “sees in secret”?

And you might wonder, “If God knows me so well that he can see me at my absolute worst—that he can see the ugliness that I try to hide from the rest of the world—that he can see how little I depend on him, how little I trust in him, how minuscule my faith is, despite the front that I put up for other people, why would he ever listen to me when I pray, much less do anything for me, or give me what I ask for?

That’s a good question, which I’ll answer in a moment…

But first I want to draw your attention to verse 6: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Jesus promises us a reward for praying in the way that he says to pray. Prayer, he says, is rewarding. Do you ever think of it that way? You should! Jesus mentions a reward in verses 1, 4, 6, and 18. Then in verses 19-20, he talks about receiving treasure. He says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

So Jesus talks about receiving rewards, and he talks about receiving treasure. Elsewhere, in John 10:10, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” The apostle Paul, who lost his freedom, his safety, his reputation, his worldly wealth, and eventually his life because of his faith in Christ, could say that everything that he lost was “rubbish” in comparison to what he’d gained in Christ: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”[2] The surpassing worth of knowing Christ—not simply knowing Christ in the future, in heaven, when we see him face to face—which will be amazing—but knowing him in the here and now. That’s part of what this abundant life that Jesus speaks of means. That’s part of what this reward that Jesus speaks of means. That’s part of what this treasure in heaven means—yes, the treasure is in heaven, but that doesn’t mean that we only get to enjoy it after we die; like money in a bank, this treasure is something we can draw upon right now!

Now, to be clear, when the Bible talks about rewards and treasure and abundance, it’s not talking about money and possessions and material blessings, although God may give us that in some cases; it’s talking about knowing Jesus more and more; loving Jesus more and more; trusting in Jesus more and more. It’s talking about learning to treasure Jesus above all earthly treasures. It’s talking about getting more of Jesus in your life, having more of Jesus in your life!

So what is the ultimate reward that comes to us when we pray the way Jesus teaches us to pray? By all means, we may have our prayers answered. By all means, we may find the strength that we need to face the challenges in life. By all means, we may get the healing that we’re looking for when we’re sick. By all means, we may get the help that we need when we’re in trouble. During this sermon series, I will preach that we should expect God to answer our prayers—to respond to us in our prayers—to do things in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do. By all means! And that’s certainly a reward for prayer.

But brothers and sisters, more than anything else, do you know what we’ll get when we pray the way Jesus teaches us to pray? We’ll get more of Jesus! We’ll get more of Jesus!

The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Is getting more of Jesus enough for us? Is that enough of an incentive for us? Is that enough of a reward? Because that’s the only thing that will satisfy our restless hearts! And if we want more of Jesus, what is one guaranteed way to get more of him?

To pray! So how could we not do it regularlyoftenunceasingly… How could we not place prayer at the center of our lives?

The good news, Jesus tells us, is that prayer is not nearly as hard as we think it is! For the pagans, or Gentiles, that Jesus mentions in verses 7 and 8—prayer was much harder for them than it is for us! Jesus says that they “heap up empty phrases” because “they think that they will be heard for their many words.” Why do they heap up empty phrases when they pray? Because they believe that they’ll only be heard if they say the right words first. Only after they’ve ingratiated themselves to their god in some way—“buttered” their god up—won their god over through praise or flattery or repentance—only after they’ve done this work would their gods accept them and hear their prayers.

In other words, the pagans believe that they had to first earn the right to be heard. Once they do that then god will listen to them.

Are we so different?

Remember that meme I talked about earlier: “I will go to church this Sunday and worship you, Lord, if only you’ll grant me this prayer request… and let the Bulldogs win an overtime victory so that they’ll play for the national championship.” In other words, “God, I recognize that because of the way I normally live my life I don’t have any right to expect you to give me what I ask for. Nevertheless, if you’ll only do this one thing for me, then I’ll change my behavior. I’ll pay you back, God, I promise!” Isn’t that the meaning of that meme? Like the pagans whom Jesus mentions, we’re trying to win God over to our side.

Jesus is telling us that we don’t have to do that! In fact, we can’t do that. Remember what I said earlier. Our Father “sees in secret.” We’re not fooling God. God is not impressed with us—including whatever promises we make—often empty promises—to “live our lives our better.”

Lisa and I rent the house that we live in. And we have a cordial and friendly—but definitely a business-like—relationship with our landlord. We have responsibilities. We pay the rent on time. We pay utilities. We do the yard work. We keep the house looking presentable. And the landlord, in turn, let’s us live there. And he takes responsibility for repairing the furnace or the water heater if it breaks—or repainting the house; or replacing the carpet… taking care of major repairs.

If we do our part, he’ll do his part.

Needless to say, we don’t have a “landlord-tenant” relationship with God. “If I perform my duties—if I live up to my end of the agreement, then God’s supposed to live up to his!” That’s the kind of relationship that the pagans believed they had with their gods. Not so with us Christians.

What kind of relationship do we have?

Jesus tells us: “Pray then like this: Our Father…”

We are God’s children. Think about what that means!

My family and I saw the movie The Greatest Showman recently, which is a fictionalized story of the life of P.T. Barnum. The central conflict in that movie is Barnum’s feeling of unworthiness to be the rich, successful person that he’s become. He was born poor. He came from a family of nobodies. He certainly didn’t deserve to marry the rich girl that he married, and her father warns him that his daughter will eventually get tired of him and leave him—that she won’t be satisfied with him; that she’ll want more than he’ll be able to give her. So throughout the movie, Barnum constantly feels as if he needs prove to his father-in-law and prove to the world that he really is worthy of love, acceptance, and wealth.

Needless to say, I hope, while a father-in-law’s love might be conditional, a father’s love isn’t. Our Father has given us infinitely more than earthly love, earthly acceptance, and earthly wealth. And the good news is that we don’t have to be worthy of it! We don’t have anything to prove to our Father! We don’t have to pay our Father back!

The Bible says that we’re adopted into God’s family through faith in Christ, and so we can call him our Father. But adopted kids like me know that there is no difference between being adopted into a family versus being born into a family. That love of parent and child is exactly the same. But regardless whether you’re adopted into a family or whether you’re born into it, your status as a child doesn’t depend on you—on what you do or don’t do. Right? I was adopted when I was a baby; I had no say in the matter; my adoptive parents were not given money-back guarantee. They were stuck with me! And if you were born into your family, it’s the same way!

And here’s the good news: Our relationship with our heavenly Father doesn’t depend on us, either. It depends on Christ alone.

Consider what it cost Jesus Christ, God the Son, to give us the privilege of calling God our Father. Tim Keller puts it like this:

The only time in all the gospels that Jesus Christ prays to God and doesn’t call him Father is on the cross, when he says, “My God, my God, why have you… forsaken me?” [In that moment] Jesus lost his relationship with the Father so that we could have a relationship with God as father. Jesus was forgotten so that we could be remembered forever… Jesus Christ bore all the eternal punishment that our sins deserve. That is the cost of prayer. Jesus paid the price so that God could be our father.[3]

What does that mean? It means that God must really, really want to be our Father. It means he must really, really want you to be his beloved son or daughter.

How do you become a son or daughter of God? How does God become your Father? He’s already done everything for you through his Son. He’s offering you the gift of salvation and eternal life and heaven—all you have to do is receive it!

1. Charles Spurgeon, The Spurgeon Study Bible (Nashville: Holman, 2017), 835.

2. Philippians 3:8

3. Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 80.

9 Responses to “Sermon 01-07-18: “Rewarding Prayer””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    Solo Christo, forever and ever, Amen!

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Good sermon. The “curiosity item” in this respect is Jacob’s prayer that if God would bring him back home, he would tithe. Of course, the text does not indicate whether this was a “proper” prayer or not–it just records it. In general, though, I don’t know that we are barred from “looking to a resultant reward” when we “do things for God.” The promise of rewards is an incessant theme of scripture, as I think from your sermon you agree with. While we should primarily be concerned with the “spiritual” reward of a closer relationship with God through Christ, there are plenty of other rewards mentioned as well. “How shall he not with him freely give us all things.” Also, it may very well be that we don’t earn our relationship with God–we are “reborn” to be his children. However, we certainly, as I see it, “earn” our “rewards.” Thus, a son may be always loved of his father, but he may have to earn his allowance by doing his chores. Something like that.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    My problem with thinking that I’m “earning rewards”, is that I think my sinful side does enough wrong to outweigh/offset any good deeds I might want to lay claim to. Without God’s Grace, I’m in deep trouble…….

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I don’t disagree with you, and my own self-assessment is the same as what you say yours is. However, I can’t get by the many scriptures that appear to address this subject.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Oh for sure. I think God, the Holy Spirit, wants for us to try and walk the walk, and will assist us in doing that. If we are not trying to be imitators of Christ, I don’t think we can claim to be His disciples.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Ouch!

      • brentwhite Says:

        I heard something like this: We are rewarded for the good works that we do after every taint of sin and evil have been “filtered out.”

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Hopefully God may be more merciful than that! Otherwise I doubt there may be many rewards!

      • brentwhite Says:

        I interpreted it to mean that every work is usually a bag of mixed motives—some good, some bad. All the bad motives behind a work are filtered out, but there will remain good. I interpret that optimistically.


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