This summer I have preached three sermons in response to the spiritual health survey taken by the congregation last March. In July I addressed the subject of sexual temptation which was noted by a significant number as being a struggle. The last two Sundays I presented the Reformed understanding of baptism as practiced in this church, since a many indicated they did not embrace the same stance. Today I am addressing the subject of prayer. “Improving my prayer life” received the most marks under the heading of “The top three aspects of your spiritual life you would like most to improve.”
I should note to visitors that what I am doing is not the norm for how ministers at Tenth choose sermons, nor is the method I will use in preaching today. Beginning next Sunday, our Senior Minister will be back in the pulpit and continuing the long tradition at Tenth of preaching through books of the Bible as he picks back up in the Gospel of Luke.
Let’s look at the text that will get us started on this important subject of prayer:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.
Note the description of this military officer. He was “a devout man who feared God with all his household.” Cornelius was what the Jews referred to as a God-fearer. He was a Gentile who worships the Yahweh. He attended worship at the local synagogue, though he could not join in with the assembly of Jewish men because he did not become a full proselyte by getting circumcised. Even so, he was marked by his fear of God, the same mark noted of a man right with God. Furthermore, he exercised his God-fearing influence in his household.
The next trait noted of Cornelius is that he “gave alms generously to the people.” The giving of alms would have been a religious exercise for Cornelius. He understood the Jewish teachings that connected how one treats the poor with one’s standing before God. Proverbs 14:31 is an example: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.”
The third trait brings us to our subject. Cornelius was a man of prayer. He “prayed continually to God.” I suppose “continually” could mean that Cornelius kept an attitude of prayer throughout the day. It seems more likely to refer to him keeping up a regular routine of prayer times. Verse three notes one of those prayer times as being the ninth hour of the day, i.e. 3:00 in the afternoon. Cornelius was known for taking time for prayer throughout the day like Daniel who set aside three times a day for prayer.
How meaningful were these prayer times? God said his prayers and his alms giving “ascended as a memorial” for him. God was pleased with Cornelius’ acts of prayers and giving to the poor as means of paying him due honor.
I think such a prayer life is what those who want to improve their prayer life mean. Something is missing. We may be convicted that we don’t pray enough. We may feel guilty that we are not spending quality time with God in prayer. It seems a chore, a perfunctory task that we do without enthusiasm. However we may express our concern, we want such a prayer life that God could say to us, “Your prayers have ascended as a memorial before me.”
Why Prayer Seems Difficult
Let’s consider first why prayer seems so difficult to do well. Again, the problem is expressed in a couple of ways: either we don’t take time enough to pray, or when we do pray it seems rote or tedious. Different reasons are given for this. We are too busy; too distracted. Our heart is not right with God as it should be. Our faith is not what it should be. That latter comment gets close to the mark. We must have faith to pray – faith that God hears, that he will answer our prayer, that he is even present. And why must we have faith? Because God is invisible, and he chooses not to make himself into a visible form for us to communicate with. When we talk to God, we have to trust that we are not merely talking to ourselves or to the air.
For whatever reason, this is how God has chosen to relate to us. He will not make himself known through the physical senses. Many may disagree with me, claiming they can feel him in their prayer life. Perhaps they can, but understand that faithful pray-ers of other religions and the new age movement claim the same. They feel God when they pray, so they claim.
The scripture that prodded my thinking in this area is 1 John 4:20, where it says, “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” The premise is that not being able to see (to experience with the senses) makes it more difficult to love (in this case) or to truthfully love what we can see. We can think we love God, but we may be loving an image of our own making. Our love for God can be tested by our love for our brother or sister whom we can see and know without faith.
My point is that prayer is difficult for most us because we cannot see or feel the presence of God. If we did truly sense the presence of God even now, we would not sit casually in our seats like we do, but like Isaiah and John who did see the glory of God, we would fall prostrate on the floor. If we knew that each prayer time would usher us in the presence of God in such a way that we saw a visible sign of God or unmistakably feel him, prayer would be the most faithfully practiced act that we did.
But again, God in his wisdom has not allotted us such an experience. We must come by faith and go through the act of prayer by faith. What are we to do? I suggest God has provided us help through his revealed Word that gives us models for prayer and gives us revelation to respond to.
Models for Prayer
The evening service sermons have been presenting us with prayer models by the Old Testament saints. There are also shorter prayers in the New Testament such as that of the apostles in Acts 4:24-30, responding to the threats made against them, and in Revelation of the twenty-four elders, 11:17-18. Paul tells his readers in several of his letters what he prays for concerning them. There is The Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught us, and his High Priestly prayer in Gethsemane recorded in John 17. The great prayer book, of course, is the book of Psalms. There we have 150 prayers and calls to prayer.
How do these models help us? In some cases they can become our prayers. Are you feeling anxious? Do you feel like Satan is getting the best of you? Here is a prayer for you:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)
Or perhaps you have experienced victory over a besetting sin or escaped attempts to harm you. You could pray this:
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies (Psalm 18:1-3).
You have sinned and come under conviction. You could pray this prayer:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! (Psalm 51:1-2)
You wake up in the morning. Still a bit groggy, you turn to this passage and pray to God:
But I will sing of your strength;
I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been to me a fortress
and a refuge in the day of my distress.
O my Strength, I will sing praises to you,
for you, O God, are my fortress,
the God who shows me steadfast love (Psalm 59:16-17).
Bible prayers can serve as guides for structuring our prayers. This is what Jesus did for his disciples. He gave them not so much a prayer to recite, but by which to structure their prayers. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Begin your prayer by honoring God. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Before getting to your needs, acknowledge the priority of God’s will being carried out.
Jesus did not intend for his one model to fit all occasions. He frequently uttered prayers of thanksgiving, and we know of at least one of distress in Gethsemane. The prayers of the Psalms take all kinds of forms depending on the occasion and subject. All the more worthwhile it is to study the form of a prayer and learn how to structure your own prayers.
Bible prayers are also helpful in providing prayer language. They teach us how to address God, how to present our petitions, and make our feelings known. Perhaps you have picked up how the minister giving the pastoral prayer will often rely on the psalm of the Responsive Reading for the language and subjects in his prayer. Psalm 104 addresses God as Creator and Ruler over creation. It meditates upon God's providence – sustaining life throughout the earth. That would be a good subject to devote a prayer to. Reflect sometime on what you have learned and observed about nature; and as you do, insert God into his role as the one who created and who sustains these marvels of nature; and then praise him for his work. You could repeat throughout your prayer the words of verse 31 of this psalm, "May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works."
I mentioned learning how to address God. Scripture gives us many terms to use: Sovereign Lord, my Rock, my Fortress, Father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of my Salvation, of my Strength, the Holy One, my King, my Shepherd. Meditating on one of these terms can lead to a rich prayer time.
Revelation to Respond To
So the Bible provides prayers as models for us. The Bible also provides us with the revelation of God to which we can respond. Prayer is challenging because the one to whom we are speaking is silent, at least verbally. God does speak to us inwardly, and we would do well to be silent in our spirits that we might listen well. But this leads us to a higher plane of spiritual exercise than I unfortunately am able to speak confidently of. I am still on the lower levels of prayer when it comes to "hearing God," at least with enough certainty to say, "God told me."
For me, speaking to God without the aid of scriptural models and especially without scripture to respond to is like having a one-side conversation with a person who will not talk. You've had that experience. You try to strike up a conversation with someone who at best utters one-word responses. You soon give up because you feel like you are talking to yourself.
But by using your Bible, God begins the conversation and your prayer becomes a response to him. And what you say and hear are more likely to turn into the profitable time you desire – whether it be to come away comforted or convicted or challenged. Oftentimes we will turn to Scripture for guidance as we wrestle with an issue, and that is good to do. But I encourage you to take the same attitude in your private devotions as we ministers do here in preaching. We believe that if we preach through a book of the Bible, we are more likely to hear what God wants us to hear, than if we chose texts according to what we think we need to hear.
Reading systematically through the Bible sets the tone of saying to God, "You know what I need to hear; you set the agenda for my prayer time." Let's go back to Psalm 104. Suppose you are reading through the psalms. It so happens that the day before was particularly tough for you. You read verse 1, "O Lord my God, you are very great!" You continue reading on about just how great God is. You think back to the day before where your weaknesses were very evident, and then you realize how wonderful it is to have a God that does not possess those weaknesses. And so you are lead to praise him as your experience, combined with this Scripture gives you restored adoration for God.
You read on and come to verses ten and following that begin:
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every best of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Such verses remind you of Jesus' remarks, how God feeds the sparrows and clothes the lilies of the field. And if he does, how much more will he take care of you. You begin to lay before God the worries you have had lately about your job or about finding a job. Perhaps you are being pressured to compromise God's laws in order to keep your job or get a raise. Perhaps you are homeless and struggling to keep from becoming homeless. Whatever the circumstance, this psalm awakens in you a newfound faith that God will provide for you, and it leads you expressing your faith that God will provide for you.
Or perhaps God uses this psalm to convict you of pride that you did not know you were guilty of. But when you read how it is God that makes the springs gush forth and the grass to grow; how it is God who made the moon to mark the seasons and set the earth on its foundations, you are convicted that you have been placing your trust in your own abilities or in other men and their man-made institutions rather than in God. You are led then to a pray of confession for not acknowledging the power and rule of God.
Or maybe God uses the psalm to challenge you. When you read how attentive God is to the earth and all its creatures, you are challenged become a better steward of earth's resources; or you are led to get involved in protecting wildlife or some other cause. You talk to God about this. You ask him what he would have you to do, and you consider before him the skills he has given you, the experiences he has brought you through. You hold a conversation with him about what he has led you to read in his Word.
Whatever the case may be, by going to Scripture first, you are letting God begin the conversation. And this is the key to having a more fulfilling prayer life – praying Scripture informed prayers. Scripture provides prayers to pray when you are at a loss for words. Scripture provides models for prayer that gives structure to your prayers. Scripture provides language to use in addressing God and the topics to pray about. And Scripture gives you something to pray about, something to respond to in prayer.
But the primary reason for using Scripture in your prayer life is that your prayers are more likely to be received by God as a memorial ascending to him as did the prayers of Cornelius. Why is that? Because Scripture is God's revealed Word to us. In the Bible God tells us plainly how he likes to be addressed. He tells us plainly what he wants us to say about him and to him. And it is as we get our prayers in line with what he has taught us, that we will find our prayers to be more meaningful and fruitful. Even more important, they will be God honoring. And that is what prayer – as are all our activities – is to be about. A meaningful prayer life is a God honoring prayer life. It is the prayer that gives to God the language and wisdom that he reveals in his Word that is received as a sacrifice pleasing to him, as a memorial ascending to him.
And remember to whom prayer is to lead you – to Jesus Christ. The fruition of Cornelius' prayers was to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is in the name of Christ that we pray; it is by his work and his intercession that God receives our prayers; and it is to him that we are to be drawn as we pray, whether under conviction of sin, or receiving comfort, or being challenged in our commitment to God.
In the name of Jesus let us pray.
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