“Jesus was praying in a certain place.” The gospels often remind us that Jesus spent time in prayer. There seems to have been a rhythm to his life, a rhythm he maintained even in the midst of his journey to Jerusalem. His days were spent walking, teaching, and healing. But late at night or early in the morning, or even all night at times, Jesus would spend time with God in prayer.
We don’t know too much about what Jesus did or said during those times spent in prayer. After all, he was usually alone, and so his disciples were unable to give us too much detail about Jesus’ prayer life. But one of the most enduring images that’s given to us in the gospels is the image of Jesus withdrawing from the crowds, finding a quiet place and spending time with his Father in prayer.
And that time spent in prayer is absolutely essential to who Jesus was and is. The early church came to acknowledge him as the Son of God. But proclaiming Jesus as Son is a recognition of the unique relationship that Jesus had with God the Father. After all, you can’t be a Son all by yourself can you? The very idea of sonship is based on the relationship that you have with a parent. Jesus, though fully human like you and me, had a very special, very intimate relationship with God. And that relationship was built up and nourished by prayer. Because that’s what prayer is: Prayer is the nurturing of a relationship, the relationship between you and God.
Too often we think of prayer as some sort of magic, or as a type of shopping list, or simply as us talking to God. But I’d like you this morning to start thinking of prayer as the nurturing of a relationship. And like any relationship, like the relationship between a parent and child, or a married couple, or two good friends, nurturing a relationship takes time, time spent talking, time spent listening and time spent together. It takes persistence, it takes kindness and it takes honesty. It requires trust and faith that the one you’re in relationship with loves you and is there for you. That’s the sort of relationship building that Jesus was engaged in when he would withdraw from the crowds and spend time with his Father in prayer.
It was only natural that the disciples would turn to Jesus and ask him to teach them how to pray. In today’s gospel we hear Jesus’ response, in the form of the Lord’s Prayer as recorded by Luke and in the form of several parables and teachings to help with our understanding. To many of us this is familiar stuff. After all, we do say the Lord’s Prayer together every time we meet. But let’s spend some time this morning reflecting on what today’s gospel has to teach us about prayer.
And in the spirit of the old Letterman show, I’m going to do it in the form of a top ten list. So here it is, the top ten things that we need to know about prayer and how to pray based on today’s gospel.
First on the list: intimacy. You have to become intimate with God as part of that relationship that you’re building. Jesus teaches us to address God as Father. He uses the Aramaic word “Abba”, which is like Dad or Papa – the way a child would address her father within an intimate family relationship. No fancy titles, nothing that makes it sound like God is some powerful ruler way up there in heaven – just Abba, Father. Get intimate with God.
Second on the top ten list: Put God first. Immediately after calling on God as Father, Jesus puts God first: “Hallowed be your name.” It’s an affirmation of the respect and reverence that Jesus has for his Father. Prayer is not about you. It’s about nurturing a relationship, and relationships are nurtured first and foremost by putting the other person ahead of yourself. When you pray, put God first, not yourself.
Number three: Pray with the knowledge that life has a purpose and that it’s heading somewhere, and that God is the one that provides your life with its purpose and its sense of direction. Jesus teaches us to pray “Your kingdom come.” Our lives, all of creation has a purpose, and when we pray we seek to align ourselves with that purpose and pray that we are headed in that direction, in the direction of God’s kingdom.
Number four: Remind yourself that it’s God who sustains us. Jesus teaches us to say “give us each day our daily bread.” Give us what we need to sustain us each day. Too often we fool ourselves into thinking that we are making it on our own. That our successes in life are as a result of our own hard work. Well there’s nothing wrong with working hard, but it’s God who sustains us each day of our lives, and we need to break down our illusions of self-sufficiency and remind ourselves of how dependent we are, on God, on others and on the goodness of creation.
The fifth teaching on prayer is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the key to building relationships. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Forgiveness is about not being a captive to the past. It is about learning to let go of the obstacles that block our relationship with God and with one another. That’s why being forgiven by God and forgiving others go together. Either we’re willing to let go of the chains and debts of the past or we’re not, but we’ll never truly believe that we are forgiven by God if we continue to cling to past injustices done to us by others. Forgiveness clears the obstacles, lifts the burdens and allows relationships to flourish.
Number six is persistence. We all know that relationships aren’t easy, that they take work and time and persistence. Why should we expect our relationship with God to be any different? Be persistent. Ask for what you need. And if you don’t get what you need, if you don’t hear the answer to your question, ask again. And again. Because our very persistence will help us to get a better sense of what it is that we really need, and how it is that God responds to our request. Communication can be difficult and it takes time. Don’t give up, keep at it.
The seventh thing is to remember that God is good. God gives us good gifts, lots of good gifts, every day. We can trust God to provide us with good things. That doesn’t mean that everything that happens in our life will be good. Many of us know suffering, and evil and injustice only too well. But even when things go badly for us, we can trust God to give us good gifts and to work to transform our suffering into joy. So use your prayer time to build up your trust in God and to remember that God is good.
The eighth teaching on prayer is to learn to know yourself through your prayer relationship with God. Jesus teaches his disciples to ask, to seek, to knock on doors and assures them that God will respond favourably. But in order to ask, I need to figure out what to ask for. In order to seek, I need to think about what it is I’m seeking. In order to knock, I have to choose a door to knock on. Through this whole process of asking, seeking and knocking, offered to God in prayer, we allow God to work with us as we get to know ourselves better.
The ninth item on the list of ten is that we need to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Ask for the Spirit, receive the Spirit and allow the Spirit to enter our lives, to inspire us and to empower us. The Spirit is God with us, God within us. Jesus is often described as being “full of the Spirit” when he emerges from prayer with his Father. We also should emerge from prayer full of the Spirit.
And finally the tenth thing that we can learn from today’s gospel about prayer is something that we have to read between the lines. Jesus has just spent the night in prayer with God. When he finishes, the disciples ask him how to pray, and he teaches them the prayer we call the Lord’s prayer. Now I ask you, how long does it take to say the Lord’s prayer? Maybe thirty seconds? So, what was Jesus doing for the rest of the time he spent in prayer? The gospel doesn’t tell us, but I’m willing to bet that Jesus spent most of his time in prayer listening, not talking. Jesus spent his time in quiet, allowing himself to be with God and to encounter his Father, and allowing God the time to speak and to be heard. It’s like any relationship, isn’t it? It’s more important to spend time listening than to do all the talking.
So there we have it, ten teachings on prayer:
Become intimate with God
Put God first
Pray with a sense of purpose
Remind yourself that God sustains us
Forgive, and let go of the past
Trust God to give good gifts
Learn to know yourself
Receive the Spirit
Spend time listening
Jesus is our model for prayer, the building and nurturing of our relationship with God our Father. Put these ten lessons to use in your prayer life starting today.
Homily Yr C P17, July 28 2019, St. Albans
Reading: Luke 11:1-13
Image by Don Christner, Creative Commons