1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever 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. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:1 - 18 (NRSV)
If you recall we are in a series in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ discourse on grace. It’s all about life in the Kingdom of God, or how to be a follower of Jesus Christ (what we call being His disciple). The subtitle for this series is “Embracing the Grace; the Seven Most Important Things I’ve Learned Over the Past Half-Century About Following Jesus.”
The basic principle of God’s Kingdom on earth is: everybody at peace with everybody else; already now – but not yet. By this we mean that Jesus brought God’s Kingdom to earth when he was born in Bethlehem, so the kingdom is already now in effect – or should be (in our hearts at the very least). But it is not yet, as anyone who watches the evening news can see; the world is a dangerous and unhappy place. The world is quite largely not at peace; not yet!
Jesus taught that the kingdom principle of being “blessed” (or happy, a contented sense that all is well), is available to those who will seek to follow Jesus Christ.
Now this whole embracing of God’s grace is a progression. Those who follow Jesus are the “poor in spirit” which means they’re humble towards God. Last week began with faith (or believing) in Jesus Christ, becoming humble to become happy. Now the text takes us to prayer which deepens that faith and makes you a seasoned “mature” follower of Christ.
This is what Jesus meant in the mountain sermon when he told the disciples to be “perfect”. The word is telios (τέλειος) in Greek and it means to be mature or complete…functional…to do that for which you’re created. My speech and use of language is not perfect, in the sense of flawless (by any means), but it is mature enough, serviceable enough to communicate. That is what a mature or “telios” Christian is…far from sinless, not “holier than thou”; rather we are growing up into the measure of Christ
Prayer is much more than what’s offered at mealtime, or to begin church meetings or ball games; or to appeal to heaven to get that new car, house or job. Did you hear about the grandparents who were visiting their grandchildren? The grandpa went into the bedroom to have devotions and pray. The curious 3-year-old grandson followed him and came out announcing to the rest of the family, "Papa's in there praying, and there isn't any food!"
Now don’t misunderstand what I’m getting at – we’ve had our share of wonderful responses to our prayers. We’ve had money show up when the cupboard was bare, just in the nick of time, and in totally unexpected ways and from totally un-explainable sources. We’ve seen God’s hand move in overwhelming response to our needs in church and home. Elizabeth and I prayed for nearly twenty years to see her Mom get saved, and we saw it happen! But none of that is the heart of prayer; those miracles are more a by-product of why God gave us prayer.
God’s plan and purpose for prayer is to help us develop an honest and deep relationship with God, so we’ll hear God’s voice, come close and be blessed by walking daily with God. The very creation of humankind tells us this. In Genesis(2:18) it is recorded that God said after making Adam,
“It is not good that the man should be alone;
I will make him a helper as his partner.”
God was concerned about Adam being alone, but recall that Adam was made in God’s image. God is self-sufficient, but chooses relationship with us; God craves for humans to choose fellowship with their Creator! Prayer is the interface for that fellowship; it’s what deepens and matures our relationship with God.
The Apostle Paul (in his letter to the Philippian church) showed us Paul’s inner desire to connect with God on the deepest level:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, Philippians 3:10 (NRSV)
Now, I am a person of prayer…already now; but not yet…meaning that I too share this burning desire in my innermost parts to know Christ. That part of the kingdom of God reigns in me, but it is far from complete. I am not nearly as functional (mature, telios) as I want to be.
Over the course of a 15 year struggle early in life to find who I am in Christ, then a 32 year struggle in ministry to work out what that means as I lived and served as a pastor in the (often times difficult) circumstances of local parish work, God has responded to my prayers with kindness.
· God has sustained me and my household
· God has given me relationships of friends, mentors and co-laborers that have blessed and enriched my life
· God has sustained and prospered the congregations I served
· God has protected the congregations and communities I served from my foolishness (and sometimes the other way around)
I very much appreciate C.S. Lewis’ contribution to my Christian formation. In the story of the latter part of Lewis’ life (told in the movie “Shadowlands”) his beloved wife Joy is very ill with cancer. During a brief period of recovery, Lewis’ friend, Harry (who is a clergyman) tells him God is answering his prayers. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) replies, “That’s not why I pray, Harry; I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless; I pray because the need flows out of me all the time…waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God; it changes me!” 
In all, prayer has been the one connecting thread in every aspect of my life which has kept me (at various times) from leaving the faith, destroying the most important relationships in my life, or just plain going insane! Prayer, which keeps me close to God…also keeps me; it changes me!
So what I want to share with you this morning is the model of the kind of prayer that has changed me profoundly over the course of my life. This “way” of praying is easily remembered by the short acronym “ACTS”. The four letters stand for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. Whether in private prayer or leading a public service, I offer my prayers this way.
I think this kind of praying is best illustrated in the prayers and life of the Old Testament reformer, Nehemiah. In the 5th century B.C. the Persian Empire (a coalition of what we would now identify as Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia) still held a large number of God’s children in captivity. But they were allowing many to return to Jerusalem.
Nehemiah was one who returned and was instrumental in rebuilding the city and its strength. He had been born in captivity, but was now a migrant to his homeland. His heart had been there…now his prayers to God were uttered as he stood in the ashes of Jerusalem’s rubble; he was charged with the great task of rebuilding God’s city. He prayed an A.C.T.S. prayer
Then I said, “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, Nehemiah 1.5 (TNLT)
To “adore” the Lord in prayer is to recognize Who He is, and respond accordingly. Nehemiah recognizes the Lord as great and awesome, the almighty powerful God who is in control of all.
To adore the Lord means to respond to Him as He has laid it down in the covenant with Israel…love Him and obey his commands. Actually, this is just common sense when you recognize that He is God and we are not!
Nehemiah started his prayer with adoration. One of the reasons we don’t always see that in prayers is because our minds are so full of adoration for ourselves. It is impossible to recognize the sovereignty of God when you are having someone else occupy that position.
Who is on the throne of your life? Is it you? Or is it God? If it is you, then you won’t adore God…you don’t even recognize who He is! That’s why the next part of the model is so important for our prayers…after adoration is…
6listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! 7We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, laws, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses. Nehemiah 1.6-7 (TNLT)
Nehemiah’s confession isn’t popular today. Today, if anything has gone wrong it is always the other guy’s fault. Nobody accepts responsibility for anything anymore. We have excuses, not confession. Today…
If a CEO sells his company down the tubes, he leaves with 38 million in golden parachute separation funds.
If a high-profile preacher lives a scandalous life of sexual sins, he thumbs his nose at his denomination and is back on the air in no time at all.
If a president lies, he has merely “mis-spoken” himself and doesn’t skip a beat.
By contrast, Nehemiah, born a thousand miles from Jerusalem, having never been there, included he and his family in the national sin of Israel. Wow…really? Yes, really; Nehemiah is wise enough to know that, had he been there, he also would have sinned.
He understood that he was no stronger than any of his fellow Israelites. He was under the same commands of the Lord to live ethically and morally, and obediently to the law of God. Nehemiah knew his own heart just like you and I know our hearts. We need prayers of confession….regularly!
In our text Nehemiah says “we have sinned terribly”. Literally, the word means “offended”. He is admitting the actions of God’s children, including himself, are offensive to the God of Heaven.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is what confession is all about. It’s recognizing that our sins do, indeed, offend God. In the cultural/political climate of our day, there are regulations against offending everyone BUT God! Him we kick out of our schools, courts and council rooms. God help us to confess our sins against the Holy One!
If you want a model for being a servant prayer warrior, there is adoration, confession, and…
“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you sin, I will scatter you among the nations. 9But if you return to me and obey my commands, even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’ 10“We are your servants, the people you rescued by your great power and might. Nehemiah 1.8-10 (TNLT)
Usually we associate “thanksgiving” with smiling to God for our blessings. It is one thing to say “thanks” when someone gives us a gift we like. It is quite another thing to say “bless you” (even to God) for hauling us out to the woodshed. Yet, that is exactly what Nehemiah has in mind here. Basically, he is rehearsing the fact that God said, “You sin, and I’ll get you! I’ll hunt you down, and I’ll bring you back and we can do it all over again!” Then Nehemiah says, “That was our rescue! Thank you, Lord!”
In acknowledging God’s goodness over the chastisement, it is reasserting the nature of God to be faithful to His other promises of blessing and joy. Some of the wording here reminds us of God’s promises in Deuteronomy. God had told Israel He knew they would go astray. God told Israel He was prepared to do whatever was necessary to bring them back under His wing:
26“Today I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you. If you disobey me, you will quickly disappear from the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. You will live there only a short time; then you will be utterly destroyed. 27For the LORD will scatter you among the nations, where only a few of you will survive. 28There, in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone, gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. 29From there you will search again for the LORD your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him. Deuteronomy 4: 26 - 29 (NLT)
How about that? God was prepared to offer Israel forgiveness, based upon his loving covenant. Do you know what that tells you and me about God? It says, loudly and clearly, you CAN begin again. If that isn’t something for which we can be thankful, I cannot imagine there is anything!
And so, our model is nearly complete…There is adoration to acknowledge God as deserving worship; there is confession to recognize our sinfulness and need of his forgiveness; and there is thanksgiving to realize He extends his love no matter how big we have sinned, if we will just repent and be ready to follow Him; and then Nehemiah moves to…
11O LORD, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success now as I go to ask the king for a great favor. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.” In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer. Nehemiah 1.11 (TNLT)
There is always a decisive moment in life when talking, or thinking becomes insufficient. There is a moment in time when we must have the rubber meet the road; we must act on what we believe. In our culture there is the expression which defines that:
Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition!
There is a time when praying ends and doing begins. That was the nature of the man Nehemiah…and all servant/prayer warriors. Nehemiah was committed in his prayer – then he got up off his knees and forged ahead.
When’s the last time you stepped out in faith? When’s the last time God put it in your heart to involve yourself in such a way that you knew if He didn’t come through, you were toast? My dear friends, THAT is what supplication is all about. That’s what dependency on God in prayer is all about.
I am not as consistent as I want to be in all this, but God is faithful, driving me back again & again to God’s loving arms and sweet fellowship.
To share with you how exactly this works, I want to share some journal entries from about 6 years ago. You know what a journal is – it’s those things you write down in private that you’re even kind of afraid to admit to yourself about yourself. These are some of those thoughts I had about me during an average time of prayer:
· January 31 – My lack of obedience is of the heart. I don’t do all the awful things I have heard about, or known other preachers do as they fall; it’s just that my heart is growing cold. Warm me Lord, I pray.
· February 5 – What if this tomb opened – really…and I had to actually crawl out and start living? For many, the idea of “rest” is not having to put-up with living!
· February 16 – Lord, You awakened a dead man this morning. I couldn’t even find my slippers but my heart was filled with praise for Your love. That can only be You!
· February 27 – In the poverty of my need of forgiveness I am standing over the well of hope – bucket-less; I am an extreme candidate for extreme grace. I have not even an eye-dropper – it is all of God!
And so it is, in the day-to-day routine of wanting to know God and the power of Jesus’ resurrection, I go to God, I run from God, I despair He even knows my name sometimes – and He loves me and draws me close.
Honestly, it’s hard to do, this being authentic….taking a step closer towards God; it’s scary. Ultimately we are ALL afraid of God! If you’re not you have never considered the true God of the universe, creator of heaven and earth. If you have never stood before Him with your knees knocking and that sinking feeling that you could be consumed at any moment…you’ve never really stood before Almighty JHWH.
Once more back to my friend, C. S. Lewis:
In his book The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis draws an analogy with the story of a young girl named Jill. She's in the land of Narnia, and she's thirsty. At once she sees a magnificent stream . . . and a fearsome lion (Aslan, who represents the Lord Jesus):
"If I run away, it'll be after me in a moment," thought Jill. "And if I go on, I shall run straight into its mouth." Anyway, she couldn't have moved if she had tried, and she couldn't take her eyes off it. How long this lasted, she could not be sure; it seemed like hours. And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the Lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first. . . .
"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I'm dying of thirst," said Jill.
"Then drink," said the Lion.
"May I-could I-would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
"Will you promise not to-do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.
"I make no promise," said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. "Do you eat girls?" she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream," said the Lion. It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion-no one who had seen his stern face could do that-and her mind suddenly made itself up.
It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went straight to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn't need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once. Before she tasted it she had been intending to make a dash away from the Lion the moment she had finished. Now, she realized that this would be on the whole the most dangerous thing of all.
That’s the bottom line in prayer – we’re always making a choice to run from God or to God, but, ultimately, despite our fear, our hearts and souls know that prayer that will carry us one step closer for a drink of living water!
Isn’t that what you really want to do?