O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, His mercy endures forever (1 Chr 16:34). Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church - Winnipeg, MB
IN CASE YOU DON'T KNOW HOW TO PRAY
"IN CASE YOU DON'T KNOW HOW TO PRAY"
1 Kings 3:5-15
January 2, 2011
She was a really faithful Christian, devoted to the work of her church for decades. Now she had been elected an officer in the women's organization of the congregation. In this new role she was asked to open a meeting with a devotion and prayer. This duty upset her. When the pastor asked her why, she seemed almost ashamed to admit, "You see, I really don't know how to pray." She felt ashamed, I guess, because she figured after all those years of commitment she should have learned how to do it long before.
St. Paul was not an inexperienced leader recently elected to an office like that when he wrote his letter to the Romans. But even though he was a mature believer, a longtime preacher, and an apostle with something like 25 years under his belt, he tells us in Romans, chapter 8: WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE OUGHT TO PRAY FOR. So, if you feel sometimes like the lady I described who didn't know how to pray, you stand in the company of very honourable people, people like St. Paul.
Because we're weaker than we should be in our prayer lives, because 2011 now stretches before us with challenges and tests you cannot imagine at this moment, could there be anything wiser to focus on this first Sunday of the New Year than praying? On this 9th day of Christmas, could God give you a finer gift than to let us listen in on a prayer spoken 3000 years ago and to learn from it in case you feel you don't always know how to pray? Solomon at prayer has precious stuff to teach:
I. Bow down very low;
II. Seek out the Lord's own way with you; and
III. Let Him work out the rest.
He was a brand-new king, young Solomon was, fresh on the throne when he prayed these words. God had just handed him a blank cheque. THE LORD APPEARED TO SOLOMON IN A DREAM DURING THE NIGHT, AND GOD SAID, "ASK FOR WHATEVER YOU WANT ME TO GIVE YOU." SOLOMON ANSWERED, "YOU HAVE SHOWN GREAT KINDNESS TO YOUR SERVANT, MY FATHER DAVID, BECAUSE HE WAS FAITHFUL TO YOU AND RIGHTEOUS AND UPRIGHT IN HEART. YOU HAVE CONTINUED THIS GREAT KINDNESS TO HIM AND HAVE GIVEN HIM A SON TO SIT ON HIS THRONE THIS VERY DAY. NOW, O LORD MY GOD, YOU HAVE MADE [me] YOUR SERVANT, KING IN PLACE OF MY FATHER DAVID. BUT I AM ONLY A LITTLE CHILD AND DO NOT KNOW HOW TO CARRY OUT MY DUTIES."
Solomon's father David was a skilled warrior. But Solomon did not say David had himself to thank for coming to the throne. Solomon was a brilliant, gifted young man. But you don't hear Solomon praying that he had made this honour come to himself. He confessed to God, YOU HAVE SHOWN GREAT KINDNESS. Solomon was only king because of God's mercy, period; just as his father David had only been king because of God's mercy, period.
The Bible is oozing with prayers that start out this way, when men and women bow down, when they tell God He doesn't really owe them anything, and that every good thing they have is only theirs because of His undeserved mercy and kindness. Jacob prayed that way after years of hard work, building up flocks, herds and a family. He prayed, Lord, I AM UNWORTHY OF ALL THE KINDNESS AND FAITHFULNESS YOU HAVE SHOWN YOUR SERVANT. The tax collector in the temple talked the same way. When he prayed, HE WOULD NOT EVEN LOOK UP TO HEAVEN, BUT BEAT HIS BREAST AND SAID, "GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER." And St. Paul, that brainy, fearless apostle and missionary confessed what I told you before, WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE OUGHT TO PRAY FOR.
You want to pray better? Start where they did. Bow down before the Holy One. Begin your praying "in the dust," if you get what I mean. The wise people who compiled the liturgical services in our hymnal understood these things very well, didn't they? Whether you were literally on your knees this morning or not, you and I began this Divine Service bowing down low before God. We said to Him, IF YOU, O LORD, KEPT A RECORD OF SINS, O LORD, WHO COULD STAND? Right after that I invited you, LET US CONSIDER OUR UNWORTHINESS … AND CONFESS THAT WE HAVE SINNED AGAINST GOD IN THOUGHT, WORD AND DEED. That's the kind of bowing we did.
While the world out there is always telling you to assert yourself, to put your best foot forward, to be confident and not to let anybody sell you short, God's Word says, THE FEAR OF THE LORD IS THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM. Start your praying right there, taking Solomon's words and making them your own, telling God straight up that you've sinned and that the only hope you have is in His undeserved kindness. Then you are standing where you need to be. Then you're praying the most powerful thing you possibly could pray. When the tax collector prayed that way in the temple, Jesus Christ declared, THIS MAN … WENT HOME PUT RIGHT WITH GOD. When Solomon prayed that way in this Old Testament lesson, you heard what we read: THE LORD WAS PLEASED THAT SOLOMON HAD ASKED FOR THIS.
I was a parish pastor for 26 years. I led public prayers in services every Sunday. Every once in a while somebody would call the church office during the week and ask for a special prayer to be included in the line-up for the next weekend. Know what 95% of those prayer requests were about? I'll bet you can guess. People wanted the congregation to pray because a loved one had died. A family member was scheduled for an operation. A son or daughter was soon to be married. A new baby was born into the family. By the way, those prayer concerns are very legitimate. I'm glad people turn to God when they're in personal trouble. It's also a great thing when they want to praise Him in public for a blessing He has given.
But even though they're legitimate, you see what happens in many of our prayers. They tend to revolve around me, the people close to me, the situations that touch me. I can tell you other things I heard at times during those 26 years. Sometimes a really pious guy or gal who had strong ideas about what the church should be doing would pray on and on, using lots of holy-sounding talk. You almost got the feeling they were lecturing God a little bit, informing Him about what He should be doing in the church and in the world.
You see, even a holy thing like praying - and praying is indeed a holy thing - can get stunted a bit when you and I just take our ideas about what's important and use our priorities almost as a way of telling the Lord what He ought to be doing.
You want to know one of the deepest, wisest and soundest ways to pray? Use your prayers to seek out God's own way with you. Use your prayers to say back to God the kinds of things He has already said to you. Old Solomon has so much to teach you and me on this score if we'll open our ears and really listen. Solomon already knew God's kindness alone was the reason he was king. Solomon understood he was like a little child who didn't have the foggiest notion how to govern his new kingdom. Solomon also knew from God's words that the Lord wanted him to be an honest, diligent king. So how does Solomon pray? YOUR SERVANT IS HERE AMONG THE PEOPLE YOU HAVE CHOSEN, A GREAT PEOPLE, TOO NUMEROUS TO COUNT OR NUMBER. SO GIVE YOUR SERVANT A DISCERNING HEART TO GOVERN YOUR PEOPLE AND TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN RIGHT AND WRONG. FOR WHO IS ABLE TO GOVERN THIS GREAT PEOPLE OF YOURS? In other words, I surely can't, if You won't help me. So, O Lord, help me! Help me rule with faithfulness toward You! Help me lead with wisdom among Your people! Help me be the king You Yourself want me to become!
You want to pray in a way that's right on target? I'll say it again: Seek out God's own way with you. Say right back to God the things He says to you! These twelve days of Christmas give you and me a marvelous chance to do exactly that. What has God been telling you this Christmas about Jesus Christ? Remember what His angel said to Joseph: YOU WILL CALL HIM "JESUS," BECAUSE HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS. Remember what the angel told the shepherds in the night sky over Bethlehem: I BRING YOU GOOD NEWS OF THE ONE GREAT JOY THAT WILL BE FOR ALL THE PEOPLE. TODAY IN DAVID'S TOWN A SAVIOUR HAS BEEN BORN TO YOU; HE IS CHRIST THE LORD. God's telling you His Son is a Saviour. He's telling you Christ came to save from sin. He calls Christ "the Lord". That can help you direct your prayers very well at this point in the year, I'd say. Pray, "O Jesus, since You came to save me from sin, give me the heart to repent of my many sins and to make a clean break with them without a lot of excuse-making… O Jesus, give me the faith to trust in You as my only Saviour… O Jesus, since You came to be the one great Joy for all people, look with pity on my loved ones, my neighbours and co-workers who don't know You. Give me the heart to pray for their well-being; open the door and show me the right word to say to them to nudge them in love toward You… O Jesus, since You are indeed Christ the Lord, be my Lord and turn me away from every false love and fake lord I'm ever tempted to follow."
That's seeking out God's own way with you in your prayers. That's using your prayers to say right back to God the kinds of things He's already said to you. This is why people who are really serious about praying had better be serious about being Bible readers and Bible students. The Bible, you see, teaches you how to pray about what's on God's mind, instead of always praying about what's on your mind. Read and study the holy Ten Commandments, for example, how God wants you to keep His Name holy and to worship Him faithfully, how God wants you to honour parents and other authorities He has constituted, to be concerned about other people's bodily well-being, their marriages, their means of making a living, preserving their good name and reputation, and all the rest. Study stuff like that, and you won't come up dry in your prayers. You'll have plenty to say sorry for, plenty to ask God's help for. You'll also have the confidence that the Lord will be happy to hear those prayers, just as He was delighted with Solomon's prayer.
Yes, we read, the Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this kind of thing. SO GOD SAID TO HIM, "SINCE YOU HAVE ASKED FOR THIS AND NOT FOR LONG LIFE OR WEALTH FOR YOURSELF, NOR HAVE ASKED FOR THE DEATH OF YOUR ENEMIES BUT FOR DISCERNMENT IN ADMINISTERING JUSTICE, I WILL DO WHAT YOU HAVE ASKED. I WILL GIVE YOU A WISE AND DISCERNING HEART, SO THAT THERE WILL NEVER HAVE BEEN ANYONE LIKE YOU, NOR WILL THERE EVER BE. MOREOVER, I WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU HAVE NOT ASKED FOR - BOTH RICHES AND HONOUR - SO THAT IN YOUR LIFETIME YOU WILL HAVE NO EQUAL AMONG KINGS. AND IF YOU WALK IN MY WAYS AND OBEY MY STATUTES AND COMMANDS AS DAVID YOUR FATHER DID, I WILL GIVE YOU A LONG LIFE, too.
Interesting! Solomon didn't pray for the typical stuff a lot of folks pray for. He sought out the Lord's own way. He said right back to God the kinds of things God had already told him were the important things. But then God ended up giving him what God decided Solomon should have in other areas of life.
SEEK FIRST GOD'S KINGDOM, AND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND ALL THESE OTHER THINGS WILL BE ADDED TO YOU AS WELL. That's what Jesus says. Pray that God will bless you with a heart of sorrow to be penitent over your sins. Pray that He'll give you faith to trust in Christ Jesus your Rescuer. Pray God to give you His Holy Spirit so that you'll have wisdom and the heart to honour His commands. Pray at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church that the Lord would help you grow deeper in love toward each other as members of this congregation throughout 2011. Pray that God would open your eyes to see what ways you could get out into the community outside the doors of this building and get the message of Christ into the lives of people who do not know Him. You can pray all those things with strength and confidence. God will answer those prayers. He will help you become the sort of blessing so very needed in your family, in this church family, and in the wider community.
And then, when it comes to many other things, you can pray to God, YOUR WILL BE DONE. You can trust Him to send other things your way as He knows best. You see, you might want to get a certain job offer and you might be tempted to tell God in a prayer, "Do this for me!" But He may have good reason to block that path, maybe because He's aware of some trouble that could come your way you can't see in advance. You may be tempted to tell God, "Spare me this illness or that heartache!" And yet the Lord of love might be ready to firm up a shallow, flabby faith by teaching you how to trust Him more strongly, or by teaching you how to grow in wisdom and patience in a way that you'll otherwise never grow.
SEEK FIRST HIS KINGDOM AND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND ALL THESE OTHER THINGS WILL BE ADDED TO YOU AS WELL. Pray for penitence. Pray for a stronger faith. Pray for courage to go Christ's way. And when it comes to the other stuff - where you'll live, where you'll work, the mixture of joys and sorrows that will happen - pray, "Your will be done," and God will add the other things you need. He'll equip you with patience you didn't have before. He'll give you wise eyes to see some happy stuff as not so good after all, and some sad stuff as precious. He'll give you the guidance not to get too hung up on blessings so that they matter more to you than Christ. He'll give you the heart, not only to live through sorrow, but to actually grow and mature from it so that later on you see why He let it come your way.
St. Paul was wise to admit even after 25 years in the ministry, WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE OUGHT TO PRAY FOR. If you're like me, you know you also have a lot of growing to do in this area. Thank God on this first Sunday of a New Year that He permits you to look deep into Solomon's wise prayer! Thank God for the Holy Christ Child, Who came to bring you God's Kingdom and His righteousness. Thank God that He's giving you this new year as a wonderful time to learn and grow in this vital matter! Your families, your beautiful parish, and the world all around will certainly benefit from these prayers very, very much. Amen.
Rev. Robert Bugbee, President