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Sermon for Sunday 28 July 2013

FIRST READING Genesis 18:20–32

20 Then the LORD said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” 22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. 23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the LORD, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the LORD be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the LORD. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the LORD be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

PSALM Psalm 138

1 I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise. 2 I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your name, because of your steadfast love and faithfulness; for you have glorified your name and your word above all things. 3 When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me. 4 All the rulers of the earth will praise you, O LORD, when they have heard the words of your mouth. 5 They will sing of the ways of the LORD, that great is the glory of the LORD. 6 The LORD is high, yet cares for the lowly, perceiving the haughty from afar. 7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand shall save me. 8 You will make good your purpose for me; O LORD, your steadfast love endures forever; do not abandon the works of your hands.

SECOND READING Colossians 2:6–19

6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. 16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

GOSPEL Luke 11:1–13

1 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9 So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

One of the subjects we talk about in confirmation classes is prayer. And what better way to address the subject, than by looking at the Lord’s Prayer. We all grew up reciting this prayer, as a way of learning how to pray, but outside of Sunday, how often do we actually take time to communicate with God? For the Christian, praying isn’t really an option, yet far too many treat it that way. For Jesus, prayer wasn’t an option. Throughout the gospels, we find Jesus praying, both in public and in private. We need to keep in mind that Jesus instructed the disciples in verse 2, “When you pray”, not if you pray. Jesus knew the need to find time for prayer, and so should we. The key then to prayer, is finding, or should I say making, time to communicate with God.
I know we have busy schedules. I know all about the deadlines. I know about time pressures and stresses and demands in our frantic lifestyle. We all live in that world. But I also know that when we feel we’re so busy and our schedules are so hectic and the competition is so fierce and the times are so tough and we can’t afford to take the time to pray… then that’s the moment when we need to pray most of all, that’s the moment when we can’t afford not to take the time to pray! I for one am absolutely convinced that prayer works! And at times, prayer can yield some unexpected results.
As incredible as the story I’m about to share with you may sound, it is a true account. In September 1996, a man named Eduardo Sierra, a citizen of Spain, was on a business trip to Sweden. As he was driving through the Swedish countryside, he came upon a Catholic church. He decided to stop in for a few moments to say a prayer. The church was empty, except for a coffin with a body lying at rest inside it. Eduardo decided to take a few moments to stop and pray for the man who lay in the coffin. He then signed a book of remembrance left by the coffin. Apart from his signature, the book was empty.
Some weeks later, Eduardo received a telephone call, telling him, that he was now a millionaire. The body in the church was that of a Swedish businessman, with no close relatives, who had left his fortune “to whoever prays for my soul first.” Of course we don’t go around praying simply hoping to suddenly become a millionaire. We pray because it’s our way of communicating with God. We pray because we know that God listens and answers pray. A favorite passage of my father comes in the second part of James 5:16; “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” But what does James mean when he says, effective?
For the next few minutes this morning, I’d like to look at the keys to effective prayer. Now I wish that I could promise you that if you pray using these keys, you’ll receive the kind of return on your prayer that Eduardo received. Pray for just a few minutes and become a millionaire. That would be far better than investing in the stock market. But as you’ve probably already discovered, it really doesn’t work that way. Unfortunately, often times, just the opposite is true.
Recently I read about a man named Jack who is employed at his church’s denominational headquarters. It was customary in this particular denominational office for all employees to pause for prayer each morning at 9:00 A.M. A “prayer bell” signaled the beginning and ending of this daily routine. Occasionally, employees would find themselves on the phone during prayer time. Even though they wanted to end the phone call, it wasn’t always possible and so the entire office, now quiet, would overhear the conversation.
One morning, Jack reports, during prayer time, a co-worker named Paul could be heard in the quiet of the prayer time shouting from his desk, “Hello? Hello? I can hear you. Can you hear me?” We’ve all been there at some time or another, haven’t we? We’ve prayed, and it seemed like no one was there to hear us. We know that’s not true, but that’s the way it seemed. We like the psalmist this morning take comfort in the fact that when we call, God answers. (Psalm 138:3) One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When He finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
The disciples were very much aware of the importance that prayer played in Jesus’ life. The references to Jesus praying are numerous just within the opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke. For example, Jesus prayed at His baptism (Luke 3:21). He prayed during His temptation (Luke 5:16). On one occasion He prayed all night (Luke 6:12). On the day when He asked the disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” He had been praying alone (Luke 9:18). Afterward He went up onto a mountain to pray (Luke 9:28). And now, on this occasion, Luke tells us, “He was praying in a certain place.” Prayer was important to Jesus, just as it ought to be to us. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible, than to be alive without breathing.”
The disciples saw firsthand how important prayer was to Jesus and so they asked Him to teach them to pray. At that point Jesus taught them the most famous prayer ever prayed. Luke’s version of the prayer is a little shorter than the one recorded in Matthew, or the Lord’s Prayer that we use each Sunday, but it gets right to the heart of what prayer ought to be. Beginning with verse 3 we read; “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’” Note first how the Master begins by focusing our attention on God. “When you pray, say: ‘Father . . .’” This is important.
When we pray it’s tempting to hop right in with our needs, our concerns. It’s as if God is a peripheral player in our universe. Our focus is on the almighty me. That’s the spirit of our times. But the One who taught us to pray began by focusing on God.
“Father,” He began. What a revolutionary statement of faith that was. Only Jesus would be bold enough to call the Creator, of the whole universe, Father. He then goes further to honor God by saying “hallowed be Thy name.”
Hallowed; it’s an antiquated word. A dictionary definition of hallowed would be “Sanctified, consecrated, highly venerated.” Not only has this word fallen from use, but very few things in our world today are regarded as sanctified, consecrated or highly venerated. Many of us remember when our national institutions and flags were hallowed. Now it’s impossible even to quiet some crowds while the national anthem is being played.
Remember when the Sabbath was hallowed? Now, it’s when many sporting events are scheduled and has become the biggest shopping day of the week in many communities. Some may remember when civil authority was hallowed. Now we have to gag and handcuff ruffians to keep them quiet in the courtroom. I often wonder if such hallowedness is gone forever. Of course, not all of it is to be mourned. The Bible gives clear warning that any man-made institution, even laws regarding the Sabbath, can become idolatrous. That’s exactly what was happening in Jesus’ day. That’s what He condemned the religious leaders for and that’s what got Him in trouble.
One of the prime arguments that they used to crucify Jesus was that He broke the Sabbath. Still, there’s something wrong in a society where nothing is hallowed. If for no other reason, it keeps us from appreciating the wondrous awe that Bible characters felt in the presence of God. Isaiah fell down in the presence of God and cried out, “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have beheld the Lord” (6:5). Isaiah understood the meaning of hallowed.
Jesus evidently shared Isaiah’s sense of awe. I suspect that Jesus would never have referred to God as “the man upstairs.” He could call God “Father,” but still do it with reverence. God is God. He is still “I am that I am.” Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Father, hallowed be your name . . .” He told us to begin our prayer by focusing on God and Who God is. Next, Jesus says: “Your kingdom come.”
When Christ refers to God’s kingdom, He’s referring to any place God reigns in human affairs. Some of the ancient manuscripts like Matthew’s gospel (6:10), include the words, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s why we include those words when we say the Lord’s Prayer. But, again, the focus is on God and His eternal purpose for life. Here’s the chief problem in our prayers oftentimes.
Many times we want to focus on our kingdom and our will. Jesus understands that. In the Garden of Gethsemane, remember how He prayed that the cup of suffering would be taken away from Him. Nevertheless, when it came crunch time, He prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” All prayer is based in the goodness of God. We can pray “your kingdom come, your will be done” because we believe God’s will is always for our best good. Notice how Jesus illustrates this truth later in this passage.
Jesus tells about a father whose son asks for fish and an egg. Will the father give him instead a stone, a serpent, or a scorpion? Of course not. Jesus begins with God because all prayer is based in the nature of God. He is Creator, Sustainer, and Father of all that is. And His nature is Love. We need to see that, if God’s will is done, we will receive everything we need. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” said Jesus, “and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Sometimes we don’t see that, because we fail to look at life from God’s perspective. But God knows our needs and God will provide.
A boy once said to God, “I’ve been thinking, and I know what I want when I become a man.” He proceeded to give God his list: to live in a big house with two Saint Bernard dogs and a garden . . . to marry a blue eyed, tall, beautiful woman . . . to have three sons, one a senator, one a scientist, and one a quarterback. He also wanted to be an adventurer who climbed tall mountains and drove a red Ferrari. As it turned out, the boy hurt his knee one day while playing football.
Because of his injury, he could no longer climb trees, much less mountains. He married a beautiful and kind woman, who was short with brown eyes. Because of his business, he lived in a city apartment, not a big house with a garden, and he took cabs, and rode subways, not a sleek, expensive Ferrari. He had three loving daughters, one a nurse, one an artist, and one a music teacher, not three sons. They adopted, not two St. Bernards, but a fluffy cat. One morning the man awoke and remembered his boyhood dream. He became extremely depressed. He called out to God, “Remember when I was a boy and told You all the things I wanted? Why didn’t You give me those things?” “I could have,” said God, “but instead, I wanted to make you happy.”
It’s a wise person who realizes that the kindest thing God does, for some of us, is to not answer all of our prayers. I used to tell the guys at work, “Sometimes the worse thing I can do for you, is to give you what you want”. When you pray, trust God. He knows our needs. This is why Jesus begins with God. And that’s where we too must begin. God knows our needs. He is the source of our life. He is our hope for a better life. He is the Lord of all creation. Only after Christ has focused our attention on God and His kingdom and His will does He turn to our needs.
“Give us each day our daily bread.” It’s interesting how much Jesus had to say about our physical needs in only one line. That’s all. Here again is why so much of our prayer life is ineffective. You and I probably spend most of our prayer time on our physical needs. Yet Jesus devoted four times as much time on our spiritual needs as upon our physical needs. That doesn’t mean that our physical needs are unimportant. Jesus taught us to pray for it.
God’s will is for our physical needs to be met. How can we be effective servants if our daily physical needs aren’t met? It’s perfectly legitimate for us to share with God the pressing concerns of our life, whether it’s making the house payment, or the baby’s fever, or our own aches and pains. It’s God’s will that we share our physical concerns with Him. But our physical well-being, is just part of our deepest needs. Focus on God and His kingdom. Begin our prayer by asking that God’s kingdom will come and that His will is done. Give priority to His priorities, He will provide the rest.
Matthew reminds us, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (6:33) “Give us each day our daily bread.” Our physical needs are important. Take them to God. Next, comes the part that many of us have a hard time praying: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Other translations of this passage are more direct; “Forgive us as we forgive everyone else.”
Over the years I’ve heard the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer explained in many ways. And depending on the person’s willingness to forgive others, this part of Jesus’ prayer is interpreted differently. Bottom line is, this is a hard one. Asking God to forgive us is one thing, forgiving someone who has wronged us is tough. But forgiveness of others isn’t an option. Jesus tied these two together for our own benefit. Can you not see, however, that no matter how eloquent our prayers, we cannot be spiritually whole until we’re able to forgive those who have wronged us? No matter how many physical blessings we have, if we’re still carrying around anger and bitterness and resentment in our heart, because someone has done us some wrong, we’re carrying a cancer in our soul.
An expert on Divorce Recovery says that the major breakthrough for persons recovering from the brokenness and the pain of divorce, is the willingness to forgive their former spouse, even if that former spouse doesn’t think they need any forgiveness. Forgiving others is one of the most therapeutic exercises in which we can engage.
Once in a small church, in a small town, toward the conclusion of the service, a trembling woman came forward and sat on the front pew, asking forgiveness. She hadn’t been in that church for several years. The woman who sat directly behind her looked shocked. She grew pale and nervous. Several people in the congregation looked bewildered and wondered if trouble would start all over again; for there had been trouble, lots of it, tragic and heart-breaking trouble; two murders, court trials with opposing families, and one death in the electric chair. The trembling woman was the mother of the murderer.
The woman behind her . . . it was her husband and son whose blood had been shed. What would the second woman’s reaction be? Would she be able to forgive? Fortunately she was able. She reached forward to the trembling woman, clasped her hand, and said, “I’m glad you’ve come back to be with us in the church.” This woman whose husband and son had been murdered later commented, “I feel better than I’ve felt in years. Now I feel free.” We must understand that we don’t forgive the other person for their sake, but for our own. It’s easy to obtain God’s forgiveness. If you’re sincerely repentant, God will surely forgive. But forgiving ourselves and forgiving others, that’s what’s hard. The question we must ask is, “Can we truly fulfill Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbor, if we can’t learn to forgive?” The temptation to hold a grudge is great, that’s why the next petition of the Lord’s Prayer is so important.
“And lead us not into temptation.” Temptation comes in all shapes and sizes, and let’s face it, some of it, is attractive. Sometimes we find ourselves thinking, “well, maybe a little temptation. I mean, nobody likes a saint.” On and on we go with our meaningless evasions. When will we acknowledge our basic situation and need? We are sinners; sinners with infinite possibilities for good, but sinners still. All of us need to wash daily in God’s cleansing streams. We need God’s help to escape the temptations that are forever with us. “Lead us not into temptation . . .”
It’s Matthew who adds, “But deliver us from evil . . .” We know God will deliver us from temptation if we ask. That is if we really want Him to. Many of us, however, are quite happy to be tempted. But we need help with temptation, all temptation, so we pray for His help. His main concern is for our best good. So what are the keys to effective prayer?
Focus on God and His goodness and His love. Ask for our physical needs, but remember our spiritual needs as well; our need for forgiveness, and also our need to forgive and our need to be kept from temptation. “When you pray,” said Jesus, pray like this: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.”
When we stop and think about it, it is the perfect guide for how we should pray. It recognizes and honors God and it recognizes our needs both physical and spiritual. Now for those who might be asking, what about the last part of the Lord’s Prayer? It was the early church that added those last lines with which we complete the Lord’s Prayer. But they represent the culmination of everything we believe about this loving God: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

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