Return to Prayer
February 24, 2021 Lenten Worship Sermon Matthew 26:36-46
Our theme is prayer, specifically God’s invitation and command to be constant in prayer. Keeping with our overall Lenten theme of returning to God, we are called to “Return to Prayer.” Let us pray…
I realize that prayer can be a touchy subject. Prayer is essential. I had an old book from the 50’s that was clear that if you do not pray you are not a Christian. If we are completely honest, few of us are very good at prayer. There is always a little bit of discomfort when the discussion turns to prayer. I think we all have great intentions, obviously, but a Scripture passage such as Paul’s encouragement in 1 Thessalonians to “rejoice always” and “pray without ceasing” (5:16–17) can make us flinch; we tend to worry more than we should, and we certainly don’t do a very good job of praying without ceasing.
It is a good bet that your prayer life does not measure up to the ideal that God’s Word sets up, and it probably falls short of whatever standard you set for yourself. If that isn’t difficult enough then the questions go to how and what should we pray. Do I pray for my team? Do I pray for my dog? Do I pray for a longer winter to enjoy the snow and what does do for my neighbor who hates the snow but can’t move to warmer climates? Is it proper for single people to pray for a spouse? Is it proper to pray for a spouse to die, as they enter into a coma after long battle with cancer? I hope by the time we are done here you will know that when God calls you to pray. Nothing is trivial and nothing is too much. God provides the means to pray and even assists you when you are unable to do so. Just as God, the Son, Christ Jesus is the primary actor in your salvation, so is God, the Holy Spirit is the primary actor in your prayer life.
In the Old Testament Reading tonight we are in a particular significant night in the life of the patriarch Jacob as he returns to Canaan, having been through quite the wringer with his father-in-law, Laban. Laban swaps Jacobs bride out with the elder daughter, he gives all the sickly sheep and goats to Jacob and indentures him to work many years so that he can marry the woman Jacob truly loves. Jacob has enough of it all and flees the watchful eye of his father-in-law with all of the people and livestock that are rightly his. But he is also very concerned about encountering his twin brother, Esau, whom he imagines is angry about that whole stealing-the-blessing thing. Jacob’s world is kind of up in the air.
What happens next is astonishing. Esau and the four hundred his men are heading toward Jacob and company. Jacob sends Leah and Rachel and his children and servants ahead and is left by himself for the night at the riverbank. Out of nowhere, a man appears and wrestles with Jacob which goes all night long.
Apparently, it was quite a wrestle-off, because neither came out on top through the whole ordeal. We slowly begin to realize that this was no ordinary wrestling match. Jacob wasn’t wrestling just anyone; he was wrestling God Himself! More specifically, he was wrestling with God’s Son, who would later become incarnate. He was wrestling with Christ Jesus.
This is no allegory; the wrestling match certainly happened. And one lesson we can learn from it is that the trials and temptations that God allows us to bear are ultimately intended not to destroy us but to build us up and to bless us. Which we discussed last Sunday when were were examining the what happen to Grandpa Abraham when God told him to sacrifice Jacob’s dad, Isaac. But we can also look at the cross of Christ to see how God can use suffering to bring about good.
This event as a metaphor for your prayer life. In a sense, you wrestle with God in your prayers. You ask for the things that you believe you need.
You struggle with the prayers that are not answered as you hoped.
You long for God’s clear guiding and directing, and you groan under the weight of the trials that you must endure.
But in the end, through your prayers and your wrestling, God changes you.
Molds you into something more like…. Jesus.
In our sinful selfishness, it may seem like that our prayers is a time of our wrestling with God. But what if I told you, it is actually a time when God is wrestling with us? A time that He uses to reorient, recalibrate, realign our assessments and our perceptions.
Surprisingly, it seems that the primary actor in your prayer life is not you but God.
One of the things Jacob says to his opponent is “I will not let You go unless You bless me” (Genesis 32:26).
Isn’t that great!
It is like saying “I won’t stop praying until You answer me!” Jesus spoke of such determination in pray as he told and it calls to mind the parable of the persistent widow. The parable where the widow comes before the wicked judge again and again demanding justice. You remember this? Do you remember what the wicked judge said? “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” Jesus used this parable to emphasize how much greater the blessing is from a God who actually loves you and cares about you. Who desires to hear your prayers and answer them.
The problem is that most of us don’t come to prayer prepared to go toe-to-toe with God all night long. We don’t train to be prayer warriors. We’re not equipped for that kind of battle. In fact, not only do we generally do a pretty poor job of being constant in prayer, we often aren’t even entirely sure how to pray.
We wonder: What do I say? How can I come before God and speak with any kind of eloquence? Words fail me. My emotions get the best of me. I’m keenly aware of my shortcomings, who am I to ask God for anything.
We’re a lot more like Peter and James and John than we are like Jacob and Jesus: falling asleep when we should be praying. We don’t know what to pray for, and we’re not even sure how to pray. And so, we don’t, or at least not as often as we should.
Paul offers us comfort, and we need to hear this: Paul says that we don’t know what to pray for. We don’t really know how to do this prayer thing, but that’s okay. Because “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). And what the Spirit does, you can be sure He does perfectly.
Your prayers may falter, but the Holy Spirit makes up for it.
What you cannot do, God does for you.
What you are unable to do, God does with ease.
Where you fail, God is perfect.
Because while you falter in your daily life, Jesus has stepped in and made up for it.
What you could not do, Jesus did for you.
What you were unable to do, Jesus fulfilled.
Where you failed, Jesus was perfect.
In the Gospel of Luke (11:1-13) we read: Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 And 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 who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”
The last part of the Lord’s prayer, “ For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen. Is called the conclusion or doxology was added by the early Church, probably in the first 100 years. Concerning this doxology we understand to mean, “This means that I should be certain that these petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven, and are heard by Him; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us. Amen, amen means ‘yes, yes, it shall be so.’”
Some of you have the gift of prayer as if you are having a wonderful conversation with your loving Father. But if words fail you. If all you can give is a groan, “O, God!” or if you use over and over again the pray that our Lord taught His disciples…Know that God, in fact, hears your prayers.
Finally, make the cross the focus of your prayer life. Let it comfort and soothe you as you speak your petitions to a loving God who sent His only Son to save you. Know that your failures do not define you before God; rather, Jesus’ perfection covers all of your sins and you bear His righteousness.
God commands you to pray, but He doesn’t leave it to you to figure out how. The command simply brings you to the foot of the cross, where you can look up and see the Gospel reality that covers your shortcomings. Know that your prayers are a means by which God is forming and molding you, and that He will intercede where you are found wanting. When God calls you to pray, He provides the means to do so, and He even fulfills what you are unable to do.
May that be a comfort and an encouragement as you joyfully respond to Jesus’ call to “Return to Prayer.”