Sunday, February 26, 2017

Open Wide - And Ask

I’d like to talk with you, again, about prayer. Today, we’re going to take a look at what we are to pray for and how we are to pray for it. We’ll start in Psalm 81, but we’ll travel from there to include some other apt bits of Scripture.

There is a great prayer promise in Psalm 81 that I’d like you to take to heart. Listen as God speaks to His people Israel.

Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

God promises an abundance to His people. He promises an abundance of blessings. All He asks is that they open their mouths wide in expectation. He calls them to make large requests of Him. If they do, He promises to grant those large requests.

God works to be persuasive here. He doesn’t want His people to simply assume that He can come through on this promise. He offers proof that He can. He reminds His people of what He has done in their past.

He made it a decree in Joseph
when he went out over the land of Egypt. …
I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
your hands were freed from the basket.
In distress you called, and I delivered you;
I answered you in the secret place of thunder; Psalm 81.6,7

God points back to His astounding rescue from Egypt. And here, just think about what happened. A group of powerless people, so greatly oppressed and in bondage, were delivered from the superpower of the day. Israel walked out free, on their way to a new life, while Egypt smoldered in ruins. In His rescue of Israel, a large request was made and heard and granted. God’s promise to meet large requests, impossible requests, isn’t some empty boast. He can do it. He can fill open mouths. He did it for His ancient people. He can do it for His modern people. This is a promise worth noticing.

Now, I don’t know what you’re thinking right now. But one thing that someone might think is this. ‘Why doesn’t this sort of thing happen to me? Why don’t I experience this abundance of blessing? Why?’

Here’s one response to that kind of question, a quote from James.

You do not have because you do not ask. James 4.2

Good answer. You have to make the large request before it can be granted. However, one reply just might go something like this. ‘But I have asked. I have prayed. I have made large requests - at least they seemed large to me. But all too often, nothing happened. So, I don’t ask for those sorts of things any more. I guess that the Psalm’s promise isn’t for me.’

Is that where it ends? No. James anticipated that sort of reply. He has more to say.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. James 4.3

And that brings us back to a theme in James that we’ve seen before: our desires, here labeled as ‘passions’. In January, I spoke to you about this theme in James.

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. James 1.14

According to James, our desires, our passions, trip us up. They lure us into sin, and they undo our prayers. So, what is the solution? Are we to get rid of all desire? No, not at all. There are many places where the Father appeals to our desires. Listen again to what I told you in January.

So, here’s the goal: every desire that we have, every desire, is to have at its core the desire for God. This makes sense because He made us to respond to Him in this way, to desire Him in all that we do. That’s the goal that we are to work toward in this life.

The solution is not to get rid of our desires but rather to have well-ordered desires. Our desires, our passions, are to be tied to God. At root, they are to be about Him. We are to have well-ordered desires. When we pray with those, things work better. Our prayers work better.

All right. So much for theory. Now for the practical question. How do we do that when it comes to our prayers? How do we open our mouths wide, with well-ordered desires, so that God will fill them with His abundant blessings? This is where we need to consult another bit of Scripture, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. Jesus gave us this prayer as a model of prayer that is based on well-ordered desires.

The Lord’s Prayer is six requests, each covering an area of prayer, sandwiched between our addressing God at the beginning and a doxology of His praise at the end.

Our Father, who art in heaven,

Hallowed be Thy Name,
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.

Now, notice that those first three requests are closely tied to God Himself. First, His name. We are to pray that His name, that is, His reputation, would be made special. That is, we are to pray that He would be clearly seen to be as good as He actually is. Second, His kingdom, His rule. We are to pray that everyone would understand that life is not about us and how we want our lives to go. It’s about how He wants life to go. It’s His kingdom. He runs it and not us. And then, His will. Here, we are to pray that what He has revealed in the Bible would be done by all. That’s not just about the commands. It’s also about the promises. We are to pray that the commands are obeyed but also that the promises are believed. And then, for all of these three, we are to pray that these things would happen here on earth to the very same extent that they are already happening in heaven.

Prayer that is an expression of well-ordered desires sees the priority of these three: the Father’s name, the Father’s kingdom, the Father’s will. They come first, not just in the order of what we pray about but even more so in terms of what is most important in our prayers. The Father’s name, the Father’s kingdom, the Father’s will.

It’s in the second group of requests that we get to talk about ourselves. But notice what each request is about. The first, for daily bread, is about asking for our needs. Not our wants, but our needs. The second request, forgiveness of sin, is about relationships. Here, we ask that our attacks on the relationship that we have with the Father - after all that’s what sin is - would be forgiven so that our relationship with Him would endure and grow. I find it most interesting that Jesus actually attaches a condition for this forgiveness. We will be forgiven our attacks against the Father only as we forgive those who have attacked us. This second request is about the quality of our relationships, with the Father and with others. Then, the third request is about evil. We are to pray that we would not be put in a place where our love for the Father would be put to the test, lest we fail and fall into evil. We ask for that because we are aware of how weak we are. In this context, we are to pray that we would be delivered from the evil around us. That’s a short-term request when it comes to particular temptations that confront us now, as well as a long-term request for the arrival of the age to come where there will be no evil.

Now, be careful. We don’t pray about these three requests as if they were separated from the first three requests. No, they need to be tied to the first three requests. So, when we pray about our needs, our relationships and our dealings with evil those requests are conditioned by our requests concerning the Father’s name, the Father’s kingdom and the Father’s will. The first three requests control everything in our prayers.

And that’s why I told you back in January that, ‘every desire that we have, every desire, is to have at its core the desire for God’.

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the things that we have been praying about. Let’s compare. On the one side, there’s the Lord’s Prayer as I have explained it as our model for prayer. On the other, our prayer lists. Side by side. How do these two compare? I’m going to guess that there are things on our prayer lists that don’t line up with what Jesus was talking about. So, what do we do? 

Well, it needs to be said that there are some things that we pray about that we just shouldn’t. James’ exhortation really does apply to these.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. James 4.3

These prayers are just about making us happy or comfortable or something like that. They have nothing to do with the things of the Father. They’re just about us and our desire for a relatively pleasant life. We need to stop praying for those things.

But there are other things that we shouldn’t dump from our list. Instead, we need to adjust how we pray about them. We need to pray for them with well-ordered desires. We need to pray for them in terms of pursuing the honor of God’s name, advancing the truth that life is not about us but about Him and responding to Him with obedience to His commands and belief in His promises.

So, for example, we can fall into praying for our kids in terms of simply satisfying our passions for them. It’s common for people to want their kids to be happy and successful and all the rest. But can we pray for that? We can as long as we define those things - happiness, success and the like - in terms of the Father’s name, the Father’s kingdom and the Father’s will. That makes for a very different kind of request for our kids. You may need to make some adjustments.

I mention praying for our kids just as an example of what it might look like to pray about something with well-ordered desires. The same applies to things like job and health and lots of other things.

It is as we pray in this way, with well-ordered desires as the Lord’s Prayer guides us, and as we make large requests, that we will see God act in powerful ways in our lives, in our church and in our world. We can open our mouths wide and watch as He fills them with the abundance of His blessings.

Now, I have some homework for you. This is so that you can think through and apply what I’ve talked about this morning. Here’s the question that I want you to take home and answer. In light of what that Psalm promises, how James rebuked those saints he wrote to and how Jesus explained what prayer is to be about, how should we pray for Dave and Pam?

(These are members of our congregation.  Dave was just diagnosed with cancer and Pam is his wife.)

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