“The Heart of Prayer”
Scripture Text: Matthew 6:5-15
August 21, 2022 – 6:00PM Evening Service
Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Pastor Nathaniel H. Gutiérrez
Matt. 6:5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when 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.
Matt. 6:7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:
“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 lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Matt. 6:14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
This is the word of the Lord,
Thanks be to God.
Let’s pray together.
Martin Luther wrote, “Cultivate the habit of falling asleep with the Lord’s Prayer on your lips every evening when you go to bed and again every morning when you get up. And if occasion, place, and time permit, pray before you do anything else. In this way you get ahead of the devil by surprise and without warning, whether you are ready or not, before he catches up with you and makes you wait. For it is better to pray now, when you are half-ready, than later, when you are not ready at all, and to begin to pray only to spite and vex the devil, even if you find it most difficult and inconvenient to do so. [Luther’s Works, 387.]
In this quote on prayer, we glimpse into Martin Luther’s view on prayer. He had a lot to say on prayer, and also specifically on the Lord’s prayer, which is why I will be referencing him throughout this message.
Luther understood prayer to be an essential component of the Christian life, and he loved the Lord’s prayer particularly. Luther said regarding the Lord’s Prayer, that it was evident that a real master had composed it and taught it. To him, the Lord’s Prayer was “the very best prayer, even better than the psalter,” which was very dear to him. He said that he could eat and drink of it and never get his fill. [A Simple Way to Pray, Luther, 8]
Luther’s view on prayer compelled him to want to have this prayer on his lips as he fell asleep and when he awoke – even before he did anything else.
If that is the case, then it is to our benefit to revisit this prayer afresh. To understand the heart of it and grasp the beauty of Jesus’ instruction.
Tonight, it is my prayer, that God will allow us to begin to peek into the riches of this treasure house of a prayer, and that it will cause us to thirst and hunger for more.
I’ll note at the outset that the quantity of material and resources on this subject are, to say the least, overwhelming. Tonight, we skim just a little from the surface, but I encourage you to dive deeper into the numerous articles, books and commentaries written on this prayer to enrich your prayer life.
And a good place to start is Martin Luther’s short and accessible $4.00 book entitled, “A Simple Way to Pray.” It is a wonderful booklet that Luther wrote and gave to a man named Peter, his barber, in order to help him learn how to pray.
And the interesting thing is that even as Luther wrote this book, he told Peter the Barber that the best he could do was to offer him what he did personally in prayer, but that he hoped he could improve on his practices. [A Simple Way to Pray, 1]
From this comment, it is apparent that Luther himself knew he had much to learn about the subject of prayer. The sheer volumes of materials on the Lord’s Prayer also reveals that many have tried to “crack the code” of prayer, so to speak.
Even so, prayer remains a mystery to us. It requires trust and faith in a process that we cannot understand. How our prayers play part in the eternal plan of the immutable, infinite, and sovereign God, is beyond our comprehension.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ own life was a living example of the importance of prayer. Jesus prayed continually. He went off to pray by himself on several occasions leaving his disciples, going off into the mountains. He prayed with his disciples, and he prayed with the multitudes. The gospels demonstrate that Jesus was continually giving examples and teachings on the importance of prayer. And here, we see Jesus taking the time to teach his disciples the importance of praying and praying rightly.
And while we are unable to grasp the mechanics and process of our prayers, what is clear is that God’s word calls us and commands us to pray.
Luther notes that in and of itself, the fact that God commands us to prayer should be enough motivation for us to pray. He says that because he reasons that if God commands us to pray, we can be sure that he will not “allow our prayers to be futile or lost, for if he did not intend to answer you, he would not have ordered you to pray and backed it up with such a strict commandment.” [Luther, Large Catechism, Lord’s Prayer, Book of Concord, 443.]
It is helpful to realize that God does not waste his time, nor does he waste his teaching, he does not give us ridiculous tasks just to make us feel like we have access to him, if indeed we don’t. So, Luther rightly concludes that if God has commanded us to pray, then we can be absolutely certain that he will stand by our prayers and that they will not fall on deaf ears.
The Scripture teaches us that God promises to answer prayer. Psalm 50:15: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you….” Jesus also promises that if we ask, God will give. Luther wrote that these promises should “kindle in our hearts a desire and love to pray.” [Mark Rogers, 338]
And God’s promises should also lead Christians to pray with faith and boldness. For as Luther saw it, God is an “inexhaustible fountain” that overflows more and more as it gives.
God wants to give more than we have the faith to ask for. [Rogers, 328]
So, why don’t we pray? It can be difficult to pray in faith, trusting that God will hear us. We make all kinds of requests, and they seem to go unanswered. When we don’t see results, we can become discouraged.
But there are a few reasons we might not be getting the results that we hope for.
One reason is that we might not be waiting long enough for God’s timing. We live in a culture of immediate gratification, and we struggle to wait patiently on the Lord’s timing.
We see this repeatedly in the OT accounts of God’s people. Abram, refusing to wait on the Lord, deciding that the Lord had forgotten his promise, moves ahead and has children through Hagar and disaster follows. Later he sees the fruit of God’s prayer in Isaac. If only he had waited, but rarely are we willing to wait for God’s timing.
And another reason we might not be getting the results we hoped for in prayer is that we don’t ask rightly.
The Apostle James writes,
“You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?
James, and also our Lord Jesus, teach us that there are right and wrong ways to pray. We are not to approach God full of requests for worldly desires. The world is at war with God and his kingdom. God will not give you the fleeting temptations of this world, for as a good Father, he is seeking to keep you from idolatry and temptation.
And praying rightly also means that you do not use prayer to bring attention to yourself as the hypocrites do. To strive to pray eloquently before others, in order to be noticed by others is to use prayer to elevate yourself, and impress others, and to seek recognition…not to be heard by God.
Commentator, Craig Keener comments that it was not normal for Jews to pray on the street corners, but that Jesus here was painting an image of absurdity. Praying in such a way as to draw attention to your righteousness and spirituality is the polar opposite behavior of one who is approaching God Almighty. Rather than seeking God’s attention in humility, people were seeking human attention by showing their eloquence and by showing off their spirituality.
Jesus rebukes those who seek to build themselves up by using their prayer with God as a steppingstone to get praise from others. Instead, he instructs his disciples to pray out of the view of others. To pray in secret.
The focus, of course, is not to shut down public praying, or to suggest that every house requires a room for prayer, but rather that you would separate yourself from distractions, and watching eyes, and that you would spend time pursuing God’s divine attention rather than mere human attention. [Keener, 212]
Praying like Pagans
Jesus wants your prayers to be for the Father. And there is another way that we often fail to do this. We pray like the pagans.
In v. 7 Jesus says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.
Another wrong way of praying was also a practice that was used in pagan culture.
As I’ve noted before, where we read Gentiles, it is often translated as pagans. Gentiles were not among the Jews, the people of God. So, they were considered unbelievers or pagans.
And yet, when we think of the word pagan, we think of someone who believes in no god at all. But these Gentiles, these pagans, were praying. They were praying falsely, and to false gods, but they were praying. They were using any and all means they could to try to reach out to their gods and wear them down until they listened to them.
We might remember the account of Elijah against the prophets of Baal. They called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered….they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them….but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.” [1 Kings 18:26-29]
Some pagan prayers consisted of naming all the deities or performing the right ritual in order to make the gods hear them. They obviously believed that if they suffered enough, then maybe the gods would listen to them.
But for other pagans, it was all about the way they said their prayers, or if they said the right prayers.
One commentator notes that “Roman magistrates read prayers exactly as they had been handed down through tradition; ‘if one syllable or one ritual gesture was performed incorrectly, the prayer might well be invalid’ (Stambaugh and Balch 1986: 129).” [Keener, 213]
We saw this throughout South America. Prayers in South American Catholicism and Spiritualism were recited with superstitious hopes that their use would somehow bring them fortune from above.
Even today, many devout religious people hang their different deities in their cars and on their walls or necklaces or statues. Using different methods and techniques and names to try to guarantee a response from their gods.
This, however, is not how God wants us to pray. He reminds his disciples that he knows the beginning from the end and does not need them to be long winded or try to use strategy to impact God’s plan. But rather, they are to pray after the method Jesus taught them.
What is more troublesome, is that the very thing that the Lord is saying not to do in this passage, is the very thing that the Lord’s Prayer is used for around the world in many different religious groups.
In some churches, it is believed that the way to be right with God, is to pray the Hail Mary prayers 50 times each day and to recite the Lord’s Prayer 5 times. Some hope that praying the Lord’s Prayer over different things (even a cup of water) will give it mystical powers. Others teach their unbelieving children to recite the Lord’s Prayer every day in order to live a blessed life.
Martin Luther writes on this topic, “What a great shame that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world! How many pray the Lord’s Prayer several thousand times in the course of a year, and if they were to keep on doing so for a thousand years, they would not have tasted nor prayed one iota, one dot of it! In a word, the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth (along with the name and word of God). Everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use.” [Luther, 8-9]
This is an important point when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer. Do we pray it because we believe that it is in praying this prayer perfectly, and in rhythm it does something more mystical than other prayers?
No! As a congregation, we pray this prayer every Sunday morning along with our morning petitions. And we pray it because it is a good and helpful prayer and format or template that our Lord Jesus taught us to pray. However, we do not believe that it must be recited to make us right with God or to gain favor with him.
And we believe this in part because throughout the Psalms and OT Scriptures, we see plenty of different styles of praying. Jesus, along with his disciples, prayed in different ways throughout the New Testament. In John 17, Jesus prayed his famously known, “high priestly prayer” over his disciples and future disciples. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked God to let the cup pass by him. [Mt 26:39] On the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” [Lk 23:34]
We see also that the disciples understood that they could pray in different ways, even though Jesus gave us this template for prayer.
Jesus gave us this beautiful template, and he warned against praying as the pagans did, mindlessly using prayers and phrases to get God’s attention.
Prayer as a Business Transaction
Tim Keller notes that when we do this, we treat prayer as a business transaction. If we pray the right prayer in the right way, then God gives us what we want. But rather than considering this a business transaction, he says we should consider this more of a familial relationship.
This is why Jesus teaches us to start our prayer off with “Our Father.” For when we do, we remember that our prayers are not based on our righteousness, or methods, or holiness, but based on our adoption as sons.
You should have been there this morning in Highschool Sunday School! Evan Kvale was showing Paul’s exasperation with the Galatians for forgetting the fact that we are God’s children, not slaves who have to earn his hearing!
Jesus’ prayer and teaching demonstrates to us that it is not about winning favor with God. The foundation of our relationship with God rests wholly on what God has done for us in the accomplished and perfect work of Jesus.
It is not about our works, or how well we have been able to keep God’s commandments. We are not paying for anything in our prayers.
The very outset of this prayer reminds us that we are already his. He has called us by name, he has written our names down in the book of life.
And it is within this Father and child relationship that God tells us to approach him.
See, we don’t need to act like pagans, crying out to an unknown and impersonal God. Instead, we can pray in quiet, in secret, with the door closed behind us to enter the presence of our loving Father who knows us in the secret place, who knows our every need.
This is the foundation of our prayer life. We approach God as the Father that he is to us, and we do so having all the rights and privileges of a child of God.
One author writes that “Praying as a child of God reminds us that God has already accepted us. This foundational fact of prayer is inseparable from the foundational doctrine of the Reformation: justification by grace alone through faith alone. [Rogers, 337]
Luther draws the same conclusion when it comes to prayer. He writes that “….Praying sinners must banish all thought that our prayers merit favor with God.” The truth is that “we are worthy of nothing for which we ask, nor have we earned it.” [Luther, SC, Lord’s Prayer, Book of Concord, 358.]
Instead, he encourages us to pray this sort of prayer:
“Now through your mercy implant in our hearts a comforting trust in your fatherly love, and let us experience the sweet and pleasant savor of a childlike certainty that we may joyfully call you Father, knowing and loving you and calling on you in every trouble.”
[Luther, “Personal Prayer Book,” LW 43:29; WA 10II:395.20ff.]
This is the design of Jesus’ prayer. Jesus wants us to come before the Father, as he does: with confidence, knowing that our prayers are heard.
And as children of God, our purposes are to be the same as God’s purposes. Our prayers are melded into God’s will. And this is why Jesus teaches us to pray God’s will be done, His Kingdom come.
When Alicia and I started dating, we were different people than we are today. Sure, we are very much the same as we once were, but after getting married and spending 17 years of marriage together, we have really become one in many different ways.
While we each have our own personalities and different interests – I have yet to learn how to knit – and she doesn’t particularly enjoy chasing a ball around a soccer field – we have many similarities. While I never once thought I would step foot in the PNW for longer than a quick trip, I have fallen in love with the beauty and people of this area. While Alicia probably never pictured eating or making Peruvian or Colombian food, she ended up doing all these things and having our third child in Colombia.
We both have sort of melded into one person. I’m a Peruvian-Washingtonian and she is a Washingtonian-Peruvian. And at the end of the day, we share the same priorities, and we share one another’s interests. Her success is mine, and mine is hers. The same is true of our children. Their success and their happiness are ours, and our happiness is theirs.
And as children of God, we follow this same idea. Our passions, our desires, our interests become fused with God’s. His will becomes our will. His kingdom becomes our greatest joy. His holiness and his glory are our joy.
It isn’t about having our own independent success. It is about God being glorified and him being worshipped. It is about finding joy in him, and not in worldly passions.
And this prayer that Jesus gives us is a prayer, and it is also a teaching prayer. It teaches us the right way to live, the right way to think and the right way to pray.
And as its priority, it highlights that we ought to live, think and pray for the glory of God above everything else. These are, after all, the first three petitions, the holiness of the Father’s name, the coming of God’s kingdom, and the establishment of God’s will on earth.
Everything else will be added
Later on in this chapter we are reminded that we are to live seeking first the kingdom of God and all his righteousness. And then everything else will be added unto us. It is no different in the Lord’s Prayer.
For when we seek God’s will and glory on earth as it is in heaven, we know that God will provide for our every need as he has promised, both here and in heaven.
And when we long for his name to be hallowed, we pursue holiness in our own lives, repenting from our sins, and forgiving those who have sinned against us.
And as we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we flee from the temptations and lures of this world, for we have a better kingdom, a lasting kingdom.
And when we pray to our Father in Heaven, we remember that we do not fight against flesh and blood, “but…. against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
In this masterful prayer, we see that Jesus has modeled the life of the believer and what his priorities should be. For we are to focus our lives and our prayers, our desires, and our passions after his, and we will see how he provides for our needs.
Putting it into Practice
My best friend, Doug McNutt, who is a pastor and missionary, recently gave me a prayer challenge. And it might not be for you, but I want to encourage you to consider it.
From Psalm 119:164, where it says, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules,” he has challenged me to carry around a little notebook and to find 7 times a day to seek God’s face and to keep record of it.
To seek him in prayer, in Scripture reading, in worship and in more prayer. Praying while driving to work, and from work. Praying with co-workers, praying with neighbors. But the idea is to put prayer at the forefront of your mind and to make it your everyday goal to make prayer a priority. Maybe this will be helpful to you.
Martin Luther had several ways to pray. He’d pray through the Lord’s Prayer, but he’d also pray through the 10 Commandments, and he’d pray through the Psalms. He prayed steadfastly morning and evening.
But it was not Luther alone. It is all the great men and women of the Bible who we admire, who were known to be men and women of prayer.
When I was younger, it always puzzled me as to why Jesus would go off and leave his disciples only to meet up with them afterwards. Now that I understand that it was to pray, it amazes me, that our Lord and Savior took time from his incredibly busy and overwhelming schedule to spend time with his Father.
If we don’t understand why, I pray that we would take action on this. That we would investigate, that we would take advantage of prayer meeting, that we would pray with our families daily, with our friends or with our spouses. That we would be men and women of prayer!
As we meditate on this passage this week and consider the ways that we can enrich our private prayer life, it is my prayer that we would see the value in sneaking away to pray, to taking deliberate moments throughout the day to quietly, humbly, and sincerely come before our Father. And that we would seek to pray first and foremost for the advance of his Kingdom and glory, and then for all our needs and concerns.
And as we fill our lives, our mornings and evenings with prayer, we will soon find that God’s will is our will, that his kingdom is our greatest desire, and that his glory is our greatest joy. And it will be enough for us. Our problems, our concerns will become infinitely smaller in God’s greater plan, and we will all the more readily wait and trust in him as we bring our petitions before him. Amen.
This sermon series draws on material from:
France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT, Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, 2007.
Keener, Craig. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Illinois. InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Lloyd-Jones, Martin. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, Reprinted 1991.
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-), vol. 24, p. 387.
Luther, Martin. A Simple Way to Pray.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew. PNTC, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eerdmans Company, 1992.
Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Greek Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, 2005.
Ferguson, Sinclair. Living Out the Sermon on the Mount: Kingdom Life in A Fallen World. Colorado Springs, Colorado. NavPress, 1986.
Sproul, R.C. Matthew: An Expositional Commentary. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019.
Stott, John R. W. Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978.
CCLI Copyright License 751114; CCLI Streaming License CSPL116892