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Get Your Prayers Out of Neutral

A church planter named Len Sullivan writes about one of his experiences in prayer:

In the mid 1980s, my family moved to northern Saskatchewan to start a church. As a church planter, part of my support was funded by the local mission. Most months were difficult financially.

One week in April, when the ground is still frozen and snow-covered, we were down to only a few dollars in the bank. Our usual reaction to that need was to look for our own solution. This time, however, in a stroke of faith, I went before God and told him that we needed eggs, bread, and milk. I would wait upon him.

That afternoon, a man came to my little fix-it shop with a leaky teakettle. He said, "I know I could get another, but it's my favorite kettle. Please fix it." In a matter of minutes the job was done, and I didn't even charge him for it. But he pulled out a $10 bill and insisted that I take it?just enough to buy a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, and a loaf of bread.

As he left, with a bit of pride in my faith decision, I thanked God, then thought,: "Don't you wish you had asked for a half a beef?"1

Something you may find interesting is that Jesus does not talk a lot about praying.

I did a very rough survey in my concordance the other day. The gospel of Luke, which has the most references to prayer has only twenty one references either to the verb "to pray" or to the noun, "prayer". And most of those references are descriptions of the fact that someone prayed, or were used in terms of one person making a request of another, but not what we would call praying to God. I counted only six references in which Jesus instructed people to pray or taught about prayer. The passage in Luke 11 we read this morning contains more reference to prayer than almost any other in the entire New Testament.

Surprised?
Even though I had known that, it surprised me again when I added up the verses.
But in another way I am not surprised.
That's because Jesus was intensely practical, and not at all what you would call a "religious" person.
So that I don't mislead you, there are many references to the fact that Jesus prayed. He would get up early in the morning before light to spend time praying.

The reason: Because he knew this was his source of power and guidance.
He didn't pray to be religious, he prayed because that is when he heard the father's voice telling him what he must do and giving him the strength to do it.

His disciples saw how effective his life was and asked if he would teach them how to pray.
His model for prayer is the prayer we offer every week--the Lord's prayer.

Then he told them a parable about prayer.
He said, suppose a traveler arrived late at night at a friend's house.
Traveling in the evening was common in the hottest periods of the year.
But when the guest arrives, his host is out of food.
This is inexcusable in a middle eastern country, but not without explanation.
Bread was baked a day at a time.

The host hurries to a friend and knocks on the door to get help.
From inside comes a voice, "Go away! The door is locked and we are all in bed"
A poor Palestinian home would be one room with a dirt floor. The door was left open all day and it was assumed that an open door was a sign anyone could enter.
But when the door was closed, this meant "do not disturb". At night it meant the household were in bed.
A family all slept on a slightly raised sub floor near the hearth, and would huddle together for warmth.
There might even be an animal or two inside.

For the man to get up and answer the door meant waking everyone in the house.
Jesus says, "He isn't going to get up just out of kindness, but because of the friend's persistence...his shameless persistence."

A parable is used to show likeness or contrast of two ideas or situations.
In this case it is to show a contrast.

We are safe with God
What Jesus is saying is that the friend had to be almost harassed into helping, but in the end he did.
God is totally unlike that.
We don't have to harass God into hearing us. If we ask God listens.
Jesus used a similar story about a poor widow badgering a corrupt judge into hearing her case.
He says in effect, "then imagine what it is like with God who is just, fair and willing to help!"

The point is this: We should pray and be confident.
We don't have to harass God into giving us a hearing.

There are qualifiers of course. We have to pray for what is good.
I have been known to pray for a nice big one when I am out fishing. So far God seems unimpressed with this request.
There is a cute saying that you have heard often: "be careful what you ask for; you may get it."
We all understand the sentiment and the humor of it.
But when we approach God in trust, that saying is totally false.

Jesus tells us that when we pray, God does not play tricks on us.
A son who asks a father for bread isn't going to receive a stone, or one who asks for fish won't get a snake instead.
So God, who is a much better parent than we are, doesn't play games.
In other words, you are safe with God.

That doesn't mean everything we ask always happens the way we ask it. We know that from experience.

At the age of 16 in the year 371, Augustine sneaked away from his mother in Carthage. During the night he sailed away to Rome, leaving her alone to her tears and her prayers.

How were these prayers answered? Not the way his mother Monica  hoped at the time

Augustine himself wrote, "And what did she beg of you, my God, with all those tears, if not that you would prevent me from sailing? But you did not do as she asked you. Instead, in the depth of your wisdom, you granted the wish that was closest to her heart.

"For she saw that you had granted her far more than she used to ask in her tearful prayers. You converted me to yourself, so that I no longer placed any hope in this world, but stood firmly upon the rule of faith. And you turned her sadness into rejoicing, into joy far fuller than her dearest wish, far sweeter and more chaste than any she had hoped to find."2.

But Jesus does value persistence.
If its not to get God's attention, then what is its purpose?

To demonstrate that we are invested in the answer.
Praying isn't offering up a specially chosen recipe of holy words that unlocks heavenly mysteries.
Prayer is more practical. It is getting involved on a personal level.
If its important, then God expects us to get involved.
How willing are you to help someone who won't get their own hands dirty?

William Booth founded the Salvation Army in mid eighteen hundreds.
 
One of the most effective weapons in General Booth's arsenal was fervent prayer. It was not unusual for Booth to hold "an all night of prayer" when he came to preach the Word of God. People would flood the altars every where he went. "The power of God was wonderfully manifest in the meetings . . . people were frequently, struck down, overwhelmed with a sense of the presence and power of God."

The Salvation Army's success at freeing the captives was uncanny, especially when one considers those who it strived to reach. General Booth's battle cry was "Go for souls and go for the worst." The worst of sinners were saved, saloons were closed and entire cities were shaken.

Once while traveling, General Booth's car was detained. He took advantage of the opportunity and exhorted some idle factory workers. He said, "some of you men never pray, you gave up praying long ago. But I'm going to say to you, won't you pray for your children, that they may be different?" Within minutes, 700 men knelt in silent prayer.

At another time, two Salvation Army officers set out to found a new work, only to meet with failure and opposition. Frustrated and tired they appealed to the General to close the rescue mission. General Booth sent back a telegram with two words on it, "TRY TEARS." 3.

Getting Our Prayers out of neutral
If you drive a car with an automatic you start the car in neutral or park. The engine idles easily with no load. You know there is no point revving the engine in neutral unless you have a cool muffler and want to impress someone. But giving the car gas will produce no result except a bit of noise.
However, the moment you put the car into gear you can hear and feel the difference in the engine. It changes tone and you can feel the power delivered to the wheels. You know that if you give it gas, it will get results.

Sometimes I think God is waiting for us to shift out of neutral before he gives it some gas.
Booth knew how to get himself invested in the process. He was a man who was in gear.
Persistence and being willing to go out on a limb gets us involved.

We can pray safe prayers that don't risk anything, or we can get down with the action and pray for the real, the concrete and even the impossible. I have seen that produce changes time after time.
I witnessed what I thought was a minor miracle that way a few years ago.

Our family had just moved to Vancouver Island from Manitoba. We had just moved into the manse in Port Alberni and set out to visit our friends, Lynn and Wayne Stretch in Mill Bay.
When we returned home the next day, we found the house had been broken into and a number of items stolen.
One was my late wife's jewelry case. She was devastated.
You see, we had bought a box of ripe pears and she had removed her wedding and engagement rings to work on the fruit.
She put them in the jewelry case and forgot to put them back on before we left for our over-night visit.
Also in the box was a gold charm bracelet her sister in law had bought for her. She bought the little gold charms to go on it too. There was the cap celebrating a university degree, two baby carriages, a wooden shoe for a trip to Holland and so on. The all celebrated major events. The rings and bracelet had been estimated by a jeweler and they were her most expensive possessions.

On top of that, we were between insurance policies. I had canceled our policy in Manitoba and hadn't yet taken out insurance on the contents of our new residence.

We sat on the edge of the bed that night. In our own way we both sick at heart. I for not having insurance. She for the loss of the two material possessions that really had meaning for her. Anything else that was stolen was unimportant. These were close to the heart.

We did the only thing we could. We prayed.
I prayed for the boys who broke in. I was sure it was kids in the neighborhood.
She prayed a simple but heart-felt prayer accompanied with tears. "Lord all I want is my rings and my bracelet. Nothing else matters. Amen"

The next day, Sunday, after church we sat in the kitchen cutting up pears for canning. There was little joy in our activity.
Suddenly we heard a commotion outside. Our girls, aged ten and six along with the two neighbor girls came rushing into the house shouting "Mom! Mom!...we found it!"

What they had found was the jewelry case. From the trail of knick knacks and trinkets we traced its progress from the night before.
The thieves had broken into the house and taken their loot into the lot adjacent the house. It was heavily wooded and on a steep slope. In the trees hidden from view was an old picnic table. They had broken the case open on it and examined its contents.
Then they had carried it through the trees, down a slope, across a street, and had ditched it in the undergrowth next to a busy road.
Somehow the girls had found it. They slung it under their arms and ran back up the hill, through the trees, up the steps and into the kitchen. The laid the broken case on the table.
We opened it.
Do I need to tell you what was inside?
There still dangling from the cheap plastic hooks were the diamond solitaire I bought for our engagement, the plain gold band and one charm bracelet.

Whoever had stolen the case had somehow taken my grandfather's pocket watch, but missed a diamond and gold bracelet.
My eldest daughter wears her mother's engagement ring and my youngest wears the bracelet.

Jesus said, "Ask with confidence. God is reliable. Get invested in the process and leave it to your heavenly father to figure out how to solve things you think are impossible."

What have you got to lose?
Let's get our prayers out of neutral and into gear.


Preached  July 25, 2004
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia

Notes
1.  Len Sullivan of Tupelo Mississippi, quoted in Preachingtoday.com
2.  John Piper, Legacy of Sovereign Joy, quoted in Preachingtoday.com
3. David Smithers, William Booth: Prayer Makes History.


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