Monday, July 29, 2013

Seek First the Kingdom--Pray!

Today is the first day in our 30th week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:  

  • 2 Kings 7-8; 2 Chr 21; Matt 6
  • 2 Kings 9-10; Matt 7; Psalm 49
  • 2 Chr 22-23; 2 Kings 11; Matt 8; Ps 131
  • 2 Chr 24; 2 Kings 12; Matt 9; Psalm 50
  • Joel; Matt 10
In Luke's gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples to pray after they ask Him to show them the secrets of prayer.  In Matthew's gospel, we have an entire chapter in which Jesus teaches us how to pray.  Right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spends considerable time talking about how believers ought to pray.  This might sound a bit strange for you to hear, since my Bible's heading that says "The Model Prayer" only covers verses 5-14.  Yet, a closer look will reveal that the entire chapter is about prayer.

Upon first reading, verses 1-4* don't seem to be about prayer.  
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

"These verses are about charity," you might say.  But we must understand that almsgiving is an act of worship.  It's our out grateful response to God--our thanksgiving for the goodness He has shown to us.  Because God has blessed us, we want to bless others.  We want to give back to ministries that help other people, that support Kingdom work.  We do this not as a tax write-off, or as a way of showing off our generosity.  We do this as an act of prayer and personal devotion.  Therefore, Jesus says that our giving should be done in secret--out of the eyesight of those who may give us glory for the generosity we've shown.

Then, Jesus tells us how not to pray.  

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.
Just as the hypocrites give with the intention of others seeing their liberality, they also pray so that others may hear their ostentatious words.  As prayer isn't about showing off to other people, it's also not about showing off to God.  The Lord isn't impressed with your displays of archaic vocabulary and flowery speech.  He simply wants you to give Him your heart.  Privately.  Personally.  It's between you and Him.

Next, Jesus gives us His model prayer:

In this manner, therefore, pray:
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 forgive our debtors.
13 And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

The amazing thing in these verses is that Jesus only spends one line asking for the kinds of things that we generally ask for, when we pray.  "Give us this day our daily bread" sums up all the petitions we send up to the throne--everything from requests for health and healing, to provision and prosperity.  All the rest of it is about getting our spirits aligned with God.  How would it be, if when we pray, we spent the same proportion of time on requests, and the same percentage of time on seeing God's Kingdom?  It would revolutionize our prayer lives!

The next couple of verses deal with our relationship with other people--because Jesus knows that our relationship with God depends a great deal on whether we are able to have a good relationship with others.  This forgiveness is part of our prayer life.  When we pray verse twelve, we have to keep in mind verses fourteen and fifteen.  

14 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Though it has fallen out of fashion in many circles, fasting is an important part of prayer.  It involves giving up something that your flesh values, so that you can focus instead on the demands of the spirit.  Fasting may involve a dietary sacrifice, or sexual abstention, or eliminating unnecessary technology from your life for a time.  Fasting eliminates distractions, so you can devote more of your time to prayer.  This is what Jesus has to say about fasting:

16 “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Just as verse 3 tells us that almsgiving is a private matter, and just as verse 6 says that in-depth prayer should be done in the secrecy of your heart's inner chamber, fasting is a personal thing between you and God, and not for all to see.

When we pray, too often we focus on material needs, the acquisition of products, physical and financial security.  But Jesus wants us to pay attention to spiritual things rather than this world's delusions.  When we pray, we're really making an investment in the heavenly realm.  We're devoting our time to God, rather than using it for earthly pursuits.  

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also...
24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Prayer is an investment of our time, and a contribution of our energies into the Kingdom of God.  When we pray, God takes our devotion and utilizes it in unseen ways.  When we pray, we've got to take our eyes off of earthly pursuits and see the value in the invisible investments that make all the difference.

Again, Jesus says that when we pray, we've got to worrying about material necessities like food and clothing.

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Jesus tells us not to worry about these things when we pray.  Yet, how often when we go to prayer in the inner chamber of our hearts, do we spend 99% of our time focusing on these physical things?  How about a flip-flop way of praying, in which you spend 1% asking God to take care of physical needs, and 99% of your time in prayer, seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness in your life?  Then, Jesus says, everything else will be taken care of by your Heavenly Father who already knows what you need before you even ask for anything.

Finally, Jesus says that...

22 “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

What does He mean by this?  Much could be said (and rightly so) about the eye being a synonym for the soul...but that is a topic for another conversation.  Here, I simply want to point out the Middle Eastern concept that the eye represents desire.  If something is the "apple of your eye" then it is the object of your desire.  If someone has the "evil eye," then they have an unhealthy, or jealous, desire.  Here, Jesus is saying (in part) that just as a lamp displays how things truly are, your desires display the true state of your body and soul.  If your desires are bad, your whole being is full of darkness.  But if your desires are good, your whole being will be full of light.

When we read Matthew 6, it's easy for us to miss the fact that one way or another, the entire chapter is about prayer:  prayer and giving, prayer and fasting, prayer and privacy, prayer and God's Kingdom, prayer and relationships, prayer and worry.  I hope you'll make prayer a priority in life.  It is the central Christian discipline, and the source of the believer's strenth.

*Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. 

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