"A Time to Talk"#86-45
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on July 7, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:A Time to Talk)
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Matthew 6:5-15
"When a friend calls to me from the road and slows his horse to a meaning walk, I don't stand still and look around on all the hills I haven't hoed and shout from where I am, 'What is it!?' No, not as there is a time to talk. I thrust my hoe into the mellow ground, blade-end up and five feet tall, and plod. I go up to the stone wall for a friendly visit." That's a poem by Robert Frost, it's called, "A Time to Talk." It's an illustration of the importance of conversation: talk between friends. On another level, it's also a good illustration for prayer.
If you think about prayer as a time to talk with God, prayer is a widespread practice. In many cultures all around the globe people pray; Jewish people pray; Christian people pray; Muslim people pray; Buddhists pray, and Hindus pray, and animists pray. Timothy Keller in his recent book on prayer cites studies that suggest even deliberately nonreligious people pray. One study reported that 30 percent of atheists admitted that they pray sometimes, and another reported that 17 percent of atheists reported they pray regularly.
You've probably heard somebody say, "I don't go to church anymore." There was an ancient Jewish Rabbi who is teaching the people about prayer, how to pray and how not to. He said to them, "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites. They love to stand, praying in the synagogues and out on the street corner, praying to be seen by other people. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your storeroom and after you shut the door, pray to your Father who is unseen and your Father who sees what is done in secret, your Father who sees what is unseen, He will reward you.
"When you are praying, don't go on babbling like the pagans, like the Gentile nations, because they think that they will be heard for their many words. Don't be like that because your Father who is in heaven, before you ask it, He knows the things that you need. Therefore, you pray like this, 'Our Father who is in heaven, let Your Name be hallowed. Let your Name be kept holy. Let Your kingdom come. Let Your rule and reign come. Let Your will be done as it is in heaven, so also on earth. Give us today the bread that is coming from You, and forgive us our debts as we forgave those indebted to us. Do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.' "You see, if you forgive those who sin against you, your Father in heaven will forgive your sins. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father forgive you."
Those are the words of Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 6:5-15, and they form the basis of a third core teaching of the Bible: prayer. Let's start simply and say that prayer is a time to talk. It's like a conversation with God. Notice that just by saying that much, we have already separated ourselves from many approaches to prayer. For some people, prayer is not a time to talk, but a time for thought. To be alone with your thoughts, to meditate on whatever comes to your mind. For other people, prayer is not a time to talk with, but a time to talk at, to move objects like magical incantations, to gang up on God or gods or the universe, to get our way, to drop prayers like nickels in a slot machine, hoping for a jackpot from the universe. For other people, prayer is not a time to talk with, but a time to talk in front of.
Imagine that you and I are in high school, and we're talking out in the hall. And I'm talking with you, and you're talking with me, and then out of the corner of my eye I see someone that I want to impress, and I begin to change the way I talk to try, and get their attention. I'm no longer talking with you; I'm talking in front of you to try to get their attention, and so also this happens with prayer. This is especially tempting for church people. I struggle with this. People often ask me to pray, "Would you pray for us?" And what they mean by that is not that I go into my little cupboard and shut the door and talk to God, but that I offer a public prayer, a prayer for the occasion, for the season, and so it's different than the talk I would talk as Jesus said, with the door closed. It's talk in front of people. It's something like a speech.
Jesus is not saying that you should never pray aloud with other people or you should never pray in front of other people. This is in Matthew 6. Just a few chapters later, in chapter 11 Jesus prays aloud in front of a whole crowd. He's giving a speech, then He's praying. Then He goes back to giving a speech, and He does it all out loud in front of everybody. And the apostle Paul, he encourages Christians to pray together aloud in front of each other. Jesus is not saying, "Don't ever pray aloud." He's just saying, "Don't make that all prayer is. Don't make prayer into talk in front of other people," because prayer is a time to talk with a Person, the Person, the unseen, eternal, all-ruling personal Creator of the universe that Jesus teaches us to call, "Father."
According to one expert in human relations, the most important rule for talking with another person, the most important rule to having a healthy conversation is this: be genuinely interested in the other person. You've had conversations with people who seem to be only genuinely interested in themselves. How did that conversation go? How enjoyable was that? Haven't your most enjoyable conversations, your most fulfilling conversations, you're most enlivening conversation happened under these circumstances: when you were genuinely interested in that person and what they had to say, and they were genuinely interested in you and what you had to say. As I read Matthew 6, I hear Jesus saying that He wants us to have this kind of conversation with His Father in heaven, and His Father is the perfect conversation partner because He is genuinely interested in you and what you have to say.
Really? No, really? The God who created the universe is interested in me and what I have to say? It's like one of the poets in the Bible said to God, "What is man that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You would care for him?" See Psalm 8. It is perhaps the greatest mystery of the Scriptures of the universe that God is interested in me and what I have to say, and interested in you and what you have to say. If you ponder it, it'll take your breath away, and I can't explain it. I don't know why He's interested in us. I know that He is, and I can assure you He gave us His Word. Jesus signed and sealed it with His blood shed for you on the cross. He's interested in you. He loves you. He wants to hear what you have to say. That's half of the conversation; that's His half. What about your half? Are you interested in Him and what He has to say? Well, how do you be interested in a God you can't see?
You can see His creation, but you don't really know His heart. And so you look to Jesus. He is the visible image of the invisible God. You want to see the heart of God, look to Jesus, and Jesus gives us words. In the Lord's Prayer, He gives us words to express, to begin to express our interest in His Father. What's His Father interested in? What gets His Father's heart? What keeps Him up, so to speak, night and day? It's the earth. The first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer are all prayers directed towards the earth. That's the troubled part of God's creation. A father once told me, "I am only as happy as my most troubled child." That is God's truth. I feel that in my bones as a father, and it is the truth of God. What keeps Jesus up day and night, pleading, interceding at the right hand of His Father? It's His troubled children on earth. See Hebrews 7:25. His Spirit will not let Him rest until God's will is done on earth, God's rule and reign comes on earth, God's Name is honored as in heaven, so also on earth. Jesus gives us these words as a window into the Father's heart, so we can see what He loves, what He's passionate about. It's also why, even though it sounds a little harsh, why Jesus says what He says about giving and refusing forgiveness. You see, if I refuse to forgive someone who's sinned against me-someone that the Father loves and that the Father already offers forgiveness-and I refuse that forgiveness to them-then I refuse the Father. And under those circumstances the Father will not forgive me, and He will not forgive you because forgiveness without a relationship is indifference. If you forgive someone and you don't want a relationship with them, that's not forgiveness, that's avoidance. The Father cares too much about His children to be indifferent towards them.
So prayer is a time to talk, talk with the Father of Jesus. It's kind of like a conversation that you would have with a fellow human being. And you know that what makes a conversation work is this mutual interest, and what makes prayer life-giving is when our interest in the Father begins to reflect His complete interest in us. There are though some limitations to comparing prayer to a human conversation. One that I think of right away is the speed of the response. This is what makes a face-to-face conversation so nice is that you can see exactly what the person is thinking; their reaction is pretty much immediate. You can see the look on their face. Even before they say a word, their face lights up or their brow furrows and then they speak to you right away. They tell you, "Yeah, I agree" or "No, maybe it's like this."
It's not like that with prayer, most of the time. There's a lot more waiting in prayer, and so it sometimes doesn't even feel like a conversation, but you've experienced human conversations that are sort of like this. Let's say you're talking with someone, and they tell you that they're not going to answer your request right now; they're not going to respond. They might say something, in so many words, "Look, I love you. You and me we're still good, but I'm not going to answer you right now." And if you trust them, if you respect them, then you give them that space. If they answered automatically every time, it wouldn't be a conversation with a person anymore, it would be hypnosis. It would be something like mind control. That's not how it works with a person. And so also with God, we give Him His space to answer in His time and His way, and we're not alone in this.
Even Jesus, at least for one prayer, had to wait for an answer. Do you remember it? Nailed to the cross, in His dying breath He prayed, "My God, why have You forsaken Me?" And He waited and He waited, and He died without an answer. You see, this is the struggle, the battle, the cross that we bear in prayer. Jesus gives us the words to know the Father's heart, and when we go to the Father's heart, we see that He's all love, pure love for all His children, for all that He has made. And so we bring our requests to Him, and we plead with Him, and we ask Him because we know that He can take care of them, and He can take care of us better than we can take care of ourselves. And so we bring it all up to Him, and the struggle of prayer happens when God doesn't do what I wish He would do, when I wish He would do it.
This is not an illusion; this is not a logical conundrum. It's a real struggle that erupted into the prayer life of the Son of God. You remember the night before He was crucified, three times He prayed, "Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup from Me. Yet not what I desire, but what You desire." Scholars of the Bible have spilled a lot of ink trying to solve the mystery of that interaction. The eternal Son of God who became a Man cries out to His Father who loves Him and He, according to His human nature, does not want to do it, does not want to suffer it. And I bring it to you not to try to explain it, but to assure you that if Jesus can bring His battle, if Jesus can bring His struggle, His pain, His tears to His Father in heaven, then so can you.
Trusting God doesn't mean that we throw up our hands and say, "Why pray? God's in control. What's going to happen is going to happen." No, trusting God means pleading with the One who created all things good, with the One who raised Jesus from the dead, pleading with the One who promised to make it good again. Trusting God is knocking on His door late into the night, begging Him to do what He said He was going to do to keep His promises. Prayer is not a lack of faith; prayer is the battle cry of faith. Prayer is how we work with God and walk with God in His garden, in the cool of the day.
Author Daniel Paavola in his book, Our Way Home, quotes another Robert Frost poem to convey the heart of the Lord's Prayer. The poem is titled "The Pasture," and it goes like this: "I'm going out to clear the pasture spring. I only stop to rake the leaves away and wait to watch the water clear, I may. I shan't be gone long, you come, too. I'm going out to fetch the little calf, the one standing by the mother. It's so young. It totters when she licks it with her tongue, I shan't be gone long, you come, too."
In Jesus, the Father has called you to come and join Him in His work. And through prayer you and I, we are learning to work alongside Him. In most of our work, we can hear the earth groaning and aching for the final coming of Christ. In some of our work, we wait on seemingly unanswered prayers, wondering if we're accomplishing anything. In all of our work, the Father is calling us to sow and reap for His coming kingdom. God is calling us to put our prayers to work and sometimes, oftentimes, to set the work aside, close the door, and just enjoy a time to talk. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
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Reflections for July 7, 2019
Title: A Time to Talk
Mike Zeigler: Today, we're talking about prayer, the Lord's Prayer, specifically, that Jesus taught us to pray, but more generally, how do we pray? Not just say our prayers, but talk to God? Pastor Schult, you teach this stuff. I'm sure you get lots of questions about prayer. It seems like people tend to misunderstand prayer, in a variety of ways. How do you help them with this?
Paul Schult: Ultimately, I try to help people see the fullness of all that prayer can be. A lot of times, we have a very limited view of one way. Some people tend to be very formal in their prayer. Some people are very informal. So, just like conversation takes on lots of dimensions, right? There's casual, just sitting over lunch and discussing life, but there's times for formal communication. There's times when we have to be brief and direct, and there's times when we're just kind of pontificating, and throwing out all kinds -
Mike Zeigler: Chitchat.
Paul Schult: Yeah, chitchat. And all of those kinds of communication are helpful in a relationship. They all add up to good, healthy, vibrant personal communication. And so, I try to help people see that. Because in my mind, a lot of people end up feeling very guilty about prayer. That it's not good enough, that it's not the right way, that "the pastor prays better than I do."
Mike Zeigler: Right.
Paul Schult: That's a big one for me, is just kind of to get rid of the guilt, and to see all the many ways that communication with God contribute to prayer.
Dorothy Glenn: My children go to the school that I work at, and so we eat the same lunch. I don't eat lunch with them, but we eat the same lunch. And so, every day I still ask them, "Oh, what did you have for lunch today?" I know what they had, because I ate it. But just being able to provide that opportunity for my son to open up, and feel like I care, and to share something with me about his day.
Mike Zeigler: If someone asked, "Why do we pray?" how would you answer? And as you think about that, you usually get two things that ... maybe two wrong motives for prayer. Some people think that we manipulate God or bully God with our prayers, or other people think that if God already knows everything, then why should I pray at all?
Paul Schult: To me, it comes down to sharing life together. You could think of that with a friend, or your spouse, or your family. You know, I could say to my wife, "Well, you already know I love you, so why do I need to tell you? Why do I need to say that?" But--
Mike Zeigler: That never goes well.
Paul Schult: Yeah, that's not a good path to go down.
Mike Zeigler: No.
Paul Schult: But it speaks to the power of communication and language, that it creates connection. It's how you--
Mike Zeigler: Bond.
Paul Schult: It's how you bond, and it's how you share life together. It's by the back and forth of discussion, of conversation. And so, ultimately what God is after is relationship and connection and intimacy and communion. That's what God's after. It's like a parent and a child. You don't not listen to your child, because their communication is not mature and advanced.
Mike Zeigler: There's a Christian author that I've read who uses the phrase, "We talk ourselves into being Christian." Every relationship that we have is built on communication. By talking, we become what He's made us to be, His children.
Paul Schult: When you talk about prayer, you start with the Lord's Prayer. There is that side of the Lord's Prayer, too, that God says to us, "Hey, these are some really important things that we need to talk about." Our prayer life is all-encompassing, but God is also very clear and very direct and said, "Don't lose sight of these things. Because there are some very important things we always need to be in touch about."
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. "Things that I love, and will protect."
Paul Schult: Yeah, yeah.
Mike Zeigler: "Like My Name, your faith, your neighbor: these are things that are at my heart," says the Lord.
Paul Schult: Yeah, and He's very serious about them.
Mike Zeigler: So much that He gave Commandments to protect them.
Paul Schult: Yeah.
Dorothy Glenn: And in those most intimate relationships, you have that open conversation, and you're able to communicate that, with the assurance that regardless of what you are saying, who you are talking to is going to be there. What you're saying to them is not going to change their mind about you.
Mike Zeigler: And that's going to lead in to what we'll talk about with confession. That it's not simply that God wants to beat us up with our sin, but He wants to clear it out, and bring us closer.
Paul Schult: I think that's the other thing about prayer. That as much as you want to help relieve guilt and draw people in to the many facets of communication, there's also this other side, that God is serious about it, and He wants us to grow and mature. He wants our communication with Him to mature, and become healthy and vibrant and effective and strong, so that it is deepening our relationship. That is His goal, in the Holy Spirit.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Paul Schult: But the other side of God is that He's very patient. He tells us very clearly; He is a patient God.
Mike Zeigler: Long-suffering.
Paul Schult: Yeah. He has plenty of time
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Jesus Has Come and Brings Pleasure Eternal" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)