Friday, March 10, 2017

Instructions We Never Really Read ...

Whether you may be a parent assembling a toy for your child, or perhaps a simple piece of furniture, or just attempting to use that new software for the first time; there are many occasions where we pay little attention to, or discard the instructions completely.  This may stem from the notion that we “know” what needs to be done, and the instructions will only slow us down.  Or it may be that the instructions were written in a foreign language, and we figure we couldn’t have understood them anyway.  Finally, it may be that the instructions were just too long, and would have required too much of our time and attention to really read.  So we set about “assembling” or “interacting” with our objective in the manner we think is best.  Throughout that process though, a good many of us find ourselves at a dead end, unable to figure out how to proceed next and our first recourse beyond google … is to check the thing we avoided up to this point, to refer back to the instructions.
The disciples of Christ were simple men, when it came to matters of the Kingdom of God.  For that matter, most of the audience in attendance at the Sermon on the Mount were simple people.  They all understood the need for prayer.  But the mechanics of how to pray, was something no one was completely certain of.  The Sanhedrin had ideas, and they followed them.  Traditions passed down, that no one dare oppose.  But the people sitting on this mountainside, were learning wisdom from the Messiah Himself.  What was coming out of His mouth, was coming out of the mouth of God’s own Son.  So to have their questions answered from Jesus was quite literally, a God send.  The people and the disciples wanted more certainty in how we should communicate with God.  And Jesus sensed their need even before they had occasion to voice it.  Matthew recorded the entire instruction set in only 10 verses in chapter six of his gospel.
Jesus begins his simple instruction set, in a common language of the people, in a way that would easy for them to understand, picking up in verse 5 saying … “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”  This text follows on the previous section that talked about how we should give our alms to the poor, and those in need.  One of the important points of that section was to give in humility, and in secret, not looking for credit, or an opportunity for comparative holiness.  And so to begin, Jesus continues this very theme as it pertains to prayer.  Prayer, designed to draw attention to itself, prayer designed to show off the oratory skills of the person offering it, will miss the blessing of true one-on-one communication with God.
It is difficult to truly humble ourselves in front of others, particularly when our goal is not humility, it is to be “seen and heard” as a person who prays “powerful” prayers.  In the days of Christ, the Sanhedrin ruling class craved this kind of attention.  They did not just want to pray, they wanted to be “seen” praying, to be heard saying their prayers before God in public places in order to gain the attention they deserve.  And we look down on them for that.  But then, we turn around and offer several public prayers in our church services, in front of hundreds or even thousands of other believers.  Those who are asked to pray at these times, are suddenly cognizant that they will be “scrutinized” by the church for how well they pray.  It cannot be too long, or too short.  It must make a point.  It should not be a mini-sermon.  It should be pertinent to the activity that follows or precedes it.  All of the sudden, the Sanhedrin is reborn in us, and while we may not sound a trumpet to call attention to ourselves, the sequence of events published in the bulletin will perform that same function just as well.
And so we miss the benefit of humility, for the sake of seeking credit, for the eloquence of our speech.  Jesus continues to offer His alternative to us in verse 6 saying … “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”  Here we go again.  Our human minds equate this promise to a powerful secret Santa; we avoid public prayer, and our secret Santa showers us with the desires of our hearts.  But then, that is not what is promised here.  What is admonished is prayer in secret, in places where no one will judge us for our eloquence, where we will not be seen at all.  In that place, true humility before God will be possible.  To know our need.  To know how vast our need is.  Is already a blessing that words can scarcely describe.
But beyond having a semblance of how wretched we truly are, and how glorious our God is, while in secret we can pour out our hearts to God, craving the change we so much need.  To lay our sins down upon the altar of prayer in that private place is possible.  We can confess what we would not want other ears to hear.  We can ask, not only for forgiveness He freely offers, but for re-creation within us we do desperately need.  To want something else.  To have our very desires remolded by our Creator, is possible when we are not being watched by our peers, or even family and friends.  Our salvation will be personal.  It will be one-on-one.  It will be Jesus saving you … from you.  This cannot be done in group session.  It cannot be done in public, for we become too conscious of who is watching and what they will think.  It must be done in our closets, in our private places, where no one is watching but our God who never sleeps.  It is there, in private, where our salvation is achieved.
God does not simply grant us the wish list we bring to Him.  Instead in those private moments, He works on the character within us, to re-create our thinking, our desires, our motives, and ultimately as a result, our actions.  This reward is only possible when you are free to pour out who you are to God, in a place where you can do this without the pressure of others watching.   And so what do “we” do?  We hold prayer meetings to pray in front of each other.  We do it again at family meals, or family worship.  And while these practices are not wrong in themselves, they deny us a benefit we might otherwise be getting if we were praying in our private places.  Our problem, is that we replace our private prayers, with only the corporate ones, and then think to ourselves that our prayer life is “just fine” based on the number of times we pray in a week, instead of the passion of our prayers poured out in private with only God watching.
Jesus continues His instructions in verse 7 saying … “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”  Vain repetitions.  How many of the prayers for our food are a complete copy of the last time we said “grace”?  How many other occasions whether public or private, turn out to be carbon copies of our previous prayers, they become memorized speeches instead of meaningful petitions.  Churches use “readings” in public forums that are half-uttered prayers based on scripture we repeat over and over.  Even the Lord’s Prayer itself coming in just a few verses away will become something we repeat over and over, thinking we have said what we needed to say.  But its repetition will make its impact upon us dull, to the point of changing nothing in us.  The idea that we repeat what we say “so that God will hear us” states, that our God is deaf, and uncaring.  Repetition is not the way to gain the attention of God, it is a way to bore Him to tears.
Jesus continues in verse 8 saying … “Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.”  And herein is the secret to why we pray at all.  It is not to make God aware of what we need, as He already knows that.  It is not to beg God to provide what we need, that only reflects a lack of faith on our part, and is completely unnecessary when we understand how much He loves us, and can take trust in that love.  His actions precede our words.  There is nothing He does not know about us.  Therefore our prayer life, is meant to show US, our need, and His love.  We do not need repetitions.  We need earnest communication with a God we KNOW is there listening and loving.  We need a method to submit to Him, to lay before Him, our thinking, our desires (yes even the sexual ones), and our motives, to change as He sees fit.  Prayer is a perfect mechanism to do this.  Prayer becomes a channel where we enable God to save us, and ignore our otherwise disobedient lives.  It is a channel where we ask Him to do what we know He already wants to do in us.  Not for us, but in us.  The things He does for us, He is already doing before we utter the words.  What we truly need is the things He longs to do in us, and for that we need to give Him permission using the vehicle of our prayers.
All of these instructions precede the example of prayer Jesus would outline for His people.  It was Jesus Himself who just finished saying we need not offer vain repetitions.  The Lord’s Prayer can become a vain repetition when we have the vanity to think it is the only prayer we ever need offer.  It can become vanity when we seem to only ever offer it in a public place, in front of other people.  These were the instructions we simply find ourselves overlooking in order to get to the easier word-for-word repetition we could find in the Lord’s prayer itself.  And we somehow find a way to look down on our Pharisee forefathers.  Nevertheless Jesus wanted us to know what we could say to our God, and why it was important.
He begins in verse 9 saying … “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.”  First we identify that who we pray to is not just a nebulous god such as the Greeks or Romans might identify.  Other cultures have gods that live beyond our sight as well.  But our God, is also “our” Father.  Jesus lifts up humanity and offers us the privilege of calling His Father, Our Father.  Our God lives in heaven, not the heavens meaning the skys, but in heaven the city built trillions of years before our existence, the place He chooses to dwell.  Heaven is a place where other life forms gather to be with Him, and to be close to Him.  They would need a city to facilitate that goal, and so they have one.
Hallowed is His name.  We do not know the name of the Father, but one day we will.  Whatever that name is, it is to be hallowed, spoken with reverence.  This term is to remind us of who we are, and who He is.  For it is His greatness, and His love, that would be willing to part with His only Son to see us redeemed.  It is the greatness of His love that is able to re-create in us what we have broken in our choice to embrace sin over and over.  For that alone His name is hallowed and reverenced.  But not unspoken at all.  We tend to think because God is who He is, we should avoid talking to Him on a personal level, because that would somehow bring God down to us.  But the point of prayer itself is to bring us up to God.  That His name is hallowed, only reminds us of that notion.  It does not keep us from speaking to Him in the words that pour from our hearts.
Jesus continues in verse 10 saying … “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”  In heaven, it is the highest honor of existence to carry out the will of God.  Angels long to do it.  Other creations long to do it.  God does not need us to do it, He can do everything and anything all by Himself.  He permits us to help, because of His patience and love of His creation.  To carry out the will of God on earth, despite our circumstances, bad decisions, and human failings, is no less a privilege to us.  To think of it in those terms, is to be a toddler granted a new toy in the Kingdom of God.  Daddy is going to hold our hand and help us do, what He needed to do.  Perhaps in the life of another, perhaps you will be the tool to reflect the love of God the Father.  In so doing, Daddy gets his will accomplished, sharing with you the joy of loving and making a difference.
Jesus continues in verse 11 saying … “Give us this day our daily bread.”  This part of the prayer is not designed to send God a gentle reminder due to His old age and tendency to forget things now.  Nope.  This simple sentence is meant to address a few ideas in you.  One, we need only ask for what we need today.  There is no stockpiling in this idea, no hoarding, and no worrying about tomorrow.  That is a complete departure from everything in our world.  We work to take care of ourselves, always thinking about what we need in the future.  Here is Jesus reminding us, to quit it.  If we cannot trust God to already know He loves us and was already planning to meet the needs of today, how can we trust Him with the greater needs of our salvation?  We should all be homeless, or at least be ready to be homeless, ready to let go of everything we cling to, and stockpile.  But that idea is beyond our comprehension.  So we work, and convince ourselves that this line in the prayer is nothing more than a blessing on food, and we repeat it vainly every time it is said.
Jesus now changes the subject a bit as He continues in verse 12 saying … “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  There was a very Jewish notion in this text.  Literally translated it means, all those loans you think you loaned out, go forgive them.  Release the people from their debts, give them the freedom not to worry about them.  Why?  It was in the sentence before, we are already getting whatever we need for this day from our God, we just got finished asking for that.  So if I have all I need from God, why am I asking you to repay loans.  I don’t need your money, I have my God.  I can change your request of a loan from me, into a gift of resources, underwritten by my God.  A chance to do His will on earth as it is in heaven.  And Jesus intended to come back to this one.
But for now, another pressing thought as Jesus continues in verse 13 saying … “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”  This one came from experience.  Those 40 days and nights in the desert being tempted of Satan were very hard on Jesus.  None of us could ever have withstood it.  But that did not happen by accident it happened because the Spirit led Jesus there.  It was necessary to try His gold in the fire.  Here Jesus asks the Father that we experience no such equivalent.  It is hard enough for us to stay out of sin when there is no temptation.  But when temptation comes, too many of us fall to it.  So here, Jesus asks that He and His Father find a way to shelter us from evil and deliver us from evil, changing who we are without the added burden of temptation.  It is the greatest mercy our God could ever show us.  Again the reminder to us, of how great, and eternal is our God, and the conclusion of the prayer.  A prayer we speak so casually now, we have it memorized, and it makes so little dent in our thinking anymore.  The sample Jesus spoke has become the only prayer we take certainty in.  We have increased our inventory of prayers not much beyond this one, at least not with any certainty.  How sad.
But the instructions were not over yet.  Jesus goes back to the trespasses thing again picking up in verse 14 saying … “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: [verse 15] But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  How can we be free when we cling to who we were?  If we cannot release others to be free, it is ourselves we bind.  It is a tangible demonstration that we hold something back from God, a part of ourselves and our greed, that we refuse to let go.  We do not free others and in so doing we do not free ourselves.  We hold ourselves captive to our greed, and refuse to trust God with our daily bread.  Instead we cling to the notion that we can provide our own bread, let God focus on some other need.  And this thinking then permeates our salvation.  We can purify some portion of ourselves, let God work on something else, something we “need” help with, as these portions of ourselves we can do for ourselves.
And so “self” remains at the center of our religion, pushing Jesus to the side in a partnership role.  And we keep our salvation at bay, preventing the heavenly Father from truly releasing us from the past, from who we were.  As co-pilot, Jesus is not granted the access He needs to redesign the aircraft.  While we stubbornly cling to the pilot’s chair and role, we block our Lord from doing what He so longs to do for us, if we would only yield control.  Instead choosing to trust ourselves with our needs, both temporal and spiritual.  We begin to look upon the Lords Prayer as something we say over and over in church, and thereby meet our obligations for prayer.  Slowly but surely we take more of our salvation out of the hands of Jesus, and put it in our own.  Increasingly denying what we allow God to do for us.  Increasingly becoming comfortable with the chains of slavery to our self-love we hoist upon ourselves.  Ultimately we find ourselves not truly knowing who Jesus truly is.  For we have come to trust only us, in any matter of concern regarding us.  We feed ourselves.  We keep our debts.  We provide for ourselves.  And we will purify ourselves, when we get around to it, though that day never seems to arrive.  And thus Jesus is not our savior, for we have never allowed Him to save us … from us.
All because we cannot let go of our past.  All because we are unable to free others from owing us, and in so doing free ourselves from the burden of being owed.  We are unable or unwilling to change loan into gift, because we worry what the financial implications might be, of not having the wealth of another to count on to sustain us.  When we already have a better guarantee than any other human could ever provide, we have the love of a Father God, not just a Father, but OUR Father.  We opened the prayer with that line, and already we have forgotten it.  This ability to release others from their wrong doing extends beyond financials, it extends to every part of human interaction.  Others will do us wrong.  It is human weakness, and satanic evil behind it, but it will occur.  When it does, we have the choice to free them, and in so doing free us from it.  Or we can cling to it, and let it build hate and revenge in us over it.  Until we drown out the idea of real freedom, and become slaves to our slights.
Oh the blessings we forego when we make those choices.  But it need not be so.  Freedom is here.  It is right around the corner for you.  It is as simple as trusting your Father, enacting His will here upon earth, letting Daddy hold your hand, and becoming an instrument of love.  It releases you.  It brings with it, a freedom such as you have never known. 
And the sermon was still far from over …

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