Monday, August 29, 2016

Talking to God: In Heaven

Matthew 6:9-13 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

Last week we began our look at the Lord’s Prayer. We first examined who it is that we pray to. We pray to God, who is our Father. As God’s beloved children, we are enabled to approach God directly, not through someone else, but personally. That God is our Father was a reminder of our unity in Him.

As we discussed the opening phrase in the prayer, I focused on the first two words: Our Father. While we are reminded that God is personal and loves us as a Father, the next two words add more context. God is our Father in Heaven. God is not simply one of us. He is not bound by the rules and limitations of humanity. He is wholly other. So while we pray to a God who loves us, we also pray to a God who is all powerful. He loves us and is able to do all things. 

A New Zealand chief, Tamahana, who visited England a few years ago, was remarkable for the deep spirituality of his mind and his constant delight in the word of God. One day he was taken to see a beautiful mansion—one of the show places near London. The gentleman who took him expected to see him greatly astonished, and much charmed to his surprise, to excite little or no admiration in his mind. Wondering how this could be, he began to point out to him its grandeur, the beauty of its costly furniture brought from all parts of the world, the view from windows, etc.

Tamahana heard all silently; then, looking around upon the walls, replied: “Ah, my Father’s house’s finer than this.” “Your father’s house!” thought the gentleman, who knew his father’s house was but a poor mud cottage. But Tamahana went on: “My Father’s house’s finer than this,” and began to speak in his own expressive, touching strain, of the house above—the house of “many mansions”—the eternal home of the Redeemer.

 Tan, P. L. (1996). Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (pp. 547–548). Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc.

Before Jesus was crucified, he made promises. In John 14:1-4, we read Jesus’ words. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Jesus’ disciples had every reason to be troubled and worried. But Jesus gives them hope. He goes to prepare a place for them. In his Father’s house are many rooms. His Father’s house is a place of security. Of safety. Of prosperity. This is the place where God is. 

Listen to the words of John’s vision in Revelation 21. He hears a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)

We will have perfect fellowship with God. Notice the intimacy in the picture of God himself wiping every tear from every eye. In heaven, there will be no more suffering or struggling. There will be no more sickness or death. There will be no poor people in heaven - I do not mean that the poor will not make it to Heaven - I mean that when you get to Heaven, you will find you are no longer poor. By having God himself, you will have everything you need and everything you desire.

Some people think of the things they love about this life and they say, “I sure hope Heaven has (fill in the blank).” But the reality is that the greatest things of this world are but a foretaste of Heaven. This is why Bible writers tell of streets of gold and that precious gemstones are plentiful. 

We aren’t there yet, and our world has problems. One problem is a justice problem. If  we look around we will realize this. If a criminal has money and political power, it is highly unlikely that he will ever be punished. Politicians, celebrities, and athletes have more money than they can spend, but at the same time, innocent children die of starvation. Where is the justice?

As Christians, we understand that God’s justice is perfect. So why don’t we see perfect justice here on earth? Why do we see sinful people prosper while righteous people suffer? The answer is, as we look at life on earth, we only see half of the picture. It would be like watching a champion Olympic athlete during training. The athlete is working extremely hard, all day long, every day, week-in, week-out. The athlete rarely takes a break and doesn’t go out and have fun and is often separated from family and friends. But the Olympics is primarily about the competition. All of that training prepares the Olympian for the big day, where she finally gets the glory. The same way, watching the suffering, struggling Christian here on earth may not look good, but that is without heaven.

Here on earth, we see the struggle, but the bigger picture must include Heaven. Heaven will be so great that, as Paul says in Romans 8:18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Or listen to 2 Corinthians 4:17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 

No matter what you’ve gone through, the glory of Heaven will be enough reward to make it all worthwhile.

So when we pray to our Father in Heaven, we are recognizing that our Father will reward us, even when this life does not. Our Father has better things in store for us. We were made for Heaven, and when we get there, everything will be set right.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Talking to God: Our Father

Matthew 6:9-13 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

Last week we looked at motivation for praying. If our goal is to impress others or to impress God, then our motivation is wrong and we’ve received our reward in full. Please understand that this does not mean we shouldn’t pray out loud. It’s only about motivation.

Today we are looking at a familiar passage, but I want to take it piece by piece. After all, this is how Jesus instructed his disciples to pray. If we want to live like Jesus, if we want Christlikeness, we need to learn to pray like Jesus.

When Jesus says, “This is how you should pray” he does not necessarily mean that we should always or only use these same words. We can “say” the Lord’s Prayer instead of “praying” it, and that’s not helpful either. He is giving us the model of how to pray. 

When Jesus models prayer, the first point, and the most significant point, is who we are praying to. Of course, someone would say, “we’re praying to God. Isn’t that obvious?” Yes, we are praying to God, but did you notice that Jesus didn’t say “God” when he began praying? He addressed his prayer to “Our Father in heaven.

We can understand that Jesus calls God “Father.” We recognize Jesus’ unique role in the Trinity as the one and only Son of God. God is the Father, Jesus is the Son. But Jesus is instructing his followers that we, too, can call God “Father” for indeed, God is “Our Father.” 

We are not simply God’s creation; we are his children. Listen to Romans 8:14-17 Those who are lef by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.: The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 

As God’s children, we can approach his throne boldly. 

It is through the gift and indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we are adopted by God and become his children, with all of the authority and responsibility thereof. The reason the scripture appeals to “sons” is that sons had different roles than daughters in Jesus’ time. A son would inherit all that a father left. A son could speak on behalf of the father and with all of the authority of the father. So when Jesus instructs us to bring our prayers to God saying “Our Father” it is a radical statement about who we are and about the authority we hold. 

It is also a radical statement about our relationship to the Father. Jesus later instructs his followers to ask, seek, and knock, for whoever asks receives, whoever seeks finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:8) Then he poses a hypothetical situation: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)

We do not go to God as a stranger, asking for a favor. We do not go to God as a beggar, begging for alms. We do not go to God as slaves, groveling for better conditions. We do not go to God as employees, petitioning for higher wages. We go to God as God’s children. How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)

I want to make one thing clear. There are some preachers out there who say that once you accept Jesus, once you are adopted as God’s children, then everything will be smooth and easy, you’ll make money and be healthy. Those people deny and defy the Bible itself. The passage I read from Romans 8 reminds us that we are God’s heirs if we share in his suffering. This is the part of Christianity that we don’t like to talk about. It’s not what we tell people when we are out evangelizing. But our suffering allows us to identify with Jesus Christ. 

Peter says “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.” (1 Peter 3:14). 

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted, that Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12) We have a reward for being persecuted for our faith. We have a reward if we suffer for Christ.

There is one last thing I want to point out in how we address God the Father. We address him as “Our” Father. Even in the way we address God, we are reminded that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are in this together. In the US, we have a history and ethos of being very individualistic, so I have to really preach this. Here, it’s more of a reminder, that being God’s children is our identity. Not our tribe. Not our skin color. Not our nationality. So we are the same, unified in Christ. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Talking to God: God is not Impressed

Matthew 6:5-8 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

I had a friend who was a name dropper. A name dropper is someone who tries to impress others by the fact that they know famous people. So when they are talking, they “drop names” into the conversation. “when I was talking to the bishop yesterday…” “So I was having coffee with President Lungu…” “Well, that’s not what Michael Jordan told me last week.” You get the picture. It’s someone who tries to make themselves look more important by the company they keep. 

Jesus knew this kind of person and he knew the motivation behind their actions. He calls them hypocrites. This term has its origins in the theater; someone who wears a mask. So by Jesus’ time, it was understood as someone who acts in such a way as to make themselves look better. 

Some of the hypocrites used prayer as a way to make themselves look better. They stood in prominent locations so everyone would see them. They wanted everyone to see them and know that they were praying. Their goal was for everyone to think, “What a great, holy, spiritual person that is! He must be really godly.” 

The reality is, they are using God for the benefit of their reputation. Instead of actually being godly, they are using him to appear godly. There is a big difference. They exploit their relationship with God, their ability to speak with God, to get benefits for themselves. It’s like the guy who is related to a politician and gets a nice-paying government job just because that relationship. Maybe the guy is completely incompetent; it doesn’t matter once his politician relative gives him the job. Now he will take that paycheck no matter what, and he will walk around all puffed up and self-important because of the job.

When we use prayer to draw attention to ourselves, we are mocking God. 

Jesus brings up another way people pray. Using lots of words or flowery language. When I was a little boy, some of the older adults in my church would sometimes use old English language in their prayers. They would use words like “Thee” and “Thou” instead of “You.” They would never “ask” they would always “beseech.” But there was another little boy at my church who prayed using those same words. I thought, “Wow! He must be really godly!” But really, he was just imitating what he heard.

I have two observations about this. First, God isn’t impressed by our imitation of someone else’s prayers.  

Second, God is not a pagan god, who is swayed by human words and actions. If you use enough words, you can change the mind of the pagan gods. If you pray louder, they’ll have to hear you. This is the thought behind the behavior of the prophets of Baal when they had the contest with Elijah on Mt. Carmel. They shouted louder, even slashed themselves with swords, but Baal never answered. 

Both of my observations stem from the same truths. God isn’t impressed by our imitation of someone else’s prayers and God isn’t swayed by human words or actions, because of what prayer is and because of who God is.

Prayer is not about us impressing other humans. If it is, and if it works and actually impresses someone, that’s all the reward you’re getting. But the truth is, prayer is at its root all about communicating with God. God doesn’t want to be the third party in our prayers. God wants our prayers to demonstrate a growing intimacy with Him. That’s why Jesus tells us to go into our rooms, close our doors, and pray there. It’s not because praying in public is a bad thing. It’s about our motivation! It’s hard to have the wrong motivation when there is nobody to impress. When it’s just you and God, and you realize that God knows what is done in secret, when you realize that God knows what’s in your heart, when you realize that God already knows what you need, then you also realize you don’t need to try to impress Him… or anyone else. 

I have had people tell me they didn’t know how to pray. What they really were afraid of was that they didn’t know any special words or language to use while they were praying. The reality is, you don’t need special words. You don’t need flowery language. This is because God already knows your heart. It is also because of the second truth I mentioned earlier. God isn’t impressed by the way we pray because of what prayer is, but God also isn’t impressed by our prayers because of who God is.

We will get deeper into this in my next sermon, into God’s role as Father, but in this passage, we learn some things about God. We learn that God is unseen. This is significant because God is not simply one of us. God is omnipresent, which means he is everywhere at once. We do not have to invite God to join us; he is already with us. We cannot hide from God, but on the flipside, we do not have to put on airs or pretend before God, because he already knows us. 

Sometimes we try to do our good deeds in front of others to be seen by them, but from this passage we see that God sees what is done in secret. God rewards our character and our integrity. Integrity has been defined as who we are when nobody is looking. God rewards our private prayers with relationship with himself. 

We also see that God knows our needs before we ask him. Sometimes we enter into prayer as if we are letting God in on a secret, as if God didn’t know what we need. This sometimes translates into us not understanding why God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way we want, when God is really giving us what we need. I’ll put it this way: sometimes my children ask for candy. I love to give my children candy. It makes them happy. But when it is time to eat dinner, I want to give them something healthy, not candy. If I gave them candy all of the time, they would not be healthy. It’s similar with God. Sometimes he gives us what we ask for. Usually he gives us what we need or what is best for us. 

In prayer, however, we begin to know the heart of God. We begin to understand what it means to ask something in Jesus’ name - according to Jesus’ will. As we become conformed to Jesus’ Christ’s likeness, the way we pray will change, and our relationship with God will grow!